As we had no car (stupid mistake) and no mode of transport in Berastagi, Sumatra we decided to hire a tour guide to hike us up the active Sibayak Volcano, visit a ghost town near Sinabung and take us for a dip in the hot springs.
Why I wouldn’t choose our guide again
To cut a long story short he was horrible and the whole experience was very unpleasant (think drunk man in car, no seat belts, pretending to SMS your husband (and showing the kids the secret messages you were actually typing to them) and all you want is to go home to give your babies a big hug) so I’m going to tell you how to avoid that and how to do it yourselves!
It really is very simple and you can save yourselves 2,000 rupiah and a whole lot of unnecessary stress.
Why we think you should rent a car
Driving in Sumatra is not hard, it’s just very time consuming. It takes a ridiculous amount of time to get anywhere because the roads are often not paved very well. You will need patience to deal with the Sumatrans who just seem to do as they please but it isn’t difficult to drive there and there is method in their maddness.
I really wish that we’d invested in a hire car and this is coming from a lone female (Rich was working in China) with three kids.
Get a local SIM card
One of the mistakes I made was relying on my British SIM card to work in Indonesia. It didn’t, I could rarely get a signal but local SIM cards always worked and they’re also dirt cheap to use. 3GB of data cost about 30p/50c!
Never, ever, go up the volcano (or go on a tour or get in a car in Sumatra) without a working SIM card. I cannot reiterate how stupid I was and how badly the situation could have gone.
Indonesia is a ring of fire
Indonesia sits at a junction of four tectonic plates (Australian, Philippine, Eurasia and Pacific) in an area dubbed the ‘ring of fire’. It is an area of major tectonic plate movement and active volcanoes.
In a horseshoe shape encompassing 40,000 km, the areas is associated with a continuous series of oceanic trenches, volcanic arcs, volcanic belts and plate movements. The Ring of Fire has a total of 452 volcanoes and has 75% of the Earth’s active and dormant volcanoes.
Indonesia has more active volcanoes than any other country. It contains some of the world’s most famous volcanoes: Krakatau (Krakatoa), Tambora and Merapi. There are 151 volcanoes in Indonesia with 76 volcanoes having erupted within the last 200 years.
35 of those volcanoes can be found on the island of Sumatra.
Which volcano should you visit?
South of Medan and Bukit Lawang but north of Padang sits Berastagi. Admittedly it is lesser known and hiked than the volcano Bukittinggi which sits further south but this shouldn’t detract from what is a nice hike.
Sibayak is the least active of the two volcanoes in this area. Although it bellows out yellow breath (aka sulfur) it isn’t considered to be high risk.
Sinabung in comparison woke up in 2015 and explodes very regularly. It constantly spews out gas, rocks, lava and fire. It definitely is not safe to trek!
If, like us, you’re really interested there are quite a few ‘ghost town’s in the area which were evacuated but you will need a tour guide to take you into what is described as the red zone.
You’ll need to ignore the litter around Sibayak
Sumatra was one of those places that disgusted me. It has the potential to be so amazing (and parts of it are) but it’s also a big shit hole. Everywhere you look there’s rubbish; plastic, bottles, cans, wrappers, food and they empty this rubbish at the side of the road, in bushes, into the sea, anywhere they can. Despite being surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery, there is no regard for nature.
If the rubbish isn’t left in a big pile, Sumatrans also BURN their plastic rubbish, cook on it and sit around it as if it’s a campfire. The smell is putrid. It gets stuck in the back of your throat and makes you gag and the smoke hangs in the air. It was shocking to see kids playing around it and people eating over it.
Just keep to the path on Sibayak Volcano
The locals love to scare you out of money with stories about people dying on the trek. It is true that a man died in 2016 walking down from the volcano however, it looks like he might have had a prosthetic leg and he wasn’t walking the path. His body was found a long way from anywhere which is suspicious – especially as it transpired he was incredibly wealthy.
The locals camp up on Sibayak in tents so I cannot reiterate enough that a tour guide is unnecessary.
Hike the easy way
The summit of Gunung Sibayak rises to 6,870 feet, providing excellent views of Berastagi and the surrounding countryside.
The hike from Berastagi can take three hours one way, which is fine for adults, but with the intense humidity my kids were just not up for the challenge. So we decided to cop out and take the easy way up.
Am I disappointed?
YES! Undoubtedly I wanted to push myself physically and hike through the jungle. I wanted that burn and I wanted that sense of accomplishment but part of travelling as a family with small kids is negotiation. Although I probably could have pushed them to complete one of the harder treks it would have been at the loss of something else. This is just one of those frustrating situations that I’m sure many families can identify with.
Where you need to drive to
Pay the lady and drive up to the car park. Although the road is REALLY bad and full of pot holes, you should still be able to drive up. This leaves a much shorter trek of about 40 minutes.
You need to head for the cafe named Warung Kopi.
Are you looking for a harder trek?
Start trekking at the hot springs of Semangat Gunung. The trail from the hot springs is about a two-hour walk and the trail is extremely steep and has its share of leg-burning stairs.
For an even harder trek, start off at Air Terjun Panorama. A waterfall about 3 miles outside Berastagi. Starting the trek here requires at least five hours to the summit, including a sweltering hike through the dense jungle. The trail is not easy to follow and a local guide is recommended.
Parking and restaurants on Sibayak Volcano
The parking area is large and there seem to be a considerable amount of restaurants, tents and people swinging in hammocks. I found Sumatra very confusing as nobody seemed to have regular work or sleep patterns but I was informed by many locals that this is totally normal! They even grab a few minutes sleep standing up!
Hike through the undergrowth
Although the path is well marked it is not in great condition and in parts it has washed away, collapsed or has undergrowth and trees growing over it.
Can you stomach the stench of sulfur?
About half way up the mountain the smell starts to hit you. A bit like rotting eggs it gets stronger the higher you go. The closer you go to the steam vents the more nauseous you may feel.
The sulfur is easily identifiable by its fluorescent yellow coloured dust that it leaves on adjacent rocks. We were able to touch it with sticks and even collect some rock samples that we’ve brought back with us. 13 weeks later the smell is still pungent but not as strong.
Look out over the domes of tents
Before we saw the tents we heard the guitars and tamborines. Sumatrans come up here for a holiday (despite the smell) and bring with them full camping regalia including gas tanks, cooking stoves and bags of shopping. They sound really happy though and their singing is carried around the volcano on the winds.
Leave your mark on Sibayak Crater
The shape of the volcano changes year on year but currently it looks like an M shape. There’s a large crater that sits in between two peaks. Think of it like one mountain that got blown into two leaving a crater straddling the middle section.
During the dry season it’s pretty dry and visitors use it to spell out their names in rocks but in the wet season it looks like a gorgeous pool of glistening turquoise.
Reach the summit of the volcano
Reaching the summit was a great feeling. You have a breath-taking view over Berastagi and the entire valley all the way over to Sinabung. It’s pretty cold and windy at the top so you’ll need to dress accordingly.
It also goes without saying that you’ll need decent walking shoes as many of the rocks are unstable up there.
Watch out for the fallen steps
On the way back down keep an eye out for the fallen steps. These look like they’ve been washed away and not replaced.
There is also a small section of path which has been narrowed by a rock slide.
How long will it take you?
About 40-50 minutes to get up to the crater, allow an extra 10 minutes to climb to the summit.
When should you visit?
Gunung Sibayak is best enjoyed during Sumatra’s dry season between June and August. If possible, plan your volcano climb for a weekday; Berastagi becomes particularly busy on weekends especially during the peak season.
Video of our time on the volcano
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