Tuesday, 10 March 2015

Berastagi volcanos

Bukit Lawang to Berastagi bus journey:
The journey so far. Medan, Bukit Lawang, Berastagi
We said bye-bye to Thomas at Thomas’ Retreat in Bukit Lawang and got the Tourist Bus to Berastagi. Tourist Bus means comfort, air-con and direct drive to our destination, being delivered to our actual address rather than some bus station or random place at the side of the road. It was a lot more expensive than the public bus, but still only 170,000Rp (£8.50) each. It was one of those big 7 seater vehicles and, what’s more, there were only 5 of us so plenty of room to stretch out. 
The Berastagi Cabbage Sculpture
We went with Elliott, the 25 year old Aussie from Tasmania who we’d met at Thomas’ and had a couple of evening meals and daytime chats with, so it was good to continue the conversation on the bus. Our other companions were a Dutch couple who spoke good English, so we had a great chat and laugh all the way. They dropped us off at our Homestay in Berastagi at 2:00pm and they continued on to Samosir Island on Lake Toba, which is our next destination. We’ll be catching the same Tourist Bus at 2:00pm tomorrow and heading to the same lakeside resort Elliott and the Danish couple went to, Elliott has already sent us a message on Facebook saying it’s fabulous, so we’re looking forward to it, but sadly they won’t be there, they are moving on ahead of us.

The Buddist Temple in Berastagi
Berastagi is a bit of a strange place of 33,000 people, built around the main road that runs right down the island, so it’s busy and our Homestay is right on the main road, next to the daily market, making it even busier in the daytime with vehicles belching out fumes. It was first built by the Dutch as a cool rural retreat from Medan and, at 1300m above sea level it is set in amongst some stunning volcanic scenery. The soil is very fertile making the town an important agricultural centre and the reason for the huge cabbage sculpture in the centre of the roundabout in the town.

The Batak Catholic Church
We think this is a Chameleon
Our main reason for wanting to stop here, apart from the very agreeable temperatures (but sadly a bit more rain), is to climb a volcano. There are two nearby, Sibayak and Sinabung and, although our 2013 edition of Lonely Planet told us both can be climbed in a day, only Sibayak is currently open as Sinabung erupted in January this year and is still highly active, occasionally erupting more violently. The eruption was totally unexpected, despite it continuously grumbling and hissing steam and the resulting ash cloud has killed crops, polluted watercourses and displaced thousands of people, many of whom are poor, have nowhere else to go so are continuing to live in groups in makeshift houses, unable to farm or do anything, while inhaling the noxious gasses. Nothing has been done to provide relief for them.
Sipiso-Piso Waterfall
Nachelle Homestay:
Lake Toba from the top of the waterfall
Sibayak is still climbable, but even that is a grumbling, hissing beast that apparently erupts on average every 100 years, the last eruption being 130 years ago! It is quite possible to climb it alone, by the easier of three routes, but we decided to use a guide as it makes the logistics of getting there and route finding stress free so, after studying the internet we settled on Abdy, who also runs Nachelle Homestay with his wife Mery and two children, Nachelle (3) and Charlotte (8 months) from her parents house with two guest rooms (but they are building an 8 guest room place behind, ready next year, so they are moving into the bigger time!) They are the nicest people you could wish to meet and they have made us very welcome, but we are staying in their house and have only a bedroom, sharing bathroom and all other facilities with the family, so we feel a little bit awkward, particularly as Mery’s teenage cousins are also there, sitting (and sometimes sleeping) in the lounge, so we’re either out, in our room or making conversation in the common areas. There is no wifi here, so we have to go to the local cafĂ© and buy a drink in order to get online.

Caught out in the rain!
Three nights here is probably one too many, but we’ve made the best of it, taking ourselves off on public busses to Sipiso-Piso waterfall yesterday, following Mery’s instructions of the two busses and one becak we needed to catch to get there (two thirds of the way to where we’re going tomorrow and overlooking Lake Toba) and today we were up at 04:00am to catch the sunrise on top of Sibayak, so we’ve been fairly active.

Public Busses in Sumatra:
Inside the public bus. The bags on the floor contain the live fish
The bus rides to the waterfall were fun but stressful, they are little vans with side facing bench seats and no door, very old and falling to bits, but full of locals hopping on and off, most of them, particularly the kids staring at these funny white people, but all very helpful and prepared to offer advice and assistance even though we had almost no common language. As they fill up you just shuffle along the seats to make room until it’s packed and then they hang off the door opening and/or climb onto the roof until there’s no space anywhere! People get on carrying odd things as well, at one point a woman hurled on two large clear plastic bags full of large live fish that she was taking to market. She flopped them in blocking the doorway, so everyone had to step over them to get on or off, but no-one showed any surprise at this. The poor fish were packed in like sardines and couldn’t move, we could just see them opening their mouths and twitching their gills a bit, very sad, but she got off at the market and hauled them off again disappearing into the crowds.

Sipiso-Piso Waterfall:
Jackie and Abdy await sunrise on Sibayak Volcano
When we got there it was a nice waterfall dropping 120m over a vertical cliff. We arrived at the top in front of Lake Toba, hiked to the bottom to get wet in the spray, then got wet on the way back up when the heavens opened. It would have been worse but we managed to shelter under some tarpaulin in a makeshift shelter watching the path turn to a river and the noise of the rain drown out the waterfall, but it eventually stopped, we got back to the top, phoned our Becak driver for a pick-up and retraced our way home on the little busses.

Sibayak Volcano:
Here comes the sun...
Today, up at 04:00am after Jackie had had very little sleep as last night’s meal was causing her a few problems, Mery made us coffee at 04:15 and we were off into moonlit skies with a few clouds and stars at 04:30 with almost no cars on the road – amazing! Abdy parked the car and we were off up the path by torchlight, up another broken path, past bits of landslip and into the crater with that familiar smell of sulphur (rotten eggs), still unable to see anything but faint shapes. 
A cold Jackie with Sibayak crater behind and, in the distance a smoking Sinabung volcano
Sun up!
Then, what’s that up ahead, lights, lots of them, we’re not alone, there were dozens of others, mainly young local people making the ascent and all very pleasant. Later, on the summit after sunrise, a local girl waved her camera at me and I nodded, making the assumption that she wanted me to take a photo of her. We should know better than that now, no, she wanted us to be in a photo with her and after the other youngsters around realised this we were in amongst a whole group of them all wanting someone to take a photo with their camera of us all. They are just not used to seeing funny white people!

The smoking Sinabung in the early morning sun
Me 'n 'er in the early morning sun with a fabulous backdrop
We found a spot Abdy said was good for sunrise photos and waited, chatting and cracking jokes, gradually getting colder, we were at 2200m, so it was about 22⁰C cooler than at sea level, but it was nice to feel cold! Sunrise came through light cloud, giving a blaze of red cloud, yellow sun and light blue sky, the increasing daylight gradually lighting the steaming crater of jagged rocks of greens, blues and reds on one side and verdant jungle on the other (apparently there are still a few tigers in that jungle according to Abdy). The noise of hissing steam and the rising vapour from so many areas is unnerving and it was then that I wished we’d brought a frying pan and an egg with us as it would have cooked in seconds over some of those high pressure steam vents of lime green rocks.

The shot the locals wanted with funny white people!
On our way down
We were back at his car by 07:30am, just as other people were setting off up, but we went on to the thermal baths close by the geothermal electrical generator that draws hot water from deep in the volcano to power turbines and also fills up the concrete baths that have added cold water to make them bearable. We were the only ones there, so dozed in the so-called cooler baths that were like a very warm bath and could only stay in the hot ones for a short period. Odd really in amongst that sulphur smell dozing in a hot bath and looking at a grumbling, hissing volcano, just hoping that today wasn’t going to be the day it erupts!
One of the high pressure steam vents

 Temple, Church and Gibbons!
The walk down
Abdy completed our tour with trips to a very impressive Buddist Temple, a Batak Catholic church (the Batak people are nearly all Christians, despite Indonesia being an Islamic state), drove us up Gundling Hill which has good views of Berastagi and Sinabung volcano and, on the way down, bumped into a crowd of gibbons running across the road, scampering up trees and grabbing anything they could on the way. Abdy suggested I didn’t get out of the car lest they should steal my camera, so I snapped away through an open window. We were back at the Homestay by 11:00am in time to go out to a lunch of local food (very tasty) and then snooze the afternoon away, well, Jackie has snoozed, I’ve written this, and watched another cloudburst outside.

The steaming river that feeds the thermal pools
Half a day tomorrow and then the Tourist Bus at 2:00pm to Parapat and then a ferry over to Samosir island and five days of relaxation!

Jackie and Abdy surveying the thermal pools with the smoking volcano behind

Our gibbon encounter

Looks like the one on the right is taking a break from reading!

1 comment:

  1. Lovely pics of you both in the sunrise xxx feeling emotional about it....? Will email x