Then, above the velvet black , the horizon burned.
Pink fire snaked up from the shadows and licked across the sky, eddying around the caldera and warming it into colour. Mt Agung’s shoulders cast a heavy shadow across the lake, alive with drifting mist way below. The sun, suspended in honey, washed through garrisons of steam vents that gleefully queefed clouds destined for dissipation. Two other hostellers, myself and our guide had teased away from the endless thread of holiday makers circumambulating the crater lip and found a more secluded section from which to drink in the morning. It felt special, even at the time. It felt more alive than a sunrise had any right to – and justified the 4am alarm and trek through pitch black woods.
If only for this, my scooter trip from Ubud had turned out good.
That iconic sunset, ending with a beer or three in the hostel hot-spring. Twisting up handfuls of sticky rice, fried chilli fish and tempeh while chatting to locals in a nearby Warung. Chatting away idly under a bamboo awning as insects roared into their dusk chorus. Entertainingly – trying to get my little scooter up into the lava fields, wheel spinning up scree-banks. My carefree time in the caldera was unburdening me of something, leaving a gentle caress of serenity in its wake.
I had nowhere to be and no pressure to race there. I could do anything, be anywhere. I could fly out of Bali tomorrow if I wished. But I didn’t. There were still a handful of joys I could wring from the humid air. I made my way back to Ubud, collected my things and buddied up with Alex and Nina, a Slovenian couple. We hopped in a taxi to the coast where, after a ferry to take us through the tide, we boarded a speedboat and zested our way across the blue skin below, chewing it up into pearly white wakes. I liked Alex and Nina. They had fire in their eyes, talked freely, honestly and laughed easily.
Like magnets we were all being drawn to something a little bit special. Instagram had long since unburdened Tripadvisor from the top-spot of travel planning – the tinder equivalent for cool shit to see, without having to trawl through text based, terminally self-absorbed descriptions. I was thumbing through the app on a quiet evening when I saw it…
The island of Nusa Penida grew closer, pulled in at the waist by a gold and turquoise band of shimmering shallows. It was quiet, and gorgeous.
And I was going there to see a T-Rex.
I bargained hard for a scooter at the docks and coasted along the quaint main street under a blistering heat. Taking to a backstreet entirely made of beach sand – over which the scooter bounced and dragged its heels – I dropped my stuff off in a small hostel courtyard, all low white walls and enclosed gardens that draped clean floral smells across the open lounge. It too was quiet, only pockmarked by the occasional tourist. Excellent.
Bags dropped off, I went for a reconnaissance burst on my new scooter. I passed the point where smooth tarmac turns to rocks and holes and a solid spine begins to crumble. Beyond the point where high grasslands, captured by forest, again rise up into windy meadows. Beyond this micro-adventure in its own right was my T-Rex.
T-Rex is a proud promontory, undulating like the open jaw of a dinosaur, harbouring pristine half moon sands, Kelingking beach, that can only be reached by a precarious pathway that’s found its own notoriety.
I dumped the scooter under some leafy trees and flip flopped down a sloping concrete path towards a rickety bamboo and hemp fence that was holding back the weight of the horizon – the deep blue line of the ocean. The fact you can’t see the beach until the last minute, when your hands are on the rickety rails, only adds to the big reveal and the sense of occasion. I stood, wrapped in the view like a duvet, and watched lively waves tear from the idyllically clear waters as a curtain of shadow ate across a soft peach sky. There was no point heading down today, but I lingered in the clifftop breeze to enjoy the drama before heading back to base.
I met Alex and Nina the next morning, coordinated our diaries over a noodle breakfast and gently encouraged them into going snorkelling with manta rays the next day before heading back to Kelingking, along the micro-adventure route and flimsy bamboo fences to the top of the cliff. The first quarter of the descent, dropping near vertically to the ridge, dripped with sweaty tourists holding their sandals over their shoulders and cutting their feet on thorns and flints. “Aha!” I exhaled, “You Idiots!” My cosy toes were bundled smugly away in trainers like pigs-in-blankets, strapped in tight. Adding my drips to theirs, the crowd thinned until it was just me, clambering ape-like across the face of the cliff on paths as rickety as the fences. A fair exchange for the dreamy beach that waited at the bottom.
I was throwing my shoes and towel into my backpack, hung from a fallen tree when I felt a change of pace. The mood in the bay was shifting, the lull between the oceans swells was over.
What had appeared to be enthusiastic waves from the top of the cliff had simply been far away – and this close to the coalface they were frankly disturbing – cutting through shocked revellers and turning the afternoon into more of a bloodsport than a relaxing paddle. Only younger tourists had mde it down the path and, egging each other on, a group of us waited for the next quiet patch before sprinting out and getting some distance between ourselves and the beach.
Over the next three hours, casually dusted with trauma, the other tourists and I witnessed just how insane the waves in this bay could get, ricocheting off the cove walls, combining with the swell behind it and morping into towering walls hell bent on delivering hammer blows to the unsuspecting. Often, these double overhead walls would break onto only ankle deep water, the obscene undertow ripping the sands clean from its victims feet before silencing the shrieks. A sobering “Jesus Fuuuu” would be the queue to look across, just in time to see the swallow – accompanied by a wince-inducing crack – before the sea ejects a dribbling mess fifteen seconds later.
Behind the breakers, unsettling tingles in your bones, a barely perceptible drag or a drop in temperature, gave cause to scan the horizon and shit yourself as a double decker swell rolled into the bay like a mop down a bowling alley. To a shrieking chorus, the mash of humans sprint swimming and high stepping through the tide would nearly make it to the safety of the treeline, only to get shoved down by a boiling wall of whitewater.
With only a sprained wrist and slightly looser front teeth, it was time for me to climb back out and head back home, looking over my shoulder at the idyllic waters juxtaposed with the heavy violence and survivalism. I loved that beach.
My battle with the ocean had bolstered my confidence after my most recent near-drowning so, a lot stiffer and more sore than I should have been the next morning, my apprehension for snorkelling was overtaken by excitement at the prospect of Manta Rays. Alex, Nina and I, along with a motley handful of other tourists, walked the fifty yards from the diving shack to the beach, white sands clogged with clumps of natural fibres. The wide blue and white speedboat kicked out of the harbour and followed the coastline on our left. It held the line as the shore cut back into an estuary, the ocean beneath us turning dark and colder. The captain hovered us away from four other boats, finding his own spot to decant his passengers. Supposedly a nearby wreck drew in some of the bigger fish.
I looked down at the big flippers I’d just strapped to my feet with a sigh of uncertainty – preferring to have learned how to use these weird appendages somewhere not in the middle of the sea. I swallowed my concerns, strapped on my snorkel mask and rolled backwards into the water…
The sun’s warmth disappeared immediately, spray filtered into my snorkel and I twisted awkwardly, trying to reoriented myself. The inner coward was already calling ‘Panic!’, the adventurer cooed ‘Calm’. Reminding myself this was meant to be fun I took a slow breath, cleared the pipes and dropped my head to look at the impressive silver fish we could see clearly from the boat.
These fucking flippers, praised for their poise and grace in the right hands, tangled around clumsily and, like a pair of frightened geese, obstinately fought my every request for them to behave themselves. Clearly (as evident from being predominantly beneath the water) circular kicks are not the appropriate technique for treading water with flippers. Slapping my arms about to help buoyancy, as well as demonstrating how calm and in control I was, I noticed the damned boat wasn’t where I’d left it – already thirty feet away and getting smaller. As the adventurer left the room quietly, a cold icicle of dread reached out and gently pricked my heart. Whether I wanted to or not, now was my time to panic.
Thanks to a number of horses and a swift pair of propellers the boat was actually in the same place. It was me, with my geese feet, being sucked into a fearsome current that was causing the separation. Alex and Nina were miles away, bobbing around happily where the rip relented. I didn’t know how long I could tread water for with Alex and Nina before the boat would have to rescue me, all my energy consumed by flailing these dickhead flippers about.
But then the boat looked unfathomably far away already and, heading directly against the current, swimming back would be both gruelling and worrisome. For the two seconds I deliberated, I earned another ten seconds of swimming time, so sucked it up, lowered my head and chewed the contents of my feeding tube as I charged back to the boat under full steam – learning flippers as I went.
I clawed my way through the final three meters of propeller wash and lunged for the side. Catching a thick white rope, I wrapped it around my arm so the current couldn’t pry me back out into the open ocean. I spat out my snorkel and peeled off my mask before glancing behind to see another couple of panicked swimmers grasping for the boat ladder. As they climbed the rungs I hauled heavily over the side and flapped down on the deck like a fresh catch. Tom Hartland – pro swimmer.
As the tour operators had to jump in and rescue a bulky, polish looking skin-head and his erratic girlfriend from drowning, I didn’t feel so badly about my own Olympic performance. When the boat looped back to pick up Alex and Nina, all smiles and chatty, I was humbled enough to blame my poor perfomance on the awkward flippers I’d decided to abandon.
The captain moved us on to less volatile waters where Mantas feed. Despite being parked up alongside ten or so other snorkelling boats there was (understandably) a reluctance to jump right in. The swell was heavy and slow, breaking in towering white plumes against the sheer rock faces enclosing the cove. Snorkelers struggled to find their bearings in the black, shady waters. Alex got as far as pulling his own mask on before the captain thankfully read the mood and carried on down the coast, finding a much more accomodating and less crowded spot where the passengers willfully siphoned themselves out of the boat.
After only a few minutes a shout went out from the boat and the other snorkelers streamed towards where the captain was pointing, near the headwall. Without my geese I couldn’t keep up for more than a few paces (but the trade off was not drowning). I floated on my own for a few minutes more, begrudging whatever the others were looking at, before deciding to take a breather on the boat. Reaching behind and grabbing handfuls of water to propel myself with I heard another shout from the boat and, immediately afterwards, a shadow passed over me and a ray swooshed defly past my right shoulder close enough to feel the drag. Being so close to something so enormous and effortless was like having fresh batteries put in. I flapped my appendages in glorious pursuit.
It didn’t care, sucking in it’s plankton and holding its course. I was envious of its ambivalence, drifting about literally not giving a shit. I stopped and watched it leave as the throngs of swimmers took me over and chased it around the bay. But I’d had my minute. I was happy.
After an afternoon’s frolicking, a few more Mantas and the next day exploring the North shores of Nusa Penida by scooty, it was time to leave the island behind. I joined Alex and Nina at the harbour, the morning as scorching hot as the day I’d arrived. Somehow I managed to convince the scooter rental guy it was already damaged (my fault – sorry rental guy) and boarded the ferry back to Bali without charge. Nusa Penida had been like a holiday within a holiday. Maybe it felt the way it did because I wasn’t there long enough to get bored. Maybe NP is just a little bit special. Either way, it was the perfect note to bring a close to my Indonesian chapter.
Waving goodbye to my new friends, I spent a couple of days destroying my peaceful reverie in Legian’s superclubs waiting for my flight to depart. I had no idea what to expect in the weeks to come, but I’d found my shining star at the top of the tree; a final finale that would put me back on the trail of adventure and raise me above all the tourist trappings that quickly lose their lustre.
With a little leapfrogging up the Indonesian and South China seas, I’d soon be heading to Mongolia…