Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world, situated in the midst of the Sumatran wilderness. From colonial times to the present day, it has been a popular destination for tourists. But the Toba region is more than just a lake – it is a culture.
From the top of the hillside all the way across to Harian Boho, I see a huge blue lake stretching out before me. The dry August wind buffets the tall, coarse grass, blowing the tips of the trees, and causing ripples to form on the surface of the water. The golden rays of the morning sun shine brightly. At the end of the headland, by the side of the lake, clusters of houses lie scattered behind the row of brownish-green hills.
The beauty of lakes has inspired writers since time immemorial. Irish writer Samuel Beckett, who was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize in Literature, describes in his play Endgame the most delightful moment in a person’s life as the time spent rowing on Italy’s Lake Como with one’s lover. Inspired by a lake in his Scottish homeland, Sir Walter Scott’s poem The Lady of the Lake, published in 1810, not only made him famous in America but to the present day continues to attract throngs of visitors to Scotland’s Loch Katrine.
“A beautiful lake and a warm community,” is how Dutch writer R. Freudenberg describes Lake Toba in his 1904 book Onder de Bataks Op West-Sumatra (Among the Bataks in West Sumatra).
Sitor Situmorang wrote about the place of his birth, Harian Boho, situated at the edge of Lake Toba. This magnificent lake covering 1,130km2 was created by a massive, deadly explosion that altered the course of civilisation. The violent supervolcanic eruption 74,000 years ago was described by Dutch geologist Van Bemmelen as a “small apocalypse” of ancient times; it is the largest known explosive eruption in the past 25 million years, with some theorists believing that the volcanic winter it caused killed most of the people on earth at the time.
Tens of thousands of years later, Toba is so serene, it is hard to imagine such devastation. “Silent pastures. On the highlands. Give me your song,” wrote Sitor, several decades ago. I imagine the renowned poet, part of a group of Indonesian writers known as the ’45 Generation, sitting where I now sit, gazing out as the early morning wind of the dry season blows gently through the Harian Boho Valley.
It is not only poets and sightseers who are fascinated by this place. Just over a century ago, a Dutch officer described being stunned by the beauty of Toba when he and his troops stopped to rest beside the lake. “When we retire, we will come and live in a villa here, enjoying the idyllic view,” wrote Van Daalen in De tocht van Overste van Daalen door de Gayo-Alas-en Bataklanden van 8 Februari tot 23 Juli 1904, an account of his journey through the ‘Gayo-Alas and Batak countries’.
I leave Harian Boho, where Sitor Situmorang was laid to rest several years ago. I drive along the winding road beside the lake, where small, modest villages in the vale look out onto the water, children dressed in uniforms laugh and play as they set off for school, old houses stand tall on stilts, and rice-fields are beginning to turn yellow. I pass by the village known as Huta Siallagan. Surrounded by a stone wall, the village is home to a number of megalithic relics in the shape of stone chairs, which in the past served as an outdoor ‘courtroom’, complete
with an execution site for convicted criminals. I continue on my way, driving to Pusuk Buhit Mountain, a sacred place in Batak mythology, the midday sun scorching the top of my head. The entire island of Sumatra is suffering from a drought, and in the distance I see the dry row of hills surrounding Lake Toba.
Exploring the Batak highlands is like entering a picture book of old paintings of the Indonesian archipelago. Topographically, to the north of Toba lies Sibuatan Mountain, and further north is Mount Leuser National Park. To the south is Batang Gadis National Park. Far to the west is the Indian Ocean, and the Malacca Strait is to the east. Toba is right in the heart of the hinterland of North Sumatra, surrounded by superb scenery and numerous waterfalls, including Lumban Rang, Situmurun, Sigarattung, and Sipiso-piso falls. I drive past Bakkara Valley, the birthplace of King Sisingamangaraja XII, the last of a 400-year-old dynasty of rulers considered divine kings. It is perhaps because of all these captivating destinations that a Presidential Decree was signed a number of years ago establishing the Lake Toba TourismArea Management Authority Board. Silangit Airport was upgraded to an international airport in 2017 and Garuda Indonesia operates a direct route there from Jakarta.
As the dry wind begins to pick up once again, I pull in at Inna Parapat Hotel & Resort, located at the edge of Lake Toba. Before I go to bed, I sit for a while and gaze at the villages around the lake, encased in darkness with lights twinkling in the distance like fireflies, as public boats pass by in front of me from time to time.
“This hotel is a historic heirloom,” says Henry Sianturi, an employee at Inna Parapat, as he sits down beside me. He takes me into a room that is full of black-and-white photographs of the colonial era. Could one of these photos be of Van Daalen, the Dutch officer who was captivated by Lake Toba?
Another afternoon, I meet a 17th generation descendant of King Sidabutar in Tomok, a settlement in east Samosir, an island the size of Jakarta that lies in the middle of Lake Toba. Surung Sidabutar has a sturdy physique and speaks loudly, like a lawyer. Most days, especially holidays, Surung guides tourists to the grave of his ancestor. I see him showing his guests a sarcophagus containing the king’s bones as he explains to them the various rituals, traditional philosophies, and culture of the Batak people.
Outside the ancient site of King Sidabutar’s grave, there is a souvenir market and a wooden sigale-gale totem. According to Surung, the wooden puppet, or sigale-gale, was originally used as part of a funeral ceremony to comfort the grieving family.
I go back to sit at the edge of the lake, looking tirelessly at the ‘miniature ocean’ and the twilight falling behind the hills. In front of me I see a lot of sightseers on boats, sailing to Tuk Tuk, the tourist centre of Samosir Island, or Balige on the other side, or stopping off at TB Silalahi Museum. The night is only just beginning in Tomok. From the market I move to a lapo, a food stall where Batak men gather to chat, drink, joke, and sing. When I feel I have had enough chatting and laughing with the young men in the lapo, I go to visit Hotdiman Sijabat to have a more serious conversation about old Batak customs and teachings.
“Lake Toba,” says Hotdiman, “is Boru Saniang Naga, an incarnation of God that dwells in the water. It must be looked after, it must not be contaminated or spoilt.” According to ancient beliefs, in which the Batak people worshipped Opung Debata Mulajadi Nabolon, taking care of the environment was a matter that was not negotiable.
“You must plant as much as you chop down. You depend on Toba for your livelihood, so do not desecrate Toba,” says Hotdiman, a middle-aged man whose every sentence is interspersed with words of wisdom based on Batak beliefs, until finally, I take my leave. I am spending the night at the side of the lake, in a Tomok manor house owned by Surung. When I arrive, Surung’s wife immediately serves a hot meal. We eat a late supper and the cold highland air begins to penetrate while the waves ripple in gentle rhythms on the lake and sleep begins to summon. The water laps against the house, more noticeable now all is quiet. I imagine Nell from Samuel Beckett’s Endgame declaring that the best time of a person’s life is when she and her lover are rowing in the middle of a lake. At the end of the night, I sit alone at the water’s edge sipping a cup of hot coffee, feeling the caress of the wind and the gentle movement of the water. Before leaving Lake Toba, Dutch writer R. Freudenberg recorded his admiration for all he had seen and experienced. At the end of his account, one century ago, he wrote with pure wonder, like a man in love: nam ik afscheid van het schoone meer, I bid farewell to this beautiful lake. Soon, it will be time for me to do the same.