In August 2011, I was climbing Gunung Sibayak without a guide (Sumatra, Indonesia). The eerie landscape of the caldera and risky scramble down were part of an adventure that I’ll never forget.
As an added bonus, I was kept awake all night before the climb by earthquakes rattling my bungalow. I guess that’s what happens when you sleep between Gunung Sinabung and Gunung Sibayak, two of Sumatra’s busiest volcanoes!
I wrote up a nice four-page feature of the trek for the November 2011 edition of Leisure Travel Magazine in Southeast Asia. They published it in print. My story of climbing Gunung Sibayak without a guide (but not alone!) is below.
Update: A few years later I returned to Sumatra to climb Gunung Marapi independently, a bigger, meaner volcano than Gunung Sibayak, even!
Yet another tremor rattled the bottle of water on the metal table next to my bed.
The dim glow of my alarm read 04:00. I was due to start climbing Gunung Sibayak, one of North Sumatra’s most famous volcanoes, in just a few hours.
My bungalow, perched precariously on wooden stilts, swayed a little to confirm that the rattle wasn’t just my imagination. Thunder boomed like an explosion in the distance adding to my unease.
Was it Gunung Sinabung blowing just a short distance away? The 2,460-meter-tall volcano, one of Sumatra’s meanest, was dormant for 400 years before surprising everyone with an eruption in 2010. Or was it Gunung Sibayak — the volcano I intended to climb — shaking things up a bit to compete with its taller sibling?
Update: Gunung Sinabung began erupting in 2013 (two years after I was there) and hasn’t stopped. It has erupted almost every year since!
Undoubtedly, the two volcanoes were connected by magma channels beneath the ground, and perhaps beneath my very bungalow. The entire area around the small town of Berastagi is a geologist’s playground.
I couldn’t help but to think that one ill-fated shift of pressure beneath the ground could mean a serious change of plans.
Although Gunung Sibayak has not erupted in over a century, it will one day. The geothermal activity in the area is apparent everywhere as hot springs and new steam vents are constantly popping up to relieve the growing pressure.
The tremors continued throughout the night making sleep impossible. Instead, I hazily dreamed of the turmoil taking place underneath my bed at that very moment.
The local residents of Berastagi probably never even noticed the tremors, but those of us who come from a less geologically-active part of the world were wide awake in our beds wondering what would come next!
Getting Ready for Climbing Gunung Sibayak
Having survived the night without a wink of sleep, I dragged myself into the mountain-chilled air and splashed some frigid water on my face. I could hear the traffic in Berastagi already getting started in the dim, early-morning light. Driving in Sumatra tends to be chaos.
My partners for this adventure were already sitting down with hot drinks. Mike, a police officer from England, with Sebastian and Jonathan — two German travelers — looked up at me with red eyes as I joined.
Although we were strangers yesterday, we were to trust each other with our lives today. That’s part of the beauty of independent travel.
“Did you guys feel the earthquake last night?” I asked, rubbing the sleep out of my eyes.
The Germans had indeed felt the tremors, but Mike, who had been lucky enough to receive a concrete bungalow, listened intently as we talked about the vibrations. The shaking, which we didn’t know at the time were aftershocks from a much larger earthquake in distant Jakarta, only added to the sense of adventure.
The volcano climbing team; photo by Mike Buckingham.
Hiking to the Volcano
After a short breakfast, we eagerly hit the trail. Although guides for climbing Gunung Sibayak can be hired for around US $20, we decided the night before to tackle the volcano independently without a guide.
Climbing alone is always a bad idea, but all were confident that between the four of us we could handle a situation turned bad.
Walking through town, we talked about what the weather would bring. Gunung Sibayak is relatively easy to climb without a guide, however, rain makes the steep trails quickly become slippery and dangerous. People have actually lost their lives attempting to climb in poor weather.
Although it had been raining in Berastagi for the last five days, only a slight mist fell from the overcast sky this morning.
After a quick stop to buy some fruit in the market, we picked up the pace. Soon, concrete streets gave way to a smaller, paved path as we left Berastagi behind. Farmers waved and wished us luck from the fields we passed; they knew where we were heading.
The morning air smelled green and fresh, and the sun was even teasing to make an appearance for the first time in days. The temperature warmed up enough for us to take off our rain jackets.
The clouds cleared just enough that we could see Gunung Sibayak in the distance. The green slopes faded upward to jagged, gray rocks near the top. I knew that within a few hours we would be scrambling up those same rocks. The thought sent a quick snap of adrenaline through my heart, and I quickly forgot about my sleepless night.
Climbing Gunung Sibayak Independently
Forty-five minutes later, after paying a negligible entrance fee at the base of the trail, we began up the steep, concrete path to our volcano.
Crashing sounds from the dense forest on either side of us kept our attention as we hiked along. I eventually caught the gray flash of a macaque swinging in the trees above. I secretly hoped he couldn’t smell the dozen finger-sized bananas I had in my backpack as emergency food!
The trail grew steeper and steeper with every bend. Just as I started to think that being ten years older than my climbing mates was a bad idea, Jonathan suggested that we take a quick break. I couldn’t have been more relieved.
“Sure, if you guys need a break,” I answered, quite sure that my wheezing betrayed any intended bravado.
After an hour or so of leg-burning hiking, we came to a large campground littered with debris and pools of stagnant, yellow water. We blundered around the edges looking for the path, but all the short, muddy trails we followed came to an end.
No trail signs or helpful hints of where to go next probably boosted business for the local guides who knew that many independent hikers would give up at this point. I had seen the same thing in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. Local guides tore down trail markers and did their best to create demand for themselves.
Despite the setback, we were determined to press forward.
Realizing that we must have missed something, we backtracked and soon saw a single footprint in the mud at the base of a vertical rock just on the left before the campground clearing. Although only three meters high, the scramble was up sheer, wet, crumbling rock. Having cleared the first obstacle Gunung Sibayak threw at us, we soon found the muddy path that we hoped lead to the summit.
The narrow trail was wet and slippery with sticky, volcanic mud. Dried bits of lava and yellowish sulfur littered the path that had nearly been claimed by the jungle.
Large leaves hanging overhead blocked out what little sun we had as we clawed along in the muck. Vines threatened to tangle feet, and slippery rocks had to be negotiated carefully.
Miraculously, although conditions were perfect for leeches, all four of us escaped without a single attached bloodsucker. I had the opposite experience while trekking in the Luang Nam Tha Protected Area in Laos. They barely left me any blood!
After walking for some time along a shallow creek, I knew we were getting closer. The smells of sulfur and equally unpleasant, poisonous gases were suffocating. Every breath was gagging, and the stubborn stench would remain on our clothes and skin for days to come after the climb.
We smelled like rotten eggs.
Upon emerging from the creek bed, the trail stopped and one thing was apparent: we were now standing on the top of Gunung Sibayak.
All signs of life stopped as we hiked over the rim and entered the volcano caldera. The landscape snapped harshly from lush and green to stark and barren; no plant life had survived.
Loose shale and small rocks formed a carpet for as far as we could see. Mist swirled and clouds rushed by overhead, seemingly within arm’s reach.
Steam rose from small holes in the ground, setting an ethereal, mystical scene. All conversation and joking stopped as the four of us took in our other-worldly surroundings with wide eyes. Noxious gases blasted from head-sized holes with the pressure of jet engines; we had to shout to be heard above the noise.
I had expected a large vent typically found at the top of volcanoes, but instead dozens of small openings in the Earth working desperately to relieve the intense pressure. We could actually feel the vibrations through the crumbled rocks beneath our feet.
I suddenly had the feeling that we were effectively walking on top of a geological time bomb — this was one active volcano!
The landscape belonged more in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth than it did on our world. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that we humans certainly did not belong in this strange and threatening place.
Sulfuric water boiled and trickled from small holes as we scrambled around the vents, careful to avoid the gases. The vents can be deadly if you receive a direct blast of the gas.
Maybe not the smartest thing I’ve ever done, we took turns tossing rocks and fruit into the gas vents, laughing when they were launched high into the air like mortar shells.
Getting Off the Volcano
The rain started just about the time that we had enjoyed our fill of the environment. We decided to take our chances by hiking into town down the far side of the volcano rather than going back the way we came.
Visibility was less than two meters as we picked our way along the dangerous slopes in the clouds. Hardly a pleasant trail, each of us sacrificed a little blood from falls and scrapes along the way.
Over two hours later we emerged into the tiny town of Semangat Gunung. We went inside one of the hot springs houses and soaked our sore muscles, recounting the adventure and enjoying a sense of relief.
Feeling elated, we knew our hard day had been permanently transformed into untouchable memories and experience without injury. Later that evening we celebrated our adventure with dinner and drinks in the guesthouse. The other guests could certainly tell we had already been to the volcano. If not from the scrapes, the smell!
Despite smelling like a volcano’s bowel movement, Gunung Sibayak graciously allowed us to take a peek at its secrets without incident. Hopefully the volcano can hold its temper just a little longer for more travelers to enjoy.
How to Get There
With more than 120 active volcanoes fuming around Indonesia, Gunung Sibayak is one of the easiest to climb without a guide. The intimate interaction with a volcano that you can find on Gunung Sibayak just isn’t possible with the larger, more famous volcanoes such as Bromo and Rinjani.
Even if sulfur gas and dangerous vents aren’t your thing, the views of the green Karo Highlands surrounding Gunung Sibayak are well worth a trip up the volcano.
Cheap flights can be had from Kuala Lumpur (and other points) to Medan in Northern Sumatra.
The Bus to Berastagi
Once in Medan, take a bus from the Pinang Baris bus terminal to Berastagi, about two and a half hours away. Buses leave every 30 minutes until 6 p.m.
Where to Stay in Berastagi
In Berastagi, Wisma Sibayak is an old-school backpacker’s guesthouse within walking distance of the volcano trail.
Again, don’t do the volcano climb alone! Team up with other travelers. The medical clinic in Berastagi is Dead on Arrival Mama (proof below). Not the place to go for a backpacking travel injury.
How to Climb Gunung Sibayak Without a Guide
Guides can be hired at Wisma Sibayak for around US $20, however, you can find the paths yourself with advice from the guesthouse staff and a little luck. Remember: Climb the yellow rocks on the left located just before the campground clearing to find the hidden caldera trail.
Don’t climb Gunung Sibayak alone! If traveling alone, team up with others at the guesthouse for safety. The trails are slippery.
Bring water for the steep trails, and wear good shoes as the sharp rocks will make short work of sandals. The weather can turn cold and wet with little warning; bring rain gear and a waterproof bag for your phone/camera. Even if the weather is nice when you leave the guesthouse, it may not stay that way!
Start your hike as early in the morning as possible. Allow some buffer time in case you get lost or the weather turns bad, which it often does. Depending on your level of fitness, allow at least three hours of steady, uphill effort to reach the summit.
The best time for climbing Gunung Sibayak without a guide is during Sumatra’s drier months between June and August. Even still, always expect a cool rain at any given time in the Karo Highlands.
- I often rely on the excellent volcano guides over on Gunung Bagging. They’ve got a detailed guide for bagging Gunung Sibayak.
- Don’t even think about doing stuff like this without travel medical insurance that covers adventures (many don’t). I trust SafetyWing (affiliate link). Try not to end up at the DOA Mama clinic.
Now, go climb a volcano!
What to do in Berastagi after climbing Gunung Sibayak? Well, Berastagi could hardly be described as exciting. You could always hang around this giant cabbage monument.