The sharper edge to traveling in Asia

Kawah Ijen sulphur haulers in Java, Indonesia: the world’s worst job?

Written By: herbrunbridge - May• 29•10

A sulphur worker climbing up the rim at Kawah Ijen volcano

The trek up the Kawah Ijen volcano, then down to the fiery natural sulphur furnace near the famed turquoise lake is one of the most interesting treks in Java. It’s roughly 2km up to the crater’s edge, then perhaps another 1 km down the steep interior to the beds of raging sulphur fountains, where workers break the drying sulphur slabs free, then load them onto the double baskets carried by workers, who bring their 100 lb loads up the crater, and over to the transfer station on the other side. During this arduous climb, on scree-laden slopes, poisonous clouds of sulphuric gases rise from the pits and sear the lungs, making this one of the most challenging working environments in the world. 

The workers are paid little, and live in a camp over the rim, adjacent to the transfer station.  There’s not a lot of work in this part of Java, and these hardy workers have been doing this for generations. 

For travelers, the views can be breathtaking, but the climb down the crater takes a physical toll, as the switchbacks are narrow, the path rough, and sulphur gases omnipresent. At the bottom, visitors dodge gas clouds propelled by the breeze as they watch the workers braving rivers of molten sulphur as they break apart the drying chunks of rock. 

At 6,000 feet in elevation, the lake bubbles in correspondence with the billowing clouds of gases spewing continually from vents in the volcano. Trekking guides don’t like this climb for its danger, and hikers have been known to fall to their deaths, or have been overcome by the toxic clouds. 

Tours, which include the volcano of Gunung Bromo, can be booked from the city of Malang. In the area, stays can be arranged at many of the coffee plantations which surround the area. We enjoyed the Catimore Homestay (Tel 0868-12107942), which has meals, clean rooms, and hot water. 

Although it’s a tough trek, we recommend a visit to Kawah Ijen for the views, the volcanism, and for a sobering look at one of the world’s most dangerous and challenging jobs.

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