A Volcano erupts in an urban area. Sidoarjo, Indonesia

40,000 people lived and worked happily in 14 villages on the edge of Sidoarjo in Java, Indonesia. Surrounded by rice paddies and close to the sea it was a fairly quiet place away from the major city nearby of Surabaya. Until May 2006, when PT Lapindo, a major oil and gas explorer (who included Santos, a large Australian company, as a shareholder) got permission to perform an exploratory drill nearby.

What happened next is disputed. PT Lapindo say an earthquake ruptured the drill hole, others blame the oil company for poor safety precautions. I personally would question the wisdom of drilling on an island with many of the worlds most active volcanoes on it. The end result was a massive explosion and a volcanic eruption of gasses, oil and mud. Lots of mud, boiling hot, sitting just under the water table, and spewing uncontrollably from the well.

Almost like a modern day Pompeii people ran from their houses as the boiling mud started to flow through the streets of villages nearby. Only 14 people died as mass evacuations emptied the villages in the path of the mud, and leevees were built to contain it. These were rapidly increased in size as the mud kept flowing, until they became dam walls. Everything inside the vast area was submerged. The photo above shows the submerged remains of a clothing factory, with only the upper most part of the roof still visible.

Today the boiling mud still erupts, approximately 10,000 M3 a day, despite efforts to cap it, such as dropping concrete balls into the well. A new problem is occurring, as the mud empties from the ground a vacuum is being created. Already there are indications of a caldera forming and a massive collapse of the ground for kilometres around is a real possibility, and would result in a new disaster.

Compensation to locals, although slow, was generous for once. My motorcycle driver was given 250 million Rupiah for his 150 million Rupiah home, but still many people are left without jobs and whole communities have been destroyed. Tourism, mainly locals, has been the only growth area as the motorcycle drivers charge 50,000 Rupiah to tour the vast site. It is a sad and eery place, the smell of methane and sulphur make it unpleasant to hang around too long, but the sheer scale of destruction makes Sidoarjo an unforgettable place to visit.

Far Flung Travel Tips: 

* Get to the mud volcano in Sidoarjo from Surabaya by travelling on an Ojek (motorcycle with rider). An English speaking driver, Aan (031 708 56797), will take you there and back for approx. 250,000 Rupiah.