Island of the Gods

For about as long as I can remember there has always been one place that sticks out on the map and keeps coming up in conversation regarding surfing and travel. Rumors of good, constant waves, secret spots, cheap beers and a beach lifestyle to die for. Before I arrived it seemed as if I was the last of my friends to have been there. All of them, for years telling me how amazing it is, how great the waves are, “can’t believe you haven’t been there yet!” Well now I had finally arrived after years of longing too, I finally arrived on the island of Bali.

In the surfing community Bali has become some what of a Mecca. Thousands of surfers from around the world head to Bali every year in search of great waves. I had quite a few weeks to spend exploring Bali and its surrounding islands. We arrived first in Denpasar after getting to Bali on a coach and ferry. From there we made the short journey south to Kuta, the hub of Bali’s tourist scene. Full of bars, restaurants, shops and clubs, Kuta is the first place on many visitors hit list. Always busy with people heading to the beach, looking at the hundreds of stalls along the lanes Poppies I &II, it’s a place with a constant atmosphere and vibe.

We spent our first few days in Kuta, staying in one place for a few days was a welcome change after the past few weeks of none stop travel. I didn’t bring any of my own boards to Bali as it would have been to much of a hassle lugging them all the way through Africa so I rented one for a few days from a local surf shop in Kuta and finally managed to get out for my first surf since J-Bay! There are hundreds of fantastic surf spots in Bali, all around the island. From great beginner waves like Medewi to thunderous waves for the pros like Uluwatu in the south. As it was right on my door step I spent a few days surfing at Kuta beach. It’s the main beach in town stretching all along this part of coast all the wave past Legian a little further north. Waves break all along it so there’s always the choice of going out to the less crowded spot. In the distance you can see the airport where the runway extends out to sea. Either way of the runway there are two great surf spots; Airport Lefts and Airport Rights, you can easily get one of the locals to take you out on his boat to the waves and pick you up a little later on. Kuta beach has some great waves for beginners and can also get a fair bit bigger for a tougher challenge. It’s quite a steep fast wave, I had a great few sessions while I was there. One of the best things about Kuta beach are the sunsets. The sun sets right over the sea out on the horizon. Everyday it seems the whole town comes out in the evening to have sundowners on the beach. It was a fantastic sight to look back at the beach during a sunset surf to see hundreds of people sitting on the beach watching the sunset. With all the camera flashes going off from the beach it almost felt like a surfing stadium.

Apart from surfing we spent time wondering around the town, up and down the famous gang alleys, lined with all their shops and stalls and also checking out a number of bars and restaurants, not to mention sampling a few of the famous Indonesian beer, Bintang!

After a few days in Kuta we were craving the more chilled life again and the urge to move to a new place was growing. A friend from home told me a while ago about the Gili Islands, apparently they were a must see and she could have not been more right as the Gili’s quickly turned into my favorite place in Indo so far!

Nestling just off the coast of Lombok, the Gili islands are 3 small gems in incredibly blue waters, surrounded by stunning coral reefs and marine life. What originally was a trip of only a few days quickly turned into over a week long stay. Gili comprises of three small islands, Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air. We stayed on the larger of the 3, Gili T. We took a fast boat from Padang Bai on Bali and arrives an hour and a half later, straight onto the white sands of the islands. It’s the sort of things you see and hear about in story books and pictures, a tiny circular island, the bluest of blue water and hot white sand leading off to lush tropical palm trees. Motor vehicles are banned from the island which was a fantastic break from the hundreds of scooters wizzing past us on the Poppies gangs. The only actual mode of transport on the islands are a few horse draw carriages or push bike. Although there were the option of those two, the island is so small, there’s no where which isn’t walkable. We quickly found a cheap homestay to stay at and spent the first few days exporting the island. A cycle ride around the island was a great way to get our bearings. The island was even smaller than I first thought and a relaxed cycle around the island only took a couple hours, if that!

On of the main attractions about Gili is the marine life. The islands are blessed with incredible coral reefs which surround each of the small specks of land. The reefs are home to thousands of different types of fish, including the famous green sea turtle. To get a first idea of what was waiting below the waves, we spent a day snorkeling around the 3 islands. A local boat trip was simple to organise and took us to different spots all around the Gili’s. As soon as we jumped off the boat we were plunged into a beautiful underwater world with hundreds of fish. The colours or the reef and fish were magical. Even just from snorkelling you could clearly see the sheer beauty of the underwater world. It only spurred me on to want to see more.

Along the main stretch of dirt road on the islands were plenty of fantastic bars and restaurants, serving up amazing barbecues every night, there were also plenty of dive shops and centres. Scuba diving is something I have always wanted to try. I once tried it years ago when I was younger in a pool with a scout group, but doing it in the open ocean was something completely different. We quickly found a centre that we liked and spoke to the guys there for a while to find out more. Obviously to go diving you have to be certified which I wasn’t and because of funds I wasn’t sure if I would do a course while I’m away. However the dive centre did offer a Discovery Dive which didn’t require any certification, just a morning doing some skills in the pool and then out to do a dive. I thought it sounded perfect and signed up straight away. So went spent the morning doing some of the basic skills and then in the afternoon we went out to a spot called Shark Point to do to a dive. From the moment I hit the water, I knew this was something I wanted to do more of and Gili couldn’t have been a better place to start. Descending down into the clear blue water really have a sense of entering a completely different world, something I think which is unfelt in the worlds other eco zones. Descending that far underwater, completely out of a humans natural environment was totally exhilarating, the feeling of being completely weightless was fantastic and so addictive. As the dive went on we came across hundreds of stunning fish from clown fish, bat fish to porcupine spot fish and trigger fish. We even saw a huge abundance of sea turtles which were absolutely mesmerising. I could have swam along side them all day, their grace and beauty underwater was incredible, them seemed to fly through the deep blue canvas that engulfed them. Such an interesting creature they had no problem with me swimming right up to them for a closer look. They were a lot bigger than I thought too, some of the turtles were massive which made them all the more impressive. After the quickest 45 minutes I’ve ever had it was time to slowly ascend to the surface, I loved every minute of it, it was an amazing experience. It didn’t take too much consideration after and a quick email from my brother telling me I’d be an idiot not to do it for me to keep going and do my SSI Open Water certification. Sign me up!

Just a couple days later I had completed a further 4 dives and passed my open water certification and it was worth every penny. The diving was incredible, all the sites were in perfect condition and there were never too many crowds. The coral was beautiful and the abundance of marine life was superb, it was rare to do a dive and not see a bunch of turtles! There was plenty of others to see too, a couple of my highlights were a massive ringed sea snake which must have been about 9 feet long and 3 amazing reef sharks, two white tips and one black tip of about one and a half to two metres. They were of course a fantastic sight, unlike the great white diving in South Africa there was no cage the sharks could have come right up to us. The amazing iconic shadow of a shark appearing out of the blue was an amazing sight and filled me with adrenaline!

Diving on the Gili’s was over all too soon and it was time to head off to our next destination. I’d like to say a massive thank you to Ben and everyone at Manta Dive, I couldn’t recommend them more they were brilliant. For anyone else who is interested in diving in the Gili’s check out www.manta-dive.com

Following our time on Gili we got the boat back to Bali and spent a couple nights in Kuta before heading south to the famous surfing spots on the south west coast. These spots were world famous, I’ve had seen pictures of them hundreds of times and heard so many stories, I was as excited as excited can be to finally get there. We headed for Padang Padang and spent a few nights at a place near the beach. The area is nothing like the bustling scene of Kuta, much more relaxed and quite with only a few places to stay. Padang Padang beach was fantastic, a small white sand beach at the bottom of the cliffs hidden away from view. Unlike Kuta beach the water was crystal clear and warm. Our two days surfing there was amazing, one of the best sessions I’ve had since being away. Every wave broke so perfectly and went on for ages as the beautiful coral went rushing by beneath my board only a couple of feet below the surface. It was an amazing place and all that I expected it to be. During our time there we also went to see the famously huge waves Uluwatu and visit the temple which is punched magnificently upon the top of the cliff right on the edge looking out over the vast endless ocean. The temple it’s self was beautiful and full of wild monkeys jumping around everywhere. We also saw a traditional Balinese dance at the temple which was brilliant. With no instruments at all the 20 or so performers made all the music with their voices as they played out an ancient love story and danced with fire. It was a great spectacle with a great atmosphere.

While we were still down on the south coast we spent a little more time exploring the other beaches and surf spores including Dreamland and spending a night in Bingin. The site of all these different surf spots breaking down the coast was beautiful. You can see why thousands come from all around the world to surf here.

Shortly after our stay in Bingin, we headed a little north to the east coast, spending a night in Sanur before catching a boat the island of Nusa Lembogan which rests just off of Bali. Being a larger island than Gili T, there was lots to explore here. There are three main surf spots on the reefs the surround the island and they all flow along side the coast, Playgrounds, Lacerations and Shipwrecks where we were staying just near. We spent the first couple days doing a bit of exploring, including cycling around the island which took a fair few more hours than old shop keep told us it would! A great ride none the less, with some beautiful views and beaches we came across. There was another smaller island just off from Nusa which we could get to by cycling across a little yellow suspension bridge which was just as stunning if not more. The two islands are well known for the locals growing seaweed to sell. At low tide you can watch all watch all the local seaweed farmers walk around and harvest their crop from the salty water.

One of our biggest draws to Nusa was the diving, there were great spots all around the islands which to explore especially one famous one caled Manta Point. This was one of he main reasons I wanted to come here; to dive with mantas. Manta Point acts as a cleaning station for manta’s who come to eat and be cleaned by smaller fish. As we entered the water the visibility was quite as it was in the Gili’s as there was so much plankton in the water which attracts these gentle giants. After a few minutes of swimming around we finally saw what we came looking for. Out of the blue misty morning water appeared a massive winged shadow which headed straight towards us. As it got closer the beauty and grace of it came into full light. It was enormous, it’s wing span I guess you could call it was 2 maybe 3 metres and almost as much in its length. It swam until it was only a few metres from us, then turned up one of its fins and gracefully swam right by us. Before we knew it there were 3 or 4 of them swimming around us, it was easily the best thing I’ve seen while diving. Words cannot describe the way in which the just seem to glide as if they were flying, their sheer size as they swim by, mouths open was breath taking. There was just so much going on down there, at one point our instructor pointed out a black tip shark swimming by and then just above its head swam a massive manta! Unbelievable!

Before we knew it our air was almost up and we surfaced and moved on to the next dive site called Crystal Cove. This place was just as amazing, no mantas this time, instead there was a huge abundance of beautifully coloured coral, the visibility was about 30 metres so everywhere you looked was stunning coral and thousands of fish. This site however had some extremely strong currents and we were being washed around all over the place. There was one section where the reef descended off an underwater cliff down to about 70 metres, the current pushed us right over and down the cliff and store we knew it we were at 25 metres, swimming against the current trying to get back up! This caused one girl to have a fairly serious panic attack and tried to swim to the surface which then proceeded in our guide pulling her back down and trying to calm her down! A pretty hairy situation. Made it back safe and sound however. It was quite as long a dive as usual as we used up all our air so quickly whilst kicking against the current! Still a fantastic dive, one I thought would be my last in Indo, addiction says otherwise.

We spent our final few days on Nusa, seeing the island and surfing which was great. I even took out a stand-up paddle board which was amazing fun and I think I may me converted! After a few days relaxing we headed back to the main land and spent another night in Sanur before heading north the next morning and inland to a town called Ubud.

Ubud was a fantastic town, yet another place we only planned spending a few days on and ended up staying a few more! It’s known as one of the cultural centres of Bali. Surrounded by lush green rice paddies with mountains and volcanos in the background, there really is a spiritual and ancient feel to the place. It was recently made famous by Elizabeth Gilbert’s book/film where she finds spiritual enlightenment in the town. This has then caused a huge follow on of settled travellers hoping to do the same, wearing popular ‘unique’ clothes, doing yoga and growing a beard seem to be the way to a better self these days! Once you see past that there is something special about the Ubud. There are plenty of ancient temples there whih are still in use, many of the people around the town still live in the houses and compounds, work on the same paddies that their family have been doing for generations. It’s quite inspiring. One of the best ways to see all this was to do a bike ride which we did on one of the days. They took us high up into the mountains for an early morning breakfast. It came with a stunning view, overlooking a huge volcano and beautiful lake. After that we cycled down through the hills, stopping at various temples and sites. One of which being a traditional coffee farm. Bali and Java are famous for their coffee and tea and all different kinds were grown here. We got a great little tour around the plantation getting to taste everything as we went. There was one coffee which was something of a speciality, how they discovered it and first thought it would be a good idea, I’ll never know, Luwak Coffee. This famous coffee is made with the help of a small fox like looking creature called a Luwak. There’s no other way really to describe it than that the coffee comes from the creatures excrement! The small pellet like droppings are then dried out and prepared to take their coffee form, and I’ll be honest, once finished does look and smell a lot like coffee rather than something that’s just come out of the back of what looks like a rat on steroids. At US$600 per kilo of the stuff however it wasn’t in my budget, so I’ll stick to my tea!

Following the coffee farm we continued down hill through all the beautiful layered rice paddies back to Ubud. At one point we stopped at a family compound which we were invited into to have a look around. It was an amazing insight into how the Balinese people really lived. Dozens of families can live in one small compound, the majority will live in the same for their whole lives. The poverty of some it the areas was quite breath taking, it’s hard to believe that living conditions like that are still evident today. The cycle was a great way to see the surrounding areas of Ubud, the hills are stunning, I would have stopped everywhere to take a picture if I could!

One of our other days we spent in Ubud was doing a traditional Balinese cooky course which was fantastic. The amount of different spices and foods we used created a huge array if flavours and tastes. We made about 8 different traditional dishes which I’m looking forward to trying at home one day, hope I can find Bali Chilli in London! After the course we explored the famous Monkey Forest which was full of hundreds of playful monkeys who were great fun. We also took a day tour of out of town another day, heading north again towards Lovina stopping on the way at some beautiful temples, including one that rests floating on a stunning a lake and another which belongs to the royal family. Our guide also took us to a beautiful waterfall hidden deep in the forest. The water just seemed to fall from the trees high above us and hit the stones only a few metres from us. It was a stunning sight, one of the most picturesque waterfalls I’ve seen.

Following Ubud we only had a week or so remaining in Bali and I had a real urge to do one last dive, it just so happened that we weren’t too far from one of Bali’s best dive sites, it would be rude not to! So we travelled a little north to a town on the east coast called Tulamben, which is a little north of Amed. Here in the shadows of a huge volcanos, resting just off the black sand and volcanic rock of the beach lies the ship wreck of USAT Liberty. The American ship sunk during World War II after being torpedoed by a Russian ship. Liberty was then towed north with the idea being to leave the ship at a Dutch port in the very north of Bali. However before getting there the port was then occupied so the ship was then left on the shores of Tulamben. After a while of being there, Bali’s largest volcano, Gunung Agung erupted spilling lava all the way to the ocean, pushing Liberty back into the sea where she now rests only 30 metres or so off shore and now acts as home to millions of fish and more importantly, a great dive site! The ship lies from about 8 metres to over 30 metres below the surface so there is diving there for all abilities and all sorts of creatures to see. Walking into the water across the piles of volcanic rock is quite an experience, on the surface the water is quite merky but as we descended and swam out it became clearer. The bottom wasn’t the usual white sand, instead a dark ash covered sand, before long I remember looking in front of me to see my first sight of the ship. A massive shadow appeared and became clearer the closer we went. It was an amazing sight, we could swim all around the ship, there was so mug coral engulfing the remains of it, which have life to so much marine life. I also caught my first glimpse of a bump head parrot fish which are a very funny looking creature and a lot bigger that I had imagined! We swam for nearly an hour around the boat, going inside the engine room, it was incredible. It was a really eerie sight too, seeing things like ladders, stairs and wheels this far underwater gave it a very spooky feel, objects that are meant for humans on the surface was bizarre. It was a crazy thought to think the last time someone was on this ship was during the war.

After nearly an hour our dive was up and we came to the surface, spending the rest of the day relaxing. We were only in Tulamben for a couple days to do the dive before heading back south to Kuta, where I am right now for our remaining days before leaving on Monday. These few days we have just spent relaxing and getting in a few last surfs. In fact as soon as finish writing this I’m off back in the water for the last time, hope it’s a good session!

Indonesia has been fantastic, some of the friendliest and most welcoming people I have ever met who made it all the more special. Bali and the Gili’s have got me totally hooked on diving and I can’t wait to do some more, although I think it’s going to be a hell of a lot folder in our next destination. Bali has been amazing, the surf has been great and I’m sure, one day I’ll be back!

So that’s Indonesia, done. Went almost fast as it started. One last surf and a couple last Bintang’s remaining before boarding a plane tomorrow, heading further south to the adventure land of New Zealand. I cannot wait.

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