Around 4:45 am, after almost three hours of hiking, I found myself at the bottom of the caldera inside the heart of the Kawah Ijen volcano complex on the island of Java in Indonesia. It was still dark, so I couldn’t see the entirety of the still active volcano, Ijen, or the turquoise-colored hydrochloric acid lake it housed yet. I could see the roaring blue fire spewing from cracks in the volcanic wall. Those flames drew my camera and I to them like a siren draws a boat to the rocky shores, because right when I got to them, a plume of sulfur gas engulfed me and filled my lungs, successfully starting to suffocate me.
Kawah Ijen is famous for the blue fire, which looks a lot like Hade’s, from the Disney Movie Hercules, hair. What happens is sulfur dioxide from the volcano escapes from crevices in the volcanic wall, and because it is at temperatures of up to 1,1112 degrees fahrenheit (6oo degrees celsius), it ignites when it hits the air and burns a blue color.
The blue fire can only be seen at night, which is why we set out at 2:00 am. Four of us, a guide, and just our headlamps and the stars to show us the way. The hike to the rim of the mountain is aggressively uphill for 1.25 miles (2 kilometers), and then relatively flat for about 0.6 miles (1 kilometer). Once at the rim, we hiked down a narrow treacherous precipitous rocky path to the bottom of the caldera, which took about 45 minutes.
We had to be courteous to and mindful of the miners that were working and using the same path to carry out extremely heavy loads of sulfur, 165 to 220 lbs (75 to 89 kgs). That is the real reason there is a trail into the mouth of this volcano. Daily, miners hike the 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) to the sulfur vents, break the solid sulfur into large pieces, load it into two baskets connected by a pliable wood board, don the wood board and baskets across one shoulder, slowly hike it up the near vertical, 980 ft (280 m) elevation change in 0.6 miles (1 kilometer), rocky path to the rim, and haul it down the steep mountainside for about 1.9 miles (3 km). They do this three times a day.
The work is arduous and dangerous. Mining the sulfur itself exposes the miners to harmful gases, and they aren’t provided with much protection, no gas masks, just a scarf to tie across their nose and mouth. And while they’re paid relatively well compared to other jobs in the area, that work amounts to a payout of $5 to $8 USD a day. That being said, our guide was a former miner and I got to speak with many of the workers, and there was an undoubtable and definitely well earned sense of pride among them. There was also a jovial bounce in their greetings to us and each other that suggested that despite the difficulties of the work, they will make the best of it.
In order to get the sulfur, they have built ceramic pipes that effectively capture some of the volcanic gases and condense them into molten sulfur. At the base of the pipes the deep red liquid sulfur slowly oozes out onto the caldera floor and cools into a solid state, which becomes bright yellow. There may be some more “sciency” stuff to that, but that’s how it was explained to me.
Kawah Ijen is deemed one of the most toxic places on the planet, which was entirely believable for me because once I hit the rim I could smell hints of the sulfur, and as I got closer to the vents, it was very strong and I used a gas mask. My need for the mask varied as the wind moved it around. I could see the smoke from the fire glowing blue from the flames.
I asked my guide if I could get closer, and he escorted me to the mining area. As I was getting up-close photos of the blue fire and breaking one of my survival rules, pay attention to your surroundings, I heard my guide scream, “Brandy, run!” It was too late though, I had just enough time to see the massive gas cloud of sulfur roll over me. I couldn’t see a thing and if I tried to open my eyes they just burned. I had no idea what direction I was facing, but knew the walls surrounding me were on fire so I held back on feeling my way out. I could not breath at all. It didn’t matter that I had a gas mask on, if there is no oxygen to pull, there will be no breathing. My chest was burning, and I started to panic. I slowly shuffled in a direction and finally found my way out of the noxious cloud, vigorously coughing and desperately gasping for air. And even though I escaped, my chest felt tight and like it was on fire, and I felt like I couldn’t draw a full breath. Those feelings would last the remainder of the hike and the day.
Exposure to sulfur dioxide can cause respiratory problems like bronchospasm, pulmonary edema, pneumonitis, acute airway obstruction, permanent lung damage, asthma, pneumonia, bronchitis, chest tightness, burning in the chest, and intense coughing. It can damage the cornea of the eye and cause conjunctivitis. It can also cause skin irritation or burns, and even frostbite. A small exposure like mine, typically doesn’t cause lasting damage, but I also should not have continued strenuous activity and should have been administered some pure oxygen (things you learn on Google a month later).
After the sunlight illuminated the area, we started hiking out. I could now see the sloping walls of the caldera, the yellow dusted sulfur mine, the turquoise acid lake, and all of Ijen. The hike back was difficult in a different way; hiking down steep angles is almost less appealing than hiking up them.
The sulfur that is mined is used for a variety of products, one of them being soap. So I bought some soap, but, since I did not have access to a shower for several more hours, it wouldn’t help prevent me from smelling like sulfur for the rest of the day. We all donated our gas masks to the miners.
My hope now is that if there are lasting effects from sulfur exposure, that those effects come in the form of some cool mutation that will give me superhero powers.
“There is a fear that keeps you living and a fear that keeps you from living” – Rusty Wells