This may be quite a long post… apologies in advance…
After a few days in idyllic lake Maninjau it was time to move on to North Sumatra. Dreading a super long bus journey, we decided not to do it and instead hired the services of a man called muhammad ali (stung like a mosquito not like a bee) to take us on a one way tour all the way to the infamous lake Toba. Joined by our friend Britt, who at this point is now one of the family, we set of early to make the long journey north. It wasn’t long before we where making our first stops to observe local farmers making sugar from sugar cane in very traditional ways. We got to taste it as the juice and after it was boiled down into round cakes of palm sugar…we also got to say ‘Salamat Pagi’ to some farmers planting rice and separating the seed from its shell by stamping on it!
The car journey was long but through some very beautiful, mountainous country, dipping in and out of the jungle. We saw hot springs where the water was 100C, we tried the famous durian fruit which apparently smells like rotting human flesh – we just thought it tasted like mouldy socks/ onions, and even lunged across the equator… because sometimes walking just isn’t enough. There was even some car jacking involved – no joke, apparently Britt learnt it from “watching a TV show one time”… yeah right. After a bumpy two days drive we arrived at the Parapet – the gateway to the tourist haven Danu Toba.
On the ferry to Danu Toba we saw more westerners than we had seen in the whole of Sumatra combined, and this culture shock was to continue with Tuk-Tuk the jump off point on the island being filled with large resorts and lines of restraunts serving western favourites. After some searching we managed to find a tradition Batak house, right on the lake front where we could kick back for a few days – however the traditional low doors did cause a few headaches – literally. The lake itself was idyllic, with clean water for swimming and great views of the mountains beyond. The lake front was the perfect place to watch the local fisherman cast there nets and to while away a few hours as the sun went down.
The Batak people of Samosir Island love to sing and play music. Not only did our home stay owner sing us a welcome song but on every corner were groups of locals singing Batak songs in perfect harmony…if only we knew the words. The jovial spirit was helped by drinking the local jungle juice, Tuak. This fermented coconut juice is cheap, potent and loved by the locals, but not loved as much by us…it tasted like gone off egg! We also got to watch and in the girls case, forced to join in with some traditional dancing on more than one occasion. The bands play drums, pipe, xylophones and even an empty beer bottle, while the dancers bobbed in time to the rhythmic music.
One day we hired mopeds and drove around the rest of Samosir. Having never driven or been on a moped before, when asked if we knew what we where doing we responded in the most logical and safest way “off course we do”. The island is the size of Singapore and has historical sights to explore. It was brilliant to see real people living in wooden batak houses, complete with huge TV satellite dishes. Unfortunately we didn’t see all the sites, as in an attempt to take the small city mopeds off-road (we thought the road would get better – we were wrong) the back tyre got a puncture and left us somewhat stranded in what could have been the remotest part of the island. Through some excellent communication with broken indonesian/ english (if only we’d learnt the words for “flat tire”) we where on our way again within the hour. This is where we saw the REAL Batak culture, everyone trying to help, only charging 30p to fix the wheel and cooking us mei gorang (fried noodles) out of the back of a wooden hut!
After all the excitement of Danu Toba, it was time to part ways with our travel buddy Britt and head further North in the hunt for Men of the forest – the direct translation of orang-utans. Taking another small minibus through the jungle we rocked up at Bukitt Lawang 8 hours later. Having got talking to the other travellers on the bus we naturally followed them to some lovely accommodation at the rainforest home stay. The rooms where basic and cheap, but where made exciting by the regular visits of monkeys to raid bins and stare in your window while you tried to sleep.
We spent a day doing what seems to be a now regular occurrence, of going to markets, staring at more dried fish and eating lontong, before organising a guide for the next day to take us on a 2 day, 1 night trek into the sumatran jungle to see some of our orange haired cousins. The next day it didn’t even take 30 minutes before we where observing the ginger beasts swinging through the trees, most with little babies in tow. I don’t think either of us expected to be as spellbound by these primates as we where. Watching them from just meters away we could see every wrinkle on there face, there human like eyes and the crazy hairstyles of the babies. We had some conscientious guides who cared about the orang-utans and our safety. Some of the other groups we met didn’t seem as bothered, so choose your guide carefully.
Then we had a sweaty climb through the rainforest to our campsite by the river. It was very well organised with camp kitchens and semipermanent tents, not quite sleeping under a banana leaf we’d feared. It was lovely to swim in the river and waterfall and get to know the other travellers we were hiking with. After a night of good food and campfire games, the next day we opted to raft back into the town on huge truck inner tubes. This was another way to see the rainforest and get laughed at by locals enjoying there day off by frolicking in the river. The trip was ended by a campfire social back at the guesthouse involving guitars, singing and a little more tuak (this time from sugar palm cane – much nicer). All in all a great trip.
This brought to an end our time in Sumatra. A country full of noise singing and some of the friendliest people we have ever met; people just want to say hello and for some reason talk about Wayne Rooney?!? The island is full of natural wonders and sights that really have to be seen to be believed. Slightly off the normal tourist radar, we felt as though we experienced authentic customs, food and hospitality. It’s not easy to get around (especially when you are not flying and only have a 30 day visa) but its totally worth it! This was exemplified by the two days it took us to get from Bukit Lawang, to Medan, then an overnight (very creeky) bus to Dumai, then ferry to Melaka to get out! But hey flying would be too easy.
Terima Kasih (Thank you) Sumatra, Bring on Malaysia!