Lake Toba: The Mighty Giant

The Earth has a way of creating beauty through destruction. The rhythm and dynamics of Mother Nature is such that even after a catastrophic phenomenon, beauty is left in its wake and new life flourish.

About 70,000 years ago, a super volcano at what is now present-day North Sumatra erupted and spewed columns of ash and magma out of Earth. This super eruption was so massive that it is believed the rising ash impacted the climate and caused a “volcanic winter.” The aftermath: the near extinction of humans and one giant lake.

Now 70,000 years on, life is flourishing around this massive body of water the size of Singapore. It has been christened the name “Lake Toba” or “Danau Toba” by the locals and holds, within its vicinity, a rich culture rooted in tradition and blossoming wildlife.

And so, this is where we found ourselves on a cool evening in May. Ferrying across this ancient lake, three young Malaysians step out into the port of Zoe’s Paradise Waterfront Hotel and paradise was where they found themselves.

The entire trip in itself – from the adventures around Lake Toba to the bustling city of Medan – was remarkable, but detailing every single moment of the journey here would be too extensive and would probably take up more pages than the Bible. Hence, these are only a few of the standout moments I’ve experienced along this trip. And while it is a difficult task that I attempt to put to your vision the same splendour I saw with only words, I hope that, at the very least, my way of storytelling stirs your imagination in a way that inspires you. 

The view gets better at BETA
Before the trip, we had come to know of a hill called Bukit Beta that was about 2km away from our accommodation. It didn’t take too much effort to find the place thanks, partly, to the offline maps and the fairly simple roads around Toba.


At Bukit Beta, we were mesmerized by the scenery that presented itself. The grass that carpeted the hills was green and bucolic, while the clouds stretched above us were pristine and white. A grand green mountainous-like hill stood tall and strong on one side, while the ancient lake laid calm on the other.

It was such a peaceful place to be and so it wasn’t too much of a surprise when we found a few well-kept tombs resting near the top.

Just a little further up and around the corner of the hill, I saw the iconic tree that I’ve seen in pictures. It was an intriguing tree because it stood alone at the edge. It was bent so severely that the main trunk had curved and started to grow horizontally and, thus, wasn’t very tall.

It was akin in someway to an old hunched man who had outlived the rest of his companions and all that was left for him was to contemplate his journey peacefully on a hill.

No place to be, no time to follow
We did not come with a strict itinerary or a schedule to follow, so we rode freely to wherever we felt like. It was such a tremendous joy to be cycling the open roads with very little cars.

With time on our hands and freedom in our winds ,we ventured passed rustic restaurants, quaint hotels and traditional souvenir shops. In the distance, we could hear hymns ringing from the congregation of churches nearby.

For short distances, we would be accompanied by the trotting dogs who would pace us momentarily before parting ways. Locals and tourists alike in their motorbikes or on foot would give a smile and a cheerful “Hello!” as they whisked pass us, their pleasantries only topped by the enthusiasm of children who would wave and greet us animatedly as we rode by.

It was truly an experience like never before, charting our own course without a worry in the world, certain that every turn around a corner would lead us to beauty – all around the grandeur of the giant Lake Toba.

The Walter Mitty experience
On our bicycles, we headed up a straight road to Ambarita, a modest township not too far from where we were residing.

Throughout the journey, we were watched over by this massive, towering green hill which boasted the steep drop of Simangande waterfall near to its peak. It’s the thin stream of white to the left of the picture below.

When we’d stop at certain points along the way and fixed our eyes to the distant waterfall, we could see clearly the water’s movement and flow streaming over the edge. You could almost hear how it would’ve been like to be there just by observing the rapid gush of water as it went on its course.

Cycling through this idyllic route felt somewhat familiar until it dawned on me, “Hey! this is just like a scene from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, where Walter – also on his bike – whizzes through the scenic Icelandic landscape flanked by green hills towards an erupting volcano.”

Trust me when I tell you that this was like a scene straight out from a movie!

This moment felt so surreal and close to heart as Walter Mitty is personally one of my all-time favourite movie across all genres. It was truly such a privilege to be able to witness first-hand something so similar and be in the presence of something so beautiful.

Although, in the end Walter did scale the Himalayan mountain range, we just kinda chilled at our hotel, LOL.

Warmth of the locals
As we headed back to Ambarita just before sundown, we decided to try Mi Bakso from a roadside vendor. We ordered a bowl for us three to share, and just as it was ready, the rain started to come down heavily.

Fortunately, our desperation didn’t last long as the family who ran this roadside grocery shop quickly invited us in to avoid the rain.

They made room for us around their table and graciously allowed us to take shelter in their shop as we waited out the rain.

For the next half hour or so we engaged in light conversation. Not once throughout the time did they try to sell us anything despite us taking shelter in their premises. They only took genuine curiosity about where we came from and whether the food was “enak” or not (the more common term to say ‘delicious’ instead of “sedap.” They could tell we were Malaysians because we had said “sedap” initially.

In the end we did take a browse through the shop and bought a few supplies because who wouldn’t when you’ve been treated so genuinely, right?

You would too if you were there!

While being awestruck by the scenery at each turn, we also experienced overwhelming hospitality. Not just by this family alone, but with most other locals we’ve encountered.

What we experienced around Lake Toba was truly wonderful, not only because of its stunning scenery, but also because of the warmth and genuinity (is that even a word?) of its people.

And so this place has well and truly won me over. A devastating super eruption that scarred the Earth generations ago left it with a place teeming with beauty, both on land and in its inhabitants.

Wetlands on the shore of the magnificent Lake Toba on the Sumatra Island, Indonesia


Final word
I’ve never felt more like a traveller than when on this adventure. I’ve written in my travel journal that I was initially worried that I was overthinking this trip too much, and that I was going to be ultimately disappointed as we began to write off certain destinations. I didn’t know then that I would be experiencing what I did.

Cycling though the town without a clear direction, just being free to roam wherever we pleased. You can overthink your expectations, but you can’t overthink what you are going to feel.

I felt like Walter Mitty on this island that was so close to ours, when the movie I’ve been aspiring to was filmed on the other side of the world. Who knew?

This has been a beautiful experience throughout and has spurred my imagination and willingness to attempt travelling solo for the first time. Will I ever make it past the thought


Written by Timothy Teoh

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