East Java Extremes
There are some pretty extreme locations to visit in Indonesia and up near the top of the list is a hotspot that may leave you breathless and hot. Ijen crater lake sits high on a plateau 2,386 metres above sea level and its steaming hot – volcanic hot. Plumes of poisonous gas escape from ground vents, rocks and chasms around the crater lake. A place of exceptional natural beauty, but do not let the idyllic, beautiful, turquoise colour of the lake fool you. This is no place for a romantic picnic, in fact it’s a deadly acidic lake which will burn your skin if you happen to tip your toe in the water. Its advisable to view the lake from a distance. A French tourist fell into the lake and his body was never recovered.
Quite different to the fabled Elton John’s ‘yellow brick road’, the walking trail that leads to the Ijen crater lake is a ‘yellow sulphur road’. The sulphur stained trail carries the toils of hundreds of trips taken up and down the well-etched path by the Ijen sulphur miners who ascend the three- kilometre trail with empty baskets every day and trudge back down with sulphuric loads of up to 100kg. These men are paid by weight and sell their bright yellow lumps of sulphur to a factory nearby in Banyuwangi. It’s a steep climb to the crater rim and takes about two and a half hours of steady slog, even though it is only three kilometres. The miners scoot up and down at a much faster pace.
I started to smell wafts of sulphur about halfway up the trail and as I carefully made my way up the medium-difficult incline, dodging rocks and hazards with my sensible walking shoes, as barefooted sulphur miners sped past me, with wicker baskets and big smiles. Along with their baskets these strong and agile miners have just one other item with them – a thin handkerchief to cover their mouths from the toxic fumes, which can pump out of the active steaming crater at any point in time. I talked to Hutano, who was barefoot, about his life as a miner. He was pretty happy with his work, grateful in fact and seemed very content to earn a mere USD13 a day for his hard work. Once his baskets are full and loaded, he makes the 3 kilometre trip to the transfer point and then does it all over again. He told me he walks around fifteen kilometres a day.
The sulphur miners work in incredibly harsh and dangerous conditions. Toxic gas belches out of the crater constantly as they work and sudden waves of heat make for a very unforgiving work environment. No machinery is used and the extraction of sulphur is made by repetitively chipping at the large blocks of sulphur using only hand tools.
I found it very humbling to share the walking trail with these hard working sulphur miners who seem very happy to share a joke and a bit of a conversation on the way up, but do not get them to pose for a photo or chat to them on the way down. Once loaded, they are on a mission to get back down, and it’s not uncommon for miners to carry more than their body weight. You do not want to break their concentration.
The volcanic ash that spills out from Ijen crater creates a rich and fertile soil base on the slopes of the volcano and coffee and cocoa crops grow in proliferation. These slopes lead to the main town of Banyuwangi, which is a good base for exploring two nearby nature reserves, South Banyuwangi and Meru Betiri.
Banyuwangi has a fascinating history and was once the capital of the Blambangan hindu kingdom, the last hindu kingdom of Java in the 16th century. This kingdom fell in a three-way battle between Madurese pirates, Balinese rajas and VOC (Dutch East India Company) merchantmen. Today the remaining descendants of this ancient hindu kingdom are known as “osing”. They live in Banyuwangi alongside the other ethnic groups, which include Javanese, Madurese and Balinese. Added to this melting pot of culture and language, there are also Chinese, Buginese and Arabs. The native people of Banyuwangi are called Banyuwanginese and they have their own dialect blending the languages of Javanese and Balinese. It is a fascinating mix of culture and diversity and makes for a very unique blend of rituals, customs, art and tradition.
Within many cultures, dance is at the very heart of expression and the Gandrung dance is no exception. Gandrung means hopelessly in love, in Javanese, and this dance honours the love and gratitude owed to Dewi Sri, the goddess of rice. It is unique to Banyuwangi and locals affectionately call their city by the name of their own dance; Gandrung.
The Gandrung is a welcome dance, performed for honoured guests with unique musical accompaniment. If you get the opportunity to see the dance, you better be prepared to stay awake a long time as it goes from evening to the early hours of dawn. Check with the local tourist office for performance times. Festivals and events honour many important cycles that revolve around the land and the sea and if you are in town at the right time you can catch the annual custom known as ‘the sea offering’ or ‘metik’, which is a celebration and ritual performed before rice and coffee harvesting.
Wildlife abounds in Blambangan nature reserve (Alas Purwo) or the ancient forest, south of Banyuwangi. This is Java’s largest reserve with it’s unique wandering peacocks and wild hens, deer, wild boars, as well as the rarer Javanese tiger and leopard, if you can spot them amongst the enormous sawo kecik trees, which have a huge round diameter base of 1.5 metres. On the way to the nature reserve, you pass the lively, action- packed fish stalls, which buzzes with hagglers and auction clad in gumboots, surrounded by very fishy smells and plenty of fish-guts. A line of Madurese fishing perahus (traditional boats) stand proudly at the port, an impressive spectacle of colour, showing off the magnificent age-old boat building genius of the Madurese people.
If you are into surf, then the big drawcard in this southern area of East Java is the famous surf break at Plengkung beach (also known as G-Land), which has perfectly hollow tubes which move at a rapid rate for half a kilometre, plus wave peaks which rise 6-8 metres.
With notoriety comes progress and the new Blimbingsari Airport has plans to extend the airport runway to accommodate bigger planes in the future, as demand rises for the Surabaya-Anyuwangi air route, and there is talk of an air service from Jakarta. This can only mean one thing – more people will come and discover this quiet, tucked away jewel of the east, so it may not be too quiet and unique for long. From surf to sulphur, a trip to the edge of Java takes you to a land of exquisite rugged beauty, where a unique blend of cultures live side by side and allows for a travel experience quite out of the ordinary.
ijen resort and villas
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf