Wonder in Nusa Penida

Holy places are everywhere in Bali. From a small roadside stone shrine tucked between a mini-mart and a laundry service to a meditation space clinging to the side of a sea-pummelled cliff, the spiritual is ever present.

Whilst I’ve always tended to err on the side of observer rather than participant when it comes to spirituality, I’m continuously moved by the force, beauty and complexity of nature. On Nusa Penida – an island nestled between Bali and Lombok – two awe-inspiring holy spaces harness the power of the natural to create a sense of something beyond this world.

First, the journey to reach them: the rush of a motorbike snaking through verdant banana palms; skirting whitewashed beaches studded with seaweed farms; scooting through local villages with children tearing past us on motorbikes, chickens and dogs swaggering into our path.

Thighs burning, we climbed a series of steps carved into a cliff and arrived at sheltered platform where men in white robes lounged on wooden platforms. One of them rose slowly and swept aside a cloth to reveal a small gap between two head-butting boulders. A dark tunnel descent. A short scramble downward. Limbs folded awkwardly inward, chin tucked tightly into chest. In the darkness came the thick smell of incense and the slow, rhythmic chime of a bell somewhere distant and unplaceable. With heads bowed against the low ceiling, we made our way forwards. Gradually, the ceiling rose away from us and soared upwards to reveal a giant underground chasm. The skinny ribbon of a mosaic path led us into its vast belly.

Step by step, the bell grew louder. The path continued and we were dwarfed by the immensity of the rock around us. In the distance ahead, a scene materialises slowly: a man sat cross-legged on a raised platform, as still as the stone around him. He is wearing all white; yellow gardenia flowers are strewn around him. His eyes are closed and he holds a small bell in one hand outstretched above his head. His only movement is to slowly rock the bell back and forth sending out the high, hypnotic chime that fills the whole cave.

Sat behind him around twenty others sat in perfect stillness on low benches. Their eyes are closed too and they are absorbed in the ebb and flow of the sound, the smell of damp earth and incense, the rustle of unseen bats high above. We stood and watched, absorbed in the intimacy of the setting.

In stark contrast, the second temple we visited was exposed to the elements. The next day, we descended a series of steep wooden steps that had been bolted onto a cliff edge. The sea churned below us. After around twenty minutes, we reached a small platform, naturally formed in the rock and held just out of reach of the frothing waves below.

And here, the same low benches; the same otherworldly stillness. People in white sat with their backs to the pounding ocean, their eyes closed and their attention focused on the slow chime of a bell. Spray leapt from the waves beneath, speckling the ground with dark spots.

Further on, accessed by a scramble across sharp and slippery rock, two sheltered pools filled with rushing fresh water from a mountain spring high above. The water skittered over the stone and tumbled to join the crashing waves far below. In the middle of it, we sat on the edge in the cool fresh water and peered out across the immense blue.

It’s not just places designated as holy and filled with the quiet intensity of worship where nature can inspire wonder. Angel’s Billabong is another spot on Nusa Penida where rock meets sea. The road to reach it was described as ‘broken’, a word which implies that there was a road there in the first place to have become broken. This track was a vague notion of a road, an incomplete thought.

We were meant to reach the spot for sunset, but the sun had long disappeared under the horizon as we careered along the rocky terrain. The scooter’s meagre suspension was no match for the rocks and ridges and potholes. Periods of swearing and squealing at every jolt alternated with periods of silent determination just to make it through to the end.

As we finally reached the highest point, the sky was washed lavender and the last traces of light were fading. We followed concrete steps down to a large rocky pool sunk deep into the crevice between two cliffs. A rough V-shape, its two sides were protected by high stone walls, and its front opened out like a natural infinity pool to the sea beyond. The still water reflected the creamy-white of the moonlight, gentle ripples fluttering across its surface from the breeze. Occasionally, a wave from the sea beyond would surge over the edge and the pool would be filled with the rush of fresh water. I paddled, tentatively, jumping at every wave, never more aware of the immense power of the sea to consume.

For the past few weeks, I have been struggling with what to write about. It’s been hard to process what I think of Bali and it’s been difficult to get under the skin of the place. I feel like I’ve been constantly trying to shift gears – from surfer town happy hours, beer pong and a “buy 1 shot get 11 free” (yes really), to the peace of the rice paddies and a town overwhelmed with tourists in search of serenity.

It was this short spell across the sea to Nusa Penida where things slowed down. My sense of adventure was sparked once more by a rush of the incredible and unfamiliar. Whether it was the ring of a bell in a cave, the roar of waves on rock or the milky cast of moonlight on stone, once again I got the taste of another world – spiritual or otherwise.

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