Occupying an area roughly 100km long, 30km wide and depths of over 500m, Lake Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world. The caldera that Lake Toba occupies was actually created by four separate volcanic eruptions but the last one, a super volcanic eruption that occurred around 75,000 years ago was the mother of all eruptions; the largest known explosive eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years.
According to the Toba catastrophe theory, it was a climate-changing event that wiped out most of the human race with the exception of a small population bottleneck in central east Africa and India. The genetic make-up of these distant ancestors impacts modern humans worldwide.
And the volcanic forces that created Toba are still not done. Mount Pusukbukit on the south western edge of the caldera and Tandukbenua on the north western edge are quite recent, the later believed to have formed after an eruption only a few hundred years ago. The magma chamber beneath the lake continues to fill, pushing Samosir Island, the substantial landmass in the middle of the lake and Uluan Peninsular gradually higher. Not surprisingly, earthquakes occasionally rock the southern shores.
It’s hard to reconcile such a violent beginning with the tranquil atmosphere around Lake Toba these days, yet people come from all over to relax in the beautiful natural surroundings, breathe the cool mountain air and enjoy the hospitality of the Batak traditional inhabitants. For those who prefer a little more action, Lake Toba is oozing with possibilities.
There are several access points around Lake Toba but the main gateway is Parapat, located roughly mid-point on the eastern rim of the lake. Parapat can be accessed by public or private transport from Medan. The 180km journey takes around 4 hours. The town has a good range of accommodation, restaurants and other facilities.
Belige or Muara on the southern edge of the lake are smaller and quieter, with mostly guesthouse style accommodation but their location is a little more central for exploring around the lake. SusiAir operates daily flights from Medan to Silangit with a flight time of 30min, handy if you’re planning to stay at Belige or Muara but not so handy if you’re planning to stay at Parapat which is still a 2 hour transfer by private car away. There’s also accommodation on the north shore at Merak and Tongging.
A popular option is to stay on Samosir Island itself, or more precisely in TukTuk, the island’s main town and the only place with accommodation, ranging from guesthouses to lakeside villas. Public ferries between Parapat (Tigaraja or Ajibata Harbours, a short distance south) and Tomok or TukTuk on Samosir Island every hour from early morning until 7:00pm. At the time of writing, fares for the 1 hour crossing cost 15.000Rp plus an extra 10.000Rp for motorbikes. A car/passenger ferry operates between Ajibata and Tomok and departs when full.
Alternatively, Samosir is joined to the lake rim via a man-made land bridge at Pangururan, roughly halfway along the western shore. It’s steep and winding and should be approached with care but provides some fabulous vistas over Lake Toba and Samosir.
Note that there are no taxi’s on Samosir so you’ll need to arrange some transport to get around. There is limited private hire car with driver/guide or scooter hire available on the island but most guesthouses hire bicycles. Otherwise hire a scooter in Parapat and take it over on the ferry with you.
There’s no one “best” place to stay at Lake Toba as it really depends on what you decide to see and do whilst you’re in the region. It may even make sense to spend a couple of nights in one place then move on to another. But now that you’ve got your bearings, let’s look at the some of those abundant attractions and activities I mentioned earlier.
On Samosir, the Batak Museum at Simanindo documenting the history and culture of Toba’s traditional inhabitants is an excellent place to start before heading south to Ambarita Stone Chair Village. In times past, the ancient stone chairs for which the village is famous, were occupied by a council of village rulers who met to decide on important tribal matters such as the fate of a captured enemy. If death was the verdict, the victim was brought to the dining table in the middle of the chairs, beheaded, dissected and cooked, often with a little buffalo meat. The councillors would feast on the hapless victims flesh, washed down with his blood. Pretty gruesome stuff! The graves and tombs of the rulers are located behind the village; the Christian adornments hopefully proof of more forgiving attitudes.
Even though Ambarita has become a bit of a tourist trap these days, the intricately carved tribal houses are also well worth a look (even though they’ve been modernised with corrugated iron roofs) and the sight of those ancient stone relics still sends a shiver down the spine.
From Ambarita, head across the island to Pangururan and take a soak in the hot springs. They’re not exactly natural, just pipes in the side of the hill feeding water into a series of concrete pools lower down but soaking in the warm sulphurous water is soothing. To get to the hot spring, cross over the land bridge and veer right up the side of Mount Pusukbukit (also known as Mount Balirang). The springs are located about a third of the way up the mountain and you can’t miss them. The sulphurous gases has killed off the vegetation and left a white scar on the mountain side visible for miles from miles away.
Afterwards, retrace your route back to the land bridge then head back up Mount Pusukbukit in the opposite direction towards Tele (about 20km) and climb the old tower for the ultimate lake views.
The magnificent Sipisopiso waterfall at the north end of the lake near Tongging is a highlight and well worth the 3 hour drive from Parapat. One of the highest waterfalls in Indonesia, the sight of the 120m high cascade plunging into a gaping canyon in the otherwise flat Karo plateau is dramatic, especially when you realise that there’s no river. The waterfall is actually fed from an underground river flowing through the rim of Lake Toba. The best view of Sipisopiso is from near the car park but if you can’t resist the urge to get closer to hear the roar of the water and feel the spray on your face, there’s a well formed trail (with hundreds of stairs) that will take you right down to the edge of the canyon.