Dicing with death to reach Brastagi, Lake Toba and the Sipiso Piso waterfall

And so after many years of not visiting Sumatra, I was on my way again to this huge and rugged island for the third time in a year! That’s just the way things work out I guess. The roll of the dice. You never really know where you are headed to next and it may even be the case that you are actually visiting a place for the very last time. How was I to know? After all, the sun may rise every morning but, ultimately, there will come a day when you see it for the very last time.

Having visited Pulau Weh for diving and West Sumatra/Jambi to climb Indonesia’s highest volcano (Mount Kerinci), I found myself on a Garuda flight to Medan for a short excursion in North Sumatra, an area home to the Batak people. Here in Jakarta, the Batak have established a reputation of being very hard working (at least by Indonesian standards) whether at the lower strata of society (as bus drivers or street-side tire repair workers) or at the upper levels (as high-profile lawyers, politicians and businesspeople). However, the Batak are also known for their outspokenness – a trait which can often catch people off-guard. I myself, can still remember, for example, an occasion in Jakarta many years ago when a well-known Batak businessman asked me at lunch whether I knew that the Batak used to “eat people”. Momentarily fazed by his comment, I promptly sought reassurances that I wasn’t on the menu. He laughed and assured me I wasn’t before going on to order some spicy chicken – which I ate too, wondering all the while what human flesh must actually taste like…Ho hum…

Although Medan airport is a glitzy affair, constructed almost entirely (it appears) from aluminum and glass, it doesn’t exactly prepare the unsuspecting visitor for the city itself which, it has to be said, is not much more than a sprawling metropolis of mostly ramshackle dwellings and whitewashed shop-houses with only a few standout buildings such as the wonderful palace (Istana Maimun) and the Great Mosque, both of which were commissioned by the Sultanate of Deli but designed by a Dutchman named Theodoor van Erp back in the old colonial era. We weren’t really intent on hanging around in Medan for long but the late-night hunger pangs had gotten the better of us and we consequently ended up at a busy night spot which reminded me of the street-side Chinese eateries on Jalan Mangga Besar in Jakarta. There was even a beer promotion girl in a tiny skirt doing god’s good work. But while admirably enthusiastic she did lose some brownie points for not having enough bottles refrigerated and instead trying to serve us warm beer in glasses with chunks of ice thrown in (complete sacrilege, I know).

Suitably imbibed we continued our journey to Brastagi but soon ran into very heavy traffic. For long periods we were even at a standstill. A lot of the vehicles on the road were huge trucks which bring vegetables and fruits grown in the area of Brastagi to Medan. This, however, didn’t stop our driver from losing his patience from time to time and overtaking the stationary vehicles ahead of him by driving on the wrong side of the road before quickly nipping in to avoid a head on collision with an oncoming vehicle. Never before have I aged so quickly than in the time that I was in that car. If I wasn’t going to be crushed to death by a truck I was going to die of a heart attack anyway. This was certainly not in the 2008 Visit Indonesia Year brochure.

Around two torturous hours later and we discover why the traffic had been held up for so long: there, by the side of the road, was a dead body covered by sheets of newspaper with just the feet poking out (like you see on TV) and a mangled motorcycle lying defeatedly on its side. A huge truck was also parked nearby. It’s not difficult to imagine what might have happened but it wouldn’t be pretty. We were later told that such incidents were commonplace on this particular road but that such horrors didn’t deter the madcap motorcyclists, many of whom don’t even have working front and rear lights on their bikes despite riding at night. How cheap is a human life? Well, less than a Rp50,000 light bulb, apparently.

I had visited Brastagi many years ago as a backpacker and still had memories of the coffee shops, fresh fruit stalls, and locals playing chess by the side of the street. Not much had changed in the intervening years it seemed, although ads for handphone pulsa were now as ubiquitous as those for kretek cigarettes. This time, however, I wouldn’t be staying in a cheap and cheery homestay but in a large 5 star hotel set in expansive grounds catering mostly to corporate clients and foreign tourists (not that there were many of them mind you).

As for the sights:

Lake Toba is certainly impressive and, as I wrote in a previous blog post, was created by “a grade “eight” volcanic eruption (described as "mega-colossal") 69,000-77,000 years ago, making it the largest explosive volcanic eruption within the last twenty-five million years”. As a result: “nearly all humans living at the time were killed – either directly or indirectly from the effects of the eruption”. Let’s just hope the effects of global warming won’t be quite so bad!

Lake Toba


Sipiso Piso waterfall is also located in this region, and it is by far and away the largest waterfall I have ever seen in Indonesia. It’s a good walk down in humid conditions to reach the bottom of the waterfall but well worth it. Even the vendors at the site are easy going and not aggressive. I can’t imagine what this place would be like if it were located in Bali (well actually I can: it would be an overcrowded rip-off hell hole).

Sipisu Pisu waterfall


Gunung Sibayak. At only 2,212 m this moderately high volcano only takes around three hours to climb (including the return to Brastagi). More details are available on the Gunung Bagging website.

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