Swiss inspiration that's changed lives of sulphur porters of Java

Chef, author and trekker shows the difference one person can make, as he raises donations and harnesses talent from his home country to transform the lives of sulphur miners on the Kawah Ijen volcano

PUBLISHED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 10:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 14 September, 2015, 10:16am

When Swiss chef, author and seasoned mountain trekker Heinz von Holzen  first climbed Kawah Ijen, a volcano in East Java, Indonesia, he was appalled to see the weight of sulphur porters had to carry up and down the slopes.

Each porter makes two trips daily, carrying on one shoulder with a bamboo pole loads of between 60kg and 90kg of solidified sulphur mined from the volcano. The steep hike takes at least three hours each way. Add to the strenuous labour the toxic fumes they’re inhaling on a daily basis, and it’s not surprising that their average life expectancy is just 45 years.

WATCH the story of the sulphur miners of Ijen

Von Holzen, who has lived in Indonesia for 25 years and is also a passionate photographer, set about raising funds and began returning regularly with bundles of clothes and pocket money. “But then I wanted to do something that would have a more long-term effect,” he says, when we meet in his restaurant and cooking school Bumbu Bali  (  

He turned his focus to the porters’ children, and this year raised enough to pay for 100 of them to go to school for a whole school year. “Hopefully, with proper education we’ll be able to give the children the opportunity to not  have to do the porter work,” he says. “Now we have got three schools that we support, so whenever we make payments for the kids we go directly to them.”

Last year, he decided to take things a step further. He was contacted by the Swiss government, which expressed admiration for what he was doing, and wanted to donate money to his cause. “I got back to them in a bit of a cocky way and said, ‘Look: not really interested in your money right now, but I’ve got an idea. I’ve heard rumours – apparently there’s still some intelligent people left in Switzerland...’” Von Holzen chuckles. “I said, ‘In your capacity would you be able to find these intelligent people for me and perhaps put me in contact with some universities that would be interested in taking on a design project so that the porters can take the load down in a more humane way?’”

Before long he was contacted by four universities. Surprised by the overwhelming response, he flew back to Switzerland, carrying with him one of the bamboo sticks that the porters use to carry the baskets. “It just so happened that the chief in charge of one of the universities had done a cooking class with me, so I guess that’s where the whole connection came from,” he says.

Thomas Studer,  a student design engineer at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts in  Lucerne,  took on the task, and last October they introduced the first trolley prototype to the porters. Modifications were made based on Studer’s original design, and a month later, they brought two more trolleys back. The porters liked the idea and began to build their own versions. The last time von Holzen visited, they counted  about 150 trolleys in operation.

“Thomas should be extremely proud of what he’s done. If you could only see how many trolleys they’ve got now,” says von Holzen, tears welling up in his eyes. “A year ago, they were all coming down with such heavy loads on their shoulders. Now? You go over there and see it yourself. And what hit me, was how many porters came down, they came to me when I was there last week, and they dropped their things and came to thank me. Look what we were able to give to these people; I think it’s brilliant.”

See also: Follow your nose

The porters have now rebuilt part of the path, to make it easier to move the trolleys in both directions. Twenty more trolleys are being made, and the design continues to be improved upon, thanks to another generous donation. “Now we’ve got this one person who gave me US$30,000 to build these trolleys. A good friend of his had terminal cancer, and he gave him US$15,000, saying, ‘Do something with it that really makes a difference with people’s lives’. And he added US$15,000 from his own pocket,” says von Holzen.

SEE how the Swiss-designed trolleys have helped the porters

“I think with the porters we’ve done  OK.

“How can you help us? Use this as an example of the difference that one person can make if they stick to something. There are millions of places on this planet that need help, so if you see an opportunity, by all means do it.”