© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

The muddy disaster: Sidoarjo mudflow in East Java

3 minutes to read

An unlikely tourist attraction, in fact, a site of natural disaster, Sidoarjo mudflow in East Java is nevertheless spectacular enough to warrant a visit. The people of Indonesia are well known for their chill attitude to life and even death. This mud volcano may have swallowed 15 villages whole, destroyed a few factories, and caused giant traffic jams on the nearby highway for years, but it would not stop holiday-makers from coming over to take careless selfies in front of the main geyser. This has, in turn, created a demand for minimal infrastructure. Right now it is limited to a coffee shack and a small army of half-drowned statues, officially a memorial to the mudflow victims, effectively a background for "instagrammable" tourist snaps. The place has also received a cute nickname, "Lusi" - short for "lumpur ("mud" in Indonesian) Sidoarjo". This one is not in the sky though (and definitely no diamonds). 

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Why visit?

Aside from the fact that it is an easy half-day trip from Surabaya, Lusi is a good place to witness the might of a mud volcano - which usually get underestimated in comparison to their fiery siblings. There is the main geyser, quite spectacular when it blows a really big bubble and a tremendous field of caked mud around it. This looks apocalyptic enough in itself; roofs of submerged houses and minarets of lost mosques sticking out of the ground complete the spooky impression. To fully evaluate the score of this calamity, one would have to view it from the air - the entire area is flat as a tabletop, lacking perspective. Still, at the right angle, with mountains as a backdrop, this desolate landscape could even be considered beautiful. It is definitely photogenic, at the very least. If you go, any bus between Surabaya and Sidoarjo will drop you off at the site. Local motorbike taxis cruise around the mudflow looking for tourists - take one of these, or walk.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Sudden catastrophe

The eruption of mud at a mining site near Sidoarjo started suddenly on 28 May 2006. Lapindo mining company was drilling a deep stratum for natural gas when major loss of drilling mud was reported, indicating a large cavity. After the withdrawal of the bore, hot water began to come out of the well, but this was quickly suppressed with more mud pumped into the shaft. However, shortly after that, new fissures opened up in the vicinity of the well, and 200 meters' tall fountains of muddy water forced the company to terminate all operations. Attempts to plug the vent with concrete balls had no effect whatsoever; incoming mud rapidly flooded the area, consuming one village after another. The people were evacuated, but housing, fields and factories were lost to the flow. In 2007 and 2008 up to 180,000 sq. m of mud was coming out daily. Over the years, the eruption has slowed down somewhat, but it is still ongoing.

© Mark Levitin
© Mark Levitin

Natural or manmade?

On 27 May 2006, one day before the disaster, a 6.3 Richter scale earthquake shook East Java. Defenders of Lapindo company advocate that the quake must take the blame for the muddy calamity. Another hypothesis presumes an even simpler natural cause: that pressure build-up in the gas-enriched stratum had resulted in a typical mud volcano eruption, which merely by accident occurred during a mining operation. But the most common belief is that the disaster was caused by human error. Specifically, the lower parts of the drilling well were not reinforced; many specialists assume that the initial outflow, instantly stalled, must have concentrated the pressure there, fracturing the unprotected walls and creating new outlets for a large underground reservoir of pressurized water. Various scientists have studied the case, but no final conclusion has been made so far. Either way, Sidoarjo mudflow has been currently contained within a rectangle of earthen levees but shows no signs of stopping. Instead, the desolate landscape and the semi-submerged ruins, quite photogenic in a spooky, post-apocalyptic way, are becoming a tourist attraction.

Sidoarjo mudflow, East Java
Sidoarjo mudflow, East Java
Sidoarjo Mud Vulcano, Lumpur Lapindo, Renokenongo, Kec. Porong, Kabupaten Sidoarjo, Jawa Timur 61274, Indonesia

The author

Mark Levitin

Mark Levitin

I am Mark, a professional travel photographer, a digital nomad. For the last four years, I am based in Indonesia, spending here roughly half a year and travelling around Asia for the other half. Previously, I spent four years in Thailand, exploring it from all perspectives.

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