Indonesia – people and volcanoes

By September 15, 2016 No Comments

Indonesia has 130 active volcanoes and we’ve visited three of the most important ones, we’ve climbed them and we got to know the people who live around them. Also, we tried to understand the impact of tourism on the local communities and on the environment near the volcanoes.

Mount Rinjani 

We started on Lombok Island, where there is a volcano on Mount Rinjani. In spite of its proximity with Bali, Lombok is not yet fully transformed by tourism. People following a traditional lifestyle are almost everywhere on the island. We lived for a few days in the house of the Bunut Baok village chief, a small village in the centre of the island. We were very impressed by the village chief’s involvement in the issues of the region. He explained that there are three main challenges there: crime (such as stealing cows), corruption, and the emigration of young people to more developed regions. He is trying to help young people by providing land and livestock for basic farm production with money from local taxes, his wife is giving lessons on jewellery making to local women, and there’s already 14 people patrolling the area making sure there’s no theft.  The land is very fertile in the area, so our host is also trying to implement agro-tourism. The teachers from the village told us the land is so rich, only lazy people would starve. However, communities help each other to prevent poverty. It was so inspiring for us to see the chief of the village and his family trying their best to help their community.


Life in the village

After a few days in the village it was time for us to go for the volcano! It was a three days trekking up Rinjani Mountain, the volcano of Lombok. It was mandatory to do the trekking with a guide and with porters. We tried to go only with a guide, and carry our own stuff, but it wasn’t possible. In the end, we hired porters, and we were very happy we did so: not only because we got to have close contact with them, but also because it was a much more difficult climb than we expected.

Mount Rinjani is 3728 meters high, and the trekking is 27 hard kilometres of going up and down through though paths. But it was also amazingly beautiful!


Camping on Mount Rinjani


Estíbaliz and the view from the top

The porters are working 6 days per week, with an average of 40 kg on their shoulders and wearing flip-flops on their feet. They get around 90 €/month plus tips, which is less than what one person pays for one trip. And yet – it’s better money than they could make otherwise, and they need it to provide for their families. Besides carrying our things, the porters were also cooking delicious food, preparing the camp site, and keeping up the good mood with jokes and genuine smiles. We discovered it takes three years of training to become a porter, and they are starting when they are 15-18 years old. One of them said that in the first few months of training he was crying every day – from the very start, they carry 40 kg up that route.


One of the porters

On this trip we discovered something quite disturbing which followed us through the whole stay in Indonesia: garbage is a real issue which is not being addressed. Along the trails we were climbing there were lots of bottles and all kinds of non-biodegradable packaging. The porters and our group, we were cleaning after ourselves, but it seemed like we were among the very few to do this. Until not so long ago, Indonesians were using mostly biodegradable packaging for food and drinks, such as banana leaves and bamboo. So they were just throwing them away, with no harm done.  However, the markets and shops were filled all of a sudden with all these new foods and drinks that come in plastics and aluminium. People still have the habit of throwing away the garbage, not realising that now they are causing so much harm. They burn the garbage when it piles up, or they just wait for the rainy season to come and clean the land. But again – they don’t realise that all the mess ends up in the sea, accumulating on the shores, and ruining more than just the view: we went snorkelling on the coast of Lombok only to find a huge coral reef all dead. However, apart from all this, the view near the volcano was breathtaking.


Rinjani is a frequent cause of headaches for local flight companies – only one month after we left Indonesia several flights were cancelled in the Lombok area because of volcanic activity from Mount Rinjani

Mount Ijen

The next volcano was Mount Ijen, located in the East of Java. Ijen is famous for the sulfur mines, blue flames, and a crater with a bright turquoise acid lake. We stayed with locals in Banyuwangi, the closest town from the volcano. It was our hosts who advised us on how and when to go up Mount Ijen so we can see all there is to see. So instead of going with scooters during the day, on our own, through the jungle, we went with a guide, during the night. We started at midnight, so we would reach the top before sunrise and get to see the blue flames.


Climbing Mount Ijen in the night


The blue flames are a consequence of the escaping volcanic gases; they are channelled through a network of ceramic pipes resulting in condensation of molten sulfur

The sulfur pours slowly from the ends of the ceramic pipes and pools on the ground turning bright yellow as it cools. The miners break the cooled material in to large pieces and carry them in baskets. We saw miners taking the sulphur blocks even if it was night. They prefer to work in the night because the temperature is more bearable. They carry on their shoulders between 75 and 90 kg of sulfur blocks. First they carry their baskets for 300 meters up to the crater rim, climbing 45 to 60-degree steep slopes. After they get out of the crater, they carry their burdens for 3 km down the mountain for weighing. Most of them make this journey twice a day. A nearby sugar refinery pays the miners around 7 euro-cents per kg. It is still more money than the country average.


Sulfur miner, at work, very early in the morning


Some miners are trying to make some extra income by selling sulfur souvenirs to visitors

Just like the porters of Rianjani, the sulfur miners were saying that they are doing this hard work in order to provide for their families. Turns out education and health care are very expensive in Indonesia.

The Ijen volcano is not only providing sulfur and tourism, but it is also making the soil around fertile and the region is famous for the good quality of the coffee. Is here where “the most expensive coffee in the world” comes from, the luwak coffee, toasted after is being digested by the luwaks. Unfortunately, just as in Rinjani, the road to summit was also full of garbage or places or the garbage was burned.


The amazing turquoise acid lake, in a crater of Ijen volcano

Mount Bromo

Bromo is the most famous volcano of Indonesia and one of the most active volcanoes in the world. Its name is derived from the Javanese pronunciation of Brahma, the Hindu creator god. Bromo is part of the Tengger massif, in eastern Java. At 2329 m is not the highest peak of the massif but it is the most well-known. It sits in the middle of a plain called “Sea of Sand”, a plain covered by dust from the volcano.


Jacek on the Sea of Sand

In Java it felt like they were charging money for everything. We had to pay 20 € just for entering the Bromo Tengger Semeru National Park. And that’s where everybody was offering us rides, and excursions to every corner of the Park, to the Bromo crater, to the Hindu Temple, and so on. In the end we decided we will hike around on our own, and this time, it was possible – we made the whole trip to the volcano on foot. Everybody was so surprised to see us walking around like that.


Having lunch with a view

We found out from another traveller that just two days before we got there, the police was blocking the area around the volcano and didn’t let anybody climb to the crater because of high volcano activity. But when we arrived, the ban was lifted and we could climb up the volcano. We were extremely lucky! And not only because of the lifted ban, but also because we got a chance to see the Yadnya Kasada festival.


Locals gathering for the festival

Yadnya Kasada is a Hindu ritual, celebrated every year since the 15th century. The Tenggerese people of the Probolinggo tribe travel up the mountain to make offerings of fruit, rice, vegetables, flowers, money and animals to the mountain gods. They throw their offerings in the caldera of the volcano. During the ritual, some people risk climbing down into the crater in an attempt to recollect the offers. So actually, very few sacrifices reach the caldera of the volcano. We were so happy to be able to see so many local people gathered for an important festivity around the Bromo volcano!




Even though we’ve travelled around Java and Bali, we had the chance to discover a lesser known Indonesia, far away from the comforts that we’ve grown so used to in Europe. We got a glimpse into a life that is not sheltered by the comforts of the Western world and it felt curiously more like real life. We met incredibly friendly and hardworking people who are eager to discover our culture, and in return they shared knowledge of their own culture. It was a great learning experience, for both sides.


Estíbaliz and Jacek – September Team 2015


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