It’s 0400. Yes, that’s four o’clock AM and we’re meant to be meeting someone named Uncle Mike, the driver, and the ever patient mountain guide, Juan (pronounced Joo-Ahn, “I’m not Spanish”) in a flash new black 4-wheel drive. I wonder why we’d need a 4X4 just to drive up to a parking lot. The map shows that 2,200-meter Mt. Sibayak isn’t far but with the condition of the roads in Berastagi everything takes several times longer than it should. I do know why we’re doing this in total darkness though. It was presented to me as “a quiet walk on a forested mountain path up to a large volcanic caldera for a romantic sunrise with a view over the beautiful village nestled in the valley below.” Sounds nice but my legs have barely stopped shaking from the orangutan jungle trek thing.
It’s 4:30 and we’re off. Do we have flashlights? Oh, of course it’s going to be pitch black the whole way up but all we have is a tiny usb rechargeable. Juan offered us a loaner. In the car bounding over the broken, potholed pavement my head had occasion to intercept Uncle Mike’s doorframe which was on its own crazy random orbit. Shaken and rudely stirred we crept up to the car park and gladly escaped Uncle Mike’s brand new black torture machine which I suspect won’t look so new for long. We’re glad, that is, until we could fully appreciate the steepness of the grade, one lane of crumbling macadam pitched up at 20 degrees or more. I pulled hard till we hit the first switchback, turned, legs quivering, to admire our progress. Really?
So dear reader, picture three faint circles of light, barely illuminating six shoes on the dark side of the moon, accompanied by an unearthly gasping sound. I think that was Marce. Might’ve been me.
We paid money for this.
It got very quiet in between the gasping. There are no photographs for obvious reasons so you’ll just have to imagine us plodding up and up the short steep switchbacks in total darkness. Cue the Volga Boat Song.
That’s when things turned for the worse. Just when I thought this can’t go on much longer Juan stopped and said, “Ok, we’re about half way up” — (met with disbelief) — “and we have to be careful because now we climb the trail.”
Wait a gosh darn minute, this is not as advertised! Sure enough, now we found ourselves doing age-adjusted clambering up and over boulders and rocks with a delightful little stream running over the middle of it making it slippery in spots. Evidence of past attempts to build concrete paths or steps lie in crumbled ruin, making the footing all the more difficult. Sibayak mountain is a volcano, after all.
Finally false dawn began to lighten the frigid thick fog. Juan said he expected the wind to blow the fog off the summit. It didn’t look good.
We sensed a slacking of the relentless climbing and off in the distance we could imagine a foggy smear of color of a few tents. There are people camping here?!
We were suddenly hit with the stench of sulfur and the hiss of hot steam vents. I’m pretty sure I saw Marce glance over at me suspiciously.
We stopped to add our puffy jackets to the mix even though we’re less than three degrees from the equator, then carefully picked our way through the rocky debris field.
Suddenly over a sharp rim we were staring down into the caldera. The wind was fierce, and biting cold.
We took shelter from the wind behind a couple of large boulders to await the dawn which we knew we’d never really see due to the thick clouds scudding over the summit.
Juan, ever patient, lobbied for an assault on the summit which would mean another half hour of stumbling around in the clouds. Given the low visibility we knew there’d be no romantic sunrise view, so we were just not interested. I know we disappointed him.
On a clear day, sure. But this day had a stark bleak beauty all its own, with the wind shredding clouds over the summit peak, hissing yellow sulfur deposits smeared here and there, the moon a faint smear above, and the bubbling caldera just below us. It was otherworldly and almost intimidating.
There was nothing left for it but to start back down.
If anything it was more frightening seeing the terrible terrain we had just traversed in the dark.
By this point my legs were not giving a proportional response which is unfortunate considering the situation.
Gaining the car park Juan pointed out the butcher bill for hiking Sibayak area. It was a list of hikers lost on the mountain. Most found dead.
Sobering. I don’t know, maybe they should show the sign of lost souls before you go up. Uncle Mike informed us that the exit road was so bad that we would have to walk down to a safer place while he inched his now not-so-shiny new car down without the added weight.
Bad timing but at least we spotted this creepy foot long centipede.
I was so exhausted I forgot that we were to enjoy a sulfury hot water spa courtesy of Sibayak Volcano. We spent almost an hour soaking our weary bones in progressively hotter pools in full view of the mountain we’d just climbed until it was time to return to the guesthouse and breakfast.
On the way home I found my head intersecting Uncle Mike’s door frame more often. I can only assume that I lacked the core strength to care.
New Rule. #4: No More Sunrise Treks. This time I mean it.
Travelers tip: Sulfur does bad things to silver.