Lake Toba and orang utans in Sumatra

Whether it's the old men of the village, or the Men of the Forest (Orang Utans), Sumatra in Indonesia is full of colourful characters

8 mins

“The captive is bound to a stake in an upright position. A number of fires are lighted, the musical instruments are struck. Then the chief draws his knife, steps forward and addresses the people. It is explained that the victim is an utter scoundrel, not a human being at all, but a begu (ghost) in human form, and the time has come for him to atone for his misdeeds. All draw their knives. The raja cuts off the first piece, being either a slice of the forearm or the cheek, if this be fat enough. He holds up the flesh and drinks with gusto some of the blood streaming from it. Then he hastens to the fire to roast the meat before devouring it. Now all the remaining men fall upon the bloody sacrifice, tear the flesh from the bones and roast and eat it. Some eat the meat raw, or half-raw to show off their bravery. The cries of the victim do not spoil their appetites. It is usually eight or ten minutes before the wounded man becomes unconscious, and a quarter of an hour before he dies.”

Justice, Toba Batak style, but don’t be put off visiting the Toba Bataks of northern Sumatra today, because that was a traveller’s account from 1840-1841 and they haven’t eaten anyone for... oh, for several decades at least. The most exotic thing I sampled while visiting Lake Toba, the sacred lake of the Batak people, was a goldfish. Not your average fishbowl tiddler, but a bulging carp that overlapped the plate like a six-foot man in a five-foot bed. It came with a typical Indonesian sauce so hot that, for a few minutes, I actually lost the power of speech and my lips felt as if they’d been plugged into the mains. I scraped off the coconut sauce and tucked into the tender flesh.

The fish should have been good as it cost 15,000 rupiah, all of £3, which by Sumatran standards is the price of a meal at the Ritz. By contrast, my breakfast that morning at the Rumba Pizzeria cost me exactly £1 for a banana juice, a cup of coffee and a pancake so over-stuffed with pieces of fresh papaya, pineapple and banana that it seemed to be smiling up at me from the plate. I was certainly smiling down at it, as it was a sunny Sunday morning and I felt it was going to be a good day.

Lake Toba: largest crater lake on earth

The Rumba Pizzeria is in the small and lazy resort of Tuk Tuk, on Samosir Island in the middle of Lake Toba. Tuk Tuk may be small, but Samosir isn’t: it’s about the size of the Isle of Man, while Lake Toba is the largest crater lake in the world, bigger than the Dead Sea, and thought to be one of the world’s deepest lakes. The deepest bit of it so far recorded goes down to about 525 metres; not quite as much as Siberia’s Lake Baikal, but no doubt they’ll get to the bottom of it one day.

It was created 75-100,000 years ago in what was probably the largest volcanic explosion the world has ever known, making Krakatoa seem like a burp; although the Bataks believe it was either made by their wrathful God, the Mulajadi Na Bolon, who created the world, but was then cheated by the local people, or it was made from the bitter tears of a sorrowful mother.

However it was produced, Lake Toba is 906 metres high in the Sumatran highlands, and like the rest of the island was badly affected by the smoke and the smog that blighted Indonesia and Malaysia last summer. “Some days it was terrible on the lake,” one Tuk Tukian told me. “People rely on the ferry to get across the lake and sometimes the smoke would come down so thick you could only see a few feet in front of you. The ferries navigate by sight and they couldn’t find the harbours. You’d hear them on the lake, hooting in the smoke, totally lost.”

Thankfully, the delayed rainy season eventually arrived in November, and the smouldering fires were at last extinguished, although a few were still burning underground. Worst hit was southern Sumatra, but when you consider that the island is roughly the size of Spain, not venturing there at all would be like avoiding the Costa del Sol because of problems in the Pyrenees.

Certainly, the travellers I met there in the winter had no qualms about visiting, and instead were revelling in the warm welcomes they were given. Sumatra has far fewer travellers than nearby Java, Bali and Borneo, so the prices are lower and the people much friendlier. As I walked along the coast road in Tuk Tuk that sunny Sunday morning, one young man with a smile like the sunshine passed me saying: “Good morning. Good Sundays, yes?”

Love songs abound

Earlier I’d passed a store where a young lad with a guitar was entertaining some friends. It’s hard to walk far in Sumatra without seeing someone with a guitar, or hearing a song. On the night I arrived I was tucking into my sweet and sour chicken, and my travelling companions were enjoying pizzas the size of hubcaps, when from a grubby café across the street came the robust sound of Batak singing, men’s voices belting out in harmony, well-lubricated by palm wine. It sounded completely un-Asian; more like mournful but powerful fado or flamenco, crossed with a hint of 1950s doo-wop and a South American rhythm.

“What are the songs about?” I asked the waitress. “About love,” was the inevitable reply. “This one is how my girl went off with another man and now she is married to him and I am unhappy.”

“Any political songs?” I wondered aloud. “No, just love.”

Bob Marley is as much a modern musical hero in Sumatra as he is everywhere else in the world, and Buffalo Soldier was gently filling the air as I stopped for a Sprite on my Sunday morning stroll. “Sit down, take a rest,” I’d been invited by Antonius, selling soft drinks in front of his losmen, or guesthouse. He had six houses, he told me, all of them in traditional Batak style. These are high wooden houses with swooping triangular roofs, pointing forwards and upwards at front and back. “The back is usually a little higher than the front,” Antonius explained, “In the hope that children will be richer than their parents. The roofs used to be covered in ijuk, the fibres you get from the palm tree, but now it’s usually zinc.”

This is less attractive but more functional, and the houses themselves are designed to be practical: they’re raised from the ground to make room for water buffalo beneath, while the overhanging eaves provide shelter for rice-pounding and net-mending in the rainy season.

I asked Antonius if the two young boys sitting with him were his children. “No. My grandchildren.”

An extended family...

He didn’t look old enough but he has five children and forty grandchildren. He was a teacher for 37 years, and opened his losmen thirty years ago. His first guest was a Canadian guy who booked in for a week and stayed for six months. Antonius showed me a photo of him, and of his own children, and most of his grandchildren; hauling out envelopes stuffed with old black and white photos of weddings and baptisms and picnics. He’s a kind and contented man.

I took some photos, and copied down his address so that I could send back some pictures for his photographic archive, and moved on, stopping to buy a piece of banana and chocolate cake from a little boy passing by carrying a tin full of tempting slices. From the restaurant next door Bob Marley music was still lazing out. Another boy walked by and said, “Good morning, yes?”

From across the harbour came the sound of a hymn, for the Bataks are Christian people. Well, sort-of Christian, as the Sumatrans seem an incredibly adaptable race. The Minangkabau people of western Sumatra, which I’d just left, manage to be both Muslim and matriarchal, an unusual mix, while the Toba Bataks became Christians under the Dutch while retaining their ancient beliefs, including animal sacrifice and ancestor worship.

“I still call in the medicine woman when my children are ill,” Annette Silalahi told me. Annette is a German woman who came to Lake Toba several years ago, and never left. She married a local man, Anto, and together they run the Tabo vegetarian restaurant and bakery, and rent out cottages. “The local healer is certainly at least as successful as conventional western medicine,” Annette insisted, as I wolfed down a sublime aubergine in spicy coconut sauce, a thick slice of the bakery’s bread, and doubled the price of my meal by spending £1 on a big bottle of Bintang Beer.

Orang utan sanctuary

Traditional remedies were evident, too, when I reluctantly moved on from Lake Toba to Bukit Lawang, one of the most visited villages in Sumatra. The reason fot its popularity is orang hutan, the ‘person of the forest’, and the Bohorok Orangutan Rehabilitation Station, a short stroll away. “The Station was opened in 1973 by two Swiss biologists,” its controller, Riswan Bangen, told me, as he walked across his small office to take down a ledger from the shelves. He flipped through the pages, looking at figures. “Since 1973, we have released 212 animals back into the wild. At the moment there are nine animals in quarantine, and fifteen using the feeding site.”

Just over 200 orphaned orangutans released back into the wild may not seem many, but with only 5-7000 orangutans on Sumatra and a declining world population of 30,000, every one matters. Those brought to Bohorok – the name of the river on which Bukit Lawang stands – have mostly been orphaned by hunters or kept as pets. They are kept in quarantine for six months, during which time they are taught to acquire survival skills like climbing and nest-building, and then released into the semi-freedom of the Gunung Leuser National Park. Here they are fed twice daily, with visitors allowed to watch, till their confidence returns – aided by the deliberately boring banana diet – and they head off to live in the jungle.

To visit that jungle requires a permit, and the company of a local guide such as Nasib Suhardi, a handsome and amiable 30-something Sumatran. “It isn’t easy to get a permit as a guide,” he told me. “You have to pass examinations, learn first-aid, orienteering, and prove that you know the animals and plants.”

Orienteering is obviously a useful skill, when you’re taking people into the dense jungle of a National Park which covers 2,500 square miles and contains tigers, snakes, rhinos, leopards, bears and the slightly less dangerous (if you can find one) orangutan.

Nasib also knows his plants and traditional remedies; his father was a farmer and his mother a healer. “My grandfather used to bring me into the jungle, and tell me which plants were which, and what they did. This is the peacock fern, for instance,” Nasib said, breaking off a leaf which looked to me just like any fern from a British wood. “This can be used to heal bee stings. I know it works because not long ago I was taking a group of Dutch tourists into the forest. We went for a swim in the river and then one guy went off to take a pee. Unfortunately he put out his hand to steady himself and disturbed a bee’s nest. He came running back to the camp but I had to shout to him, ‘Don’t come near us, jump in the river!’ He got into the river but he had been stung very badly by the bees, and of course it turned out that he was allergic to the stings. He came out all swollen and his girlfriend was hysterical, she thought he was going to die, but I got some peacock ferns and applied them. Half an hour later the swellings had gone down and we were able to get him out of the jungle to a doctor for proper treatment.”

Nasib was handy to have in the jungle

He proved equally adept at ape spotting too. I’d been told there was really only a slim chance of seeing an orangutan in the wild, and we were on our way back from the camp to Bukit Lawang on the second day of our brief trek with only a hint of an orangutan’s call to our credit. Then Nasib told us to stop, and began looking up into the canopy. Eventually a shape became evident, which turned out to be a large and long-limbed male.

To discourage humans, orangutans throw down branches, which this one duly did, and sometimes they... how to phrase this... go to the toilet in your direction. Luckily this one missed, as I think a t-shirt splattered in foul-smelling dung would have been an unfortunate souvenir. I can’t imagine the lady at Sketchley’s being too pleased to see me. Not far beyond the male with the magic bowels, we then, to Nasib’s delight as much as ours, came across two females, each with a baby clinging to it, but being ladies they merely threw a few branches down in our direction before swinging off through the treetops.

The aches in my legs disappeared, and the sweat and leeches seemed a small price to pay for the privilege of seeing an endangered animal in the wild. We walked, exhausted but satisfied, back to Bukit Lawang, where I tucked straight into a huge plate of pisang goreng, or fried bananas to you. Perhaps it was the influence of the orangutans, but they tasted delicious. Not quite as nice as a plump goldfish, but much better than a scoundrel’s cheek.

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