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Asia travel

How Indonesia’s media-savvy miners became tourist attractions, turning sulphur into selfies

Indonesia’s largest sulphur mine is inside an active volcano and its miners risk their lives to harvest the yellow rock. It has turned into such a popular photo spot for tourists that many miners have quit to become tour guides

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 April, 2018, 7:15pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 12 April, 2018, 11:01am

Ahmed Arifin makes his way slowly up the rocky path in the darkness, breathing heavily with 80kg of sulphite rock pressing down on his shoulders. One of his hands balances the load while the other carries a torch.

He carefully pushes his way through a stream of tourists who are on their way down to the volcanic crater lake where Arifin harvests the sulphite. Somehow he finds the strength to pose for a photo.

Media-savvy Arifin, 47, has been a sulphur miner for 28 years and has had his picture taken dozens of times at this same spot, by tourists and international media alike.

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Indonesia’s largest sulphur mine, nestled in the active volcano Kawah Ijen, is a mesmerising sight. At its centre is a pale blue lake, from which gas rises and colours the surrounding rock yellow. At night, the crater presents another visual wonder as the sulphuric gas occasionally combusts, producing eerie blue flames that dance around the rocks.

Dozens of men like Arifin can be seen swaying under the weight of their bright yellow loads, completing several trips a night before day breaks and it gets too hot.

The dangerous spectacle is a photo opportunity that attracts thousands of sightseers each weekend. A crowd gathers in the parking and camping areas 4km downhill from the crater’s rim, and walks up once the gates open at 1am.

The site is ill-prepared for mass tourism and visitors are often ill-equipped. Some walk in slippery sandals, others faint from exhaustion before reaching the rim. Accidents occur frequently. On March 22, a gas explosion at the crater left dozens of people in hospital.

In high concentrations, the gas is poisonous and the wind that day carried it into the villages on the volcano’s slopes. The mining operation had to be halted and visitors were banned.

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Banyuwangi, the easternmost regency of Java island where Kawah Ijen is located, is positioning itself as an eco-tourism destination. It has a lot going for it: national parks, white sandy beaches, and a world-class surf spot known as G-Land. It is a short ferry ride from Bali. Its biggest attraction, however, remains the sulphur mine.

Kawah Ijen’s evolution into a tourist site is fairly recent. Bachtiar Djanan, 44, a tour operator who also manages an NGO that helps village communities in Banyuwangi, recalls a time when few people knew of the rare blue fire phenomenon. Until the 1990s, only miners and experienced hikers made the trek to the top, says Djanan, who made his first ascent in 1993.

In the late 1990s, an access road and the parking area were built, he recalls. This helped the miners, who could now weigh the rock and load it into trucks here, instead of carrying it much farther down to the village. The road was rough, however, and only adventurous tourists attempted the trip.

What really put Kawah Ijen on the tourist map 10 years ago, according to Djanan, were photos used by various tour operators taken by Frenchman Olivier Grunewald. Specialising in capturing geological phenomenon, Grunewald claims he was the first professional photographer to capture Kawah Ijen’s blue fire.

In 2008, a friend of Grunewald told him about his visit to the crater. “He showed me a picture on which we could see some silhouettes of miners working at night with blue lights in the back. I searched for information, but at that time there was nothing on the internet,” he says.

Grunewald has since visited the crater on six occasions, and his photos appeared in respected magazines including National Geographic. He was also involved in a documentary about Kawah Ijen, and his photos of the crater’s blue flames have proliferated on the internet.

Then, in 2010, Banyuwangi elected a new regent who aggressively promoted tourism to the region with festivals and events including cycling competition Tour de Banyuwangi. In 2012, the government invested in an asphalt road to the base camp, making the trip to the crater more convenient.

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According to data from Banyuwangi’s tourism department, the region last year had 4.8 million visitors, about five times as many as in 2010. The regency has only 1.5 million inhabitants.

Today, about 2,000 to 3,000 people make their way to the crater on a busy weekend night, to capture their own photos of the famous blue flames and to snap selfies with the miners.

After posing for photos, Arifin drops off the load and loudly exclaims Alhamdulillah – “thank God”. He makes several trips down to the lake that night, breaking off bits of sulphite rock from the shelf that forms on the lake’s shore. As the sun rises, he sells a few slabs as souvenirs to the tourists before they head back down to the car park.

He then loads his bounty onto a two-wheeled trolley and shuttles it off to the weighing station. There, the miner will get paid 1,000 rupiah (seven US cents) per kilogram. Ninety-five per cent of the sulphur from the mine is used in sugar processing to make sugar crystals finer and whiter.

The number of miners is dwindling as other opportunities, such as guiding tourists, arise. But for the 230 or so who remain active, the mining process is largely unchanged.

In 2014, however, Swiss national Heinz von Holzen, who has a restaurant on Bali, made it his mission to support miners’ families with donations, including the two-wheeled trolleys that they now use to bring their night’s loot to the weighing station. Some miners have turned to using the trolleys as taxis for visitors who are too weak to make it up to the rim on foot.

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The miners of Kawah Ijen have mixed opinions about the growing number of tourists at the crater. The entrepreneurial few have turned their lives around, like 36-year-old Ahmad Efendi and his family.

Efendi, his father, brother and his cousin, were all miners. Some still work at the mine occasionally, but it’s no longer their only source of income. In a collaborative effort, they built a 10-bedroom homestay in their village.

The family had to sell its three cows to finish the construction, but now Efendi hopes his children are set up for a better future. He’s been able to send all three to school.

Others, especially older miners like Arifin, don’t see any other option. Meanwhile, their work is getting increasingly dangerous as more tourists step in their path.

The government recently announced a plan to build a cable car to shuttle tourists from the car park up to the rim, an initiative that would potentially bring in even more visitors.

At the local department for tourism and culture, head of the culture division Choliqul Ridho tells the Post that the cable car project is going ahead, although the necessary building permits have not yet been acquired.

Local officials agree that tourism at the mine is close to saturation point, but since Kawah Ijen is part of a national park, it falls under the jurisdiction of the central government, Ridho explains. Local officials are expected to toe the line with centrally planned projects such as the cable car.

Djanan says the local government should do more to live up to its vision for Banyuwangi as a pioneer of eco-tourism in Indonesia. Although it is promoting the region with festivals and sports events, the money they bring in rarely trickles down to the village level, he says.

His organisation, Hidora, has undertaken grass-roots work to help communities improve their future prospects, helping them to identify sights and culinary traditions, and encouraging them to set up their own cafes and homestays.

In the village of Gombengsari, a 30-minute drive from Kawah Ijen, these efforts are starting to bear fruit. Two families have begun revitalising coffee growing and traditional roasting techniques. Now they sell locally produced coffee to tourists and online.

This kind of tourism can give the villages a future, says Ulfah Hidayat, Djanan’s wife, who also works for Hidora.

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In Gombengsari, a small number of young villagers who had left to find work on Bali have returned to build their own businesses – a trend that could have tremendous benefits for the region if others follow their example, she says. But she knows there’s still a long way to go.

“Visitors think taking a selfie in nature – that’s eco-tourism,” Hidayat complains. She also fears the local government is making plans without a solid understanding of what sustainable eco-tourism can be.

Instead, the regency has started painting government houses and roadside picnic areas in bright rainbow colours, perhaps hoping to emulate the success of the so-called rainbow village near the neighbouring city of Malang, which became a popular destination after people posted photos of it on Instagram.

Getting there

Garuda Indonesia flies between Hong Kong and Banyuwangi via Jakarta. Connections are also available via Singapore and Surabaya.