As close to an entrance to Hell as most visitors will ever see, the Ijen Crater is a sulfuric lake spewing toxic fumes in Banyuwangi, Java.
The site itself is unerringly otherworldy but no less magnificent to behold. Giant fissures at the foot of the crater bilge forth great tendrils of foul-smelling gas while glowing blue fire punctures the miasma.
Visitors are not to blame should they feel strangely discombobulated; a descent into the crater is not for the faint-hearted. The murk from the bilging smoke leaves a milky pall as ghostly figures form and dissipate in the blink of an eye. Faulty, aged gas masks make breathing a chore and offer no resistance should the wind bring with it a cloud of putrid fumes.
It’s a claustrophobic, cloying atmosphere made all the more surreal by the efforts of the sulfur miners. Their job, twice daily, is to excavate the cooled material and carry up to 90kg to the crater’s rim via precipitous, barely-there paths.
Their labour brings into sharp relief the effects of this extraordinary toil.
‘My back’s fucked, my knees are fucked, my shoulders are fucked,’ one man sighs resignedly, trudging off into the fowl, swirling fog. His colleague moans in pain as a makeshift basket weighs heavily on his shoulders.
The rising sun bathes the crater in an ethereal glow, but by then, the illusion falls apart.
Kawah Ijen has become no more than some hellish toad, spewing forth its wretched bile and contaminating the surrounding landscape. All of a sudden, the rumours of paranormal activity seem much more plausible. Of particular note is the tale of the distant laugh from an unknown source as the miners carry out their Sisyphean task day after day, year after year, lifetime after lifetime.
(Editor’s note: You could always look at something prettier, you know.)