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Published: 28-Jan-2013

Written by: Sonya Prosser

Lake Toba, Samosir Island, Sumatra

Samosir Island in Indonesia is known locally as the island within an island. It is around the same size as Singapore, but this is the only thing the two islands have in common. Dotted with the distinctive upsweeping roof ridges and colourful decorations of the traditional Batak houses, the island is a mixture of steep inland forest, rice paddies and laid back tourist centres, where visitors can relax with a drink overlooking the intense beauty of a deep volcanic lake.

Samosir is at the heart of Batak Toba culture, and for this reason, as well as its geological history, it is a popular tourist destination. Raw already takes guests to Samosir, but we decided to take some time to explore new activities in the area. What we discover is an unexplored beauty beyond the main tourist centre, and an active passion for environmental issues here.

We stay at Tabo Cottages, Annette who owns Tabo with her husband Anton is active in ecotourism in the area and is particularly passionate about waste management and raising awareness of the importance of preserving the natural environment of the lake. In the morning Rika and I accompany Annette to a festival celebrating the kentungan, a bamboo instrument used by the Batak people to communicate in times of emergency. The tradition has been largely lost today, but the local authorities were using the unveiling of a giant kentungan as an oppurtunity to highlight the importance of community.

Running late, which seems to be a regular and almost expected occurrence during our survey tours, we get back to Tabo in the early afternoon and load the car for a circumnavigation of Samosir Island.

We pass Ambarita, the location of an ancient Batak Toba village where visitors are treated to a detailed account of traditional customs no longer practiced. In previous years, the Batak people were animists and practiced rituals that are considered brutally unfavourable today. Now the majority of the community in the Tabo area are Christian so slaves and criminals need not fear been executed and eaten.

We follow the east coast north, passing volcanic fissures, hot rocks and sulphur in the air. Once past the town of Pangururan, where the island is linked by a narrow stretch of land to the mainland town of Tele, the road becomes a little rougher, and we are surrounded by small villages and rice paddies that extend on one side to the edge of the lake, and on the other to the steep interior of the island, where the remnant forest clings to the hillsides.

We stop for sweet strong coffee at Niangolan, where we hope to find information on the boats that ferry locals from various villages from Samosir to the mainland, and potentially use them for tours in the future.

Leaving Niangolan the road begins a steep and windy ascent into the hills that dominate the South West coast of the island and we are soon surrounded by high rice fields and stunning views of the lake and mainland. The winding road reveals well concealed valleys with rice paddies carved into the only available spaces between steep hillsides.

Stopping to take in the sunset we continue with just enough light to see the heavy rainclouds approaching rapidly from across the lake. The clouds move in with the darkness making visibility close to none as we make our way slowly and carefully through the white wall of dense cloud and fog visible in the headlights.

It takes us seven hours to circumnavigate Samosir, all of is beautiful despite the final hours spent crawling along unfamiliar, steep winding roads through cloud and cool tropical downpours.

We arrive at Tabo to freshen up and treat ourselves to a night of live music and of course important networking at the local watering hole, Roys Bar.

It has been a brief but important exploration of Samosir island, in which we expanded our local network and found new areas with the potential to offer ‘off the beaten track’ experiences. We spend the evening discussing the potential to incorporate these experiences into local community initiatives that aim to protect their valuable environment.

In the morning, there may have been a few sleepy heads in the car as we made our way slowly to the mountain town of Berastagi.

Next stop - Berastagi/Lingga village!

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