North Sumatra Road Trip

Map North Sumatra Lake Toba

Blue line indicates the route with a one night stopover in Beratagi

In about 7 hours me and a couple of mates are going to head south out of Medan for Lake Toba for a week-long road trip through North Sumatra. I plan on leaving the laptop at home. The camera will be with me but it’s unlikely I’ll be making any posts before I come back.

One of the biggest reasons for moving to Medan to teach English was that there is easy access to amazing places for short holidays. Christmas break is here, classes ended last Friday and the next 8 days will be spent driving our motorbikes through the Karo highlands of north Sumatra.

We set out first for the city of Brastagi which is overlooked by Mt. Sinabung. This volcano hadn’t erupted since the year 1600 but in 2010 it woke up from its long sleep with quite the fury. It erupted several times in a few months and is now quite active. We plan on resting one night here and then on to Lake Toba on Tuesday morning.

The three of us will be taking our time meandering slowly through the mountains. The journey by bus from Medan would normally take about 5 hours but we plan on spreading that over a couple of days by stopping in small villages along the way.


Samosir Island on Lake Toba

It’s easy to forget just why we moved to North Sumatra to begin with. Medan is a big bustling city with lots of shouting locals, traffic jams and pollution. It’s important that we make it out of town as often as we can to recharge and get up close with the locals who welcomed us when we first arrived.

Northern Sumatra already doesn’t get the tourists that other places of South East Asia get. On top of this, we’re taking a route rarely traveled by foreign tourists south through the mountains. We’ll get to come across adults who rarely have seen foreigners pass through their villages and children who may have never seen a white person before. Of course this means we might have to veer even further off the main road but we’ve all agreed that we’re going to wing it… play it by ear… and see where the road takes us.

I told myself I want to try at least 10 new things this week. Horse milk? Monitor lizard? What else? Things that are taboo back home can be quite normal in these parts but I’ll talk more about that later.

We’ll end our journey in Lake Toba on the island of Samosir. I was there earlier in 2011 but this time I’ll have my own bike giving me the freedom to move about, as well as a pretty decent handling of the Indonesian language. The lake itself is about the size of Singapore and it forms the cauldron of an ancient and massive super volcano. If you look at the map you can see how all of the North Sumatra province builds in elevation until the lake a the top. The island in the middle is Samosir which was formed after the last great eruption 75,000 years ago. There are hot springs on the island where we plan on doing some swimming. The island has since been inhabitant predominantly by ethnic Batak Tobanese people who practice Catholicism and animalism. This is in stark contrast to the roughly 86% Muslim population of Indonesia.

So, it’s off to bed now, a big day tomorrow.

Catholic Funeral, the Death of a Batak

I rented a moped on Saturday afternoon so I could meet the girls at the market in Tomok just a few kilometers away from Tuk Tuk. Chichey and Laura work at Samosir Cottage where I’m staying and have been really good hosts keeping me company in the evenings and helping me practice my bahasa Indonesian. After meeting for a short while I decided to head back. I ended up with a flat tire but luckily I was only a short distance from a repair shop. If you’re keeping count, this is moped 3 – Joey 0. It only cost me about $5 to fix it and I was on my way back.

When I arrived Cichey informed me that someone had just died outside of our hotel. The island of Samosir is predominantly Catholic and the community was building a church together. I was told that different families take turns working on the church because funding for it is non-existent. It’s activities like this that keep the community close together where everyone is family and everyone helps one another. Unfortunately, in a tragic event, a portion of the stone from the church fell on top of a 52 yr old man and killed him. He was brought to the clinic but there was nothing they could do. The entire vibe of Tuk Tuk had changed. I had stayed a couple of extra nights in hopes to see traditional Batak dancing and singing at the hotel but Chichey informed me that because of the death that there wouldn’t be any dancing. I could hear the wails of the mourning family members coming from their home right across the street. Tuk Tuk isn’t really much of a party town but I had been told Saturdays are usually active. This Saturday was an exception as bar owners kept their music very low and very few people went out.

Grave site

Catholic grave site

Everyone in Tuk Tuk knew the man and I passed by his home every morning. I recall his wife motioning for me to come take a look inside a few times. In Tuk Tuk most homes are also stores where the lobby is filled with art, groceries, or souvenirs. There was a large crowd gathered inside the home all day on Saturday. Everything had been cleared out of the shop and mats were placed around. The body was laid out on the floor surrounded by candles and family members praying, mourning and sitting quietly comforting eachother. The body would stay there for two days. The children of the man were in Medan so they waited for today, Sunday, to have a funeral service. When I woke up this morning I could hear the hymns and prayers familiar to me from my Catholic upbringing. It is a mixture of Batak and Catholic tradition. Normally, when someone dies of old age, the mourning would be followed by celebration and Batak dancing. In cases of an untimely, accidental death, the dancing and singing are not a part of the ceremony.

I would never wish to encounter a situation like this but it did give me a really unique insight into the way of life and tradition of a people I had not previously known anything about. This is experience that you can’t pick up from an anthropology textbook. An interesting note is that Catholics make up only 1.8% of the entire population of Indonesia.

Samosir Island, Lake Toba

Emiel and I reunited with the jungle trek gang in Lake Toba earlier in the week. Reike and Frida left after two nights and then Liz and Emiel followed soon after. I am now here alone where I’ve been relaxing, listening to my audio books and doing a lot of sleeping. I needed this kind of rest and Lake Toba is a perfect place to do it. It is a bit touristy here but it has been no bother to me.

I’m staying on the island of Samosir which is home to the Batak people of Lake Toba. Batak includes a number of ethnic groups in northern Sumatra and this island is home to the Tobanese. Bataks in the Lake Toba area specifically refer to themselves as Batak people where as other groups do not. There is traditional style of dance and a specific housing structure that can be seen throughout the island. The people here are just as friendly as in Bukit Lawang. The island of Samosir is predominantly Catholic. Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world so this island has quite the distinction within Indonesia’s borders. There are churches scattered throughout the island and many cemeteries. Interestingly enough, after some research I found that the Batak people at one time practiced a form of cannibalism and there are accounts of it dating back to the 19th century.


Traditional Batak Village

Emiel and I rented mopeds our first full day on the island in order to explore Samosir outside of the tourist bottleneck of Tuk Tuk. Tuk Tuk is where most of the ferries drop off tourists and all the cheap accommodation can be found. Renting a bike from here was cheap so we set off for the afternoon. The beauty of renting a moped as opposed to taking a guided tour of the island is that we were free to explore on our own. We stopped along the way to check out random turn offs and to have a bottle of coke occasionally. To circumnavigate the island would mean a full 8 hour day and we had rented bikes around noon so this was out of the question. Instead we made the hot springs our goal about 43km away. We stopped for lunch in the town just near the springs and afterwards checked them out. There wasn’t much to see as the springs were just along the shore of the lake itself. After a few minutes we took out the map and decided which way we’d head back.

Emiel, like myself, enjoys a bit of adventure and the trip back taking the same road seemed rather boring. Instead we decided to cut back into the interior of the island which would provide a more exciting trip. It was already 3pm and still had 4 hours of sunlight so we figured we’d go for it. The map made the trip look pretty straight forward but we would find out later that it was anything but.


Just a couple of easy riders

Within in minutes of being off the main coastal road we were met with hard gravel and broken roads. The map itself specifically stated that the road through the center was safe for mopeds and motorbikes so we figured it would be fine. We rode for a good hour or so winding up into the mountain. The temperature dropped significantly but with every small town we saw we reconfirmed our route was still good. Along the way children would run out to the street to give us high fives as we passed by and adults and elders would also wave to say hello. Occasionally we would stay just behind locals who were also riding through the rough roads and watch the way they moved and followed their paths. At times the road would improve a bit but then quickly return to nothing more than a dirt path.

Cute kids

Kids being cute as usual

At some point Emiel and I must have made an errant turn. It seems as though we were following the main marked road but we ended up riding through a part of the island that was mostly rocks. It wasn’t dangerous in that there was a threat of crashing because it was a flat road. It was just not good for the bikes and seeing as though there was no insurance on them, we’d have to foot the bill if anything happens. Some locals that we had seen earlier riding through had passed us and motioned for us to follow them to the town of Tomok where we will be able to get back on paved roads and head home. We were already running later than scheduled and looked to have at least a few minutes of travel come nightfall. We followed this rocky road for a good 30 minutes occasionally hitting pockets of water and mud. This is where I broke my camera. I had it in my right pocket because earlier I had stopped to take photo opportunities. The bike with the locals in front of me attempted to pass over a muddy hole. I hesitated but decided to follow. I made it over through the hole but when I got on the other side, at a stand still, I literally tipped over and just landed on my side. My right side. The side with my camera. It cracked through the center and is inoperable now. Luckily I have travel insurance and already have the claim underway so there should be no harm done other than the reality of my score with the moped. Moped 2 – Joey 0.

All in all, it was a great day and Emiel is a great travel partner. I have a place to stay and friends to hang out with in Holland if I ever make my way up there. Separating from the gang was rather uneventful as my intention was to stay only one extra day in Lake Toba and catch up with Emiel and Liz in the jungle again for one last weekend before he heads back home. Unfortunately, or fortunately… I just didn’t want to move. I’ve been on the go for awhile and Lake Toba is really relaxing. My room overlooks the lake and the staff was really friendly and kept me company.