Nature and outdoors

Uncovering the Secrets of Lake Toba, Indonesia

How the most destructive volcanic eruption in human history created a Scandinavian kind of landscape in the heart of Sumatra

If destruction, as the novelist Graham Greene once wrote, truly is a form of creation, then there can be few better examples on Earth than Lake Toba. As picturesque and tranquil a spot as one could ever hope to stumble upon, this vast body of water in the northern part of the Indonesian island of Sumatra is the result of a colossal supervolcano eruption around 75,000 years ago, an event so cataclysmic that it not only drastically altered the island’s topography but may also have threatened the very survival of the human race.

For that eruption is widely believed to be the largest of the past 2.5 million years. Toba spewed out more than 2,800 cubic kilometres of magma, billowing clouds of volcanic ash at least as far as Malawi (7,500 kilometres away in east Africa) and causing a global volcanic winter that may have lasted for up to a decade. Filled with rain and river water over the ensuing centuries, the 100 kilometre by 30 kilometre caldera left behind became the world’s biggest crater lake, with an area of 1,130 square kilometres (20 square kilometres larger than all the islands and territories of Hong Kong), while subsequent volcanic activity caused Samosir, an island almost the size of Singapore, to rise up into the middle of Lake Toba from the magma chamber below.

Matthew William Sellis

Fast-forward to the present day and it’s hard to connect such Earth-shaking tumult and fiery destruction with Lake Toba’s placid waters, cool climate and laidback lifestyle. Set at an altitude of 900 metres and surrounded on all sides by the lush vegetation that carpets the towering slopes, the lake offers views reminiscent of the epic glacier-carved landscapes of Scandinavia or New Zealand, while the low-lying clouds of mist that roll across the water from time to time lend the place an almost mystical air.

And yet, despite its breathtaking natural beauty, the area has remained largely under the radar in terms of mainstream tourism, especially during low season when it can often feel like you’ve got the place all to yourself.

Matthew William Sellis

Like most visitors to Lake Toba, I make my way to Parapat, a small town around four hours’ drive from Medan’s Kualanamu International Airport, to catch the brightly painted wooden ferry to Tuk-Tuk. Located on a small, kidney-shaped peninsula on the northeast coast of Samosir, Tuk-Tuk is the epicentre of Lake Toba’s tourism industry, though its clutch of modest waterfront guesthouses and smattering of low-key restaurants and bars make it seem more like a half-forgotten backwater than a holiday hotspot.

Matthew William Sellis

It’s the kind of endearingly shabby place that you can imagine booming with the first wave of tourism to Lake Toba, then slowly waning as the wave receded – though I’m told it’s a different story at the height of summer, when Germans and the Dutch visit in their droves; and at Lunar New Year, when Chinese tour groups descend en masse, sending accommodation prices skyrocketing. For now, though, it’s practically a ghost town, and for less than HK$100 a night I get my own traditional Batak-style house with a wooden deck overhanging the lake.

While the lake views, tranquil vibe and epic skies are reason enough to visit Samosir, the island has more than its fair share of natural wonders and intriguing cultural sites to explore, too. Given Samosir’s size and the distance between its most compelling attractions, it’s best to rent a motorbike to get around, though the condition of the roads and number of blind corners means that you have to keep your wits about you.

Matthew William Sellis

To gain an insight into the local Batak culture, I motor my way carefully to Ambarita, a fascinating old village with a macabre history of grisly tribal justice and ritual cannibalism. Here, I’m greeted by a collection of traditional Batak houses that have stood for close to two centuries; notable for their distinctive high, pointed roofs, they offer a glimpse into how the Batak people lived until relatively recently. Hiring a guide at Ambarita is essential if you want to properly understand the many curious features of the houses, from the sets of breast-like domes that were believed to boost fertility to the geckos symbolising family and gargoyles warding off evil spirits.

Even more intriguing, however, is the circle of small stone chairs that sits under a solitary tree in the centre of the village. This is where the tribal council would meet to discuss village matters – and occasionally to torture and execute criminals. As my guide recounts with a storyteller’s flair, criminals would be lashed to a stone here and tortured for hours to make sure they didn’t possess black magic powers. The gruesome ritual concluded with the poor prisoner being beheaded so that the king could drink blood from his skull, before eating a gruesome dish made of the deceased’s organs diced up with lemon and spices.

Matthew William Sellis

Other cultural sites worth investigating are Simanindo, where traditional Batak dances are performed each morning; and Tomok, where the Tomb of King Sidabutar is the main draw amid an assortment of other weather-beaten sarcophagi. Also worth visiting are Lake Sidihoni, which holds the strange distinction of being a lake inside an island inside a lake inside a volcano inside an island; and the spectacular waterfall in the mountains just above Tuk-Tuk, which offers a secluded spot for swimming.

For those with a penchant for exploration of a different kind, Lake Toba is also famous for another natural wonder: magic mushrooms. The fantastical fungi grow freely on Samosir, and – curiously for a country that’s notorious for its hard line on recreational drug use – are sold openly by shops and restaurants throughout Tuk-Tuk. Apparently best consumed in an omelette, they offer the opportunity to see the lake – and presumably the world – in a whole new light.

Matthew William Sellis

The greatest pleasures of Lake Toba, however, are the simplest ones, and my fondest memories all involve sitting by the water reading, writing or just staring out across the rippling waves that lap gently at the shore. It’s a serenity so profound that I want to share it with the world and tell everyone I know why they have to experience it; but there’s a nagging part of me that wants to keep it utterly secret so I can have it all to myself again next time. 

Cathay Dragon flies to Kuala Lumpur, from where you can get a short connecting flight to Medan

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