In Sumatra's Volcanic Highlands


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June 24th 2007
Published: August 10th 2007
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On the EdgeOn the EdgeOn the Edge

Standing on the edge of Sibayak's crater rim, Berastagi. © L. Birch 2007
It was probably a sign of the times and we didn't want to find fault with our hotels - after all, we were staying at the cheaper end of the market and there were precious few visitors around. But the fact was, there were often times when we felt that someone ought to be paying us to stay in them - not the other way around. Despite our best efforts to find something that would redeem our hotel in Bukit Lawang, it was the bed bugs and extremely smelly toilet (that blocked regularly and could only be emptied by tipping a bucketful of water down it each time we needed to flush) that finally drove us away.

Of course, the "Wisma Sibayak" had not escaped damage from the flood that ripped through Bukit Lawang in 2003 with such devastating effect. The owner was only too happy to point out the ruined shells of a half dozen rooms and a tide line on the restaurant wall that clearly showed the level at which the flood-water had peaked. Even so, a half dozen rooms had survived and there was nothing that a lick of paint and a thorough clean once in a
Karonese KidsKaronese KidsKaronese Kids

Karonese children pose excitedly for photos in a village near Berastagi. © V. Birch 2007
while, would not have put right.

By contrast, our room in Berastagi was pleasantly clean and comfortable: it was also blissfully free of bed bugs. From the hotel's roof, we had a view out across town and of the volcanoes that had brought us to this isolated backwater, tucked away in Sumatra's central highlands. They were all around us; Mount Sinabung, dark and brooding on one side and Sibayak on the other, a plume of smoke and vapour trailing from its shattered summit cone. There were others too but it was Sibayak that most interested us and - weather permitting - our plan was to climb to the crater on its summit. An old road went most of the way to the top and because of this, Sibayak was often touted as, "Indonesia's most accessible volcano." Even so, due to landslips and deadfalls, no traffic was able to ply the old road. Moreover, it was 7km from the ranger's station at the foot of the mountain to the lip of the crater on Sibayak's summit. That meant a round trip hike of 14kms (about 9 miles) and Viv - who had sustained a nasty ankle injury some years before
High Above the CloudsHigh Above the CloudsHigh Above the Clouds

Forested 'islands' jut from the clouds on the flanks of the Sibayak volcano. © L. Birch 2007
- wasn't sure if she was up to it. Added to that, the weather at our current altitude had become somewhat unpredictable; sunny one moment, cloudy and wet the next. Though we travelled prepared for most eventualities, we were hardly well equipped to tackle a 7,000 ft mountain in severe weather conditions. We would just have to hope that the Gods would look favourably upon us and grant us a clear day for the climb.

However, next day dawned wet and grim, low cloud completely obscuring the peaks surrounding town. We made the most of that first day by having a look around and dipping into the busy market filled with flower produce and the scowling faces of Karonese tribal women. We also sought out more information about the climb up Sibayak. There were apparently three routes of varying degrees of difficulty. The route we favoured was probably one of the easiest but conversely, it was also one of the longest. The real difficulty however, was in finding any unbiased information. Asking the owner of our hotel how we could get to the starting point of the climb, she shook her head sadly. "Many people die on mountain," she
Into The Devil's KitchenInto The Devil's KitchenInto The Devil's Kitchen

Fumaroles spout a hot mixture of steam and smoke from vents on Sibayak's summit. © V. Birch 2007
said. "Maybe better you take guide." We had already heard several 'scare stories' like this. It seemed that people would rather profit from our fears and ignorance of the locality than let us know that actually, the climb was quite easy. Eventually, we discovered that an opelet - one of many small mini-bus taxis that ran around town - would take us up to Sampai Punchak for a few thousand rupiah. From there, it was just a matter of following the road upward.

Into the Devil's Kitchen

Next morning, sunlight glinted from the silver, onion-shaped dome of the mosque next door as we pulled back the curtains on our window. Although there was some cloud, it appeared high and we could see the hills beyond clearly; it was "now or never", we decided and prepared ourselves to go tackle Sibayak. By 8.30 am, an opelet had dropped us outside the ranger station where we left our names and passport numbers in the log book and paid the 1,500 rph registration fee. Viv was still unsure whether she could do the climb but was prepared to 'give it a go' on the proviso that - if it got too
Mineral RichesMineral RichesMineral Riches

Sulphur crystals from volcanic vents in Sibayak's crater. © L. Birch 2007
hard - she could return to the ranger's station and wait for my return.

We set off in blistering sunshine, resting periodically and stopping once or twice to return the greetings of local farmers. "Selamat Pagi," they would shout from their fields, "Apa kabar?" (Good morning, how are you?). Waving back, we would shout a reply, "Kabar Baik! Dan anda?" (Fine! And how are you?). Eventually, we left civilisation behind as the road began to climb into dense cloud forest filled with insect sound and the calls of strange birds.

Negotiating several landslips that had completely blocked the road, we finally reached a plateau where the tarmac came to an abrupt end. By this time, we were up in the clouds and enveloped in a drizzle laden fog. It was eerily silent and there was no indication as to where we should go next. A quick scout around revealed that the plateau was a dead end, surrounded on all sides by dense bush so we backtracked, thinking that we had somehow missed the path. Sure enough, a few yards back down the road, we found the remnants of a set of steps cut into a muddy bank. No
Sulphur Vent on SibayakSulphur Vent on SibayakSulphur Vent on Sibayak

Local people brave the heat and fumes to harvest sulphur from vents on the crater rim. © L. Birch 2007
sign indicated whether this was the path we needed to take and all but one of the steps had been completely washed away. In the absence of anything else however, we climbed the bank and followed a narrow, overgrown track, pushing through bushes and spiky pandanus scrub wet from recent rain. Climbing up through the last of the tree layer, we finally burst out upon a natural outcrop providing spectacular views of forested hilltops, jutting like islands from a sea of clouds.

It was only another 45 minutes before we came in sight of the crater rim and found ourselves in the stark, other worldly landscape at the top of the volcano. The familiar 'rotten eggs' smell of hydrogen sulphide hung on the air and all around us were twisted rocks, screaming gas jets and fumaroles venting clouds of hot steam. Here in this cataclysmic landscape, we experienced a strange sense of elation at being so close to the elemental forces that shape our world. It wasn't enough to gain the crater rim; we wanted to get up close to vents spouting smoke and vapour, and to feel the throbbing of the earth beneath our feet like some powerful
Samosir FerrySamosir FerrySamosir Ferry

A ferry boat approaches Samosir Island on beautiful Lake Toba. © L. Birch 2007
netherworld machine. We lunched on processed cheese sandwiches while sat among rocks streaked with mineral colours; acid greens, sulphurous yellows, pinks, reds and metallic blues, but long before we were ready, rain swept in across the crater and forced us to shelter in the lee of a gigantic boulder. In between squalls, we moved from shelter to shelter until, caught on a barren scree slope below a noisily hissing fumarole, a drenching downpour found its way through our flimsy waterproofs and soaked us to the skin: it was time to get down off the mountain.

We returned the way we had come, dropping back down below the clouds and into the dripping wet stillness of the forest. Much later, back in Berastagi, we celebrated our return to terra firma. Justly pleased by her accomplishment in completing the hike, Viv 'chinked' her glass of tea against mine. "Cheers", she said, "here's to climbing volcanoes." There was a brief pause before she added “... It hardly hurt at all!"

Life and Love on Samosir

The 5-hour journey to Lake Toba involved three bus changes; one to Kabanjahe, a second to Pematang-Siantar and a third to Parapat - a small
Batak Village, SamosirBatak Village, SamosirBatak Village, Samosir

Children play outside traditional houses at a village on Samosir Island. © V. Birch 2007
town on the lake's eastern shore. Lake Toba was vast and beautiful but its picture postcard looks hid a dramatic secret. Ringed with mist shrouded mountains, their feet plunging into the lake, it was hard to imagine that such serenity could possibly have come from so violent a past. Toba however, was all that remained of a massive volcano which erupted 70,000 years ago with a force equivalent to hundreds of atomic bombs - all detonated simultaneously. The eruption was the largest ever known; greater than either Krakatoa or Santorini. It was also said to have been 8,000 times more powerful than the Mount St. Helen eruption in 1981. Its effect on our planet would probably have been devastating: it may even have come close to causing the extinction of humankind.

Today, a lake fills Toba's huge caldera - across which we travelled by boat to Samosir Island, our eventual destination. Samosir, itself an extinct volcanic cone, was the size of Singapore Island and home to the Batak people whose unique culture still survives in these remote volcanic highlands. We could see the distinctive buffalo-horned rooftops of traditional Batak houses, rising above trees and coconut palms, as we approached
The Slaughter PoleThe Slaughter PoleThe Slaughter Pole

A Boratan - or slaughter pole - stands at the heart of a Batak village on Samosir. © L. Birch 2007
Samosir. Early Victorian explorers had returned home from Sumatra with frightening tales of the Batak's cannibal tendencies but nowadays, they were far more welcoming.... at least, we hoped they were!

The boat docked at Tuk-Tuk - a small peninsula that jutted out into the lake. We dropped our packs at the first place we looked at, where a small room overlooking the lake and crater rim beyond cost the princely sum of 35,000 rupiah (about 2.05 GBP). It was one of the nicest and most comfortable places we had stayed and made an excellent base from which to explore our new surroundings. In the days that followed, we took long walks or hired motorbikes to go out and explore the countryside, poking around traditional villages and seeking out the stone tombs of Samosir's last animist kings. Despite their fearsome reputation, the Bataks were a friendly people who were proud of their heritage and customs. Christianity rather than Islam was the dominant religion but just beneath the surface of Batak modernity, their lives were still governed by magic and superstition. In matters of importance, whether it was to invoke success in business or to bless a family member with wealth
Batak DanceBatak DanceBatak Dance

Villagers perform a traditional dance at Simanindo, Lake Toba. © L. Birch 2007
and happiness, it was always the village shaman who was consulted and not the local priest. All the same, it was a delight to see red-roofed church spires standing amidst a green backdrop of volcanic hills and cascading waterfalls.

Being 'volcano junkies', it was almost enough to be staying in the caldera of an extinct volcano but if we had thought that Toba's days of tectonic activity were at an end, we soon discovered that the old volcano still had a few surprises. At a thermal spa near Pangururan on the western side of Samosir, we traced the hot, mineral waters filling its baths to an active vent up in the hills. Following a rocky gorge, the landscape became more and more like that on the summit of Sibayak. Once again, mineral colours stained the jagged rocks and the pungent smell of suphur was unmistakable. Eventually, the gorge came to a dead end where a number of fumaroles gurgled, bubbled and hissed aggressively. Steam billowed up the sides of the canyon wall and scalding water spurted from sulphur encrusted vents at the base of the cliffs: nature at its most elemental.

There were also days when we were
Life in the CalderaLife in the CalderaLife in the Caldera

Ordinary life is conducted against a backdrop of volcanic hills and cascading waterfalls. © L. Birch 2007
content to read and relax or simply to contemplate the lake while bulbuls, glossy starlings and iridescent sunbirds paraded through the trees next to
our bungalow. Most evenings, we ate at a Batak restaurant that served tasty curries, noodle dishes and nasi goreng - a traditional meal of fried rice and chicken topped with a fried egg. And when the electricity failed - which happened often - we sat over fluttering candles, chatting with the Batak girls about life and love on Samosir.

****

The days spread out before us like a glittering path of stepping stones but it came as a shock to realise that fewer now lay ahead than lay behind. Because nothing is ever certain and we didn't know if we would be back this way again, we had come to a recent decision. We had decided after all, that we would try and 'shoehorn' a brief side trip to Australia into our itinerary. It was not to be a sightseeing tour but principally a visit to see friends and family in and around Perth. However, in the short time we had allowed ourselves, we still hoped to see a few favourite places like Rottnest Island, a national park (or two), perhaps even the Pinnacles Desert, 140 miles north of the state capital. Before then, there was still a planned trip to Borneo to be undertaken. We also hoped to add the stamps of two more countries to our passports, see a little more of modern Malaysia and take a last dip in the South China Sea.... that was, if we could ever tear ourselves away from Toba.

As was often the case, our movements were governed by the dictates of our visa allowances and June was fast slipping through our fingers like fine sand. Girding ourselves to do battle with Indonesian transport once more, we made the most of our final days in Sumatra's volcanic highlands. But however much we wanted to hold back the diminishing number of days left to us, it was soon evident that the clock had beaten us once again. It was time to move on and discover what delights Borneo held in store.

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29th June 2007

Lucky things!
Hello darlings - would so loved to have been with you in Sumatra! Sounds like Lake Toba hasn't changed. Keep on having glorious times to keep us jealous as we plod through our work!

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