Hundreds of gedung-gedung(mountains), many of which are actually gedung-gedung api (volcanoes, or literally “fire mountains”), dot the landscape of the Indonesian archipelago. East Java is a particularly mountainous region, with the famous Bromo and Semeru mountains practically in my backyard (okay, they’re not quite that close, but you get the idea). During a visit to a tourist information office early in my time here, I acquired a map of the area immediately surrounding Malang, and it is currently taped to my bedroom door; I have been staring at the names of various beautiful places for five months now, waiting for my chance to meet them in person. Patience always pays: this past weekend, I was finally able to climb a nmountain.
Kawah Ijen is much further from my home in Malang than either Bromo or Semeru, and that it was my first mountain to climb here has gotten me more than a few confused looks from people at my school, but I’ve learned not to question the way in which events unfold here in Indonesia. One does not simply turn down the opportunity to climb a mountain just because you “ought to” climb a closer mountain first.
Because it takes so long to reach Ijen, we had to choose a place to prepare for the start of our early morning climb. For our group, it was Pantai Merah (Red Beach), a stretch of beautiful coastline along the southern edge of East Java. After six hours in a mini bus with my site mate and some students from a local university whom we have befriended, we reached our first destination, and went running across the pasir (sand), and into the laut (sea).
We arrived at Pantai Merah just in time for matahari terbenam (sunset), which did not fail to impress. We did not sleep at all that night, choosing instead to sing Indonesian and Western pop songs as we waited for when we would leave for Ijen.
At midnight we left Pantai Merah and headed to Kawah Ijen. It was still dark when we first started climbing, and as the pale morning light began to cast its spell over the landscape, we found ourselves surrounded by misty morning mountains, the kind that belong in an epic fantasy film, not real life.
After almost two hours of climbing through the mist and the majesty, we reached the edge of the kawah (crater), full of excitement and pride. Kawah Ijen is over 2,700 meters (over 9,000 feet) above sea level, and while it is neither the highest nor the most difficult mountain I have ever climbed, it was also not the easiest hike I have ever been on. Standing at on the precipice of a still-active volcano, high enough that I’m not sure if we were surrounded by fog or clouds, I felt as though we had conquered the world.
One of the most exciting parts of Kawah Ijen, for me, was the fact that it was dingin (cold) at the top of the
mountain. Even in the warmest sweatshirt I packed for my time here and a scarf, this northeastern girl was
shivering. It was the first time I had really felt cold in Indonesia, and I reveled in the glory of it all.
We could not at first to really see the crater lake below, but at matahari terbit (sunrise), the fog began to lift, and the blue-green water below was revealed.
Kawah Ijen is the largest highly-acidic crater lake in the world, with a surface area of almost half a kilometer square (about .15 mile square). As steam (or fumes—to be honest, I’m not entirely sure what they are), continued to spill out of the crater, we relished in how small, insignificant, and unstoppable we are in the face of such natural power.
The lake’s high acidity is caused by the incredible amount of sulfur that is in it. This elemental sulfur is a valuable natural resource, and it does not go unnoticed.
The sulfur is mined mostly by hand and carried down the mountain by men in baskets. On each trip, the men carry around 70 kilograms (150 pounds) all the way down the mountain. They wear rubber boots or flip flops, and no extra support for their shoulders or spines. They also do not wear sufficient protection for their lungs, and many have respiratory problems. I saw old men hunched over with the many years of carrying these heavy loads, and young men shifting the baskets uncomfortably, as their young muscles were not yet accustomed to such abuse.
This is the sort of labor that even I—who spent much of my life carrying hay bales and leading stubborn Jersey cows—cannot fully understand. These men break their bodies, day in and day out, for less than fifteen U.S. dollars a day.
Climbing Kawah Ijen was one of those moments in Indonesia that showed me how much for which I have to be thankful. I am healthy enough, and monetarily stable enough, to take advantage of the opportunity climb to such an amazing place. I am unlikely to ever need to work myself to my death in order to feed my family, due to the opportunities my college education gives me, and the small blessing of minimum wage in the U.S. I do not always remember how fortunate I am, and I am glad to have had the reminder.
Two days later, I am still feeling the remnants of the exhaustion that resulted from our climb. But this is an ache I do not regret, because it merely acts as a reminder of one of the most incredible experiences I have ever had.