Sibolga to Medan 12 - 19 January 2008

 Time is now running short for the Indonesian part of our trip as we have to leave the country from Medan by 19 January. Danau Toba was definitely on our “must see” list. It is an immense lake (we were reliably told 2nd largest in the world..not sure where the largest is !)  covering 1707 sq km. It is located in a caldera of a giant volcano which collapsed in on itself following an enormous eruption approx 100,000 years ago.  We set off for Tanjung Tuk Tuk the peninsular of a wedge shaped island Samosir-itself the size of Singapore, as we were told this was a good base to explore the area. As often happens with travelling we took the wrong road and ended up thoroughly enjoying it. Due to communication difficulties with well meaning helpers we took the road over the mountain range to the eastern edge of the lake. As we drove down the road, whilst affording beautiful lake glimpses, was very twisty and showed much evidence of landslides. Definitely “Hati Hati” all the way! We dropped elevation of 8,000 metres as we wound down to the lake.

I would imagine few intrepid souls make it down to the valley we eventually reached and we were very quickly the talk of the town!!  A lovely family insisted on feeding us (fresh fish again!) and really pressed us to stay with them which would have been lovely if only we had the time. As always we were amazed by the friendliness of the people we met.  

The local people are called Batak and they have a very distinct culture. Discovered by an English explorer in 1783 they astounded the world by combining the practice of cannibalism with highly developed culture and a system of writing. We were pleased to learn cannibalism is no longer in vogue (was discontinued in 1800s when Christianity took hold) but the culture was still fascinating. The style of houses is similar to those on Nias and they also build huge graves in the same style.  Our family took us to the local old King’s house, which was wooden and elaborately decorated. There is no longer a King but his descendants still live in a village around what was his house and our picture shows me with the extended royal family!

We carried on, back up the mountain and down the other side to reach Tuk Tuk by nightfall. The scenery on the way ..mountains and lakes was as good as any we’ve seen our pictures don’t do it justice.

We arrived at Tuk Tuk in a raging storm and found a small homestay with a view of the lake. A really good night’s sleep! Spent a fairly relaxing next day. We would both have loved to spend more time at Danau Toba, it is very beautiful with the lake and mountains and very friendly people. We visited a small town Ambarita which is a traditional village with 300 year old stone chairs. This is where the various Kings sat to try offenders who were tortured and then beheaded should they be found guilty. Our guide told us this was not for theft but for serious crimes-murder, rape …and adultery!! Once dead the heart and liver were eaten. The executioner had to behead the victim in one blow; if he failed he was executed. A high stress occupation!! The village also had an elaborate King’s house and again his  descendants still lived in the vicinity.

Next morning we drove again through beautiful countryside to head for the big polluted city of Medan. We had discovered that whilst we had been told there was a car ferry to Malaysia unfortunately it no longer operated. This meant that we will have to get the car shipped by container again which we hadn’t planned on. So, we hit the port of Belawan and went to see the customs officers who got us a shipping agent so wheels are in motion. We hope our first border crossing goes well. It is now 16th January and we have to leave on the 19th. If at all possible we plan to visit nearby Bukit Lawang where the Bohorok Orang-utan viewing centre is as we are both very keen to see this. We also have to sort out all the car paperwork in Medan so looks like the next few days will be pretty busy!

Whilst in Medan we managed to see a couple of the sites. Medan seems to get a bad press, and indeed it wasn’t what you’d call a pretty city, being very hot polluted and extremely busy, but it had redeeming features the people being very welcoming and the food diverse and good. Geographically it is nearer to Malaysia than most of Indonesia and grew as an important trade centre which meant it had early exposure to Islam and so is very staunchly Moslem. We found a very nice guide Yan from our guesthouse and went for tour of the Grand Mosque.  It is one of the largest in Indonesia and was built in 1906 by Sultan Makmin Al Rasyid using marble from Italy throughout. It is a very beautiful Moorish style building. Next door was the Maimon Palace of the Sultan of Deli. This was built in 1888 and the Sultan’s descendants still live in Medan though not at the palace. It had a number of interesting photos of the old colonial era – tea and cricket on the lawn!- and we even got to sit in the Royal thrones!

On our last but one day we managed to get out to Bukit Lawang which is a village on the edge of the Gunung Leuser NP, 86km North West of Medan.  It is a lovely village on the Bohorok River at the end of the valley and only came to be a tourist destination due to the Orangutan rehabilitation centre being there.  It was badly affected by flash flooding in 2003, which destroyed much of the village and killed 300 people.  It is now getting back on its feet but is only a fraction of its former size. The drive out there was tough as it wasn’t well sign posted and the roads were very poor, the worst we’ve had in Indonesia in fact. We got there quite late (we also had a flat tyre on the way) and were glad to be met by Daniel our prearranged guide who was Yan’s brother. Yan had previously lived at Bukit Lawang but his house was destroyed in the flood.

We had to cross suspension bridges and walk through paths in the pouring rain by torchlight which was pretty disorientating, but at last to bed.  The next day we got up at 6am to go for our trek in the Gunung Leuser NP. We had opted to only take a 3 hour trek due to time and money constraints, so sighting Orangutans couldn’t really be guaranteed.  The jungle has 380 species of bird and was true thick rainforest with over 4,000 different plants. We saw a leaf monkey and then finally 2 orangutans!!!

The rehabilitation centre which trains orphaned orangutans how to live in the wild prior to releasing them has now been relocated further into the jungle and is no longer open to the public, but the rangers still feed the semi wild animals daily. They make the diet a bit monotonous to encourage them to find their own food. The 2 we saw were very interested in the bananas Daniel had brought (arranged with the ranger to make sure they aren’t overfed)  as they had been waiting for the food but as the river was swollen the ranger had not got through that day.  It was amazing seeing them up close the large one a female was 120kgs, and the smaller a young female was approx 80kg and 3 years old. They came up pretty close and Daniel then alarmed me by saying that the big one had bitten people more than 60 times so to get ready to run if she came at us!!!!

This was likely to happen as the bananas ran out so I retreated safely down the hill as this point as I didn’t feel I could get up much speed through the jungle!! The Orangutans were amazingly agile but pretty heavy destroying the trees as they moved around.

We finished our jungle walk unscathed stopping for fresh pineapple and passion fruit for morning tea which was delicious. Then sadly we had to head straight back to Medan. It was unforgettable to see these creatures in their natural habitat and we’d like to go on an overnight camping trek much deeper into the jungle next time.

Meanwhile, back to Medan and the worrying news that our shipping agent had decided this was not his area of expertise and he was too busy so he wanted to refer us on to someone else! This was all very well but it was now Friday (which is a holiday in many Moslem offices) and we were booked on the ferry out at 9am the next morning.  Thus our last few hours in Indonesia were a bit fraught but thankfully we found a very good shipping agent and left the car in his very capable hands.

We got up very early the next morning as we had lots to do prior to catching the ferry but In true Indonesian “rubber time” though we had been told to check in by 9am the ferry didn’t leave until 12pm!

So, off to Penang Malaysia  with the car (hopefully!) following us in a  week’s time.  Indonesia has been great and now we’re very much looking forward to exploring Malaysia.