Day 8: Sunday April 19th, 2015
Indonesia is a located on the Pacific Basin’s “Ring of Fire”. It is mostly known for the famous huge eruptions of Krakatoa and Tambora, in the 19th century. So it is not surprising that the country has approximately 130 volcanoes, many of which are currently active. This makes Indonesia one of the most geologically unstable regions of the world.
Today we would all climb our first volcano and the excitement was palatable.
When we were told that the larger, Gunung Sinabung was closed due to increased activity, we took the news seriously. Gunung Sinabung is the larger, more active of the two main volcanoes located near Berastagi. It last erupted in October 2014, when 20,000 people were evacuated. Our local guide had been on the volcano during an eruption and told us of running with a group of others down the mountain side when chased by a pyroclastic flow. Literally, running for his life! He was fortunate to fully submerge himself in water and be the sole survivor. Pretty horrifying stuff.
A pyroclastic flow is a fast-moving current of hot gas and rock (collectively known as tephra), which reaches speeds moving away from a volcano of up to 700 km/h (450 mph). The gas can reach temperatures of about 1,000 °C (1,830 °F). Pyroclastic flows normally hug the ground and travel downhill, or spread laterally under gravity. Their speed depends upon the density of the current, the volcanic output rate, and the gradient of the slope. They are a common and devastating result of certain explosive volcanic eruptions. – Wiki
He was now our guide for the less volatile Gunung Sibayak, and what a character. He claimed to have worked with many famous naturalists and television celebrities including “The Crocodile Hunter” the late, Steve Irwin. He was also a keen photographer and showed us his many pictures of local wildlife. His thirst for knowledge and English skills had led him to collect idioms and some accents. So when I voiced my concern that maybe the climb would be too hard for our boys, he smiled and in an American accent, said “It will be a walk in the park.”
(Just to give you a sneak “heads-up”, it was not)…
After getting off the bus in the steady drizzle, we started at a slow casual pace on the flat. The guide showed us the Tiger Balm plant and on smelling it’s roots we could sure get that distinctive aroma. (Felix was good at spotting those and pointed out many in the area). Our guide pointed out wild passionfruit and a few other local herbs. Then he told us about the ancient, mountain, spirit caves.
Suddenly the time for talk was over, as we deviated from the flat and started our ascent. From the onset it was a quagmire of mud – slippery and dangerous. We all had to concentrate to navigate. With a steady train of eager young high school students going in both directions, we were often stuck behind groups or waiting for a place to find a footing. We were told that hundreds had camped on the summit last night awaiting a sunrise view but had been disappointed with heavy rain and cloud cover. Many of these people were now descending, some thankfully carrying huge bags of rubbish.
We even saw a few foolish cars and motorbikes further up. Their tyres found little purchase in the slippery mud. One was abandoned, another was being dangerously towed downhill. We kept well out of their way.
We were grateful for our earlier decision to not go for a sunrise view. It was difficult enough now as the rain fell on and off, let alone in darkness. As we climbed, the landscape slowly changed. Lush green foliage, to open vista and eventually to barren rocks.
As we had discovered many, many times on our travels, a good guide is worth his weight in gold on such treks. Practically essential with a family in tow. We could not count the many times a local guide had brought wisdom, motivation, practical help and safety to our lives. He guided the boys when we were too exhausted to and the trails were often confusing with some sheer drops. (Yes, Prunella’s bad knee played up. Yes, she ignored it and plodded on). We were unsure what exactly was safe and without him would have enjoyed the experience far less.
After a long, slow but steady climb we started to approach the summit, it was raining more heavily now but at least we were out of the mud and in our raincoats. Soon we were rewarded with our first sightings of gas plumes. It was simply amazing and primordial to see steam gushing out of rock, metres into the air. Each hole was neatly ringed in yellow sulphur.
Then how magical to be finally peaking into the Caldera itself, looking like a mysterious jewel of emerald green, surrounded by the black volcanic rock. An indescribably atmospheric, ancient and solemn experience.
After a quick snack, our guide magically producing a big bunch of bananas from beneath his jacket, we headed back down. As you can imagine, the descent was far worse and we all had a bit of a slide plus a few falls. Our elation at having made the climb helped us down. Bedraggled, mostly wet and muddy, we finally got back on the bus. We had achieved our Berastagi goal and conquered a volcano! Go Sabretoothed Chickens!!
Now we headed for lunch, a change of clothes and a dip in the local hot springs. After a bucket shower we entered the warm waters. We were a tourist curiosity amongst the splashing locals, soaking in thermal water in the rain. Of course the boys all had swim tops on and I was wearing a long cotton blouse over my swimsuit, in cultural respect. Now after our struggles on the volcano it seemed to be giving us back calm and restoration from it’s healing waters.
Next to the only Buddhist temple in the region. Recently built but still worth seeing.
We tried to see the view from Gundaling Hill but was thwarted by cloud so agreed to return ourselves tomorrow, pending better weather. We opted to skip the more distant village visit as we were all weary and instead had a quick look at a nearby traditional Karo house before turning our heads for home.
After drying off and warming up in the quiet of the hotel, we went a bit budget-blow out, crazy in celebration and devoured a large order of fried chicken in the hotel restaurant before finally opting for an early, well earned slumber.