Nusa Penida, the island of priests, is a small island southeast of Indonesia’s main island of Bali and a district of Klungkung Regency. With a land area of only 202 sq km, it have would been rather inconsequential if not for the fact that it’s regarded as a mystical land with battling gods and demons. For much of its history, Nusa Penida was known as the black magic island. How did this come about? Step this way into the realm of Harry Potter fantasy.
According to legend, Nusa Penida was a land inhabited by demons and warlocks. One of them still scares Balinese so much that they don’t dare to say his name aloud.
Macaling (also known as Jero Gede Macaling) was a powerful shaman from the village of Batuan on the main island of Bali. When the village was plagued by a spate of drought, famine and natural disasters, the villagers pointed their fingers at Macaling. Convinced that he was responsible for all their misfortunes, he was exiled to Nusa Penida. When the villagers’ misfortunes did not end with Macaling’s banishment, they began to suspect that he must have been practising black magic at Nusa Penida.
To exact his revenge on the people who exiled him, Macaling returned to Bali with his troops to claim his rights. It was a ravaging invasion. Macaling and his Nusa Penida forces were practically unstoppable. Legend had it that the people discovered by chance that they could neutralise his magical powers with a Barong mask. From then on, Barong masks became a recognised form of protection from evil spirits.
But the war was not over. To ensure that Macaling would not cause future problems, the Balinese sent an army of high priests over to Nusa Penida to set up temples to counteract Macaling’s spells. Macaling proved indestructible. Many generations of priests are needed to keep the demons under constant control. Balinese from the mainland make regular pilgrimages to the island to support the temples and keep the protective forces operational. To this day, many Balinese still believe that the forces of good and evil are in perpetual combat on the island of Nusa Penida.
Ironically, the people also pray to the spirit of Macaling at Pura Dalem Ped for they believe that even dark forces can show compassion and protect them from calamities just as divine forces can also mete out punishment if they have sinned. Depending on the situation, gods can be like demons and demons can be like gods. There is a fine line between gods and demons, just as in real life.
Apart from its mystical and spiritual significance, Nusa Penida is also endowed with stunning cliffs and bizarre rock formations, giving rise to some of the most spectacular natural scenery in the region. Most of the sites are situated along the west, east and south coast. But make no mistake, this island is not a best kept secret. Like the southern beaches on the main island, Nusa Penida gets a massive waves of instagraming tourists on its shores every morning. The narrow roads contribute to traffic jams and Sanur “port” is chaotic with tourists young and old rushing down to take the obligatory selfies before rushing back in the evening.
I decided to take my time and spend two days on the island.
I was mentally prepared for a brand new Ngurah Rai Airport, but the plush and colossal terminal building that greeted me upon my arrival was still impressive; as if the old airport which used to sit here had struck lottery.
The airport taxi was the usual rip off. Without too much time on our hands, I decided to pay the ridiculous Rp200,000 to Sanur where our hotel was booked. Why Sanur? Because we’d be off to Nusa Penida the next day. No other reason. I’m not a fan of beaches, unless there is something special about them – like those on Nusa Penida. Facing the east, Sanur doesn’t even have a sunset view. The good thing about Sanur is, most of the warungs here are not as upmarket as those at Kuta.
It was not till my ikan bakar and beer were delivered to me that the complete sensation of being on a holiday hit home. The beach was so so . The street was so so. The hotel room was so so, but the food and beer were great.
The next morning’s sunrise and breakfast were equally mediocre. A walk to the boat counters brought us into the the midst of what could have been mistaken for a riot if not for the girls in bikini. In the past, Bali only had some Western, Japanese and local tourists. Now, it’s a pot that didn’t quite melt the multitude of nationalities from Africa to India, Vietnam to China and Korea. A hundred languages buzzed through the narrow lane like a deafening medley. Some spoke English. Others tried to, resulting in a hundred different answers to the question, “what’s going on?”
Earlier on, I had made a booking with trip organiser Lindra Nyoman (recommended on a blog like mine) who is based in Nusa Penida. He told me that he had already reserved a place for us on Angel Billabong Fast Cruise and we didn’t have to pay for the tickets first. That was very thoughtful of him, except that we couldn’t find the boat counter! Or I thought I found it as the first counter off Jalan Hang Tuah had a huge banner that said Angel Billabong, but they said they didn’t have my booking.
We searched high and low and we were way past our boarding time. Luckily, I could speak to Lindra on the phone. He assured me that there was an Angel Billabong counter. As it turned out, the counter in question was actually under the banner of Dream Beach Express. There was an obscured standing signage that said Angel Billabong.
It’s far easier easier to look for the Dream Beach Express counter. So if you happen to do your booking through Lindra Nyoman, look for Dream Beach Express. Once I’ve informed the staff at the counter, we were given our “boarding passes” to wear around our necks. Someone raised a similar boarding pass and all those wearing the same pass followed him.
The adventure begins (if it hasn’t already begun). Boarding would have been a breeze if only Sanur port had a real pier. First, we had to get on the rocks just before the beach, take off our shoes and deposit them in a large basket. We then walked barefoot on the sharp rocks, descended onto the sand and waded out into the pounding waves before climbing onto the boat. It was a saltwater blessing from the sea. Bon voyage.
The lack of a proper pier notwithstanding, the boat was fast , spreading out its own frothy waves to challenge the choppy sea. The ride took about 45mins. The boat slowed and rolled along with the waves as it careened towards Nusa Penida’s somewhat nondescript harbour. Thankfully, there was a proper pier at Nusa Penida. We collected our shoes and were greeted by man in a cap, holding a piece of paper with my name on it. He was Komang, our driver.
Lindra Nyoman, a man I had been communicating mostly via email so far, turned out to be an elderly gentleman, about 10 years my senior. Energetic yet soft-spoken, he went through our 2-day’s itinerary with me. Since we had two days unlike most of the Instagramers, our trip would be unhurried and relatively stress-free. Lindra suggested doing the west coast trip on the first day and the east coast trip on the second. As I had not booked our accommodation for the night (something which I could have done on my owner), I had to trouble Lindra to do it for us.
And we were off, until we hit a massive traffic jam not far from the harbour. Nusa Penida roads were simply not built to accommodate so many cars. The narrow roads, broken and downright rocky in some sections, certainly didn’t help. According to Komang, the broken roads should have been repaired by now, but the contractor had taken the money and fled. And talking about money, an entrance fee is collected from all visitors. It’s Rp5000 per person at this time of writing and be sure to have the exact change as the guy collecting it is doing it quite informally. No tickets of course.
Our first destination was Kelingkeng which means little finger. I’m not sure what inspired the name “little finger”, but it’s a massive rocky outcrop from the shore. Some people call it the T-Rex head – which I thought was more appropriate.
The sea must have started shaping this feature when dinosaurs roamed the earth. It appears as if the waves carved out the cliff along the shore of Nusa Penida but somehow spared this outcrop. The neck, however, didn’t seem like it would last a million years. Its little companion is an indication of things to come. Like that lone rock stack next to it, Kelingking may end up detached from the island when our distant descendants visit this place.
If you look closely, you will notice that there is a trail going out onto the outcrop. In fact, you can descend to the beach around the dinosaur neck, but Komang warned us that it’s going to take at least an hour or so given the size of the crowd. And the crowd is what the Instagramers don’t show you. Before Instagram or social media for that matter, Nusa Penida was way off the beaten track, but thanks to social media and the hordes of influencer wannabes, the little island has become an island mired in traffic congestion from the roads to the trails and selfie platforms.
The scenery is awe-inspiring. It would have been a wonderful place to relax, soak up the atmosphere and sit somewhere in a meditative trance for the rest of the day if not for the endless stream of hurrying visitors pushing past you or queuing behind where you’re sitting or standing. If this is what’s going on at Kelingking, I wonder what it’s like at Tanah Lot. Bali is magical, but Instagram’s magic is even more powerful. Nusa Penida needs no promotion when the #MeToo movement applies to selfies at iconic places as much as it does to sexual harassment.
Fortunately, there are places that the average Instagramer can’t reach, like this tree that overlooks the edge of the cliff. There was only one person on the tree, taking a picture for a group. Komang told me that it’s beautiful from up there. Before I climbed that tree for a better view, I asked myself: 1. How old are you now? 2. How long have you not been doing this? 3. What are the risks?
To climb or not to climb. To get stuck, at the bottom, you only need 1 out of 3 considerations. To climb, you need to brush off all 3 considerations. Komang beckoned me. Once I got started, all fear of heights vanished. I was my “old” self again. Before long, I had an excellent view from the highest branch.
Yes, there are some places that the average Instagramer can’t reach even though as primates, climbing trees ought to be something that comes naturally. From the treetop, the view of Kelingking is even more T-Rex – a species that died out 65 million years ago, about the same time that primates started to evolve. For sure, no human had ever seen a live T-Rex or been eaten by one.
The next location was Angel Billabong. What’s a Billabong? It’s a lake that fills up periodically when water spills over from a river or the sea. Notice that at this time and tide, the floor of the billabong is slightly above the level of the sea. When waves hit the shore, water rushes into the billabong. When the tide goes out, some of that water remains.
As you can see, the water in the pool is crystal clear. The best view of this natural infinity pool is from the top of the steps leading down to the pool. However, the line of Instagramers was simply hideously long and even got noisy when someone decided to strike 100 different poses. It was morbidly laughable. These folks didn’t come here relax and enjoy the natural beauty of the area. They were obviously here to impress their followers, some of whom may decide to give them a run for their money.
But the island is also not lacking in real adventurers. At the other extreme, some folks who stay several nights on Nusa Penida venture out here on their own rented bikes before the crowds arrive from Bali to swim in the billabong or walk down to Kelingking beach and have the place all to themselves. Just a word of caution. When the tide is in, the drag from the receding waves can be dangerous. Check out the photo below. It shows waves crashing into the pool.
Like many enigmatic features on the island, Angel Billabong is accorded a special status as a platform for communication with the divine. An altar is set just inland from the pool so the faithful may place their offerings to the powerful spirits that rule the realm. Just a couple of hundred metres from Angel Billabong is the next feature – Broken Beach. It sounds interesting enough, but it’s not really an accurate description of the place we’re about to see.
Another enigmatic feature on Nusa Penida, Broken Beach is like a cave whose roof had just be taken off like a lid. From most angles, it appears as a circular body of water walled off by craggy cliffs. But facing the sea, is an opening, a doorway of some sort. Water rushes in through an arch doorway, pounding on this partially enclosed beach. Along the cliff coast, Which seemed like a fortress against the raging sea, the island seemed to have allowed the sea a couple of entry points into its domain. If there’s anything special or intriguing about these features, it has to be the imagination that they provoke, giving rise to myths, legends and Instagram followers, most of whom do not bother to describe their thoughts and feelings with more words than “awesome” and “beautiful”.
After lunching at a rather overpriced and uninspiring restaurant, we were on our way to the last destination for the day before our overnight stop. It was Crystal Beach. Neither I nor Komang had any idea why it’s called Crystal Beach but apart from the exposed marine life on the shoreline, there is also an enigmatic feature here.
Notice that hole near the right end of the outcrop? Water gushes through that opening every time the tide hits the rock. Interesting, but perhaps not spectacular enough to be accorded divinity. It would have been nice to watch sunset here, but with the kind of roads on Nusa Penida, I didn’t want to drive around in the dark to get to our hotel. Though there were some folks swimming and snorkeling here, facilities on the beach (toilets/bathrooms) are nothing like that in Kuta or Sanur.
As we approached the harbour area, Lindra Nyoman appeared and guided us to the hotel on his motorbike. It was getting late and he was a bit worried that something might have held us back. Our “hotel” was situated way off-road. We had to get off the car and follow Lindra down a narrow alley with houses on either side. And where there were houses, there was also the sounds and odours of dogs and chickens. It was a homestay, a relatively new one still under construction. The owner had just returned from working overseas and his little bungalow was sitting just next to ours. There was nothing fanciful, just a clean and comfortable place to spend the night.
We had dinner at a beach club. The owner of the homestay raved about the pool and the view, so I decided to take a long 900m walk to the very posh looking eatery by the beach. The pool was nice, but the food was mediocre and very expensive! By the time we finished and we walked back to the homestay, it was dark and I found the only cheap thing on Nusa Penida – homemade peanuts at Rp1000 per lemon-sized packet. Sleeping at 8.00pm wasn’t a problem. We were all tired from the day’s tour.