Lake Toba, Sumatra- motorcycling to a place where the human race nearly came to an end.

A place and event which almost wiped out the human race?

Danau Toba and Samosir island is a place reached by only the most determined of Western travellers and locals who know what they are going to find!

Once in Sumatera, it takes a very rough bus ride along a windy, potholed and often muddy road from Medan. More recently, the journey takes you through the ash smothered environs of the latest volcanic eruption in Sumatera of Sinabung which was not on volcano watch any longer because it has been dormant for over a millennium! Imagine people using brooms to sweep ash off their crops!

The explosion of Krakatua is supposedly the loudest explosion ever recorded on earth, but imagine the noise when Toba erupted 70,000 years ago. It reduced the total human population to a few hundred mating pairs, most of them living upwind of the volcano, and triggered a 10 year volcanic winter!

Toba blew itself up, but left a magical, restful place; where the locals seem able to maintain their culture alongside tourism.

It the largest volcanic lake in the world and has an island in the middle of it. It is possibly the largest resurgent caldera in the world.

Our overland trip across Indonesia was coming to an end. Memories of the various islands of the archipelago were already fading, but the madness of the Java traffic, the rain-soaked days, mudslides, land slide, potholes and choking truck fumes still hung over us like a black cloud. The rays of sunshine were the people we had met along the way.

The local bikers had continually asked us if we were heading to “0 kms”, the western most end of Sumatera in Aceh. There is always a tantalising place off-route which tempts your adventuring spirit and Aceh and “0 kms”was one. Sumatrans proudly post photos of themselves beside the 0km sign in Aceh and collect their certificate as proof!

However, we were heading towards Danau Toba a place which, by all accounts, doesn’t seem to disappoint any traveller. “There wasn’t much of interest between Mt Bromo and Lake Toba,” one Overlander told me. Mt Bromo certainly  didn’t disappoint so our focus was on heading to Toba. We thought a two night stay would be enough as we had itchy feet to move on to our next country.

Our ride into the valley of Lake Toba was as usual filled with the unexpected, potholes, rippled tarmac along with a few tantalising sweeping bends. Once we reached the place where you could get a view of the expanse of the lake the sheer size of it was certainly impressive. After all it is the largest volcanic lake in SE Asia, possibly the world.

Our first view of Danau Toba from the mainland
Our first view of Danau Toba from the mainland




tobaHowever, we still had a ferry crossing to navigate and it was once again raining. Stern, unfriendly faces greeted us at the difficult to locate ferry terminal. This took us aback given the friendliness we had been treated to all across Sumatera. We were in love with Sumatera yet this place felt different. A quick lunch at the warung at the port brought the familiar scene of avoidant staff who are fearful of us Bulés who speak an unintelligible language. It seems avoidance is their answer to the problem. Relief was seen on their faces when we ordered “Nasi goreng and Kopi Kitam, dua”

There was even a near punch-on between the man directing traffic onto the ferry and a passenger. He also seemed to delight in making us wait until last to load. I was allowed to go first and had to wrestle with turning my bike around in a tiny space between cars which was also felt like it was covered with ball bearings. I survived the experience and was firmly entrenched in the front corner of the boat by the time Con was allowed to board.

On board the ferry heading towards Samosir
On board the ferry heading towards Samosir

The people of this area are the Bataks, people who lived in virtual isolation amongst the mountains and the protection of the lake until missionaries were able to bring Christianity and eventually an to end their cannibalistic customs. There are six linguistic groups which identify themselves as Batak and they still adhere to the strict rules of marriage between the groups. We had been told that the bus and truck drivers who we had become slightly fearful of in Java, were most likely Batak. Apart from this information, we also had heard of their blood drinking ways and their love of eating offal and even dog. (By now if you have read my other blogs you will know what I think of those who delight in warning us about the ways of far off people)

Family graves take up large tracts of land to ensure the land is never sold. This man is opening the grave for a funeral.
Family graves take up large tracts of land to ensure the land is never sold. This man is opening the grave for a funeral.

Disembarking from the ferry we headed to Tuk Tuk, the peninsula on Samosir island in the middle of the lake where most tourists head to. The muddy streets were lined with guesthouses, home stays and hotels. The first place we headed to was recommended by a local man  on the ferry who said it had a good reputation. The floor tiles missing from the floors and the ghost like appearance did not live up to our expectations. Here we go again, the hunt for at least a cleanish hotel was on! This process can be really wearing. Where was the idyllic lake experience we were looking for?

Eventually after chatting to two Indonesians holidaying from Bali we followed them to their hotel. All I could see was the very steep and narrow concrete driveway we had to navigate first! I am pretty seasoned at these driveways by now, so just rode up without thinking how I was going to turn the bike around on such a narrow path which overlooked a precipice.

Even if the rooms turned out to be borderline, I was ready to convince Con that we should stay.

We were shown to a a budget traditional style Batak house on the foreshore. Stooping to enter the tiny doorway, we found a rather cute room, but upon testing the western style flushie wasn’t flushing (how familiar!) and somebody forgot to empty the bin! If you know Asia, then you will know what that means! Once the bin was removed and we decided the old  bucket-flush system was now part of our daily ablutions, the price was reduced so we decided to stay.

The waterfront views, the mystique of the traditional Batak house along with the quiet of the lake were alluring.

Traditional Batak houses
Traditional Batak houses

Despite the head bumping doorways, so designed that the visitor’s stooping was a sign of respect for the house owner, we were really pleased with our little Batak house on the foreshore and pretty well ready to rest and recuperate from a few big days of wet riding and socialising. We were only a days ride from Medan and the ferry out of Indonesia. We had nearly made it across our second country and were looking forward to the journey to Malaysia, a new country and new experiences. “0 km” could wait!

Our lake frontage. morning swims in order.
Our lake frontage. morning swims in order.

Our two planned nights on Samosir island grew into five as we fell in love with the island. We soon found that it is a place where it is easy to just do nothing even if you aren’t a person who is so inclined. The Bataks are also incredibly open to sharing their culture and do so in a friendly and warm manner.

lake toba houtIn the short five days we spent at Samosir, we were invited to a traditional wedding which was taking place in the streets and we were photographed with the wedding party. Dressed in our by now bedraggled and sweaty street clothes, we were invited to eat and dance with the guests and they were happy for us to photograph them alongside the professional photographers.

We wandered the streets and sampled the local food at different food stalls and restaurants at our whim. Batak people invited us in for coffee with a smile. (The coffee was noteworthy- ie lovely)

I had morning swims in the lake which is surprisingly warm (Can it be alive still?) We talked to the fishermen and chatted with the other tourists at our hotel.

Some times I feel that we are passengers on our own journey; we were lucky to arrive at a place in Samosir where we came to know the “pig eating, blood drinking” Bataks as friendly, gentle, smiling and hospitable people.

Off to the reception after the wedding.
The bride


The bride and groom
The bride and groom
Dancing at the Batak wedding
Beautiful costumes worn by the local women

It is a unique place in that the traditional culture seems to nestle with the tourism.




The guests gave rice and money in a ceremonial way.
The guests gave rice and money in a ceremonial way.

The culture is robust and family heritage takes pride of place as evidenced by the family name plates above the doorways of the Batak houses and the family.

I hear that they do in fact drink pig’s blood, but they also waste nothing when they kill their animals. It is part of their diet and certainly nothing to do with cannibalistic rituals!

The Kings chairs where the fate of a wrongdoer was decided. If guilty he would be beheaded and supposedly his blood shared.
The Kings chairs where the fate of a wrongdoer was decided. If guilty he would be beheaded and supposedly his blood shared.

Well not in modern times anyway!


IMG_9188 IMG_9189

These boys were so beautiful. Their mother invited us in for coffee and we sat amongst the dried cornkernels.
These boys were so beautiful. Their mother invited us in for coffee and we sat amongst the dried corn kernels.


The hotel, Romlan had returning guests from Germany and Canada who discovered this gem of  Toba  over 20 years ago! “Because”, they said, “It’s a place where we are happy just doing nothing.”



“Resurgent calderas are the largest volcanic structures on Earth, ranging from 15 to 100 kilometers (9 to 62 miles) in diameter. They are not associated with one particular volcano, but instead result from the widespread collapse of vast magma chambers. This caldera collapse is produced by incredibly destructive eruptions known as pyroclastic sheet flows, the likes of which have not occurred in historic times.

The Toba Caldera on the Indonesian island of Sumatra is the newest resurgent caldera, created roughly 74,000 years ago by the largest volcanic eruption in the last 25 million years. This massive eruption ejected 2,800 cubic kilometers (1,740 cubic miles) of debris. The eruption left a caldera 100 kilometers (62 miles) long, 29 kilometers (18 miles) wide, and 508 meters (1,666 feet) deep, making it the largest volcanic structure on Earth. The caldera is now home to Lake Toba and Samosir Island. Samosir was formed by the uplift of the caldera floor due to magma pressure below. This uplift is common to all resurgent calderas as new magma fills in the empty magma chamber over thousands of years.
A caldera is a depression created after a volcano releases the majority of the contents of its magma chamber in an explosive eruption. Without any structural support below, the land around the erupting volcanic vent or vents collapses inwardly, creating the bowl-shaped caldera. Depending on their intensity and duration, volcanic eruptions can create calderas as much as 100 kilometers (62 miles) wide”.

A caldera-causing eruption is the most devastating type of volcanic eruption. It permanently alters the environment of the surrounding area.

A caldera is not the same thing as a crater.

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