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Published: Saturday December 7, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday December 7, 2013 MYT 7:46:46 AM

Walking the volcano

The writer (right) with her best friend at the peak of Mount Sibayak with fumaroles releasing steam nearby. Mount Sibayak in North Sumatra, Indonesia is an active volcano that has not erupted since 1881.

The writer (right) with her best friend at the peak of Mount Sibayak with fumaroles releasing steam nearby. Mount Sibayak in North Sumatra, Indonesia is an active volcano that has not erupted since 1881.

Two intrepid Malaysian girls brave slippery trails, rain and public buses in North Sumatra – and miss a volcanic eruption by just two days.

MY best friend asked me anxiously: “Is it safe for us to climb the volcanoes? It erupted just back in 2010 ....”

I casually brushed it off, saying that we wouldn’t be that “lucky”. After all, Mount Sinabung in Sumatra, Indonesia, had erupted 400 years before the last time in 2010; so I assumed it wouldn’t happen again within four years.

But my theory was proven wrong when, just two days after I climbed the neighbouring volcano – Mount Sibayak – Mount Sinabung spewed thick smoke and ashes, causing panic to the villagers nearby on Sept 15.

Situated in the Karo plateaus of North Sumatra, Mount Sinabung is a stratovolcano that consists of andesite and dacite volcanic rocks. It has a total of four volcanic craters, but only one is still active. On Malaysia Day, it was reported that Mount Sinabung had erupted for a second time, hurling red smoke 3km high, blanketing the neighbouring villages with volcanic ash.

To hike either Mount Sinabung or Mount Sibayak, tourists have to get to the town of Berastagi, which is 65km from Medan, the capital city of North Sumatra.

My buddy and I arrived by evening, after making our way from Medan’s new Kuala Namu International airport. With the heavy downpour as we were tucked into the narrow seats of a dimly-lit public bus, my first impression of Berastagi was of a Cameron Highlands-like town amidst miles of lush primeval forests.

Development seemed scanty and Batak women clad in ulos (traditional hand-woven textiles) walking steadily along the muddy roads with baskets full of bananas on their heads were common sights. Apparently, the ability to balance fruits and vegetables on their heads (in hands-free mode mind you) was a must in yesteryears for Batak girls to be considered eligible for marriage.

This trip was meant to be a getaway to unwind in the wilderness after a few weeks of being thrown in the warzone of a newsroom. I love being on elevated grounds because when you look far down and beyond, you realise that the problems revolving in your mind are just specks of dust.

Hence, we decided on an easier hike to Mount Sibayak (2212m) which is also an active volcano instead of the higher Mount Sinabung (2460m). Located on the notorious Ring of Fire region with almost 130 active volcanoes, Indonesia is a pretty volatile area to live in.

In August, Mount Rokatenda in the tiny island of Palue (near Flores in eastern Indonesia) erupted, killing six people. This volcano was dormant for 84 years before becoming active a year ago. Experts believe that the change in volcanic eruption patterns, where dormant volcanoes display active seismic activities, could be due to the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake (and resultant tsunami that claimed 250,000 lives). While many adventure enthusiasts have conquered the more popular Mount Agung in Bali, Mount Bromo in East Java and Mount Rinjani in Lombok, Mount Sibayak and Sinabung are supposedly less strenuous hikes for tourists heading towards Lake Toba.

But despite reviews on Trip Advisor that Mount Sibayak is an easy hike, I found it harder than expected.

Mount Sibayak has diverse terrain. At the foothills, there are lush forests interspersed with limestone. At higher altitudes as here, noisy fumaroles belch sulphurous fumes.
Mount Sibayak has diverse terrain. At the foothills, there are lush forests interspersed with limestone. At higher altitudes as here, noisy fumaroles belch sulphurous fumes.

Slippery and slimy

For one, we were climbing in the dark pre-dawn to catch the sunrise on the peak. Also, the incessant rain had softened the trail. In fact, parts of it had been turned into streams of water turning estimated one-hour hikes to ones lasting 90 minutes. Once or twice, we made some bad judgements and slipped, but we were lucky to have our guide, Rijal who ensured our safety along the way.

But it wasn’t slippery and slimy all the way, what makes a volcanic hike in a tropical region unique is its diverse terrain. From the main tar road, we took a shortcut by climbing up some whitish limestone, a route punctuated by branches which stuck out and overhanging shrubs. My friend accidentally knocked her head into one of the branches.

Even with an LED torch light, each step we took was risky as we weren’t sure if the ground was solid, or actually a muddy pool of water. There were certain parts where we had to dip our shoes into the “stream” but as we went higher, more rocks and boulders emerged. It was like going through natural foot reflexology!

An active volcano means that geothermal activity remains high and it takes the form of hot springs and fumaroles, openings in the earth’s crust where steam and sulphurous gases are emitted. The sound can be quite deafening if there are a few fumaroles in close proximity.

The sulphuric smell kicks in as well and it is not hard to spot the yellow lumps of sulphur around you. And while you wouldn’t expect to see a pool in a mountain hike, craters are another attraction of this trek.

When we finally reached the top, we were just in time to catch the sunrise before 7am. We realised we were the only people in the mountains and, as how difficult hikes end, we reaped our reward: a spectacular scenery of cascading mountains with a clear view of Mount Sinabung which looked as dormant as a hibernating hedgehog.

With the sun up, trekking down was easier and we moved on with our plan to visit Lake Toba after submerging ourselves into the hot spring nearby.

A panaromic view from Mount Sibayak at dawn. To climb this peak, tourists start from the town of Berastagi, 65km from Medan.

Breathtaking: A panaromic view from Mount Sibayak at dawn. To climb this peak, tourists start from the town of Berastagi, 65km from Medan.

Getting to Berastagi

HAVING two girls backpacking to Indonesia do get some eyeballs rolling. One older colleague of mine exclaimed: “This is a generation gap! No girl my age would ever do what both of you did!”

My mother was fine but my friend’s parents were worried and constantly WhatsApp-ed her. When we visited her relatives in the last few days of our Indonesia trip in Medan, they too were aghast that we traveled via public transport to Berastagi.

But what’s traveling if you keep it all to tourist vans and boutique hotels? I love the uncertainty that lies ahead and that’s exactly why I only did some light research beforehand. We booked a homestay with a family two weeks before departure and I left the getting there and moving around a mystery. After all, we could speak the language. What’s to be afraid of?

At the airport, I used the WiFi and screen captured the instructions to get to the meeting point at Berastagi. On the train to Medan city from the airport, we just asked the man sitting next to us on the most economical way of getting to Berastagi. After some phone calls, he told us we needed to take the Sutera bus that was 15km out of town.

By chance, our friend found three locals who wanted to take the Sutera bus as well when we alighted from the train. Following my gut feeling, I felt they could be trusted and we took a cab with four of us squeezing behind. I wasn’t too worried because our cab driver could speak English.

Traffic in Medan is bad, though Jakarta is worse. Despite the second-hand smoke from our car-mates who were puffing in the car, I still found the ride amusing in many ways. For instance, in the rain, a tree branch fell close to a car beside us as we were caught in a traffic jam. The driver, a Datin-looking lady with those huge sunglasses, walked out, pulled the tree branch away and got back inside without much hassle.

Our bus driver wasn’t that reckless, as my friend’s relatives had feared. In fact, the locals are friendly and helpful though you have to get used to the occasional stares. They helped us to notify the bus driver to drop us at the Tugu (national monument) in Berastagi and asked if we knew where we were headed to. Of course, I was still wary and kept the details of our homestay to ourselves.

The guide up the mountains was arranged by our hosts, a very hospitable Batak-Chinese couple, and the husband could speak French. They explained the local culture, even showing us the wife’s wedding kebaya.

> Travelers who wish to go to Berastagi may go by local public bus (like what the writer did) or hire a tourist van. The writer is grateful for the various encounters she had by trying to be a local as possible and would encourage travelers to do so as well.

Tags / Keywords: Lifestyle, Trekking, Mountain climbing, Sumatra, Volcano, Mount Sibayak, North Sumatra, Berastagi

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