It's just like Bali ... before it got so busy

Nusa Penida, the largest and most distant of the Three Sisters Archipelago south-east of Bali.
Picture: Ian Neubauer

IAN LLOYD NEUBAUER steps back in time on Nusa Penida. 

What did Bali look like in the 70s when tourism had only just begun?

To find out, I take a ride on a public speedboat from Sanur in east Bali to Nusa Penida, the largest and most distant of the Three Sisters Archipelago, south-east of Bali. 

The kaleidoscopic coral reefs surrounding the island, about the size of Hong Kong Island, have been known to dive operators in Bali for more than 20 years. Yet few, if any, of those divers ever made landfall.

Five years ago, that began to change when a National Geographic article that described Nusa Penida as “a biological and cultural treasure, basically immune from all the trapping of Western culture” coincided with the meteoric rise of Instagram in Indonesia.

The island’s towering sea cliffs, colourful marine life and sugar-white beaches made fantastic fodder for the app, earning it a place on Bali’s alt-tourism map. But now that travellers are arriving in numbers, can Nusa Penida retain its off-the-grid charm?

Giant Lizards and Tiny Crabs

After alighting on an unmarked beach on Nusa Penida’s north coast, I rent a moped and ride west through Sampalanu, the island’s near-comatose capital. The road ebbs and flows along a dreamy palm-fringed coast, past beaches lined with outrigger fishing boats and turquoise waters pockmarked with the dark blue rectangles of seaweed farms.

My destination is Goa Giri Putri, an underground pilgrimage site every Balinese Hindu is expected to complete once during their lifetime to absorb the cave’s dark energy and help bring balance to the positive side of God.

The only way to get inside is through a small crack in the floor of a small hill. 

The tiny entrance beslies the size of the cavern that waits inside, tall as a Cathedral at its centre with dozens of little shrines hidden in nooks and crannies in the dark. The cave is also home to a critically endangered crab species found nowhere else in the world. 

I don’t see a Giri Putri cave crab. But when I return to my moped, I see something 100 times more impressive: a gecko lizard the size of a small crocodile, at least one metre long, scurrying across the roof of a pair of shops.

Riding back in the direction I came, I pass Sampalanu and continue to the village Ped, the epicentre of Nusa Penida’s micro-tourism boom and home to its largest whitewashed Hindu temple. Lunch is at Penida Colada, at a wittily named beachfront lounge where half the customers are passed out on sunbeds.

After lunch, I visit The Gallery, a Fair Trade arts and crafts store run by Mike Appleton, a retired aid worker from the UK who came here in 2011 to set up a foreign visitor volunteer program. “Back then, there was no tourism at all. I was the only foreigner on the whole island,” he says. “If you read the Lonely Planet at the time, it would tell you Nusa Penida was a dry, barren place with nowhere to eat, nowhere to stay, so don’t bother going there. But over the last two years, everything has changed. We’ve now got a dozen restaurants in this village alone.”

Does Appleton fear change has come too fast?

“Tourism,” he says, “is a double-edged sword. It brings great benefits, particularly to a poor place like this, but it comes at a cost. The culture is very strong so it would be very sad if it were lost. But I don’t see things taking off as they have in Bali,” he says. “You see, the big problem here is water. There are no rivers or lakes. It will be a restrictive factor for big resorts.” As dusk approaches, I continue west to Toya Pakeh, a Muslim village on the west coast where I’ve booked a room at Agung View, one of the first modern accommodation properties on Nusa Penida. 

Built two years ago by a Czech couple who live on the island, it offers touches of luxury like air-conditioning and a communal plunge pool but, ironically, no hot water. Yet who really cares with views like these — golden sunrise over the jungle, blood-red sunsets over the sea and, dead ahead, Bali's stone colossus, Agung volcano, appearing in flashes through distant clouds.

Not Gilligan’s Island

In the morning, I take a stroll through Toya Pakeh. It has the island’s only ATM, which does not work, a gleaming silver mosque and a small rubbish-strewn wet market, where women sell organic fruits bursting with colour, fresh fish just off the boat, stinky dried fish and homemade sweets made of rice and coconut milk wrapped in banana leaves. Paired with a strong black coffee, they give me fuel for today’s mission — a ride to the towering sea cliffs and billabongs of the south coast.

The road cuts a path along hills covered with coconut trees and terraces sewn with taro, mango and banana. Little kids in school uniforms call out “hello” from the side of the road, while old women carry loads of wood on their heads. It’s the Bali of the yesteryear, minus the rice fields.

At the halfway mark, the asphalt is reduced to a mess of limestone-edged potholes, deep dusty ruts and steep rock-strewn hills. It’s a great relief when I finally reach at Angel’s Billabong, a series of neon-blue saltwater ponds stamped inside a floor in a chasm inside a sea cliff. It’s the most site on the island but also a deathtrap, susceptible to freak waves that can wash people out to sea.

Another hour on back-breaking back-country backcountry roads takes me to Kelingking (Little Finger) Beach. Also, an Instagram favourite, this perfect arch of sugar-white sand lies far, far below the road, a sheer drop of 228m to be exact, the highest on the island. It’s part of a giant pinnacle that juts out of the coast, with three more outlying pinnacles, or sea stacks, set alongside it, like the discarded chess pieces of gods.

To get to the beach, one must take a ridiculously steep walking track that drops like a bomb along the spine of the pinnacle. The only way to get down, I discover, is on all fours and even then it takes nerves of steel.

Nusa Penida is a potholed and weather-beaten place. But it’s also a place of rebirth. For what was once considered undesirable — mystery, timelessness, nature in the raw — are today’s hot potatoes.

“Here it is, a wilderness with bumpy and broken roads,” says Agung View co-owner Katerřina Cizkova 

“And relatively no tourists compared to Bali.”

Fact File

GETTING THERE

Caspla Bali offers speedboat transfers twice daily from Sanur in Bali to Nusa Penida for $50 return. See here.

STAY

Agung View. Micro-resort on the west coast with panoramic ocean and volcano views. Doubles are $80. Suites are $150. See here.