Monkeys and Machetes
Once limited to those with an uncanny spirit for peril and excitement, Sumatra is slowly joining the ranks of Indonesian islands that are famous for their bountiful opportunities for vacationers. Show-stopping scenery, volcanoes and orangutans dot the landscape of this isolated corner of the world, not to mention more than a few indigenous tribes. Quirky and wild though it may be, sticky Sumatra is no longer just for daredevils.
The Indonesian city of Medan was a convenient launching point for our weeklong trek. We quickly made our way to the charming hamlet of Tuk Tuk, located on the shores of Lake Toba in the higher altitudes of Sumatra’s interior. The climate is decidedly more agreeable, a welcome alternative to steamy Medan.
We boarded a jubilantly ragtag boat and drank in the views stretching out before us: placid waters and green-draped cliffs encircling an immense lake. The largest volcanic lake of its kind in the world, Lake Toba was formed 75,000 years ago in one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in Earth’s history. So cataclysmic were the effects that the human population dropped dramatically in the years following, and we are thought to have evolved from the small batch of survivors who made it through the long volcanic winter that ensued.
Many millennia after its violent history, Tuk Tuk is now a stunning oasis with unrivaled beauty. The local Batak people used to be cannibals, but now they take pride in their friendly, welcoming demeanor and favor crayfish, homemade yogurt and banana pancakes over human flesh. Comfortable, and not yet on the touristy trail, we enjoyed swimming, sunbathing, bicycling, hiking and a leisurely kayak trip out on the lake. The waterfalls behind Tuk Tuk offered a particularly refreshing swim after the easy trek up, and the view was awesome.
It wasn’t long before we felt a pull toward the city of Beristagi and its two volcanoes in the verdant Karo Highlands. Even though the sunrise at the top of Mount Sibayak is supposed to be spectacular, we opted for the more difficult Mount Sinabung, an enigma of a volcano that was long thought to be dormant until — much to the surprise of the locals — it erupted in 2010 and forced nearly 20,000 people to evacuate. As we turned our toes toward the summit, its continued volcanic activity made itself known; a steady plume of smoke and steam could still be seen bubbling out from the top, and it has been erupting frequently since last September.
The agricultural benefits of the region’s rich volcanic soils became apparent as we drove to the trailhead, undulating endlessly through landscapes of fertile crops. Passing families en route to their fields in ox-drawn carts, we felt a long way from condo life in downtown Seoul. These feelings would intensify: With a steep, relentless climb in excess of 1,000 meters, the hike took us up and out of the jungle and, eventually, above the clouds, where a sulfurous stink announced our imminent arrival at the summit. We spent three hours scrambling up hardened lava streams weaving through dense vegetation, but we had finally reached the steaming crater, and we had it all to ourselves.
After our breathtaking experience at the top of Mount Sinabung, we decided to round out our trip with something a little closer to the ground: an orangutan search in Gunung Leuser National Park. We hiked overnight from the small village of Ketambe, got some rest, then met up with our machete-wielding guide, whose backside we would spend the next two days looking at as we wound through green, shadowy jungle. Since the orangutans here are truly wild, there could be no guarantee we would actually see one. However, we had several encounters, the most memorable of which involved an adult male who settled in for a nap mere steps away from us. Stunning.
Affordable and accessible, yet off the beaten path, Sumatra is Indonesia at its finest. Even the more luxurious accommodations are only about 130,000-175,000 rupiah ($11-$14), cheaper than a dinner out in Seoul. Speaking of food, the area has many lovely restaurants serving fresh-caught fish and lobster, coconut, rice, curries and beer for mere pennies. You can even get sandwiches made with avocados off the tree in the backyard for 10,000 Indonesian rupiah, or about 860 won.
The flight down from Seoul will be your highest expense — April and May dates hover around 700,000 won round-trip. Whether you take a dip in a crater lake, scale a volcano or dive headfirst into the jungle with a machete, it’s well worth your time. Sumatra is heaven.