Lake Toba

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Location of Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Indonesia


Lake Toba is the largest lake in Indonesia and is also the largest volcanic lake in the world, 100km long, 30km wide and 505 m at its deepest point. It is located in the northern part of Sumatra, Indonesia and was formed in the caldera of a supervolcano after a massive supervolcanic eruption 69,000 to 77,000 years ago. This eruption is believed to have been the largest eruption anywhere on Earth in the last 25 million years. According to some anthropologists and archeologists it had global consequences, killing most humans and creating a population bottleneck in Central Eastern Africa and India that affected the genetic inheritance of all humans today. It has been accepted that the eruption of Toba led to a volcanic winter with a worldwide decrease in temperature between 3 to 5 °C (5.4 to 9.0 °F), and up to 15 °C (27 °F) in higher latitudes. Additional studies in Lake Malawi in East Africa show significant amounts of ash being deposited from the Toba eruptions, even at that great distance, but little indication of a significant climatic effect in East Africa.

To get to Lake Toba we flew from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Medan, Indonesia then drove south over the hills to Parapat where a ferry transported us over to Pulau Samosir, a large island which dominates the lake.

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Lake Toba in North Sumatra, Indonesia.
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Parapat on Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

Accommodation is fairly basic on Pulau Samosir but the Samosir Cottages provided our base for the few days of exploration we had planned for this area. The location was right on the lakeside giving us views over the extensive lake and out to the crater rim and surrounding mountains.

The local staff were very friendly and helpful and in the evening we had the opportunity to experience some traditional music and dance.

Most of the people who live around Lake Toba are ethnically Bataks. Traditional Batak houses are noted for their distinctive roofs (which curve upwards at each end, as a boat’s hull does) and their colorful decor.

Batak is a collective term used to identify a number of ethnic groups predominantly found in North Sumatra, Indonesia. The term is used to include the Alas, Kluet, Singkil, Karo, Pakpak, Simalungun, Toba, Angkola, and Mandailing which are distinct but related groups with distinct – albeit related – languages and customs. In North Sumatra, Toba people typically assert their identity as ‘Batak’, while other ‘Batak’ may explicitly reject that label, preferring instead to identify as specifically ‘Mandailing’ and ‘Karo’ people.

The traditional occupation of the Batak was agriculture, hunting and farming. The great lake of Toba provided vast opportunity for freshwater aquaculture since ancient times. Interior rural Batak communities relied heavily on rice farming, horticulture and other plant and commercial crops, and to some extent, acquiring forest products, such as hard wood, plant resin, and wild animals. The port of Barus on the western coast of Batak lands has become famous as the source of kapur barus (camphor). In ancient times, Batak warriors were often recruited by neighboring Malay courts as mercenaries. In the colonial era, the Dutch introduced commercial cash crops, such as coffee, sawit palm oil, and rubber, converting some parts of the Batak land into plantations.

Ritual cannibalism was well documented among pre-colonial Batak people, being performed in order to strengthen the eater’s tendi (life-soul). In particular, the blood, heart, palms and soles of the feet were seen as rich in tendi. In Marco Polo’s memoirs of his stay on the east coast of Sumatra (then called Java Minor) from April to September 1292, he mentions an encounter with hill folk whom he refers to as “man-eaters”. From secondary sources, Marco Polo recorded stories of ritual cannibalism among the “Battas”. Marco Polo’s stay was restricted to the coastal areas, and he never ventured inland to directly verify such claims. Our guide showed us some large granite stones in a village which was apparently used to decapitate the victims.

Indonesia is primarily an islamic country but strangely in this region there is a high percentage of christians evident by the many churches we saw. There were many missionaries visiting this area in the 1800’s. The Toba and Karo Batak accepted Christianity rapidly and by the early 20th century it had become part of their cultural identity.

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Driving around the island on a small motorbike was a great way to see the rural lifestyle in the small villages.

In one small shop we came across a bizarre stuffed animal which I believe was a sun bear.

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We met an interesting German man who was travelling around the world on his BMW motorbike (for the second time!) and was taking in this remote region.

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As we drove in to the more remote areas we saw a lot of rice terraces with many farmers working the fields.

Coming into one very remote village we came across an incredible sight. As mentioned above there are a high percentage of Christians  in the Lake Toba area so pork is commonly eaten and roast suckling pig is a famous local dish. So when driving into this small remote village I smelt the aroma of barbecued meat which I presumed to be barbecued roast pork.  I eventually saw a man with a large stake over an open fire barbecuing. However once I got close to my amazement he was not roasting a pig but it was a dog! Yes apparently they also eat dog here.

It was a short visit but certainly an interesting one with supervolcano eruptions, local Batak singing and dancing, churches, rice terraces, cannibalistic local tribes and roasted dog barbecues.  On our return trip from Pulau Samosir to Medan we stopped to sample some local durian and also saw a small rubber plantation.

A local lady at the ferry terminal was selling peanuts and I couldn’t resist grabbing a close portrait shot of her face which was full of character.

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Passionate Photographer …. Lost in Asia

Stuart Taylor of HighlanderImages Photography has been making images for over 25 years and can offer a diverse range of photo imaging services with a focus on Asia and a documentary/photojournalistic style. These services include planning and executing a photo shoot on location but importantly all the post-processing and image preparation needed for the specific finished media format required by the customer. Stuart’s experience and knowledge in all of these aspects makes HighlanderImages Photography a one-stop-shop for a comprehensive and professional image production service.

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