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.

Jungle Trek, Jungle Trek in Bukit Lawang

Welcome to Sumatra
As I sit here on my balcony overlooking Lake Toba in central Sumatra I finally have a chance to reflect back on the last nine days and share my experience in what has been a week and a half that I’ll never forget. From jungle leeches and near falls off the mountain while trekking to making friends for life with locals and sharing stories with other travelers over Bintang, one of South East Asia’s finest brews, Sumatra has provided me with a travel experience that I’ve been looking for a long time. The people of the island have been nothing short of an absolute pleasure to be around every moment.

It began more than a week ago in hot and dusty Medan, Indonesia’s fourth largest city and an important port of entry for the Island of Sumatra. Other travelers will tell you that there is nothing to do here and one should pass through as quickly as possible. I’m hesitant to judge Medan solely on a two night stay so I won’t be turning anyone away from it.

I met three travelers the first day in Medan who had similar plans as me. First there is Liz from the UK of Chinese descent who has done some travel but nothing too adventurous prior to Sumatra. Nick, also from the UK had just arrived. The three of us spent Valentine’s Day evening eating Indonesia’s national dish, Nasi Goreng (fried noodles.) The next morning Emiel from the Netherlands arrived on a two week holiday from work and was ready to get going into the jungle the following day. Nick had issues with his ATM card that he had to get sorted so he stayed behind while Liz, Emiel and I headed to Bukit Lawang about four hours into the interior of Sumatra.

Jungle Inn

Jungle Inn

Bukit Lawang
When the three of us boarded our minibus to Bukit Lawang there was one seat available in the back that was soon occupied by a friendly Indonesian guy named Rozy who instantly began talking to Emiel about the jungle. He spent the entire trip getting to know Emiel and finally revealed himself as a guide for the jungle. We had the plan to work out our guides once we arrived in Bukit Lawang but Rozy gave all of us a pretty good vibe. It turns out Rozy planned this scheme the entire time and trekking guides often hop on buses from Medan to Bukit Lawang to befriend travelers before even arriving. It is a very innovative business move and smart seeing as though there are about 140 guides in Bukit Lawang and in the low season, only a small handful of tourists.

The three of us shared a really nice room at the Jungle Inn, Bukit Lawang’s nicest hotel along the river. We met with Rozy after we settled in and worked out the specifics for our trek into the jungle. For a reasonable price we agreed on a two day trek that would include food, camping and a raft back to town down the Bohorok River.

The Trek
In the morning we met with Rozy and two other girls who he had managed to get into our group. There was Reike, also Dutch and Frida who is Indonesian. The five of us, Rozy and his assistant guide, Marwan headed into the jungle at around 9am. For the first hour it was mostly a pretty easy walk through the town its outlying forest. We made it to the border of the jungle where a sign greeted us to explain some of the rules when viewing an orangutan. Much like my gorilla trek in Rwanda, there was no guarantee that we’d get to see any animals so it is up to having a good guide and good fortune.

Man of the Forest
The jungles of Bukit Lawang are home to the Orangutan, the only great ape living outside of Africa. Our red-headed cousins are the main draw for tourism to this part of Sumatra but I’d argue the people are what makes you want to stay.

Orangutan translates from Malay and Indonesian into English to mean man of the forest. We spotted two high in the trees very early on in the trek. They quietly sat there looking down at us while we quietly sat there looking up at them. Orangutans are arboreal creatures, meaning they live almost the entirety of their life in the trees. They build nests where they protect their young and often move about the forest canopy in search of new spots to nest. We spent just a few moments with these orangutans and then moved on.

Man of the Forest

Man of the Forest

Several hours into the trek we made a rest stop to eat watermelon and hydrate ourselves for the long stretch before lunch time. Emiel had issues with his pants so he was attempting to sow up a hole. Another group had moved on past us and we waited a few moments before packing up to move on. Just as I was putting my belongings back in my pack one of the girls from the group ahead of us came walking back rather briskly. She said something about an orangutan and Rozy our guide said, “The aggressive one?” Everyone started moving very quickly. Emiel and I were still preoccupied with our tasks and figured everyone was just hurrying so they could go take a look. As I was still zipping my bag up I heard Rozy say, “Don’t panic, Don’t panic! Come, Come” Then I heard one of the girls say, “Joey, watch out.” I turned around and there she was, Sumai, the largest and most aggressive orangutan in the jungle walking directly behind me within a couple of yards. I had misunderstood everyone moving quickly. My heart jumped as I didn’t expect a giant beast behind me when I turned around. Rozy urged everone to not panic and just to walk away quickly. The orangutan passed everyone else but Rozy, Emiel and I were still in its path. Rozy told me to grab the watermelon and eat it as fast as I could. I shoved several pieces in my mouth and Rozy grabbed the rind from me and tossed it towards the orangutan to appease it. Orangutans are normally very peaceful and non-aggressive but this one has become used to humans feeding it and has been known to attack guides and travelers. After she had the rind in her mouth she walked up into a tree with her baby and sat there watching us. We got a lot of good photographs here as our guide successfully calmed her down.

Continuing On
I have very little experience in the jungle but luckily I have been on the road for more than a month and a half and I’m physically in much better shape than I am normally. Aside from a little complaining occasionally, our group was pretty good. We went up and down the mountain and covered a range of about 7km in about 8 hours. Rozy’s assistant, Marwan, would run ahead to look for more animals. He spotted a small group of black gibbon very high in the tree tops. It was nearly impossible for us to see them if it were not for the zoom on my camera lens. How Marwan was able to spot them so high up in a sea of green tree tops is beyond me. We nicknamed him jungle boy for his uncanny ability to see wildlife from so far away. Rozy said that black gibbons were very rare to see and that we were lucky. I later confirmed that this was true and that spotting a black gibbon, even for the locals only happens once every few months. The one we saw was pregnant.

Massage Train

Massage train at the campsite in Bukit Lawang

After a few slips and falls along the way we finally made it to our camp for the night. We had to ford the river first in order to get to our spot on the riverbank. It was a long day of trekking and we were told the river was OK to swim in. I was the first one in and was given a very stern warning about how to handle the currents. This wasn’t a lazy river and the water moved quickly. Rozy told us the following morning that an American had died 26 years ago because he lost his balance and was swept into the rapids where he hit his head. I consider myself a strong swimmer so I wasn’t too worried. The five of us including the guides all jumped in and enjoyed ourselves. We all shared a bar of soup to clean ourselves off and sat up at camp talking, eating and playing card games. Our camp was very simple. We opted to sleep outside away from the cover and directly under the stars. The river in Bukit Lawang provides the entire jungle and town with the perfect white noise needed to fall asleep soundly.

Day Two
I got very little sleep that night since the rocks on the ground were sticking into my side and the temperature dropped significantly in the early morning hours. We got up and had breakfast, took photos as a group and the three girls headed off down the river on the raft while Emiel and I trekked on for our second day. We headed up a path directly behind camp and were confronted with the cruel reality that we would be walking again. It only took about 3 minutes before the two of us and Rozy stopped to catch our breaths. The initial hike was nearly straight up into the mountain. Our ears were popping and the ground seemed wetter than the day before. It was exhausting and we were starting to doubt going for a second day. Neither of us wanted to disappoint the other and we both knew that complaining didn’t accomplish anything so we moved on.

Mom, Stop Reading Here
After going high up in the mountain we walked along a plateau for awhile. This kept us from spending a lot of energy traveling upwards but it presented a new danger. We walked along a slippery and narrow side of the hill where the only thing between us and a 30 meter drop were a few stumps and the occasional thin tree to grab on to. I watched my steps very carefully but Emiel and Rozy were up ahead a bit so I wasn’t able to watch where they stepped. Emiel is about 6’6” so watching him step is useless to me anyway as he can take much bigger strides. We got ourselves into a pretty good rhythm when the path got narrower. I felt myself losing confidence in my footing and it finally happened. Early in the walk I would make sure to keep my eye on branches that look stable enough to grab in case of a slip. Most of the trek falling meant a little slip on the butt but on this specific path the stakes were higher. It wasn’t a sheer drop off the cliff but at any moment a slip could mean an uncontrolled tumble into trees and rocks below that could easily end my trip. I put my foot forward on what looked like a safe enough spot but just before my foot landed I could sense that it wasn’t going to end right. My left foot slid down and my entire body turned facing the mountain. I was spread out with my hands and let out a loud “Woah!” to alert Rozy and Emiel that something was wrong. It’s hard to explain the exact motion of my body but in a split second I turned completely around and was falling off the side. In mid air I was able to grasp a tree with my left hand and I slammed down into the ground. It was about a 2 meter drop from the path above. Emiel ran back but I was fine. My butt was bruised and my wrist a bit sore from the grab but it could have been a lot worse. Emiel asked me if I was OK as he helped me up back onto the path. I replied, “F*** Yea!” He asked me if my adrenaline was pumping and I said, YES, let’s move on! It really was pumping. I don’t know how to explain it but I felt really alive in that moment and rode the high for the rest of the trek.


Rafting on the Bohorok River

Rafting Home
The second day proved to be harder of the two. It wasn’t nearly as long as day one but it was more technical and the wetness of the mountain meant leeches were a problem. Both Emiel and I were fighting them the entire walk. One would land on my arm and I would quickly flick It off before it had a chance to dig itself into my skin. We eventually made it to a private waterfall where we rested for a few minutes before heading to the river to raft back into town. The trek was over and it was time to relax. This was my first time rafting through any kind of rapids.
There is a lot more to write about and please forgive my lack of updates but I’ve really been so engulfed in my travels that it has been a nice break from reality and especially the internet. I will make sure I catch everyone up as soon as possible!

On my way to the jungle

I wanted to update quickly of my upcoming plans since I don’t know how well connecting I’m going to be going to be while in Sumatra. I arrived to the island last night via the city of Medan. Medan is the 4th largest city in Indonesia and doesn’t really have a lot to do upon first arrival. Tomorrow morning I’ll head west into the interior to Bukit Lawang where I’ll arrange jungle trekking from local guides and hopefully do some wildlife viewing. Sumatra is home to the orangutan so I hope to get to see some in the wild. I don’t know how long I’ll be away from the city for and so I don’t know when I will be posting again but when I return I’ll make sure to share the photos and tell the story!