Medan, Lake Toba and Orangutans

North Sumatra, Indonesia

Feb 2nd - 6th, 2019

It is a short one hour flight from Singapore to Medan, the capital of North Sumatra, in Indonesia. Kualanamu International Airport is fairly new and modern, located about 25 km to the east of the city. I was picked up by a car from the hotel for the 4 hour drive to Lake Toba. My driver didn't speak a word of English, which somewhat limited conversation during the drive. Traffic around Medan was quite heavy and it took about an hour to get out of the city. Soon after leaving the city's outskirts the landscape changed dramatically from flat to very mountainous. It was a rather adventurous drive, involving a lot of hair-raising overtaking on narrow and winding mountain roads - fairly standard for Indonesia. At least I didn't have to endure this drive clinging onto the roof of a bus:

My hotel for the next two nights, the gorgeous Taman Simalem Resort, is located on the North-Western edge and high above the lake. After a restful night, the view greeting me in the morning was nothing short of spectacular:

Lake Toba is the largest volcanic crater lake in the world, nearly 100 kilometers long, about 30 kilometers wide and up to 500 meters deep. Not only is it one of the most beautiful lakes I have ever seen, Lake Toba also has a fascinating geological history, which had a profound impact on the evolution of the human race. Since this is a topic I am particularly fascinated by, please forgive me for nerding out a bit on the so-called Toba catastrophe theory in the following paragraphs:

The reason Lake Toba is of such immense importance in human history, is due to the fact that this beautiful landscape was the location of the Mount Toba Supervolcano, which erupted around 75,000 years ago, and which brought the human race to the very edge of extinction. The Toba eruption was the largest explosive volcanic eruption on earth in the last 25 million years. It was a so-called VEI 8 level event, ejecting an estimated 2,800 cubic kilometers of volcanic material into the atmosphere. (As a comparison, this is approximately 1,000 times the amount ejected during the Mount St. Helen eruption in 1980, the largest eruption in US history.) The explosion blanketed all of South East Asia under a 15 centimeters thick layer of ash, and caused a global winter for the next 10 years. Evidence for a sudden change in global climate around this time can even be found in ice core samples from Greenland.

It is believed that the Toba eruption killed almost all humans (and many other animals) that were alive on earth at the time. This is the likely reason for the observed  genetic bottleneck in the human genome, which can be explained if the human race recovered from a very small breeding population of only a couple of thousand individuals around that time. The theory estimates that only a few small groups in East Africa and India survived the global impact of the eruption and the resulting multi-year winter. The entire human population today are the descendants of only these 2,000 to 10,000 hardy people who somehow managed to survive.

It is hard to imagine that this tranquil and beautiful landscape was created by one of the most cataclysmic catastrophes in earth's recent history.

On Sunday I had a full day tour to Samosir Island booked through the hotel. My guide Kaban with a driver picked me up at breakfast for the 3 hour drive, which took us through the highlands on the western side of the lake. The landscape was mostly farmland dotted by small villages and towns. The drive was very interesting and I learned a lot from my guide about the indigenous population who are from the Toba Batak culture. The Toba Batak people are a subgroup with its own distinct language of the Batak people, which are spread across all of Northern Sumatra. While almost 90% of the total population of Sumatra is Muslim, up here in the highlands 98% of the population are Christian. And people take their religion very seriously. Everyone goes to church on Sunday, which is why every small village seems to have several churches. One slightly odd thing you notice here are the huge and richly decorated graves located not in cemeteries but next to almost every house. People clearly spend an enormous amount of effort and money on their dead relatives, as the graves tend to be much more opulent, elaborate and more solidly built than the houses for the people who are still alive.

Samosir Island has the distinction of being the world's largest island in a lake on an island. On the west side it is separated by only a narrow canal, which we crossed after descending a steep switchback road down from the highlands. Our first stop was the Huta Bolon Simanindo Batak Museum, which is a small outdoor museum located near the northern point of the island. The museum has several traditional Batak houses and storage buildings. These are large wooden buildings, which are very distinct with their high and elegantly curved roofs and their beautifully carved and painted walls:

One of the really interesting things about these traditional houses is the fact that they used an ingenious architectural detail that allows them to withstand earthquakes. (Sumatra is one of the most tectonicallly active regions on earth). The houses are not anchored in the ground, instead the beams just rest loosely on flat stones. Thus, if the ground underneath starts to shake, the whole house can move and does not collapse. Many Batak houses are also decorated with elaborate carvings of geckos, which are supposed to protect them from floods and earthquakes, as well as coconut shells representing breasts as fertility symbols.

After exploring the buildings from the outside and inside, we were treated to a lovely performance of traditional Batak dances.

Does this country make me look like a freakishly tall giant?

From here we drove to the eastern side of Samosir Island, where we had lunch at a very nice lodge called Tabo Cottages run by a German lady. The menu was an interesting combination of local Indonesian and German food. Instead of driving all the way back up the western side of the lake, we took a car ferry to the small town of Parapat on the eastern shore. The ferry crossing took about 45 minutes, and as it happens in most places in Indonesia, I met many locals who were keen to speak to Westerners to practice their English and to have their pictures taken with one of these giant pale looking foreigners.

It was another two and a half hour drive along the eastern shore of the lake to get back to the resort. We had some amazing views of the setting sun over the lake along the way:

Back at the hotel they had arranged a very nice and opulent hotpot dinner for me, which was a lovely end to an amazing day. It was quite a long day with lots of driving, but absolutely worth it. Just seeing this amazing lake from different sides and learning about the interesting Batak culture and architecture was an experience I would not want to have missed.

On my second day at the Taman Simalem Resort Kaban took me on a short jungle trek, which lead us through dense rain forest and ended up at a beautiful double waterfall. The most amazing thing during the hike were the very loud shrieks and hollers by the gibbons. We could not see any of them, since they were hiding high up in the trees, but we could hear them right over our heads.

After check-out I was driven back to Medan. My guide Kaban joined me on the drive, and we stopped at a couple of interesting sites along the way. First was the amazing Sipisopiso Waterfall. It is formed by an underground river, and so the water shoots out of a hole in a vertical wall before plunging 120 meters into a deep canyon.

Later in the drive we stopped to see another style of traditional house. It was quite different from the Toba Batak houses, with a straight roof and square base. Right opposite it was a large catholic church built in the style of a Batak house.

After a brief stop for lunch at a local restaurant, the remaining drive to Medan took about two hours. I stayed in the very nice JW Marriott hotel near the center of Medan, where I spent a relaxing evening photo editing and blog writing in the hotel bar.

Orangutans in Gunung Leuser National Park
On Tuesday I was picked up by my new guide Rudi (his name was actually Rudianto, but he shortened it to a German name to make it easier for me) for my hiking tour in the Gunung Leuser National Park. The drive to the park took about 2.5 hours in unusually light traffic because of the Chinese New Year public holiday. Once outside of the city we drove through nothing but palm oil plantations for miles and miles. This was the first time I had ever experienced the sheer scale of these plantations. And there were large trucks everywhere filled to the rim with palm nuts being taken to a nearby processing plant.

When we arrived at the park, Rudi handed me over to a local guide. Before we entered the park itself we walked through a rubber tree plantation. It was interesting to see how the rubber is collected by slicing the bark in a spiral and attaching a coconut shell at the bottom to collect the white rubbery sap.

Gunung Leuser National Park, established in 1980, received UNESCO World Heritage designation in 2004 as part of the WH site "Tropical Rainforest Heritage of Sumatra". The park covers a mountainous area of dense tropical rain forests of almost 8,000 square kilometers and straddles the border of the Aceh and North Sumatra provinces. It is one of the last habitats for Sumatran Elephants, Sumatran Tigers and the extremely rare Sumatran Rhinoceros, but all of these are near impossible to see. The reason I came here was the fact that the park is also home to the Sumatran Orangutan. I had never seen Orangutans in the wild before, and was told there is about a 75% chance of seeing them here. I was very excited about this and I would have been happy seeing even one of them from a distance, but what happened over the next two hours exceeded even my wildest expectations.

It took us only about 30 minutes before we came across the first group of these giant apes. We first saw a male sitting in the tree right in front of us. After watching him for a while build a nest (they move all the time and build a new nest to sleep in every day), we walked a bit further and suddenly saw a group of several females, two of which had tiny babies clinging to their thick fur. They were really close and I was able to get lots of incredible pictures.

These groups are wild but very much habituated to people. At one stage one of the females with her baby came down to the ground, completely ignoring the people around her.

We spent almost an hour with this group before they slowly disappeared back into the forest again. This was just an unbelievable sight. Seeing these amazing animals in their natural habitat was an incredible and very moving experience - probably among the highlights in all of my travels so far.

On the way out of the park we came across some other monkeys high up in the trees. This one with the beautiful face is a Thomas's langur:

The next morning Rudi picked me up from the hotel again for a half-day sightseeing tour through Medan. Medan is the capital of the North Sumatra province and the fourth largest city in Indonesia with a population of about 2.5 million. It was founded in the late 16th century and was part of the Aru Kingdom, which ruled this area form the 13th to 16th century.

Medan itself is not a major tourist destination, but it does have a few interesting and historical sights. Our first stop was the Graha Maria Annai Velangkanni catholic church, which was one of the weirder looking churches I have seen. It was built in the style of an Indian Mogul temple. It's also the only catholic church I have been to, where you have to take off your shoes before entering.

The city centre still has some historical buildings left from the Dutch colonial times, among them the old city hall and the Bank of Indonesia building right next to it:

The elegant Gunung Timur Temple is the largest Chinese temple in the city:

Our next stop was the huge and fascinating Maimoon Palace of the Sultanate of Deli, built in 1887 to 1891. The Sultanate of Deli has a history going back to the 17th century and is still in existence today. The Sultan occupies parts of the palace with his family, but has no political power any more.

The Great Mosque of Medan, a beautiful white building constructed in 1906, was out final stop. We were there during the afternoon prayer, so I wasn't able to take a look inside.

Rudi dropped me off at the airport at 2:00 pm for my afternoon flight back to Singapore.

Final Note:
My guide, Rudianto Sembiring, was great. He also runs a rehabilitation center for rare species that were rescued from villages where they were kept as pets. His main focus is on the slow lori, which is a small and rare primate. You can support the rehabilitation center via this link, and if you need a guide in and around Medan, please e-mail me for Rudi's contact details.

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