Climbing with the Fire-Diggers

Hot fumes rammed in through my lungs. My cheeks burned. Have I caught fire? The wind had suddenly changed its course bringing along earth’s fiery belches. We should have heeded the banner at the entrance, “Temporary Closure.” We were being swallowed; choking inside a dragon’s entrails. My eyes couldn’t open. Could I run away? But any mistake meant death; an extremely acidic lake waited below. I crouched, and feeling the rocks, crawled away from this onslaught. Finally, breath! Eyes open; we had reached the crater of Kawah Ijen.

“Hello!” it was Yama, the god of death, sitting on a rock, holding a scepter. But up-close, Yama was a small old man, with thin moustache and broken teeth, wearing oversized rubber boots. His crown was his headlight pointing skyward. Was he really Yama? “I am Papa Agus,” he clarified, “I work in the sulfur mines here. Don’t worry. This smoke is like free cigarette.” We were still alive.

Located in East Java, Indonesia, Kawah Ijen is an active volcano. We had arrived the day before at the Paltuding Base Camp, the starting point for the trek, after a back-breaking ten hour drive from Surabaya on potholed roads. The lodge there was a tiny enclosure with a questionably stained bed, a heavily cracked floor, and a phalanx of numb mosquitoes. When we asked about the toilets, the caretaker apologized, “Here only ‘natural’.” So it was, in freezing temperature, we would venture into the dark forest to find a place worthy of ‘natural’.

At 2AM, we began our trek to the 2,799 metre high peak with the aid of a tiny torchlight. The sulfurous winds greeted us soon. It smelled a million rotten eggs. We unleashed a volley of coughs. Were we catching asthma for life? Gassed, sleep-deprived, loaded with backpacks; we climbed in wide staggered steps, heavily leaning. From the peak, we went down 800 metres to the crater along a steep and narrow half-trail. To avoid skidding and cracking our skulls, we slid down our bums slowly over the rocks. Bruises decorated our palms.

At the crater, the earth was burning in three giant blue ovens; shifting shapes, imitating supernova; evil fairies that danced every night. The smoke hurled out of these arched over us into a buzzing tsunami. We were peeking into hell’s guts. Ceramic pipes dug into these wombs were drooling molten sulfur. Miners worked at the flames’ edges, breaking the cooled yellow newborn with rods.

At sunrise, the blue fire disappeared. The lake shed its grey blanket; a turquoise soup in a bowl of scraggy cliffs with tortured skin. The lake is known to burp out fatal gases. Its calmness was eerie. Only yearning dead spirits could survive underneath.

Papa Agus joined us on our way back. He was carrying the sulfur cakes in two baskets hanging from a beam over his shoulders. He was moaning in exhaustion, “Ahhhh…. cough…spit..” The climb up to the peak squeezed out every drop of his strength. He moved in slow, zombie steps I tried to help. But I couldn’t lift the baskets even one inch. He grinned, “Its ninety kg.”

The volcano’s angry blows came again and again. Each time, we crawled away, blinded. My insides burned. My mouth frothed. But with his load, Papa Agus had nowhere to hide. He just kept his head down like a withering tree. The miners always ignored closure warnings. The whole mountain was a chain of moans, coughs and spits.

Papa Agus rested every five minutes. “See my skin, touch it,” he pulled down his shirt. There were two dark patches on his shoulders where the beam rested. It was a dead snake, rough and flaky. “I have been doing this for forty years.”

On the way down, he became a whistling gazelle, moving in springy steps, almost dancing. We struggled to keep pace. “Faster,” he laughed, “I am seventy-two, not you .” Dead tree stumps were scattered everywhere; bent, seemingly too late while running away from a catastrophe.

At the base camp, the miners were weighing their loads. They could do at most two trips a day, making ten dollars. “Life is not too bad,” said Papa Agus, “My wife's cooking tastes good.” Miners were now relaxing. Some were making small carvings out of sulfur: turtle, rabbit, Hello Kitty.

“When will you retire, Papa?” we ask as we say goodbye. He laughs, “Till I die, I will have to dig fire.”

S Das

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