The road was getting worse. I sat in the middle of the backseat, holding on to the headrests in front of me, trying not to wipe greasy smears of sweat on the arms of those next to me. Cindy sat to my right, holding on to the roof handle to stop herself from being launched up into the ceiling. Dad was on my left, leaning awkwardly forward to prevent the loose carseat from snapping from it’s base and tumbling backwards. The back of the van was a furious orchestra of straining windows, squeaking chair fittings, rattling panels, and rocks clanging against the van’s undercarriage.
The tiny, bald tyres were struggling against such a rocky road; this little red van was surely not built for these conditions. But it turned out to be indestructible. What began as a tarmac road acned with gaping rocky potholes soon devolved into a rough-and-tumble offroad fit to challenge a Land Rover. Bushes smashed against the van’s windshield as we drove through the final part of the road (which just had one tyre track, clearly for motorbikes only). An hour of bone shaking and spine rattling was all worth it. Broken Beach. We were here.
A swimming beach it certainly was not – our driver Kedak had parked us on a cliff. But this was one of the most beautiful natural formations I’d ever seen. Puncturing this cliff was a huge, gaping hole in the earth, a hundred meters in diameter. Down in the hole was a blue and turquoise ocean, which swirled and crashed against the rocks. We could walk a full 360 degrees in a ring shape, passing over the channel that fed the rushing waves to the blue hole like a natural arch bridge. And it seemed totally undiscovered. Beyond this feature, waves violently smashed into the palisades of cliffs. That’s all we could hear. Just the sound of the ocean.
This was the island of Nusa Penida, 30 minutes boat ride from the Bali mainland, and the contrast was profound. Gone were the luxury resorts, choking traffic jams, monkey forests and cheap bars. We were staying in a hotel, one of only two that we saw on the whole island. The only restaurant we could find was attached to the hotel, and we only found one bar. (There might have been others, but we didn’t see them).
The island exports a particular type of dried seaweed (used in cosmetics), harvested from the ocean around the island and dried for a few days out in the baking sun. Life was simple and rural here. Kids rode motorbikes to school. Kedak was from here, and knew it well. He took us to Goa Giri Putri, a Hindu temple up a mountainside staircase. At the top, curiously, there was no temple to be found; just a clearing where some Hindu holy men were hanging out. That was, until, we were pointed to a hole in the ground, just big enough for a person to squeeze through. A hands and knees crawl took us to the cave. What expanded into view on the other side was a huge, empty world of dripping water, echoing voices, squeaking bats and freezing, motionless air. Inside the cave were numerous Hindu shrines and altars. The cave passage came to an end at a tiny balcony, open to the sun, looking out onto the green valley below.
Our last port of call on Nusa Penida was the beautifully named Crystal Bay, a black sand cove hemmed in by tall trees and lush green limestone hills, under guard by a tall black rock island in the middle of the bay. Normally, this beach would be another stunner in the looks department, but not today. By now, blinding white and grey clouds had blossomed across the sky. The surf was rough and cold, and garbage had washed up on the sand. We went for a beer instead of a swim.
We boarded the boat back to Bali, barefoot, over a beach of bleached coral pieces. A farmer near the ferry terminal was carrying seaweed back to shore. Whether Nusa Penida would end up being developed, and experience a tourism explosion like mainland Bali would remain to be seen. Nusa Penida has a lot of natural beauty to offer – for those willing to leave their resorts.