Fire and Brimstone

A long-outdated approach to sulfur mining sends hundreds of Javanese workers deep into the crater of an active volcano

The sulfuric lake of Kawah Ijen Mountain's cauldron, Indonesia
The sulfuric lake of Kawah Ijen Mountain's cauldron, Indonesia Wikimedia Commons

Even a Dante or a Milton would be struck dumb: inside the crater of the Kawah Ijen volcano lies a landscape bereft of life. A turquoise lake of sulfuric acid bubbles like a sorcerer's cauldron, and the earth belches great plumes of acrid smoke. Here on the eastern end of Indonesia's island of Java, men venture daily into this 7,500-foot volcano's maw in search not of fire but of brimstone, the ancients' term for sulfur.

"The fumes are the worst," says Hong Kong-based photographer Justin Guariglia, who captured this hell on film. The rank odor of sulfurous vapors hints at something primal and forbidden. On one occasion, a surge of steam and sulfur dioxide enveloped Guariglia and nearby workers in a matter of seconds. "Everyone started choking," he recalls, "and there was nowhere to go and nothing to do but clamp a handkerchief to your face and hope for the best." After what seemed an eternity but was actually only a few minutes, the steam dissipated.

Although a late-19th-century process made harvesting sulfur from volcanoes obsolete in most of the world, the Indonesians still run a primitive mining operation here. They employ a technique that uses ceramic pipes to condense the volcanic gas into an amber liquid that dries to form large stalagmites of pure, yellow sulfur. Dozens of miners hack them into pieces with long metal rods, load them into wicker baskets and begin the precipitous ascent out of the crater. The men will make two round-trips every day from the shores of the acid lake to the unloading station and back.

Although the sulfur dioxide fumes corroded the anodized finish on Guariglia's camera equipment, many of the men have labored here for more than a decade without showing signs of serious illness. And the money—less than $2 a day—is far better than most jobs on this poor and overpopulated island. One day, however, these men may climb Kawah Ijen to discover not brimstone but fire, when this still-active volcano decides to erupt.

by John F. Ross

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