Lake Toba: Samosir, North Sumatra

Looking out over Lake Toba, it is evident that is a basin of superlatives. With a surface area of 1,130 square kilometers and possessing a maximum depth of 529 meters, it is the world’s largest and deepest crater lake.

Resting in the planet’s largest caldera (collapsed volcano formation) on the world’s fifth-largest island, the flat waters of Lake Toba belie the violence that gave it birth.

The Toba caldera is believed to have been created in stages by super eruptions taking place about 840,000, 700,000, and finally 74,000 years ago. The last, probably two weeks in length, is thought to be the world’s largest in the last two million years.
The ash and gases it shot into the atmosphere triggered a six-year volcanic winter which, according to some geneticists, killed all but 10,000 humans worldwide.

The ash from the blast blanketed the entire Indian subcontinent with an approximately 15-centimeter-thick coating. The global climate did not to recover for a millennium. Fortunately for today’s traveler much has changed in the last 74,000 years.

Now, embraced by a chain of mist-swaddled peaks, the lake is North Sumatra’s leading tourist destination.

Stretching from northwest to southeast, its landscape sprinkled with Protestant Christian church steeples and ribbons of cascading waterfalls, Toba’s setting is among the most spectacular in the archipelago.

Attached by an isthmus to the middle of the lake’s west coast towers a testament to the lake’s great size, Samosir Island. The peninsula-island’s emerald walls climb a nearly vertical 700 meters straight out of the lake’s surface, dominating the scene.

Nearly the size of Singapore, Samosir is the world’s largest island within an island and serves as the area’s main tourist hub.

Specifically, Tuk Tuk, a tiny circular peninsula hanging onto Samosir’s east coast, is the foothold for most of Toba’s visitors. With restaurants pushing magic mushroom omelets, bookshops, bars, tourist shops and hotels strung along its circumference, Tuk Tuk is the ideal base for those wanting to explore Samosir or simply to relax.

The frequent ferries from Parapat on the lake’s east coast stop at nearly all of Tuk Tuk’s hotels. All a traveler needs to do is tell the ferry workers where one would like to stop and the ferry, colored like a Philippine truck, will pull up to that hotel’s private dock.

Center of Batak culture

The rest of Samosir is well-worth investigating. The island is the heart of the Batak culture.

Originally Neolithic mountain peoples from northern Thailand and Burma, the Bataks were displaced by traveling Mongolian and Siamese populations.

Once they had found their way to Lake Toba the Batak lived, cocooned by the neighboring mountains, largely unaffected for centuries by the outside world.

Today, with a population of six million they are one of Indonesia’s largest Christian communities. Lutheran German and Dutch Calvinists missionaries introduced the Batak to the faith in the 19th Century.

Though the majority of Bataks are practicing Christians, the area is replete with reminders of their animistic past. The ubiquitous traditional rough-hewn wooden-planked Batak houses, with their upswept roofs, have three levels.

Each represents a different plane of their world. The high roof corresponds to the home of the gods; the middle elevated level, where the family lives, represents the space that humans occupy; the final bottom space beneath the house is for the dogs, pigs and chickens and is the lair of a mythological dragon.

These houses are ornately decorated with large, carved animal heads at the ends of the side beams. These heads are protectors and, as is believed by some Bataks, are able to radiate positive energy, shielding the residents from disease and evil.

More common than the traditional houses are the family tombs.
In fact, they are so widespread that it may be impossible to find a vista from which one cannot see at least one.

The tombs range from the simple to the elaborate. Some are whitewashed concrete boxes with the rounded tombstones that are ordinary in the west. Others are many meters in height, tiled and topped with large crosses and life-sized statues representing the departed.

These tombs are everywhere: in the rice fields, buffalo pastures, next to houses, beside the road. A day or longer could easily be spent just examining and photographing these extraordinary tombs in their picturesque surroundings.

There is no public transportation on the Tuk Tuk peninsula so to travel inland one needs to walk or rent a car, motorcycle or bicycle.

Traveling by foot is a pleasant way to experience the countryside and meet the outgoing people. Even with stopping to take photos and shake hands it should take no more than an hour from anywhere on Tuk Tuk to reach Samosir’s main road.

Andrew Greene