The Kilimanjaro of the tea estates? Gurung Kerinci is Indonesia’s highest non-Papuan peak. It’s also one of the most active volcanoes in Sumatra having last erupted in 2009. Kesik Tua, a small village in amongst the hills and tea plantations was our base. Looking out from our homestay I was struck by how imposing the volcano looked. It sticks out like a sore thumb shooting up towards the sky amongst fields of tea plantations and cabbage plants. Frequently hidden by cloud, when it was revealed in its full glory it was hard not to be humbled by just how isolated it actually is.
There wasn’t a lot to do on the first day other than rest after the thirty six hour bus journey. We did break at one point from the books to indulge in a first taste of a Durian fruit. Frequently controversial because of its smell, I thought its taste was utterly addictive. It was like eating fruit custard out of a fruit!
It was a first in terms of organising a hike. From waking up in the morning the owner asked why we were in Kesik Tua. There are three possible answers to this. Bird watching, flower hunting or hiking, there are no hang abouts here. It is a place not frequently visited and has no hotels, only a couple of homestays. We were of course after the latter of the options and pointed out of the window to Gurung Kericini. The next day we had sleeping bags, roll mats, torches to add to our already considerable warm weather gear and a personal guide waiting at eight in the morning. Neither of us have ever organised our own personal hike before.
Our guide was Duri, one of the sons of the owner. Another son drove us in his jeep through the tea estates and to the park entrance. I say park entrance although I mean where the road became impassable. A small hut may once have been home to a park ranger but few people pass through here. The hike up to base camp two where we would stay the night was initially a gentle stroll uphill through the forest. Clambering over fallen trees and avoiding encroaching plants it was all very pleasant as birds sang as we passed by and gibbons played up in the trees. A few shelters down the path began to get more technical. The flow of water down the volcano over the years has produced deep channels. Increasingly it was a case of scrambling and swinging from tree to tree to tree.
One of the joys of Kericini is that it does not mess around. It’s all up. As the hours slipped by so did the scenery. From thick jungle to ferns and shrubberies the trees began to disappear the higher we got. After around six hours we got to where we would be staying the night. The tent went up as the rain came down, good timing was an understatement. At around 3,200 meters it was cold. The down jacket was once again out, proving it’s worth every few months. With no watches the rest of the day and night was sat around chatting unsure what the time was. It eventually got dark and the three of us crammed into one tiny tent!
At some unearthly hour, Duri brought us coffee and roti. It was cold, very cold. Torches on we headed up towards the summit. The climb was brilliant fun, plotting our route up a path in absolute tatters, in pitch darkness. Dangerous but highly entertaining, the greenery finally gave way and as the sun came up, the rock and scree infested volcanic peak came into view. It was a torturously slow ascent; many steps were taken only to find ourselves back to square one.
Beautiful views of the landscape a million miles away from the world we were now inhabiting peaked in and out of the clouds. It was an ugly last hour, it was everything that you would want from a volcano. Bleak, bare and violent. At 3,800 meters the air was noticeably thin. At the top it was made that much worse curtsey of the plumes of sulphur that pumped out of the crater. As we sat, with our coats over our mouths, coughing at times uncontrollably we began to estimate how many years we were losing of our lives inhaling the smoke.
We didn’t stay up top too long, the smell and smoke made it almost unbearable, but it felt brilliant to have conquered such an imposing structure. The descent of some two thousand meters was full of all the fun of the ascent. It was a challenge and at times made me think that I was the luckiest man alive having access to such a fantastic theme park. The sight of several varieties of carnivorous plants only capped it off further. Eventually we made it to the bottom, cloaked in mud.
Gurung Kericini in terms of its contrasts and its challenges made for an unforgettable walking experience. Off the beaten track and surrounded by so much natural beauty its one of those places that will live long in the memory.