Picture by Monique Van Vlodrop
†††††††† Nine eleven was not the greatest catastrophe to afflict the human race.† Neither was it the holocaust; the thirty-year war; the genocide Carthage suffered at the hands of the Romans; the Crusades; the mass killings committed by Attila; the huge death tole of WWI or the massive flue epidemic that followed it; or even the spread across the world of the Black Death.† None of these came close. The event that was, isnít recorded in the written history of the world. This story, etched into the earthís surface, has been brought back to life by a number of recent scientific investigations.
†††††††† Seventy-five thousand years ago the Earthís surface became swollen. As pressure increased from the molten magna below, cracks appeared. There was then a huge explosion. A mega-volcano erupted on Sumatra leaving a crater 2km deep, 100km long and 30 km wide.† Half the world was covered in ash; a plume of sulphate rose high in the sky and then enveloped the globe, and combining with water to produce sulphuric acid, killed plant and animal life.† The ocean temperature plummeted and a mini-ice-age, of about a thousand years duration, began. It is estimated that 60 percent of all human life was destroyed in this one event which created a greater threat to human existence than anything to have happened either before or since.
†††††††† Ten thousand years before this disaster, when the Earthís seas were at a low level, a few of our Homo Sapiens ancestors left Africa on a land bridge.† Most likely keeping to what was then the seashore, they set out to conquer the world.† In those ten thousand years they did spread wide and far, only to be confronted by what was this greatest of all human disasters.† Many of those not killed by fire, or of choking to death with lungs destroyed by sulphuric acid, would die more slowly from cold and starvation brought about by crop failure and the shortage of animals to hunt.
†††††††† In 1992, setting out in a cigar shaped hydrofoil from George Town on Pinang Island, I had crossed the Andaman Sea to Belawan on Sumatra.† After battling with traffic all the way to Medan, then struggling with the cityís one-way system, it was a joy to be cycling out on the almost traffic free road east to Tebingtinggi.†
†††††††† A break from teaching at a military academy in Abu Dhabi, had enabled me to ride down the length of Sumatra, cross on the ferry to Java, before flying out from Jakarta to revisit parts of the Philippines.† While still at the start of this long ride, I made a discovery that would demand my return to Sumatra.
†††††††† As I rode out from Medan, which is Indonesiaís third largest city, the more enjoyable the trip became the further I cycled from the urban hassle. Beyond Tebingtinggi the road climbed slowly southward through rubber plantations where men could be seen collecting latex from the cups attached to the sides of the trees. They poured the stuff into large tins, and I watched them wobbling off, with two tins of the sticky liquid each on their bikes, down the road to a central collection point.†††††
†††††††† Later the undulating road was edged with flowers. It had become a very pleasant ride indeed. Gradually the road headed steadily upwards before, in the distance was a great stunningly beautiful lake, with shear sides and its own large mountainous island, spread out in front of me. This was my first sight of Lake Toba. For seventy-five thousand years the rainwater had been pouring into the huge crater left by the mega-volcano which come near to destroying human life and created this wonderful lake.† It was breathtaking.†
†††††††† In 1992 I had a tight schedule and no time to explore the island.† It was 1995 before the chance came for me to return. Once again I reached Balawan on the hydrofoil from Pinang. This time the sea-journey, which should have been five hours, took twice that time.† The Andaman Sea decided to play rough.† Our boat seemed to be underwater as often as it was on the surface. Many queued for the toilet - most didnít make it. There was puke everywhere.† The memory of the revolting smell was to cling to me for days afterwards and no amount of washing would get rid of it. We, however, were lucky.† A year later, on a similar trip, on a slightly different route, one of these cigar shaped hydrofoils went down with considerable loss of life.
†††††††† Medan, which means field, is no longer the sort of place where I was likely to find a field or any other open spaces. My previous trip had armed me with some knowledge of the one-way system and the layout of the city, giving me a chance to appreciate the colonial architecture, palaces and mosques.† And, very important, it had its fare share of decent places to eat. A couple of days there, despite these advantages, was enough.† Not being a lover of cities I soon followed my í92 route to Prapat on the shore of Lake Toba. It was just 170km from Medan, but so very different.
†††††††† A 45 minute ferry ride took me to Tuk-Tuk, a small peninsula on the east side of Lake Tobaís island, Samosir. It is here where most of the islandís visitors stay. A narrow road, edged with lodging places and restaurants, circles the peninsula.† I spent the night in a place with the unlikely Indonesian name of Yogi. My cabin was next to the Lake and over a marshy grass field. A chorus of frogs, unaware they could well end up on any Indonesian menu, serenaded me from an adjacent rice field while I selected my evening meal. The place was remarkably free of mosquitoes, perhaps thanks to all the frogs.† For this possible service they were spared when I selected my meat course.
†††††††††††††††††† Samosir was very much geared to the tourist trade, but the majority of visitors restricted themselves to Tuk-Tuk and the small towns of Tomok and Ambarita. Much of the rest of island was then untouched by tourism and was to give me a more honest picture of the lives of the indigenous population. I had an almost tourist free 130km cycle ride as I circled around the islandís roads.
†††††††† Samosir was forested and mountainous with the steepest hills on the east side. Lower slopes were terraced and planted with rice. The roads, mostly traffic free, were narrow but paved. The exception being the south east of Tomok where there was gravel on the hilly winding climbs up to a mix of forest, some farmland and bare rock. The road surface slowly improved as it found its way around the south corner and dropped down through beautiful rice terraces.
†††††††† On the islandís south side, there were more rivers crossing than on the north. While the road meandered like an old style Alpine pass, the rivers cut down directly by the fastest route. There were many damaged, unrepaired bridges.† For those crossing the rivers in a vehicle, a couple of planks had to be lined up with carís wheels before the driver set off with little more than blind faith.† Scary!† It was not all that easy on a bike either.† Aiming for the middle of the widest looking plank, I found the bike started fast down to the plankís centre, then there was a bouncy bit, before a slight climb to the far bank. These crossings didnít allow time for any indecisive wobbles.
†††††††† Indonesia, is well known for being the worldís largest Muslim country, it is also quite well known for having a large Hindu population on Bali. Not so well known are its many Christians.† A number of Churches can be found across Samosir Island. There were several other features which seemed to be of interest to tourists around the island: Just outside Panguraran I resisted bathing in the hot-springs; I rode right past the famed hand weaving in Suhi-Suhi; I didnít spend any time at Chief Sidarbularís tomb - or any other tomb for that matter. While in Ambarita, I could have spoiled my evening meal by finding out all the gory details of the cannibal kingís dinner table. But I didnít. I did, however, puzzle over the word horas. It was everywhere.† I found my first clue on a signpost: Horas welcome to Haranggaol Hotel. Yes, it turned out to be the Batak word for welcome (and a few other things too, I found out later). The real joy for me was getting away from almost everything geared to tourism as most of the indigenous people were not touched by the tourist trade. They made their living by farming, fishing, working on rubber plantations or in the forestry industry.† Many still lived in traditional houses, with roofs raised to a point at either end of the building. There were happy smiling children everywhere. Some of them were sitting astride water buffalo as they moved slowly on their way to school.
Picture by Monique Van Vlodrop
†††††††† I left the island by one of the ways that the locals do make money from the tourists, a small ferry.† This time, by crossing the short distance over the water to Tigaras, I was then able to scale one shear side of the crater.† The spectacular view, over Lake Toba to Samosir Island, gave the best possible excuse to stop, look back, and enjoy almost every bend on the long climb to the top.
†††††††† This one-time greatest of all human disasters has left a scar on the Earthís surface that can be seen from space.† Thankfully, for those of us lucky enough to visit this part of the world, itís a fantastically beautiful scar.††
my 1992 sketch
††††††††††† If I was to go back to Lake Toba Ė each time I visit Indonesia the traffic seems to increase and this may be a problem.† Instead of arriving from Malaysia, it would make sense to fly direct to Medanís airport.