After a day of leisure at the beach in Sanur, which consisted largely of eating, drinking and then some more eating, we get up early next day to take a boat to Nusa Penida. This rugged island, that is dominated by a huge limestone plateau, was once used as a penal colony but now houses mainly seaweed farmers (the island is too dry for rice farming). Nusa Penida doesn’t get that many visitors and this is already apparent when we board the boat and get some curious looks. A rough 40 minute boat ride later we hop of on a beach that is riddled with fishing nets and dead coral. Ok, first lets find out where we are: there are two harbors on the island but the boat ticket just says ‘Nusa Penida’.
We start walking down the only road and soon we hear someone calling us. “Hello, where are you going? Transfer?” Apparently it takes less than five seconds to spot the tourists. I don’t see how the two of us and our backpacks will ever fit on the back of his tiny scooter, but I’m sure he’ll manage. Since we don’t actually know where we are going we just opt to keep walking. We find a cute little home-stay along the road. The staff doesn’t seem to speak much English so we get to brush up on our Bahasa Indonesia. We manage to secure a room with a fan, hot water and toilet paper! (this is not always a given) and quickly freshen up before we hit the streets.
After observing the traffic for a while I realized that I had underestimated the carrying capacity of the little motorbikes: three people on one vehicle is definitely child’s play.
Kids that don’t look much older than eight are driving around like they were born on a bike. Every single person on Bali seems to drive; kids in school uniforms, ladies dressed up in high heels and fancy temple sarongs, even entire families (mother, father, a few children and usually some baggage in the form of a temple offering baskets or a couple of chickens) can be seen astride one tiny scooter, craftily zipping their way through the bustling streets whilst avoiding cars, stray dogs and giant potholes.
A motorbike definitely seems to be the best way to get around. So for 50.000 Rupiah a day (around €3,-) we rent a little scooter and join the zooming swarm. With the hot wind blowing through my hair and the smell of traffic exhaust in my nose I’m cruising along the coast. It is quite an exciting ride with beautiful views of the photogenic patchwork of seaweed farming plots and the sheer limestone cliffs.
We drive for about twenty minutes before we reach the tiny village of Karangsari. From here a flight of stairs leads up to the Giri Putri Cave Temple. I squeeze through a small crack and after crawling for a bit the tunnel opens up into a vast 300 meter long cavern. There are shrines in every nook an cranny, laden with offerings, cockroaches and some bat shit. To Balinese people this cave is a powerful spiritual site and despite all the bats fluttering around I do feel a sense of tranquility here.
After leaving the cave we turn more inland and the road climbs very steeply up to the plateau. We pass several small villages where we get plenty of attention. Everyone seems very friendly and laughs as we pass by ( although I am not sure if they are laughing with us or at us). The streets are crowded with people who are busy making preparations for the Galungan festival, an annual event which celebrates the victory of good over evil. The most obvious sign of these celebrations are the penjor-decorated bamboo poles hung with offerings that are arching over the roads. These poles are meant as a welcome, not for us but for some invisible guests: an uncountable crowd of spirits is visiting Bali during the 10 days of Galungan. Everywhere on the street the people have placed little offering baskets meant to appease and please the various gods and demons of Balinese Hinduism. The baskets are filled with goodies such as krupuk (rice crackers), candy, fruits or rice. The sweet smell of incense that is being burned at each offering drowns out the smell of the exhaust fumes.
The road quality seems to have declined exponentially since we left the coast and in addition to the giant potholes we now also have to watch out for stray dogs, lots of chickens (that always seem to want to cross the road even when they clearly just came from that side) and the occasional lost cow. Furthermore the petrol in our bike is running pretty low (which we knew only by opening up the tank since our fuel cage needle seemed to be stuck). Luckily there are loads of little stands along the road that sell petrol in Jerry cans, vodka bottles or pretty much anything hollow.
Petrol is very cheap, we paid about 20,000 Rupiah/€1,20 for a full tank, and for some reason comes with a free chicken sausage?!
With a full tank we are ready to explore the rest of the island. Navigation became a bit trickier since there is no GPS on board and now we no longer have the sea in sight as a guide. Nusa Penida’s inland turns out to be a maze of remote lanes with very few signposts. So we just keep on asking at every corner. This works pretty well and after a few minor detours we emerge on the other side of the Island at what is aptly named: Crystal Bay. A great place to relax after our first day of biking on Bali.
So what is the verdict?
Well, driving a motorbike in Bali is somewhat scary and we had a few stressful moments, but there generally seems to be an organization to this chaos. Knowing that something or someone can be in your way at any moment keeps you more alert. People swerving in and out of the lanes actually means that everybody gets to move at their own pace. You can go slower if you want, without having to worry about people getting impatient. They’ll simply give you a friendly honk to let you know they are coming up besides you and then go about their day. Most importantly, it gives you the freedom to go where you want and stop whenever you feel like it.