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Driving in Bali

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I walked around the car, kicking the tyres and looking under the bonnet in a vain attempt to appear as though I knew what I was doing. Sitting in the driver’s seat for the first time in six months, it took me a moment to remember which pedal was which. “You haven’t put the handbrake on,” I called out to the guy as I pulled it up, registering only faintly the complete lack of resistance. Only when we parked the car by some interesting looking cliffs 30 kms away did I realise why; the handbrake lever was for purely decorative purposes. It’s ability to hold the car was precisely nil.

On the level roads of northwest Bali, this posed little problem. The fuel gauge was a far more pressing concern. The car had arrived with an empty tank, and we had headed straight to the nearest garage to fill up. The garage in Lovina Beach is obviously well used to tourists arriving to fill up their rental cars, and the staff have developed a smooth little scam to part them with their money. While we are far from invulnerable when it comes to such things, we’re probably a little more on the ball than the average package tourist on Bali, so when the attendant asked for the money, I looked at the pumps to check it tallied. “None of these say 20,000 Rupiah,” I said with a smile. “How much did you put in?” “Oh, it was that pump there,” he replied. “Some-one else is using it now” “But that one only said 10,000,” chipped in Caelen. “Ah, yes, 10,000, that’s right. Did you want more?” he asked innocently. “No, 10,000 is just fine,” I responded, still smiling. I wasn’t giving that conman any more of our cash.

So now, miles into our journey, the fuel tank read empty. We had no idea how far it was to the next petrol station, but the increasing prevalence of roadside stalls selling motorbike fuel in old Coke and Fanta bottles suggested it was some distance yet. Nor did we know how reliable the fuel gauge actually was, but given the state of the handbrake we didn’t want to take anything for granted. And we certainly didn’t want to discover its accuracy the hard way.

We drove past several stalls, saying “Oh look, there’s one. Maybe we should have stopped,” as we drove on. Finally we managed the logical leap and pulled over just past one. The old man who shuffled out to us spoke no Engkish, and we spoke no Indonesian. After a brief conversation, confusion reigned supreme on all sides. We couldn’t figure out which, if any, of the soft drink bottles contained petrol rather than diesel, and the old man seemed unable to enlighten us. Images of the horror that would be unleashed if we put diesel in our petrol tank flashed across our minds and we hit the road again, hoping we’d find a more certain source of petrol before coming to a complete standstill.

At the next stall, we felt a little more confidence in the bottles’ contents, and shelled out four times the (honest) petrol station rate for two litres. 40 kilometres later, we pulled in with considerable relief to the petrol station at Gilimanuk, Bali’s westernmost point and the port for departures to Java.

As we drove west along the north coast, the sheltered waters of the Bali Sea lapped gently on black sandy shores, while on our right the land grew increasingly arid and mountainous, the rocky outcrops and tussocky grass at odds with the lush green image of Bali. South of Gilimanuk and the Bali Strait, the change was sudden and dramatic, the huge breakers of the Indian Ocean pounding the rocky shore. The land is grows fertile again, the rice paddies stretching as far as the eye can see.

Bali is a very touristy place, but the resorts are concentrated in the north and east of the island. Outside of these places, traditional Balinese culture thrives, the pace is slow and gentle, and children smile and wave at the few tourists who pass by. As the road moved inland, we headed down a narrow road up and down steep hills to the coast. The surf crashed around us as we strolled along, delving in the rocky pools and watching a few local children flying kites. After a leisurely lunch we set off again, negotiating our way carefully along the winding lane.

Until the car cut out trying to climb a particularly steep hill in second gear. Now the lack of a handbrake posed more of an issue. I couldn’t start the car without rolling, no matter how quickly I switched my foot from brake to accelerator. And as I started to roll, the car would once again cut out. At the top of the hill was a junction with a bigger road, where I would need to stop and check for oncoming traffic before moving out. I could tell that, if I ever made it there, this would be a problem.

There was only one thing for it – roll right down the hill to the flat, start the car, and keep on going through the junction no matter what. Caelen got out to stop the traffic, and to wave on the group of Balinese ladies who had been waiting (for some time) to let me out. I started the car, and began crawling up, not daring to think about what would happen if the hill proved to much even in first gear. Success! We took off up the road with some relief, the Balinese women laughing at us and waving as we passed, red-faced and flustered.

Our road home led across Bali’s mountainous interior, and after the first handbrake incident I was hoping to avoid stopping again. This proved a little optimistic, as it seemed that every few kilometres we passed another ceremony, with locals in traditional sarongs, gold headdresses and wonderful turbans. We could just about resist the urge to stop to take photographs, but we couldn't ignore the ornately dressed gentlemen stopping the traffic to let the parades process along the small village streets.
Fortunately we managed to avoid any major incidents, and as made our way back to Lovina over misty mountain passes, through lush forests and past jade rice paddies terraced up infeasibly steep hillsides, the beautiful scenery was almost lost on us as I kept my eyes glued firmly on the road ahead while Caelen snored gently beside me.

Pictures - click to enlarge
Picture of the jeep we rented in Bali Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of rice harvesting Bali Indonesia travelogues
The jeep with no handbrake

Harvesting rice in northern Bali

Picture of fishing boats Bali Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of an empty beach
Boats on Lovina beach

The wild and deserted south west coast

Picture of our swimming pool in Lovina Bali Indonesia travelogues
Photograph of our balcony in Lovina
Luxury in Lovina

Our garden in Lovina