I don’t think I ever sat down to write at such a breathtaking location as this; Lake Toba, deep in the very heart of the emerald island of Sumatra. I am sitting at the bottom of the garden of the Gokhon Guesthouse in a little pavilion, my eye taking in a full 180 of the far shore in utter tranquility, the only sound that of the little twitter birds in the palms above that wave ever-so-softly in the breeze. You can take your Garda, your Tahoe, your Windermere, and even majestic Atitlan; at this moment, none of them can possibly compare to where I am seated right now… I might well have just found paradise. And yet on this very spot many moons ago all life on the entire planet was almost extinguished for Toba is the in-filled crater of a huge supervolcano.
For all that we loved our time in Malaysia travelling there was ever so easy. Decent infrastructure, big wide roads with hard shoulders, clear signs and markings and almost everyone spoke really good English. They even had Tesco’s, for Pete’s sake… talk about home from home! That all changed the moment we arrived at Port Klang to ship to Indonesia. There is no car-ferry, just a little covered-in motor launch that carries maybe a hundred or so foot-passengers on the 5-hour run across the Straits of Malacca to Tanjung Balai in Sumatra. Some of the boats are slightly larger and can squeeze a bike or two on board for the trip. We called the lovely Sherlee Ong at Atlantic Jetstar Ferry to arrange when the next suitable boat would sail and on the appointed day bade final farewell to Kuala Lumpur. Each bike then had to be unloaded and all bags and panniers X-Rayed, airport check-in style, then reload, ride the short distance to the boat, unload yet again to permit the bikes to be manhandled down a series of steps and through the side doors onto the boat. Fortunately there were plenty of little helpers and each bike was soon onboard and secured to a handrail outside the toilet.
All this time we provided the chief source of entertainment for our co-passengers. No sooner had we sat down than requests for selfies started from a bunch of vivacious smiling ladies, our ‘Welcome to Indonesia’ party! The trip itself was remarkably fast and smooth, the motor-launch speeding across a tabletop flatness of glistening ocean. Snug in a row of four comfy chairs with all our kit, we contemplated the new land ahead… The largest island archipelago in the world, Indonesia consists of some 17,000 islands. We plan to hop our way down the chain starting in Sumatra, then Java, Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores, finally reaching East Timor, from where we’ll ship to Australia. 17,000 islands – that’s one for every Rupiah that equates to £1; yes a trip to the ATM would make us instant multi-millionaires with a million Indonesian Rupiah being yours for only sixty quid. Aside from everything now costing thousands, the main problem with the currency is that the largest available note is 100,000 Rupiah (@ £6) with coins down to the seemingly ridiculous amount of 100 Rupiah = £0.006. My wallet has never before been stuffed with such a wad of cash.
The boat slowed for the final part of the crossing, taking us up a jungly river estuary the colour of cold milk-coffee and choked with fishing boats large and small, all of them made from wood. The larger vessels looked like so many dismasted galleons, their barrel shaped hulls leaning drunkenly against each other along the muddy shore. Unloading was a reverse of loading with another X-Ray process but again a hoard of smiling friendly people assisted us manhandling the bikes out through the door and then I had the fun of riding up a rickety wooden jetty to gain the customs post. Within an hour we were efficiently stamped in, loaded up and then out loose on the streets of Tanjung Balai and one of the most startling ‘culture shocked’ arrivals we have ever experienced…
It was Saturday evening with the sun headed to roost casting a warm peachy glow on the potholed mud strip that passes for the main street through town. The street was lined with wooden shacks the same colour as the street and we picked a slow wobbly line threading through the potholes. The entire gamut of fishy stinks pervaded, from mouth-watering fried morsels on sale from street-vendor carts to rotten-knicker whiffs of fish gut and offal from monger stalls. And everywhere people… trudging and hauling, yelling and selling, shouting and laughing; all the bustle of this busy fish-town at the close of play. After squeaky clean and modern Malaysia this might all have seemed a somewhat imposing, even threatening, environment yet while it may have been raw and a little wild, it was certainly neither of these things. It was the people that gave life to the drudgery, all of them smiling at us, waving our slow procession along with shouts of ‘Hey mister’, ‘What is your name?’ and simple ‘Hellos’, greetings we are sure to hear in Rupiah sized quantities for the duration of our stay through these islands. We asked for directions to the only hotel in town and the customs guys had told us to head several kilometers along the mainstreet and turn right at the Green Mosque. The problem was there were several ‘Green Mosques’; we turned off at the wrong one and were soon speeding unto countryside on an ever-narrowing lane. We stopped to get corrections from some kids on scooters and were soon back on track to the hotel. That ride was one of the most intense immersions into a new culture anywhere and we relished it over some rice and chicken.
In the morning we set off for Lake Toba. The road improved but remained narrow and was choked with traffic making for slow progress and taking us 6-hours to cover 130 miles. Indonesia is one of the most densely populated countries on the planet and comes with a rural infrastructure that simply cannot cope. At best it is like riding on ‘B’ Roads at home if you can imagine all the traffic of a major road like London’s M25 diverted along the same route. Lesson number one is that you cannot judge journeys in Indonesia by distance alone; they must be reckoned solely by the time it will take to get there. To pot-holed roads add dilapidated diesel trucks scrimping along at sub-20mph speeds, occasional break-downs that become massive log-jams and then pour in millions of little scooters and home made tuk-tuks to fill any remaining space. The road eventually emptied as we headed into the country leaving us some peace at last to enjoy a thrilling descent from the crater rim, zigzagging down jungle roads with jaw-dropping views of heaven over the treetops towards the lake. We reached Parapat on the lakeshore at 2pm and were delighted to see the ferry across the lake would leave at 2:30. We were the first ones there… in fact we were the only ones there, for a while at least, but after about 15-minutes a few cars and small trucks appeared and we chatted to the new arrivals, learning how timetables don’t really mean much here, a fact that was underlined by the eventual departure of the 14:30 ferry at 17:40.
The ferry delivered us in an hour across that sublime lake to the bustling little ville of Tomok on the island of Samosir and another 4 miles took us on to Tuk Tuk, where I started this narrative. 75,000 years ago, we definitely would not have wanted to be here as that was when Toba, the super-volcano, erupted; the largest explosion on Earth in the last 25 million years. The eruption deposited a layer of ash 150mm thick over all Southern Asia; at one site in central India, the ash has been measured at up to 6-metres thick. The net effect was to plunge the entire planet into one long winter with as global temperatures fell dramatically. The Toba eruption also had cataclysmic consequences for population of the planet killing most humans living at that time leaving only a residue of people in central/east Africa and some in India from whom we are all descended today.
Over the eons the enormous crater filled with water to form an elongated lake measuring 100km x 30km. The island of Samosir rose from its depths and is home to the Batak people. You immediately know you are in Batak country by the dramatic change in architecture with the sudden appearance of Batak houses with their steeply pitched saddleback roofing bearing insanely pointed fore and aft peaks. The gable ends are beautifully rendered with characteristic carvings and motifs all painted in traditional black, white and red and the net appearance is that of an utterly marooned treasure galleon waiting for the tide to come in and reclaim it. It all has a somewhat Polynesian feel to it and reminds us we are now departed from mainland Asia. In their past the Bataks had a reputation for cannibalism. Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore, studied the Batak in his travels here and commented on the practice noting “It is usual for the people to eat their parents when too old to work,” and that for certain crimes a criminal would be eaten alive: “The flesh is eaten raw or grilled, with lime, salt and a little rice.” Thankfully today the Batak people are mainly Christian however some traditional practices survive such as the reburial of the dead after some time in little ossuaries that are found all over the area. The Batak believe that the dead occupy a status similar to the social position they held in life so that a rich and powerful individual remains influential after death, and their status can be elevated if the family holds a reburial ceremony.
With all this geographical and cultural awe on our doorstep Tuk Tuk became our home for the next week as we explored the island. The Gokhon Guesthouse was a portal to some fine eating at the nearby Popy’s and Jenny’s restaurants, dining on lake fish with delicious sambals and rice. We also were introduced to Gado-Gado (literally mix-mix) a mélange of freshly cooked vegetables adorned with a fragrant peanut sate sauce. Breakfast at Popy’s took even a plain omelet to another level arriving stuffed with carrot and cabbage that would fill you to the gills for the day ahead.
From ancient people and supervolcanoes we moved on to visit a real live volcano; Sibayak, reachable by a 4-hour hike from the bustling little town of Berastagi. Along the way we espied neighbouring Sinabung, a far more active beast. A substantial eruption in 2010 forced the evacuation of more than 10,000 people from the vicinity and last May a pyroclastic burp killed seven individuals caught on its slopes. Through binoculars we could see entire forests on its flanks reduced to a dead diorama of matchsticks. We walked on to reach the crater of our own volcano spotting birds and monkeys along the way. The summit was spectacular and well worth the hike; an acid filled lake surrounded by yellow-gash fumaroles spewing sulphurous belches into the air and feeling very unworldly, reminding us on what a fragile crust we all tread. On the way down we spotted something small and furry moving in the boulders. It was a rat desperately foraging for food in the stone field and he remained totally oblivious to our presence. As we approached the reason for his lack of caution became clear; he was totally blind, probably caused by the sulphurous environment in which he lives and his eye sockets were closed and crusted over by the burning acid. It was probably one of the most incredible little wildlife encounters in all of our travels. We just marveled that, in spite of this disability, this little rat was apparently surviving up here.
Sumatra was stealing our hearts. With the little roads and the slow progress it reminded us of ‘Ireland when we were growing up’, where all journeys took ages to get anywhere but were filled with marvels along the way, something that has now been totally obliterated by motorway travel. We rode on ever deteriorating roads into another jungle land to reach the riverside village of Bukit Lawang for another very special wildlife encounter. We needed a guide to enter the dark vastness of the Gunung Leuser National Park, crossing the rope-bridge over the river and entering a rubber plantation that skirts the jungle. Here a silver-spiked, punky-monkey clambered down to see us. He was a cutesy Thomas Leaf monkey and politely accepted the gift of a banana from our guide. We left the plantation trees for a mud track into the jungle, climbing ridges and dropping into valleys for the next couple of hours before spotting what we came all this way to see…
First up in the trees, some violent movement and then a flash of cinnamon hair in the darkness. Leng, our guide, bade us wait and disappeared off up the trail for several minutes. After several suspenseful minutes he reappeared around a bend in the path with Jackie, a fully-grown female Orangutan, in tow. She had a baby clung to her chest and walked straight up to me and took hold of my forearm. Her hand was enormous, easily clamping my forearm in her leathery grip. I tried to draw my arm away but she held firm and I had the distinct impression that she had the ability to break my arm in two in a single motion had she wished. It was mildly terrifying yet marvelous all at the same time. I crouched down and she sat contentedly beside me until Leng produced some fruit to distract her away. A few more tour groups appeared along with another of Jackie’s offspring, a cute youngster who set himself up in a small tree in our midst accepting bananas for photographs and a precious chance to observe these incredible animals up close. I should explain here that the Orangutan here are not fully wild but originate from a rescue and rehabilitation centre in Bukit Lawang that released injured or recovered pet Orangutan back to the wild. They have had such dependency on humans that they will never truly return to the wild, identifying approaching people with free food and guaranteeing a local industry in tour-guided wildlife walks.
At the end of this day Sumatra had well and truly taken full possession of our hearts. It is simply one of the wildest, most beautiful paradises we have ever come across in all our travels and if this is our gateway to Indonesia, then we are in for some amazing days ahead.
The photogallery for this post may be accessed by clicking on the following link: Volcano / Supervolcano – Sumatra