Outdoor Adventures on the Island of Bali & Beyond
Where: Bali & Nusa Penida Island. Indonesia, Asia.
When: April 2023
What: Sacred Forest Monkey Sanctuary, Tegagalang Rice Terraces, Water Temple, Satria Coffee Plantation and coffee tasting, Gunung Kawi Temple, Leke Leke waterfall, Bratan Temple and Bratan Lake, Yoga classes, Snorkelling with Manta Rays, Mountain Hike up Mount Batur - an active volcano.
How: International flights, ferry, speedboat, trekking, hotel transfer, taxi.
Country counter: Country No.93
Wildlife spotting: Macaque monkeys, Turtle, Manta Rays, Luwaks, Blue starfish.
Mishaps or illnesses: Getting stung by sea creature unknown whilst snorkelling; climbing a mountain in the dark while being surveyed by the mafia.
Indonesia is a country of over 18,000 islands, an archipelago which crosses the Indian and Pacific oceans and one spanning the two continents of Asia and Australia. Indeed, the country's geographical make-up is written in to its name, with "Indonesia" a portmanteau of two Greek words: "Indos" meaning India and "Nesos" meaning islands. Indonesia's proximity to Australia means it is a mere seven hour flight from Sydney - positively short-haul in Australian terms. The Indonesian island of Bali is to Aussies what Spain is to Brits: a 'quick' and easy getaway to somewhere that isn't home, the type of escape that has something for everyone. For this reason, I'd left Indonesia on the shelf marked "maybe later - could be full of families and resorts". However, as world travel emerges, tentatively blinking into the light from the darkness of the pandemic, prices for flights are noticeably more expensive than they once were. In this travelling landscape of high air fares and reduced capacity, I decided to give Indonesia a more considered look, viewing it as hardly intrepid but a chance to whet my travel appetite and add another country to my travel count. As the plane touched down on the island of Bali, Indonesia became my 93rd country and my 24th in Asia.
I have to admit that I was a bit of a travel snob when it came to people talking about their holidays in Bali. It seems everyone in Australia has been there. But, of course, there is a reason this Indonesian island is so popular; it is a delightful and perfectly lovely place in which to be a visitor. It's touristy to the max, for sure, but it's also full of character, culture and friendly faces. We stayed in Ubud, Bali's cultural heart, fittingly located in the centre of the island. Streets are lined with micro businesses, Indo-Hindu architecture, temples and flowers. In fact, this is a very green island with flowers and plants at every turn. If the flowers aren't growing, then they're dressing entrances, steps or other focal points as spiritual offerings. The fact is that Ubud, and Bali generally, is a perfectly lovely place to stay. Indeed, we liked it so much that, on day two, we tore up our planned (and mostly booked and paid for) itinerary featuring three other islands as well as a two-day, one-night hike and camp on Mount Rinjani, to stay on Bali for virtually the whole nine days. On arrival in Bali it quickly became clear that there was more than enough to do there, all but negating the need to go anywhere else.
And so, having stripped the itinerary bare, we set about re-loading it with predominantly Bali-based adventures. First came the obligatory tour of Ubud, including the Monkey Sanctuary, coffee tasting at the Satria Coffee Plantation, the Tegalalang rice terraces and the awesome Gunung Kawi - awesome because the ten candi are cut into the side of the mountain, topped by palm trees and flanked to one side by an impressive waterfall. The following day was the long drive north to the impressive Ulun Danu Beratan Temple, also known as the Water Temple, and the undisputed icon of the island. Sitting on Lake Bratan with the Bedugul Mountain range, topped by cloud, as a backdrop, the temple is a landmark that more than justified the time and expense it took to see it. A relatively unsuccessful attempt to row around the lake on a traditional wooden boat saw us get tangled up in the buoys encircling the temple - much to the delight of onlooking locals who pointed and smiled at our shortcomings. The return journey back to Ubud included a stop at the Leke Leke waterfall. Cut to a steep descent down the hillside through lush tropical vegetation, a hurried changing into trunks at the waterfall's edge and clambering into the pool at the foot of its fierce jet of water. Indeed, the ferocity was such that it wasn't safe to swim directly underneath.
Having cancelled our Mount Rinjani on Lombok trip, we opted for the Mount Batur sunrise hike - a volcano in northern Bali. This felt like the right compromise, especially as it would mean I'd still have hiked a volcanic mountain in Indonesia and so wouldn't be returning to Australia feeling empty-handed. Our hiking gear and snacks were going to be required after all! The hike meant a very early start, up at 2am and in the transfer car by 2:30am. By 3:30am we would be starting the hike in pitch darkness with only our head torches lighting the route. We went on our little sunrise adventure with two guides and three other hikers - a Scotsman and two Americans (via Poland and Germany). We arrived at the top of Mount Batur three hours later, having hiked pretty much non-stop through the blackness, slipping and sliding on the crumbly black earth, and gaining 500 metres in altitude. As we did so we would pass mafia men who were there to check that every hiker was accompanied by a guide; a criminal gang controls Mount Batur. Hike without a guide and you can expect trouble. We were assigned a place on a bench overlooking the volcanic crater, waiting expectantly for the sun to rise. Of course it did rise - albeit behind gathering clouds which seemed to thicken at every glance. Come on, Indonesia is in the Tropics so what did I expect?! Still, the views of the crater, lake and Mount Agung looming behind were some of the best views I've seen while out hiking. Our guide, Guday, approved of our hiking prowess ("I am very happy with you, very happy..." he took to saying cheerily on countless occasions). Earlier we had chosen to take the much harder but faster route up the mountain. As a result, Guday offered us the chance to extend our hike by a further three kilometres by walking along the volcanic rim rather than heading back down the mountain trail from whence we came. Everyone in the group agreed. It turned out to be the best part of the hike; the landscape became more dramatic as we passed geothermal steam vents on the mountainside, all the while scrabbling over sharp igneous rock and sometimes having little option but to ski down slopes of ashy sediment like it was black snow. It was along this stretch of the route that I spotted a couple of male Macaques. One was sat on a rock overlooking the crater eating a fruit. From behind I managed to capture what I think is likely my best photograph of the whole trip. The rest of the descent was fast and furious. I arrived back at the car with sore knees but a happy heart, the kind of heart swell that only comes from having pushed your personal boundaries and having stepped outside your comfort zone. Having awoken at two in the morning, a final satisfying denouement came when we arrived back at the hotel just past 10 o'clock - and just in time for a hotel breakfast which, we had assumed, we would miss. What an awesome day this was: mountain climbed with a fully cooked breakfast as reward. My heart was happy and my belly was full.
A room with a view. My hotel room looked out across a small banana plantation in Ubud.
Cheeky monkeys: characterful Macaques rule the Sacred Forest Monkey Sanctuary outside Ubud.
The wonderful Tegalalang Rice Terraces - the first time I've seen a rice terrace. Having travelled around so much of Asia, it was about time!
Walking through the rice terraces in the grounds of the Pura Gunung Kawi temple.
The Gunung Kawi Temple. Wearing a sarong when visiting temples on Bali is a condition of entry.
Bratan Temple in Bratan Lake - a great spot to go for a paddle in a traditional wooden boat.
I developed a bit of a penchant for these exquisite Balinese entranceways.
Going for a splash at the Leke Leke Waterfall.
A selection of the colourful and curious blooms lining the trail down to the Leke Leke waterfall.
Trying new things: at the Satria Coffee Plantation just outside Ubud and, right, Bali was the place for my first ever yoga class.
Hiking a mafia-controlled active volcano - in the dark! Right, dawn begins to break on the ascent up Mount Batur with clouds stubbornly slinging to the mountaintops.
The view of the volcanic rim and Mount Agung seen from the summit of Mount Batur 1717 metres above sea level.
A macaque enjoying the view of the volcanic crater.
A statue of a Hindu god offers an opportunity for reflection amid a mountainous landscape.
Views to hike by. We were lucky to be offered the chance of an extended hike along the rim of the volcano; our guide was "very happy" with our hiking prowess.
The volcanic rim leg of the hike took us past geothermal steam vents - evidence of the volcanic activity below.
Nusa Penida is a mere 30 kilometres off the coast of Bali, although it felt much further after a car trip from Ubud down to Senaru Port on Bali's southern tip, a ferry across to Penida Island and then a speedboat out to the three snorkel sites. The day had started rather ominously; on our arrival at the port the heavens, in true Tropics style, opened. Having handed over 3000000 Rupia (that's right, six zeros - prices in Indonesia are often quoted in millions) for our watery adventure, we sat under a leaky gazebo for the next hour as, one by one, other tourists arrived in various states of water saturation. It was quickly becoming clear that what we thought would be a 'private' tour was going to be anything but. There's no getting away from it: Bali is full to the brim with tourists. I was tolerating this tourist trap hell for one reason only: to snorkel with the majestic Manta Ray. Having snorkelled in Oman, Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia and the Philippines, snorkelling with Manta Rays was definitely a golden opportunity to do something a little different.
Our speedboat shut its engines at the first snorkel spot known for being frequented by Manta Rays but we were promptly warned that there had been no Rays the day before and there weren't any at this spot today either. We were encouraged to get out and snorkel nonetheless on the slim possibility that one of these giant creatures made an unlikely appearance. Like the promised sunrise on Mount Batur, it didn't materialise. The snorkel was made even more underwhelming because of the bubbles from the swell, as well as the water's depth. Both meant that visibility under the water was poor. This was all looking rather hopeless. I clambered aboard the boat resigned to the fact that we'd likely spent a fortune in time and money to see nothing. Money is one thing, but with only nine days to experience Indonesia, time was priceless. However, I consoled myself that at least I could say I'd been snorkelling out in the Indian Ocean in Indonesia. We set off again, the speedboat's engines churning up the cobalt blue and spraying us unceremoniously with petrol fumes. Suddenly we pulled over again at what felt like an impromptu place, likely, I thought, because our crew had received a tip about some Rays. There was a flurry of excitement on board. Snorkel masks donned. People dropped into the water. Only a few seconds passed until I saw my first Manta Ray, a giant flapping silver disk of a thing elegantly and calmly gliding through the water. I was naïve as to just how huge these things were. I was a little trepidatious for sure; this graceful bird of the ocean was significantly bigger than me. There were several more sightings in quick succession. I can be pretty certain they were not all the same animal because of a marked difference in appearance - the second being, as it was, noticeably darker and with glowing blue edges. Positively Sci-Fi. One of the creatures glided straight towards me, its fins undulating up and down, before veering, thankfully, to one side. It was really quite special. I'd spent almost an entire day travelling in the rain, on cramped boats in some of the worst tourist traps I have ever experienced as a traveller in order to spend what was probably less than two minutes' swimming with the Manta Rays. But what a wonderful two minutes it was...
Snorkelling is turning out to be a regular thing: first Oman, then Fiji, Vanuatu, Australia, Philippines and now Indonesia but the chance to swim with Manta Rays was certainly new.
The graceful birds of the ocean: the mesmeric Manta Ray. Snorkelling with Manta Rays wasn't on my bucket list - but certainly should have been.
travel tips, links & resources
- Bali is a very popular destination and it's in Asia - a very populous continent. This means that tours and trips are often swarming with visitors just like you. Therefore, pack your patience (and some ear plugs) in your day bag.
- Bali has something for everyone. The Balinese have created a tour for every possible traveller whim - if you want to go there, there's probably already a tour in existence. We used Klook.com (quickly becoming a favourite of mine when travelling in Asia) to book our Mount Batur sunrise hike. Our snorkelling trip to Nusa Penida was organised through a contact. There is so much to do and see in Indonesia that it's really quite overwhelming. One could spend months in this incredibly beautiful country. I quickly learned to be less ambitious and to just enjoy keeping things local to the island where I'd disembarked the aircraft.
- When visiting the major temples, it's worth bearing in mind that your ticket includes a sarong hire. There is no need to buy one from, often, the women waving sarongs for sale as you approach the temple - even though they will tell you that you need one to visit the temple. Of course, they're not lying - just not giving you the whole truth!
- If you're wanting to hike Mount Batur, it is essential to book with a guide. Criminal elements control the mountain and you can expect problems if you are unaccompanied.
- As is so often the case in travel, time is important. Having a driver to get you places is handy. Many drivers collecting you from the airport make it known early on in your hotel transfer journey that they're available for other trips. If you like them, they speak your language well and they're a good driver get their number! It'll take the hassle and uncertainty out of finding another driver and they'll quickly become a friendly face!
- Airline safety standards in Indonesia are poor, with many regional or domestic carriers scoring low on the seven star scale on AirlineRatings.com. As a result of such low safety ratings, I decided to stay on Bali rather than fly domestically to other destinations around Indonesia. You may wish to check the safety record and standards of your chosen airline before booking.
- As with airlines, many ferry companies are private enterprises with similarly questionable safety standards. We spent a long time researching these companies online by reading the reviews provided by other travellers but, it seemed, they're all pretty similar.
- Indonesia is in the Tropics. Expect year-round humidity and rain - and for both of these to be more intense during the rainy season. Pack an umbrella and poncho along with your shorts and shades.
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