"Make sure you have good brakes. Like life, it's mostly downhill." So said John (Jack) Daniels of Bali Discovery when I tweeted to say I'd be off to mountain bike from Kintamani to Ubud in Bali. And it's true, save a single near vertical 100 metres or so, the ride was almost all downhill—and you know what, that was good.
Looking for a slice of Bali far from pulsating Kuta Beach, four of us had engaged Wayan of Mountain Bike Bali to guide us on a half-day pedal, slide and roll from Kintamani to the tourist heart of central Bali, Ubud. Unlike Balinese Wayan who had ridden around Bali (or 420km of it) in a mere 20 hours, not one of us had a cycling bone in our body, save the occasional pedal to kindergarten, so it was with some trepidation that I jumped on the bike after a 1.5 hour drive uphill from Sanur.
The road started fine, smooth, sealed, next to no traffic, clean air and fruit and vegetable gardens off to each side—scenic and easy—but then Wayan paused at a dirt trail (I'm being generous here) that ran off to the left and we were in business! In just a short time the trail, I mean goat track, was barely wider than the bike's handlebars and it was taking all my concentration not to get hurtled into one of the nearby paddocks of cauliflowers, oranges, chillies, mangoes, bananas and dry rice.
Every now and then we'd bounce out onto a sealed road for a couple of hundred metres only to dart back onto another dirt trail. The only constant was, as JD forewarned, it was all downhill. Every now and then a house, smiling waving kids out front, would surface from within whatever crop we were riding (I mean rolling) through, then just as quickly we'd be back among the Kintamani greenery.
I'm not a novice to emerald rice paddies and fruit orchids, but I have to say, this was really an impressive kind of a ride. Wayan would pull us aside here and there to give us a walk through on what we were looking at. At one point, on a devilishly tight goat track corner, he pointed out coffee, cacao, mango, jackfruit, bananas and jasmine—and I think if we'd asked him nicely, he'd have prepared us something out of the lot of it.
And this comes to an important point. With the right guide, Bali can be a beautiful, fascinating place, but with the wrong guide it can easily transform into a tragic tourist trap. Wayan most certainly fell into the former. When we pulled up at a village with mud brick houses that one of our party enquired after, he volunteered to search after a mud-brick artisan. Later, at a dry rice crop, he went into a depth of information I wouldn't have expected—it's all rice right? My point is that it's one thing to have a pleasant downhill roll in the sun, quite another to learn as well.
While Wayan had been talking us through the surrounding edible fauna, a warbling had started up in the distance. As friends in Jakarta had joked, Bali in Indonesian means "land of festivals" and true to form, somewhere further downhill an Odalan festival was underway. And so on we rolled, eventually emerging, somewhat scratched (the plantlife can be nasty!) onto a broken up road that ran down to a temple enclosure. Locals and a bunch of kids were out, kitted out in their best bleached whites and udengs. To our right the temple's wall ran along, behind it, shrines topped by alang alang roofs. It was a six-month ceremony for the village—these happen all over the island, all the time—but there was no way you could reach this one unless you were on an off the road trip.
And that's the rub. On Bali there are mountain bike tours and there are mountain bike tours and just as with tours of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, this is very much a case of you get what you pay for. When we had first started out, another, larger, group arrived just after us. Wayan explained that they would stay on sealed roads the entire way (probably not a bad idea as there were some youngish kids in tow). Doing that keeps the price down, but they wouldn't have stumbled upon the ceremony we did.
While the day had started out with crystal blue skies, after a couple of hours the weather closed in somewhat (it is, in theory, wet season) and we got a touch of rain—just a tease understand—a precursor to what was on the way. The sprinkle made the roads that bit slippery and the dirt trails more so, then, before we knew it, the crops gave way to towering forest. The temperature drops and the surrounds became impenetrable rather than impressive. We were in the midst of a "village protected forest". Decades ago, forest like this would have covered vast swathes of Bali, but today, just slivers create a memorable memo between fields of paddy.
We were nearing our lunchtime stop just outside an elephant camp and pulled aside on a glistening lawn of moss in front of a local temple and lunched under a towering banyan tree and the watchful glare of the temple guardians. Midway through lunch, Wayan points out a lumbering elephant just behind us taking tourists on a loop around the park. Lunch was probably my one criticism of the trip. The pre-packed Western-style lunch (from a cafe in Sanur) was edible but I'd much preferred to have tucked into a nasi campur at any one of the villages and townships we'd rolled through.
And onwards we rolled. Finally the rains really came down. We took shelter under the eaves of a stonemason's shop for the half hour it took for the worst to clear, and then onwards again.
And what a different sight! Lush, lavishly wet paddy, pulsing irrigation canals, birds aloft, and, as we neared the outskirts of Ubud, the villas began. Like designer droppings from some alien spacecraft, these dot the ostensibly greenbelt landscape outside of the town. But riding straight into Ubud would be too easy for Wayan. His personal preference is for "hardcore" mountain bike tours within the volcanic crater of Gunung Batur, but given Ubud lacks a volcano, he opts for the Campuhan Ridge Walk, a lush, grassy ridge with big skies overhead that runs parallel to the road running out of Ubud.
Before we get started, Wayan points out that the valley, covered in tall, privacy-granting grasses, is a hit with canoodling Ubudian couples. Sure enough we spring at least three giggling couples and groups along the way. Wayan offers one a ride on his bike and we all break into laughter.
We're at the last stage of the ride, a steep muddy and very slippery descent down towards the Ibah Hotel. By the time we emerge onto Raya Ubud, we're mud and sweat encrusted to a degree that a steaming shower and two-hour massage couldn't fit the bill any better ... but that's another story.
By Stuart McDonald.
Last updated on 16th February, 2017.
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