In our last post,* we explored how water, particularly fresh water, connects people, places, and practices across the island of Bali. But separate from that broader cultural significance, you can still be easily awed by the power of nature and the creativity of humankind when it comes to waterways in Bali. In our case, we got to witness these things while road tripping from the northeast of the island, where we had stayed in rural Pejarakan, towards the southeast and across Bali’s central mountain region to Ubud. Here are some memories of our hike to Munduk’s epically high waterfall, Tanah Barak, to be followed soon by some photo highlights from a traditional coffee plantation and one of the most important temples of Bali, Ulun Danu Beratan, which guards and celebrates a major source of fresh water for the island. We had sought these places out in order to make good use of our road trip from Pejarakan to Ubud, and they didn’t disappoint.
When we stopped in the town of Munduk on our road trip southeast across the island, we had already been driving for nearly 2 hours with Sila. It’s only about 40 miles away from the House of Hobbit, where we had spent the previous half-week with Sila and Putu’s family, snorkeling, hiking with monkeys, learning about local traditions and food, and having fascinating conversations with Sila and the neighborhood children. But the roads in Indonesia tend to be so narrow and windy that you can only go up to 25 mph most places if you want to stay safe, so those 40 miles took a long time to travel.
We had been captivated by the scenery on the way, however, and were a little surprised when Sila pulled over, said we had arrived, pointed us in the direction of the waterfalls, and told us he’d wait there for us to return. We had been heading up into the mountains of inland Bali, where the peaks weren’t too tall, as mountains go, but still striking in their rugged crags and richly green beauty. The road had wound upland between dense jungle trees and steep cliff sides, and Sila pulled the car over by a local cafe tucked into a sharp corner of the switchback road, where he could comfortably get out and chat with the locals hanging out there while we explored the way to the waterfalls. Next to the cafe, the hillside fell away steeply to reveal a wide view over the valleys and mountains of the Bedugul region of Bali, with wide-leaf palms reaching out of the steeply forested drop on the edge of the lot. Across the street, a narrow, irregularly paved path broke the dense, green skin of the jungle, with a tilted sign just above on the hill, complete with “Welcome to Waterfall” and a big arrow, pointing the way into the forest. Toby and I headed in.
The path meandered through the tropical woods, heading downhill through great green plants, thick with mist and highlighted by occasional bright flowers. The path itself was well bushwhacked, and reasonably well maintained, with concrete steps laid into the steep hillside, interspersed with a packed dirt trail. The air itself was heavy and gray from all the water suspended in it, waiting to fall as rain. Some of the palm trees were feathery thin but tall, appearing in the mist like drawings of flora we had seen as kids in books on dinosaurs, when giant plants and tropical rain forests covered much more of the Earth than they do today. And like so much of the plant-life in Bali, the flowers were quite foreign to us, delicate and interesting tendrils of red punctuating the deep green of the jungle.
There are apparently much rougher ways through the trees to find the waterfalls of Munduk, where you have to push through the plants along long-tredded dirt footpaths, or even some where maps, compasses, machetes, and a careful love of tropical spiders are required to get through to the water.** More adventurous visitors than we will sometimes take the latter paths, particularly if you want to get to the other waterfalls in this forest, while the former paths are often used by locals – the primary route along the concrete steps requires you to go past a toll booth for 10,000 rupiah. That’s only about 75 cents in US dollars, but equal to maybe two meals worth of food for locals, so it was clearly meant for foreigners like us.
When we passed through the toll booth’s territory, we encountered several middle-aged men, wrinkled from sunshine and labor, one of whom seemed blind, hanging out and chatting amicably in the shade of the booth. A scrawny reddish dog lay nearby, along with a few skinny motorbikes some of the group had clearly ridden down the narrow jungle path. (On our way downhill to here, another lightweight street-style motorbike had surprised us by rumbling past on the path – it was weird for us to see motorbikes blazing past on a steep dirt trail in the middle of the jungle!)
As we went deeper into the trees, the sound of rushing water grow louder, bubbling in multiple directions around us. The steps grew slippery and green with moss, as the wetter air this deep into the forest made them come alive. (We were probably lucky for a rainy season visit, as the El Niño across the Pacific had kept the rain sparser here, and meant the steps were still navigable, unlike in stories I’ve seen of rivers of mud flowing down the path in heavily rainy years.)
Eventually, we came across a series of little bridges, finding that the same waters that created the great falls we were there to visit had also spilled across the landscape to form a myriad of little streams and rivers all around us. We headed towards the loudest sounds of water, following the main path until we reached a clearing where the misty air was blowing towards us with force. It was the waterfall we had come to find, maybe a mile into the forest, and it was so powerful that it created a mighty and refreshingly cool wind hundreds of feet away from the water, pushing the air quickly out of its way and tossing a watery spray from its landing across the clearing. This fall is called Tanah Barak, and it is a tall, narrow, concentrated jet pouring out of a cliff into the river bed 75 feet below, its spray watering walls of climbing plants along the cliff-sides.
The force of the water has carved out this gully in the cliffs, reaching down into the rock beneath to create a pool deep enough to wade or swim, but not safe enough for diving. Without us going into the pool right up close to the falls, it’s hard to tell from our photos how damn tall the water is, but truly it felt like it just kept going up and up and up from where we stood. The steep walls of the pool reached up around us, humming with the sound of the waterfall as the many leaves of the climbing plants vibrated in the breeze caused by the pressure of the water roaring down.
It was a simple place. Plants, mist, rocks, pool, falls. But we were delighted to experience a piece of nature so powerful that it wore the mountain down, that it created new ecosystems of vibrant life on the rocky cliffs it formed, that it could cool us down with the force of its watery breeze despite the otherwise oppressive heat and humidity of Bali. It was elegant in its tall and linear simplicity, soft but persistent water strong against the resistant stone of the mountain. It was an important force in the broader network of fresh water flows so crucial to island life, collecting the mountain forest rain into a single path and channeling it into predictable pools and rivers that flowed in turn down into the rice paddies so crucial to agriculture in Bali. And, in a tropical doppelganger sort of way, it reminded us of home, recalling the steep waterfalls of Ithaca, NY, where we had lived together for the previous three years.
So for a time we stood in awe of the falling waters of Tanah Barak and giggled at the gusting wind of droplets flung up by the crashing river. In time, we decided to move on and continue our journey with Sila to the great water temple of Ulun Danu Beratan, the center of the sacred irrigation system mentioned in our previous post. We said goodbye to the great falls, and headed back up the hillside steps, switch-backing through the greenery and the mist until we emerged again from the jungle and carried on our way.
*(It’s been quite a while since we last updated – we got distracted by dissertation writing, planning our wedding (by the way – we got married!), and looking for new jobs, but we’re once again up for getting back to regularly telling stories from our travels! We have a lot of good experiences and photos to share, and we’re looking forward to doing so again. Hope you enjoy!)
**(Check out this post from Stuart McDonald or this one by J.L. McCreedy for more hiking options to other waterfalls around Munduk. It turns out mountainous rain forests are good for producing epic waterfalls.)