Off-the-beaten-track: a Bali road trip

170 km around the east of Bali

170 km around the east of Bali

Take a map of Bali and circle the main tourist spots: Kuta, Seminyak, Ubud, Sanur, and the entire Bukit peninsula – it’s an amazingly small part of the island, I’m guessing less than 10%, that captures the imagination of 3 million visitors every year. What about the other 90%? What’s there? When my friend Chris arrived for Chinese New Year break I suggested we do a bit of road-tripping, to go off and see what lay out beyond the well-trodden paths. The result was unbelievable – a two-day adventure of draw-dropping jungle-mountain-ricefield vistas, quaint villages, cops and gun men, and underwater exploration. We set off on two scooters, with little more than a full tank of petrol and rough idea of where to head first.

Chapter 1: Kintamani Cops

From Ubud we headed north through the back streets of our neighbourhood until we soon hit the famous Tegalalang rice terraces – we didn’t know it at the time, but these beautifully manicured hillsides would be some of the least impressive we’d see all ride. We continued northwards and upwards, travelling briskly along the well paved road. The air got noticeably cooler, and the villages more traditional. The Bali we know, and indeed most tourists know, is the Bali of day spas, fancy restaurants, beach resorts and yoga studios. But 20 min north of Ubud, there’s hardly a trace of this. Sure there are a few coffee plantations offering luwak coffee (which is an expensive, cruel sham, as far as I can tell), and numerous wood carvers that may see a bule every once in a while. But for the most part it’s Bali as it perhaps always has been. Jungle almost everywhere, only occasionally interrupted by farms and villages.

We were enjoying the ride when we encountered our first piece of adventure: though it was hardly welcome – the police. A road stop had been established to check tourists who were driving with an international driving licence. Of course, we were not. While technically against the law, it’s a law selectively enforced. Thousands of people hire scooters and are never questioned. We were told, rather seriously, that we would have to go to court next week to sort out our indiscretion. Both the police and us knew exactly where this was headed, so we agreed, instead, to pay an on-the-spot ‘fine’ of $15 each and promise not to do this again. Ten minutes later we were on our way. The end of the road running north from Ubud ends at Lake Batur, a spectacular volcano lake, where we had our first stop. From our vantage point, a roadside cafe on the lip of the volcano, we could see the lake – an impressive shade of turquoise blue – enveloped by the nearby mountains. The sun had come out and the scene was breathtaking: We stopped to plan the next bit of the trip. We wanted to head to the coast near Tulamben, but the main road cut far west, in the opposite direction. On google maps, we eyed a few smaller roads that snaked past Lake Batur and then a single mysterious track that seemed to get us out of the volcano. It appeared reasonable, but there was no way to tell from here. We went anyway.

Chapter 2: Batur Bandits

View of Lake Batur (photo credit: Chris)

View of Lake Batur (photo credit: Chris)

The road past the lake was an interesting landscape of massive black volcanic boulders interspersed with tufts of a wispy grass, which oddly enough seemed more like Iceland than Indonesia. The farmers in the volcano grow a variety of produce and it was interesting to see fields of lettuce, herbs and vegetables intricately planted and tended instead of the rice we are well accustomed to seeing around Ubud. We explored the paths around the lake, in one instance discovering a quiet cul-de-sac next to a family house, and in another stumbling upon a pack of six men each holding rifles. We waved sheepily at them and bid a quick u-turn! For lunch we stopped at a roadside warung, had a delicious nasi campur (rice with fish, vegetables and sauces) and made small talk with the auntie in my broken bahasa. Scootering through the final village we found the mysterious track at the end of the lake, which barely passed for a ‘road’. It had been paved once but who knows how long ago. But now it resembled the martian surface – giant potholes scattered with loose rocks of all sizes. To make matters worse the incline was ridiculously steep! Driving the right line over the bumps was critical – stopping, or even slowing down meant gravity would take over, with no chance of recovery. Chris got stuck, fell over a few times and garnered some impressive road wounds. On one particular bend, after he took a small stack – a few people rushed to his aid to get him up a tricky track up the mountain, while I obliviously continued powering up the vertical bitumen. It was a touching gesture from the locals. We finally made it over the lip of the volcano – and it was clear the pain was worth it. It was like the volcano edge marked the border between two vastly different worlds – on one side a sunny, volcanic crevasse of vegetable farms by the lake, on the other a misty, ethereal land of hilly jungle. We were above the clouds!

Lakeside on Batur

Lakeside on Batur

Chapter 3: The best ride in Bali

The journey downwards was on a much gentler, well paved road. We stopped frequently to gape at the stunning vistas, some of the most beautiful natural landscapes either of us had ever seen in our lives. Textured hill sides filled with trees and fields, capped with an eery mist, expanding downwards to an open plain that eventually reaches the sea. How could something this spectacular remain unknown to almost everyone who visits Bali? We tried our best to capture them on our phones, but unfortunately, the three year old relics we possessed didn’t appear up to the task. Maybe that’s part of the reason this ride isn’t in every tourist brochure and curated list of things to do in Indonesia – it is impossible to truly capture the expansive beauty in square format. It is uninstagramable.

And for the next few hours we soaked in the views as we descended. Starting above the clouds, then driving straight into them, and then finally piercing through to be greeted by a vast landscape of green and blue. As we passed by several villages – if you can call a handful of houses and a couple of farm animals, ‘a village’ – I became amazed at the places where people find their small corner of the earth. It’s totally conceivable that people here might be born, live their whole lives, and die on this cloudy, beautiful hillside. We reached the main coast road in the late afternoon, turned right and settled in for the night in Amed at a quaint home stay by the beach. Amed is a very touristy stretch of beach on the east coast, famous for diving. It has a ramshackle seaside charm.

Chapter 4: Diving the Liberty Wreck

Ready to dive

Ready to dive

The next day we got up early to do a wreck dive of the USAT Liberty at Tulamben. Felled in WWII, the Liberty is one of the closest wreck dives to shore you can find anywhere in the world. When you approach the wreck underwater, the first sight of it is a massive dark silhouette that looms menacingly against the sunlight. It is impressively enormous. But as you get closer you see it as a brilliant kaleidoscope of coral and marine life. It was Chris’ first dive, and besides a handful of coral scrapes to go with his road wounds, it was an awesome experience. We dived around the wreck on the first dive, and through the belly of the ship on the second – marvelling all the while at the incredible marine life, a plethora of fish, stingrays and even a turtle! There is an unassuming coffee shop on the drive out of Amed that may have the best view of any warung in Bali. The scene from the cafe is of a long, gently terraced rice field shadowed by a hill. We stopped for an obligatory brew, puffed a clove cigarette and commented on the various shades of green you could see from the cafe – the light green of the rice, the dark of the jungle, the green brown of the palm trees and every shade in between. We drove back along the big coastal highway, dodging and overtaking trucks, vans and scooters. We stopped to capture some more magic landscapes (with moderate success), and had a quick swim in the underwhelming blue lagoon at Padang Bai, before making it back to Ubud by dusk.

Wrap up

The whole ride wasn’t even that long – a modest 170km, and barely even 36 hours. But it brimmed with adventure – a great boys’ trip that showed to us just how amazing the (relatively) unexplored parts of this island really are. There is something exhilarating about taking a trip with no fixed itinerary, no fixed accommodation and no expectations – just showing up and following wherever the moment takes you.


About Brad and Mesi

We are an Australian-Hungarian couple living in Bali, blogging about our inner and outer journeys.

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