The Devil’s gold

by Luca Catalano Gonzaga

Looming 2,799 m (9,183 ft.) above sea level, Gunung Ijen in Indonesia’s eastern Java is a volcanic wonder that attract hundreds of foreign and domestic tourists daily. During daytime, they climb the mountaintop to reach Kawah Ijen, the volcano’s crater lake famous for its mesmerizing turquoise hue. When darkness descends, hikers clamor to witness the glowing blue liquid fire that streams from the crater down the mountainsides. It isn’t lava, but the sulfur for which Kawah Ijen is renowned. Inside the womb of the Ijen Kawah volcano, the miners go deep in search of the Devil’s gold, as sulfur has always been known. Every day, three hundred men leave the base camp at the slopes of the mountain to reach the top of the volcano. They climb up three kilometres and then head downwards until the opening of the crater where the sulfur crystals lie. Nine hundred meters deep towards hell, defying the unbearable heat, rarefied air and the darkness, without any protection. The sulfurous gas hits the throat, burns the lungs, makes tears spring from the eyes. Only a few men have been given old gas masks as part of the scarce working gear: many prefer to work at night because the heat is more tolerable, putting a wet cloth in the mouth, in the vain hope of protecting themselves from the fumes and breathing better. Sulfur mining at Kawah Ijen is certainly a hellish job. Not much has changed since mining officially began here in 1968. Aware of the risks they face daily, the miners don’t want their children to follow in their footsteps. They want to throw off the shackles of a destiny, for this reason, they push their kids to go to school and have an education. Once the miners collect their sulfur, they haul the fully loaded baskets, weighing between 70 kg (150 lb.) and 90 kg (200 lb.), out from the crater, climbing 60-degree slopes, and then down to the base camp. They get 10,000 rupiah (78¢) for 10 kg (22 lb.) of sulfur. Such physically demanding and hazardous work means miners’ average life expectancy barely reaches 50 years. More than 70 people have died in work-related accidents at Kawah Ijen in the past four decades, many due to the toxic fumes that billow suddenly from the rock’s fissures.

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A selection of photos from the archive of Luca Catalano Gonzaga is available as collector’s prints. The goal of print selling is to contribute to the realization of the photographic projects of Witness Image that narrate the great transformations of our time.

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