Monday, October 1, 2012

Off a 100 year old Beaten Track

Tea picker - Photo courtesy of Trompenmuseum
“Not quite convenient for the tourist is a trip to the crater of the Patoeha, which is more than 2400 metres high: first per trap to Tjisondari, and further 10 miles on horseback up the mountain.  It is to be reached via Tjisondari and the pesanggrahan [guesthouse] of Pengalengan.

The crater, 170 metres wide and 230 deep, lies at a distance of six miles from Pengalengan and is entirely covered with a milk- white tint, caused by the white-coloured sulphurous vapours that rise through hundreds of crevices of seething water-pools”. (Guide to the Netherlands East Indies – 1903)

The guide goes on to refer to the trip as “a most interesting one”.  The above passage describes the Kawah Putih (white crater), no longer “quite inconvenient for the tourist” but rather a popular and crowded tourist destination, complete with an abundance of stalls selling souvenir t-shirts, cushions in the shape of strawberries and random items not belonging to the area’s strawberry, volcano or sulphur theme. Perhaps not so interesting after all. Still, there seems to be a variety of things to see and do in the area which can be explored in 1.5 days, allowing us to be back in Bandung before the Sunday exodus to Jakarta begins.

I look up Pengalengan (Pangalengan) on the internet and find that there is a Tea Plantation nearby, Malabar Tea Estate, where it is possible to stay in the Plantation house, the Malabar Mess, which dates back to 1896 and the Colonial era.   A visiting colleague, Alex, who has committed himself to joining me on this trip to get out of Bandung for the weekend, has little choice but to be abducted into my quest for all things old and Dutch.  He soon gets into the spirit of things by making essential preparations, bringing over from the UK some mini bottles of Pino Noir and some Belgian chocolates to help recreate the atmosphere of Colonial indulgence and privilege.

It’s decided that we will stay a night at the Malabar Mess, a short 2 hour drive from Bandung, before making our way early the next day, after a walk amongst the tea trees, to the Kawah Putih area, along which stretch of road lies the Situ Patengah (Patengah lake) and Ciwadey, famous for an abundance of strawberry patches.

The Malabar Mess main building

The house is as we imagine it would have been  all those years ago (except the bar looks a little forlorn these days!)

After a leisurely breakfast of tea and toast with eggs and jam (under the watchful eye of Mr Bosscha, the original plantation administrator until his death in 1929, whose stiff portrait hangs in the dining room), we go for a stroll amongst the tea trees and through the little villages whose inhabitants work on the Estate. 


When we return, and are joined by our driver, Pak Bobby (Mr Bobby) from Bandung, we ask the Estate manager, Pak Acil, for directions to the Kawah Putih area. 

With some assistance from the Government officials, or from the administrator of [the] [....] estate, it is possible to make this journey without much trouble”.

We are however informed that the 6 miles is in fact “as the crow flies” and we would need to spend around 4 hours circumnavigating a mountain in order to get there from Pengalengan.  I reiterate, unconvincingly, that this cannot be, because my guidebook (from 109 years ago) states that the journey should be only 6 miles.  Pak Acil replies that it is possible to drive directly to Ciwadey via the Jambu Pass. 
I leaf through my notes and pull out a reference from my other guidebook which states:  Excursions to the crater of the Patoeha (2400M), to Telaga Patengat (1550M), to the [water]fall of Djamboe [Jambu] Dipa ......... are rather inconvenient for the tourist.” (Java the Wonderland).
Pak Acil pulls out a framed map of the region detailing all of the main towns and villages as well as waterfalls, estates and mountains.

“There are waterfalls everywhere here, look!”  I say, pointing to the map.    “I have some vague directions to a small waterfall that a friend gave me.  His Grandmother lives in a village near the Situ Patengan and apparently there is a waterfall which is cold at the top and hot at the bottom – I guess because of the volcanic activity in the region”.  Alex, conscious of my last attempt to find a nice waterfall, and perhaps made more hesitant by my reference to “vague” directions, suggests that we might “see how it goes”.

Pak Bobby starts to look nervous as he realises that this map is not in any language he can recognise - it is an old Colonial Dutch map!


He asks, rather optimistically, “Is it a new road?”, to which Pak Acil replies “No, the road is very bumpy”, whilst gesticulating to Pak Bobby just how bumpy and uncomfortable this journey will be (in his tin can car with no seatbelts and bad suspension)”but very beautiful”.

The road takes us past more tea plantations and through forest clearings,  past Cisondari (Tjisondari), another name we recognise from the guidebook and a spot, as good as any other, for an eagerly awaited cup of coffee (plastic cup and straw included) after being thrown around the back of the car for a very long “6 miles”.

It’s all about strawberries in the Ciwadey area: 


We have a lunch of nasi timbel overlooking a village where, as is common in the villages in this region, most of the houses are painted in bright colours.  I once, in the presence of a colleague who has lived here for a long time, remarked on this as being a beautiful reflection of positivity, to which he responded “They probably got the paint free from the Mosque”!

In the afternoon, the quest for a decent waterfall recommences as I re-read the instructions I had received: “before the Patengah lake, there is a road on the right that goes to Situ patengah and a road on the left to Cibuni waterfall”.   At a fork in the road, we take the left branch and a few hundred metres further on, we ask some tea pickers where the waterfall is.

“Where is the waterfall?”
“There is no waterfall here”. 
“But we were told that there is a waterfall here.  Where is Cibuni Waterfall?”
“There is no waterfall, only Air Panas, hot water, the Kawah Cibuni”.  
“No, there is definitely a waterfall here.... we have been given directions”.
“Yes, in that place there it is hot water, but no waterfall”.

As there seems to be no other option, we decide to go to the “hot water” and expect it to be another hot spring spa resort full of tourists.
“But it is just a jalan kaki” a footpath, we are warned. “You cannot take the car.  You need to walk around 1 hour”.

This sounds much more interesting....................

We find the footpath and walk for a half an hour (one hour turns out to be Indonesian time).  We approach a village – steam is hovering above and amongst the rooves of the bamboo houses like low clouds.

Kawah Cibuni - Photo courtesy of Trompenmuseum

As the path enters the village and continues uphill, we pass holes in the earth through which hot steam is rising.  Small pools of hot water in varying degrees from boiling to bloody hot give way to a stream which appears suddenly. 
A rudimentary waterwheel is generating the electricity for the entire village downstream.
 Over a rickety wooden bridge, we come to a small waterfall.  The water is freezing cold!   “Cold at the top and hot at the bottom”.  

Down at the bottom of the village, a family is preparing to wash in a large hot pool before the evening meal is prepared.  An old lady, her daughter and granddaughter wear sarongs for decency.  They kindly allow us to bathe in the natural  hot pool from which we finally emerge a half an hour later, very relaxed, and very pink.   The women are beautiful in this village, from the very old to the very young. 

I wonder, as I imitate the women by heaping mud, collected from one of the depressions in the earth, onto my face, whether it is to do with effectively having a spa right on their doorstep.    In the poorest of villages, I have found a little bit of heaven.......

When we get back to the factory the following Monday, our Indonesian colleagues inform us matter-of-factly that “there are ghosts at the Malabar Tea Estate”.  They mention the name Bosscha and ask us if we were scared.    “Hardly!” I laugh, as I remember the image of a portly Mr Bosscha, a philanthropist with a kind face, silly moustache and eager eyebrows.   Blank faces tell me that no one is sharing my humour – apparently ghosts are no laughing matter here.


  1. Hi, I'm trying to find any information on Malabar Mess and came across your blog. If you don't mind answering a couple of questions:
    Do they serve food besides breakfast at Malabar Mess?
    Is there enough to do at the Tea Plantation for a full day? We have two young boys to entertain.
    Thanks for your help.

  2. Hello!!
    I'm looking for the email of the guesthouse Malabar Mess.
    Could you give it to me?

    Thank you very much,

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