Lake Toba 1979

photograph of Lake Toba, deep green valley in foreground

Lake Toba

My family and I were holidaying at Lake Toba in Sumatra. It’s a huge lake, formed by a massive volcanic explosion over 70,000 years ago, perhaps the largest the world has ever seen. Legend has it that Lake Toba is so deep, people and boats have disappeared into its inky depths, only to be washed up weeks or months later at the opposite end of the lake, up to one hundred kilometres away. It’s said there are strange currents that suck you down under the water, even if you are a capable swimmer.

My sister and I were allowed to hire a paddle boat, theoretically to potter around the shore. My sister, being a daredevil, decided we should try to cross to the large island of Samosir that lay opposite the tourist town of Parapat where we were staying. We had no lifejackets, and no adults knew we were going.

We paddled all the way across to the island and were greeted by a rather grimy town of surly folk who did not seem at all friendly. Little did we know this was actually a red light district, a collection of brothels. We couldn’t have known; wouldn’t even have understood what that meant.

Fairly rapidly we realised it wasn’t a place for us. We started our long paddle back to Parapat. A few times a motorboat or jetski flew past leaving a series of waves in its wake. The paddleboat didn’t handle waves very well and I began to feel frightened. The journey back seemed much more arduous than the trip out. I put my hand in the black water. It was warm and silky. I could almost imagine the secret currents tugging at my hand to pull me down into the abyss.

Suffice to say, we made it back safely. However, we’d only been on shore a few minutes, our mother scolding us for our risk-taking behaviour, when someone noticed a young man standing on a paddleboat waving his towel madly.

Some other boats attended and a story emerged that filled me with dread of what might have been. Allegedly, he and his new wife were honeymooning in Parapat. They too were paddling on the majestic lake when a boat zoomed past, rocking the paddleboat so vigorously that his new wife toppled over and fell into the lake. She sank like a stone in the lake’s ominous currents, leaving her shattered husband shocked, waving his towel desperately from his lone stance on the lake.

For the next few hours we stood in our swimsuits, watching a seaplane, police boats and divers scour the area. What possible hope was there of finding a woman in a five-hundred-metre-deep lake? It would have been like finding a needle in a haystack. They would probably have had a better chance of finding the Loch Ness monster.

That night I couldn’t sleep for the adrenaline raging through my body. The memory of being out on that lake only moments before the woman’s disappearance was too acute. It could have been me. It could have been my sister. I imagined the black water was like jelly; if I fell in, I would be enveloped and smothered as the jelly eased me slowly downwards.  Despite being a good swimmer, I would not be able to fight my way back up to the surface.

A month or so later we heard through friends that the man had been charged with his wife’s murder. Turned out, she couldn’t swim, so after a firm push, Lake Toba had completed the relatively simple task for him. I felt slightly relieved that the speedboat waves had not actually toppled her, as this was the crux of my recurring nightmare.

Her body surfaced  weeks later, many kilometres away.

I have been back to Lake Toba many times, but not to Parapat and its paddleboats.

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