Three Nights in a Balinese Hill Station
‘Bad road,’ our driver comments as he turns onto a stony track. ‘But perhaps it is a good hotel.’ He doesn’t sound optimistic. He’s never delivered tourists to the ‘Munduk Moding Plantation Resort’ before – never even heard of the place. And the sign on the main road had been very plain.
We reach a car park bounded by a high hedge. As he stops the vehicle, Nyoman turns to me. ‘If you do not like it, just phone me. I will come and take you away.’
I nod, accepting his concern – we met him a whole two days earlier; he is ‘our’ driver now and we are under his care. Then I exchange looks with my sister, who booked this place on the internet. She shrugs, but smiles. We both know that no matter what the place is like, I’ll try to make her feel she’s made a fair choice. It’s how we were brought up.
From nowhere, smiling porters dressed in traditional Balinese style uniforms appear to collect our bags. Waving farewell to Nyoman, we follow them towards the gap in the hedge. There we come face to face with a fine stone statue of the elephant-human Ganesh. Decorated with bright marigolds, the god of success and destroyer of obstacles is impressive. His bulk fills the gap in a second hedge, hiding what lies beyond.
We walk down a long path bordered with lush trees and shrubs with colourful flowers I’ve never seen before. There are coffee plants, palm trees, tropical plants of many kinds. They screen the distance, leaving us still without any sense of where we are. It is impossible not to think of fairy tales – the rough path, the destination hidden from view.
A two-storey building appears ahead, simple in design and modest in scale. At a reception desk set in a corner of an open plan room, we are greeted by a serious-faced Balinese man – the manager. He places wreaths of marigolds around our necks. This very Indian gesture feels appropriate up here in the highlands of North Bali. After all, India is the home of resort towns or villages where people go to escape the dusty heat of the plains in the hot season. The British Raj made the hill station of Simla, in the foothills of the Himalayas, famous as the summer seat of colonial government. The very term ‘hill station’ conjures visions of English ladies in white muslin dresses, sipping gins and tonics, their menfolk lounging in linen suits – scenes straight out of films like ‘Heat and Dust’ and ‘A Passage to India’.
The welcome drink arrives. We’re used to being offered glasses of fruit juice, perhaps with a frangipani flower artfully emerging from the end of a straw. Not here. We’re offered a cocktail in a martini glass. Clear golden liquid floats above a layer of deep ruby red. The waiter explains that the special ingredient is grenadier. The way he says the word makes it sound rare and mysterious. Expect something different, the message seems to be. The cocktail proves not to have any hallucinatory effect, though my mind returns to it the next day when I hear about some local honey made by bees who’ve been sipping from the trumpet blooms of the datura tree.
Cocktail in hand I stroll into the dining area, where tables are set ready for lunch. Glass doors have been folded back, effectively removing the front wall. Outside there is a wooden deck with rows of wooden sun lounges beneath green umbrellas. But they barely register. The eye is captured by one of the most beautiful pools I’ve ever seen. The stillness of the water is interrupted only by tiny birds swooping to pluck insects from the surface, their beaks sending out small ripples.
At the far end of the pool the water blends seamlessly into a matching sky. The air is filled with haze, obscuring the view. There seems to be nothing beyond the edges of this little world. It really is like being in Jack and the Beanstalk’s magic land, founded on a cloud.
Later, when I enter the water, it’s almost frightening to approach the end. Eternity seems real and close. The pool itself feels like a place to bathe, rather than swim. My own immersion reminds me of watching Sadhus bathing in the Ganges. When I get out, I find myself walking over the lawns that lie below the deck, round to the end of the pool – feeling a flutter of surprise when I see an ordinary patch of lawn and a couple of chairs.
We are guided to our villa. The path is long with lots of stone steps – this resort is definitely a place for the able-bodied. Cars are not allowed inside this hilly haven.
Set in the absolute privacy of its own dense shrubs, the villa is pure modern Balinese luxury – the décor simple and pleasing. I like the dark timber furniture. It reminds me of my childhood home in Tanzania. Veneered surfaces are more eco-friendly, but they don’t have the solid presence of the real thing. There is one big bed, even though we’d asked for a twin room. My sister and I don’t mind – it takes us back to days of sharing beds with siblings when visiting other missionary families. There were four of us kids and no one had lots of spare beds. I eye the generous mosquito net draping the bed-frame. Tonight, when we climb into its comforting cocoon I know we’ll feel a sense of absolute safety – as if the flimsy barrier could protect us not just from biting insects, but intruders, snakes, even bad dreams.
I’m a messy traveler and so is my sister. We don’t waste time unpacking – even with the lure of the huge, dark-wood cupboards. The design of this villa suits us. The dressing area, with its two sinks, shower and large terrazzo bath – and now our two suitcases, spilling clothes – is screened off from the rest of the space. The lounge area with its candles and fruit basket; the vast bed,;the fridge, with the tea and coffee supplies laid out on the wooden top – all this remains looking just as it would in a brochure. Neat and perfect. It’s how I’d like to live all the time, but never seem to achieve…
A folder on the table makes it clear that there will be no shortage of things to do while we’re here. Should we become tired of reading by the pool, or swimming, we can tour the Munduk Moding coffee plantation, take a cooking lesson from the head chef, enjoy massages of various kinds offered in the spa, take guided treks into the surrounding area. Or go horse-riding.
We seize on this. There were no horses in the part of Africa where we grew up – they’re too vulnerable to rift valley fever. But in our new home in Tasmania, the three of us sisters became devoted horse girls. Beginning with one cheap and very dangerous ex-stock pony – that broke my nose and blackened my eye on the first day we brought her home – we slowly built an odd collection of mounts, ranging from a permanently lame Welsh Mountain pony (also cheap) to an ageing ex-racehorse (free). Like most girls I abandoned horses when I turned my attention to boys. But like any old love, the passion for horses remains inside you.
The information about the Munduk Moding horses inspires confidence – hard hats will be provided – and the two horses in the photos look healthy. I remember being offered pony rides in the Indian hill station of Mount Abu in Rajasthan, a favourite resort town not of the British but of well-off Indian families. The ponies looked so tired and hungry that instead of riding the poor creatures you wanted to pay for them to have a rest and a drink. We decide riding is the thing we most want to do – even though we both share the same view of hired horses. It’s a letdown after having your own horse, where each encounter is a new chapter in a long term relationship. Up here, though, in this remote part of a foreign land, we won’t be riding as much as exploring a new world from the vantage point of a saddle.
But that’s for tomorrow. Today we’ll take lunch in the dining room overlooking the pool. Then we’ll take up residence on the sun lounges. The resort is small, the guests few. In such a place – wrapped up together in mist and surrounded by a garden where plants seem to have been chosen with a painter’s eye for colour – it’s necessary to swap greetings, but not to chat. There don’t appear to be any other Australians. I peek at the covers of magazines and novels and identify French, German and Dutch titles.
I suspect a German couple is on their honeymoon. They both wear very shiny gold rings. As I stroll past later on, I see that the young woman is writing cards and ticking names off a list. She’s still on her honeymoon and she’s writing her thank yous. I bet she’s unpacked her suitcase as well – perhaps his too. She holds up her pen to show her new husband how much ink she’s used up. He smiles and returns to his crime novel. There is a pair of French women who may be lovers, I speculate. I wonder if my sister and I are assumed to be lovers, or if our blood-tie is somehow detectable. We don’t look alike.
Propped up on my lounge, sunglasses in place, I open my novel. It doesn’t take long to discover my choice of novel is completely wrong. I’d bought the latest Anita Shreve at the airport (buying a book for a trip is a ritual for me). But the gritty realism of a car accident followed by an encounter with alcoholism jars. I abandon it in favour of something lyrical and historical. It’s better, but not perfect. And anyway, I’m distracted by the constantly changing view. One moment I look up and glimpse the outline of a distant mountain. Next, it is gone. Instead, the wide expanse of the ocean, down below us, is not so much visible as faintly suggested. It’s like the breath into cold air of a person hidden from view.
I wonder if we’ll ever see the scene fully revealed. Years ago I spent a week, with my husband and baby, in the Indian village of Mussoorie in the foothills of the Himalayas. It was the hot season and a permanent haze completely obscured a reputedly breathtaking view of the world’s most famous mountains. We had to make do with buying a black and white photograph of the scene from a local photographer.
At four o’clock in the afternoon – as promised by the folder in our villa – tea is served out here by the pool. There is a choice of ginger tea, or brewed coffee from the plantation. It arrives on a tray set out with white crockery and napery. There is also a plate with just two small sweets on it. I’ve never been offered anything quite like this before. The chef has made balls of pale green pancake batter (coloured with pandan leaves). Inside each ball is a syrupy centre of coconut and palm sugar. It takes only two mouthful to eat – just the right size for someone considering a two or three course dinner, preceded by a margarita sundowner. Or will I summon the courage to order the Arak sour, made from palm wine, lime juice and warm water? A recording of gamelan music plays in the background, not too loud. I wait for that moment – familiar to me from Balinese restaurants – when the phraseless (to my ear) music will begin to feel relentless, wearing on my nerves. Instead, the recording fades tactfully into silence, letting birdsong take over. I notice that, although the morning is long gone, roosters are still crowing at each other, incessantly, back and forth across the steep-sided valleys. Now that I’m focusing on them I’m wondering if the gamelan might not be preferable after all.
There are only two horses in the whole Munduk area, we’re told. And here they are, standing out in the parking area beyond the hedge, on the threshold to the real world. They are both smallish – almost ponies. The pamphlet referred to them as stallions and a quick check proves this to be true. I’ve never ridden a stallion before. I’m not sure I’ve actually even seen one close up. They are well-groomed, manes cut short; their unshod feet are neatly clipped. Colourful saddle blankets add a traditional flair to their appearance. There is a handler for each. They help us swing up into our saddles. Soon, I’m sitting on Mega, a white horse, and my sister’s riding the dark-coated Gendis.
I’ve ridden through bushland and on riverbanks and beaches but today brings something new. We ride out along the rough track that had so worried our driver earlier on. We leave cloudland behind. Soon we’re riding along an earthern footpath winding between garden plots, fields and the odd neatly laid out homestead with its family temple. Soon we enter an area of amazing three tiered plantations. The understorey is made up of blue hydrangeas, grown for the markets in Denpasar for use in ceremonies. Rising above the sea of blue are trees dotted with ripe mandarins – a belt of green spotted with orange. And towering over the mandarins are red-flowered coral trees, planted for shade and to attract birds and butterflies.
As we amble long we attract friendly stares and waves from farmers and their kids. I’m not sure if we tourists are the object of interest or the horses, or both. Clearly, visitors have not yet worn out their welcome. Farmers hurry over to give us mandarins. We persuade our guides to remove the lead ropes, leaving us in charge of our mounts. I feel the pleasure of sitting well into the saddle, hands down, back straight. Once you have a ‘good seat’ you don’t lose it. Were this horse to dance and even buck a little, I think I’d stay put. Clare and I exchange remembering smiles. We girls all had ‘good seats’. A patient of our father’s once told him that children should not learn to ride with saddles so we went bareback for years. There was a joke that the girls in the family had the thighs of an Aussie rules footballer – though built on a more elegant scale, luckily. As I begin directing Mega, he swivels his ears back curiously. It occurs to me that a Balinese horse may have been taught different signals, different words. Observing our guides, I find this is true. Where we click our tongues to say ‘hurry up’, they hiss.
The plantations eventually give way to thick forest, then to sections of market garden, and plots of coffee bushes. At one point, my guide plunges into the forest and reappears with a ripe tamarillo for each of us. Later, we duck our heads under avocados hanging from branches and pass laden jackfruit trees. It feels like the Garden of Eden.
The path leads us eventually to a place where we stop at a lookout, gazing down over two big lakes, deep blue-green water surrounded by wooded hills. At dinner, when I ask one of the waiters where he lives he answers, ‘in the village near the two lakes’, as if he, too, were part of a fairy story.
We return by a different route, passing through the village of Asa Goblek that borders Munduk Moding Plantation. (This is confusing as the hill station called Munduk is nearly half an hour’s drive from here.) I see a man going door to door with a basket of knives on his back. I ask my guide to call him over. My teenage son forges knife blades in his spare time and also collects handmade knives. From the saddle, I negotiate buying two kitchen knives – having first judged that being single edged and not too long, they’ll be allowed into Australia. (Our family has already given away two good knives to Australian Customs.)
Buying household knives is obviously not a common habit of visitors but the onlookers offer approving smiles. Even the watching dog stops barking. She begins wagging the distinctive long-haired tail that curves over her back. She’s a Kintimani – a unique Balinese breed rarely seen outside Indonesia. Some experts believe they’re a blend of fox, wolf and dog. I’ve heard there are fears the Kintimani bloodlines are being diluted by interbreeding with imported dogs. These days the prestige dog in Bali seems to be the Golden Retriever, known simply – almost reverently – as a ‘Golden’. As we ride on, I’m struck again by the realization that there are many fewer dogs around in Bali today – a big change from even six months ago when I was last here. Fear of rabies has resulted in widespread culling, especially of the feral Bali Street Dog – a shorter-haired relative of the Kintimani. It’s a relief not to see sick and starving dogs in the streets. But I do miss the wondrous sight of a dog with no collar bustling off into the forest intent on its own mission, no owner in sight.
At the end of the ride, we go straight to the villa for a shower, then to a meeting with the local traditional healer. I suspect the idea of a resort offering guests an appointment with a Balian could be a result of ‘that book’, which inspires such mixed feelings in Bali. ‘Eat Pray Love’. This is not where my interest comes from though. I’m working on a new novel involving a character who is a spiritual healer in present day Tanzania. I want to see how this Balinese healer works.
But that’s something for another blog.