Travelblog#29: Lake Toba – Sumatra, Indonesia

3rd-7th December, 2014

Danau Toba is the largest lake in Southeast Asia. What makes this fact even more impressive is that it is actually a crater for a gargantuan volcano.

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Thought to have caused a period of ice-age when it erupted 70,000 years ago – the time when geneticists believe the population of the human race was reduced to bottleneck numbers – it is a place which is a landmark in our world’s natural history.

Sometime after the initial colossal eruption a comparatively smaller one occurred and formed an island in the middle of the lake, almost as big as Singapore. This, and the surrounding area, would later become the home of the Batak people; a group of proto-Malay tribes who were driven into Sumatra by other peoples migrating through Siam. They lived around Lake Toba for centuries and, in their isolation, developed a culture which was rich and sophisticated and yet also very feudal. They were ‘discovered’ by the western world in the nineteenth century, and missionaries were quick to move in with their bibles, sermons and spiritual blackmail, to ‘civilise’ them.

It is a very different place now. Most Batak people can now speak Bahasa Indonesia and are Christian. Samosir Island experienced a golden-age as part of ‘The Banana Pancake Trail’ in the 90’s: hoards of travellers came rolling in, resorts were built, full-moon parties were hosted and many people ended up staying there for months on end.

This ended after the 2004 tsunami and the following series of terrorist attacks in Bali; when all of Indonesia experienced a crash in tourism which it has never quite recovered from. Samosir is fairly quiet these days, and receives only a gentle trickle of visitors.

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Dominique and I arrived late at night, after a long bus journey from Bukittinggi. I had previously been recommended a place to stay called “Liberta Homestay” by Bertrand (the biker I travelled much of Flores with) so I went straight there. They gave me a semi-traditional Batak-style house for a price which was very reasonable, so I didn’t bother looking anywhere else. Tired from my journey, I went to bed early that night.

The next morning I woke up eager to begin exploring, so I rented out a motorbike and set off.

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The first thing that I came across as I drove around (apart from spectacular scenery) was the “Stone Chairs”, which is an old Batak religious site in a village called Ambarita.

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After a brief wander around the stone effigies of deities and bizarre symbolism, I immediately found myself intrigued by the Bataks and yearning to find out more. The next village along the road just so happened to have a museum which staged traditional Batak dances every day, so I got back onto my bike.

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I arrived just in time to see the first performance: a group of men were on a balcony above, drumming upon their percussive instruments, and the dancers were filing into the courtyard.

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And while the sequences were fairly interesting, I found myself a bit underwhelmed. The way some of the dancers moved was a bit stilted; you could tell that they were a bit bored of performing the same routines every day and that the spiritual significance had been long forgotten. The buffalo in the background – the nucleus for many of these (once) sacred dances – munched upon some non-descript food in the background, oblivious.

I realised that if I was going to connect with Batak culture while on this island, it would not be here.

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The ‘museum’ was also very disappointing. The exhibition consisted of a room jumbled with Batak artefacts, and there was no information in English to provide any context, background, or history. The entry fee pretty much just pays for the dance performance. I got back onto my bike.

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I drove on, a little bit disappointed by the ‘cultural experience’ I had been anticipating that morning, but enjoying the scenery of Lake Toba. When I reached the other side of the island I crossed over a small land bridge and drove along a road to Tele which cuts through the Sagada Valley – a stunning landscape – but I then realised that taking the bike all the way there might be a bit too ambitious for one day, so I turned back.

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Back on the island again, I drove up the mountain and through a series of pine forests to reach Danau Sidihoni; an inner lake (which actually makes it a lake, within an island, which is on a lake, within a volcanic crater – I bet there aren’t many lakes in the world which can make that claim).

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I then made my way back down to the coastal road so I could carry on driving around the island and complete the circuit.

It was shortly after that that I had my little accident.

It was a bit silly really. Lake Toba’s roads are inconsistent; much of it is really bad and dotted with potholes – and, obviously, you always drive around those parts carefully – but, every now and then, you come across stretches of road which are actually quite good. At the time of my accident I was driving along a straight road which was newly sealed, but yet, for some reason that I still do not understand, there was a hidden bump. It wasn’t painted, it was so thin it was almost unrecognisable, and it was on one side of the road but not on the other…

I don’t really remember what happened. One minute I was driving, enjoying the views and obviously not paying quite enough attention, the next, I was on the ground, entwined with my bike, a bit disorientated, and I was bleeding from a series of cuts and grazes on my arms and hands.

Some ladies came out from a shop nearby with cotton buds and iodine. “It was the bump,” I explained, pointing to it. They nodded and, while tending to my wounds, one of them said something which I didn’t understand because it wasn’t in English, but there was an air of knowingness and tired familiarity about it. They didn’t seem surprised at all. I also realised that they had been very quick to come out with the iodine; they were so prepared, it dawned upon me that this was obviously a regular event for them. Not that surprising really: I haven’t been driving for all that long, but that was one of the most retardely placed speed bumps I have ever come across.

After the bleeding had stemmed a little and I was feeling more coherent, I thanked them and went back to inspect the bike, knowing that I should get back on it while I still had all that adrenaline in my veins or I might not ever get back on at all. One of the wing-mirrors was broken, the fender was cracked, and there were scratches all over (but the bike was already quite scratched before I got it, so it was hard to know if any of them were my doing). I realised that I must have skidded quite far though, because the metal on the side of one of the handlebars had melted to a new shape and was still warm.

It took me a couple of hours to drive back, and I did so very carefully, stopping at a repair shop on the way to get the wing-mirrors replaced. I began to worry about how much I was going to be charged for the other damages. They were all merely superficial, but you hear lots of horror stories in Asia about bike shops inventing further ‘repairs’ which supposedly need to be done and adding on all kinds of fanciful charges once they find out you’ve had a fall.

Liberta Homestay weren’t like that at all. They were only concerned about me. When I got back and, apologetically, showed them the partially melted handlebar, they just shook their heads and said; “No worry. This bit cheap. Are you okay?”

I went back to my room, washed, and tended to my wounds. It was only after the adrenaline rush was over that I realised that I was limping and in pain. The cuts, however, once that they had stopped bleeding and been cleaned, weren’t as bad as I originally thought.

When you ride a motorcycle you know that there are risks. Coming to Asia itself, is a risk, and many of the decisions you make as a traveller involve weighing up what potential dangers are and deciding whether they are worth it. Do you go to one of those darkest parts of Papua New Guinea, for example, where you will possibly experience tribal life at its most wildest, but there is almost no law and rumours of cannibalism? Or even just a bus journey through a mountain pass where you will glimpse some of the most incredible views of your life, but occasionally look down into the ravine and see the remains of other vehicles at the bottom which didn’t quite make it?

If you reach a pint where you are avoiding countries because they occasionally have natural disasters and skirting around jungles because you’ve heard there is malaria, then yeah, you are ever-so-slightly more likely to make it back home in one piece, but at what cost to the value your experience? Because they can often be the most interesting places. One thing that you need to remember is that you, if you are a backpacker, are most likely a privileged white person who is just passing through (probably wrapped in a safety bubble of air-conditioned vehicles, mosquito repellent, guides, and travel insurance), and the majority of the people who actually live amongst these dangers their entire lives, survive it.

For me, the risks of riding a motorcycle are worth it because there are many experiences in Asia you will miss out on if you can’t drive a bike: it gives you the freedom to create your own itinerary, reinvent it as you go, halt for a while when you stumble upon charming little villages, and you see places which you will never even hear about in Lonely Planet. It is also, genuinely, fun feeling the wind on your face, winding around corners, accelerating hard whenever you come across a straight road with no other traffic. Everyone has a fall every now and then and, fortunately, it is not serious most of the time. Usually, when it is serious, or fatal, it is because of a collision, and for that to happen either you or the other party have done something you shouldn’t have.

I am going to be much more careful from now on though.

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I took it easy the next day and spent most of it working on some writing and chilling out by the lakeside with some of the guests at Liberta. I eventually worked up enough energy to go for a limp around Tuk Tuk (the village I was staying in), where I ended up getting into a conversation with a British expat called Chris for a while.

The next day my limp was gone so I went for a walk. I meant to find a local waterfall but I got lost along the way and ended up walking along the crest of one of the nearby hills which had wonderful views, so it was a blessing, really.

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The guesthouse next to mine was hosting a Batak dance and music event that evening, so I went along and Dominique came with me. The dancers were a group of teenage girls who, apart from one who looked very much like her parents had sent her there as punishment for not doing her homework, seemed to be a bit more into it than their counterparts at the museum and were smiling. Unfortunately, I forgot to bring my camera with me, so I don’t have any pictures.

After the girls had finished dancing, the musicians came forward and played some beautiful songs which really managed to liven up the audience. It was a great way to finish off my time in Lake Toba.

Dominique and I said farewell: she was heading to Berastagi the next day, whereas I was going to Ketambe for some jungle trekking.

I left the following morning upon a bus heading north-west. The driver put on a disk of Batak music and proceeded to drive through the Sagada Valley. I spent much of the journey hanging out of the window with my camera, taking pictures, feeling very happy to be alive.

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For more photos from Lake Toba, Samosir Island, and Sagada Valley, click here.

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