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LAKE TOBA & SAMOSIR ISLAND – North Sumatra

Magnificent Lake Toba in North Sumatra – the world’s largest volcanic lake and one of our great and most beautiful natural wonders

The wonderful legacy of an ancient explosion that rocked our world

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Lake Toba ranks up there with places like the Grand Canyon, Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef, Hainan Bay and the Niagara, Victoria and Angel (Venezuela) falls as one of the world’s great natural attractions.

It is so big (100 km long and 30 km wide) and so distinctive (the world’s largest crater lake, some 2,900ft above sea level and up to 505m or 1,657ft deep).

And it’s so beautiful.

All the result of an immense explosive super volcano eruption that brought the lake into being around 74,000 years ago … and almost wiped out our forebears.

Yet in tourism industry terms, barely a trickle of international visitors have so far ‘been and seen’.

 From an international perspective, Toba is only now being truly “discovered”.

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

“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!

The dark and chilling volcanic winter that lasted 10 years and cooled the climate for up to 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 sudden dark and cold of the volcanic winter is thought to have killed vegetation and animals and disrupted human food supplies.

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 California 640,000 years ago and 2,800 times that of the Mt St Helens explosion in Washington State in July 1980.

A dramatic and significant moment in the history of our world and our species by any measure!

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

Today 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 to Samosir – an island of about 650sq km, almost the size of Singapore.            

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.

Vehicular ferry (above) for crossing from Parapat to Samosir Island and more about Tabo Cottages in this 2018 video produced and published by resort guest Harry Mateman
Distinctive traditional houses of Toba Batak people in the village of Tomok on Samosir Island – pic www.michellefranclee.com

A visit to a REAL and living traditional Batak village with those remarkable high-roofed houses

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).

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 explain the traditional toileting arrangements).

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 ulos (a traditional sash) to enter the cemetery – these are provided by attendants at the entrance.

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

Ceremonial stones where 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.

Until about 200 years ago Batak clans also reputedly 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.

Weaver at work creating colorful ‘Ulos’ at Lumbun Suhi-suhi village (left) and the spinning and starching of the yarn (above)

Spinning, dyeing, weaving and the creation of glorious garments in the old 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.

Weaver at work creating colorful ‘Ulos’ at Lumbun Suhi-suhi village (left) and the spinning and starching of the yarn (above)

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

We see weavers creating their intricate pieces and you have an opportunity to purchase a shawl as a souvenir for yourself or to take home as a gift. These are beautiful, genuine hand-crafted and practical pieces you may well want to consider.

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

The views of the lake and the panorama beyond from this village are stunning, but they are even better at Manara Tandang Tele, an elevated 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 need an ultra-wide lens or a stitching function on your camera to capture it.

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

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!

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 Tut Tut 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. You will find some important tips well worth knowing.

More useful and interesting information

North Sumatra is packed with real and authentic places of interest that are only now being discovered by international travelers. That’s why our REAL North Sumatra – Java Tour allocates 9 days and nights to exploring this region. And then it’s on to Java … For more descriptions and images from our North Sumatra tour program click the links below.

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More to explore in North Sumatra

The Batak people are a fascinating and highly successful Indonesian minority from North Sumatra and the Lake Toba Batak community provides an opportunity for us to learn about their customs and traditions  …

Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra is one of a handful of places where you will have the best chance of seeing these critically endangered animals in their natural jungle habitat …

It is big, boisterous, cluttered, crowded, noisy, heavily trafficked and often gritty and untidy – yet Medan is steeped in history from both pre-colonial and colonial times with a remarkable mix of ethnic groups and cultures …

Lush and beautiful, Berastagi is where the well-to-do elites of colonial Medan spent weekends and holidays relaxing and enjoying the cool of the highlands, wonderful coffee and fruits and Batak traditions …

It is impossible to consider you have seen the REAL Indonesia if your itinerary doesn’t include at least a brief visit to Jakarta – South East Asia’s massive and important megacity of more than 30 million people (and still growing) …

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