Sumatra: Lake Toba

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From Dokan it is impossible to get a direct bus to Parapat, on the shore of Lake Toba, so I first travelled to Pematangsiantar (commonly called Siantar, Rp.15000, two hours plus on bumpy roads), then changed to a Parapat bus (Rp.10000, one hour max). As the bus began its final descent to Lake Toba there was suddenly a stunning vista across the lake. I had never seen a lake anything like as big as this – it looked as big as the sea! Lake Toba is indeed the largest lake in Southeast Asia, and the largest volcanic lake in the world, created around 70-80,000 years ago by a cataclysmic volcanic eruption. It is so big you cannot see clearly from one end to the other.

The bus dropped me off in Parapat and I headed for the ferry to Samosir Island. Although not technically an island because of being connected to the mainland by a strip of land, Samosir is commonly called an island. It was created by magma pushing upwards fron the bottom of the caldera. I had heard many stories about Samosir from friends so I was keen to check it out.

Following a recommendation from a fellow traveller I decided to stay at Lekjon. The ferry from Parapat (Rp.7000) drops off passengers at hotel jetties around Tuktuk, a jutting-out piece of land on the edge of Samosir, so it is good to have some idea of where you want to stay. Lekjon had large clean rooms overlooking the lake with hot water and balcony for Rp.50000 and that was just right for me. (Rooms with only cold water cost Rp.40000.)

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

Tuktuk is full of hotels, hostels and homestays as well as restaurants and other facilities for international guests. Clearly it was once a thriving tourist destination, but now many hotels are barely ticking over and some have fallen into disrepair or closed down. According to one hotel worker, this fall in trade was caused by the Bali bomb. Another factor that may account for a lack of resurgence in trade is access to the area. From any direction you are looking at several hours of narrow potholed roads, fine for your average backpacker, but less acceptable for more upmarket hotel clientele.

The following day, after lying in bed looking at the amazing view from my window, I ventured out on foot. Motorbike hire was prohibitively expensive for me, at around Rp.80000 a day. I walked for an hour or more, following the road around the edge of Tuktuk to Ambarita, on Samosir. The views across the lake with its surrounding hills were spectacular, as were the elaborate and colourful Batak graves dotted around. Arriving at Ambarita I went to look at the 300 year old stone chairs and tables that are there. Apparently these were used for meetings of the village chiefs or elders.

300 year old stone tables and chairs

300 year old stone tables and chairs

I then hopped in an angkot (minibus) and headed to Pangururan, Samosir’s main town. Angkots do not go as far as Tuktuk so it is necessary to walk or hitch a ride to Samosir proper first. The angkot journey, which followed the road around the edge of the island (the centre is made up of steep hills), took about an hour and cost Rp.10000. Apparently Samosir is almost as big as Singapore, but with a far smaller population.

Pangururan is a hot dusty little town. I was very hungry by this point, not having eaten yet, so I found a small cafe and tried the local speciality, babi panggang (grilled pork). Being a Muslim country, in most of Indonesia it is hard to find pork, but here in Christian Batak region it is one of their main dishes.

A friend had recommended that I go to Bp. Doro’s shop where he makes handicraft products from the water hyacinth that grows in Lake Toba. This plant is considered a nuisance because of its rampant growth in the lake. Following directions I found my way to the shop, which directly overlooks the lake, and was welcomed in. Bp. Doro was busy at his work, taking the dried hyacinth stems and twisting and weaving them into complex shapes. On shelves above and around him were his finished products: bags, sandals, mats and even a lampshade. His friendly wife runs a small cafe at the shop and there was a small group of men relaxing there, on a break from work. In addition to making and selling products Bp. Doro runs workshops for individuals and groups, teaching handicraft skills with the plant. He already has experience teaching groups of foreigners, and has received orders for his products from abroad. The finished product is rather like that made of thin bamboo or rattan. I had a drink and chatted to Bp. Doro, his wife and friends. One of them, Inceng, who was keen to practise his English, told me about his job monitoring the water quality of the lake. The water hyacinth is considered a pest, and also a symptom of low water quality. Campaigns to keep the lake clean are in evidence, with banners and posters on display, for example, on the ships that ferry passengers across the lake.

Fisherman and passenger ferry

Fisherman and passenger ferry

Having spent the afternoon with Bp. Doro and friends I made my way back to my hotel, first by angkot to the Tuktuk junction (simpang Tuktuk) then on foot, probably several miles, following the road around the edge of the island. It had been a tiring but worthwhile day. If you would like to visit Bp. Doro’s shop, go to: Bp. Handoro Gurning, Jl Danau Toba, depan Rumah Dinas Bupati, Pangururan. You will be welcomed in, I’m sure.

The next day I spent on full relaxation and watching the fish in the lake. Toba can be a very peaceful area and it would have been easy to spend longer there, doing not much at all. In the evening I went to a performance of traditional Batak music at Samosir Cottages. Although put on for tourists, it was very interesting to see the Batak musical instruments and hear the songs. The all-male group played Batak drums, guitars, a lute, a bamboo flute, a xylophone and a beer bottle. And three of them sung together. It was a really good show, with helpful English explanations of the meaning of each song. The upbeat lively music made a good finale to my time in the Batak region.

Leaving Samosir and the Lake Toba area, I boarded the ferry to Parapat. As I gazed across the enormous expanse of water I mentally said good bye to this fantastic view. Feeling the waves caused by the wind rocking the ferry it did feel like I was at sea, but without the saltiness and that sea smell.

Lake Toba

Lake Toba

I had lunch in Parapat while waiting for my bus. It is a small but bustling town with many people coming through on their way to and from Samosir, or coming to shop at the daily market. I took a minibus to the bus terminal (Rp.2000), and was glad I did, because it turned out to be some distance from the main town. Then I boarded the nightbus for the long journey to Bukittinggi.