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Mount Ijen

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I don’t know if attention deficiency disorder is hereditary or not, but it certainly seemed as if the entire Chinese family, shouting outside my hotel room at 4 o’clock in the morning, were sufferers. Also I’m not sure if their acute case of verbal diarrhoea had anything to do with my own urgent rush to the bathroom, but as I sat there contemplating my previous night’s dinner, I blamed them and in particular their ten-year old son. I could still hear him running up and down the corridors doing whatever the modern day version of a spitfire imitation is and my bowels shuddered.

It was Independence Day, not the 4th of July, but the 17th of August - the day Indonesia shook off the yoke of Imperial dominance for the yoke of a corrupt dictatorship. In a diverse country with strong separatist movements and nothing other than colonial history to hold it together, the day had a radically different meaning for different people. However in Java, the heart of Indonesia, the populace had been exuberant in their celebrations with amateur parades and schoolchildren’s marching competitions with proud parents looking on.

We had planned to finish off our time in Java with a trip to the smoking volcanic lake of Mount Ijen before making a short ferry crossing to Bali. When we arrived at the base of the mountain we were taken aback by the crowds of Chinese. After my corridor companions of the night before I was negatively predisposed against them, but was intrigued as to their presence in such numbers. We speculated that Indonesia’s Chinese population felt excluded from the Independence Day celebrations and elected to be amongst their own.

Mount Ijen is an active volcano, but aside from simply being a tourist attraction it is a working mine … of sorts. The sulphurous fumes that escape from the lake condense on rocks in such quantities that it pays for miners to make the arduous four-hour round trip up to the crater to hack it off and carry it down. The fumes that provide for the miner’s livelihood can also be deadly but the job pays well and there is no shortage of strong eager men willing to pick up the basket from where it has fallen.

Independence day didn’t have any special relevance for these muscular men, and we looked in amazement as they came down the hill with massive loads of luminous yellow sulphur. Each man carried two baskets, connected by a bamboo pole over the shoulder. With every step the bamboo pole would flex, somewhat like the suspension of a horse drawn carriage. I don’t suppose it was any coincidence that we saw no miners much over thirty; after just a few years of such labour their knees must be shot.

We made our way up the mountain along a well-worn trail, marvelling at the landscape cut by volcanic activity. The miner’s easy gait made us feel physically inadequate but we consoled ourselves with the frailty of our Chinese companions, most of whom looked unfit to climb stairs let alone a mountain. Their attire did little to make them fit in; the “Hash House Harriers” t-shirts the men wore were obviously just out of their cellophane while their wives wore the most ludicrous footwear I have ever seen on a mountain.

After an hour and a half of steady progress we arrived at the lip of the crater. Below us stretched an incredible emerald green lake half shrouded in its own fumes. Miners descended one by one into the thick cloud of vapour to fill their loads before reappearing half and hour later, heavily laden. We spent a moment sitting watching them as the day-trippers discarded their lunch wrappers to the breeze - environmentalism hasn’t really caught on in much of Asia.

Predictably our descent back to our car was quicker than our ascent had been, and we were in good time to get to the ferry terminal. Java and Bali are separated by only a small strip of water and normally ferries make the half hour crossing every twenty minutes or so. However, this was not a normal day and we spent half an hour wandering the terminal confused, trying to find a ferry that would leave sometime in the next hour or two. Eventually, my t-shirt clinging to my back with sweat, we ended up aboard the first ferry we had approached and given up on, and we settled in.

It should have been a short journey, but either there is no port equivalent to air traffic control in Bali or it wasn’t working that day. We spend an hour at sea, turning circles in our lumbering ferry, as one by one-speedier vehicles stole every mooring spot our captain trained his eye on.

Eventually we docked in a remote part of the port and, heavily burdened, walked two-kilometres to the bus station. At this stage we were tired and hungry and ready for the artificial resorts that Bali offers the package tourist. However, it wasn’t to be that easy, Balinese people take their public holidays seriously and our custom simply wasn’t that important to them. There was one bus that may or may not take us to Lovina, but we would either have to wait the five hours until it was full or charter it outright ourselves. Besides spending the night in the unattractive port town there was only one other option, but it was totally preposterous.

Being Caelen and Barbara we hmmed, hawed, got irritated with each other, got irritated with everyone else and finally settled on the preposterous option - ojeks or motorcycle taxis. We had taken motorcycle taxis before and generally found them a good if scary way to negotiate crowded cities, but we had never ridden one for such a distance and never with huge rucksacks on our backs.

Not only were we not used to taking ojeks for such a distance, the ojek drivers were not either and most rejected our business outright. Finally we found two willing drivers and waited as they rushed home to tell their families that they would be late for diner. Barbara and I took the time to don our climbing helmets, aware that they offered little more than psychological protection. A few minutes later we were perched delicately behind our drivers, our heavy packs strapped tightly to our backs threatening to pull us off the bikes every time we accelerated.

At 100 kilometres an hour we screamed along the winding roads, only male pride and clenched-shut eyes preventing me from doing likewise. When we arrived at our hotel an hour and a half later every muscle in our bodies was cramped from clinging on to the bikes and the pull of our rucksacks. The flood of relief at being alive and finally at our destination had us drained but elated. We hoped the following week would be somewhat more relaxing.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of Kawah Ijen lake java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of sulphur miners lake java Indonesia travelogues
The green volcanic lake smokes sulpher

A minor carries a load of up to 100kg

Picture of Barbara by lake java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of landscape near lake java Indonesia travelogues
Barbara by the lip of the crater

A view of the crater lip

Picture of Barbara and sulphur miners lake java Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of Barbara near lake java Indonesia travelogues
Barbara and two miners