The squeal of a pig, a dog’s feral bark, a puttering motorbike: familiar sounds of the Indonesian countryside greet the ears of a first-time visitor to Samosir in Lake Toba. Initial visual impressions, too, will spark recognition in anyone who has explored the isles of Flores, Sumba or Bali – winding country roads dotted with vibrant wildflowers, makeshift snack stalls and pastel-hued homes.
Closer inspection, though, reveals idiosyncrasies that illustrate the defiantly insular history of this island-within-an-island, formed when a violent eruption 74,000 years ago in northern Sumatra gave rise to the world’s biggest volcanic lake. For instance, Samosir has its own micro-climate, thanks to its high altitude and surrounding water: warm with low humidity in the day, cool by night.
The island is rife with legend and indigenous history
The island is also rife with legend and indigenous history. Christian churches, multicoloured sarcophagi and the soaring roofs of rumah bolon (vernacular wooden houses) – modelled on boats that carried the Batak tribespeople here 2,500 years ago – have suffused Samosir with an inescapable air of romance but also a touch of melancholy. Elaborate graves stand outside family homes; a giant white cross spookily illuminates the eastern hills by night. Cannibalism and pagan rituals were still in vogue in the 1860s, and relics of stone-chair courts – where traitors were beheaded, quartered and their blood drunk by the jury – remain.
The Batak have their own language, social conventions, dances and woven clothing (called ulos). Red, black and white motifs adorn scarves, homes, restaurants and shrines – symbolising blood, death and the heavens respectively. Even their music is unique: during my visit, I frequently hear Batak song, all lilting guitar rhythms and rousing singalong choruses, emanating from porches, shops and boats on the lake.
The local cuisine, too, is wonderfully different. For instance, andaliman is a citrus ingredient that fortifies Batak fare with a potent, pepper-like zest and leaves a lingering, lemony aftertaste. During my visit to the island, I also become enamoured with terong belanda, a sublime blend of passion fruit and tamarillo.
Evidently, uniqueness is Samosir’s calling card and way of life. Until now, a combination of the island’s inherent quirkiness, coupled with a four-hour driving time from the nearest airport, Medan, has forged its identity as an under-the-radar destination with none of, say, Borobodur’s international profile. The ring road through the main tourist town of Tuktuk is dotted with comfy bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and batik stores; yet it’s remained doggedly unglobalised and almost eerily quiet when I visit in low season. Hotel chains charging Bali-esque prices are conspicuously absent. With few cars, and no buses or taxis, the motorbike is the favoured mode of transport.
But Samosir may soon be shaking off its status as the perennial outlier of Indonesian tourism. After two unsuccessful bids, a renewed effort is under way to secure UNESCO designation in 2018 for the Caldera Toba Geopark, which aims to improve sustainability and the environment on the island while benefitting the local people. Meanwhile, Silangit Airport opened in North Tapanuli regency just to the south of Lake Toba last year; for now, it only serves airlines flying within Indonesia, but a larger runway and new terminal are currently under construction.
That may not necessarily be a bad thing, according to people like Annette Horschmann – owner of upscale resort Tabo Cottages, head of the local hotel association, and one of the long-time residents spearheading the push for UNESCO status. Working with bodies like the BPODT (Badan Pelaksana Otorita Danau Toba) authority that oversees Lake Toba, Annette is well aware that Samosir’s image needs solidifying in the public conscience before it joins the ranks of Indonesia’s most famous island gems. “We definitely need to promote better,” she admits. “We say, ‘Lake Toba in Sumatra’. They say, ‘Where’s Sumatra? I only know Bali!’”
Another unofficial ambassador for Samosir is Dani Melani Baturbatur, 59, an amiable ex-tourist board chief and familiar face around the island. As the Geopark education officer, he’s been instrumental in the UNESCO initiative, and gushes with excitement about Samosir’s prospects. “In future, tourism in Samosir will be more advanced and reliable. The more tourists there are, the more impact it will have on improving the economy and people’s welfare.”
For now, while huge tourist buses and Starbucks outlets remain happily absent, it’s the perfect time to savour the peculiar charms of this unspoilt idyll. Staying at Mas Cottages, along a quiet stretch just beyond Tuktuk, I rise daily to catch mesmerising lakeside sunrises before hopping into a car to soak up historical sights, such as a royal burial ground and a remote church.
One afternoon, GJ Siallagan, a wry, leathery-faced Batak elder, brings me to a home fronted by geckos (representing protection) and women’s breasts (fertility), and topped by thatch made from ijuk (sugar-palm fibre). Its tiny entrance is half my height and accessed via a wooden stepladder. Later, I chance upon a traditional wedding, where revellers pass meat and rice dishes down a line in the middle of the road.
On my final morning, at the westerly viewpoint of Menara Pandang Tele, I stare in silent wonder as a slow-burning sunrise ushers in a new day over the Bukit Barisan range, casting purple then golden light over mountain peaks, waterfalls, prehistoric-looking forests and finally, the glassy surface of the lake below. Whatever becomes of Samosir in the coming years, the island’s otherworldly aura, together with its immense natural beauty, thankfully look set to be a permanent fixture.
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This article originally appeared in the July 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine