We drove north from Ubud, northwards through the highlands, through the never-ending road stalls, towards the volcanic caldera. The driver never spoke. His wife did all the talking, explaining that he needed to concentrate fully just to drive. Luckily she was voluble enough for the two of them and gave a good account of what we were looking at out the window of the minivan. Roadside workshops with endless stone statues of elephants and dragons, wooden crafts of every type, wherever you looked crafts lined the road. These shops were for the villa and hotel owners, buying in bulk. If you just want to buy a solitary stone frog you can get it back in Ubud.
We had found tour guides on the ‘net, C. Bali Cultural Tours being the rather cryptic name of their 2-person setup. He was Dutch, she Australian, two countries with strong associations with Bali, one harkening back to colonial times, the other betokening mass tourism. And here we were, Ozzies all. Except me, of course. I'm Irish.
Since picking us up after breakfast at our hotel adjacent to Mandala Suci Wenara Wana, the Ubud Sacred Monkey Forest Sanctuary, not that there was much sacredness on display amongst the larcenous macaques there, this Australian-Dutch couple were our guides until early afternoon. There was an obliging stop at the rice terraces at Tegallalang whose greens were so deep and even, the levels so regular, that I couldn't work out if these were actual working paddies or just decorative, like an Italian garden, existing solely for the pleasure of the eyes, not the stomach. Well, we fed our eyes, fed the camera, and got back in the van. (I’m pretty sure now they are ‘real’ rice paddies.)
Finally, after about an hour and a half, and what I estimate now to have been about 20 kilometres making an average speed of 15 km/h, we crested a hill at the village of Penelokan which turned out to be the rim of the caldera itself and finally beheld Gunang Batur, Gunang Agang (Mount Batur and Mount Agang) and the sacred lake itself, Danau Batur. I use the word ‘behold’ here deliberately: you do not merely ‘see’ this sight. From there the last part of the journey was down the side of the bowl itself to the small village of Kedisan.
Squeezed into two kayaks and kitted out with lifejackets, we pushed off onto the still surface of the lake. Our guides told us that they had sometimes been on the lake during an episode of volcanic activity from Gunung Batur which apparently manifests in the lake below as bubbling and boiling in the water. We were lucky, and unlucky too, to have had no volcanism that morning from the most active volcano on Bali. The lake goddess Ida Betari Dewi Ulun Danu had nothing in mind for us today other than tranquility, peace of mind, and hardly a breeze.
We stuck to the southwestern pocket, getting within about 100 yards of Pura Jati at one stage where we noticed people on the water's edge near the temple. Our guides told us that they were fishing, which they oughtn't to do, and I suddenly became conscious of filming them, like this was some crypto-environmental sting, all of us posing as tourists - the kids were a nice touch - while logging this illicit lacustrine (a sacred one, to boot) activity. Not that they must have given a hoot from that distance, nor thought I was anything other than another pelancong with a camera. I was just relieved that the Dutch driver could finally relax. What an on/off job to have: manoeuvring through narrow Balinese roads for hours every day, for that is what his job entailed, with interludes of being adrift on a lake in a canoe.
Say it: adrift on an Indonesian lake. Actually, adrift on a Balinese lake is even better. Paddles up, we were just driftin’. Bratur, by far the biggest lake on the island, is hemmed in by the steep western slopes of Gunung Agang on one side, the gentler eastern incline of the volcano itself, covered with lava deposits from previous eruptions, on the other.
Back at Kedisan after two hours of lake-found bliss, and it really was bliss, we snacked on saté ayam for lunch. There was a couple of local chancers in the usual black and white check poleng sarong lounging around, trying to play a table of older German tourists, who it must be said were enjoying it, but our guides weren't so charmed. There was clearly history between them. One of the most striking things about the running commentary delivered to us in the minivan, canoe, and now at the Segara Hotel and Restaurant, was their ambivalence towards Bali. "Bali has its dark side" she had said at one stage. I didn't know whether she was referring to the Bali bombings, the anti-Communist bloodletting in the '60s, or some more personal tribulations. Nor did I press her on it, since I didn't need the morning's outing to get all heavy, especially not with the kids sitting there.
But in the end, that morning on the Holy Lake remains the most vivid memory I have of my whole Bali trip, and one which I remember with a huge sense of gratitude. The chance to just climb in a canoe and sit out in the middle of this special place is not one I take for granted, especially since there was no stipulation to purify - I don’t know, I thought there might be - or anything like that, and more importantly there was nary another soul there. You read a lot about the hordes of tourists who head over to Bali, especially from Australia, so you don’t have high expectations of solitude. I must admit that like I say I had half thought that its sacrosanct nature might mean that daytrippers like us would be forbidden entry. But Bali was cool about the whole thing.