So near to Island of the Gods, yet so far…
It’s only a 30 minute speed boat ride from Bali across the Badung Strait but Nusa Penida is another world entirely. The waters around this island are notorious in diving circles for strong currents and the chance to see the elusive ocean sunfish but most divers arrive by boat, explore the underwater world and leave again without setting foot on land. This had always been our experience and indeed we knew the names of the villages only as they corresponded to dive sites along the coast!
We arrived at the dock at Toyapakeh, rented a scooter and headed north to the village of Ped with its view of the sacred volcano Mount Agung in the east of Bali. We know Ped from the dive site Pura Ped so we had to go check out the temple by the sea. We were blessed by some beautiful cloud action over Bali to the west and the line of traditional jukungs on the beach.
The island is reputed to be like Bali was 30 years ago, before the tourist boom brought affluence. The buildings are simple, the livestock plenty and the people so friendly that you can stop to chat to anyone.
In contrast to the simple houses is the money that is being invested in the local temples. As on Bali, these temples are intrinsically linked to family and community life. Historically, the island was inhabited by dark spirits, demons and gods and the struggle between good and evil led by the Hindu high priests brought with it the name Penida, meaning “Island of the Holy People”. The island later became a penal colony for criminals from the Klungkung kingdom in Bali and cemented its’ demonic reputation. Since then Penida has been revered by the Balinese Hindus who make pilgrimages to the island. These visits are thought to give the negative balance to the positive side of divinity; the balance between light and dark, which is fundamental to Balinese Hinduism.
We visited the Pura Goa Giri Putra with its tiny, keyhole entrance in the stone. We scrambled through the gap and as we unbent our backs we saw the low entrance open up into a huge cavern full of supplicants and Hindu trappings. We spoke to a few people who were visiting from Bali to pay their respects to the dark moon.
On Penida the roads are narrow, steep and in pretty bad shape. Some of them have had asphalt at one time in their lives but very little remains except pot-holes. With two of us on a scooter you get saddle sore quickly. We headed to the south coast with its towering limestone cliffs and panoramic views over Batu Abah, another dive site we have been to. It was interesting to see the river of current from our vantage point above in comparison to the last time we experienced it up close and personal while trying to get back on a dive boat!
On the cliffs above Atuh Beach you have picture postcard, panoramic views over the pulau seribu (thousand islands). There are only really half a dozen limestone rocks but they are impressive all the same, especially the arched rock in front of the beach.
Just further along the coast we saw a sign saying Suwehan Beach 150m….we should have realized that the distance was vertically down the cliff! Then once we get the beach in sight we spot the rope provided to navigate the last shere 10m drop! But what a beautiful spot and we were the only ones there, which is hardly surprising as the descent was in places steep and strenuous.
On the south west coast the erosion to the island’s limestone has created more natural wonders. Broken Beach is a favourite destination with visitors. This is another impressive limestone arch with waves crashing through in to an enclosed bay. If you walk a little further on then you reach Angels Billabong, a natural infinity pool. This is beautiful but danger lurks from freak waves that have recently been known to wash the unsuspecting tourist out to sea, never to be seen again.
As we drive around this, as yet, unspoilt island it is hard to see how the local people can make a living. There is a village which weaves some unique ikat and we just had to relieve them of a few choice examples for souvenirs. The cash crop here is seaweed, farmed in the shallows around the North and West coasts but rising sea levels threaten this aquaculture, which feeds the cosmetic and food industries. Traditional crops of cassava, corn and coconut still abound, but no rice is grown on Penida. We travelled some of the more remote roads of the island, more as a result of being lost than on purpose, and the terracing of the hillsides provides an impressive backdrop to our journey.