Published: July 10th 2007July 10th 2007
“In the heart of a smoking mountain”
Indonesia - the largest archipelago in the world....and an undiscovered ￼treasure trove of adventure, mystery and natural beauty. Being an Indian, i am a seeker of these things in my travel...it is not so much the sights as the stories associated to each place that grab my attention and imagination. A chance, unplanned trip to Berastagi, also known as Brastagi turned out to be just the place that fueled it.
Berastagi is a cozy hill station just two hours from Medan - the commercial capital of North Sumatera, Indonesia. It is a step sister of sorts to the much hyped tourist destination of Danau Toba, more popularly known as Lake Toba.
Berastagi was meant to be a one night stop over on my way to Lake Toba. I never made it to the Lake. I am not sure if it was just the sheer difference in climate, culture and landscape from Aceh that held me captive or the fact that Berastagi is one of the most charming and unique little places i have been to. Having spent two years in a place just a few hundred kilometers away, i felt
regret at not having explored this area earlier.
It can be best described as a " hill resort" built around two active volcanoes, although it is a township that probably came into existence to make use of the fertile land surrounding the volcanoes. The resort like qualities are not in the high-end spa hotels but the quaint adventures and picturesque natural beauty it has to offer.
The lack of spa hotels is compensated by some beautifully maintained, clean, spacious three star hotels on the way to the town and in the center of the town as well. These hotels offer moderately priced rooms with great views of the smoking volcanoes or the pool side. It passed our acid test by the hours during which hot water was flowing through the taps.
Again, i don't know whether it was coming from the tropics that made this so important or that the place was cold enough to require hot water showers. In any case, a nice long hot shower is always a great way to begin and end a day and the hotel folks seemed to agree... they made hot water available for four hours in the morning and evening.
Our exploration of the township began at the main market, which had the sights and smells of a festive, tourist hot spot. Among the things on offer were horse and pony rides around the countryside or a buggy ride around town, the street market had an eclectic selection of items from souvenirs, to vegetables, fruits and plant nurseries to a pets section selling the cutest choice of hamsters, white mice, puppies and rabbits. We spent more hours playing at this part of the market then picking up souvenirs. Boiled or roasted corn on the cob seemed to be the main item on the menu at the food stalls. It made a nice healthy snack before we stuffed ourselves with some "padang" style food at one of the local restaurants.
After a hearty meal and a conversation with the corn seller, we found out that the key attraction in Berastagi was not, in fact, the main market (!), but two active volcanoes - Gunung Sibayak and Gunung Sinabuk. While Gunung Sibayak at 2100 meters is smaller and much more accessible to walk up, Gunung Sinabuk is a serious trek up to the crater at 2400 meters above sea level.
The prospect of seeing a live volcano was a strong enough incentive to forego our planned journey to Lake Toba. We decided to trek instead! This required some preparation as i had not planned on a holiday where i would be doing anything other than sit by a lake and drink. I had to buy trekking shoes and we soon found out that there was more to the main market than met the eye. In the heart of the town was a market for the local people. Similar in lay out to the market for tourists, it too had vegetable and clothes stalls interspersed. The prices, however, were not tourist prices and therefore a steal. Beautiful batik material, children and adult clothing and shoes straight from China were available at bargain prices and would make for great gifts to bring back for family. It would seem a sin, however, to spend too much time wandering around a market when there was so much to see and so many stories to be heard from the surrounding mountains.
The next morning began with much excitement at the prospect of seeing a live volcano. No amount of TV views of a
volcano on Discovery and Nat Geo could have prepared us for what we were to see. There were two options to the trek. Option A being walking from the base of the mountain through a winding paved road along with the cars, scooters and trekkers that were on their way. Option B was to drive up to the point where a landslide had blocked the road and left one no choice but to walk the rest of the way. Of course, we chose the relatively easier Option B, although the steep incline began after landslide point leaving us puffing and panting at the resting spot before the real hike began.
The resting spot as i have decided to call it is a place for overnight campers to put up their tents as well as a meeting place for all who had seen it and those who were on their way...a place for exchange of stories and legends of lost trekkers, volcanoes, sumatran tigers, insurmountable mountains. After catching up with the newest stories, our breaths and a hot cup of black coffee, we were on our way. The first couple of kilometers are along a narrow, winding, not so wild, paved path, albeit through a dense tropical forest. The foliage here is thick fern, shrubs and bushes in various hues of the palette. As we moved further, the path gave into dilapidated stairs that got steeper as we trudged along.
The high points of the climb are literally the high points where the foliage clears and one can shout to the mountains and they echo back or take a moment to admire the horizon. As the destination got closer, there were more options on the paths that led to the crater...some tried and tested, most waiting to be discovered. We chose the one along a narrow stream and over a mountain of sulphuric rock formations. The smell of rotten eggs i.e, sulphur grew stronger as we got closer to our destination.
There was a hissing sound of a boiling kettle which grew progressively louder. We found out that it was the mountain hissing and spewing out steam from its bosom. The sight - of a giant natural cauldron - left us gaping at its sheer force and magnitude. Just watching it was not enough, few of us got close and stuck our hand into the crevice only to have our hands scalded. A good exposure to the power of nature!
That, we were soon to realize, was only the welcome at the entrance of the crater - the inner chamber. Although Gunung Sibayak was one of the smaller craters compared to others around the world, it was nevertheless magnificent. It was nature in its most active, volatile form with steam blowing fissures, a bubbling lake of warm rain water and giant sulphur and lava rocks. Sitting on one of those rocks, it evoked both fear and awe.
The trek to Gunung Sibayak left everyone spell bound and craving for another look and a few more hours. It was only natural to feel overly confident after the successful climb that all those years of smoking and a depreciatory lifestyle had not in fact affected our stamina and fitness. We felt excited at the prospect of climbing Sinabuk the next day.
And then the myths began to emerge. We met one of our local friends later that evening, as we were ambling along the main market. During the course of our chat, we mentioned our plan to “conquer” Sinabuk the next day. Our friend’s expression very quickly changed to a frown as he started to narrate an incident that happened less than two months ago. A foreign journalist, considering himself an expert trekker equipped with a GPS and all other gadgets needed to scale heights, decided to “conquer” sinabuk as well. The local people warned him to take a guide along. They warned him against offending the God of the mountains by trespassing without permission. The local guides offered regular prayers atop the volcanos to appease the Gods and were respectful of the norms when guiding tourists. As any man of reason, the journalist dismissed these tales as a money-making ploy and went on his way armed with all his modern day tools.
The man was lost in the mountains for three months before he was tracked by the local emergency response team.
Our friend explained how the mountains were the guardians of the community and we must not offend it as it has the power to destroy. Every year the entire township conducts elaborate rituals to ensure that the mountains continue to protect and provide for the community and outsiders without respect for local traditions break these norms and suffer the consequences. He ended by saying that it was not an easy feat to scale Sinabuk and a guide was necessary if we were to trek.
The tale left us doubtful of our capacity to make a three hours climb one way and back in one day. We made a “practical” choice of foregoing the second volcano although in our hearts, one felt very thankful to be allowed a few hours in the heart of a smoking mountain.