Mount Batur in Northern Bali.
A family makes a one-week trip to Bali. It’s their first trip to the Island of the Gods.
After spending 2 days hanging around the Nusa Dua Beach Hotel and Spa, a family friendly beachfront resort in Southern Bali, They are starting to grow restless.
They book a tour with an early morning departure. How will the tour compare to the many other tours they have taken in other parts of Asia?
Generic Resort Atmosphere
After two days of generic resort atmosphere and less than impressive dining (think the frozen food section at your local supermarket), they are more than ready for a change of pace.
They leaf through some brochures at the tour desk and book a tour. There will be an early morning pick up so we can witness the sun rise at a historic Hindu temple, which is a 2-1/2 hour drive from the hotel.
On the appointed date, they wake up at 2:30 am to make the 3:00 am pick up by Landy Safari, an adventure company offering day tours.
The tour destination is Caldera Volcano Batur, an active volcano located at the center of two concentric calderas northwest of Mount Agung in Northern Bali.
I have a rough idea of the itinerary but no particular expectations apart from the sunrise, which I anticipate will be pretty spectacular given the early start and 2-1/2 half hour drive.
A Landy Safari Land Rover arrives at 3 am sharp, and their guide Made (pronounced mah-DAY) efficiently scoops up our breakfast boxes and off we speed into the night. This is their first trip to Bali and they literally know nothing.
The first thing they learn from Made is that there are only 4 Balinese names (corresponding to first born, 2nd born, 3rd born, etc. and then starting all over again if there is a 5th child).
[Editor’s note: there are actually a couple of alternatives for the 4 names.]
This makes having a good head for names no big deal in Bali. It also means that my Balinese name is also Made.
Puncak Penulisan Temple
We arrive at Pura Puncak Penulisan, a Hindu temple dating back to the 3rd century AD, at around 5:30 am. Pura means temple in Balinese, and there are more than 200,000 of them scattered around the island.
It is cold and foggy when we arrive, and it is quite an eerie experience to enter the ancient temple in darkness.
We are completely alone as Made leads me around the temple explaining the significance of the gates and various statues and offerings.
We then descend the somewhat slippery steps in the mountain fog to wait for the sunrise. The weather this high in the mountains is cool bordering on cold, and they are glad Landy had warned them in advance to bring along jumpers.
Drizzle and Fog
Disappointingly but unsurprisingly given the drizzle and fog, we are unable to see the sunrise. Having said this, it is still quite a dramatic experience standing at the side of the temple in the chill air and mist, especially when the Hindu chant rings out at 6 am to welcome the dawn.
When it becomes evident that there isn’t going to be a visible sunset, they walk a little further down the path and run into another group of tourists, some of the only ones they are going to meet during the day.
They are huddling together wrapped in a thin sarong, obviously still hoping for a glimmer of sunrise and evidently less forewarned about the cold, damp weather.
From there we begin our descent to the Caldera Volcano Batur, the most active volcano on the island. As we descend, the fog begins to clear although the sky remains moody.
As we take the final turnoff toward your destination, we are flagged down by our first hitchhiker, an old lady with a large sack of offerings she’d bought to take to her village for Galungan, the Hindu festival beginning the following day, which celebrates the end of the Hindu calendar of a cycle of 210 days.
The woman gets off at the village at the foot of the volcano and is very happy to let us take pictures of her, although she balks when asked to take a picture of us with our iPhone.
Batur is only accessible by Land Rover, by motorbike, or on foot. The terrain is like a lunar landscape, rocky in parts with weird lava formations, and at other parts smooth with blackish, ashen earth.
We arrive on the slope at 7:30 am, and Made sets up a small propane gas stove to prepare coffee and breakfast.
Again, we are alone, and we sit in majestic solitude sipping my coffee and soaking up the silence and utterly unique surroundings.
We are briefly joined by a pack of wild dogs, who sniff around before bounding purposefully up the slope. After breakfast, we drive back through the black lava field for about an hour.
Made is knowledgeable about the geology and history of the volcano and island, and we come away with a wealth of trivia and information about Bali.
Before we turn off to Lake Batur, we stop to make an “onion offering” to a farmer, a euphemism for a bribe to let us know whether or not the road ahead is clear.
Lake Batur is stunning and a complete contrast to the volcano. By this time the sun has come out, and the sky is a brilliant, azure blue.
We could be in Switzerland! We are treated here to a dip in the hot springs. We could have skipped this part of the tour as we are feeling tired, and the hot springs are quite “touristy” and involve having to change into and out of swim wear.
We also have to deal with touts, who admittedly are not too pushy. But they do spoil the mood.
Note to self: when you have the luxury of a personal guide, be more assertive. Made probably would have been happy to skip this part of the tour, too (it was included in the price, but they hadn’t pre-paid as he paid the entrance fee).
Mahagiri Panoramic Resort
After around 15 minutes for a welcome drink that Made is determined weshouldn’t miss, we drive back up into the hills for lunch at the Mahagiri Panoramic Resort and Restaurant in Rendang, Karangasem, Bali.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the view from my lunch table is staggering!
Lunch is included in the package, but not beverages. The food is buffet style and nondescript, but adequate.
The view over the rice fields and villages below is incomparable and gives me a realization of just how varied the landscape of Bali is.
The coffee also helps rev me up for the final leg of the trip, which is a drive down through the rice fields and local villages.
As we drive down, we can see everyone in the villages busy at work making offerings from bamboo for Galungan.
Apart from the complexity of the handmade offerings, what strikes me most is the genuine happiness and friendliness of the Balinese people.
We stop to take pictures along the way and are invariably greeted with warm smiles and humour.
We stop at one of the villages to take on another hitchhiker: this time a lady bearing a 30-kilogramme sack of rice on her head, the traditional Balinese way of transporting goods.
This feat doesn’t really hit home until Made tries to help her out with the sack and can’t lift it!
Having travelled in Asia for more than 25 years, we’ve been on our share of tours. We’ve been on organized descents into forced shopping hells. We’ve been held captive and released in silver factories and wood carving workshops.
We’ve been the reluctant ashamed spectators at monkey shows and to the shops of a thousand uncles. And these were the private tours, which we paid good money for.
This was our first Balinese experience, but it was unequivocally my best in Asia. It was an incredible day that we believe did take us into the real heart of Bali.
We came away with a sense of the immense beauty of the island, the warmth and artistry of the people, and the rich culture of Bali.
We booked a private tour at US$118 a person for adults and US$56 for children.