Sunday, February 2, 2014

Ijen Plateau

As far as scenery goes, Java's thing is volcanoes.  With 127 active volcanoes and plenty of remains of volcanoes from the past, there are plenty to see: Merapi, one of the most active in the world, near Yogyakarta, which has been erupting frequently for years; Bromo with its barren moon-scape slopes; Krakatoa, the big one that supposedly made the loudest sound in modern history (heard 3000 miles away) when it erupted in 1883; Tambora, which caused the Year with No Summer in 1815. I saw two while I was in Java, Bromo and Ijen. 

The Ijen Plateau is a region of Volcanic hotspots in eastern Java; the main peaks are Ijen, Merapi, and Raung.  Ijen has become a fairly popular place for travelers as it's possible to hike up to the rim of the crater, and look down over Kawah Ijen, a lake that has formed in the crater, at just over 7000 feet.  Around the lake, vents cough out sulphurous smoke; sometimes the lake even boils when the volcano is particularly angry.  

Another interesting thing about Ijen from the Lonely Planet: "Around 300 collectors (all men) work here, getting up at between 2am and 4am to hike up to the crater to hack out the yellow stuff by hand.  For most the only protection against the cone's noxious fumes are the cotton scarves they tie around their noses.  These DIY miners then spend the next six or so hours scurrying back down the volcano with loads of 60kg to 80kg on their backs. It's incredibly tough work that pays very little (around 600rp [five cents] per kilogram), and yet the physical exercise keeps the collectors incredibly fit- few report health problems, despite breathing great lungfuls of sulphurous fumes virtually every day of their lives. Ijen sulphur is used for cosmetics and medicine, and is added to fertiliser and insecticides. Historically, sulphur was commonly called brimstone.  Some of the miners achieved local celebrity status after appearing on the BBC's landmark Human Planet series."

Some people go on a night hike into the crater; the sulphur-vents burn blue and give an eerie light.  The smell of sulphur is so strong and the volcanic gases burn people's eyes and throats, so most people wear some sort of gas mask. While seeing the blue lights is supposed to be an amazing experience, I didn't even think of going on that little adventure. First of all, we had just had three hours of sleep the night before, so I really wasn't in the mood for an all-nighter, and second, it's highly recommended that anyone with respiratory problems not go into the crater, and I figured my bad chest cold counted. 

For all those who chose not to go on the blue-light hike, we again were up at 3:30 and left at four for a hike up to the rim. I started up the wide, hard-packed dirt road to the crater with everyone else, but I told them not to wait on me and soon fell behind.  Ordinarily, it wouldn't have been too bad, but while my chest cold seemed to be getting better, or at least migrating into a head cold, the afternoon before, during the night it settled into my chest again.  It's hard to hike up a steep hill when you can only take shallow breaths. And besides, it was quite foggy; the trees along the path blurred in and out of the mist like wraiths.  I don't like to be a quitter, but it was obvious that there wasn't going to be much to see in these clouds, and getting out of breath was making me cough too hard to go on.  

After about a kilometer, I turned back and headed for a little shelter I had passed a way back and set on the concrete step and began writing this post (although I didn't finish; I am wrapping it up sitting on the beach in Bali). After a while a girl from Jakarta came along and sat down while waiting on her friends to catch up, and we chatted for a while. I did see some of the sulphur miners come by with their loads of ghastly yellow chunks. A couple set their baskets by the side of the road for a bit, and I got a closer look.  The sulphur really does have a strong smell of eggs.
After a while, I wandered back down to the parking lot, bought some strawberry juice, changed from my nasty hiking shoes into flip-flops, and waited for the rest of the group to return.  It turns out I made the right decision to turn back; as I had thought, there wasn't much to see in the fog at the top.  As soon as everyone straggled back to the van, we were off again. 


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