Over the Volcano

Trip Start Jun 02, 2007
Trip End Ongoing

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Our time with the Orangutan Health Project is now over. After our last night spent at the wedding and going dancing, Donna and I joined the other girls in the presidential suite at the Jungle Inn. Briony, Donna, Brettany and I all shared the huge room with massive hand carved four-poster bed, purple hammocks and flushing toilet (after two weeks on the squatter, a real luxury) for 300,000 rupiah, about $36. For very little money by North American standards, we lived like queens in our own rustic woodland palace, perched in the trees high above the river.

Our final farewell came at breakfast. A mother orangutan named Pesak had swung over on the canoe cable from the orangutan feeding platform to visit the Jungle restaurant, bringing her baby with her. Pesak then proceeded to steal a girl's coffee and toast for breakfast and hang around for a photo op, letting the baby do acrobatics on her arm. The finale came when Pesak threw up her coffee-coloured breakfast on the floor and licked it back up. Why let it go to waste?

The owner shooed Pesak away by playing a wooden xylophone loudly off-key. So, satisfied but slightly queasy from our last orangutan encounter, Brettany and I said goodbye to the girls and left for Berestagi to climb Sibayak, one of the volcanos there. Budi, a professional driver, took us, along with Felix and his friend Ali G., on the five-hour drive from Bukit.

As we climbed the mountain in the car, the air became noticeably cooler-an alpine wind swept down from the mountains, providing relief from the equatorial heat, and deciduous trees gave way to pines with rows of branches that appeared to be placed with mathematical precision. The view of Medan from the lookout point, where we snacked on barbecued corn, was deceptively peaceful. But it seemed that half of Medan had come to Berestagi; busload after busload of people trundled up the narrow mountain road, flanked by honking cars and motorbikes. Only one-and-a-half hour's drive away from the city, Berestagi is the favourite weekend getaway for Medanites, who flock here in droves, bringing their noise with them, for some fresh air and down time.

Berestagi is the Sumatran version of a Swiss village, minus the snow. Pointy-roofed houses, uniquely Batak style from the local Taro highland tribe, nestle in the hills among well-kept gardens and flowering trees. At night, the main drag-the only drag, really-alights with food stalls, one of which served up the best mie goreng (fried noodles and vegetables) I've tasted so far for a paltry 4,000 rhupia (50 cents). We rounded out the day by playing pool, and hunkered down at the Losman Sibayak across the street, which had real blankets on the beds--a rare luxury, thanks to the cooler air.

We were in luck the next morning; it was a cloudless day, which meant we wouldn't have to climb through the clouds, and we'd have a clear view at the top. After paying the 150,000 rhupia entrance fee, we started our trek. It was relatively easy; the trail was well trodden and liberally marked with broken flip flops, cigarette packages and other signs of careless tourists.

As we climbed higher, Sibayak's twin volcano, Sinabung, came into view, rising above the woolly mass of trees. These are just two of many volcanoes, both active and dormant, that run down Sumatra's spine and across the Indonesian archipelego like the armoured plates on the back of a great dinosaur. The area is extremely active, as the oceanic plate of the Indian Ocean continues to slide under the Asiatic continental plate, creating great buckles in the earth and molten lava bursting to the surface--a couple of years ago, shortly after the 2004 tsunami, Sumatra experienced an earthquake that was 9 on the Richter scale and caused the entire island to move about 10 metres northeast toward Malaysia. The oceanic plate ends beneath Lake Toba, our next stop after Berestagi and the site of what once was one of the largest volcanoes that ever existed on earth.

For now we were safe, but we did hear the aggressive, reptilian hiss of steam nearby, and the rotten-egg smell of sulphur permeated the air. We found the source when we turned the corner: a moonscape of white and grey rock, in which two steaming geysers spewed the yellow gas from the lip of a ridge. Parts of the ground were covered in carpets of green day-glo moss, fed by the mix of sulphur and minerals in the rocky soil. Wind whipped down the walls of the crater, and for the first time since my arrival in Sumatra, I had to wear a sweater, though it was a welcome relief to be cold for a while after sweating so much in the country's sauna-like atmosphere.

My body has been reacting in strange ways to the new environment, and here was no different; I began to feel light-headed in the thin mountain air. We sat on the ridge and looked down into the eye of the volcano, a yolk of yellow-green water filled with the names of tourists who had climbed in and risked burning their skins off, this ancient place causing them to succumb to one of the most primal urges of all--to make their mark in stones.
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