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  • Writer's pictureDeb Smithers

The Ghost Village of Karo, Sumatra

"The lost villages of Mount Sinabung"

I have learned to love those times of transit, the moments of being in between countries, cities, and even villages. The moment of awaiting the next adventure, the anticipation, and the excitement of not knowing what the next journey will present.

Flights over  Cambodia. Birds eye view.

And this day was filled with those same great feelings, my trip was to take me from Bukit Lawang, Sumatra down to the bottom of the island to stop for a week, to explore Lake Tabo and Samisir Island with their interesting tribes and quaint villages. I wanted to explore many of their unusual beliefs, rituals, and legendary stories related to the island and its culture.

The trip is to take 4 hours, but the scenery along the way is stunning and it is so peaceful driving through the lush green mountains, visiting markets and villages, and getting to meet some of the local people and share their stories. Indonesia has 120 active volcanoes, with Sumatra having over 34 active volcanos to date. My time in Berestagi was to do a sunrise trek of Mount Sibayak and visit Mount Sinabung, which had its last eruption as recently as August 2021.

I had been told of the Village that sits at the bottom of the mountain, it has been named the 'Ghost City', after the eruption in 2019. As I got closer, it was incredible to see this massive mountain, 2446 meters in height, it is wonderous and with its creepily etched tracks from the flowing lava and the eerie realization of the darkness and despair the eruption left in its wake for the people of Karo.

After being dormant for 400 years Sinabung erupted in 2010 and again in 2013 and it has been erupting since, this long eruption is likened to the same long eruption in Japan of Mount Unzen which continued to erupt for 5 years. Sinabung has a total of 4 volcanic craters with one still being active today.

The local people of Taro have surely endured a lot from the aftermath of Sinabung's continual activity, and you could imagine many must have a love-and hate-relationship with this magnificent but deadly mountain. It left 7000 evacuees spread out amongst 8 refugee camps, with hundreds finding shelter in the Pentecostal church. Villages from the red zone had now become eerie ghost towns, gloomy and covered in rocks and thick grey ash. They witness the end of their coffee plantations, their crops, livestock, and homes.

June 2010, 10 000 people were evacuated in fear of a major eruption.

September 2010 two more eruptions could be heard forcing villagers to leave fast and head to safer ground. Many chose to stay and remain with their families and homes. This eruption was the most intense so far and the sound could be heard from up to 8 kilometers away.

May 2019 Sinabung let off a massive column of ash and smoke 2000 meters into the sky coating local villages in ash and debris, and one month later another huge eruption which then spewed a column out of 7000 meters.

August 2020 Sinabung produced a column of ash and debris 5000 meters into the sky.

January 2021 the volcano let off a column of ash 1000 meters into the sky and another 1000-meter column the following morning, those living within a 5 km radius was told not to be outdoors as the existence of 'Lahar 'was fatal. More than 25 000 people were evacuated.

March 2021 she lets off another 5000-meter column and people are warned not to be within a 3-kilometer radius of the mountain.

April 4, another 3500 meters of ash and lava were let off.

July 2021, again another 4500 meters were expelled into the sky, and pyroclastic flows for over 1000 meters away from the peak, lasting 12 minutes.

Antara Foto

The country sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", a group of volcanoes and fault lines around the ocean's basin prone to seismic activity.

Once out of the car and walking through the village it is not difficult to imagine the fear the people must have felt watching what was coming their way, the grumbling of the mountain, and the heat. Knowing that they are about to lose everything, with the village being thickly blanketed with ash and debris. Fearing for the safety of their families and knowing the volcanic eruption will kill all of their organic matter, including their coffee crops and animals which are their livelihood and means of survival.

Slowly as the ground recovers, new growth appears and crops are again planted.

The government has since permanently relocated three villages that were within the red zone to over 10 km away, new homes were erected for the villagers and they were given land to grow crops again. Also, many refused the offer, not wanting to leave their village, regardless of the dangers of the mountain, they had begun to salvage, clean up and try to rebuild again.

I met an elderly woman happily sitting on her verandah. Through interpretation from my driver, I ask her if she is fearful to be living under Sinabung again, and she replies that indeed she is. She worries every day about an impending eruption, the damage it will cause, and even whether next time she will be able to get out in time. But as she puts it, so simplistically, this village has been the only life she has known since she was a child. Even though there is not much left of the house, this is my home. She says she is lucky to even have some house remaining. It is where I want to be, with my family. We cannot leave the coffee plantation to move away, so she knows, without a doubt, this is where she will always remain.

Transport 4 hours, Bukit Lawang to Samosir Island by car for $60. You will travel alongside the 'Ghost Village' after about 2 hours of travel.

$5 for the ferry across to Lake Toba.

There is also a little public bus that can take you but I'm certain it would the longest 4 hours of one's life.

Share the ride and share the price. It's not hard to find someone heading to Lake Toba or even Berestagi. It's cheap and a much more comfortable journey.

While on your travels you may consider stopping to eat, A great tip could indeed be, B1 and B2 are the signage on the street food stalls, this is one to be aware of, one represents pork, and the other represents that dog is on the menu. My recommendation is vegetarian for this area of the island definitely.

Safe yes, although an erupting volcano does cross your mind on several occasions, live on the edge I would say!

A few other wonderful experiences to suggest are the Indonesian volcanos, Kitamani, Mount Sibayak, Mount Agung, and Batur Caldera. I highly recommend them all.

Enjoy other blogs from Sumatra;

1 Comment

Philip Macrae
Philip Macrae
Apr 10, 2023

I will share this with someone traveling in Indonesia.

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