Atop the steaming peak of Mt. Sibayak, an active volcano in Berastagi, Indonesia, the only signs of life were those of the humans who’d trekked up there. No wildlife, no vegetation, only people; deliberately poking their noses and limbs into fuming, sulfurous crevices. No other animal would ever do that. I couldn’t help but be amused and conclude that the age of humans was surely the result of some evolutionary mishap. And here I was on an active volcano trek.
An island shaped by countless calamities, Sumatra is a geological souvenir of our beautiful planet’s tumultuous tectonic antiquity; Earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons and volcanic disasters that changed the course of this planet’s history. Indonesia’s largest island is dotted with relics of those catastrophic events that define the entirety of its territory, of which the volcanoes are the most fascinating.
There are currently thirty-five active volcanoes in Sumatra. 35! After that sinks in, consider this - The island is home to a Supervolcano, known to be the deadliest in the history of planet’s existence that spans nearly 5-billion years.
The last time the Supervolcano erupted, it resulted in the death of most of the human beings alive at the time. The genetic legacy of the human race was altered forever and the planet was engulfed in a ‘volcanic winter’ that lasted several years. Ashes from the eruptions have been found as far east as Lake Malawi in Africa. And yet, volcanoes are a strong part of Sumatran life. Mt. Sibayak is one of two active volcanoes that overlook Berastagi. It's close neighbour, Mt. Sinabung recently came alive in 2010, after 400 years of dormancy. Just this June, the city had to be evacuated before an eruption
. In the aftermath, the people returned to their homes covered in ash and what could be years of unpredictable, atypical weather. However, human life surrounds the two volcanoes with brave acceptance. The volcanic ash keeps the soil fertilized, and agriculture flourishes. Hot springs and geothermal power plants run off the earth’s energy and scientists pore over subterranean mysteries in the hope to better understand the nature of the very planet we’ve lived on for millennia. The persistence of human will was both humbling and disarming, especially as I looked around at the magnificent views of the villages that engulf the two volcanoes, which have the power to engulf them forever.
In Berastagi, you are never too far away from the silhouette of either Gunung Sibayak or its bigger, louder neighbour. Sinabung is taller, bigger and more closely resembles the mental image of a steaming volcanic pyramid. However, due to a recent eruption and unpredictable fuming, trekking to the top was not permitted. So I climbed up Gunung Sibayak instead. I caught a minivan to the foot of the volcano, which dropped me off at a palm-roofed hut, which I later discovered was the official entrance to the trail. I signed my name in the visitor’s log book and set off to climb my first active volcano. In about two hours of unremarkable trekking, I was at the foot of Mt. Sibayak. I saw the first signs of human life in the blue tarpaulin tents visible at a distance. As I walked closer, the jet-engine roar of the volcano was clearly audible. I looked up, and there it was, finally within reach. I scrambled for directions in the absence of visible signage. I started walking in the direction of the volcano until I found a group of young local kids, camping near a cliff. They pointed to the tiniest little opening on the cliff and I pulled myself up to the final leg of the journey.
As I inched closer to the roar of sulfurous fumes, signs of life began disappearing. Plant life grew sparser and more alien. Perhaps unsurprising, but it was a little unnerving that even birds weren’t interested in flying in closer for a peek. A trickling stream of yellow water showed signs of the weirdest moss that I have ever seen. This was an undeniably hostile environment. Except for humans. It was impossible to not to smile in solidarity as I walked past a camp of photographers who clearly felt safe enough inside the single-layer protection of their nylon pop-up tents. The overwhelming feeling that I was walking above a steaming cauldron of hot magma quickly subsided almost as soon as I stepped on a steaming crack spouting magma vapor. There was no real reason to be wary because the volcano is closely monitored and the trails are closed if there’s the smallest chance of suspected eruptions. But light tremors are frequent and the stench of Hydrogen Sulphide varies in potency from time to time, which is a bit unsettling. Each cautious step closer to the volcano is a step further away from a life-saving escape. And so I tightened the straps of my bag, pulled my scarf carefully over my nose and decided to climb the highest peak visible. Even as the air was saturated with reeking clouds of sulphur, it was clear enough to marvel at the view of Sinabung in the distance. Steaming from the tip, Sinabung resembles textbook diagrams of an active volcano, complete with an ominous, smoking tip. I imagined rivers of lava running underneath the daunting but relatively placid exterior. The valley at the foothills was a familiar picture-perfect Asian mosaic of paddy fields and harvested crops, with shadows of Sinabung sweeping away any accusations of delusion. Both volcanoes are acknowledged parts of Berastagi’s identity.
I took a different route on the way down, through jungles and slippery trails. It took over an hour for the sounds of the forest to drown out Mt. Sibayak’s roar. I pulled out a little hand-drawn map from my bag to make sure I was going in the right direction. It all checked out. Even as I stood in its inescapable shadow, I turned around and smiled in acknowledgement of having climbed down an active volcano. Header picture by Jean-Marie Prival