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Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Kawah Ijen: The Capricious Crater

Written by Mark Peterson
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I’m in the bowels of one of Indonesia’s active and most notorious volcanoes, deep inside its crater, more than 8,500 feet above sea level, crouching, fetal position employed.

It’s my only defense against the suffocating sulphuric cloud that has shifted direction and now saturates the air. 


Even though the skies are crystal clear and the Milky Way is spell-bindingly resplendent above, visibility is down to an inch. For how long, who knows?

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The toxic smoke encases me. The acid sears my eyes, grates my throat and burns my lungs. Surgical mask and scarf combination guarding my airways: futile. Distant muffled coughs permeate the fog. I dare not attempt another breath. I’m utterly at the mercy of Kawah Ijen and all I can think about is Sherlock Holmes.

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More specifically, my thoughts are of his creator. I’m thinking what if Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had personally witnessed Ijen late in the 19th century and was able to draw upon his experience as he sat mulling over ideas for the backdrop to his detective’s next case. His tale of Holmes and Watson’s pursuit of the Hound of the Baskervilles, recently finished and fresh in the memory, might not have been a chilling journey of suspense played out on Dartmoor’s moody Great Grimpen Mire, but a full-blown horror epic set amid malevolent and hellish scenes, where fire and brimstone felt at home.

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Unfortunately, fire and brimstone is far from fictitious at Kawah Ijen. 



For brimstone, an archaism for sulphur, is precisely what brings the hoards of heroic miners here and these miners, in unison with their surroundings, are what have brought me here. This place has the unnerving and sinister ability to transmogrify from sheer wonder to immobilizing dystopia without warning. Less than eight months have passed since authorities closed access to Kawah Ijen due to signs of increased seismic activity. The dangers are clear and present.

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Bubbling puddles of sulphuric acid and brilliant blue roaring jets of combusting sulphur provide the soundtrack to this capricious world. Fire grumbles somewhere below.


As the darkness of night dissipates and daytime emerges, the igniting blue flames vanish and the jagged lunaresque landscape reveals itself. The path that we descended down also unveils itself and I realize just what a treacherous and perilous place this is, how tragically unforgiving it can be. Lives have been lost here.

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It’s an anxious spectacle watching the miners haul 70kg slabs of solidified sulphur up the crumbling 60 degree slopes of a volcano’s crater. Their progress is painfully slow. Nominations for tougher jobs on a postcard please. Then there’s the 3km trudge down to the weighing station where the miners reap their modest rewards for their endeavors, twice a day. This is also where our expedition began at 2am. 

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Over the next six hours I was resoundingly humbled by nature’s pure, unadulterated hostility in an environment the very antithesis to human existence. 

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If you’re looking for extremes, Kawah Ijen will take some beating. 


©Mark Peterson

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Last modified on Wednesday, 30 April 2014