The 7am train journey to Surabaya was very scenic, endless paddy fields in varying states of the growing process made the colours switch from patches of deep green where the new rice plants were being propagated, through green and brown where the rice was growing to yellow where the rice approached harvesting and finally to black where the harvested plant stubs had been slashed and burnt.
In every field, groups of people were sowing, harvesting, spraying or repairing the mud walls for irrigation. They reap 3 rice harvests a year here so naturally, the process never ends.
The small communities look run down, a few basic buildings, mostly cobbled together from salvaged wood and corrugated metal. It looked like a very hard life. The people that lounged in the early morning shade looked tired and weathered, dark skin and wrinkle faced, paying absolutely no attention to the train as we trundled passed. But above the houses, above the trees we could see 5 or 6 brightly coloured diamond shaped kites swooping and dancing in the wind, a few were having some fun at least.
We arrived at Surabaya and was met by our guide for the next couple of days, Hendrik. He's a local guy who has been climbing the eastern mountains for 25 years, very easy going and holds a wealth of information. We then began our 7 hour drive to the foothills surrounding
At about halfway we saw the Indonesian president drive passed with a 50 car entourage. He was apparently on his way back from Bromo as part of a countrywide tour. Hendrik seemed genuinely excited about seeing the convoy, so much so that he pulled into the next service area for a 'calm-down' coffee.
As we neared our stopover, the road steepened, twisted and turned. Monkeys appeared at the roadside, looking like spectators at a Grand Prix and behind us the sun set below the mountain range.
It's was an early start, we were on the road again by 3am for a two hour drive to the base of mount Ijen.
Dawn was just breaking as we arrived at the base of the mountain. Hendrik had warned us the path up was treacherous and that one misplaced step could seal our fate, I'm thinking Mount Doom crossed with Dante's peak.
It turned out to be tough but not dangerous, the extraordinarily steep inclines were covered with loose gravel making it all to easy to slip, which we all did frequently. At times it felt like it would be easier to go on all fours but with frequent stops to catch our breath and take some photos of the stunning surrounding mountains, we made good progress. Every so often we would have to move to the edge of the path to make way for the miners who came bouncing down with two bamboo baskets full of sulphur balanced at each end of a length of strong bamboo cane. The bamboo that stretched across their shoulders was worn smooth and perfectly sculpted around the owner's form, we were told that one 'sulphur man' would not be able to carry another's as it would be too uncomfortable and so for one too cash in on another's quarry was all but impossible.
In the crater of the volcano, vents spew out liquid sulphur, a small army of miners manually collect the boiling liquid and leave it to cool and solidify.
When the sulphur has solidified, they then use a type of wide bladed pick axe to break it into 'manageable' sized chunks. The chunks are loaded into the bamboo baskets and in a relay are taken first back to the crater rim and then down to the processing plant near the parking area.
It took us almost 4 hours to make the round trip up and back, the miners do this twice a day and on their way down they are carrying a load of 80 to 100 kilograms. It is literally back-breaking work. Many are dressed in rags, some have Wellington boots most just in plimsoles or flip flops. 80kg of sulphur will earn the miner the equivalent of £3.60.
They look tired, but generally have a bright demeanour, offering a photo in exchange for a small tip or some sweets, all said 'hello' and responded with gusto when asked "apa kabar?" How are you?
The ridge that led us to the crater was exposed to the elements the air temperature was cool despite being in the early morning sun, to our right wooden stumps lined the path where years of exposure to the sulphuric fumes withered away the trees from the leaves downwards, beyond them was a steep slope of lava stone, lined with hundreds of straight and deep gouges. This gave way to rich green forests and meadows that sprawled out as far as our eyes could see. To our left was the crater, thick putrid steam bellowed from an unseen fissure a few hundred metres below, between wafts the cornflower yellow of sulphur splattered rocks was visible. Next to the vent was the most beautiful looking lake, glacier blue turning to aqua and green near the edges. It looks so inviting but looks are deceiving, the lake has high levels of sulphuric acid and entering the water would cause a fair bit of mischief.
The contrast between the left and the right of the ridge couldn't be more stark but the lush, life giving vegetation on the right wouldn't exist if not for the raging cauldron on the left. We stayed up on the rim for an hour, you just can't get bored of this sort of scenery with a 180 degree turn of your head you can view heaven or hell.
As we began the descent, we imediately started seeing familiar faces of the 'sulphur men' we'd passed on our way up, they were smiling but clearly exhausted, still with at least one more hellish return trip to make. For us, going back down was quicker, but not much easier the loose gravel again caused us to slip and slide always at the most inconvenient times. The sun had raised the temperature and as the slope levelled, the early morning was there to be enjoyed.
Breakfast was had in the shadow of the mountain we'd just climbed and our hard work had been done for the day, it was 8.30am.
We returned to the hotel for a catnap (mostly for Hendrik) before heading out on a 5 hour journey to Bromo.