Sunday, June 10, 2012

Dangerous Island

Sumatra is a dangerous place. It's not the inhabitants though, but the island itself. Something deep down in Sumatra, more fundamental, geological, doesn't seem to like people. I've already mentioned the Boxing Day earthquake, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. There have been at lest half a dozen serious ones since then claiming a few thousand lives. Slightly further back in time southern Sumatra was host to the largest volcanic eruption of the past 180 years when the Krakatoa (aka Krakatau) volcano erupted violently in 1883. The explosion, which was heard up to 5000km away, became the first worldwide media sensation, claimed the lives of over 36,000 people, plunged the world into an ash-induced winter for several years, and even had a film made about it.

Intricate decorations adorning a traditional Batak house in the Toba area.

Krakatoa was, however, small potatoes compared the eruption that happened at Toba some 73 thousand years go. Scientists believe that the Toba eruption was among the largest to have happened in the history of the earth. Ever. When Toba blew it spewed forth 2800km3 of rocks, lava and ash into the air. To put it in perspective Krakatoa only produced 21km3 of ejecta i.e. Toba, in one single eruption, was roughly equivalent to all the volcanoes that have gone off during recorded human history combined. No wonder it's called a super volcano. I first heard bout Toba during my genetics studies.It is thought that the Toba eruption and subsequent climatic consequences were the cause for a bottleneck in the worldwide human population that brought it down to only several thousand individuals and perhaps almost wiped it out completely. Nowadays there's nothing to suggest that such a cataclysmic occurrence had occurred there. Instead Toba is now one of the largest and deepest lakes in southeast Asia and is undoubtedly Sumatra's premier tourist destination.

Traditional Batak houses, with their convex roofs (nowadays covered in corrugated metal) and the obligatory satellite dish parked out front.

The population of the lake and the surrounding area are mainly Batak who still live in distinctive, traditional houses. They have, however, adopted many trappings of modernity as evidenced by the giant satellite dishes outside most homes and the clan graves that show the acceptance of Christianity by the majority. Pagan customs still underlie and are most important, the adoption of Christianity seemingly more of a pragmatic choice, as it allows them to still eat pork and drink, unlike Islam. In the middle of Toba lake is an island, which, thanks to the beautiful natural setting, mild climate, and interesting locals, is firmly on the Banana Pancake Trail. Apart from just relaxing and soaking in the scenery in cheap surroundings the main activity is to rent a bike or scooter and explore the villages on the island. Not being one to disregard tradition I duly did the same and set off with Ali, a Canadian girl I had met at my guesthouse. Although the locals are probably sick to death of foreigners careering around their island they certainly don't show it and were hospitable towards us as we stopped off here and there to admire their distinctive architecture. The interior sees less traffic due to the atrocious roads, so we decided to explore a little. The landscape is more pastoral and there are several lakes, which have the dubious distinction of being lakes on an island in a lake on an island.

An ordinary looking church with half a Batak house super-glued to the front.

Whilst pottering along one of the dirt roads of the interior I saw an obstacle too late and whilst braking to avoid it the bike slid on the loose surface sending me sprawling with it on top of me. I was not impressed with myself. My palm scratched, my leg bruised and bloody, and my ankle was complaining, but I was immediately more concerned about the bike. The brake pedal was slightly bent but luckily a nearby family helped picked me up, dust me down and, with the help of a hammer, bend the offending pedal back into shape.I limped back and managed to ride back to the guesthouse with Ali, nonchalantly handing back the bike and keys, trying not to bring attention to my scuffed and dusty trousers or my bloody hand. Luckily they didn't notice a thing. Now I just hope that I recover quickly as I plan to go hiking up a mountain in a few days. Sumatra really is a dangerous island.

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