Bali, 16th September 2020 – As plans go, it was pretty simple: get up early as usual and head up to look at the new penjors for Galungan around Tampaksiring etc. The best laid plans…  

text and photos ©Rio Helmi

Normally I’m up around 4:00. But I had been woken up by the dogs around 2:00 am and it took me an hour to go back to sleep – by the time I got up it was 5:15. Such is my forgiving heart that I gave the dogs their breakfast anyway, but it might have been a slightly less friendly affair than usual. The waning moon was up over the mountain in the dawn light, and I got suckered into getting a camera out . As I walked back to the bedroom, Mt Agung was even clearer through the frangipanis – but I thought, I’m not getting seduced by that mountain again, I’ll just snap it with my smart phone. ( see lead photo)


Slightly off kilter, I went about my morning routine but hesitated about hitting the road. Come to think of it I did hear some pigs squealing in the dark hours of the morning – yesterday was penampahan galungan, literally the Galungan slaughter. I thought to myself I’ve shot and witnessed that at least 30 times over the years, I just don’t feel like the whole grisly affair today.

Humming and hawing away, it was about 7:30 before I actually loaded my aging bike up  (a scrappy BMW F800GS which contrary to the tradition of certain internet adventure stars I refuse to name or assign gender to). Yes, loaded: two cameras and two lenses ( wide zoom and slightly longer zoom) in a bag in the right pannier (easy to access quickly when the bike is on its side stand), another camera with a pretty long lens (if you’re into details, the equivalent of a 150-600mm zoom on a full frame camera) in the top box at the back, and a drone in the tired tank bag, squashed in with my water bottle. Thankful that I had adjusted the chain and checked the tyre pressure the day before.  I get my gear  and helmet on and swing a leg over.

Damn. Forgot my mask. Off I get, off comes the helmet, on goes the mask and everything else again. Finally I roll out the metal gates, with my man Ketut “Frog” (he’s had that name long before I met him, so chill) holding back the traffic: exactly one old lady trundling along on ancient scooter so slowly that there was barely enough gyroscopic force to keep it upright. But Ketut gets officious at times like this; although there’s always a huge grin (and a cackle) ready to burst out.

I decide I’ll swing through Bangli and up then cut back through Tampaksiring. I have this thing sometimes of not going back over the same route. By the time I’m going through Bangli I’m itching to shoot something but nothing catches me, all the penjors seem a little spindly this year, I guess covid-19 has made it’s mark on culture too. Until… I almost missed it, stop then swing the overloaded beemer u-turn back. There they are: about 20 fully decorated penjors being assembled by about 10 men in old funky sweat pants or well loved sarongs by the side of the road.  I love when the first shots of the day are fun.

Kadek Sutodana (mid frame) oversees the whole production. He gets orders for simple penjors for around Rp 350,000.-  right up to fancy ones for around Rp 1.5 million. Penjors are a big deal, their somewhat vague religious significance aside it can be a bit of keeping up with the Joneses. He’s a busy man, and our conversation is short and polite but we’re good. I keep shooting. And he keeps getting orders. Let’s hear it for local micro-economies

As I head off exploring some of the back roads of Bangli, going to down a dead end to run into (no, not literally) a priest (Ida Resi, so he proclaimed, though he too was wearing baggy old sweat pants) shoveling some fertile looking black loam into sacks for his garden. I wouldn’t dare try and ask to take a picture of him in his pyjamas. Besides I need breakfast. So to Pura (temple) Kehen I go to one of my designated warungs. They tend to be designated by nice, chatty owners. Sure enough they are open. Grandchildren run screaming in and out, the son tries to feed his kids, we all join in chiding one of the boys who puts on a great big drama about mercurochrome being put on his cut up knee. “See, you’re all yelling ‘no hands no hands’ on the bike, and when you fall it’s a big fuss.” his father tells him off gently. We exchange knowing glances – we both have been there. I tell the kid “…you should try it on my bike” but I don’t tell him about my offs!

As usual there are ten different conversations going on as people come and go. The man across the road is trimming his yellow coconut tree, and a couple of people get given the young yellow coconuts which come in handy for rituals and medicine. It’s the Bali hood, and it hasn’t really changed at this level. The dad tries to offer me some freshly made lawar (chopped up meat and vegetables mixed with fresh blood), and the grandma insists,  but I’m now coming up to my 50th year as a vegetarian – I decline. They all immediately understand – how things have changed, a couple of decades ago “vegetarian” would have required 15 minutes of explanation.  He apologizes, but thankfully isn’t embarrased. We’re cool: he sits down and works his way through the plate. I usually have a packed breakfast but this was going to be just a short run so here I am empty handed and empty stomached. I need to be resourceful. So a glass of steaming Bali coffee and one too many jaja pia cookies later I finally take my leave, we’re smiles all around.

Automatically, brain on auto pilot, I turn left on the main road and suddenly I’m on the way to Rendang. It’s a habit from the months going up to the observatory 4 times a week. Damn mountain has caught me again! But it’s a nice day for a change…. I top up at the pump in Rendang, and head on, past the observatory. If I go in I’ll end up spending a couple of hours chatting to the guys – but I’m on a mission. Not really sure what the mission is but I’m on it. Down the windy road, over Yeh Sah river where huge lahar flows once swept ricefields away, up through Muncan and then a loop. I’m trying to line up penjors in a row with Agung in the back. You know, stupid preconceived stuff.

But the sirens at Pura Pasar Agung, the highest temple of it’s caliber in Bali, have got their hooks out – so on to Selat, where I catch sight of a bird feeding on  the rice stalks decorating a penjor. There’s no big long line of penjors but who cares, it’s a nice little scene. I stop and pull the long lens out. A couple of ladies across the road watch as I shoot. I cross the road and shoot from just below them. I greet them politely and they smile warmly back. 

I hop back on the bike and continue through the village, at which point I realize that my fly is undone. So much for charm with the ladies, they’re probably slapping their knees and  cackling right now. Then up the gravel truck wrecked road to Sebudi and Sogra, through the green forest. Wait a minute – wow look how lush this is now! During the recent eruptive  episode of Agung everything was brown and dried out here. Now below the tree line the fern trees are back in full force in their micro-climate gullies.

The bike purrs up through the twisties; this must be what the Bavarians designed it for. I pass a climbing guide I know who tells me his clients are still at the parking lot. I don’t give him any grief – it’s still technically a no go zone, but it’s been slim pickings for these guys. On a tight, steep corner I spy another one  of my climbing guide friends making his penjor. I haven’t seen him for years, and to be painfully honest I’ve forgotten his proper name and somehow remember him as ‘gendut‘ (fat one). We have a long natter about the state of affairs. Life has been particularly brutal for these climbing guides – after two years of Agung being a no-go zone  and now the corona virus. He is pushing for there to be an Agung Festival in 2021. He asks me to talk to the volcanology people to see what they think. We exchange some unpublishable views about how the government has been handling this crisis, then I move on.

Up in the parking lot of Pura Pasar Agung I find the French people hydrating and eating cold sandwiches, two guys and one gal. They’re friendly and nice, and from the French Alps. They tell me that despite that, after a few years in Bali they aren’t used to the cold anymore. And up at the crater when the wind is blowing it does get cold. After a few minutes my confidence gets up and my high school French comes out. In my case it’s a matter of a good accent with a somewhat made up vocabulary. They ask me if I’ve ever climbed it – yes, that would have been on my 50th birthday, huffing and puffing while Karim Rabik gamboled around like Bambi.  Anyway, it’s time to get the drone up – I would like a shot that situates Pura Pasar Agung clearly on the flanks of the mountain (a future project too early to talk about).

We chat for a while more but they need a warm meal. As we part ways, one of the guys says “Your French is very good.” You know when a French man says that he means “not bad for a rusty old foreign dude”.  But he promises to come back in 4 years to climb Agung with me on my 70th birthday. I am delighted, I tell them they can carry me up. It’s good to part ways laughing.

I bounce down the back road to Selat Duda, then east to down my favorite stretch to Sibetan. The bike flicks from side to side, and with the exception of a 300 meter stretch where some idiot has spilled a thin trail of diesel out of his tank (it’s all on the left side) all is good. I’m glad I caught the tell tale rainbow reflections of the fuel before I leaned the bike over on it. Diesel slick is nasty. And somehow my country men have no conscience about doing things like that.

By now I’m hungry, and the bike seems to be moving faster. I’ve sent a message to Penny Williams, chef and owner at the fabulous Bali Asli restaurant, but no answer yet. So I settled for my old haunt, the warung across the road from Tirta Gangga. “Hey long time no see, how are you?” “I’m good, how are things, quiet?”. It’s become a ritual. A heaping plate of rice and veggies (and inevitably nooodles mixed in) later, I connect with Penny. The restaurant is closed today for Penampahan Galungan , so good thing I had lunch, but she invites me over for coffee.

A tiny twisty, slightly bumpy road through overhanging bamboo, under the peaks of Lempuyang, past tiny hamlets and  suddenly a big lontar (palm leaf scripture) museum later, I’m there. What a vista: Agung in full frame. English born, Australian raised Penny, a chef trained at the Savoy, and with years of experience in the international chichi world,  is charming and fun. Plenty of adventures around the world later, she has left most of that behind and focuses on her rustic chic  Bali Asli restaurant. We have coffee and chat and chat and chat. But she still has to do the offerings, so she does her thing and I get the drone up again. Time flies with it. What a great place.

Too soon, it’s time to go – it’s always better to leave before you get booted out. I decide to go up the northern route up from Tianyar to Pempatan near Besakih. On the way I see Agung venting steadily. I’m glad it was windy up there, those French people might have caught a lungful of some kind of gas. I snap the mountain at intervals along the way.

I leave the high speed coastal highway at Tianyar and head up to the pass at the top of Ban village. As I head up this small and somewhat crumbling road a number of big, flash cars come flying down the road leaving barely enough space for anyone else. It looks like a lot of well off families going back home for the holidays to pray at their ancestral shrines. Despite calling themselves Hindus, the ancestral worship aspect of Balinese belief is indelible. Meanwhile that loud horn is a good investment as I don’t really want to be anyone’s ancestor very soon. Finally as I come over the pass, past Pura Gae and up to Kintamani I’ve clearly left the rain shadow behind. The clouds cover the mountain. I push on. I call in for a quick swim at the Alila, again: “Has it been quiet?” etc etc. But it’s great because the staff and I get to chat. It’s late afternoon when I get home but I feel refreshed.

There was a heavy rain in the early hours of the morning in Ubud, and the dawn was red but the mountain was visible,  2 days running! A record for this last two months. I couldn’t resist putting the drone up. And as I went up to my bedroom to get something, there was Agung in the Frangipanis again. 24 hours later.


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