Bali & Lombok

A feature on the islands of Bali & Lombok, beginning with temples and theatre in Ubud, followed by the rice terraces of Jatiluwih, the coral gardens and reefs of Pemuteran, an ascent of Lombok’s mighty volcano of Rinjani, ending on the white-sand beaches of the Gili Islands.

Originally published in the August 2017 issue of Lonely Planet Traveller.

Ubud

From holy springs and sacred dances to hidden shrines, this temple-rich town is the heart of Balinese culture

YELLOW LIGHT drifts through the palm trees as pilgrims line up to take their bath at the Tirta Empul temple. Quietly, they dress themselves in sarongs and headscarves, as swifts flitter around the temple’s black, mossy walls, and the sound of cymbals and chanting echoes from inner courtyards. One by one, they step down into the mica-blue bathing pool, wading into the water before ducking their heads beneath fountains fed by the temple’s holy spring. Marigold and frangipani petals bob in the water, and incense smoke swirls through the muggy morning air.

Tirta Empul is Bali’s most sacred pura tirta, or water temple. Founded in 962 AD and fed by the Pakerisan River, the spring waters are believed to purify the mind, body and spirit, and every Balinese Hindu aims to bathe here at least once during their lifetime. It’s one of many spiritually significant temples located around the ancient town of Ubud. Set among rice paddies and green ravines, Ubud is a place where the secular and sacred collide: ornate temple gateways are flanked by coffee shops and surf boutiques, and lichen-cloaked shrines teeter along the roadsides, lost in head-high grass.

Along with its temples, Ubud is also famous for its sacred dance-dramas, ancient folk tales recounted through movement, percussive music and outlandish costumes. ‘Dancing is a form of devotion for us,’ explains Pande Puru Supaditha, a member of Ubud’s oldest dance troupe, Gunung Sari, formed in 1926 and still performing weekly at the Peliatan Palace, a crumbling red-brick edifice arranged around a courtyard of frangipani trees. He plays Rangda, the evil witch who battles the mythical half-lion, half-dragon Barong. ‘We must follow the classical movements, but also know how to improvise. Sometimes, even though I am tired, I can feel the spirits taking control and telling me to continue. It is a strange feeling.’

As darkness falls and the audience filters through the temple gates, the dancers put the final touches to their make-up. The gamelan orchestra strikes up in a crash of gongs and drum-beats, and Pande pulls on the last elements of his costume: a pair of taloned gloves and a leering mask, complete with bulging eyes, curving fangs and a mane of feather-white hair. He disappears onto the stage with a swish of his claws and a shrill witch’s cackle. The spirit of Rangda has arrived and no-one knows quite what kind of magic she might decide to unleash tonight.

Jatiluwih

Trek through an ancient system of rice terraces that have been cultivated for centuries, before tucking into a rice-themed farmer’s breakfast

MIST ROLLS OVER THE rice terraces, and a light rain is falling, but Wayan Sukamerta doesn’t mind: dressed in overalls, gumboots and a conical bamboo hat, he’s well protected. ‘Rain is good for the rice,’ he explains, trudging down a muddy track towards his fields. ‘But it’s bad for my bones!’

Wayan sets out as early as he can for work. It’s just after 6am and a bank of cloud broods over the hilltops. In another hour, Wayan says, the sun will edge over the horizon and it will be too hot and humid to work. As he treks along the trail, rickety mopeds sputter past, coughing black smoke, piloted by fellow farmers heading for their own fields. Wayan raises a hand and shouts a greeting, a grin etched across his face: he’s a born-and-bred farmer, and a man deeply content in his chosen line of work.

Rice farming has been practised in Jatiluwih for centuries. At 700 metres above sea level, the region’s rich volcanic soil has made it Bali’s most fertile farming area. Some 500 farming families live here, cultivating terraces spread across the steep, jade-green hills. Like most, Wayan supplements his income with extra work these days, by running trekking tours for tourists and growing extra crops such as lemongrass, spices, vegetables and coffee – but it’s Jatiluwih’s famous red rice for which he retains a special passion.

‘In my opinion, it is the best rice in the world,’ he says. ‘It has the most nutrients, it is good for your digestion and your immune system, and also helps your virility. And it tastes better than any other rice, too!’ he says with a wink.

He looks across the sea of terraces curling down the valley, stacked up like the tiers of a great green wedding cake. Each terrace is supplied by a system of irrigation channels known as a subak, which are supplied from a reservoir higher up the mountain and managed collectively in order to make sure the water is distributed fairly. It’s an ancient system of cooperation that encourages the farmers to work together for the good of all, and a physical manifestation of the philosophical credo of Tri Hita Karana: the balance between the worlds of spirits, people and nature.

‘There’s a tradition here that everyone works together, especially during harvest time,’ Wayan explains, as he prepares a classic farmer’s breakfast: rice-flour pancakes drizzled with palm sugar and garnished with grated coconut, washed down with mugs of hot, sweet, red-rice tea, stirred with a stalk of fresh lemongrass. ‘It’s like being part of one big family. It’s always been that way, and I think it always will be.’

He sips his tea and watches the sun break through the clouds, lighting up the terraces below in a myriad of greens. ‘Rice isn’t just a crop,’ he adds. ‘It’s our community, our culture, our livelihood. To us, rice is everything.’

Pemuteran

Strap on your fins to explore Bali’s most beautiful reef habitats, home to tropical fish, multicoloured coral and – if you’re lucky – a turtle or two

‘LET’S DIVE!’ ANNOUNCES Widya Hapsari, tightening her mask before she slips over the side of the boat into the electricblue waters of Pemuteran Bay. Beneath the surface, spears of sunlight pierce the water, and ripples send ghostly shadows across the ocean floor. With a flick of her fins, Sari, as she prefers to be known, glides off through the water, heading for a wall of white coral shimmering like an underwater mirage.

Up close, the reef is an explosion of colour. Pink fan corals and sea whips dance in the underwater currents. Bluish sergeant-major fish, bright clownfish and yellow and black striped moorish idols dart among clumps of coral. Urchins and sea stars spangle the ocean floor, and the water crackles with a noise like radio static – the soundtrack of a thriving, healthy reef.

Astonishingly, this beautiful coral reef isn’t actually a natural structure. Like many of Bali’s reefs, Pemuteran’s coral had been badly damaged by destructive fishing practices and episodes of El Niño warming, but, since 2000, a collective conservation effort between the area’s dive operators, villagers and fishermen has allowed the reefs to recover – in some cases assisted by a technology called electrolytic mineral accretion, in which a solar-powered electrical current is fed into the reef, aiding coral reformation.

This particular reef, called the Bio-Turtle, is a testament to the technology; over the past decade, it has blossomed into one of the largest coral walls in Pemuteran. ‘Incredible, isn’t it?’ Sari says, hauling herself back onto the boat. ‘When I first saw it, I couldn’t believe it. It shows you how effective conservation can be when everyone works together.’ She cuts the boat’s motor and plunges over the side, disappearing back into the blue depths in a cauldron of bubbles.

Reef restoration isn’t the only project that’s helping Pemuteran’s marine ecosystem. In recent years, Sari’s boss, an expat Australian called Chris Brown, has pioneered a new turtle conservation project, in which local fishermen are rewarded for rescuing turtles rather than selling them. At his dive resort, he also runs a small hatchery, where baby turtles are reared before being released back into the wild. And since all seven of the world’s marine turtle species – including the threatened hawksbill, green and leatherback turtles – are regular visitors to Pemuteran, it’s a project that couldn’t have come too soon. ‘It’s been a long journey, but I think most people here now understand that if we don’t do something to protect our environment, it’ll be lost forever,’ Chris explains, nursing a beachside beer as the ocean turns orange and the sun disappears over the hills. ‘We are not masters of the ocean, but its custodians.’

Mount Rinjani

This brooding summit dominates the skyline of northern Lombok; reaching the top is a once-in-a-lifetime achievement

IT’S THE MIDDLE OF THE NIGHT on the slopes of Mount Rinjani, and the only sound is the crunch of boots and the hiss of hikers’ breath. There’s no moon tonight; the only light comes from the stars and a line of head-torches, bobbing up the mountainside like fairy lights. A ribbon of red along the horizon announces that daybreak isn’t far away, but there are still several hundred metres to go to the summit. ‘Not far now,’ promises mountain guide Daniel Handanil. He flashes an encouraging smile and leads the way onwards, digging his boots into the ash-grey slopes, eyes fixed on the summit.

Looming 3,726m high over Lombok’s northern coastline, Rinjani is Indonesia’s second-highest volcano, topped only by Mount Kerinci on Sumatra. It’s part of the chain that forms the Ring of Fire, where the Eurasian, Pacific and Indo-Australian plates grind together, causing fissures in the Earth’s crust. Eruptions happen regularly – most recently in 2016 – but it’s been a long time since Rinjani truly blew its top. In 1257, most of the mountain’s summit exploded, leaving behind a vast caldera, now filled by a lake called Segara Anak, or ‘Child of the Sea’, after its vivid turquoise colour. The eruption was so huge that it affected global weather patterns and may even have sparked a mini ice age, but there’s no sign that Rinjani is about to stage a repeat performance – although it’s hard not to feel a frisson of apprehension gazing at the newly formed scorched black cone of Gunung Barujari, pondering when it might next blow.

The mountain is sacred to many Balinese, who come here every year to perform a ceremony called pelekan, in which offerings are given to the lake to appease the spirits. But these days, Rinjani is mainly a magnet for trekkers. The ascent takes two days: the first to climb to the caldera’s rim at around 2,700m, where porters set up tents, followed by a dawn ascent to watch the sunrise from the summit. It’s an exhausting, leg-sapping hike that climbs through a kaleidoscope of terrains: from grassy savannah through steamy forest into an otherworldly landscape of black ash, rock and scree that leads all the way to the craggy summit cone. Along the way, grey monkeys chatter noisily among the rocks, orchids and wildflowers bloom along the trailside, and sometimes hawk-eagles can be glimpsed circling above.

Some 60,000 climbers attempt the ascent every season, but only the most determined make it to the top. Dawn is breaking as the first hikers arrive today, and the sky is a blaze of scarlets, pinks, purples and oranges. People pose for pictures holding the summit sign while, far below, fog rolls over the island like a white tide, and the flat disc of Segara Anak shines like polished steel.

‘I think I have climbed Rinjani 500 times,’ Daniel muses. ‘But there are some days when even I feel that the mountain doesn’t want me to climb it. Rinjani is a sacred place, with its own spirit, and we must always honour that.’

He takes one last look at the view, then skates his way back down the ash-covered mountainside, each step kicking up a cloud of ochre dust.

Gili Islands

Slip down a few gears and enjoy some rest and relaxation on this trio of tropical islands

TIME MOVES SLOWLY on the island of Gili Air. Morning drifts into afternoon, afternoon melts into evening, and no-one ever seems in much of a hurry to do anything at all. A backpacker strums an old guitar in a beachfront bar, while his companions lounge around on bamboo platforms, sipping coconut smoothies and freshly squeezed lime drinks. People clatter past on bicycles, ting-tinging their bells, wheels swishing along the sandy trail that passes for the island’s main road. Palms sway, waves break, boats buzz along the shore, but the pace of daily life never changes much. It’s an island addicted to life in the slow lane, and that’s just how most of the locals want it to remain.

‘We’ve never had a traffic jam on Gili Air,’ states Masiseng Muzur proudly. A native islander and entrepreneur whose family has lived here for three generations, he now runs a couple of beach bungalow resorts on the east side of the island. ‘We don’t have any cars or scooters, and hopefully we never will. We prefer to live a peaceful life here.’

Marooned in the middle of the Lombok Strait, about 20 minutes away from Lombok and two hours from Bali, the trio of Gili Islands have become an irresistible draw for people looking to switch off and slip into a slower mode of being. The three islands are home to around 3,500 permanent residents, many of whom are descended from the original Bugis settlers who first arrived from Sulawesi in the early 1970s. Until then, the islands were completely deserted due to a lack of fresh water – a wild world of jungle, swamp and mangrove forest.

They’ve developed rapidly since – especially the largest island of Gili Trawangan, where a circus of surf shops, clubs, boutiques and cocktail bars clamours along the beach road. But Gili Air and its smaller neighbour, Gili Meno, have clung on to their rural character. Trees still cloak the interior, and island gardens line the dusty back-lanes, blooming with tropical crops of mangoes, bananas, pineapples and dragon fruit. Locals man stalls selling necklaces and bracelets to tourists, haggling good-naturedly over the absurdly inflated prices. And the lack of motorised vehicles reveals a symphony of island sounds: the hiss of waves along the shoreline, the rattle of palm fronds, the twitter and whistle of birds in the canopy.

But most people on Gili Air come in search of the perfect patch of beach. A circlet of sand rings the island, white and soft as sugar, and while the east coast is busy with beach bars and dive shops, the island’s west coast is still largely deserted – a postcard scene of bleached beach, swaying coconut palms and sapphire water that seems to have been made for snorkelling. At sunset, as the island’s skies blur from china-blue to coral-pink to inky black, restaurants set up tables on the sand, barbecuing freshly caught snapper and mahi-mahi fillets over open coals. ‘Welcome to paradise, my friends,’ says waiter Made John, as he lays down a huge platter of barbecued seafood and a round of Bintang beers. ‘I can’t promise the sun will shine tomorrow, but I can promise it will be a perfect day all the same.’ He grins and pads away across the sand, as reggae beats drift over from a nearby bar, and candle lanterns sputter and crackle in the island wind.

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Photography by John Laurie.