July 30th to August 5th, 2011
Samosir island on Lake Toba is a beautiful, relaxing and friendly place, which I was very glad about since I’d just spent five hours squashed into the narrow seats of a public bus. One of the men who hangs around Ronna’s guesthouse in Medan, chain-smoking cigarettes, rubbing his stomach and looking at his mobile phone, tried to get me to go on the tourist bus, but his hard sell made me determined to go the local way. It wasn’t difficult – a minibus down to Amplas bus station and then a wait for a big bus to Toba – but it was hot and uncomfortable. Nevertheless, I decided to keep catching the public buses, so I could see what it’s like for the the locals.
I hired a moped my first full day on Samosir, for R70,000, and drove right around the island. About 50km was off road, which was fun, although I skidded the bike when trying to get above 30km/hr, and almost came off it. My favourite part was going up the hill from Tomok, then driving SE along the escarpment.
On another day I walked straight across the island, from Ambarita to near Pangururan. If a French guy hadn’t drawn me a sketch map and shown me some photos of the route, there’s no way I’d have found the path at the beginning, as it’s very overgrown. You have to climb directly up from the level of the lake to the high escarpment above, and for at least half the way up I wasn’t sure I was on a path at all. I kept going, stumbling along the edges of paddy fields and through stretches of lush grass, and was soon soaking wet as it had rained the night before. It was slightly worrying, not knowing if I could get to the top, and not having a clue how to retrace my steps either, but finally I spotted a piece of rubbish and then I knew people had passed this way before. This was certainly the first time where people’s insouciance about littering was a welcome sight. From there on a path emerged once more and in all it took me 3 hours to reach Jenny’s guesthouse at the top. Here Jenny made me peel off all my wet clothes and put on some clean old clothes left by previous backpackers, then cooked me noodle soup. Outside the wooden house her husband was sorting through his crop of coffee. It was a LONG walk from there to the coast – about 5 hours – and I was foot sore and weary by the time I arrived. Too long for me, really, but I enjoyed it. Everyone I met was very friendly, shouting ‘HORAS!’ at me, which is Toba Batak for ‘Hello’, and I never felt in any way worried for my safety. I walked along the whole way with my camera slung over my shoulder, which I wouldn’t do in East London!
Carolina Cottages and Tabo Cottages are good for swimming, although you won’t meet any locals here. Carolina has a diving board, where I practised swallow dives, feeling very free. Tabo has good cake and free wifi. I stayed at Liberta Homestay, which is the Lonely Planet top pick (usually a sure sign of doom), but the best place for all that. Pretty little cabanas set in a rambling garden, with a friendly bunch of boys to cook for you, and banter with; and a good manager, Mr Moon, who is from Berastagi and knows a lot about the whole Batak area.
It took a ferry and three buses to reach Berastagi, and on the way we passed a road accident where a person lay dead on the ground. A shock went through my minibus as the scene was registered, and everyone began talking at once, but the whole incident was forgotten within half an hour. My final minibus, from Kabanjahe, caught fire, in the engine! I panicked and ran off the minibus to hide behind a wall, imagining the whole vehicle would explode within seconds, as happens in films. When it didn’t I ran back to grab my rucksack, just when it was probably even more dangerous, while the driver ran for a bucket of water to throw on the flames.
I arrived in Berastagi quite shaken and went straight to the fruit market to buy some of the local passion fruit. I adore passion fruit but in England they cost about 50 pence each, so I rarely buy them. Here they were 33p for half a kilo! I sat and ate eleven of them, one after another…
Next day I climbed a volcano, Gunung Sibayak, which was entertaining. Lots of hot, eggy vapour and beautiful views. There’s no need for a guide unless you take the path through the jungle. The stairs down were hard on the knees, and I hitched a lift back to Berastagi with a group of Chinese men in a private minibus.