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Author: Maria Zehentner
Beitrag vom: 03.05.2018

Java - the gateway to hell!

Java, April, May 2018

We quickly located the ferry departure point and the ticket counter. Now it was only necessary to survive the 24-hour crossing. Unlike Lennox, Leander and I were not special friends of ship's passage. After a night on the harbor, we were could drive on board the next morning.

There were no separate cabins, but a large sleeping deck with boarding school character. As I walked through, I overturned the bunks and came to 128 seats. Gradually, the ship filled and a little scared I found out, that together with me maybe five women were on board, the rest were men. We were the only whites. I was looking forward to the night, not because I was worried about our safety, but rather about my sleep. I was afraid, that the night ended in a snore concert, which was surprisingly not the case. The breakfast was served directly to the bed! Of course it was not a continental breakfast, but a small rice package. In Asia, meals are not differentiated between breakfast, lunch or dinner. A bowl of rice is an integral part of every meal, combined with the delicacies of the local market.

As planned, we reached the city of Surabaya in Java. Actually, we wanted to leave Indonesia's second-largest city as quickly as possible, but Lennox thwarted us. He tormented with an inflammation at a delicate place, that did not look inviting. We had to find a hospital. Google has been very helpful, as it has been many times. In situations like these we kept puzzling over, what traveling had looked like before the invention of the www. Although I am not the biggest fan of the whole technology progress the last years, I have to admit, that it can be very helpful.

Many mothers do not fall into tears of joy with the idea, of consulting an Indonesian hospital with their young child. But often things are different, than expected. The doctor we were assigned to, was competent, spoke great English and immediately recognized the problem.

Covered with the right medicine for Lennox, we drove relieved in the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. The goal was the small village of Cemoro Lawang, which was at a height of 2,000m and the entrance gate to the area.

The conditions on Java's roads were barely better than in Kalimantan. Narrow, bumpy, winding, uphill and downhill with a lot of traffic. Trucks thundered us at hell speed and moped riders used every gap to push past. It was exhausting and tiring to concentrate permanently on the confused traffic on long routes. New for us in Indonesia was, that we had not only to focus our eyes on the ongoing traffic, but also above the top. The problem were low-hanging branches, that could scratch or even seriously damage the car, and power lines, which got caught on the jam boxes and tore off.

Sometimes we could only go an walking pace, that`s why we needed for the last 120km in the National Park six hours. The drudgery had a great advantage, because when we reached the top we were greeted by cool temperatures. With open mouths, the locals stared at us and asked, if we drove seriously up here with the truck. It was a very narrow and one of the steepest roads we have ever driven. Definitely not made for trucks.

With a height of 2.329m, Mount Bromo is not the highest peak in the country, but it is the most popular and mostly climbed volcano in Indonesia. When the sun rises and the first rays of the sun creep over the rim of the crater, the spectacle begins. Every year, thousands of people travel to the region, just to see the sunrise from the viewing platform on the crater rim. Our visit to the mountain should not end in a crush and crowding, as it has been described in many travel reports.We wanted the enjoy the sunrise relaxed and without any stress.We were lucky because during a short hike we discovered a suitable campsite, that promised at least the same good view of Mount Bromo as the lookout did. The lookout was the desire for hundreds of tourists, which means it was very busy. With this campsite we could escape the crowd.

Satisfied, we returned to Akela. Since the day was still young, we got our cross from the rear carrier, which we had not done in a long time, and make a ramble through the Sea of ​​Sands. We were not alone with this idea. Numerous guides hunted in jeeps through the sandy desert, sparing neither the cars nor their paying guests. After we had swallowed enough sand and dust, we were glad to be able to breathe deeply again, at the lonely monastery Pura Luhur Poten.

A quiet night was unthinkable. At 03:30am it started. Hundreds of identical jeeps rattled past us, plowing through the sea of ​​sand, and scrambling up the hill in a long line. The goal was the viewpoint on Mount Penanjakan at a height of 2,770m, which we wanted to avoid.

We took it easy. After breakfast we strolled through the village and looked in the souvenir shops, which offered all the same. Warm hats, scarves, T-shirts and sweaters decorated with the image of Mount Bromo. Nothing, that had any memory value, only junk. We returned empty-handed to the truck, packed our gear, and set off. The extra pounds on our backs were clearly noticeable during the hike. At the top we set up the tent and made ourselves comfortable for the night. At a later hour I was glad of the extra jackets in my luggage, that Leander had insisted on, and which I had thought exaggerated. It was cold and we were shaking all over. With hot soup and steaming tea, we warmed up ourselves from inside, before we crawled into the tent at dusk.

Just in time for sunrise, the alarm clock rang. Tired, we peeled our stiff limbs out of the sleeping bags, opened the tent and could barely keep our mouths. Slowly, the first rays of the sun came off the horizon, turning Mount Bromo and the majestic volcano Mount Semeru behind, into an orange and purple play of colors. Lennox and I sat in the tent's entrance for several minutes, just looking down and watching the surreal image before our eyes. Leander, who of course had been up long before us, rubbed his icy hands together and looked satisfied. His work was done.

Pumped full of happiness hormones, we packed up and started our descent. Not only down from the volcano, also down into the village at sea level, where the tropical temperatures welcomed us again with open arms.

It was a detour, but the Tumpak Sewu Waterfall should be worth it. A local noticed the desperation in our eyes to find no reasonable place to sleep for the night. Spontaneously, he invited us to park in the backyard of his house.
The family was of course curious, which was completely ok. We gladly answered their questions, devoured many delicacies, that Maxda the hostess prepared for us and got to know the entire family over the next few days. Which was quite exhausting in the long run. However, it was a pleasure to fulfill Maxda's heart's desire.

She was a passionate hobby make-up artist and really wanted to lend hand on me. Which woman could escape this opportunity? More than two hours, she painted, brushed and dabbed in my face. When finished, she held the mirror expectantly in front of my face. I was speechless! Lennox was scared, when he saw me, and Leander made clear to me, that I should stay away from the truck, because I looked awful. It was super mean, because she had done her best and was proud of her work, but said amongst us, I would have won the first place at every Halloween party. But make yourself a picture.

The next day we made an off-road trip to a temple with the whole family high in the mountains, cooked together with local food from the garden and walked to a small waterfall.
All in one a very nice experience, but to be honest, the close coexistence with the family in their forecourt became exhausting after several days. It was time to say goodbuy.

We stood in the parking lot of Tumpak Sewu Waterfall, which is one of the most beautiful and with 120m at the same time the highest in Indonesia. Despite the great pictures we discovered on the internet, Lennox and I could not get up for a visit. We were tired and exhausted from the last nights, because we could barely close an eye. There were exactly two reasons for this and I do not know which of the two was worse. First, the prayers of the muezzins, who were thundering loudly from the loudspeakers, mostly at night and secondly roosters, that began to bounce long before dawn and did not stop. That`s Indonesia! Thankfully we did not realize at this time, that these two phenomena would accompany us throughout Indonesia.

The largest island nation in the world is in many ways "different" and offers special features, that can not be found anywhere else. The unpredictable volcano Mount Ijen is undoubtedly one of them. Not only that, the crater lake is called the largest acid barrel of the earth. At night, when the sulfur gases escape and combine with the oxygen, deep blue sulfur flames emerge, that are unique in the world. Up there, at a height of 2,977m, many men work every day, trying to earn a living for themselves and their families with sulfur removal. Unrivaled, Mount Ijen is one of the most dangerous working places in the world. The price the men pay for it is high!

The way up there was a constant ups and downs in the area, peppered with sharp, confusing curves and road users, who had never seen a driving school from the inside. A progress was only possible slowly. The road to Mount Ijen was no exception, on the contrary. Some passages were scary steep, with serpentines, where Leander had to reverse several times to get through. In the midst of the drudgery some rangers drove by and stopped us to warn. They told us, that the street would be too steep for the truck. Leander smiled and kept on driving. Impressed by our colossus, they closed the traffic on the last key points for us, and said only good buy, when we reached the parking lot of the camp safely. That too is Indonesia! Friendly and helpful people wherever you look.
There were pleasantly cool temperatures on the plateau. We threw on a jacket and explored the surroundings. There were a few typical Indonesian food stalls, so-called Warungs and the sulfur weigh station was not to be overlooked. A derelict wooden hut in front of which a medieval scale was built, around which yellow sulfur mountains piled up. Every minute, emaciated workers rolled up the yellow gold in disc cases and unloaded it in front of the weighing pan. Their faces were masked in cloths, and they wore completely worn out trousers and jackets. Exhausted, they sank to the floor and rolled a cigarette of clove tobacco as they waited for their pay.
Despite the hardships of their hard fate, which we could only guess so far, they smiled at us and asked us to come closer. Throughout the year tourists from all over the mountain cavort on the mountain, but very few make a detour to the workers. They willingly answered our curious questions and told us about their everyday lives.

The hard day starts in the middle of the night. With empty wooden carts, the men embark on the nearly three-kilometer-long and steep climb. At the edge of the crater, they swap the wooden carts for two carrying baskets, which are connected by a bamboo pole, and then descend several hundred meters into the dangerous crater throat, where the hardened sulfur is mined with great difficulty and with the simplest tools.
Down there, the working conditions are extreme! Unexpected explosions release constantly highly toxic sulfur gases. Everywhere it hisses and thunders. The stink is pathetic. As long as the smell reminds of rotten eggs, the air can still be inhaled, but not without disgust. When the wind turns and the oxygen turns into a poisonous swirl of fog, it becomes life-threatening. The biting and corrosive gases prevent breathing and turn the crater into a whiteout. At such moments, the workers are holding their breath or wrapping wet rags around their nose and mouth, which of course is just superficial protection.
Gas masks are not provided and are too expensive for them. It does not prevent the harmful gases from flowing into the lungs and causing disastrous health damage over the years. Every day it happens, that the men faint and sink to the ground. But they have no choice but to regain their strength and continue to toil, because their families have to eat. Food is completely omitted, the men take only water with them on the mountain, because each gram means extra weight. A miner packs around 80kg of sulfur into his baskets, about twice his own body weight, and tows them up the almost vertical crater wall, where the sulfur is transferred to the wooden carts. Some of them even manage up to 120kg. Then it goes to the steep and bumpy descent, back to the base camp. Up to three times a day they climb up and come down fully loaded, because they are paid per kilo.
Every man works alone and is responsible for himself. Employment contracts or medical care do not exist. Per day, several tonnes are mined by hand under degrading working conditions, and transported to the city of Surabaya, where the yellow gold is processed into matches, car batteries, bleach and washing powder.
Although the hard work does not make the workers rich, it is a well-paid job. For a kilo of sulfur, it is about 6-10 cents, depending on the quality of the sulfur. Despite the hard work, the pain and the high risk of disease, mine work is very popular, because there is more monea left at the end of the month, than a normal Indonesian average income.

One of the workers took off his shirt and showed us his thick, scarred back pains from baskets. We were upset and speechless.
Deep in thought, we said goodbye to the men and walked to the Rangers Station to buy tomorrow's tickets and asked them about the weather condition for tomorrow, to climb up Mt Ijen.

The volcano is idiosyncratic and its eruptions can not always be calculated. An unexpected eruption one month ago, caused 30 people with severe gas poisoning, who had to be admitted to the surrounding hospitals. The weather forecast for tomorrow morning looked good. Due to security reasons it was only permitted to start climbing at 05:00am. Which meant, that we would not see the blue flames because they can only be admired in absolute darkness.

Leander and I were already awake before the wake-up signal started. We were excited and nervous and had no idea what to expect. We planed the hike without gas masks, which could be borrowed for a fee. However, we had some towels with us, which we could wind in case of difficulty breathing around the face and nose. It was already busy at the entrance gate, it was not to be overlooked, that many tourists dared to climb only with local leaders.

Since there was not much time left until sunrise we decided, that Leander was ahead, Lennox and I were the rear guard. The path to the volcano was very steep and the surrounding scree did not make it any easier. Equipped with a headlamp, the little boy trudged step by step next to me up the mountain, in addition to the motivating announcements of other mountaineers who met us on the way. With increasing altitude, the smell of rotten eggs spread, the typical smell of sulfur, that everyone knows. However, we did not think it was that bad, that we had to wrap towels around the face. Some summiteers in their hysteria already put on a gas mask over the first few meters. We could barely recognize their faces, but I typed in Chinese ;-). After an hour we reached the crater rim. With our walkie talkies we made contact with Leander and made a meeting place.

He was already informed about the current situation and clarified the facts. We had already noticed, that it was a cloudy morning and the sun was hard to scorch. The descent into the crater, where the miners toiled, was also closed for tourists, as gas levels were measured too high. We first looked for a sheltered place and had breakfast, before we ventured to the crater rim, despite violent gusts of wind to get a look at the acid lake.

The low-hanging clouds allowed it rarely, but now and then opened a hole and opened a small window. Thick, yellow clouds of fog pushed close together over the turquoise waters of the crater lake, transforming the scene into a mystical and unnatural atmosphere for seconds. It was fascinating! Years ago I had seen a television documentary about Mount Ijen, and the pictures were still in my mind. Even in my wildest dreams I would never have thought, that years later I would be in this place by myself.

Leander stepped nervously on the spot and told me finally, that he wanted to descend together with a Russian guy he met, despite the barrier in the crater. I was not very happy about his plan, because the Rangers did not block the entry into the crater just for fun. However, by now I knew him well enough to know, that he did not want to make such decisions lightly. He wanted to get an idea by himself, how hard the working conditions on the crater were. While he disappeared with the Russian into the crater, Lennox and I searched for a place where we waited for him. Minutes became hours. Again and again miners trudged past us with heavily loaded baskets. There were no breaks, because time was money! Although the men winked at us, I felt like I was in their way. We were all in their way! Hundreds of tourists ran around the volcano, cheering and screaming, taking selfies with the miners on a square, where many of their colleagues had already lost their lives. I understood Leander! His showed decency to them. He wanted to make at least a small contribution.

Finally I saw him coming through the mist. On his back his 10kg heavy photo backpack, and on the shoulders a 40kg basket of sulfur rock. Covered with sweat, he released the load and took a deep breath. Only choppy he could tell what he had seen. Impossible to imagine how these men survived the descent to hell several times a day.
On our way back it was already daylight. Down the hill we overtook workers, who sled down their fully loaded wheelbarrows. The legs were firmly pressed into the ground with each step, so that the heavy load did not go through with them. We also met men, who were climbing the mountain for the second time. Many of them improved their wages by taking tourists, who were too cumbersome to climb. An absolute no go. I would be ashamed!
We stayed one more night before we left the Sulfur Mountain with mixed feelings. It's hard to understand what`s going on there.
For me, Mount Ijen has a split soul. He is one of the most extraordinary, breathtaking and bizarre places I have ever seen and at the same time he was the unpredictable gateway to hell.

We moved on to the east coast of Java, to the city of Banyuwangi. It`s harbor was the entrance ticket to the holiday paradise Bali. The traffic in the city was enormous, and the road signs a bit weird, even the nav went crazy. We crossed the same point again and again.
We studied annoyed the road map, when suddenly a young man came to the cab and asked: "Can I help you?" Thankfully we accepted the offer. Before he wanted to show us the way to the port, Fendi accompanied us on foot to the local market, where we increased our food. In the meantime we parked Akela on a busy parking lot.

We were amazed when we found the truck in a crowd when we came back. Out of the crowd stepped a man towards us and introduced himself.
He was a journalist from the largest Indonesian online magazine called Detik and asked for an interview. Of course we felt flattered and agreed. The fact, that we were completely sweaty and had seen no shower for days did not bother the scribbler. Since his English was not necessarily suitable for communication, Fendi offered to translate. So it happened, that we gave our second interview in the middle of the city square, surrounded by loud traffic. If you can speak Indonesian, you can have a look on the interview here:
It had become too late for the ferry to Bali. The interview had taken longer than expected, and now it had already begun to dawn. We needed a place to sleep. Fendi told us about a nice place on the beach, where we could camp for the night and offered to take us there. Sounds good. He drove ahead with the scooter and we followed him. However, he seemed to have forgotten, that he was followed by a 10 tonner with almost four meters in height.

He steered us through densely populated residential, with narrow roads and low hanging electricity cables. The path was barely wider than our truck. Cursing, Leander maneuvered the lorry through the houses and had to be careful not to run over the residents of the houses, who stood there watching us with wide opened eyes. It was my job to climb on our roof again and again to lift the low-hanging power lines with a stick, so that Leander could drive through. A task, I did very reluctantly, because I was scared.
In the mean time it had become pitch black and the challenge to get to the beach did not seem to end. Big stones on the road, too tight curves, stalls, everything was in the way. We were all annoyed and because that was not enough, we also tore off a power line. In short time we were surrounded by a loudly scolding crowd. Understandable that they were angry, because they sat in the dark.

Fendi realized too late, that we were too big for his chosen road to the beach. The situation was visibly uncomfortable. He reassured the angry people and promised to take care of the damage as soon as possible. He apologized on a minute-by-minute basis, but we could not really be angry with him, after all, he meant it well.
Finally, after a felt eternity, we reached the beach. It took no great human knowledge to notice, that we only wanted our peace after this exciting day.

The next morning we were awakened by hundreds of flies that had made themselves comfortable in the truck. There is really nothing more unpleasant, than those annoying insects that tirelessly try to settle on your body just to annoy you. The view from the window promised no highlight. We had a quick breakfast and made our way from out.

We found an easier way back and drove straight to the harbor, and took the next ferry to Bali.

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