1. From Bali, we wanted a slow drive to Surabaya, without risking driving in the dark and getting there by 10 Dec in time to process the car for shipment on 13 Dec, the ETD of the ship departing for Singapore. Leaving Bali on Dec 8, we would have 2 nights on the way there. After some research, we decided to stay the first of the two nights at Ijen Resort and Villas, at the foothills of the Gunung Ijen, and the next day to trek up to Ijen crater to see the mining of sulphur there.
2. We left Ubud on 8 Dec at 11 pm and it took us 3 hrs to get to Gilimanuk, the ferry crossing point. The many trucks on the way there slowed the traffic. By 3.30 Bali time (or 2.30 Java time) we were on the other side and on the way to Banyuwangi.
3. Ijen Resort is in Licin, some 17 km from Banyuwangi, with the last 3 km in unsealed surface which the hotel warns its guests to try only with 4 by 4 vehicle. The route was fairly well sign-posted and we reached the resort at 4 pm local time. It was amazing how someone would build a resort in the middle of nowhere, in the midst of tiered paddy fields, the last stretch there along narrow roads, passing through a couple of small villages, with final 3 kms saloon cars could not use. Construction logistics would have been a nightmare. Anyway, we were happy to check in for 800 000 Rp (US$86) a night. That night, we were the only guests there, taking up 1 of the 30+ rooms. Its low season; peak season is July/August period. It was a well furnished comfortable resort, with spectacular view of the tiered paddy fields and the volcanic mountain range of Raung/Merapi to the north.
4. We booked a jeep and a tour guide from the hotel for US$85 to bring us to see the Ijen crater and sulphur mining the next morning, departing from the hotel at 6 am. We were told the trip would take about 5 hrs; 1.5 hrs by jeep to get to the foothill, an hour climb to the crater and back. That night we slept early, as we were set to depart for Ijen at 6 am. We set our alarm for 5.15 am.
5. We promptly woke up at 5.15 the next day, washed up and got to the restaurant for breakfast at 5.30 but it was still in darkness. We started to look around and our noise brought Hassan out from the kitchen. The soft spoken and friendly Hassan got us seated and told us we were early. We were naturally surprised as we thought we were just on time. Hassan commented that we could still in Bali time. Time in Java is one hour behind Bali's. We knew but it didn't occur to us the day before when we crossed over to Java. We had a slow breakfast.
6. Our jeep and tour guide promptly arrived just before 6. The jeep was a Landrover, painted in bright yellow colour. The driver (in blue T-shirt) was Adi. Along the way, he told us he was 57, had 3 wives, 6 children and 4 grandchildren. We were impressed.
7. Our guide (in red T-shirt) told us to call him Albert. Albert's parents were from the area but he was raised in Jakarta. He had been tour guide for close to 10 years now and decided to return to Banyuwangi area and continue to freelance as tour guide. During peak season, in July and August, he would have group everyday. During low season, like now, he would have 1-2 a week. At 35, he was still not married. He spoke fairly good English but given his accent it was a strain to catch every word he said.
8. The road to the foothill of Ijen crater took about 1.5 hour. After the rough 3 km from the hotel it was good road for some way initially, sealed but narrow; but our happiness did not last, as we were soon "rafting". That's how Albert described the last stretch of the journey. We reached the start of the trail up to the Ijen crater at about 7.30. It was 3 km walk up to the crater, from 1850 m elevation at the carpark to 2380 m at the rim of the crater. Already, we could see workers carrying their basket-loads of sulphur passed the car park to the second post, which was 100 m down from the carpark.
9. Carrying a bottle of water each and a towel to cover the nose and mouth against sulphur smoke, we started the climb. It was strenuous initially but was not hard once we started walking at a nice rhythm uphill. On the way up, we passed many of the sulphur workers. They walked with a bounce, in good rhythm with the flexing of the bamboo pole across their shoulder which had a basket of sulphur blocks at both ends. They walked quietly. Also, everyone seemed to know Albert. They were friendly and would reciprocate with a hello or a selamat pagi (good morning).
10. From Albert, we learned a little about the sulphur mining business here. We were told the mining company paid 600 Rp (US $0.064) per kg of sulphur delivered to the 2nd post (near the carpark). To do this, its harvesting the sulphur at the crater, wearing googles to protect their eyes and covering their noses against the sulphur fume (not all do, according to Albert). After this, its 200 m to the rim of the crater. This was really the tortuous part of the journey, as the workers carried the loads up 200 m of almost vertical narrow paths. Its then 3 km down to the 2nd post near the carpark while stopping at the 1st post for weighing the loads of sulphur. Its real hard work.
11. The workers mostly worked in groups, with each worker covering a particular stretch before handing the basket-loads to the next fellow worker. Typical load carried by the worker was between 6o kg to 100 kg. On a typical day, they would do 2-3 cycles. Not all get to work everyday, as there were 300 available workers and only 60-70 workers were required each day. Assuming each worker has on the average of 7 days of work a month, their monthly income is roughly 1.5 mil Rp, i.e. about US$160. Albert said that they would supplement their income in their ways, e.g working in the paddy fields. Permitted age for the workers is between 17-50, though some would appeal to work beyond 50.
12. On th way up, scenery was stunning. On one side was Gunung Merapi (2968m), and on the other was Gunung Raung (3312 m) with its signature blown top. At the rim of the Ijen crater, the view was just as spectacular. We could just sit there for a longest time admiring the sheer beauty created by nature. The wall of the crater slopes inward like a bowl, with erosion lines that looked like the slopes have been scratched. Fume emanated from the bottom of the crater, periodically revealing the green lake that lies at the bottom. From the rim, we could see workers, the size of a match stick, harvesting the blocks of sulphur.
13. At about 9 am, we began our descent down Gunung Ijen. Getting down was tougher than going up, as the slopes were slippery with the many small pebbles. It was easy to lose balance, as had happened to Li Hoon. The workers, on the other hand, bounced down the slopes effortlessly, at speed much faster than ours.
14. We were happy to return to the car park by 10 am. We had learned something from this climb and was awed by the wonderful scenery. Naturally, a thought crossed our minds: couldn't we mechanise the process, reduce the labour and make the transportation more efficient. Albert replied was, "what about the workers, its their means of livelihood; the social problems". I suppose each society has its own set of challenges.