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Published: November 7th 2012
Not really. This is Mount Sibayak, an active volcano
As we departed Lake Toba, there were some final reminders of the local fishing industry. The first was an open-backed lorry carrying a full cargo of fish, which we got stuck behind. It was hot, our van had it's windows wide open, and the stench of several tons of warm fetid fish wafted through the windows. Our driver tried to overtake, but the roads were too bendy. So we were trapped behind a fishy tailwind for quite a few miles before escaping to the fresh air ahead. Next we saw a house constructed like a giant fish. It was hideous, but also kind of cool at the same time.
We soon left the realm of fish and entered the Kingdom of Cabbages. For the next few hours, we saw cabbages everywhere. The fields were full of them, with teams of cabbage pickers furiously harvesting away. We passed trucks laden with cabbages packed so high you could practically hear the suspension groaning. Wooden barns were stacked high with pyramids of cabbage, and there were massive piles of rotting cabbage which hadn't passed quality control. Then we entered the town of Berastagi and saw a huge cabbage monument standing proudly in the
The famous Cabbage Monument
Isn't it magnificent. The pride of the town
middle of a roundabout. This was the Cabbage Capital of Asia. The cabbage finds it's way into many Indonesian foods. Fried noodles, fried rice, soups - the humble cabbage is everywhere (except for desserts, although it wouldn't surprise me to find a cabbage sorbet somewhere). But the prolific cabbage production isn't only for local consumption. The Indonesian cabbage is so highly regarded that there's a huge export industry to Malaysia and Thailand. Some suppliers export as much as 300 tonnes a week! That is about 700,000 cabbages, which if you laid them end to end would cover a distance of over 10 kilometres.
We were in Berastagi for some red hot volcano action. Looming above the town was Mount Sibayak, an active volcano that was begging to be climbed. The local travel agency recommended taking a guide, because people had got lost up there and died. Pinned to their notice board was a list of all the unfortunate souls who had either perished on the slopes or were found days later. Each entry had a grim little note next to the person's name. For example:
1979 - Richard Jones from USA missing and never found (not even bones)
1983 - John Sheldon climbed alone, lost the path and was missing for three days. Survived until rescue by using his T-shirt to collect water and eating grass (useful tip)
1995 - Wolfgang Dunkel, a solitary climber who slipped and fell to his death. His bones were found on 1/5/97 at 12pm (two years later)
For the last entry, I found it amusing that they mentioned the bones were found at 12pm. Not exactly a critical piece of information after two years! After reading the comments book in our guesthouse, we decided not to take a guide. Yes, people had died climbing Sibayak, but if you looked at the dates it was only 9 people since 1923. More people die each year from being hit by falling coconuts, but that doesn't stop people from walking under coconut trees. So armed with some favourable odds, a badly drawn map and a questionable sense of direction, we set out to conquer the volcano.
The climb to the summit was actually pretty easy. The hardest part was actually getting out of bed early in the morning. As we approached the top, we noticed the notorious bad egg smell of
Misty Mountain Top
The delicious waft of sulphur in the air
sulphur from a distance of 300 metres. As we got closer it was as if someone had smashed a thousand smelly eggs on the ground. But the brain soon filters it out and you don't notice it any more. Clever that, isn't it? At the summit was a crater with a pea green lake inside, surrounded by volcanic vents spewing sulphurous fumes. It was beautiful, but you could sense the raw power of the volcano underneath, flexing it's muscles and keeping itself in trim for the next eruption.
Getting up the volcano had been easy. Getting down was a nightmare! It was a different route, and we'd read entries in the hotel comment book that gave simple and foolproof directions; there were set of stone steps at the right hand side of the crater. We couldn't see these, we could only see a rough gravel path littered with broken boulders. We started down this path to see if any stairs were around the corner. We eventually found the remains of some steps, barely visible amongst all the rocks and dirt. They were broken into pieces, scattered and half-buried under the earth. The hotel comment book was from two years
Volcanic Crater Lake
Don't try and swim in this. Admire from a distance
ago, and during that time there must have been some serious flooding, earthquake or volcanic upheaval. Most of the steps were unusable but at least they showed us a vague path down. So we made our way down, slipping, stumbling and sliding as we went. Three hours later, with trembling thighs, we reached the bottom.
The main draw for coming down this awkward route instead of retracing our steps was the soothing promise of hot springs. Enterprising locals had set up no less than six different hot spring establishments. These were not natural beauties, they were basic concrete pools piped with volcanic water. But our poor aching legs did not care for aesthetics. We stripped off to our swimwear and plunged into the heavenly warm waters. A crowd of local boys in the next pool were obviously not used to seeing a bit of bare western flesh, and they tried to take a photo of Zena. By using an iPad!! Not very subtle when you are holding up a device the size of a plank. Zena just moved behind a wall and foiled their photographic ploy.
After an hour of steamy relaxation, we attempted to head back to
Where have the steps gone?
Climbing down the ruins of the steps
Berastagi. But we were 10km away, in a dead-end country road with no passing traffic. We walked through a tiny village but there were no obvious transport opportunities. So we carried on walking. An elderly gentleman came out of his house and struck up a conversation with us. He spoke a few words of English and introduced himself as Mr Tarigan. "Come" he said, "I will find you transport". We ambled back to the village where he sat downstairs at a table outside a shop. He produced a chess board from nowhere and said "let's play", gesturing for me to sit down. There seemed to be an unspoken agreement hovering in the air, a type of friendly challenge that said "beat me and I'll get you back to Berastagi". Chess is hugely popular in this area, and it's not unusual to play for money. Many rural people are formidable players and an invitation to a casual game can lead to a sound thrashing. I sat down to play Mr Tarigan, who was looking quietly confident. To give you an idea of my proficiency at chess, I once taught my nephew how to play when he was young. Then he beat
Zena takes on the Chess Challenge
An epic chess battle, with our journey home hanging in the balance
me on the second game. This game progressed as expected, and Mr Tarigan played with me the same way that a cat might play with an injured mouse, batting it around with it's paws, providing openings and promising an escape, but ultimately delivering a timely death. Basically, he whooped my ass. The board was reset and Zena sat down to play. The game started along similar lines to my own spectacular and embarrasing defeat, but out of nowhere Zena pulled a few surprise moves and beat him! With our victory in hand, Mr Tarigan tried to arrange our transport, but without success. Unsure of our next plan, we went back to his house where his children/grandchildren were singing Karaoke loudly and out of tune (exactly how Karaoke should be sung). We declined the kind offer to join in and sat outside instead, eating fresh passionfruit from Mr Tarigan's tree. By chance we flagged down a passing minibus which provided our escape back to Berastagi.
Special mention must be made of the minibuses in Indonesia. They are known by variety of names depending on the region: opelet, bemo, labi-labi, mikrolet and pete-pete. They follow set routes, and the drivers usually
This was one of the more subdued designs
will wait until the vehicle is crammed to capacity before setting off. By crammed to capacity this can mean having your face squashed up against the window, having bags piled on top of you or simply getting very cosy with your neighbour and almost sitting on their knee! This overloading of vehicles is commonplace. It's normal to see three people riding a small small motorbike, and two adults with two children is not unusual. The record so far (spotted by Zena) is five people and two ducks! Back to minibuses, smoking is allowed in some of them which can be a huge irritation. Once their vehicle is full, they drive at breakneck speed, overtaking on blind bends and barely stopping to let people on and off. The faster they reach their destination, the faster they can restock with more passengers and make more money. In Berastagi, the minibuses are pimped up, blinged up beasts that are covered with technicolour stickers or spray-painted by colourblind maniacs. They can be adorned with speakers, spotlights or streamlined fins. It seemed to be either a fashion or a competition to make your minibus the most noticeable. This stopped me from getting run over a
Night Food Market
A basic but delicious array of street food
few times when I saw a multicoloured nightmare speeding towards me out of the corner of my eye.
During the day, Berastagi was a drab little town with as much appeal as a tomato smoothie. But at night it came alive and was delightfully transformed into a food lovers paradise. An armada of tents and food stalls appeared along the main street, with massive banners proudly proclaiming their wares. Many stalls were selling similar items, but each vendor would have their own recipe, their own secret sauce or individual twist. Plus there were enough different and unusual dishes to have Zena and I clapping our hands in glee. We walked down the street lustfully gazing at all the food stalls. Skewers of meat were being basted with thick marinades. Vast pots of soups and sauces were simmering away. Fish and chicken were being cooked to perfection on charcoal coals. Noodles and fried rice were sizzling as they were tossed in giant woks. Plus there were foods that we didn't even recognise - items being steamed in miniature bamboo cylinders, and stodgy-looking cubes being slathered in butter and fried on hot plates. All the stalls were extremely basic, and had
Street Food heaven
We devoured this with our bare hands and had juices dripping off our chins!
a dirty, grubby look to them. But this was just because they were decades old and had probably been used every day. The paint was fading and peeling, but the ingredients were fresh and laid out under a display for everyone to see. Plus it was all cooked fresh and thrown into hot oil or cooked over red hot coals. This is the cardinal rule of street food if you don't want o get sick - fresh food, prepared cleanly and cooked straight away. We ate like Kings each night. Or maybe we ate like fat little pigs. All I know is that we ate an indecent amount of food for a ludicrously decent price. We walked away stuffed and content with a huge smile on our faces, and waddled back to our guesthouse.
(More photos at the bottom of the page)
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