I spent three weeks at Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Indonesia on two separate occasions and did virtually nothing both times. It’s not my fault, though. Between lazing in a hammock, swimming in the thermally heated lake, and eating some of the best grilled fish I’ve ever had anywhere, my days were pretty full. Nevertheless, on both visits, I managed to move some things around and free up a whole day in my busy schedule to rent a motorbike and explore a small part of Samosir Island.
Seeing the whole island in one day is impossible—it is the size of Singapore and I was told it takes 14 hours to circumnavigate by motorbike; and that’s without constantly stopping to take photos—so I just saw a small part each time. On my first visit in 2010, I coaxed my little scooter slowly up the steep hillside and onto the large plateau that makes up the middle of the island. Once at the top, the road started getting really bad, so I just took some pictures of the rice paddies and the lake below, before turning around and heading back.
On my second visit in 2012, I decided to follow the shoreline around the island to the other side, where a little bridge connects it to the mainland. I was hoping to find a road up the side of the crater (Lake Toba is a crater lake; in fact, it’s the world’s largest crater lake and it’s not even close; for more, see Wikipedia), so that I could get a few shots of the lake with the island floating in middle. This time, the woman I rented the bikes from actually warned me against the bad roads. I could’ve used that warning the first time when I was still pretty uncomfortable on a motorbike, but now it hardly mattered. After my week-long motorbike tour of central Laos, the roads of Samosir Island seemed like a newly paved German highway in comparison.
I headed out early in the morning (also known as shortly after noon, for those of you with jobs) and drove for a good five minutes before stopping for the first time, when I saw something that needed to be photographed. A few minutes later I saw something else; and then something else. It took forever to get to the other side of the island and by the time I did and had crossed the bridge onto the mainland, the dark gray sky made it clear even to someone with my complete lack of meteorological knowledge, that my pleasant little motorbike outing was about to become much less enjoyable.
I really wanted to at least make it up to the edge of the crater to see if I could get some good photos of the lake and the island, so I resolved to stop photographing every little thing that caught my eye and just gun it up the hill. The speed my little motorbike reached when ‘gunning it’ uphill would’ve actually allowed me to take perfectly sharp photos while in motion, but I decided to use that word anyway, since ‘putter up the hill’ doesn’t sound quite so cool. At least the newly paved road promised a really fun ride back down. Assuming the brakes worked.
Once I made it to the top, the pavement turned to gravel, then to dirt then, to sharp rocks, then to a forest. I got some pretty strange looks from the local farmers I passed up there; obviously, they knew the road was ending and they were wondering what the idiot foreigner could possibly be up to. That was a good question, really. I had no idea myself, as I had already passed all the good photo spots, but I guess I was curious.
I really wanted to know why they had recently gone to the trouble of paving the road up the hill, when there wasn’t much up there and when it was also clear they had no intention of extending the road and actually having it lead somewhere. My guess: someone with some pull had recently built a house on top (there were a few nice ones) and decided they needed what was probably the nicest road in all of Indonesia for a driveway.
The gray mass in the sky was steadily approaching, gobbling up all the white clouds in its path, so I quickly snapped a bunch of photos before turning the bike around and flying back down the hill. Okay, so I stopped countless times to take more pictures, but in between those pictures, I did some flying. I crossed the bridge back to the island and got that little motorbike up to speeds approaching those of standard motorized traffic. I even passed a few tractors. Nevertheless, it quickly became clear I wouldn’t make it back before the rain caught up to me…so I stopped to take a few photos of the approaching storm.
A couple of local women were actually working in the field just outside the frame in that last photo. The second they noticed my camera, they started gesturing that I owed them money for taking pictures of stuff that was near them—like grass and the air. Even a place with virtually no tourism and very few touts still has a few people who figure, “Why not try? Maybe we’ll get lucky.” They didn’t. Maybe if they had actually been in my photo…
I hopped back on the bike and did some more flying. In the end I almost made it. I was only a few kilometers from my guesthouse when the rain finally overtook me. At first I figured I should just keep going, since I was almost there; I’d get a little wet, but I could just dry off by gently swaying in the wind in my hammock for the rest of the day. I was drenched before I even finished that thought.
Despite my slow speed, the raindrops felt like gravel when they hit my face and less than a minute after the rain started, the road had become a river. I wasn’t going to make it. I pulled over and took shelter under a tree. Almost immediately, a wrinkled old face behind a lit cigarette poked out at me from the darkness of a roofed porch across the road and growled in my direction.
The porch turned out to be the outdoor seating area of a restaurant, which had been shuttered up to protect against the storm, and the old man was calling me over to offer shelter. I gladly accepted. I was pretty hungry anyway, so figured I could repay his kindness by ordering something, but he quickly shut that idea down. Not only did he not want me to feel like I owed him something, he also clearly had no desire to cook anything at that moment. He simply wanted to sit on his porch under the leaky roof, smoke his kretek (a clove cigarette the Indonesians absolutely love) and watch the storm batter the landscape.
The downpour lasted about an hour and basically flooded everything. When it finally let up, I got back on my bike and headed upriver. Driving on a potholed road when that road is covered in water and those potholes are invisible, makes for quite an entertaining ride—not so entertaining for me, mind you, but it had the schoolchildren walking home along the side of the road in stitches.
I made it back eventually, but it took a long time. I parked my bike and immediately dropped into my hammock to let the now gentle breeze dry me out. All in all, it was quite an eventful day that helped reinforce what I had already learned on my first visit to the area two years earlier: Lake Toba is one of my favorite places in all of Southeast Asia. To ensure that nothing would change my favorable impression, I spent my final week on Samosir Island doing even less than nothing—it was the only way to make up for all the excitement I had just endured.