On an active volcano in Sumatra

The first explosions awoke me in the middle of the night, in my tent on the slopes of an active volcano.

We were in Sumatra, one of the largest islands in the world, that sits on the equator and is the home to volcanoes, tropical forests and a population of tigers greater than the rest of Asia combined.

The trek had started well. During the day we had ascended through the tropical forest and started to climb the steeper parts of Volcano Marapi. The terrain underfoot changed from rooty to rocky as we left the cover of the forest behind us and emerged into open air, direct sunlight and views of volcanic mountains, the town of Bukittinggi in the distance, and the vast Indian Ocean.

At lunch time we had stopped to rest in a wooden shelter in the forest, where my guide Sani and porter Dicky started to cook rice. Cultural differences show up in surprising places, sometimes at lunchtime on mountains. In Madeira I had joined forces with some French people to hike in the mountains there and in true French style they opened a bottle of red wine to drink with the food in their lunch boxes. I was charmed, of course: it was so French! But it was nevertheless alien to my traditions. For me and my friends, drinking was all part of climbing in the mountains, but strictly at the end of the day, down at the pub, not whilst on the hill. Equally, we would never unpack our camping stoves and start to cook a meal in the middle of the day. But this wasn’t the Lake District of England, it was Indonesia, and many things are different here, even on a trek. When the rice was finally deemed to be properly cooked they added beef and a spicy sauce to produce hot meals for the three of us.

An hour or so later we continued climbing, weaving through the trees, stepping on or around raised roots. The path was quite dry but it was obvious that it would quickly become muddy and slippery after a downpour. We were shaded by the trees, but it was still hot and humid, so we drank from the water bottles we were carrying. I wondered if we had brought enough to keep us hydrated in the tropical climate.

Our objective was to climb to within striking distance of the cratered summit, then camp overnight before making an early start to climb the remaining distance to the summit at 2,891 metres (9,485 feet). Sani found a suitable place to pitch our tents just before darkness and rain both started to fall. Sheltered in our tents, Sani and Dicky started to cook again.

With another rice-based meal inside me, I retired to my tent, set my alarm for 4.00 am, and got into my sleeping bag. The heat had disappeared with the sunlight and it was going to be a cold night up here on the higher slopes of Marapi. The rocky ground was also uncomfortable and my so my sleep was sporadic and light, but I would surely have been woken from even the deepest of sleep by the noise that started around 3.00 am.

The bright flashes and cracking sounds weren’t coming from the volcano though; these were fireworks being set off by a group of young men camping nearby. Rockets flared up into the black sky and exploded noisily into colours. Repeated flashes and bangs continued irregularly for half an hour or so, until their pyrotechnic supplies were exhausted, though the party still had lots of vitality and continued for a while longer.

Soon it was 4 am and time to get up, though we had agreed the night before to check the weather at this time before setting off. Because it was still raining and the sky was cloudy, we decided that there was little chance of seeing the sunrise, so we adopted Plan B and went back to sleep for a few more hours.

Breakfast was another full meal, cooked on the gas stoves. Fried chicken and chipped potatoes, noodles, plus (inevitably) rice. We also had local Indonesian coffee, from here in Sumatra of course, not Java coffee from the neighbouring island. Finely ground, it’s prepared like Turkish coffee and leaves a dark mud at the bottom of the cup once the caffeine is consumed.

After breakfast, Sani and I climbed to the summit, leaving Dicky at our ‘base camp’, which also meant that we didn’t have to carry our heavy rucsacs any higher. In 45 minutes we arrived at the first of this volcano’s three summits. We took photos and also read the inscriptions on the small monuments commemorating the lives and deaths of local mountaineers and guides.

The two of us circled the double craters, which like the double barrels of a shotgun could produce hellfire from time to time, but now were simply hot and slightly smoking, with an acrid aroma. Downwind, there was a strong and distinctive smell of sulphur from the cauldrons. The second summit had scientific equipment to monitor the volcano’s activity and transmit data to laboratories elsewhere. The third summit was the highest and windiest, and the path to it took us closest to the slopes that tumbled down into the deep and deathly craters and the infernos of the earth’s crust.

Back down from the summits and out of the wind, we struck camp in the sunshine and packed the tents, sleeping bags and cooking equipment into our three backpacks. We set off strongly, starting the long descent back through the rocky paths and down into the forest. Sani’s gait seemed leisurely but was steady and efficient without being slow. It reminded me of the steady pace of my climbing companion on Toubkal in Morocco, Heather Geluk, who was an experienced Himalayan mountaineer. In both cases I kept up with them, but it seemed to take much more effort on my part. Several hours later, we were still descending and the light was fading, partly because of the canopy of the trees but also because it was now late in the afternoon. Around 5pm the conditions were ideal, the heat of the day past its peak, and the forest paths we walked were becoming less steep, but it was clear that darkness would soon arrive. The paths seemed endless and now the light was fading fast. We would need to use our head torches, but were reluctant to use them too soon, because our eyes were adjusting to the gloom and that advantage would be lost as soon as we switched on battery-powered light.

Deep in the forest, the horizon was invisible, so there would be no majestic sunset view from here. Days earlier I had watched the sun dip into the ocean from the wooded hill in the coastal city of Padang, but we were still far from any town, seemingly alone in the forest. The nearer the equator, the more rapid the sunset. In these parts, there is no lingering dusk of an English summer, nor its gentle early dawns. In equatorial latitudes, the earth’s seasonal sways make little difference, and here we were just south of the equator by less than one degree, at a latitude of 0° 22′ 51.59″ South.

No seaside view was needed though, to know the sun had set, because at a certain moment, as if somebody had flipped a switch, the forest became electric with noise as the millions of insects and other nocturnal creatures awoke into night mode, coming alive with a cacophony of chirping, buzzing, scraping and scratching. Even the quickly setting sun is not as rapid as the transformation of the forest from the peaceful melodies of birdsong to this repetitive and endless sharp electronic buzzing. It was like coming out of a bright room filled with the harmonies of a string quartet into the heavy surround sound of techno beat in a dark disco.

Not only was the geography so different from England here, but also the culture. It was time to stop and rest, my guides told me. I was tiring and glad of a pause, but this wasn’t because of my aching legs: it was time for the Maghrib evening prayer at sunset. We sat quietly in the dark shelter, making the most of the obligatory break. Dicky said we could continue on our way at 7pm, at the end of prayer time. On the volcano and in the forest I had almost forgotten that this was a Muslim country but this prayer-time halt was a clear reminder to me of a profoundly different culture here in Indonesia.

In the same way it’s easy to forget such cultural differences when doing business in other countries, especially as we get to know colleagues and friends, and become comfortable with them. That’s when culture shock hits: not at the beginning when we are braced for it, but when we have started to relax. It’s at those times that we slip up, or are wrong-footed, or embarrass ourselves or our colleagues. I’ve had such awkward experiences in China and elsewhere.

We continued walking in the dark. Insects flew across the beams of our head torches as we continued along endless paths that seemed to have been stretched to twice their length since we walked on them only the day before. Then we came to the bamboo bridge. This was nothing substantial, no feat of engineering; just twenty or so bamboo poles of different thicknesses laid across a gap over the river. It wasn’t clear if anything held them together. I remembered it as a landmark and at this point had a better sense of where we were, and how far we had yet to go. We had finished our supplies of water long ago and there was no water supply on the trek, but after another mile we arrived at a camp site with a tap. Less than an hour later we arrived back at the national park registration post and checked in to let them know we had safely returned. Then we took another team photo to accompany the one taken at the start of the journey, to make a ‘before and after’ pair. In Wiby’s cafe at the national park entrance we ate a spicy dinner of fried rice, noodles and egg.

This marked the successful end of our little expedition. Sani gave me a ride on her scooter down to the little town on the main road to catch a bus back to Padang. Before the bus arrived a minibus stopped and after agreeing a reasonable price I got a lift back to town.

My modest homestay in Padang, so far from my own country and culture, felt like being back at home after sleeping in a tent. My bed under the mosquito net, with a real pillow, and cooled by a fan, was a luxury in comparison to the night before. I was back down at sea level, rehydrated, and away from the smouldering volcano. Perhaps it was because of my exhausted deep sleep, but I heard no explosions that night.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
Published 31 August 2018.

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