Arrivals & Departures Off beaten track on Island of the Gods

IAN NEUBAUER hops on a dirt bike and bypasses Bali’s touristy attractions for a very different view of the popular locale

Every year, more than a million Australians visit Bali. Yet the vast majority venture no further than the well-trodden beach resorts of Kuta and Seminyak, or the jungle town of Ubud made famous by the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love.

But when I flew to Bali, I wanted to get off the beaten track. And I figured one of the best ways to do that was on a guided dirt bike tour.

My enquiries led me to Bali Dirt Bikes, a tour company that offers a wide range of terrain experiences, from the beach, to the jungle, to the sand dunes of Kintamani volcano — the so-called rooftop of Bali. But rather than choose one kind of terrain over the other, I opted for a tour that compresses all four terrain styles into an action-packed weekend ride to take me from the sea to the sky on the Island of the Gods.

THE BALI OF OLD

The beaches in Perth may be great for swimming and surfing. But if you try riding a dirt bike along any of them, you’d find yourself in the back of a paddy wagon.

But in the long empty black sand beaches of east Bali, riding on the beach is par for the course, with the hard-packed sand providing an ideal terrain to get accustomed to my KTM dirt bike. I’m accompanied by Dika, a switched-on local who spent a decade working in hotels until he scored his dream job as a motorbike guide.

After half an hour’s racing along the sand, we hit a rocky headland that forces us to detour onto the coastal road. It’s a typical Balinese thoroughfare, only one-and-a-half lanes wide and heaving with traffic. Riding along it is not much fun so I couldn’t be happier when Dika zooms off the road onto a dirt track that takes us deep into a thick green forest.

Within moments, we’re transported to the Bali of old, passing stone-age villages that seem frozen in time, ancient Hindu temples guarded by fang-tooth gargoyles and waterlogged rice paddies where farmers in conical hats plant crops by hand, the same way their ancestors have for thousands of years.

From there, Dika takes me along a slippery uphill track with increasingly tight turns. I’m doing OK until I hit a 90-degree turn hidden by thick green vegetation. When I try to correct my course, I lose my forward inertia and hit the ground.

There begins a tragedy of errors where I come off three more times within the space of a few minutes. The incline is not overly technical but the strain of picking up a 100kg dirt bike in the stifling heat on terrain so slippery I can barely find a purchase for my feet takes the fight out of me, and I have no choice but to hand my bike to Dika for an assist.

Late in the afternoon, we ride into a wide, dry river valley on the northern foothills of Mt Agung — a 3031m volcano that’s been threatening to erupt for the past two years. The last time it blew its top in 1963, 1600 people were killed, another 86,000 lost their homes and the rest of the island went hungry for a year after ash deposits ruined the rice harvest.

Residue from the lava flow can still be seen in this riverbed today in the form of a red dye that colours the rocks, which is why locals who live in straw huts around here call it the Red River of Bali. Overshadowed by the ominous volcano now shrouded in long wispy clouds and bathed in the soft orange light of the setting sun, the Red River looks like a scene straight out of Africa. I wanted to see atypical parts of Bali, and these guys delivered in spades. But it’s just a prelude, Dika says, to what we’ll see tomorrow when we hit the black lava sands of Kintamani crater.

THE ROOFTOP OF BALI

We spend the night at Tulamben, a sleepy little dive resort on Bali’s north coast home to the wreck of the USS Liberty, an American cargo ship torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942 that rests only metres offshore.

After a hearty cooked breakfast, we fuel up our bikes and head west along the coastal road before veering inland along a clay road that takes us into the Besakih forest. With towering hardwood trees, bristling ferns big as cars and the sounds of birds and monkeys reverberating through the jungle, Besakih looks and feels like it belongs in Amazon.

After lunch, we hit the Kintamani rainforest, carving a path along small gorges formed by the gushing rains that inundate Bali during the rainy season. At times, these gorges are so narrow and deep we have to ride with our legs raised in the air.

We also cross paths with a dozen-odd boys and men from the Four Riders Dirt Bike Club of Seminyak. Dika explains they are the sons and grandsons of the dirt-poor fisherman who lived on what was historically one of the poorest areas of Bali. But then came the tourism boom, with Seminyak at its epicentre, and those dirt-poor fishermen became millionaire landowners overnight. These shiny new dirt bikes are but the tips of their fortunes.

The final leg of our ride takes us to the town of Kintamani, which sits on the edge of the twin craters of Mt Batur at 1500m above sea level. From here, one can normally see awesome 180-degree views of the lakes that formed inside the crater and the remains of a volcano that erupted some 25,000 years ago. Yet on this day, Kintamani is shrouded in mist.

The fog melts away as we ride down a serpentine path into the craters, revealing a landscape that looks like it belongs on the Moon. We spend an hour or so scampering up pyramid-shaped hills, flying into the air and messing up clouds of fine black dust. But when the dust settles we get down to work — taking on one of toughest off-road challenge in Bali: the Hillclimb from Hell. The only way up the 400m high slope, Dika explains, it to crank the throttle in third gear and then drop to first sans clutch just as you start to lose inertia near the top.

It sounded easy enough, but actually doing it is pretty much the opposite of easy. The dusty sand on the surface of the crater is so damn fine that even riding on it in a straight line is hard. Add half-buried rocks the size of helmets and a series of natural whoops on the final approach of the hill, and you’ve got a recipe for heartache.

My first attempt is laughable, as is my second and third.

But I refuse to give up, each time cranking my two-banger faster and harder until my ninth attempt when I climb the damn hill and smash it into the next century.


Fact File

Bali Dirt Bikes two-day enduro tour includes accommodation, fuel, meals, pick and drop-off from your hotel, safety gear and a near-new KTM dirt bike. Prices start at $700 for two days. See balidirtbikes.com

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