If you were to look at Sumatra from a thousand miles up, there would be few landforms that would be noticeable from the air, but on the Northern part of the island there appears a great eye that is a large body of water with an island on it. This is no normal lake though, but an enormous caldera from a volcano that exploded around 75,000 years ago. Then another volcano emerged in the center of it which became the island. This eruption was so powerful that some believe it to have caused one of the five known mass extinctions on the planet. This was our next destination, Lake Toba. Now it’s not actually an island though, but a very funky shaped peninsula, with a very small strip of land connecting it. Recently that strip had a canal built through it so boats could cut across it, so maybe it is an island now? Often called Indonesia’s Alps, this was our next destination for rest, relaxation, and hopefully, recuperation.
The journey there was a very taxing one, having to go via bus to Medan, then from there an additional four hours via bus. The traffic in Sumatra is the worse, and it’s near impossible not to feel nauseated the whole trip. When a bus starts to empty, the driver will beep his horn along the way and pick up extra passenger and packages. We picked up a young police officer at some point who introduced himself as Salane Burcanola. He was very fond of practicing his English and loved American culture. After riding with us for a while he got more confident, and started talking about Indonesian history, politics, and money.
Well, it was not as sophisticated as that in the beginning. He started the conversation by talking about porn, always a favorite topic of mine. He was complaining that the government blocks all the porn, so you have to get married then. He was ok with that, but as a government employee he only makes one million rupees a month, which is close to a hundred bucks. Now I assume because of the lack of porn, he had two kids, but that salary is not enough to raise his kids. School is not free, so you have to pay for your kid to go to school. He had to take side jobs just to afford it and his wife wants more kids. He then started peppering us with questions about movies and rock bands. His knowledge of Irish rock bands was impressive to say the least. He originally studied English for tourism, but after the Bali bombings, that all stopped. Before that Lake Toba was becoming a tourist mecca, but now it just gets a few backpackers.
So he had to take another job. He complained a lot about the new Muslims, and the problems it caused for Catholics on the island. Back in the day the country was run by a Muslim dictator, but he was moderate, and for him things were better then. Now there is just too much uncertainty. Our driver, Robert, pitched in to the conversation also. Talking bout his five kids, and how being a Christian is harder now because the rise of extremist. Robert was a great driver and very funny. The whole conversation was really interesting, and it was great to hear their stories.
We crested a hill over-looking the lake and hopped on a ferry to the island. By time we got there it was dark, and a nice rain had begun to fall. We met a guy on the boat with some bungalows and decided to check them out. His buddy was there waiting and we hopped on the back of their motorbikes with full packs on. The electricity was out on the island so it was pitch black. We arrived to a big open restaurant on top of a steep hill with bungalows by the water. We took the best bungalow with hot water for seven dollars, though at this point we would have taken anything.
Well we slept great that night, and I was definitely feeling a bit better. I opened the door to a beautiful new day, sun shinning on the blue water, hyacinths floating in clusters, mountains off in the distance, and no humidity. It was time to explore so we rented two motorbikes. This was Yvonne’s first time on the bike, and with so little traffic it was a great place for her to learn. The island is 100 kilometers long by 33 wide with a nice road wrapping around the coast. There was a Batak dance performance going on about thirty kilometers away at the museum, and we were keen to see it. Yvonne was doing pretty well on the scooter, she only missed hitting two dogs and a pig by inches, so not a bad start.
The entire region surrounding Lake Toba is populated by Batak people and has been for over two thousand years. They never really took to the sea, living inland, so there was little influence from outside till the 1800’s. They were a very warlike people, fighting amongst themselves for as long as can be remembered. They believed in ritualistic cannibalism, often eating warriors that they defeated in battle. They also would eat criminals. Each part of the body had significance, and different parts would be given to different people to eat. They would either be eaten raw or cooked, depending on the level of respect. It is believed that cannibalism stopped completely in the 1900’s, though it was banned by the Dutch in the eighteenth century. Also when family members died they would be buried in a temporary grave, with their feet pointing away from the village, so that if they awoke they would not see the village. After a long period of time they would be dug up, have their bones treated, and put in a family crypt that was built like a Batak house. The Batak stilt houses have a unique style of construction, with a triangular shape long house with the peaks rising up from the center to the front to back like ships.
The landscape was filled with rolling hills and rice paddies, peppered with Batak houses pointing to the lake. We arrived at the museum, which was an old village with two rows of long houses facing each other. The only person around was an old woman who was bent over from age, sweeping the dirt in to various piles. Her hands were so twisted she could barely grasp the broom, but when we climbed the ladder to look into the house she still managed to crab claw her way up. Inside she had a souvenir store. There was nothing that we really wanted, but she worked so hard getting up we felt we should buy something. I had been casually looking at a carved house, with the peaked design, and with a little negotiation was able to buy it for seven dollars. She was happy with the sale and gave me a large toothless grin.
We were still up for some more adventure, so we took off in search of the road. We drove for an hour more when we passed a tin roofed shed that had a big grill in front with meat roasting on it. Truthfully it smelled too good to pass up, and even with the language barrier we ended up getting a large meal of meat, veggies, soup, and Fanta. He offered us some Tuak, a home-made liqueur, but because we were both driving felt it was not worth the risk. I regret not tasting it because the island is famous for their homemade brew.
The sky was getting gray in the distance, and we could see some clouds rolling in. We were about half way around, and looking at the map, it seemed quicker and easier to cut across the island, than to go back the way we came. Plus there was a lake in the center of the island that I thought would be cool to look at. We passed through the main town where the peninsula is attached and turned inland up a curvy, bumpy, partially paved road. The rain started about ten minutes up, at first just a fine mist which turned into a steady downpour. Our wrinkled map quickly became saturated as we hit junction after junction in the road. We passed the typical store where other commuters were taking shelter from the rain, waving us in, but at this point we just wanted to push forward. We passed numerous road construction crews, building the very road that we were on. We reached the top of the incline and it appeared that the island had a huge plateau on top, with rolling hills and farms. We passed the lake which was more of a glorified water trough for some cattle. We began asking directions again, and got different answers from just everyone we met, though none of them in English. The little school girl told us to turn back, the store clerk pointed up the hill, yet the construction worker pointed the way we were going and laughed. The road began to improve, the sun broke through the clouds, so we put on a little speed. We we’re smiling again, enjoying the air as our clothes dried off. Every farm we passed kids would wave and say hello, often dropping what ever they were doing to dash across the yard. More directions were pantomimed, but we were certain we were going the right way now because numerous people pointed the same direction. You would think that an island with only two major towns in it getting directions from one to the other would be cake, but no such luck.
With the road improving, the houses becoming bigger and cleaner, I figured we must be getting closer to civilization, and of course, our hotel. I pulled over to one house to ask directions, a nice two-story home, and a man with a toothless grin came running out. He would answer no questions, only shove his hands out begging for money, his spittle hitting my face and reeking of booze. It’s odd actually, no one in the island had so much as asked for a nickel, but this guys was demanding it from us in a threatening manner. Being in no mood for any crap, I gunned the engine and left his drunk ass in a dust cloud.
People in the house down the road were much nicer, and nodded enthusiastically that we were in deed heading in the right direction. Only problem we discovered was the road was flooded in front of us, the only thing showing was an arched bridge that rose out of the water then dipped right back down in it. Things were starting to get pretty dire at this point, my fuel gage was now on empty, and the road was blocked. We drove back and asked a few more people if this was the way, and they all nodded their heads. So we turned around and went back. I walked through the water and it reached above my knees, in some spots well above them.
When I had bought my jeep I took it off road in the pine barrens of New Jersey. I was with my buddy George Hogan and we drove half way through a massive puddle when the jeep stalled. It was a long walk out and even longer to get a tow truck in. By time we pulled the jeep out it was ten at night, I was freezing cold and wet. I learned later that the best way to handle this type of situation is to drive through slowly, and to not get any water sucked in to the engine. Well these bikes were already low to the ground and I really did not know how well they handled in deep water, so we decided to push them through the flood. I am sure at this point the owner of the bikes would have been ready to kill us. Well we were able to get the bikes to the other side, and after letting them dry for a few minutes, they both turned on so we shot off.
Well the very nice road slowly lost all semblance to a road, and became more like ruts over large fist sized rocks. The houses all disappeared, and large trees sprouted up all around us. Our old friend rain greeted us again, sending the sun away for good this time. Our giant grins for the river crossing faded as I began to seriously worry about our chances of getting out of this with out some major issues. We saw no one for an hour, and every hiccup of the engine made me worry about the inevitable lack of gas. Somehow we ended up in a park of some sorts, and we were on some logging roads. Yvonne was at a quarter tank, so I knew we could possible make it back if we dead ended somewhere, but really this was not a good situation. We were nearly out of gas, no water, and had no clue where we were.
At one point I realised we were at the top of the bluff, and that there was a serious cliff on the other side, and we were riding parallel to it. We did the only thing we could at this point, which was to push forward. There was not even ruts any more, and the path had split yet again. We chose the one that seemed slightly more used. At this point we had seen no one for over an hour when out of the blue two families on scooters drive by. We desperately wave them down asking if they have gas and directions. According to them it was another seven kilometers to gas, people, and the way out of this forest. Then they were gone, showering us with a spray of mud. The rain was steady and chilly, but after five kilometers we came to some houses. Fearing we would not make it I asked the people at the house for gas, but they waved me on saying it was only one more kilometer more. Well we rode down a small hill and were greeted with a very beautiful sight, smooth, black Tarmac and there next to the road was a small shelf with litre bottles of a yellowish fluid, Benzol! We had found our Sumatran gas station.
So with the worse of our worries over, we managed to make it to the other side of the island. The gas guy and his daughter argued which way we could go, so we chose the more logical route the daughter proposed. I was thrilled to be riding through the rain on paved roads with filled gas tanks, till I rounded the corner. The road was gone, in its place was a twisted field of orange mud, boulders, trees, and water. The entire side of the cliff had slid down, taking out the road.
I pulled up, and there was a guy helping push a scooter through the mud who spoke perfect English. The cliff fell earlier, and they were helping people out of or over the debris field. He informed me that if we went back it would add fifty kilometers to the journey, and that there were lots of unstable areas now.
Well, I scouted the landslide, which had engulfed about a hundred feet of the road, and decided with some help we might be able to make it through. So with three guys, we pulled, pushed, lifted, and drove the scooter through the disaster. Orange mud covered me head to toe by time we got the second bike through. The mud just sucked you into it, and I was very aware of the steady downpour making the cliffs above us even more unstable. Well we made it through, and the guys asked for a donation of some sorts. We barely had any money but gave them what was in my wallet, about five bucks. I apologized for not having more but we had expected to be home by two and it was already half past five. He said no worries and ran back to help the next scooter.
We made it back to our hotel a little after six, so cold and chilled that it was difficult to think or drive. We missed our entrance to the hotel and drove a kilometer further before realizing it. When we pulled in we must have looked like quite a sight, because the owner ran over with towels. We were covered in mud, his very clean scooters were filthy. He never gave us any attitude about his scooters, but was only concerned for us. Really we could not have stayed in a better place. I walked down the cliff to the water, removed my wallet and camera, and jumped in fully clothed. It felt like hot tub. Yvonne did not believe me but I talked her into it and she was shocked how hot it was. That is how cold our body temperature was. After my swim I took a long hot shower, then snuggled under the warm blankets and passed out.
The next day sadly we had to go. I woke up and decided a swing on the rope and dip in the lake would be a great wake up. The water did not feel so warm this morning but it did wake me up. We went up and had breakfast and no mention of the scooters were brought up. They had spent the day while we were galavanting around the island cleaning our ten kilos of clothes, and had them out on the drying racks deperately trying to dry them. They were still damp but good enough for the road. The ferry pulled up to pick us up and we spread our wet clothes along the back so the wind and sun could dry them more. The views from the boat were just magical, really. There are all these Batak houses facing the lake, behind them is the mountains that we had crossed the day before, with huge long waterfalls shooting hundreds of feet down the sides.br />