Slithering Down Sibayak

by Susan Storm, Nov 19, 2001 | Destinations: Indonesia / Sumatra

Drops of rain the size of teacups emptied on my head, my camera, and down my boots, drowning the blood-sucking leeches that had put Dracula to shame. On this wild, wet side of the volcano, drenched frogs ducked for cover and birds took a welcome break from their frenzied twittering. The emptying sky pelted the leaves, bounced off sodden rocks, slid down my neck and pounded the earth. Mistaking a puddle for a hidden step, I sank to my ankles in mud. The red tide gathered its resources behind me, and before I knew what was happening, I was slithering down the slopes of Sibayak on the seat of my jeans.

Annette and Stefan, who's fault all of this was, were nowhere to be seen. Life was bouncing along quite happily before they came along. I'd spent the last few weeks on Sumatra muttering the Holy Rosary as we hurtled down mountain passes in candy floss mists. I'd narrowly missed being sniped by arrogant cocks in wicker baskets, leapt from under the wheels of ramshackle bullock carts and avoided the sting of vendors.

Then I met the people who were scheduled to climb the volcanoes with me. Armchair travellers we definitely were not - but neither were we turned on by the thought of balmy nights around a pool. What drove us were the adrenalin pumping climbs, the light in the eyes of a close up orangutan, the Indonesian abdominal roulette of each meal. I thought I'd seen and done everything, and at the base of this volcano, I had no idea that a couple of cigarettes would wreak so much havoc.

But then, I haven't told you about Stefan, a French god with a chiselled chin and seductive eyes, tight little backside and an accent cultivated in French Caledonia. He was mooching around the lobby of our no-star hotel, waiting for the rest of our group, when I first saw him. To hell with spine-chilling adventure I thought - for this chic dude I'd trade adventure for the option of lying under coconut palms exploring French turns of phrase and teaching him our Great Australian Bight.

Neither have I told you about Annette, a lithe young woman from Holland - a total stranger until we were told to share rooms. She extended this to my toothbrush, my perfume, my hairbrush, and when I wasn't looking, my diary. She decided to share Stefan too, from the moment she laid eyes on him.

That I was older by five years, and half as beautiful didn't stop me being mortified. That is, until he lit up a Gitane under my nose, and all my dreams of swinging around Indonesia with this chiselled chin went up in smoke. Instead of a nicotine stained hand landing in my lap, I prayed for a fire extinguisher. And Annette? She too, wrecked my dreams of living an emphysema free life when she lit up her Gauloise as we were watching the sunrise over a silver lake.

Theirs was a match made in heaven. They hid behind their smoke screen, improving French/Dutch relations. Soon they'd disappear into rice paddies and behind erotic temples for a quick one. As for the rest of the group, had the film director Fellini been on the group, he would have a full supporting cast. In starring order, there was the anorexic guide, the fat heiress whose heart threatened to conk out every hour, the dyslexic scientist, the hyperactive diabetic, a mute computer programmer, and myself, a radical anti-smoker.

It was the two fireballs who made me fume more than any of the others. While they were determined to keep tobacco prices at an all time high, I decided it was my responsibility to clear the planet of smokers. They had each other, but my only ammunition were ten kilos of camera gear and a lot of lip. The climb up sulphur-puffing Gunung Sibayak in Northern Sumatra promised to be a breeze, compared to the ride up to it in the decrepit bemo whose sides were illustrated with an exploding volcano and a naked woman. It was packed beyond the cracked windows with fifteen sweating locals, a live chicken and our resident fumigators, Annette and Stefan.

Looking up at the wide, gravelled road that wound around the mountain, we were convinced the climb would be easy. It was holiday time, and part of the ritual was to spend a night on the mountain, unchaperoned. As testimony, every young Indonesian plus ghetto blaster were on their way down, barely rumpled after a night on the summit.

"Selamat pagi!" Good morning! "How you, why you fat, where you come from, how many children?" they exclaimed in their hundreds, yanking wildflowers, dropping cigarettes and chocolate wrappers, and kicking stones. We climbed steadily for hours, until the road narrowed and forked. The guide had sprinted off to find the dyslexic, the fat one was last seen panting against a rock, and when I asked the mute for directions, he just smiled. Annette and Stefan had scuttled into the trees ahead of me. I was alone.

To my left was a steeply excavated path of ash-white sand that rounded the volcano and disappeared into a pall of steam and smoke. On my right a track meandered into a tangle of jungle, from where I could have sworn I smelled a Gauloise. Thinking it was the lesser of two evils, I lunged into the dense undergrowth, ripping yards of thorns like velcro strips from my skin. Within minutes the thick vegetation disorientated me. Brambles scratched and grabbed, things squelched in my boots and spiders hung in hammocks across my face.

Annette and Stefan were nowhere to be seen, but I did notice a burned-out cigarette balanced in the fork of a stick. Visions of pythonesque snakes and leeches helped me fight my way out, and I rued having left my Rambo knife at the hotel.

When I finally emerged into the hot, pale sun, my hands and legs were bleeding, and I was no closer to the summit of the volcano. It loomed far ahead of me, mocking my ineffectual attempts to scale its yellow slopes. I waited, quite miserable, on a white rock until the guide found me, and then I followed her meekly, panting and sweating along a ridge of soft black rock and white ash, until we were walking on what could have been the moon.

Gunung Sibayak - the venerated volcano in Sumatra - appeared suddenly behind a curve in the path, its jagged black crater squatting in the middle of the lunar landscape. It puffed, spat, bubbled and steamed, spewing noxious plumes of sulphurous white smoke heavenwards.

The air was putrid and difficult to breathe, yet the total image was one of surreal beauty. The surrounding walls of the caldera were striated in metallic greens and ochre and yellow, interleaved with gleaming solidified lava. Occasionally a desiccated bush hugged the ground, waiting for the apocalypse to be over. My eyes stung, my nose burned, my lungs rebelled in short acrid coughs. I walked the final two hundred yards very slowly, so I could savour the astonishing primal beauty of what life must have been like in the Beginning.

I wasn't the first to arrive. They were all there ahead of me - the dyslexic, the scientist, the mute and even the fat one - lined up on the rim, a jagged cutout of odd shapes illuminated in the strange light. They were shouting and eating their packed lunches of nasi goreng, squashed bananas and boxed lychee juice.

Annette and Stefan, babes out of the woods, lit more cigarettes, and made a place for me beside them to watch the spectacle. I'd had enough lung poisoning to last the day, and instead, scrambled down to the bottom of the crater where a milky lake bubbled, the colour of precious turquoise, surrounded by spitting fumaroles that globbed pockets of sulphur, which when dry, resembled gold nuggets on the wet, grey ground.

Sticking out of the ground beside popping fumeroles, looking just like miniature grave markers, were dozens of forked sticks supporting burned cigarettes. I told Annette I'd seen the same thing in the jungle.

"Ah!" she said, smiling. "It's a ritual to ensure your safety down the volcano!" She squatted down in front of the fumerole and held her lit cigarette over it. "If it flares," she explained. "You'll have a safe journey. If it dies, you're in for trouble."

Hers flared like a firecracker. Mine blew out faster than you could say "Got a light?"

"Bloody superstitious nonsense..." I muttered, and stomped away.

We'd decided to come down the wooded side of the volcano, because it was cooler, greener and the few hundred excavated steps were am easier descent, or so the guidebook promised, before the jungle eased out near a sulphur processing plant and a hot spring.

Stefan and Annette advanced to test the terrain, so to speak, and for a while I was able to follow their nicotine trail of forked sticks, comforted by the distant booming of the processing plant and the cacophony of the jungle. I had, for company, some large flapping butterflies, the whooping of gibbons, darting lizards and bleating frogs. I was happy, sauntering down the jungle, singing some Amazonion flute music from the movie The Mission.

My mudcaked boots grew heavier with each step and there were times I doubted that I'd be able to lift them from the mushy ground. Then the sky opened on my head. All the water of the earth fell at my feet, and secure footings were washed away in a rapid river of mud. In the blinding deluge, I grabbed a thin poncho from my pack and tried to cover my cameras and my body, but the poncho clung to me as if it was made of plastic wrap. Protecting my cameras was more important than being able to move, so with my hands restrained at my sides, I began the gingerly descent.

Until I mistook the puddle for a rock.

So there I was, having the ride of my life, grabbing onto roots that left their moorings as I hurtled past, getting slapped in the face by lunatic lianas, slamming into rocks soft with moss, and praying that my cameras were sufficiently insured. The rain came in solid sheets, frogs rode tidal waves of mud, and I was covered by a bodypack of marinated leaves, a health treatment I didn't need right at that moment.

The equatorial roller coaster did, eventually, cease, and I, bruised, bleeding, and in tears, checked to see that I hadn't left some vital parts of my anatomy behind.

A cigarette in a forked stick mocked me from a cave shelter. "Annette?" I called as bravely as I could, but there was no human reply. "Stefan!" I was so keen to see them I decided I'd even settle for their smoking. All I got for my efforts were replies from a couple of screeching parrots and the resumption of the cicadas' chorus.

Through the noisy dripping, I was cheered by the booming of the plant that sifted through the dense trees. I limped and slithered for a very long, aching time. Mosquitoes zeroed in on my scratches, and the stinging of nettles ceased to matter. Every now and then I'd scream the names of my compatriots, only to hear the echoes bounce off trunks and rocks and get lost in the wet symphony of the jungle.

I dripped and sniffed mud-coloured tears of self-pity, relying on gravity to steer me downhill to safety. I resembled someone who's idea of having fun was mud-wrestling in cellophane. Finally, at a clearing in the rainforest, I saw the monstrous processing plant, growing like some awful edifice to technology in the next century. It clanged, snorted and bellowed, and breathed noxious fumes, a hideous structure in this wild part of the world, but for me it signalled rescue. I wouldn't have been surprised if Harrison Ford sauntered out to greet me, holding the script from the Mosquito Coast in his greasy hand.

"Nice girls this way", instructed an arrow, and my swearing disqualified me immediately. Some saturated workers sat under a leaking roof, not in the least surprised to see this bizarre apparition emerge from the forest. "More down, more down" they said, pointing down the hill.

I sloshed down a washed-away road past a village, pyramids of soaked pineapples, and a drenched dog. Some women deloused their naked kids from blue plastic buckets under a canopy, and shouted "Selamat Datang" as I limped past.

Then the rain stopped, as suddenly as if a hose had been turned off. There was a wooden fence behind which a woman sold tickets. There was laughter, and rising steam and clothes draped over the fence.

"Come in!" called two uncomfortably familiar voices. "The water c'est magnifique, lekker!"

When I opened the gate, Annette and Stefan were in a bubbling hot sulphur spring. Their ecstatic faces seemed to float on the milky surface. There wasn't a bruise or cut in sight, and most odd of all, their hair was dry. When they saw my bleeding legs, my smashed camera, and my mud stained face, they got out of the water, wiped my face with a towel, and peeled off my tattered clothes. They laid them around the altar of two smoking cigarettes that were balanced on a forked stick under a shelter.

"Got a light?" Stefan asked, and winked at Annette. At that moment, I could easily have taken up smoking.

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