Calmer Sumatra: Indonesia’s Mystical Western Isle.


Here’s Looking At You Kid

Poor old Medan, the largest city in Sumatra, the western-most island of the Indonesian archipelago. Wherever followed Singapore had drawn the short straw. To be honest, even if we had hated Singapore we would struggle to take Medan to our heart – it’s such an unlovable city.

Things started badly when we jumped in our taxi for the hour’s drive from the Airport to the city centre. We don’t know when our driver last rested but about twenty minutes into the journey an alarmed Sam turned to me and said “I think he’s falling asleep John!”

Instead of panicking I maintained a David Niven like calm and undertook discreet inspection of his eyes in the rear view mirror which confirmed that he was driving with approximately 2mm of vision in his left eye, while his right eye, having satisfied itself that its partner could take the load,  was completely shut.

Thankfully at this point we turned off the “motorway” and ground to a halt in Medan’s crippling, choking traffic – never have I been so happy to be crawling along at a few miles an hour. The worst that could happen if our driver nodded off would be a gentle kiss on the bumper on  the vehicle in front.

Bizarrely this seemed to wake the driver up and he started completing his own facial…..while driving. Selecting from a small selection of tweezers stored in the driver door handle recess he gamely plucked away at offending hairs. Some of these were in quite an awkward spot necessitating him craning his head backwards so that his drowsy eye(s) were squinting at the interior roof, while continuing to negotiate Medan’s crazy traffic. I was directly behind our driver so couldn’t see exactly what was going on. Sam, however, had a front row seat and seemed to be mesmerised and appalled in equal measure. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t look away.

The upside of an unappealing, traffic choked city are the hotel rates where you can get 5 star accommodation for under £50 a night. On entering our plush new home for the next three days we turned to each other and without saying anything telepathically agreed it was best if we didn’t leave this oasis of calm until check out.

Regular readers will have noted that by paragraph four or five of our blog we would have inserted quite a few photos bringing to life our words. Well, in this case if a picture speaks a thousand words, no picture speaks far more about the grottiness of Medan!

However, apart from the hotel it did have two redeeming features. Firstly the people are fantastically friendly – probably astonished to see tourists in their city – calling out “Hello’s” and “where you from?” Surprisingly none asked “why the hell are you here?”. As we clambered up and down pavements resembling bomb sites, dodging cars as we were forced into roads, a gentleman in uniform sidled up to us and with an apologetic smile said “Welcome to Medan” in perfect sarcastic English. Heartwarming.

As our travels in Sumatra unfolded we have discovered that they are amongst the warmest people we have met on our travels – which is saying a lot given how friendly people are in S/E Asia.

The other positive thing to report is Medan’s only tourist attraction – the home of a benevolent Chinese businessman that has been maintained and restored beautifully. Records show how he invested in local schools, education and welfare to develop Medan. We are glad he can’t see what’s become of his philanthropy.

Tjong A Fie Mansion

Things worked out quite well really as Medan’s lack of attractions gave us an opportunity to rest up after our hectic Singapore schedule.

If we can’t make any recommendations about Medan (other than “don’t go”), the rest of Sumatra has been fantastic, swapping an uninspiring City for some of the most wonderful wildlife we have ever seen.

We took a three hour car journey north to the small town of Bukit Lawang which sits on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park. It was here on a one day trek into the jungle that we hoped to fulfil a lifetimes ambition – to see Orang-Utans in the wild.

All smiles…little did we know

Our guide was optimistic, but reminded us that there were no guarantees of seeing any, regardless of how long we searched. The heat and hilly terrain meant that we were certainly going to earn our sighting.

Rickety Jungle Bridge

After about three hours trekking we had fleetingly seen a giant squirrel (think dog in a tree and you’re 90% there) and two dullard peacocks who didn’t have the fancy feather display thing going on.

We came across three German trekkers and their guide who said they had no luck spotting our ape cousins either. Hot, bothered and disappointed we sat down and had some fruit, when something remarkably bad happened. One of the German trekkers pulled out a ukulele from her bag and started singing “Me and Bobby McGee”. Who in God’s name thinks “what shall I pack for the trek in the jungle today?  I know I’ll take my ukulele!” 

This was the most toe-curling exhibition of backpacker conceitedness we had encountered in five months of travelling. As we sat there, opened mouthed in horror and barely able to conceal our loathing, we have to confess that Sam wanted to stick the ukulele… can guess the next bit….and in deference to my own German heritage I longed to burst into a hearty out-of-tune rendition of “Deutchland Uber Alles”. I know that is wrong, but we were tired and fed up…..and we cant stand that song unless it’s sung by Janis.

Maybe if we had, karma would have dealt us a bad hand and we wouldn’t have achieved our ambition. As it was after a further couple of energy sapping hours and just at the point when I thought Sam was going to drop from exhaustion we came across a group of Kiwi’s (san ukulele) who were staring upward in awe. There about 20 feet above us in the trees were three Orang-Utans: a mother and baby, and a youngster (about 8 years old our guide judged).

What a beauty

This was a moment when we wanted time to stand still and savour the amazing creatures in front of us. The grace, power, dexterity and those eyes staring back at us, indifferent to our astonishment. Then slowly moving, next branch, next tree, onwards, carefully clutching her baby.

I really don’t know how long we spent with our necks craned upward, with crazy smiles on our faces, just wanting to say thank you to the Orang-utans for letting us briefly share their world. Our guide knew how much this meant to us and was thrilled to see us so happy.  There was an element of sadness in the encounter though as our guide said that the mother was trying to leave her eight year old daughter behind so that she would become independent, but the daughter continued to gamely follow her mother and baby sibling a few yards behind.

Having walked so far it was time to have lunch, but before we could sit down there was more commotion in the trees and our guide beckoned us up yet another hill, pointing to a family of white faced Gibbons swinging about in the treetops. Being much lighter than the Orang-utans, they can go far higher, and being more nimble they easily leapt from tree to tree. Orang-utans are a tough act to follow, but they were splendid, striking wonderful shapes high above us.

Hanging Around
Incredible body shapes
White Face and Hands

After seeing these funkiest of gibbons we sat down and had our much delayed lunch, overwhelmed, exhausted and very, very happy. We were told that our trek would end with a rafting trip down the river rather than a long hike home – music to our ears. On exiting the jungle and approaching the river bed a man greeted us with our “raft” – three large inner tubes lashed together with rope:

Your transport has arrived Sir!

Our guide said that it usually took about 30 minutes to float downstream back to Bukit Lawang, but in view of the recent heavy rain, the river was full, fast and it would be far quicker – he said this with a manic grin that didn’t leave his face for the next fifteen minutes. What followed was great fun as we careered down river, kangarooing up, down and over rapids with our pilots using just bamboo rods to steer us between rocks.


Stuck on Repeat

Our travel bible warned us that when travelling any distance in Sumatra you will usually experience a spine shattering journey at some point. So it was when we made the EIGHT hour journey by car from Bukit Lawang to Samosir Island on Lake Toba. To give you an idea of how bad the roads are in Sumatra the distance between the two is about 150 miles. You would think that meant we pootled along at 20mph – if only! Allowing for a couple of breaks we spent over 7 hours alternating between hurtling head-long towards oncoming traffic or bouncing up and down at 2mph over the most potholed surfaces (I can’t dignify what we were driving on with the term “road”). It’s hard to say which was worse, but this was a journey I wouldn’t wish on anybody with the possible exception of Indonesia’s Minister for Transport.

After a couple of hours our driver popped a CD on – a funny eclectic mix. As The Foundations “Build Me Up Buttercup” came on Sam said “oh I like this tune” – “you won’t in six hours” I replied. And so it proved as the CD was left on repeat replaying, I think, seven times. Whenever we hear any of those songs again it will remind us of that day. But you know what they say – no pain, no gain and as we neared our destination of Parapat, we got our first glimpse of Lake Toba and Samosir Island:


Samosir Island and Lake Toba

When we planned our trip to Lake Toba we were excited about the prospect of the stunning beauty of the volcanic countryside. However, we learned that as recently as June of this year a ferry sank on the lake with 190 lives lost. An appalling tragedy caused by overloading of passengers and sailing in bad weather. It’s the sort of avoidable disaster that seems to be too common in Indonesia. It was a sombre feeling crossing the lake on water that gently rippled beneath us.

The Ferry from Parapet

Lake Toba has a remarkable history. 75,000 years ago it was the site of a super-volcanic eruption that caused a mini-ice age, with ash being deposited as far as Africa. Toba is the largest volcanic lake in the world measuring a staggering 100km long, up to 30km wide and depths reaching 500 meters. Sitting in the middle of the lake is Samosir Island with its own claim to fame being the worlds largest island on an island.

Approaching Tuk-Tuk, Samosir Island

It’s created a stunning rugged landscape that constantly reminds you of the latent power rumbling away beneath our feet – brought home to us more prosaically by the advice on “what to do in the event of an earthquake” in our lodgings. In these parts it isn’t a question of “if” but of “when”.

The best way to get about the Island is to either hire a scooter for a day to investigate and look at the scenery from different angles, or get on the lake itself with a kayak – we spent a couple of days doing both.

Sam sporting her “Hello Kitty” crash helmet!

After a day whizzing around on a 125cc scooter, it was lovely to clamber into the kayak and enjoy the peace and quiet of the lake with only the sound of our paddles breaking the silence.


More often than not Lake Toba sits calmly reflecting all that looks down on it, while in contrast on its shoulders sit terrifically steep mountain-sides, dark and broody.

Lake Toba

The indigenous Batak people have a history as interesting as the geology on which they live. Isolated from other communities for centuries they practised animism: the belief in spirits in flora, fauna, land and humans. The real elephant in the room when it comes to the Bataks culture was their practice of ritual cannibalism. We visited a place called the “Stone Chairs” where Batak elders had sat in judgement on wrong-doers, some of whom would be killed and eaten for punishment. In more recent centuries condescending Missionaries of various faiths became a staple in the Batak Cookbook, until Dutch Colonialism brought it to an end. Booo!

Batak Wood Carvings


Distinctive wood carvings can be found throughout the Island, as can the unique Batak houses with their striking roofs, which are still in use today.

Batak Village Green Preservation

There was something quite “Wicker Man” about Samosir Island – and we liked it all the more for that. After the excitement of orang-utans, gibbons, rafting and spine shattering car journeys, it was an oasis of calm, quiet reflection –  watching the mood of the lake change with the weather.

Reflections on Lake Toba


Top Travelling Tips – Talc

In the five months we have been travelling, with the exception of our time in the Vietnamese highlands of Dalat, there have probably been only a small hand full of days when the temperature hasn’t topped 30 degrees. The heat and humidity finally got to Sam in Singapore when she complained of an unpleasant and unrelenting chaffing sensation. She stomped into a pharmacy (as far as one can stomp while chaffing) and asked for talc. I was initially perplexed by this having not used talc for as long as I can remember – but I didn’t dare question Sam’s motivation. What a revelation talc has been in our daily battle to manage the perspiration that springs from our pores, and of course reduce chaffing! Now, we begin our day with a liberal dousing of talc, that produces small clouds as we walk through the streets. We have no idea what people must think, but we don’t care – it provides some small but lovely respite. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Next Up: Our next Indonesian Island: Java