It always is a very tough task to choose among a multitude of equally splendid possibilities, and choosing mountains to climb in Sumatra makes a perfect example of this. This enormous island is full of great mountains from side to side, probably more than one could climb in an entire life. And me, having only one month to spare on this land, how weak I felt compromising with the indomitable nature of time…
Anyway, having already made my way to Bukittinggi in West Sumatra, Mount Marapi and Singgalang, the two neighboring, imperious volcanoes situated in the vicinity of the city, seemed to be perfectly eligible to make a fantastic, two-in-one trekking trip. I was going to climb both of them one after the other. So, that sunny morning, me and my backpack, we were leaving Bukittinggi with Mount Marapi being our first goal.
Mount Marapi, meaning “fire mountain” in the local language, reaches an elevation of 2891 AMSL and bears the great honor of being regarded as the most active volcano in Sumatra, currently erupting and being in a state of alert since 2011. It also bears yet another honor of being celebrated as the first settlement of the local Minangkabau people, according to a legend narrating of an ark of their ancestors landing upon its top after some sort of cataclysm, in the exact same fashion as Deucalion landed upon Parnassus, Noah upon Ararat and every other corresponding hero of the Eastern Mediterranean mythology upon a mountain or another. I was well aware of this fable being common in every peoples’ mythology in the geographical area just above mentioned. The fact I became aware of just there, however, of this story coinciding in such a distant from the old world area as well, I deem it a very interesting one. Whether it was heard of and consequently adopted from the first Arab merchants, or maybe from some other people in a much more ancient time somehow, or even if it was independently created, giving a clue of something instinctive – as inherent antlophobia e.g. – underlying the story, rather than an actual common origin, I cannot say. Nor is it anyhow the subject of the present story, but I just shortly give it as a curious fact.
Back to my story, it was that sunny morning, and I got to Koto Baru, the closest village to Mount Marapi’s trailhead, by changing two buses from the center of Bukittinggi, paying 3000 and 5000 IDR respectively. By the time I arrived there, about two hours later, it wasn’t morning anymore, nor was it any sunny at all… Thick, gloomy clouds had accumulated themselves over my head, foresaying impending wet situations. I hired an ojek to take me to the trailhead for 10000 IDR, where I was asked to pay 40000 IDR for the park ticket but, as they were very nice people, they readily accepted my suggestion of paying only 10000 instead, which is the normal price for the locals.
That done, I started right away on the trail, though I did not go far. Less than twenty steps later, the skies opened apart, obliging me to stop under a small shed I found and wait for a while. I waited for some fifteen minutes and, after the rain calmed down a bit, I started once again. This time I was not to make any stop soon. And that was not because the rain ceased, but only because I understood that it’s not going to cease after it started again, manifold as strong as before, about 100 steps or so after I reassumed my trek. And that understanding of mine was totally right. It didn’t cease for all the rest of the day but only varied from being strong to be stronger and even stronger.
Besides the rain, the main characteristic of this trip were the crowds of people ascending simultaneously with me. Without me knowing it, I had happened to come to climb this mountain during a public holiday of some sort. No doubt, this was the most crowded trek I have ever done. There were literally hundreds, if not thousands, of people going up that day. The great majority of them were local students adhering to their custom of climbing mountains during the public holidays. The ones remaining were a few groups of older Indonesians and one foreigner, who was me. There were even food stalls set by local families along the trail, the most of them near the beginning of the trail and one just below the top. I could not normally imagine that I could ever enjoy a trekking trip with so many people, but I admittedly did. Those young guys were just amazing. They were going cheerfully up in larger or smaller parties, all of them greeting me with ample smiles, without any exception I can recall. They were going up skimpily equipped, wearing old shoes, casual clothes and plastic covers for rain-gear, pretty much as I also do myself and exactly how I like to see hikers – opposed to those “parlor-hikers”, sadly so common in many of the world’s popular mountains, who one may see going up bearing any sort of superfluous gear purchased dearly from the best brands, not because of utility but of mere trend.
After that wet, slippery and muddy, yet very pleasant hike of the day, the night caught me at 2300 AMSL, right where the first views became visible through the subsiding jungle. Camping on that mountain is not a problem. Even with so many people going up on the same day, there was plenty of camping-ground along the entire length of the trail. I found a nice spot right on the rim of a little gorge, hosting a serene, lulling stream, and there I lodged. Quite surprisingly, notwithstanding the air, the ground, the inside of tent, all my spare clothes, me – in other words everything – being soaked all over and the rain keeping on, I had a sound and peaceful sleep that night until 4am, when I got up intent to reach the peak by sunrise.
I passed through the last remnants of the forest, and there was I out, heading steadily up on the rocky and sandy volcanic terrain, staring at the myriads of stars above and the human lights below. I didn’t take more than an hour, and I found myself strolling through that Mars-like plateau while inhaling the generous amounts of sulfur pervading the air and watching the sky changing gradually its tints to brighter. When the sun finally rose, suffusing the atmosphere with its affluent lucid rays, I got to witness one of the most picturesque and unique mountain-tops I had ever seen. That landscape was totally extraterrestrial. I very easily may believe that if someone was to be brought up there blindfolded would be in a great doubt of whether on earth or not. It was that grayish flat ground, bereft of any sort of life for its greater part, but only drilled here and there with massive, well-like, holes emitting incessantly loads of sulfuric gas. Taking a stroll a bit further down, towards the eastern slope of the volcano, I came to an area occupied by shrubs of various curious kinds, including some species of Leontopodium (edelweiss) peculiar to this mountain alone.
The actual highest point of the mountain is not located near the crater complex, but lies within dense jungle at the north-eastern extension of the mountain, requiring several hours to be reached. It would definitely make a very interesting expedition, but I had some other plans for that day. After spending a few hours exploring around the crater complex, I started to head back down swiftly the west slope, facing the great mass of Singgalang mountain, whither I was destined that very day for…