This side of the local personality was very much on show as we picked our way through the ramshackle market/bus station in Kabanjahe to a small eatery to take on board some lunch before tackling the road to Parapat. We were quickly surrounded by a rowdy group of locals with one lady brandishing an alcoholic drink whilst dancing to the sounds of Whigfield's Saturday Night coming from her mobile phone. We quickly ate up - Vincent electing to steer clear of the food - as it was obvious that a few of our new friends were a few to the good by lunchtime. It was hard to get away as one lady was very reluctant to let go of my hand. A man who was barely able to walk in a straight line tried to lead us to our onwards connection - an empty angkot bound for Parapat. Since these mini-buses only leave when full we went in search of a more populated ride. We found what seemed to be a full vehicle but, with our bags tied to the roof, space was found for three more people. In true Indonesian style I had half a seat while Maude and Vincent behind me were crammed together like sardines. We were on our way and the ride cannot have been that uncomfortable as I drifted off, waking intermitently as my head sank forwards beyond the tipping point.
We were dropped at the waterfront, having taken in a shimmering view of the lake as we followed the winding road down from the pass above. With overcast skies the water was liquid silver as we crossed the short passage to Tuk-Tuk on Samosir Island. The boat ride was punctuated by approaches from various 'hunters' trying to entice us to their guest house. We elected to check out Liberta as recommended by Lonely Planet but none of us were sold on the inland location when we arrived, along with all the other backpackers, so we headed across to Ambarita Bay where we had been recommended the Reggae guesthouse. It didn't live up to expectations, either, and was quite pricey so I sat with the bags while Maude and Vincent went in search of better digs. And the Swiss were on a roll, coming up trumps with Tony's Guest House. They had struck a deal with Annie the owner for Rp30,000 per room with cold shower and veranda overlooking the bay from a vantage point above the road. Now it was time to relax and take in the view of rice fields backing on to the lapping shore, the air filled with the gentle sound of moving water. Perfection after a long day on the road
Tuk-Tuk is very much a one-road town, but it is a long road that twists and turns and dips and rises around a curving coast-line the juts out into the lake. We discovered that there is quite a bit of walking to be done in Tuk-Tuk as
we went in search of book exchanges for the Swiss and food for us all. We had just missed the madness of the post-Ramadan celebrations when there are no rooms to be found - it was very, very quiet as we passed many guesthouses and restaurants, most of them empty. After much walking and not so much success in finding French-language books we settled on a vegetarian restaurant. Or more a restaurant only serving vegetarian food due to a dodgy fridge that could no longer keep meat or fish sufficiently cool. Not that Lake Toba was hot, it was refreshingly mild in the daytime with maybe a slight chill at night - so much so that my companions drew comparisons with their homeland.
The restaurant was home to fresh out of the box tabby kittens who amused us as we waited for our food to be cooked from scratch. At first there was just one kitten to be seen but, as he nestled on my lap, the two young sons of the owner brought out kitten after kitten from the back room, carried roughly by the napes of their necks, until I had a bundle of fur clinging to my lap.
I gently transfered my many furry friends to the floor as my aubergine curry was served up. Man, I love aubergine. And this was one seriously good dish, the fleshy vegetable cooked to perfection and accompanied by passion fruit tea. A passion fruit - my most-liked fruit - spooned into a cup of tea. Simple but effective. Best meal in Indonesia to date and I walked home happy.
The following day we walked around the bay in front of Tony's to the village of Ambarita, stopping at a small archaeological site with a long history along the way. A man working in the field opposite came over, once we had scaled improvised stone steps to a wide earthy ledge in the hill side where stone figures resided in excavated enclaves, and filled us in - for a donation - on some of the history. This had once been an area specially reserved for the local king, with many fruit trees whose produce could only be consumed by the royal family. The figure seen in the adjacent picture is rumoured to be that of a man who was buried alive after being caught poaching the king's fruit. Another myth explains the formation of Samosir Island.
A long time ago a beautiful maiden was engaged to be married to an eligible prince but, at the last moment, his head was turned by another woman and he ditched his fiancee in favour of his new squeeze. Broken-hearted, the maiden climbed to the top of the towering plateau on the mainland and threw herself to her death. Samosir is said to be her tomb while the lake was formed by the tears that she cried. The story sounded familiar and I have an inkling Lake Titicaca may have similar mythology attached to it.
We continued on to the village and stumbled upon a very special occassion - the visit of the Indonesian minister for development to Ambarita. The VIP and her entourage arrived at a stone-walled compound enclosing Batak houses and an ancient tree set beside stone chairs where kings of yesteryear passed judgement on legal matters. The politician was met by a group of women in traditional dress who handed a woven sash to each of their guests. A band started up to the left boasting drums and flutes and the head of the village, brandishing an intricately-carved staff, kickstarted a lavish welcoming ceremony. He danced before the politicians rearing forward into the faces of the onlookers before pulling back, waving his staff rhythmically before calming himself to deliver a few words before leading his guests up a small flight of steps to a raised terrace arranged for the minister to deliver her speech.
I was distracted by the words 'I want to kiss you' coming
from my right. It seemed an old lady was making a pass at me but her daughter quickly explained that it was just her way of getting my attention. I'm sure hello would have worked. The daughter was very keen to talk with me to practise her English and told me about her job working in a bank in a nearby city. She was with her fiance who she told me was also her first cousin and that their families had decided they would make a good match just six months before. She assured me that they were in love and hoping to marry the next month. She told me, as we swapped emails, that I was invited to the wedding if I should find myself in the area. Just when you think people cannot get any friendlier they just go and up the ante. Meanwhile, a friend of the mother was intent on swapping her flip flops for mine. I smiled but refused the trade... Pink just isn't my colour. Well, not since I was five.
As we walked back to Tony's we were passed by the ministerial cavalcade off around 20 blacked out cars - a procession most definitely not suited to the island's narrow roads. Even the policemen charged with protecting the guest of honour were trying to strike up conversations with us. There was something feelgood in the air, maybe because Saturday night was approaching. And we all know that Saturday night
is party night... We were walking in search of a pizza restaurant when I heard someone calling my name. Who could it possibly be, I thought, as I turned around in search of the source. It was intrepid Eric from Bukit Lawang. We joined him and the Dutch couple from Berastagi at Cotney restaurant - run by lovely sisters Eve and Ronnie - where I almost blew my head off with a super spicy but oh-so rich beef rendang. The beers flowed and, while Maude and Vincent sensibly headed home, I continued on to the night-time hotspot of Roy's pub which conjured up images of Coronation Street in my mind. Roy's Rolls. In fact, Roy turned out to be an Indonesian woman and there was a band playing covers. More beer flowed and some dancing was done with the girls from the restaurant and I didn't get back until almost 5am, thankfully not too worse for wear.
Sunday was a day for doing little, spending the afternoon lying back on my bed, headphones in ears before heading out for dinner with Vincent and Maude. While the Swiss headed for more book exchanges I walked back past Cotney where I found my new friends - Eric, Neil from Scotland, Dutch Tony and the girls - all in pretty the same positions as I had found them the night before. They were also joined by a Vietnamese girl called Trung who has been studying in Java for the past three years and speaks spot-on Basia Indonesia - the collective languageused to by-pass the many ethnic dialects. We got chatting and it turned out that we were staying close by but paying radically different prices - she was forking out Rp75,000 at Reggae.
I told her about Tony's and she was keen to check it out so we walked back together and she was keen to switch rooms the following day. I was planning to hire a scooter the following day along with Vincent and Maude to explore the island and asked Trung if she would like to split a bike, which she was so we arranged to meet in the morning.
It dawned on me that it would make sense for Trung to take the spare bed in my spacious room so we would only need to pay Rp15,000 each (around £1). We were both used to sleeping in dorms so it would be no different and she up for the idea so, after another delicious but time-consuming breakfast at Tony's restaurant, we moved her bag and then went to Reggae to hire their two bikes. While Maude and Vincent got the blue number I would be riding the pink scooter (damn, I wished I had swapped my havaianas) while Trung (pronounced Chun) hung on for dear life. It had been a very long time since I had ridden a motor bike and the last occassion had not been without incident, so I was a little nervous at first. But I quickly fell in love with life on the open road with the wind in my hair and my ill-fitting helmet trying to part company with the head it was meant to be protecting.
We were advised to take the coast road in an anti-clockwise direction around the island to the main settlement of Pangururan where the 'island' was naturally joined to the mainland by a narrow isthmus which was artificially removed to allow boats to pass. From here we could pass to the mainland or check out a lake in the island's interior behind Pangururan. Apart from this costal stretch the roads, we were told, were in a bad condition, making it impossible to circle the island in just a day by bike. The road was pretty good as I whizzed along at 70km/hour. The bike was very responsive and I felt very much in control as we ate up the ground from Tuk-Tuk, all the while I could feel Trung holding on. It was very brave of her to get on a bike with me, a point soon hammered home - almost literally.
I was momentarily taking in the scenery when I realised I should be looking at the road. I looked ahead to see a small humpbacked bridge rapidly approaching with no room for braking safely. There was no option to keep going as we were lauched into the air, like mini Evel Knievals,
before landing with a crunch and a bang as our crash helmets collided with the impact. Trung immediately burst out laughing and I whooped. What a rush and we were in one piece although I am not sure what the rest of the traffic on the road made of our antics. I made sure to be driving slowly when negotiating the next, much larger, bridge that led us into Pangururan. We turned right and crossed the bridge that took us onto the mainland where we were headed for the Tele view point high in the hills above Samosir. The road got pretty rough as we passed through small clusters of houses and farm buildings before we began our winding ascent up the mountain and its pine-clad slopes providing increasingly awesome views across the lake below. By now I felt fully in command of my bike and was loving every minute, I felt like I was in a video game except only more fun. The view from Tele was spectacular and the many chickens rooting through the bins, their heads bobbing up away the rims, provided amusement.
The ride down was hair-raising as only now did I realise just how steep our climb had been - I had to be heavy on the brakes as we cruised back down to the flat, muddy track that took us back to the road to Pangururan. After much asking for directions we were climbing east towards the island's interior lake up a very broken road boasting more pothole than paved surface. A lake in an island on a lake. As we weaved our way between potential pitfalls my Swiss friends started sounding their horn frantically. They had run out of petrol. Fortunately we were not far from a village with a couple of small general stores and they could free wheel back before feeding off the final fumes in their tank. An inspection showed that Trung and I were still good for gas so we looked on as two litres were added to the Swiss tank. After much bumping and a little grinding we came out onto a plateau of farm land and lake and stopped at a small restaurant for a cup of tea and a break from the saddle.
Two men were concentrating hard on a game of chess in its final throes at the next table and a couple of onlookers had gathered as the climax approached. Chess is the national sport in Indonesia - people seem to play it any time, any where. Next up on the entertainment agenda was a young boy riding a huge-horned cow as his sister led it by a rope.
Who said the countryside was boring? But we soon had to be on our way and we bounced all the bay back to Pangururan without incident, cruising down to the waterfront to check out a giant batak house that was actually a church and really nice views across the lake as the sun shone, turning the water a deep blue. Time was ticking and we needed to be on our way so we headed back the way we had came. I paid special attention to the bridges this time but still managed to leave the Swiss for dead. I slowed to let them catch up and then suddenly they flew past, taking me completely by surprise.
As I followed their lead on a windy section of road I lost all power - now it was my turn to be running on empty. Luckily, we rolled to a stop a short distance from a mechanic's workshop and, after some wheeling back up the road, we were on our way and back into Tuk-Tuk where the Swiss picked up a flat tyre. After a pitstop at Cotney for a coconut juice - my second of the day after my regular breakfast tipple - I road back with both Maude and Trung as passengers as Vincent nursed his stricken beast home. I dropped them off and continued on for one last lap of Tuk-Tuk as twilight set in. It had been a great day and it was followed by a day with nothing to do except relax and explain the difference between having nothing to do and doing nothing to Trung. Tuesday was in the former camp.
Our final day dawned and there was, after a long lie-in, only one thing that I wanted to do - hire a bike again. Amazingly, my fearless passenger was up for another ride too so off we headed, this time on the flashy blue number complete with flaming decor. First we headed to the souvenir markets at Tomok and then south along the shoreline, bumping along a really, really rough road. It was the complete contrast to my previous speedy riding experience, this time it was all about picking a line through the potholes, deep puddles and cracks while giving it some gas on the smoother sections. I was thoroughly enjoying myself again. After an hour or so we came through a small village where the road deteriorated yet further into a grassy farm track. Since we had to retrace our tyre tracks this seemed like the time to do an about face.
On the way back through the village we were mobbed by the children at the small school who were very insistent that we should take their photo and, when I happily acquiesced to their demand, they formed a group pose like professionals to produce a
wonderful picture full of smiles. We waved goodbye and embarked on the serious business of winding our way back to Tomok. It was all going so well and then suddenly I found myself sprawled on the ground with Trung partially landing on top of me. I am not entirely sure what happened but I had been going very slowly in a line of four bikes as we reduced speed to cross an Indonesian-style sleeping policeman. Before I reached the impediment the dawdling bike just slipped out from under us. My first concern was for Trung and she had a nastily grazed knee but was otherwise OK. I had a couple of scrapes on my right arm and knee, which had taken the impact but was also OK. Again, much to my surprise and despite the pain she must have felt, Trung was all laughs and smiles and brushed off my apologies for the spill. What a lovely girl.
After checking out the damage to the bike - a crack in the dashboard, a smashed side light and some scratches - and regainig our composure we continued on our way.
Later that damage would cost me Rp100,000 (£7) on top of the Rp50,000 we had paid to hire the bike, but I was just glad that we had escaped with only minor injuries and that Trung was totally unfazed by the whole incident. Later that night, even though she had to hobble to dinner she still laughed... Since Vincent, Maude and I had tried a different restaurant every night over the course of the previous five nights it made sense that we should return to our favourite for our final Lake Toba dinner. There was only one winner - Linda's restaurant for another aubergine curry followed by some awesome live music at Bagus Bay - it seems everyone can sing and play guitar on this island. The waitress joined in for one song and blessed us with the voice of an angel. A fitting conclusion to a wonderful time on Toba. I had wondered how I would fill six days in sleepy Tuk-Tuk but now I knew I could have filled another six quite easily. Even if I had nothing to do...
My rucksack bulging with clean clothes, I set off from Berastagi to stunning Lake Toba - an immense volcanic lake larger than Singapore with an island (Samosir) in the centre. Formed by a gigantic volcanic eruption some 70,000 years ago, it is probably the largest resurgent caldera on Earth. The first bus ride took just 15 minutes - just as well since our bags were unsecured on the roof of our angkot - as we picked up an onwards connection to Kabanjahe along stretches of road strewn with potholes that reduced our progress to a crawl and induced some bone-shaking moments. On a better stretch of road we passed a wedding procession, the bride and the pastor heading up a long line of well-wishers dressed in brightly-coloured Batak clothes. This part of Sumatra is mainly populated by the Christian Batak people, who are regarded as rather gregarious by other Indonesian groups.