Climbing an active volcano (Berastagi, Sumatra, Indonesia)

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April 23rd 2009
Published: April 22nd 2009
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(Day 384 on the road)Indonesia is not only big - it is absolutely huge! Stretching over some 5.000 kilometres, it comprises of more than 17.500 islands. I completely underestimated the size of it and the time it would take to do this beautiful country any justice. I have been here a few weeks now and have seen only a tiny bit of northern Sumatra.

In the face of the huge distances that I need to cover to get from A to B, I have decided to scrap my no-flying rule for a while. Flying is really cheap here as well, which is great for my budget: For instance on the last longer stretch I covered the one hour flight was only seven Euros more expensive (20 Euros in total as opposed to 13 Euros for the boat) than the cockroach-infested 24 hour passage on board the PELNI ship I took and where my wallet was stolen. Well, I learn.

So, true to my new plan, I took a flight from Banda Aceh in the very north of Sumatra to Medan, about an hour flight south. Waiting to board the aircraft and witnessing a complete power failure in the airport got me thinking a bit about the safety of flying in Indonesia. I remember reading that ALL Indonesian airlines (yes, every single one of them, including the state-carrier Garuda) are on the black list of the European Union because of dubious or non-existent safety standards - but I have the feeling I shouldn't think too much about this for the time being. Interestingly, the result of this is that there are no direct flights between Europe and Indonesia at all - Indonesia has retaliated by blocking all European airlines from flying to Indonesia.

From Medan, I caught a local minibus to Berastagi. Berastagi is at the base of two active volcanoes, and is actually a very relaxed place with very friendly and open people, with a lot less hassle than other places in Indonesia. Nice! I enjoyed walking its streets and talking to the locals, and I especially enjoyed its diverse and colourful market, which made for some great pictures. I also tasted some strange tropical fruits which I had never seen before in my life - after nearly a year in Asia I thought I had seen most of them, but far from it!

Berastagi is locate in the Karo Highlands, and is noted for the Karo people living here, the indigenous people of the area. They are mostly Christians, which makes for quite a change of appearance (read: no head cover required for women) compared to conservative Muslim Aceh. Many of the older women still wear their traditional clothes and strangely looking hats.

But my main reason for coming here was to climb one of the two volcanoes that are located close to the city, namely Gunung Sibayak, at 2212 metres and within walking distance from the town one of Indonesia's most accessible volcanoes. In town, everybody told me that I will need a guide to climb the mountain, but that was not true at all. In fact, the climb turned out to be extremely easy, and I reached the summit after about two and a half hours just after ten o'clock in the morning. Having said that, there are no signposts at all, so finding the right path proved to be a little tricky in the beginning. I talked to the informative guy at the tourist information about this, and he told me that they had put up signposts many times in the past, but that they are always being removed by the self-appointed guides who are looking to secure their trade. Great.

Gunung Sibayak is still considered an active volcano and is constantly monitored for seismic activity. The last eruption occurred in 1881, but even today geothermal activity remains high. Near the crater of the volcano hot steam (I burned my hand as I got too close) is coming out of several vents with a loud hissing sound. The presence of sulfur makes for strong smells and has coloured the crater of the volcano yellow.

On my way down I stopped at one of the various hot springs in the area, which was a great way to end this pleasant climb. I then caught an overcrowded minibus back to town, first riding on top and later hanging on to the outside of the bus as the inside was full of farming produce. It was fun for the first five minutes, but after a while it became quite tiring holding on to the railings whilst standing on one foot. After a near head-on collision with an ambulance (which was overtaking another car in a tight corner - where else?) I was happy to reach town again.

Next stop: Lake Toba (Sumatra, Indonesia).

To view my photos, have a look at And to read the full account of my journey, have a look at the complete book about my trip at Amazon (and most other online book shops).


22nd April 2009

Flying Indonesia
Yup... the thought of flying on an indonesian airline makes me feel a little on the queasy side. Interesting fact - my grandfather died when on a commercial airline down in Antartica (type in "mt erubus crash" into wiki - you'll get to read all about it! Not that this should turn you off your change of plans re flying... :)
24th April 2009

great photos
I love the fish picture... I'm glad my parents aren't reading the bit about the airlines. I arrived finally in Bali after a delay on my connecting flight, late but safe.
28th April 2009

u r absolutely rite,indonesia is very huge!!,1 month is not enough to discover all island in indonesia so take few weeks or more n u will have a great journey on another beautiful island in Indo more than wht u've been experienced in Sumatra.about the airlines it self,dun worry Ben,u can flight save now,the News tht u read sometimes announce too over about the accident tht was happend caused by the non-existent safety standards of the aircraft,but indeed u must avoid some of airlines such as LION Air,W**GS Air,or BATAVIA Air which preety often got accident with their flight even only small accident such as crash landing or back wheel cant open,etc. but anyway the fact is tht flying to some destination in indonesia (java,some of sumatera n Bali) is more cheaper rathen than overland route,but for east indonesia flight could b little bit expensive rather than overland. so,enjoy indonesia and all the unique things inside :)
4th May 2009

Hallo aus Marl
Hallo Ben, ich bin gerade bei meinen Eltern in Marl, um Oma, Katze und Haus zu hüten. Wenn ich hier bin, nutze ich immer die Zeit, um im Internet zu surfen. Ich bin wirklich begeistert von Deinen Fotos. Super. Ich gehe davon aus, dass es Dir auch weiterhin gut geht. Ich plane in diesem Jahr auch mal wieder eine Reise Richtung Asien. Allerdings sind da mehr als 4 Wochen nicht drin. Es soll nach Thailand, Vietnam und Kambodscha gehen. Mal sehen, wo es am besten gefällt. Eventuell auch Laos, aber das wissen wir noch nicht genau. Ansonsten geht es mir gut. Habe gerade in der vorletzten Woche Post von Michael Lechelt aus Mainz bekommen. Sie haben Nachwuchs bekommen. die Nachricht hats Du vielleicht auch bekommen. Ich habe ja immer mal wieder sporadischen Kontakt zu den "alten" Railion-Kollegen. Also, ich wünsche Dir alles Gute und bis demnächst. Viele liebe Grüße aus Deuschland. Katrin
16th October 2009

hello ben..
hello ben.. my name is vrilisda br sitepu i live in jakarta, but my home town is in brastagi, north sumatra. i'm so happy when i was joined in flickr, and i can found my home town's photos from you. but i want download the videos. can you send the videos about brastagi or kabanjahe for me??? i hope your help.. thank you so much..
22nd January 2010

I was living there in the second world war.
8th February 2010

sign board to volcano
yes i'm agree if the tourist information suggest all tourist who wants to climb sibayak and Sinabung volcano have to use local Guide event its easy but tourist have been lost many times. make us very busy to search them. i'm one of the local guide to climb up Both of the Volcano. thank you ben

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