Sunday, 17 October 2010

Sumatra: Berastagi

With a lively main-street and fruit market, Berastgi is a convenient base for climbing Mt Sibayak, Sumatra's most accessible volcano, and Mt Sinabung, Indonesia's most recently active one. I'm staying at the helpful Wisma Sibayak Guesthouse which offers free local maps and friendly money-saving travel advise.
Monday 11 October: A blue 'Kama' minibus drops me off at the ticket office from where it's a three-hour hike to Mt Sibayak's 6,873ft summit (one-and-a-half times higher than Ben Nevis). Foreigners climbing alone have got lost and perished but I decline a guide. It's mostly a steep winding track, then up steps to a path past powdery-yellow fumaroles hissing-out hot sulphurous steam. The small water-filled crater is unexciting but the views to Mt Sinabung make the climb worthwhile. I bump into, Juha Jarva, a Finnish traveller who has taken the Trans-Siberian Express route to Vladivostok then through China and down through Vietnam by Russian-made motorbike, which he as since sold and bought a local one in Sumatra to ride through Indonesia. We take the more tricky steep-slippery route down, both happy not to be climbing alone, and soak away the pain in the hot sulphur springs at Semangut Gunung village a short bus ride from home.
Tuesday 12: Both Juhn and I have been strongly advised not to attempt the ascent of Mt Sinabung (8,041ft) without a guide - it erupted on 29th August and on 3rd September, and again on 7th (the most violent) - it had been dormant for 410 years. But it's a perfect morning for walking and we arrive at the trailhead at Lake Kawar at 8:30am. A light noodle breakfast and off we go, only to be stopped by a heavily-armed police unit who are investigating terrorist activity in the area - they strongly recommend a guide. We decline (I tell them we are not going to the top - just half-way up - they let us through) and we head past vegetable fields and onto the steep jungle trail. On-and-on the muddy path goes through hanging greenery, over knotted roots and fallen trees, always up.
After a couple of hours, past a Dutch climber's grave, it's up a slippery, near vertical, rocky gorge - a steep valley - another boulder-strewn gorge - then the vegetation clears to a flat rocky ledge overlooking the jagged-steamy crater, it's a new crater - just five-weeks old. We've made it - this is not an angry volcano, just a grumpy one. Silent wisps of steam suddenly change to noisy hissing belches. Whiffy clouds of sulphurous fumes engulf us then disperse, just as quickly as they appeared, to an eerie silence. My feet ache (I've been wearing sandals for six months) but I keep my boots on, just in case.
It's 2:00pm, the mountain is in cloud and the terrorist police are not happy - they have seen us on the summit. After a few anxious moments they smile and then give us a lift to the main road in the back of their serious-looking police wagon (72nd mode of transport). I'm sitting opposite a young officer in jeans and tee-shirt who is totting a menacing-looking assault rifle - I don't think this would happen at home.
Photos of the ascent of both volcanoes from Berastagi.
Wednesday 13: Minibus to Kabanjahe, 'Sepadan' bus to Pematang Siantar (3 hours), minibus to Parapat (2 hours), MK Carolina across Lake Toba (40min) to Tuk-tuk on Samosir island.

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