Saturday, January 26, 2008

When Nature Blows Her Top, Big Lakes Often Result


Lake Toba sits smack dab in the middle of northern Sumatra, the crescent shaped Indonesian island that is almost perfectly chopped in half by the equator. Lake Toba is the world's largest volcanic lake, and about 70,000 years ago, was the site of what some scientists believe to have been the largest volcanic eruption on Earth in the last 25 million years.

Put it this way: The blast blanketed the entire third of the Earth with ash, and in one spot in central India, several thousand miles away, the ash has been recorded within the local geological strata as nearly 20 feet deep. That's almost as long as a first down!

Sumatra is one of those places that I started wanting to see as soon I got my first globe when I was 8 years old. It was the very definition of exotic, even to the primitive, reptilian brain of an 8 year old. And in 1993, I traveled to Sumatra, fulfilling my reptilian dream.

Lake Toba isn't an easy place to get to, but in my opinion, a big part of what makes the world's truly unique and special places burn brightly in the memories of those who've endured the hassle and danger of actually going there is the huge pain in the ass that you remember later.

The journey to Lake Toba began with a bothersome 5 hour ferry ride across the Strait Of Malacca from Penang, Malaysia to Medan in Sumatra. What made the boat trip stressful wasn't necessarily the constant stream of seasick passengers heading to the rail to be sick, but the fact that we were traveling through some of the most pirate infested waters on Earth. OK, that part was pretty cool, in retrospect.

After reaching Medan, I boarded a very shabby looking bus, with seats that looked like they'd been designed for a cub scout troop. For the next 4 hours, I watched my life flash before my eyes during a violently bumpy, careening journey that I was sure was going to end with chunks of me, in various sizes and shapes, littering the roadway and later being eaten by animals from the jungle that hung down on each side of the road.


But finally, I reached Lake Toba, and took a boat to Samosir Island (above), a large island that lies in the middle of the lake, and which was created by magma welling up under the lake to create solid land. Thankfully, though, I didn't encounter any magma during the week I spent in this extremely relaxing place. Incidentally, at the top of the mountain that dominates Samosir Island is ANOTHER LAKE. No, I'm not kidding.

Like all of the world's volcanic lakes, Lake Toba is DEEP -- up to 1665 feet (505 meters) in places. Its waters are extremely clear, and full of colorful freshwater tropical fish.

I stayed in a traditional house in the style of the Batak people who inhabit the Lake Toba region. The house was right on the water, and each evening, I'd sit out with the Indonesian guy who owned the place, and his Dutch girlfriend, and watch the thunderclouds roll in. We witnessed some pretty mind blowing tropical thunderstorms there. The kind I knew I'd be telling people about -- whether they wanted to hear about it or not -- several years later.

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