The low rumbling of the Jeep lulled me back to sleep after our 1:30am wake-up call. When we braked at the foot of the volcano, the tires kicking up dust in the frigid night air, we tumbled out of the car, stretching our sleepy limbs and preparing ourselves for the long walk up ahead.
Walking in the dark had grown on me over my travels, always chasing that sunrise– but at Kawah Ijen we had to reach the crater well beforehand in order to catch the famously nocturnal Blue Lava. As we trudged along the steep path in opaque blackness, the layers of shadows slowly grew shapes: footsteps of those before us, twisted low-hanging branches, scraggly bush. The peak was marked by a little Warung, selling soft drinks and snacks. Hikers caught their breath there, squashed onto a tiny wooden bench, slipping into their jackets as the brisk night air licked their sweat-coated bodies.
Slowly, everyone pulled on their gas masks. It was time to climb into the fiery pits of Mordor. It was a precarious descent into the crater, each step slipping on loose stones tumbling downwards. The dense smell of rotten eggs hits you like a wall, saturating every pore. You’re so busy focusing on your footing that it takes you a tick to notice the soft blue glow emanating deep from within the well of the crater. As we drew closer, the blue grew brighter, fading into the background every now and then when the volcano wheezed and puffed steam that burned your eyes and lungs. Rupert and I made out shadows of people amidst the cloud and climbed our way towards them, wanting to get closer like moths to a flame, before realising too late after cries of warning that we were attempting to join the miners, precariously tilting on the mouth of the crater. Blinded by the smoke, struggling to breathe through the toxic fumes, we groped onto the rocks around us that crumbled like chalk in our hands and for a moment I thought the ground would just disintegrate into dust beneath me and I’d be swallowed whole. We scrambled out onto safer territory, admiring the smoldering, spurting blue lava from a reasonable distance.
As the sun rose, the volcano grew sleepy and its glow faded, but the world around it emanated: the rocks around us dusted in pastel yellow, a bright blue lake behind us, rolling green hills behind them. We could see the lines of wear etched on the miner’s faces as they broke their backs, carrying between 70-90kg of sulphur up and down the volcano for $5 a trip, day in and day out, the weight and toxic fumes often resulting in disfigurations and shorter lives, inherited from the legacy of misfortune of being born in the wrong time and place and knowing no other way of life and no other opportunities. We bought a little frog carved out of sulphur they sold us and they wished us good fortunes… as if life hadn’t already been fortunate to us already.
Invisible People, by Luca Catalano-Gonzaga: http://www.witnessimage.com/stories/the-devils-gold/