The Balinese highlands are perched atop a series of (theoretically) dormant volcanos. These ridges and peaks ending in a string at Mount Agung (pronounced “aahhh-goong” with a soft “n”), which is a decidedly active volcano. In the time we’ve been sailing Indonesia, Mount Agung has erupted with no less than three major eruptions, and of course every now and then it belches out a puff of brimstone and smoke from the belly of the earth. Each morning, as we sit on our bungalow patio the ground rumbles beneath us – shaking our feet and our coffee mugs on their saucers.
“I hope Mount Agung isn’t thinking of doing anything big.” I say to Andrew.
“Yyeeeeahhh!” He agrees as we watch our morning orange juice slosh around.
Most people who live near active volcanos will tell you there is magic and great power in their homeland soil. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this in the stories about Mount Yasur, Tanna Island Vanuatu, and even in the last time we visited Bali. Even the scientific among us cannot deny this. Grab a handful of the rich, cocoa colored pete from any volcanic soil vegetable garden, and you will see the magic, too. It is in fruits and vegetables, flowers, and the happy people.
Like this gorgeous meal of healthy turmeric and lemon tea, yellow lemongrass curry over fresh grown vegetables, and a coconut milk ice cream and pineapple crumble for desert with toasted coconut and fresh mint. All grown and made with volcano magic.
For the next few mornings, we leave our cozy bungalow to absorb the Balinese mist through adventures.
We meet our new “highlands taxi driver.” We can’t ride with our Guru Wayan, because Balinese taxi drivers are like cats – they each have their own territory. Our new taxi driver’s skill is highly refined, and I don’t know if I’d trust anyone but a true local to drive a manual stick shift while we teeter on the edge of volcanic cliff faces!
He delivers us to the side of the road, at the very top of a ridge. Per the usual, selfies are in progress to our left and our right. Then, our guide materializes, hands us two bamboo walking sticks, and we are led down a footpath that drops straight off the side of the ridge. Cicadas buzz in my ear, but the usual stifling jungle heat and humidity is gone. The ferns and fronds of bamboo shade our faces as we walk.
“We don’t have to climb back up this, do we?” Andrew asks. I’m doing quite well for such an athletic endeavor, but a climb back up would be less of a hike, and more of a rock climbing experience.
“Yeah! Three hours down, three hours back!” Our guide tells us, giggling.
“Really?” Andrew says, as this would not be out of the norm for the jungle hikes we’ve been led through in the past.
“Naawwooooo! But that’s what my father used to do to go fishing at the lake every day.”
As we drop deeper into the valley, the light is snuffed by a thicker canopy, tall trees stretch to the sky, and at every layer of their branches orchids, ferns, and vines drape themselves like garlands. Our guide shows us fruit and nuts that have fallen from the trees for Balinese people eat. “Careful, this plant is poisonous! It will cause your skin pain for days!” Our guide warns, “and this one – it will eat your hand!”
“Really?” I ask.
“Nawwwooooo. But it’s really spiny!” He says. We’ve got a real joker leading the way today.
An hour and a half into our hike, we stop for a bottle of water and a rest. Perfect time to play on the vines! Our guide shows us how to swing through the trees, and we each grab hold and take a swing.
It’s a little terrifying for the old lady spine, but if I were to fall off I’d fall into the soft tuft of volcanic soil pillowed by a thousand layers of fern mulch.
… or that spiny plant.
Soon, we break through the trees again, and we are at the rim of an old volcanic crater, filled to the brim with fresh water from one thousand years of rainwater. We are invited on to the hull of a traditional fishing catamaran, then we paddle through the center of the lake.
We weave our way past fishermen standing on the edges of their log canoes, hand pulling a strand of line through the depth.
“Is this your first time paddling a canoe?” our guide asks me.
“What? NO!” He looks at me doubtfully. What am I doing wrong?
Waiting for us at the other side is an ancient Balinese Temple, standing watch from the lakeside meadow. Golden grasses and tiny flowers line the path, and when you arrive at the steps to the temple entry, Balinese offerings are laid at the door a small box made of woven bamboo filled with a marigold and bouganvilla, grains of rice dyed blue with the pea flower water, incense, maybe a cigarette or a candy.
To double down, we make our way to a more active temple nestled in the same jungle. Per the usual, before we can enter, we must dress the part. Both Andrew and I are wrapped in Balinese sarongs, with a sash tied at our waist. I pluck a gardenia from a nearby tree and tuck it behind my ear. The scent follows me as I go.
As always, the gods of this temple are dressed in green moss and fresh water. Worshipers dressed in whites and yellows, and their patterned sarongs carry brightly woven boxes of offerings to the scene of their ceremonies. Bells and chimes ring among the tweets of birds and the flow of water falls and fountains. The smell of incense mixes with the jungle, and we watch as worshipers tuck their bright red hibiscus flowers in their Balinese hat. A solitary older man walks a long line of stairs seeding the jungle floor with something, but we don’t know what. Salt? Seeds of plants – hardly seem needed here! Seed for birds? We never find out as he doesn’t speak English.
We stay and listen until the chanting is finished, then we watch the worshipers collect their things and go. Per the usual, our presence is noticed and we are drawn into several group photographs. This suits me perfectly because it means I’m free to photograph them in return. And, they are so photogenic!
We carry on down a jungle-dark swerving road until we turn off the side and down a steep cliff with a dirt path graded off where, we find a small car park, some snack stands, and an entry booth. We pay, don our swimmers and take a short hike even further down into a narrow slot of a canyon. At the bottom, we find hot spring pools nestled against the cliffside. The baby lion’s exhale of a small waterfall, moss and mist.
I kick off my shoes and one wary foot at a time, make my way in through a series of stone steps painted with nature’s algae slick-shine. Once in, though, I happily float in water just a notch or two higher than body temperature. A Balinese Hindu princess is frozen in a stone sculpture against the cliffside wall. Flowers open their mouths, petals rounding and curling outward like a bullhorn announcing a sports score: Bali Magic: 1, Bad Moods and Ill Tempers: 0! I rest my elbows on the side of the pool, lay my chin on the back of my hands, and watch the waterfall and river below the pool. Rain comes, a mist at first, then droplets that gather on the jungle leaves collect their mutual interest, and drop to the pool in large plops. Jungle music of birds, waterfall, and the hollow percussion of rain drops is all around me. I am the perfect temperature, and this has to be a perfect place. This is a moment I should burn in my memory forever, I think.
Hours later, Andrew had to pry me out of this Hot Spring with promise of a Bintang Lemon Radler by the fireplace. That, and the fact that the hot springs were closing were the only two things in the world I can imagine convincing me to leave. We enjoy another evening by the hotel fireplace, with a delicious dinner, and a short walk to our little bungalow under stars shining through a momentary break in the mountain mist.
“Oughf!” I say, with appreciation. “I think tropical mountain regions are my jam.”
I do my exercises before going to bed, then snuggling with my hot water bottle delivered fresh tonight by the front desk, I feel around my body for what is my normal old lady spine problems, but they are not there. Nothing. This is progressing in a direction of which I approve!