Chasing The Blue Flame

With a volcanic crate of a 1Km diameter, the Kawah Ijen, an active volcano on the Island of Java, is home to the world’s biggest acid lake, where the massive presence of sulfuric acid give birth to its spectacular turquoise-green waters. There’s another peculiarity why this astonishing volcano attracts foreign and local visitors every day, a very rare phenomenon visible only here at night: Ijen’s blue flames, born from sulfuric gasses’ eruption in the air, creating a 5m tall electric blue fire.

Tourists are not the only spectators of this wonder. In 1968, at the base of the highest volcanic peak (2.799m above sea level), a sulfur mine was opened in the crater, and it is reached every day by more than 300 miners, who work between toxic fumes and dangerous climbs, 4 days a week on average, to bring the condensed sulfur to the volcano’s base camp, for €6 a day, sum that doubles if they make the journey twice. The miners cover the bumpy trail, which sometimes reaches a 60% gradient, carrying wicker baskets on their shoulders filled with solid sulfur, usually between 70 to 90 Kg, the equal extent of a male adult weight, easily even more of their own. To avoid the already high temperatures of the mine, all this is done at nighttime: the miners walk lighting their paths with head torches, with no protections or gas masks whatsoever, sometimes using humid cloths to protect them from the toxic fumes that irritate retinas and nostrils.

The extracted material is sold to the local company PT Candi Ngibiri* which pays 800 rupees for a kilo, more or less 0.05€. The salary of a miner is still doubled compared to a coffee plantation’s worker’s, which is why many choose this job in spite of the exhausting conditions and the dangerous health’s side effects.

The ones who climb the Ijen can see the precise movements of these robust men with no definite age in complete darkness, they can follow the trembling light they carry on their head with their eyes, going up and down this hell-like place to get the precious treasure. While patiently waiting for the new sulfur to be ready, the miners smoke cigarettes or eat in a suffocating heat, as the toxic fumes get a hold of their eyes and their lungs. Behind them, the blue flames dance in the night, around the clumsy visitors as they try not to get in the way of these men. In the background, nature’s show fades away as the mind wonders.


Words by Beatrice Mazzocchi