Lake Toba is a great blue hole in Southeast Asia, so big and so blue that the horizon ghosts away and boats on the lake appear to float somewhere between water and sky.
Cradled in a bowl of mountains in the highlands of northern Sumatra, part of the island nation of Indonesia, Toba is twice as big as Lake Geneva and has in its center an island larger than the republic of Singapore. It encompasses 635 square miles and is one of the highest (2,953 feet) and deepest (1,476 feet) lakes on Earth.
I knew all those facts before I got there in February of last year, and still I was unprepared for my first vision of Toba. I saw it from a hill in the Buket Barisan Mountains. It was as if the earth stopped and at the edge was not the terrible abyss of legend but blue heaven, all around.
An island the size of a whole country I expected would more or less fill up the lake, rather like a won ton plunked in a tea cup. I think I really pictured something like an exceedingly large Acapulco swimming pool with an island of palms and music in the middle, inviting me to swim up for an exotic drink. But there was Samosir Island, off in the hazy distance, its cliffs rising from a lake that could have been a sea.
At the town of Prapat on the pine-edged shore of Toba, my husband and I caught the ferry to Samosir. It was a gray day as we chugged across the water. Fishermen in dugout canoes with basket traps on their bows glided silently on the glassy water. Even the insolent puffs of our boat engine were muffled and swallowed by the blue immensity.
Samosir and the mountains around Lake Toba have been inhabited for 15 centuries by the Batak tribal people, the famous cannibals of Sumatra. In their remote highlands, the Bataks developed a distinct culture characterized by elaborately carved homes with lyrical soaring roof lines that echo the shape of the horns of their sacred buffalo. They fiercely guarded their territory and deterred the stranger by making a meal out of him, a practice they continued until about 1920.
Now they have discovered the flip side of tourism and have turned their considerable talents at woodcarving, metalworking and fabric weaving into a thriving souvenir business. Many have built adat (Batak-style) cottages beside the lake and rent them out to a new wave of "Eurokids" who come for the beauty, the beaches and the bargain prices of Toba and its forest-clad island, Samosir.
Samosir is a 400-square-mile rugged island with a mountainous interior that surrenders only grudgingly to the works of man. The fertile lakeshores are quilted in gleaming chartreuse rice fields and deep green vegetable farms. Small Batak villages with their soaring horn-roofed homes are clustered amid a jungle of banana and banyan trees.
Like most visitors, we were staying in the village of Tuk Tuk, which has a couple of good hotels and a wide selection of rental cottages. Our room at the Toledo Inn was an adat cottage on the outside, but a thoroughly modern accommodation inside. It was surrounded by flaming bougainvillea and overlooked Lake Toba, a few steps from the doorway. The water was cool and after the heat of our travels, swimming was elixir to the skin.
We set out very early one morning, walking down a rutted road skirting the lake. The sun was just coming up over the hills, and the air was still cool. We greeted a man walking his buffalo to pasture. His smile was shy, embarrassed by missing teeth. He and his animal plunged into the tall wayside grasses and were lost to sight.
Across a small inlet we heard lusty singing coming from a lakeside house with children tumbling about the steps. Like many homes, it was built in the traditional style, but the high-ended roof was tin instead of thatching. I imagined the din on a rainy day with torrents pelting the tin roof and those lusty voices and all those children clamoring to be heard.
A woman, with her baby wrapped to her breast and a young boy beside her, was working in the rice fields. She appeared not to see us. The boy called to us, " Horas " (hello, long life). Another woman, also with a baby, was hanging laundry, singing as she draped a row of somber-colored garments on a line.
Young tourist couples were going for breakfast in the open-sided lakeside restaurants. There was such a feeling of natural order as we walked the winding road that everything except essential life-support tasks seemed an absurd waste of energy that could otherwise be diverted to the simple enjoyment of the moment. We were reprimanded by the singing, the golden light of morning, the smiles and the simplicity--for we too often squander our days on achievement and acquisition, postponing the music of life.
From Tuk Tuk we went by hired boat along the perimeter of the island to other villages. At Tomok, south of Tuk Tuk, royal Batak tombs carved in stone and stained in blood sit gathering moss under a sacred hariam tree. The cemetery is reached by lanes lined with shops selling miniature wooden Batak houses that I still regret not buying, primitive calendars carved in bamboo, distinctive hand-loomed Batak ikat fabric woven in complicated geometric designs, and the inevitable Lake Toba T-shirts. These, however, were redeemed by typical Batak stenciling in the same elaborate geometry as the fabrics.
In a square in the middle of Ambarita village are megalithic stone chairs, and a central table where the rajas and their chiefs would decide matters of war and peace, life and death. Just outside of town is a cannibal's stone table where prisoners were decapitated, cooked with buffalo meat and served to the raja for breakfast.
At the village of Simanindo in the courtyard of the raja, surrounded by the palace and other royal buildings, we came upon a traditional dance festival about to begin.
A buffalo was ceremoniously paraded about the enclosure, then tied to a pole in the middle of the grounds. A man swathed in white robes would periodically approach the buffalo and romance it with a great sword, sliding the blade along the animal's sleek neck while he cooed to it. For long, horrible moments, I was afraid we were going to witness a bloody awful sacrifice, and several times hid my eyes. It turned out, however, that this festival is staged regularly for tourists, and tourists, as much as they are greeted with genuine friendliness these days, do not merit a buffalo.
Unlike their Muslim neighbors, the Bataks have embraced Christianity, but they hedge their bets with offerings to their ancient animist spirits in rocks and trees, and when the going gets really tough they turn to their fierce ancestors in earnest supplication. They sing magnificently in church and continue to carve serpents, lizards and women's breasts--their old symbols of life, death and fertility--into the planks of their homes.
Until recently, Samosir, surrounded by huge Lake Toba, fenced by the surrounding mountains and guarded by the appetite of its inhabitants, was one of the most remote, inaccessible places in the world. Now two paved roads connect Lake Toba to Medan, the capital of North Sumatra. One is a direct five-hour drive through vast cocoa and rubber plantations, the other a winding route through the highlands that is best done with an overnight stop en route.
You couldn't call either road well traveled, but the cool air and the beauty of the setting are drawing an increasing number of vacationers from Asia and Europe. The bargain prices are the bonus.
Because of the altitude, the farmers around Lake Toba cultivate temperate zone vegetables--huge sweet carrots, string beans, crisp blue-green broccoli. This area of Sumatra and the Indonesian island of Sulawesi are the only two places in the world where the marquisha, a particularly sweet passion fruit, is grown. They serve the wonderful juice in tall chilled glasses.
Samosir's food runs the range from spicy peanut sauces to those good fresh vegetables, plainly and honestly steamed. Served at the hotel, the vegetables were ambrosia after the exotic peanut sauces and hot peppers that lurk in most Indonesian dishes.
There aren't many places left where the native culture is very much intact, where the tendrils of civilization have not really gotten a grip and yet where the traveler can be so comfortable.
To get to Lake Toba, we had flown into Medan, and spent a day there. Nobody warned us about Medan. The smog is virulent and there's a madness about the traffic, the heat and the din that suggests malevolent design. The few sights to see--the sultan's palace, the chief mosque--are unremarkable and tattered. The Chinese temple, Vihara Gunung Timor, however, was populated by brilliant mosaic dragons and golden deities. It was immaculate and smelled of incense.
Because we had never been to Sumatra, we arranged a four-day package tour to Toba and Samosir that included travel though the Batak highlands. We found to our delight that we were the only ones on the tour that particular week, so we had our guide Muliyano, our driver Mr. Ibraham and the van all to ourselves.
The road southwest out of Medan was lined with tall mahogany trees and climbed almost immediately into cool, green hills. Even in the poorest towns we saw lace curtains in the windows of thatch-roof homes and flowers beside the doorways. One thatched house had blue-and-white shutters with bright orange cosmos dancing in a window box.
We spent the night in Brastagi, one of the old hill stations where the Dutch, who ruled a resolutely rebellious Sumatra from the beginning of the 19th Century until World War II, would retreat from the heat, both physical and figurative. The air was crisp and clear. Weekenders from Medan come here by the hundreds just to breathe it.
In our free time, we rode a rickety country bus, squashed among idle young men in white shirts and old women toting bundles of greens bigger than they were.
Continuing on to Toba, we stopped at Pematang Purba to see the old palace of the titular king of the Batak. No longer lived in, it is now open to the public. It was a massive structure, guarded by carved-wood-and-wicker buffalo heads. It was dimly lit inside and devoid of furniture. The women's sleeping quarters were simply an attic room with lines of straw mats between the rafters, for the king had 24 wives in his harem. An Australian woman climbing about the palace peered into the bedroom and said, "My word, he kept them like chickens, didn't he."
Outside, we met the king, who happened to be inspecting his grounds this day. (He lives near his former palace, now a sort of national monument.) Upon his head the king of the Batak wore a black velvet toque decorated with a general's gold braid. Beneath it, his jet eyes flashed. He was possessed of a fierce and wary visage, as befitting a man who once had a room for 24 wives. The Australian lady kept her distance, while regarding him with a horrified astonishment. She photographed him when he wasn't looking.
Our guide Muliyano was born and raised in one of the towns along this road. "It was just about here," he told us, "that I met the tiger. I was 16 and riding my bicycle home. It was dark. I had just coasted down a hill and in my light I picked up two eyes, big and burning, and then I saw the gold-and-black stripes. My heart was racing, I stopped, turned my bicycle around and I had never pedaled up that hill--I always walked my bike up--but this night I was able to pedal all the way up. I never looked back. I did not want to see those bright burning eyes again."
I recalled Kipling and wished fervently for tiger eyes to haunt my dreams. But when we think of Lake Toba, in addition to the remote beauty, the peace and those horn-roofed homes, the Australian lady and I will have the fierce predatory eyes of the King of the Batak to remember, and that is no small amount of grace.
Getting there: Continental flies to Denpasar, Bali, with stops in Honolulu and Guam, for about $1,150 round trip, with seven-day advance purchase. A separate flight from Denpasar to Medan on a number of regional airlines is approximately $450 round trip. Garuda Indonesia flies directly to Jakarta, with stops in Honolulu; Biak, Indonesia, and Denpasar for about $1,350 round trip, with seven-day advance purchase. A separate flight from Jakarta to Medan is about $325 round-trip.
We had purchased a tour package from Garuda Orient Holidays (3457 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 205, Los Angeles 90010, 213-389-4600), which offered a number of tour options including Lake Toba. Our four-day package, with guide, driver, van, accommodations and most meals, was $133 per person, out of Medan. Garuda also offers a 10-day Indonesia tour out of Los Angeles, including Bali, Java and Sumatra with Lake Toba, for about $1,200 per person, with all air fare, transfers, accommodations, some meals (all meals at Lake Toba) and some sightseeing.
The direct route from Medan to Lake Toba is a five-hour drive. Inexpensive bus service is available, but you never know if it will be an air-conditioned Mercedes or an old banger.
Garuda Indonesia offers a variety of air passes for inter-island travel, which are good buys and must be purchased in the United States either through a travel agent or from Garuda; for example, eight cities for $500 and 12 cities for $600.
Where to stay: The Toledo Inn, Tuk Tuk, Samosir Island, North Sumatra, is $37 double; dial operator for number 62-541-181. Adat cottages on Samosir are approximately $10 per night, many even cheaper. The Tiara Medan Hotel, Jalan Cut Mutiah in Medan, is $50-$85 double; dial direct 011-62-61-516000. The Rudang Hotel, Jalan Sempurna in Brastagi, is $20 double; dial operator for number 43.
Where to eat: For health reasons, stick to hotel dining rooms.
For more information: Contact the Indonesia Tourist Promotion Office, 3457 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 105, Los Angeles 90010, (213) 387-2078.