Tinggi Raja is a hot spring in northern Sumatra, an Indonesian island. What was special about it was that it had ridiculously blue waters inside and sides coated with a white substance, that gave it a nickname of “Kawah Putih”, white crater. The place was obscure enough that there were not many directions to get there. Trying to locate the place on Google Maps provided me with the name “Kawah Putih Dolok Tinggi Raja”. Sumatra is a bit more remote for foreigners compared to the Indonesian islands of Java and Bali. There are flight connections, but tourist infrastructure is minimal and people hardly speak English. I knew that there would be some challenges in store for me, just not how much exactly.
I arrived in Medan at 11:00 on a Good Friday into bright sunshine. I walked to the taxi area and said that I wished to visit Kawah Putih Dolok and then to Parapat, a town adjacent to Lake Toba. Parapat would be my destination for the night. After some discussion in Bahasa Indonesia, one of them asked, “Tinggi Raja”? “Yes, Tinggi Raja first, then Parapat… About how much might that come to?” “1 million”, the woman said. I asked to go by the meter and this was agreed. 1 million would be about US$75, acceptable for a full day’s ride. I would have gladly roughed it out on public transport if there had been any to this place. My driver, Ramli, and I set off. We made some initial attempts at conversation and found each other’s language skills to be lacking. This ride needed to be a quiet one.
At about 13:00, Ramli stopped to ask for directions. When he returned, he indicated that he did not wish to go ahead. We eventually managed to converse through a girl who had Google Translate on her phone. The road ahead was dangerous and Ramli did not wish to go. I said that I should have been told this earlier – I would have gone to Parapat by bus and not wasted money on a taxi. When it seemed as though we were not going anywhere, I conveyed that he could take me to Parapat and I would pay no more than Rp. 500,000. We moved forward, along the bad and dangerous road. “3 PM we get there”, he told me. “That’s OK.” I made the calculation. A while at the site, another two hours back and then the ride to Parapat. It would get late. Ramli rang up a friend who spoke English. This guy said that an earthquake and worsened the road ahead and it was blocked. I repeated what I had said about paying Rp. 500,000 directly to Parapat. We remained on the dangerous road and I realised I was riding with a man who did not value his life at even US$38.
After another couple of painful hours of driving, we could go no further. The road had gotten pretty bad and the car was struggling. We were just ten kilometres away, so I dumped my valuables into a small bag and set off on foot. Ramli said he would wait for me. After walking more than a kilometre, I found a bunch of people with motorcycle. I offered to pay them for a ride. One of them agreed to take me to the hot spring.
The motorcycle did not inspire confidence. It was akin to a kitten that roared like a lion: it emitted a powerful chugga-chugga exhaust noise from an obviously alien setup, but performed like an electric scooter. I was amazed that it took both of us up inclines at all. At one point I received a shock as something on the bottom hit the road with a loud slamming noise. It really did not help that we were on the very worst road that I had travelled on, in my memory. For a time I shut my eyes to not see the various things that we seemed about to crash into. Then I told myself that I was responsible for my own safety and forced my eyes open the rest of the ride, except for the two other instances where the bike’s bottom collided intensely with rocks. Another crash onto a bunch of rocks and I heard something that sounded like the chain breaking. I got off the bike. We looked. The wheels were still capable of spinning on the engine’s power. We set off again. The chain had an unpleasant rattle from then on.
We finally arrived. There were a few food stalls and some scooters. We did a short trek of a few minutes to reach the spring. The first sighting was of much dirt, with plenty of frothy yellow bubbles on the surface, but just metres beyond was the blue coloured water. I wished that it were not cloudy; the pond would have looked brilliant in bright sunlight. It was a small expanse, maybe forty to fifty metres in length, of light blue waters such as few would ever see with their own eyes. We moved along the edge of the pond and saw water flowing. Just a metre or two higher up, small platforms existed where steam bubbled up heating up the water around it. Mist lay over this part as the water flowed downstream, ending up in the blue pond.
People were sitting on benches enjoying Maggi instant noodles and tea. I walked past and used a makeshift bridge of planks to walk over the spring. The waters below me made their heat felt. The bubbles arose noisily out of the ashy black ground. A group of youths had made their way closer to the pond by the plank bridge. Temperatures were cooler at the pond. I stayed for a few minutes. Then I walked back the way we came around the pond for another look from the other side.
I spent a total of about thirty minutes at the pond that I had covered a great distance to see. I held up on the ride back much better than I had the first time, but I was really looking forward to getting back into the car. I got a very unpleasant feeling when we did not see the car a kilometre after where I had left it. I started calculating the loss to myself and the value to the man if he had taken off with my little backpack – it would not make up for his trouble. Three kilometres from where I had left the car, the man waited at a little roadside restaurant, next to a woman who was frying bananas dipped in batter. Despite all my fearful feelings of the past few minutes, it felt like meeting a long-lost friend.
We set off. The ride back to the main road took us two hours. At 7PM, we went past the stop where Ramli had stopped to ask for directions and tried to convince me not to go ahead. The ride to Parapat from there was smooth, but it took another three and half hours. I dozed off in between. The meter said something more than 1.2 million. I handed the man 1.3 million and did not ask for change. Ramli helped me get my bags and we shook hands. He then did one of those American things where you modify the handshake to an arm-wrestling sort of hold, suggesting that we were bros and no longer client and driver. It was 10.30 PM and he was probably going to try to make it back to Medan – a five hour trip at the shortest. I was in a strange town where I did not speak the language. The night still held adventures for both of us.