LAKE TOBA – the wonderful legacy of an ancient blast that rocked our world

Lake Toba ranks with places like the Grand Canyon, the Great Barrier Reef, Hainan Bay and the Niagara and Victoria falls as a great natural wonder. It is big (100 km long and 30 km wide), distinctive (the world’s largest crater lake), and beautiful.

Yet most people from Western countries know little about Toba or have never heard of it –  a mere trickle of overseas travelers visit each year. It is only now beginning to be truly ‘discovered’. 

The story of Danau (Lake) Toba‘s beginnings is fascinating. It came into being through an immense explosive super volcano eruption around 74,000 years ago.

What once was a mountain in the Sumatra highlands became a massive hole around 885 metres (2,900ft) above sea level. The huge caldera filled with fresh water to a depth of around 505m (that’s 1,657ft), with an island in the middle – that island is almost the size of Singapore. 

The blast was so powerful scientists believe it also almost wiped out our humanoid forebears.

artists impression of super volcano eruption

An impression of what a super volcano eruption might look like – Pic-esrtsky.org

The world's most powerful volcanic eruption in two million years

Professor Stephen Oppenheimer, a world expert in pre-history and human migrations, sees the eruption of Mt Toba as one of the most significant events shaping the history of early mankind. Here’s part of how he describes the scale of  that massive event 

“Toba Lake in northern Sumatra is the world’s largest active volcanic caldera. The volcanic eruption that resulted in Lake Toba (100 km x 30 km) 74,000 years ago, is known to have been by far the biggest eruption of the last 2 million years. 

This mega-bang caused a prolonged world-wide nuclear winter [with extinctions] and released ash in a huge plume that spread to the north-west and covered India, Pakistan, and the Gulf region in a blanket 1 to 5m deep (3–15 ft). 

Toba ash is also found in the Greenland ice-record and submarine cores in the Indian Ocean, allowing a precise date marker. In our story the Toba eruption is the most accurately dated, dramatic, and unambiguous event before the last ice age…”

In fact, tephra residue (rock fragments) from the eruption blast has been identified in locations in southern Africa more than 9,000 km away!

Volcanic winter said to have lasted 10 years and cooled the climate for 1,000 years

Scientists believe that stratospheric dust and ash clouds from the eruption would have reduced world temperatures by at least 10 degrees centigrade for around 10 years and some argue it had a cooling impact on world climate for as long as 1,000 years.

The eruption happened as early humans were beginning to move out of Africa and the Middle East into the rest of the world.

The dark and cold of the volcanic winter is thought to have killed vegetation and animals and disrupted human food supplies. Some scientists say genetic evidence suggests the number of surviving homo sapiens (our ancestors) fell to no more than a few thousand!

The quantity of rock, dust and ash blasted into the air by the Toba eruption is estimated to be almost THREE TIMES as great as that from the Yellowstone super volcano eruption in Wyoming 640,000 years ago and 2,800 TIMES that of the Mt St Helens explosion in Washington State in July 1980.

Scenic view of Lake Lake Toba, North Sumatra

Today's Toba is a welcoming haven of calm, serenity and beauty

Today Lakle Toba is home to communities totaling more than 200,000 people, most of them mambers of the Toba Batak clan, one of Indonesia’s many diverse and interesting ethnic groups. 

It is calmness, serenity and beauty as we take a one-hour ferry voyage over the blue, fresh waters to the middle of the lake and Samosir – an island of about 650sq km. The elevation means the climate is pleasant .     

Our base for three nights is the Tabo Cottage Resort on the Samosir lakeshore. It’s set in beautiful gardens with pools and pavilions and is ideal for exploring and meeting the peoples of Lake Toba and its region.

We stay at the Tabo Cottages Resort at Lake Toba - this is the pool area with the lake beyond

More about Tabo Cottages in this 2018 video produced and published by resort guest Harry Mateman

Tilapia fish fresh from Lake Toba are a specialty at Tabo Cottages
Taro Cottages roasts its own coffee from Highlands Arabica beans

A visit to a living Batak village with those traditional soaring roof lines

Distinctive traditional houses of Toba Batak people in the village of Tomok on Samosir Island – pic www.michellefranclee.com

On our first full day at Samosir we take a short drive from the resort to Tomok, a traditional Toba Batak village consisting of a row of separate massive wooden houses with striking saddle-shaped roofs.

Originally all the roofs were made of sugar palm fibre (called ijuk), but now the thatching on many has been replaced by more durable but much less romantic corrugated iron.

Separate large buildings in the same style are rice barns (called sopos), also used as overflow dormitories.

If you look closely you will see that these massive buildings have been constructed without the use of nails!

The houses are raised and supported on wooden piles one to two meters high with the space below used as a work area or to pen animals. The next level is the living area for the extended family (or families).

Traditions and rituals retained

The highest level, or the attic, is where family heirlooms and ancestral shrines are placed and, culturally, is perhaps the most important part of the building.

The interior is a long, dimly lit hall with no divisions. At night, curtains are lowered to separate the sleeping areas of each family.

Despite the conversions of the Batak to contemporary religions in the 1800s, ancient animist and other beliefs, traditions, customs and rituals persist.

Our guides explain the significance of the colors, decorative motifs and other traditional ornamentation (and probably explain the traditional toileting arrangements).

This excellent video by DesignersAtelia is a little long at just over 24 minutes but will provide you with good information about traditional Batak houses. It is delivered with charm and humor by an engaging local guide.

Few, if any, new traditional houses like this are being built as a modernizing Indonesia moves into the 21st century. Tomok and other remaining traditional villages like it provide a special opportunity to see, understand and appreciate a traditional but fading way of life.

Close to the Tomak houses are the historic carved tombs of the Sidabutar kings, including the sarcophagus of the king said to have founded the Batak settlement on Samosir and another who led the Toba Bataks to convert to Christianity. Our guide will relate the fascinating legends of the Royal graves.

Carved tombs of the Sidabutar kings at Tomok Village

We must wear an ulo (a traditional sash) to enter the cemetery – these are provided by attendants at the entrance.

Ceremonial stones where Toba elders deliberated and miscreants lost their heads

Just a few kilometres further is the small village of Ambarita, another cluster of traditional housing but with much more.

Back in the day the Batak had a reputation as powerful warriors, fiercely protective of their clans and lands. Sporadic fierce resistance to Dutch colonial administrations persisted in the Toba region until as late as 1905.

Reputedly until about 200 years ago Batak clans also indulged in cannibalism and are said to have cooked and eaten the flesh and organs of enemies vanquished in battle or people judged to have broken clan laws.

At Ambarita we see relics of this bloody era when we visit King Siallagan’s stone chairs in a courtyard, shaded by a magnificent Hariara tree.

This is where clan elders deliberated and made decisions, where wrong-doers were judged and where justice was meted out. Our guide will relate sometimes gruesome stories of how miscreants were tried, punished, and often executed … and eaten.

The famous stone chairs in the Lake Toba village of Ambarita - just out of picture is the cradle where criminals faced execution

Toba craft spinning, dyeing, and weaving in the traditional way

It’s about an hour’s run from Ambarita around the foreshore of Samosir to the village of Lumban Suhi-suhi, famous for its hand-woven traditional fabrics, particularly the beautiful ulos or shawls that are an integral part of Batak traditional costume and ceremonies.

The yarn is spun and dyed by hand and women weave the fabric on hand looms in front of traditional houses. A single shawl can take up to a week to complete.

You can watch the weavers creating their intricate pieces. You can also purchase a shawl as a souvenir for yourself or to take home as a gift. These are beautiful, genuine hand-crafted and practical pieces well worth considering.

You can view an excellent article about ulos and weaving at Lumban Suhi-suhi village at https://edededan.com/2015/01/23/visiting-the-home-for-indonesian-bataks-ulos/

Onwards and upwards for stunning Toba panoramas

Spectacular viewpoint Lake Toba

The views of the lake and the panorama from Lumban Suhi-suhi village are stunning, but they are even better at Manara Tandang Tele, an elevated communications tower site.

Depending on timing, this is our next stop.

The outlook can be breath-taking and is worth the time and the climb (by coach) to get there. You will need an ultra-wide lens or a stitching function on your camera to capture it

How to enjoy a free Saturday night on Lake Toba’s Samosir Island

Our North Sumatra Tour schedule has us in Samosir on a Saturday with a FREE evening. Whoopee!

Indonesian gado-gado salad at a Tuk Tuk Peninsular eatery and (BELOW) the Rumba restaurant and bar – one of several on the Peninsular.

Rumba restaurant and bar Samosir Island

Your choice – you can rest, recreate and reflect on the day while enjoying an Indonesian Bintan beer (it’s a good pilsner style drop – the name means ‘star’) or try a cocktail and a meal at the resort (the food is very good and the atmosphere hospitable and relaxing).

Or maybe you may like to wander to the nearby Tuk Tuk Peninsular area and try one of the eating places or bars there.

This will be your last chance to do so, as on Sunday evening we arrange a special complimentary dinner at the Tabo Cottages Resort. It comes with a great selection of delicious traditional and Western foods and a performance of traditional Batak songs and music.

No need to be concerned if you decide to check out Tuk Tuk – the area is safe, the people are welcoming and usually there is someone who can speak English. (And if you have a problem then remember our phones are always switched on!)

Singing and music is a way of life for the Batak people and many establishments have excellent live performers, especially on Saturdays.

If you do decide on a night on the town, we strongly recommend you first read our article about Batak food and culture for some important tips well worth knowing in advance.

IN SUMMARY ...

Lake Toba is destined to become a major Indonesian tourist hotspot in future years – the Government has decided to make it so.

With visions of this region someday becoming another ‘Bali’ it spent AUD$20 million in 2017 on an expanded terminal and runway extensions to lift the nearby Silangit Airport to International standard, capable of handling half a million passengers a year. There are plans for more work.

Pre-pandemic it was attracting direct international flights from Malaysia and Singapore, as well as direct domestic services from major Indonesian cities.

Despite its its beauty, its status as a natural wonder, and its cultural significance, Toba attracted only around 260,000 international visitors in 2019 – many of them from nearby countries like Singapore and Malaysia.

Toba not only has much of interest to see and enjoy but is also a wonderful location for rest and recreation. It is inevitable that numbers will grow as it becomes better known over the years ahead.

We get the opportunity to explore this remarkable place before it is overrun – it’s hard to think of a better destination to spend two or three days of relaxation and discovery.

Read more about the Lake Toba region and its Batak clans –

The BATAK People – North Sumatra clans maintaining a proud and distinctive culture

Berastagi link to be added