I arrived at Lake Toba which is actually the crater of the largest volcano in the world, five days ago. Being that this is the number one tourist destination in Sumatra, I had heard many good things about it. However, saying that something is the number one tourist destination in Sumatra may seem like it would be quite crowded. Although I have seen more westerners here than anywhere else in Sumatra, I don't think that number exceeded about twenty. Apparently back in the early 90's before a lot of Indonesia's political troubles, this place was as popular a spot to visit as Bali. Now however, there are just a few people on the backpacker routes along with a small weekend crowd that comes down from Medan, the largest city in Sumatra. Seeing the overwhelming number of guest houses, restaurants and half finished hotels here would break anyone's heart. Everything is empty and the people are so kind to you and hopeful that they can persuade you to have a meal at their restaurant or buy just a bottle of water so they can have just a bit of money. I don't think that I have eaten anywhere on the island in the middle of the lake that I am staying on where there has been another person in the restaurant with me. While having your own private restaurant could in some ways be a wonderful thing, here it is a sad story of people who have built a life on a now non existent tourism industry that has virtually disappeared.
When I arrived here, I knew that if I really wanted to relax and enjoy my stay, finding a nice guest house was going to be a very important factor. I spent a couple of hours walking around the village of Tuk Tuk where I am now based on the island of Samosir in the middle of Lake Toba. After visiting about ten different guest houses, all with a lot of character as well as very affordable, I finally made my way to a place called Bagus Bay guest house. When I asked to see a room, they took me up to the second story of a little villa and when the door opened, it was like a seen from a movie. The wind was blowing through the open windows onto the balcony making the curtains that were a deep shade of blue flutter through the air. With deep red colored tiles on the floor, white walls and the ceiling, doors and other wood work all stained a rich brown, the blue curtains, matching bed spread and mosquito net completed the picture of the most pleasant place to stay I could imagine. It had a private balcony with an obstructed view of the lake through the dense tropical foliage that surrounded the guest house. All of this for 50,000 Rupiah, or just over five dollars!
While here, it has been a series of rainy days with some intermittent sunshine. My first day here it practically rained the entire time but after the miserable bus ride down, I was glad to take some time to sit on the porch, listen to the rain and read a good book. It reminded me of my days living on board Seawanhaka when most of the days were filled with nothing more than complete relaxation. Sometimes on a rainy day aboard the boat when we weren't sailing, we would all find a spot inside and sit down and read. By the end of the day, we had all finished our books and were ready to start another. When you have the time to enjoy the rainy days it is in my opinion the essence of what traveling is all about. There is no rush to see things, they will be there the next day and as you don't have a schedule to worry about you just sit back and wait until the rain quits even if it takes a week to finally come to an end.
The next day, the morning sun was coming through my window and I knew it was going to be a beautiful day. The overcasts skies and rain that had been around for the past week or so were gone and I got out of bed and had a wonderful breakfast overlooking the lake and the steep mountains that make up the rim of the volcano that surrounded me. I rented a motor scooter to set out and explore the bumpy road of the island as well as the nearby shoreline of the lake that is connected by a small bridge on the Western side. It didn't take long for me to acknowledge the fact that I should have put on a bit of sunblock as it was only nine in the morning and I could already feel the equatorial sun cooking my arms along with the back of my neck. Ignorantly I pressed on without turning back and would rapidly begin to regret that decision.
With the roads to the South blocked by a massive landslide I took my time cruising down the shores around the Northern end of the island until I had circled about halfway down the Western coast to the town that is home to the bridge connecting the island with the mainland. I crossed the bridge and ventured up to the nearby hot springs that was on my map I had picked up back in Tuk Tuk. After paying the 1,000 Rupiah entrance fee (about 15 cents), I parked my scooter and began walking up what looked like a landslide with a series of pipes running up the middle of it where many of the nearby guest houses had obviously tapped into the springs to provide thermal baths for their guests. I soon realized that what at first had looked like a landslide was actually more a small area of volcanic activity. A stream of steaming hot water flowed over the rocks covered in white and yellow sulphuric deposits. At the end of the stream was a waterfall, pouring straight out from the rocks from deep beneath the ground. From the heat being generated through all of the rocks around me, I knew it wasn't just the warmth of the sun that was heating this place up. I bent down to have a feel of the water running down the springs and yanked my burned fingers quickly back. The water was as close to boiling as any other hot spring I had found before. I don't know that I would have braved those temperatures in the middle of a Canadian Winter, but I sure as hell was not sticking my already toasty skin into the water here today.
The hot springs were about the only thing shown on the map on the mainland including roads but I decided to risk the chance of getting lost and headed down a bumpy, not to mention muddy road that seemed to follow around the edge of the mountain that the hot spring poured from. The road at first followed the edge of the lake revealing incredible views of the nearby shores and then slowly began to climb and make it's way inland. At one point, I had brought the bike to a stop and was taking a picture of the island where I was staying when I turned around to discover a small old Indonesian woman making a motion pointing at the motor scooter and pointing up the mountain. I determined she wanted a ride up the mountain and I have to say that even though it is pretty common here to see an elderly woman either driving or riding on the back of a scooter, I am still impressed by there capability of riding on the bumpy roads without a complaint of a soar muscle in their bodies. The woman who had to be at least eighty years old climbed on the back and we took off up the hill. It only took about fifteen minutes till we reached the top of the hill where she pointed to a woman who was drying some rice in front of a little shack that looked like it must be her home. I dropped her off and she thanked me in Indonesian and I responded with Sama Sama, “your welcome” the extent of my Indonesian language skills.
The road continued to circle the mountain as I hoped it would and seemed to be leading me back to where I began. The views of the valley on the backside were incredible. The entire time I was looking down on an enormous valley with a multitude of waterfalls pouring in off the nearby mountains. All of the communities that lived in this area were traditional Batak communities that still dwell in these massive houses with enormous sweeping roof lines. If you took away the satellite dishes that seemed to be everywhere, it was like looking through time into the lives of a civilization that existed hundreds of years ago. Realistically, the only things that have changed for the people living here is the invention of electricity and the motor scooters that they all get around on. Apart from that, there simple lives as farmers, sustaining their families off of the land still continues today.
When the road finally ended in a “T” and what felt like I must be almost back to the lake but now on the other side of the mountain, I noticed another road winding high up one of the tallest mountains that I could see. Not knowing exactly where I was or if the fuel gage on the motor scooter actually worked, I couldn't pass up the opportunity to see where this road would lead. For a full hour, I wound my way up the multitude of switchbacks and turns on the bumpy road towards the top. The views along the way of the nearby valleys as well as back toward the lake and Samosir Island were among some of the best sites that I have seen anywhere in the world. While the air had significantly cooled off near the top, I could definitely tell that the sun was wreaking serious havoc on my arms and neck.
At the peak of the mountain, I came upon a sort of viewing tower and made my way up to the top. From here, I was rewarded with a panoramic view of the massive island I was staying on as well as a view in all directions of the entire crater of this enormous volcano. Along with the incredible scenery, I could also see the extent of the dark clouds that had been slowly creeping up on me throughout the day and that I had chosen to ignore since the sky in the direction I was heading was always blue. I was hoping for the “it will blow over” scenario but now sitting at the highest point for miles around, I could see the rain overtaking the North end of the island along with everything else beyond.
After enjoying the view for a bit, I decided I better make my way to the nearby town and try and beat the rain. My plan was to zip down the mountain to the town where the bridge was that crossed back to the island. If I could beat the rain there, then I could find a restaurant to sit down and have some lunch at and wait out the storm. Racing the clouds, I pulled into a small cafe just as it began to pour. I was pleased with my accomplishment and smiled that I was still dry while the rain came down around the small patio that I was now sitting on ordering some lunch.
With my meal complete and the rain pouring down even harder, I began to wonder if this was the kind of rain that was ever going to end. It's funny but I couldn't help thinking about the fact that when I considered bringing sun block with me this morning, I had also thought that it would be a good idea t throw my raincoat in my pack. No, I said, it is too nice of a day, it won't rain! Ha!, my own stupidity! I now found myself faced with a severe sunburn which I knew would turn into a somewhat unattractive farmers tan as well as the decision to ride back to Tuk Tuk in the rain. Even though we are practically sitting on the equator, the elevation of the lake is pretty high which provides for mild days and cool nights. I knew that riding a scooter here in the rain was not going to be a fun experience at all. I could only think back to how many times I had been caught out in the rain on my motorcycle back home in cold weather and found myself uncontrollably shivering by the end of the journey.
I gave up on waiting and set out into the cold rain for a full hours long journey back to Tuk Tuk. After shivering most of the way and feeling like my sunburned face was being constantly jabbed by needles in the form of sharp raindrops, the rain finally let up. I was almost back to Tuk Tuk and there was hardly even a sign of rain there! It was a sunny afternoon with a few puddles of rain left over from the rain that had passed through. Looking back at the North end of the island, I could see however that the rain was continuing and seemed to be lingering there blocking everyone's path who wanted to cross to the other side of the island. Soaking wet and as sun burnt as I have ever been, I made my way back to my wonderful little room where I found some warm clothes and applied some lotion to help ease the suffering of the pain on my arms, face and neck. I may have been in pain, but I have to admit that it was a truly amazing day filled with scenery like no other that I have scene before.