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Bali: Free spirit

Away from the beachy hotspots, the Indonesian province of Bali is a land of sacred sites and traditions that’s ripe for adventure and exploration

Bali: Free spirit
Image: Phil Hill

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Huddled against a rock, I bury my face in my hoody. The tips of my fingers are purple, while the bitter air whips my exposed skin. I’m silently wishing for sleep to carry me towards sunrise, but the chilling conditions are forbidding. Nevertheless, it’s with pride that I stare at the twinkling lights far beneath me, the crests of distant volcanoes cutting into the pitch black sky, and the miles of serrated rock extending into the jungle below.

I’m waiting for the first of the sun’s rays to poke their way above the Bali Sea and exude some of that delicious exotic heat — I may be in Bali, but I’m on the rim of a 10,308ft-high volcano, and it’s freezing.

With no sign of sunrise, I’m left to contemplate my rock-bound seat. Just a few days earlier, on London’s Underground, I’d overheard two 30-somethings deriding my impending destination.

“It’s not like it used to be, the place has been ruined,” said the blond man, with an air of supremacy. “It’s losing its soul — too many people have visited,” added his bequiffed companion, his fingers flicking through a newspaper. This was the second time I’d heard people turn their noses up at the Indonesian island. Luckily, I’d paid no attention.

Hugging my knees, I glance over at my guide, wrapped tightly in a sarong, the glow of the disintegrating fire reflected in his eyes. How he leapt up this mighty volcano, Gunung Agung, in a pair of tatty flip-flops with just a small cereal bar for sustenance, I’ll never know. Waving the haze of smoke away, he pulls himself up and disappears for several moments before returning to throw some kindling on our makeshift fire. “Pray, pray,” he whispers, ushering me towards a gap in the rocks with a weather-beaten finger.

Tentatively, I round the corner to be confronted with a clutch of golden Hindu offerings. And then I spot the crimson flickers of the sun’s first beams creeping towards the waning moon, and the sky — punctuated by scattered clouds  — slowly turns pink. I’m on top of Bali, above the jungle-juice parties of Kuta and the island’s incessant traffic, yet all I can hear is the ripple of the wind and the occasional muffled grunt from my guide. There’s nothing ‘ruined’ about it.

Bali — the archetypal tropical island, lying between Java to the west and Lombok to the east — is a place where spirituality runs deep. Awash with crescents of sand, aggressive surf and an addictive laid-back lifestyle, it’s one of those epic playgrounds that’s bemoaned by a certain type of traveller. They loath its Western-style development and will tell you with indignation that the good times have gone, and it was better and more beautiful during their day and encased in a seductive spirituality that’s been long forgotten.

You might want to avoid the bright lights of Kuta, whose grey-sand beach is full of sunbeds and sun-scorched bathers, and there are plenty of resorts to keep the fly-and-flop tourists happy, but vast sweeps of Bali and its surrounding islands remain ripe for adventure and exploration. Whether you want to ride the waves off Seminyak, whitewater raft around Ubud — Bali’s green centre — or sign up for a spiritual retreat in a Hindu temple, there’s much more to this Indonesian province than its ‘Costa Brava for Australians’ reputation suggests.

Late-night ascent

“You go to climb Agung?” the stall owner asks, her eyes widening as she hands me a bottle of water. “Agung very high, very hard. You must be strong lady,” she warns, frowning at my face — red from a morning’s bike ride — as I breathlessly guzzle the bottle’s contents, and grimace at the ensuing brain freeze.

After several days pottering around Ubud, I’ve clocked up plenty of hours’ shopping in its charming markets, as well as several Balinese massages, strolls through rice terraces and a few hours’ bobbing in my infinity pool at the utopian Ubud Hanging Gardens hotel.

On the day of the Agung climb, it occurs to me it’s high time to fit in some last-minute training. I jog along paths lacing verdant rice terraces — the conical peaks of volcanoes rising beyond like a dragon’s spine — before collapsing on the roadside to dunk my head in a trickling stream. Surrounded by the scent of incense infused with a faint whiff of barbecued meat, I wind past moss-cloaked temples, lonely cows and warungs (shops) dripping in dried chilli and saffron. And then it’s time.

My trek up Bali’s highest mountain begins after nightfall — and I’m almost wishing the volcano will erupt if it means getting out of this climb. The idea is to arrive at the summit as the sun rises, after an aggressive four- or five-hour ascent from the Hindu temple of Pura Pasar Agung. I’d booked the small group trek with Ubud Hanging Gardens, for $99 (£61), which includes a couple of local guides and snacks along the way. Eerily beautiful, like a moonscape, the mountain is a maze, and I’m told it’s easy to lose your way on its paths, veiled in jungle foliage and treacherous rock. A guide is therefore a must, especially for the chance to hear tales of the sacrosanct volcano and life growing up in this secluded wilderness.

“Agung explode many years ago,” one of the guides explains, mimicking an eruption with his leathery hands. “Killed many people, but no touch Pura Besakih. She knows not to damage temple,” he nods with authority, as I heave myself up a jagged rock face. On the southern slopes of Agung, the Hindu temple of Besakih is Bali’s holiest, and was missed completely by lava from the 1963 eruption — something the Balinese see as a miracle from the gods.

Shadowy jungle, harbouring sleeping macaques, soon gives way to serrated volcanic rock cloaked in an inky sky, and it quickly becomes necessary to hoist myself up using all four limbs — it may not be a technical climb, but it’s a relentless uphill struggle. At no point does it plateau.

We may have started off climbing as a small group, yet the others have slowly dropped away, defeated by the rough terrain and increasingly shortness of breath, leaving me with my travelling companion, Adam, and a non-English-speaking guide. Without explanation, he suddenly stops in his tracks, pulls out his sarong and curls up for a snooze. I’m not sure what to do, but I’m aware we need to keep on moving, so after a few minutes I gingerly nudge him awake. When I’m on a roll during a trek, I have to keep the momentum going — stopping for a long period of time seems to lock my leg muscles. But after half an hour or so, he does it again. I try and reason with myself: perhaps he’s got a day job too and is utterly exhausted, but I’m desperate for a sunrise summit and prod him once more. Lazily, he opens his eyes and we’re off, but my legs are tiring, and it’s getting to the point I’m having to stop every five minutes or so for a breather and to shake my legs out.

Looking up, the summit appears closer yet we’re still shrouded in a thick darkness. Then without warning, my guide turns to signify we’ve made it. It soon becomes clear why he was attempting to nap during the ascent — we’ve arrived two hours before sunrise among the clouds and he was wholly aware of the freezing conditions we’re now encountering on the crater’s edge. But I feel lucky I’m seeing a side of Bali so few people do. I gaze at Agung’s wild and untamed crater, tracing the horizon from its tip to the Bali Sea, on to the point of Mount Rinjani — neighbouring Lombok’s highest volcano — and beyond. From my secluded, rocky seat, this is one spot that’s certain not to change, despite the effervescent development below.

The descent is another relentless trek of around three hours and my legs soon feel as though they’ll buckle beneath me, yet arriving at last night’s starting point, we learn we’re the only ones to summit out of 10 climbers. My ecstasy cannot be contained. Thoughts of sleep immediately disappear and I grab a couple bottles of local beer, Bintang, for my journey to the coast — I’m off to a beachy backpacker hub for some serious chilling out.

Across the sea

Beyond its shores, Bali’s neighbouring islands have a similar vibe to some of Thailand’s backpacker retreats; days can be spent partying at all-night raves, eating banana pancakes or diving beside the reef. And nowhere is this more apparent that on the Gili Islands — three paradise-like islands off the northwest coast of Lombok, fringed with a halo of white sand, just an hour’s boat ride from Bali.

The daily muezzin call to prayer here is a reminder that Bali — where Hinduism remains the predominate religion — is the anomaly in the Muslim Indonesian archipelago. Life is pretty laid-back, regardless — sunbathing (not the topless type) is all the rage, magic mushroom-infused milkshakes are sold in many of the beachside bars, while no police presence means life is governed by an elected village head, the kepala dusum.

After my climb, I’m desperate for a pummelling Balinese massage and several hours’ bobbing in the turquoise waters. Minutes after arriving at Gili Trawangen — the largest of the three islands — I’m spreadeagled on a lounger, nose pressed into a cushion, with a smug grin across my face as I’m rubbed from head to toe. Come evening, I head to a beachside bar, crowded with backpackers, honeymooners and divers, waxing euphoric about their day’s beach bacchanalia.

“Whatever you do, just drink beer,” warns a red-faced Scot, drawing deeply on a roll-up. “Wine is very overpriced, thanks to a 400% government tax, while local spirits will give you a belter of a headache,” he adds, tapping his shiny forehead.

I’m afraid I don’t listen, though. And after a night on the local whiskey while dancing to weird Eurodance tracks, I wake up in my £10-a-night beach hut with a belting hangover that I’m convinced only a swim will alleviate.

Beneath the surface of these waters lies a land of coral, glistening fish and the odd aged turtle, gracefully patrolling the seabed. I glide beside one of these wrinkled fellas, trying to capture a second of eye contact, but he’s more interested in pursuing another diver and spurns me with a haughty flick of his flipper.

I spend the next few days wallowing on the beach, floating in the limpid waters and tucking into seafood barbecues, before hopping over to tiny, palm-fringed Gili Meno. It’s so tiny, it takes just over an hour to walk its periphery. From the sea, it looks postcard perfect, like a classic Robinson Crusoe idyll.

A 10-minute sojourn across the waters and a cimodo (horse and cart) drive takes me across its centre, past warungs and lodgings, to its haven of barefoot luxury, Mahamaya Boutique Resort. Owned by enterprising British brother-and-sister team, Alison and Dave Roberts, its smart villas and cocktail bar are like nowhere else on the island, where sleepy beach shacks rule and evenings are spent quietly playing cards before bedding down by 10pm.

“We’re taking you to a wedding,” says Ali on arrival. “A proper Meno knees-up.” Shortly after dusk, surrounded by jungle and crouching on plastic matting, I’m staring at the seated bride in her gaudy, gypsy-wedding-style dress as she and her husband-to-be face the gathering of kneeling locals, quietly inspecting their gift boxes of bananas and sweet rice cakes. Her black hair is elaborately styled; her eyes ringed with eyeliner. “She’s not allowed to show any happiness at this point,” says Ali. “She’s supposed to look morose about leaving her family for her new family.” And just to add to the surreality of attending a stranger’s wedding, I’m ushered towards the bride and groom, surrounded by their families, for hand shakes and congratulations, like we’re long-lost friends.

Jumping the void

I travel next to Nusa Lembongan, a small island off Bali’s south coast. I’ve chartered a small boat from Padangbai across the Badung Strait. Skimming my hand on the water’s surface, sea spray stings my eyes as the rudimentary engine chugs against the forbidding swells. Water seeps in through the worn wooden slats; traces of peeling paint the only evidence this was once a gleaming blue vessel. Alarmed at the rising water level around my toes, I turn to the captain, who’s broken off from his gentle humming to suck hard on a roll-up. “No problem,” he drawls, “we very close now.”

Peering into the water, deep blue shifts to an iridescent turquoise as we approach the island. Boats bob on the shore’s edge while further out to sea, surfers sit astride their boards, waiting for the perfect wave. And as the water shallows, seaweed plantations come into view, their green fronds rippling beneath the waves. Unlike in Bali, where tourism flourishes, seaweed farming is the main source of income for Lembongan’s inhabitants; the green stuff destined for the global cosmetics industry.

Bidding farewell to my captain, I hop onto shore, relieved at the absence of hawkers. I drag my bag along the sun-scorched sand, muttering to myself about the intense heat, until a haggard old lady crosses my path. I feel a pang of guilt as her scrawny arms buckle against the unwieldy mass of dried seaweed she’s attempting to balance on her head. I dash over, scooping the dehydrated fronds from the sand and into a cart she ushers me towards. Life on Nusa Lembongan, it seems, is steering clear of tourism as much as possible, despite a trickle of bijou hotels and beach huts.

I hire a moped and set off in search of Dream Beach and Mushroom Bay — its standout attractions, according to my guidebook. Roaring up the dusty roads of Lembongan, I cross a rickety bamboo bridge to the adjoining Nusa Ceningan, whose villagers are snoozing by the roadside while clutches of young boys play football; the smell of seaweed hanging heavily in the air.

I stop at a dilapidated warung for gas. “You jump?” the teenage girl asks as she pours the reddish liquid into the tank. Laughing at my raised eyebrows, she gestures at me to take a right off the main drag, and hops on the back of the bike, directing me high above the village and towards the island’s windswept cliffs.

It soon becomes clear. For 50,000 IDR (£3), you can jump from a 40ft-high limestone cliff into the seething swells below. The young lad in charge (Dave, as he calls himself) instructs me on the best way to throw myself off the cliff and climb back up the rudimentary ladder. I’m probably never going to come here again, I tell myself, and after several nerve-wracking moments, staring hypnotically at the raging white horses, I sign my life away. Feet rooted to the smooth cliffside, I glance over at Dave, who winks at me in encouragement. ‘Jump far from the rocks, bend your knees,’ I hear him repeat in my mind. A huge wave crashes beneath me, sending spray in a shower — yet I’m too high for it to touch my toes. I’m shaking. I’m sun-blind. And then I jump. Thrilling, mind-blowing and captivating — all at once. No, there’s nothing ruined about Bali.

ESSENTIALS

Getting there
There are no direct flights to Denpasar in Bali. Fly from Heathrow to Bali via Kuala Lumpur with Malaysia Airlines; from Heathrow via Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific; from Heathrow and Manchester via Singapore with Singapore Airlines; and from Heathrow and Manchester via Qatar with Qatar Airways. www.malaysiaairlines.com   www.cathaypacific.com   www.singaporeair.com   www.qatarairways.com
Average flight time: 16h.

 

Getting around
The easiest way is by moped or push bike. There are plenty of places to hire both, but for mopeds you’ll usually have to hand over your passport as a deposit. Taxis are fairly cheap and plentiful, but stick to metered vehicles. To reach the Gili Islands, tickets can be bought from travel agents in eastern coast towns such as Padangbai and Sanur. The fast boat takes around one hour — it can be a very hairy and rocky ride.
The tiny Gilis can be fully explored on foot or by bicycle, or in a cimodo (horse and cart).
To reach Nusa Lembongan, hire a boat with a skipper from around £20 for the 45-minute trip from Padangbai. Again, this can be a very rocky ride. Hire a moped while on Lembongan.

 

When to go
It’s best to avoid the wet season, from October to March, and visit during the dry months, between April and October, when the mercury typically hovers around a balmy 26-29C. If you’re climbing Mount Agung, be sure to take plenty of warm clothing. The slopes of the volcano are closed during the wet season.

 

Need to know
Currency: Indonesian rupiah (IDR). £1 = 15,451 IDR.
Health: No vaccinations are required.
International dial code: 00 62 361.
Time: GMT +7.

 

Where to stay
Seminyak: W Retreat & Spa Bali – Seminyak. www.whotels.com
Ubud: Ubud Hanging Gardens. www.ubudhanginggardens.com
Gili Meno: Mahamaya Boutique Resort. www.mahamaya.co

 

More info
The Rough Guide to Bali & Lombok. RRP: £14.99.

 

How to do it
Virgin Holidays has seven nights at W Retreat & Spa Bali – Seminyak, B&B, plus flights from Heathrow and transfers, from £1,739 per person, based on two adults sharing a Garden View Retreat. www.virginholidays.co.uk

 

Published in the March 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)