The hauntingly beautiful crater lake of ‘Kawah Putih’
January 1, 1970
by Jili M. Wanderess
The hauntingly beautiful crater lake of ‘Kawah Putih’
Kawah Putih (meaning ‘white crater’) is a stunningly beautiful and atmospheric crater lake, lying in one of two craters belonging to a dormant andesitic stratovolcano called Mount Patuha. The site is located about 50 km outside of Indonesia’s 4th largest city of Bandung, and situated not far from the mountain village of Ciwidey, which is famed for its strawberry growing farms. The lake lies at a substantial altitude above sea level and attracts large numbers of people on weekends, mainly Indonesian people from surrounding areas, many of whom are looking for a quick weekend getaway from the chaotic traffic and sweltering heat of the city. The spot is not very well known to foreign tourists and thus a very well kept secret of Indonesia. We feel that we are rather lucky to have discovered this surreal place.
When the German botanist, Dr. Franz Wilhelm Junghuhn was carrying out research in the area, back in 1837, he heard the indigenous people tell tales of an area of forest on a hill that even the birds avoided and how those that didn’t avoid it, would often wind up dead.
Unsurprisingly, these tales aroused the curiosity of Dr. Junghuhn and he decided to investigate. He eventually located the area that was described in the tales of the natives and what he found was a mysterious crater lake, surrounded by skeletons of dead trees, which the local wildlife would not dare to go near. The presence of sulphur in the area attracted mining activities and there was a sulphur plant near the lake owned by the Dutch during their occupation in Java. Later the mine was taken over the Japanese during the World War II. The remnants of the mining activities can still be seen today. The Kawah Putih was opened to public as a tourist site in 1987.
Nature & wildlife
The area surrounding Mt. Patuha is densely forested, whereas in the immediate area around the lake’s edge, the trees are mostly defoliated and appear as lifeless skeletons. There is a dearth of botanical data for the area but two well-known plants; Javanese Edelweiss (Anaphalis javanica) and Cantigy (Vaccinium varingiaefolium) can be seen blooming in open meadow areas, in the vicinity of Mt. Patuha.
Several kinds of animals and birds have been sighted in the surrounding forest, including eagles, mouse deer, monkeys, forest pigs and more rarely, pythons, panthers and even leopards are spotted.
Geography & geochemistry
‘Kawah Putih’ is located at an altitude of 2,430 meters above sea level, which makes it significantly cooler than the surrounding low-lying areas. Therefore, it’s a good idea to bring a light sweater in case you start to get a little chilly. The mist often rolls in around noon, so if you want unspoilt views, it’s best to arrive early in the morning.
The water of ‘ Kawah Putih’ crater lake is highly acidic. The volcanic gases produced underground dissolve in the lake waters to produce a highly acidic environment. Steam and poisonous hydrogen sulfide gas bubble out of the lake, filling the air with an overpowering stench of rotting eggs. The pH is very low at between (0.5 – 1.3), so the water will literally burn your skin if you make contact with the water, as I experienced when I waded in the lake up to my ankles.
The lakes’s water is usually a surreal turquoise colour and supposedly changes its colour from bluish-green to milky white depending on the density of the suspended sulphur particles. Andesite rocks are commonly found around the lake, as well as brimstone (sulfur), which the locals sell in both powdered and solid form for a profit, as a purported cure for various skin ailments.
We left the city Bandung early in the morning in order to catch good views of the lake before the afternoon mists rolled in and concealed everything. We chartered an angkot (a type of privately owned minivan, used as the city’s public transport system) in Bandung for a fairly reasonable price of 100,000 rupiah and it delivered us to a large car park, just off the main road. We approached a ticket booth and purchased two tickets for 33,000 rupiah per person (we paid the local Indonesian tariff but foreign visitors are usually charged 50,000 rupiah). A mini shuttle bus service was in operation and we paid an extra 7,500 rupiah per person for the 5km journey to the crater site from the entry gate.
On arrival at the crater site, we found ourselves at the edge of a forested area, where a few Indonesian salespeople were urging us to rent out dust masks from them. Many tourists were renting out the dust masks but we politely declined, knowing we would not be staying too long at the lake and not knowing whether the masks would even be necessary. We then followed a narrow winding path, which led us down through some trees towards the lake. The lake’s vivid turquoise colour revealed itself through the trees long before we were standing at its edge and we became excited with anticipation. The rotten-egg like stench of hydrogen sulfide in the air gradually become more powerful as we approached the lake’s edge and we wondered how long we could stay here before the gas began to irritate our lungs. We noticed the eerie looking skeletons of dead trees surrounding the lake and wondered whether we would wind up dead also if we stayed here too long, breathing in the mildly poisonous air.
The most striking thing was of course the unusual colour of the water, and it surely is the primary reason people are so attracted to this site. Naturally, we were completely in awe with the beauty of the lake, the colour of the water, the creepy looking tree skeletons and the impressive backdrop of Mt. Patuha, rising steeply from the lake. We walked around the perimeter of the lake and took several photographs to capture this impressive rarity. We stayed longer than expected admiring the lake but eventually, the fumes started to irritate our lungs and we decided that we ought to leave before the condition worsened.
We noticed that several local photographers were running a kind of freelancing business at the lake. Visitors could have their picture taken (with the mandatory lake backdrop) at a reasonable price (20,000 rupiah) and would instantly receive a printed copy of the photograph. They bring the photo printing equipment to the site, something which we have also witnessed in a few popular tourist spots in Laos. It’s certainly a very convenient way to make instant memories.
We also observed that a few entrepreneurial locals were selling powdered brimstone (sulfur) as a cure for varied skin ailments, as well chunks of the solid mineral in small packets for 20.000 – 30,000 rupiah. They were also selling a root from a local plant, which they call ‘dragonroot’, presumably also used for medicinal purposes. We were unsure of the authenticity of these products, so we refrained from buying them, although we must admit that such curious novelties are always rather tempting to the foreign tourist and often make us momentarily consider reaching for our purse.
After leaving the lake, we hiked uphill to a viewpoint, which was located less than 2 kilometres from the lake. We were hoping for an aerial view of the site. It turned out to be a very good vantage point, which directly overlooked the lake and gave a bird’s eye view. However, we reached the viewpoint only to discover that the mists had rolled in at some stage during our hike to the top. We waited and waited for the mist to clear and we were just about to give up, when the mist suddenly lifted for a brief moment to reveal the majestic panorama below. We quickly pulled out the camera and snapped a few shots before the mists closed again soon after. Seeing it from this aerial perspective allowed us to better appreciate the scale and context of the lake and filled our hearts with delight and wonder. We would highly recommend this site to anybody who wants to experience something truly unique.
If my readers would like to check our YouTube channel, video on Bandung, Indonesia, that includes this beautiful place and more.. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EER72x-mw50