Editor’s note: This month we review Nigel Foster’s latest paddling adventure Heart of Toba. I could say a lot of good things about this book and I do, but one of the best things I could say is that now I feel like I’ve been there. I won’t forget this journey. Nigel Foster is a world-renowned kayaker, author, teacher, and presenter who also designs kayaks and kayaking gear. For more information about Nigel, his books, and his blog, go to nigelkayaks.com.
I like this book for a number of reasons. One is the smooth, even, almost dreamy pace of narration that follows the rhythm of the days on the water. Heart of Toba reminds me of books like Richard Halliburton’s Royal Road to Romance and Dana Lamb’s Enchanted Vagabonds because the reader is immersed in a journey through exotic cultures. There are a lot of people on the banks of Lake Toba, and they’ve been living there for over a thousand years. In fact, there is evidence of humans on Sumatra dating back tens of thousands of years.
In modern times, Dutch, German, and Japanese people have left their mark on the land. Modernization in the form of logging, fish farming, infrastructure, motor vehicles, and tourism prevails. On the other hand traditional customs still permeate everything. The friendliness of the people, the boat shaped architecture of many homes, the activities of agriculture, textile weaving, fishing, paddling, and music and singing, as well as drinking tuak, the local alcoholic beverage, are still very evident.
This is Batak life beside the world’s largest caldera lake. Nigel Foster and his crew travel to Sumatra to circumnavigate this amazing natural feature. In 2020 Lake Toba was recognized as one of UNESCO’s Global Geoparks. The Batak culture belongs to a number of related ethnic groups, mostly in northern Sumatra, with distinct languages and customs. Lake Toba lies at an elevation of 3,000 feet, is 62 miles long by 19 miles wide, and contains Samosir Island, also known as the Heart of Toba, a large island in the middle of the lake that was formed by a resurgent dome, a dome formed by the swelling of a caldera floor due to movement in the magma chamber beneath. At least four cones and three craters are visible in the lake. Foster and his companions paddled the lake in early 2020 and returned home just as the Covid 19 pandemic broke.
Foster and his wife Kristin met Priyo Utomo, kayak guide and the mastermind of the adventure, while kayaking in Raja Ampat, West Papua. Priyo’s plan for this trip was to explore the Batak culture around Lake Toba and Samosir Island and learn about the paddling culture on the lake. There are many solus still being paddled, primarily for fishing. In the past, longer solu bolon were used as war canoes and for freight. These dugout canoes are paddled with single-bladed paddles but solu bolon are no longer in evidence probably because diesel powered boats have made them redundant and the fact that the giant trees required to carve them are now rare. Also the advent of modern civilization has ended the local warrior culture. For a long time Lake Toba was hidden and protected by stories of cannibals and headhunters. In past times human skins covered drums and houses were painted with human blood. Even now, Foster writes, Batak are often seen as harsh and ruthless by other Indonesians.
The crew visited traditional huta, Batak villages, and were treated to music, songs, dances, and stories from the old times. They even had the rare opportunity to stay overnight in an actual king’s house, a house built before Europeans ever came to Toba. Foster had an opportunity to paddle a solu himself, and study the design of the traditional boats and paddles. The group was treated to visits to traditional weavers who weave beautiful cloth called olus which is hand made on back strap looms using yarn dyed from colors derived from local plants. The Batak use ulos in ceremonies and celebrations, or as carrying fabrics and garments. Even today ulos is part of a family’s assets.
Another treat about reading Heart of Toba is the introduction to the poetry of Sitor Situmorang, the father of one of the members of this trip, Iman Situmorang. Sitor is a famous Batak writer and journalist, as well as a poet. He wrote a poem called Lake Toba’s Topography, part of which is quoted in Heart of Toba:
“From one side to the other, mountain forests hold fast the valley of mother nature’s heart, the blue and peaceful waters in the midst of the world’s clamor…”
That seems to me an excellent description of Lake Toba.
Another thing I was glad to learn about the area, although it did not make me glad, is how the production of rayon affects the environment. Rayon is advertised as a “sustainable” product, and it’s true that it isn’t sourced from forests that are natural, ancient, or endangered. That’s because it’s sourced from trees that are planted on land where natural, ancient, and endangered forests once grew, where “forests” of eucalyptus now reign. It’s depressing but unsurprising that companies establish monoculture for harvesting trees for pulp to produce rayon and then truthfully but misleadingly promote their product. He also talks about the relationship between tourism, a big economic factor for the people around Lake Toba, and environmental degradation. Tourism has declined in the area and the Indonesian government is trying to promote it. Some measures sound positive, like promoting local sites and geological, cultural, and scenic places of interest. Because of these efforts, the Toba Caldera was added to the list of UNESCO Global Geoparks. But the efforts to improve air quality by reducing forest burning appear to involve spraying chemicals to suppress forest regeneration instead.
Despite some darker aspects, Heart of Toba is nevertheless a magical mystery tour to an area that despite opening to the outside world retains much of its ancient roots. The mists of the past still cling to the mountains, forests, and blue waters of the lake. There is much to know and love about Lake Toba and the Batak people. Nigel Foster covers a wealth of topics intelligently and succinctly. Piltik coffee, Batak culture, mythology, geology, poetry, mango wine, a cobra, and lots more, this book offers a detailed and heartfelt description of the land and people of Lake Toba.
To find out more about Heart of Toba and watch a film about the adventure, go to http://heartoftoba.com/ To buy this book, go to https://www.amazon.com/Heart-Toba-beside-Largest-Caldera-ebook/dp/B08SWLBFZ9
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