Lake Toba

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February 4th 2010
Published: February 4th 2010EDIT THIS ENTRY

On New Year's day I set out to the largest lake in Southeast Asia, Lake Toba. It was listed as a 'must-do' in my Southeast Asia guide book, I booked the flight 3 weeks earlier and went there on a whim.

Wikipedia intro to Lake Toba: A former supervolcano, Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world. It is 100 kilometres long and 30 kilometres wide, and 505 metres (1,666 ft) at its deepest point. Located in the middle of the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra with a surface elevation of about 900 metres (2,953 ft). In addition, it is the site of a supervolcanic eruption that occurred about 74,000 years ago, a massive climate-changing event. The eruption is believed to have had a VEI intensity of 8. This eruption is believed to have been the largest anywhere on Earth in the last 25 million years. According to the Toba catastrophe theory to which some anthropologists and archeologists subscribe, it had global consequences, killing most humans then alive and creating a population bottleneck in Central Eastern Africa and India that affected the genetic inheritance of all humans today.

(this the part where Lake Toba says, 'yeah, I'm a big deal. people know me.')

The Journey is Half the Fun

Off the beaten path is a good way to describe Toba's location. After a short flight from KL to Medan, Indonesia (on the island of Sumatra) I had to find a car, bus, or van to drive me the remainder of the 5-hour journey. Medan proved to be a difficult place to find transport, mainly due to the language barrier and it was a holiday being New Year's Day and all. I found the tourism information booth outside the airport, but it was closed, and I had a taxi driver hounding me to let him take me all the way to Lake Toba which would have cost about 15 times as much as taking a shared vehicle. Thanks, but no thanks. Traveling local is the only way to go.

As frustration began to creep in, a older gentleman with a big warm smile (albeit partially toothless) introduced himself as a tourism information employee who is ready to help me get to where I need to go. Since I just saw that the tourist booth was locked up with no one in sight, I was skeptical. But then again, what other options did I have? He explained that he just closed up the info booth at noon to go home to his family, but first he wanted to make sure I got a ride to Lake Toba. So we jumped in a taxi together (the same one that was lobbying for my business earlier, he didn't go very far during this whole ordeal) and sped off through the dusty congested streets of Medan. The first placed we stopped was fully booked, but the second one was ready to take my money, throw me in the 3rd row backseat of a mid-sized Toyota SUV with 2 other fully grown men, and start the journey to Lake Toba. I gave the tourist info guy a tip and thanked my lucky stars for his kindness and generosity to take time out of his holiday to see to it that I got to where I needed to go. Without him, the trip would have been a bust. Good karma is definitely coming his way.

On the drive up, I sat next to Biben and his brother who are from Lake Toba but work in Bali as musicians. This was Biben's first time back home in 2 years, so it was an exciting homecoming for him. His English was really impressive and he later explained that it is from meeting so many foreigners in Bali, which makes perfect sense. Later on in the drive, he also told me that he has dated a number of international women which I can only assume accelerated his English level from average to fluent in a flash. The guy's a musician, can you blame him? The cramped trip took about 5 hours, but there was always something interesting to look at out the window so time went by pretty fast.


We arrived in the small port town of Parapat and caught the final ferry that crosses Lake Toba to Samosir Island; a massive island within Lake Toba. Samosir is basically an island within an island, the latter being Sumatra. Type this into google maps to see what I'm talking about: Toba, Toba Samosir, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Samosir is a sleepy island with a laid back, almost Caribbean vibe to it. Everyone seems to be either relaxing, listening to music, eating, drinking, swimming in the lake or reading, because there isn't much else to do. It was just what I was looking for. After checking out a few places to stay, I chose the Tabo Cottages which was run by a German woman. It was on the water and felt like a mini village complete with different areas of huts and a swimming area. The climate is a bit cooler at Lake Toba due to the 3,000 foot elevation and breezes coming off the lake. Almost as high as the good old mile-high city, or at least the closest I've gotten since expatriating overseas. The place didn't have hot water, which made for invigorating 2-minute showers that really wake you up in the morning.

I met up with Biben, his brother, family, and friends outside their home which was only a 5-minute walk from the cottages. Their hospitality was fantastic, beers started being passed around as stories were being shared (mostly in their mother tongue so I just nodded and waited for translations from Biben.)

The 2-Wheeled Tour Guide

The next day I got up bright and early, ate a big European style breakfast at my mini-village, and rented a scooter to go explore more of the island. This was a recommendation from one of the staff at Tabo if you only have 1 full day. I sped along the coast checking out the scenery and stopping frequently to take photos of anything that caught my eye. It wasn't all that relaxing though; traffic trying to pass, and speeding head on, within a narrow road tends to keep your whits about you. It's all part of the experience. The hillsides are dotted with Christian temples, water buffaloes, traditional Batak houses, and waterfalls. This area of Indonesia has a strong Christian influence. Although the majority of the population in Indonesia (240 million) is Muslim. Out of all the sights, I was most interested in a massive waterfall which I first sighted that morning from my place.

FYI: Indonesia is the 4th Largest Country in the World

1. China - 1.3 Bil
2. India - 1.1 Bil
3. USA - 300 Mil
4. Indonesia - 240 Mil
5. Brazil - 200 Mil
6. Pakistan - 175 Mil

Waterfall Hunt

I was determined to hike to the base of the waterfall. After riding around the island for a few hours and seeing most of the sights, I made a bee-line for it and in doing so met a new friend. As I slowly navigated the motor bike up a dirt road with deep puddle-filled pot holes, I saw a girl walking along that was staring up at the waterfall. I pulled over to ask her if she knew where I could begin hiking to the base. Her name is Rotua and she was hiking to the waterfall as well. She was visiting her family for the holidays, back from her university, and decided to go hike up to the waterfall since she hadn't done it since she was in high school. I guess a friend of hers stood her up so she was happy to have the company and said she didn't mind showing me the way. Yet another example of the wonderful hospitality I experienced on the lake. The path was well established and relatively easy until we got closer to the base when it turned steep, narrow, and slippery. By the time we made it to the base of the waterfall, I was drenched in sweat. Rotua, on the other hand, was perfectly fine and she hiked up in flip flops. Go figure. Since Rotua didn't have a camera, we had a major photo session at the top and I have since given her the photos to share with friends and family. She was very appreciative. After the photo session, and a major rest, Rotua offered to take me even higher up the side of the waterfall. I'm not sure if you can tell by the photos I posted, but it was super steep and I kindly declined her offer. It also looked like it was going to rain and this trail could easily wash out from a tropical down pour.

Family Time

After hiking back down to the valley, Rotua invited me into her home to meet her family and visiting relatives. Her family lives in a traditional Batak-style house which is raised off the ground to avoid flooding and has a large sweeping roof. To learn more about the Batak culture centered around Toba, search for Batak (Indonesia) and click on the first link that comes up. I climbed up the steep wooden stairs, removed my shoes at the top, and entered the home. I received a warm greeting from the entire family and went around to each member to introduce myself. The main living room was wide open with one corner filled with corn cobs & kernels on a tarp, little in the way of furniture, and a vaulted ceiling that followed the curve of the roof. Along the walls were family photos and drawings that Rotua's younger sisters made. I could see another area of the house which was down a set of stairs on the far side of the living room, but I did not get a chance to actually see it. I assume it was the kitchen and some of the family's sleeping areas. We sat around for a while and Rotua translated as the family asked me questions about where I was from, my family back home, and Obama. I asked them how they felt about Obama's connection to the country since he spent time there as a child, but they brushed it off and didn't think it was that big of a deal. They served me coffee, which I normally would decline, biscuits and a local New Year treat that Rotua made. It was a crunchy pastry with tons of sugar. Sweet and tasty. As we were sitting around and methodically communicating back and forth, Rotua's mother continued to work. She was removing corn kernels from the cobs in the corner of the room. This was one of the crops they harvested. I asked Rotua if I could help her mother while we sat around and she told me to go for it. They taught me the best method to use and before I knew it I was having kernel plucking races with Rotua and developed a nice blister on my thumb to prove it. Apparently my hands aren't quite prepared for farm work. After spending around 2 hours with everyone I had to say my goodbyes and go back to the Tabo cottages to turn in my motorbike.

The whole experience of spending time with Rotua's family was one I won't soon forget. It was such a pleasant surprise to meet a family and be invited into their home. Traveling solo definitely has it's pros & cons, and for the most part I would prefer to travel with at least one other person. However, on this occasion it worked out for the best and created and opportunity to experience the culture first hand.

Too Short

I left the next day on a morning ferry across the lake back to the mainland. Since I didn't have transportation plans booked, the first place was sold out but the second place had room for me in their 1pm van back to Medan. Since my flight didn't leave until 9pm, I figured I would arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare... logistics fail. After 7.5 hours of sitting in stand-still holiday weekend traffic, being cramped in the back seat again, and hoping I would make my flight, I jumped out at the airport with 30 minutes to spare. It wasn't fun, but it all worked out in the end and was worth the trouble.

Additional photos below
Photos: 82, Displayed: 30


4th February 2010

How much longer are you gonna stay over there? S. Africa this summer if you wanna join. :)
4th February 2010

I read your blog first thing when I got to work this morning. It was a great way to start my day! I love all the pictures.
4th February 2010

great trip
a great story. I wish I had the testicles to go a trip like that by myself. Love reading your stories. best of luck, jim
4th February 2010

Hi Adam! Thank you for sharing your travel journal with photos !!! Seriously - you are a very good writer - and I almost feel like I've been there when I've finished reading your lively description of everything !!! And your photos are VERY GOOD as well!!!! You are looking well, Adam - your overseas experience must be agreeing with you- and I think it is great that you are taking advantage of your location to travel and see unusual sites!! Thanks again - and take good care as you have an adventure on a daily basis! love from your 2nd mom! Sally
4th February 2010

I love that you are seeing and experiencing all of this. Enjoy every minute of it. I can't wait to hear more stories in person! Love and miss ya, Laura
4th February 2010

I love how you meet people!
I love your sense of adventure. \I would not handle not knowing how to get somewhere. and your stories of meeting the locals and going to their home was awesome. very cool to help with the corn shuchking so proud love your mama
5th February 2010

Toba !!
Hehehe it's not the lake Tabo :) it's Toba :D
5th February 2010

New Year Adventure
Adam, Great way to start 2010 in what appears to be an exotic and people friendly location. Just a fantastic get away. Loved seeing a Kansas boy "shucking" corn. Sent your blog on to Kurt who is smack in the heart of the Midlands UK bored out of his gourd although he spent New Years in Dublin. Unlike you he doesn't like traveling on his own which is a real shame. Keep the blogs coming we really enjoy sharing your adventures. Love, Aunt Karen

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