Sometimes you need to change pace. Having moved very little for almost two and a half weeks on the Gili Islands, Hels and I were recharged and ready to travel. We thought, why not hire a motorbike and go cruising around Bali for the remaining time on our visa? And that’s exactly what we did; although when I use words like ‘motorbike’ and ‘cruising’ to conjure up images of us astride a large, powerful, shiny steed with chrome plated everything, easily eating up the Balinese highways with the wind in our hair and the sun on our faces… Well, that may be a bit of poetic licence! For motorbike, substitute in ‘old, pretty battered scooter’ and for cruising, think ‘frantically dodging potholes, stray dogs and traffic whilst praying not to get stopped by the police’, and you’re probably a little closer to our real experience.
We loved it though! Having our own wheels proved suddenly liberating. No longer a need to check out bus or train timetables, to endure the interminable wait in various stations, to negotiate transport from drop off to our desired accommodation, you just hop on and off you go.
I must just pop in a little paragraph about our boat ride back to Bali at this point though. So far we’ve been pretty lucky, with our various boat and plane rides being fairly stress free and relaxing. We’ve had the occasional mini-van ride that has left me feeling a little green, but apart from that, nothing. So we were probably due a bad one – and we got it!
Firstly, the Indonesian idea of a ‘speed boat’ appears to be simply a normal boat just with as much horsepower strapped to the back as you can muster – a very Clarkson-esque approach to nautical transport. (POWEEEEERRRRRRRRR!!) Secondly, Bali is famous for its surf breaks, and this has to come from somewhere, namely the Southern Ocean, in the form of huge waves and swells. The third factor in this potent mix is the relatively narrow channel of water between Bali and Lombok which funnels the waves creating an inescapably rough passage for this ‘speed’ boat. Not to be deterred, however, the Indonesian navigators point their trusty craft headlong into the blue mountains – for that’s what they were – and unflinchingly step on the gas.
To say this crossing was rough is like saying Antarctica can sometimes be a bit chilly. In the enclosed cabin, there were more than a few people having issues and there was no salvation to be had by gazing out of the windows either. The ocean repeatedly reared up like an incensed beast, filling the entire window with angry blue before disappearing entirely from view as the boat soared to the crest of the wave. An inevitable thunderous crash would ensue as the hull reacquainted itself with the descending surface, the passengers feeling momentarily lighter before being sucked back into our seats once more as the cycle began all over again. Desperately trying to remain calm, there were a couple of moments when Helena and I would catch each other’s eye with a ‘I wonder if we’re going to make it’ look. But, just as in a novel where the hero or heroine has a scrape with death half way through, you know they will make it out ok by the very virtue of the fact that you still have 150 pages of the book left to go. And so it goes with us – we made it safe and sound, and headed off to a hostel in Kuta.
So – we had a bike, we had slimmed down our big bags to just the essentials in our small backpacks, and we had a vague plan of action (vague plans are always the best, I find!) Our first stop was in a hotel in Kuta where we re-met the acquaintances of Zeki and Lucky – two of the team from our Mt Kinabalu adventure – whom we had heard from only the night before and it turned out they were five minutes down the road. Travelling is strange like that sometimes! We had a hilarious hour or so sharing stories over coffee and basically having a great time catching up. This meeting was significant however because they had just come from Java where they had climbed the Mount Ijen volcano. Zeki was passionately describing the experience, saying, ‘I know how much you loved Kinabalu. You’ll love this too. You have to go. Promise me you’ll go!’ So we promised, and said out farewells. (Lucky our plans were vague as we’d changed them already!)
We headed up the western coastal road first to Balian Beach, supposedly a chilled, funky surfer hang out were we thought we might get a surf lesson. On arrival though, the most obvious accommodation choice was super expensive, so we just opted for a pleasant room a little further up the road where the following morning we ate breakfast overlooking the beach.
The sea looked menacing here though – certainly not novice surfer territory. We watched one guy head out into the ocean, spend about 45 minutes paddling through surf and getting repeatedly smashed up by waves before seemingly calling it a day and heading back to the beach without even attempting to catch a single break. Not for us! It was, however, a pleasant stopover and after a short morning walk on the beach, we jumped on the bike and headed onwards. Our next destination was to be Mount Ijen.
At the north western tip of Bali, you find the port of Gilimanuk – from here you can see Java across the water and it’s only a short ferry ride. So our plan, as far as it went, was to jump on the ferry with the bike, find some accommodation and figure out how to get up the volcano the following morning. This was not to be…
Riding into the port, we saw one lane for trucks and vans, one lane for cars and one lane for bikes. Before I’d realised what I’d done, I’d ridden us straight into the bike lane which also happened to be a police checkpoint. ‘Oh sugar!’ – these were not at all the words that went through my head, but as this blog has a wide age of readership at the moment so I’ll let those of you who are able to fill in your own expletives.
The problem we were facing, you see, is that we didn’t technically have an international driving licence. And technically, to ride a scooter on Bali’s roads, your usual UK licence won’t cut it, you need an international one (or an Indonesian one that you can purchase from a police station in Denpasar if you’re willing to wait for three days – or more!). There are many stories of foreigners being stopped on scooters and having their licences checked and being put in a position where they have to pay a bribe – sorry, did I say bribe? I meant to say ‘fine’, of course – before being sent on their way by the technically efficient and vigilant Balinese police.
‘Licence and registration, please,’ said the friendly policeman who came out to meet us. Without flinching, I got the registration document from under the seat and presented my UK driving licence; I figured I could at least claim ignorance, although I know that is hardly a defence. The guy retreated to his office to consult with a fellow officer and it was this second officer who emerged with my documents in his hands. ‘Follow me to the police station, please,’ he said calmly. Oh, sugar…
So we hopped on the bike and followed him (riding up the wrong side of the road incidentally) to the police station. ‘It’s bribe time,’ I whispered to Hels as we walked in carrying our helmets. ‘Have a seat,’ he said, gesturing towards a wooden bench. All kinds of scenarios were playing through my head, and I was trying to conjure up excuses whilst also calculating how much this may cost us. It wasn’t long before the officer called us up to the desk.
Sitting nervously, waiting for the worst, Hels and I tried to look as innocent as possible. With the documents still in his hand, the officer looked at us, and then began…
‘This registration document is a photocopy, so you can’t take the bike on the ferry to Java.’
Is that it? Nothing about the licence? No demands for money? Desperately trying to conceal our relief in a visage of interested concern, all we could come up with in response was, ‘Ohhhhhhhhhh…’
‘You see this one,’ he continued, producing another document that had colours and watermarks on it, ‘This is an original. Your one is a photocopy. Is it a rental?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, tentatively.
‘I’m sorry, they should have given you the originals.’
We made our apologies before scampering outside to breath a huge sigh of relief. We were so desperate to get out of there that we inadvertently drove straight through an army checkpoint in the wrong direction. These guys must have been sleeping though because we made a quick U-turn and flew back past in our bid for freedom.
So the plans remained fluid… We quickly opted to aim for Pemuteran on the north coast, which should offer us the possibility of a snorkelling trip to Menjangan Island, but on the way we passed a tour shop offering day trips to Mount Ijen. I’ll skip the ins and outs but we ended up booking this tour – and consequently setting our alarms for 2am the following morning.
Ijen was spectacular. Our journey from Bali, over the crossing on an early morning ferry and into a waiting 4×4 was mostly spent sleeping, but soon we were in the early morning gloom at the foot of the climb. It was getting light fast though and it became obvious that we were going to miss the sunrise. I was a little gutted because that also meant we didn’t get to see the blue fire coming out of the rocks that had so astounded Zeki.
Despite this, the crater of the volcano was a mesmerising sight, with its huge rocky rim, and turquoise blue acidic lake shimmering through the billowing yellow sulphurous clouds as the early morning light gradually awoke the scene. Parts of the landscape look positively other worldly, like something from the moon or Mars.
The craziest thing about the climb though are the sulphur miners who you constantly come across carrying wicker baskets of bright yellow sulphur down the mountainside.
Only when you get to the top do you realise that they have mined it out of the very base of the crater and manhandled it from that point onwards. A bit like the bed carrying guys from Mount Kinabalu, these men are almost exclusively in their later years but still strong as anything – well, you would be after that sort of exercise regime!
After Ijen, we headed inland. I’d read about a little village called Munduk in the hills, supposedly set amongst rice fields and waterfalls. I hadn’t realised it would be so high up though! Turning south from the northern coast road, the gradient kicked in almost immediately and didn’t let up. Ten minutes in I said to Hels, ‘It’s a shame we’re on this motorbike really, this would have been a great climb to do on our road bikes.’
Twenty minutes later, I said to Hels, ‘It’s lucky we’re on this motorbike really, I wouldn’t want to have to do this climb on a road bike…!’ It hadn’t let up for a second, and the scooter, although making a decent job of it, was beginning to struggle.
Soon, we reached Munduk. We walked into pretty much the first guest house we saw and were rewarded with a beautiful Dutch colonial room and a restaurant overlooking the rice fields with a view that tumbled all the way down the the coast and the sea in the distance. The sunset views from here were staggering! So we spent a couple of days exploring the highlands, skirting around volcanic lakes, wandering the botanical gardens and visiting waterfalls. Beautiful Bali at its best.
Our penultimate partially planned point of interest was the Jatiluwih rice fields, a UNESCO World Heritage site no less. Although we must have missed various turnings on the route there from Munduk, doubling back more than once, we eventually found the fabled fields and were immediately rewarded for our persistence. Put quite simply, if you go to Bali, you simply must get yourselves to Jatiluwih.
It is perhaps the serenity of the atmosphere, perhaps the sublime curving terraces that are seemingly endless in their interlocking relation to each other, perhaps the fact that despite being a famous landmark, it still feels quiet, remote, authentic. Whatever it is, Jatiluwih was seriously impressive, and we happily tucked into some fabulous Babi Guling (traditional Balinese dish – roasted suckling pig) whilst overlooking the superb vista.
No visit to Bali is complete without a visit to a temple and so our final port of call was Pura Luhur Batakau, a temple built in the foothills of Gunung Batakau, Bali’s second highest mountain. On the way there, we thought we had taken yet another wrong turn… The surface of the road disintegrated steadily until there were more potholes than tarmac, forcing some rather sketchy riding over high puncture risk rocky gravel. This can’t be right, surely?
But no, it was indeed the right road and we eventually came out onto a larger route in gracefully better condition which we followed for the climb up to the temple. After acquiring a sarong for me (as my shorts were not appropriate dress), we spent a very pleasant hour or so taking in the peaceful temple scenery before heading back to the bike.
What now? One more night. Have to be in Kuta tomorrow by ten. Maybe we should go now, make things easy… Or, maybe we should go back to Ubud and get some gelato from the best gelato shop in the world…
Can you guess which option we took? Despite the route to Ubud from the temple taking us almost all of the way back to Kuta, we knew the Ubud gelato shop was worth it, and we rewarded ourselves with a Balinese massage too! Luxury.
The next morning, we headed back to Kuta to drop off the bike, now with an extra 400km on the clock! We’d had an absolute blast and now had to get ourselves sorted before flying to Australia – we just had one thing left to do. We clearly couldn’t come to Bali and not try our hand at the island’s most famous sport – surfing – so we headed to Kuta beach, hired ourselves a couple of beginner boards, and headed out into the ocean. We had shirked the offer of lessons (to save a few rupiah) and paid the price heavily as the huge swells picked us up, twirled us around, and smashed us back down. Repeatedly.
What the hell is this sport all about?? These surfers must be maniacs!! We couldn’t understand what was going on, but realised that we were way out of our depth in more ways than one. We tried again in the shallows, picking up the white water rather than the huge cresting waves and had more success, eventually both managing to get ourselves onto the surfboards for short runs standing up. Just a little way to go until we’re pro then…
(Incidentally, I’ve never tried a sport before where you spend 1% of the time doing the sport, 99% of the time hanging around and 100% of the time trying not to stay alive!)
Leaving Bali was significant because it also meant leaving Asia for the first time since we left home. It had been an incredible five and a half months; we’d travelled so far, visited so many places, seen so many things, shared so many wonderful experiences with so many beautiful people. What would the next phase bring..? We had a mild sense of trepidation at the upcoming culture change (not least the well documented challenge of budgeting in the expensive Aussie economy) but we were so happy with what we had accomplished thus far…