The cool of the highlands with coffee, fruits, traditions and erupting volcanoes
Berastagi is where the well-to-do elites of colonial Medan spent weekends and holidays relaxing and enjoying the temperate climate, away from the heat of the capital.
Lush, beautiful and 1300m plus (4500 ft) above sea level in the Karo Highlands, it continues as a popular “hill station” resort area.
Berastagi is about 70 kilometres and two hours from Medan. The name means “rice store” and the connotation of bountiful food is fitting.
The Karo Highlands is famous for its rich volcanic soils and is a major growing area, shipping vegetables, fruits and cut flowers to markets throughout Sumatra and other regions of Indonesia.
Fruits include many that we know like passion fruit, oranges, pineapples, bananas, persimmons and avocados.
But there are also exotic tropical varieties that may be new to you – like mangosteens (sometimes described as the “queen of fruits”), snake fruit, dragon fruit and tamarillo (known locally as terong belanda or Dutch eggplant and great when blended with passion fruit to make a fresh juice drink).
The region is noted also for the quality of the arabica and other varieties of coffee produced from its cool, highland plantations – yes, you will have opportunities to sample both the fruits and the coffees!
Maybe watching a volcanic eruption – but from a safe distance
As we approach Berastagi we pause to view twin active volcanoes from a spectacular viewing site at Gundaling Hill.
Mt Sibayak (it means King’s Mountain) rises to 2012m (7,250 ft) and its nearby, slightly bigger brother Mt Sinabung rises to 7,460m (about 8,000 ft).
After lying quietly dormant for some 400 years, Mt Sinabung came back to life in 2010 and 2013. More periodic and spectacular eruptions resumed from 2014 with recent eruptions commencing in February 2018.
The activity meant major disruption for local people living close by, with more than 10,000 forced to evacuate and relocate. Many lost their homes and income and were left with little alternative but temporary evacuation shelters built by the government.
There is no suggestion of immediate danger to travelers. Sinabung’s activity is closely monitored and if anything is amiss, the local authorities order evacuations and won’t allow visitor access.
The Gundaling Hill viewing area is close enough to see but far enough away to be safe – it’s 7km from Sinabung just outside the previously designated exclusion zone.
Gundaling Hill area also provides a first glimpse of iconic Lake Toba, the ultimate destination in our exploration of the highlands.
We spend two nights at Berastagi, staying at Sinabung Hills, a beautifully landscaped resort complex, to allow time to take in the local sights, explore the township and rest.
Photos and Tastings at a famous fruit and flower market
Highlights of our Berastagi stay include a chance to taste some of those exotic fruits and see how they are grown.
First a visit to a farming area to meet some local Batak growers and then on to the famed Berastagi fruit and flower market to see the wide range of produce from this fertile region – exotic, delicious, succulent fruits, vegetables, flowers, plus clothing and souvenirs, honey, and other local foods. Vendors encourage you to try their products.
We also can buy and try local snacks – like freshly grilled and buttered sweet corn on the cob – or buy favorite fruits to take back to the hotel for later. You can even take a ride around the market precinct on a horse and pony cart.
The market is full of color and, usually of lively activity and good humor. You MUST bring your camera – the displays and atmosphere are stunning, and you will want a photo or video memory.
Afterwards we take a short excursion to the village of Lau Kawar, nestled by a beautiful lake in the foothills of Mt Sinabung.
The lake’s peaceful bluish green waters are a sharp contrast to the periodic anger of the nearby sometimes erupting mountain.
Solo exploring during afternoon free time in Berastagi can include a short taxi ride to the nearby hot springs (you need your own modest togs, t-shirt top and towel and be aware the healing waters will smell of sulphur) or maybe a luxuriant traditional (and very inexpensive) massage at the resort or in the township.
Next day we journey from Berastagi to magnificent Lake Toba. It is an ideal opportunity to see more highlights of this beautiful and interesting region.
Traditional Karo living - one house, 8 families and the household critters beneath!
We wend our way through pineapple, cloves and ginger plantations until we reach the village of Dokan.
Here we see traditional houses of the Karo people, called Si Walun Jabu, where families still live as they have for generations – up to 8 families in one extended house with cattle, pigs and water buffalo penned underneath the elevated dwellings.
Yes, you can look inside a house where the guide will explain the traditional Karo way of life. But we ask that if you do go inside you please make a modest donation to these hospitable people – anything from Rp10,000 to Rp30,000 (AUD$1 to $3) can be very helpful to these families.
We continue to Pematang Purba where will explore the royal compound of 14 generations of the Purba dynasty of tribal kings of the Simalungun Batak people from 1624.
The elevated status of Indonesia’s local Kings and Sultans all ended in 1947 after independence when sultanates and kingdoms were incorporated into the new independent nation.
For a time, the Pematang Purba royal compound fell into disrepair, but then local officials designated it as an historical museum and the buildings and intricate decorative motifs are being progressively restored.
Our guide will relate and show how the Simalungan rulers, their wives and concubines, and their courtiers once lived and ruled here.
Sipiso-piso - water pouring from the cliff face and plunging the length of a football field
Nearing Lake Toba we come to the village of Tonggiang where we view the sparkling Sipiso-piso Falls, a plunge waterfall formed by a small underground river running beneath the Karo plateau.
The water bursts from the wall of the escarpment as though pumped from a big tunnel and plunges some 120 metres (360ft) into the northern tip of the Lake Toba caldera.
It is one of the highest waterfalls in Indonesia. The name Sipiso-piso means “knife-like” reflecting its tall, thin, gleaming stream and the way it cuts into the face of the cliff.