There is no one official boat to Nusa Penida from Nusa Lembongan, even though the guy that drove us from our hotel to the beach walked us to an office underneath a big red banner: THE OFFICIAL BOAT TO NUSA PENIDA. We bought two tickets for 60,000 Rupiah each (about $4 or R60 each), and were told to wait. The captain will only take the boat when there are enough customers. It wasn’t long before someone pointed to a little boat pulling up right next to the yellow bridge and we boarded with about 6 other people and 10 chicken pens.
I’ll start off by saying that it only took a few days for Joel to decide that he never wants to leave this island. We were initially going to stay for 3 days, but stayed for 7, because each day Joel would convince me to stay another night. He was basically working for Mr Harry, the snorkelling guy, and talked about buying land with Agus, the owner of Tentacle Bali, as he drove us to catch our boat out of there.
As Agus said to Joel: “I think you belong here, you must stay.”
So despite having our first South East Asian scooter crash on Nusa Penida (read on), we had an incredible time on this island. Our days were seemingly endless, and then all of a sudden it was over and we realised the days were too short. I was having a hard time trying to come up with a way to describe this spectacular place, so I decided to compartmentalise:
These are the 7 principles of Nusa Penida, according to our experiences.
First Principle: BEACHES
Inspiringly beautiful beaches are the defining characteristic of Nusa Penida. Many people take day trips from Bali just to see them (which is why staying over one or two or seven days is also a good idea). So naturally at the the top of our priority list was to see all them all.
First was the sunset one, Crystal Bay, where the current can be a bit strong depending on the time of day, with rocks and dead coral hitting your ankles as the water pulls back to sea. But then you lift up your legs and float in the waves and the orange sunset flares up against the rocky outcrop in the middle of the bay and you forget all about the dead coral hitting you on the ankles.
And then there was Angel’s Billabong, which is not really a beach, but actually a tidal pool. At high tide the water crashes violently against the hewn cliffs, but at low tide you can float around in the green seaweedy pool. This is the one where lots of day trippers come for 5 minutes to take a photo on the edge before they have to leave. But for us, this was the one where I floated for what seems like forever with my ears under the waterline, drowning out all the noise.
Then there’s the one close by that looks like a T-Rex from the top. Kelingking beach. Or as we know it now, the most beautiful beach we have ever seen.
Then there is also Atuh Beach: the one with the really far drive. We drove almost an hour to see this beach, passing by an illegal cockfight on the way (read on!), so it was totally worth it. And the beach feels grandiose, even though it isn’t. This may have something to do with the fact that it’s encircled by towering cliffs. We floated among the starfish in what was starting to be low tide, while locals fished out on the rocks and cliffs, and an inevitable instagrammer did a yoga pose (you do you, girl). We chased this bliss with freshly grilled tuna, a beer, and, our favourite, lots of sambal (a spicy peppery Indonesian salsa). Then we experienced our first and only rain – one dark cloud moving over the beach and inland – 10 minutes of waiting under a beach umbrella and it was gone.
Second Principle: VIEWS
The second defining characteristic and principle of Nusa Penida is the views, and part and parcel with the beaches, the number one reason tourists venture out south-east of Bali. Around every turn and very bend the brightest and deepest blue stretch out into the vast open sea, or up to the south edge of Lombok, or all along the shores of Bali, which is visible most of the time. And then from Nusa Penida you also get the very best view of Bali’s biggest and baddest volcano: Mt Agung. I don’t remember the first time I saw it – it was on one of the island beaches waiting for a boat – but I was absolutely blown away. We’ve only been on Ubud and Seminyak up until this point, where the volcano lies far, far back behind other hills and mountains. So I looked back to Bali, which was covered under a blanket of clouds, and wondered which one of these mountains might be the volcano. And then I noticed that far, far, way above the other hills, peeking out just above the towering clouds: a bit of land. Mount Agung is GIANT. And a very pretty picture at sunset from Nusa Penida.
Also, you know what makes a sea view just that much better? When you can see giant manta rays from way up on the cliff.
Third Principle: STEPS AND STEPS AND MORE STEPS (AND A TEMPLE).
Behind every gorgeous beach is a set of impossibly steep stairs.
To get to all these vistas and beaches in Nusa Penida you have to climb a million and one steps, which is why it is one of the main principles of the island. I cannot imagine a Nusa Penida without them.
Our favourite steps were definitely the steep blue stairs of Peguyangan Waterfall, which ends at the bottom of the cliff face at a temple that has been pressed up to the rock. What a spectacular and dramatic place of worship. This may or may not have been my favourite set of stairs because Joel was required to wear a traditional sarong. We had grand plans to go and find some sort of natural pool in Tempeling village, which we only knew of because I followed our taxi driver on instagram and he posted a story where he jumped into it, but we were done after 20 minutes of climbing back up the steepest stairs you can imagine. We were done and hungry, so we set off to find food, aka Mie Goreng (fried noodles).
Fourth Principle: BROKEN ROADS & BROKEN BIKES
It is a huge giant irony that all the roads to these tourist destinations are very, very, horrifically terrible. Meanwhile you can take a freshly paved, super smooth road to nowhere in the middle of the island. Again, a sort of defining characteristic of Nusa Penida: the roads are bad. Everybody talks about it. Instead of small talk about the weather, it’s more in the line of ‘can you believe those roads?’ It even feels like a kind of rite of passage for adventurers. Tourists who brave them on scooters glance with contempt to tourists who paid drivers with 4X4s. We scoff at your need to comfort (though we would happily abandon our bikes if you offered a lift.)
After a day of exploring the west side of the island visiting Broken Beach, Angel’s Billabong, and Kelingking beach, my back was absolutely shot. I popped some pills and rubbed some ointments before going to bed, but still I had to sit out of a snorkelling trip the next day. Part of traveling with arthritis is knowing when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
And then on our very last day, on a perfectly paved and flat road (oh, the irony!) on our way to drop off the bike where we rented it (oh murphy and his laws!), we totally crashed our scooter. The SE Asian scooter gods finally initiated us and now, I guess, we are true backpackers.
A very friendly (and fluently Indonesian or Balinese) Welsh guy rushed out and ushered us into his dive centre, where he tended to our light wounds and offered us water. Luckily we walked away with only some scrapes, bruises, and exhaust burns, and only about $10 of damage to the bike.
Fifth Principle: MANTAS
We met Mr Harry at out accommodation early in the morning and we followed him on our bike to the port. There was a bit of waiting and some small talk and we were shown to a small boat with a driver that speaks almost no English. After a pretty bumpy ride we pulled up next to lots of other boats just like ours, filled with tourists just like us, geared up with snorkelling masks and fins. The boats were driving around in circles, going from one rocky point to the next, where the swells seem to double in size and crash against the cliffs. We were looking for mantas. Then one appeared. Our driver yelled “Manta, go! Go go go!” while we were still figuring out which fins would fit our feet. I leaned over the edge of the boat and saw it flying right underneath us. It was gone, and Joel was already in the water, swimming like a crazy person at full blast. I finally slipped on my fins and jumped in to join the crowd, every now and then coming up to see where the shouting drivers are all pointing at. I swam in the general direction, but was at the back of the pack. And then the manta must have changed directions because all of a sudden I was at the front. I was right above it, I dipped down and I could almost touch it. I couldn’t see anyone else and I felt like I was the only one snorkelling. I came up in astonishment, strangely calm in between a frenzy of swimmers who still need to see it. I found Joel, whose mask was totally messed up. We exchanged gears and he set off in a blaze of swimming fury to see it for himself.
We have gone diving and hung out with divers enough to know that seeing giant manta rays is pretty rare. Not on Nusa Penida. Joel went snorkelling twice more after this, and got to swim with mantas three times (I sat one out because of my back).
Sixth Principle: FIGHTS
Back to less ethereal moments, but, I hate to confess, one of my favourites.
We were on our way to Atuh Beach when we drove past a crowd of 80 – 100 men, standing in a circle and making a lot of noise. I saw just a flash of feathers in the shade of the bamboo lapa and knew immediately it was a cock fight. Naturally, we pulled off the road to take a peek.
I thought better just watch and not take any photos, having read that cock fighting is done somewhat clandestinely. Clearly this was off the beaten path for cock fighting authorities, whoever they may be. We were the only two white people, and I was the only woman. But it only took two minutes of reading the very clearly friendly crowd to test out taking my camera. And as I did people started nodding ‘it’s ok’ with big smiles, and later sort of cleared some way so I could see better. These guys are very proud of their cocks. (…)
It works like this: two guys will go in with the cocks and sort of psych them out to each other – pointing them to each other and stuff. Then after this…display…there’s a lot of noise and the ring leaders go around collecting bets. Then it quiets down again, a bell is rung (round one), and the cocks fight. The crowds gasps and oohs and aahs in near unison at each big move. the bell rings again (end of round), and the cocks are taken out, and bandaged up, and they take off or tighten the blades on the feet.
The reason I say this was one of my favourite moments on the island is that it gave us just a completely unguarded look at a part of the culture that people get very passionate about. I am all about tanning on beaches and sipping watermelon juice with a view, but it is a special moment as a tourist to be confronted with completely different cultures off the beaten path and be welcomed to be there in the moment. I do not believe that foreign cultures and customs are better or worse just because it’s unfamiliar to my own.
Anyways, it turns out that cockfighting is common and permitted with certain ceremonies, but totally illegal when there is gambling involved.
The Final Principle: FRIENDS
Finally, the most important principle. I can’t imagine a better way to see a sunset or explore an island on some badly maintained roads than with friends. And besides being ultra cool people, it turns out that Moira and Constant are especially useful to have as friends on Nusa Penida, because Constant is a pro biker and we got to just follow in his tracks, and Moira who is in now way Indonesian actually…speaks Indonesian. How crazy. She learnt Indonesian from an e-book before they settled in on Bali island. She’s very modest about this but it’s hella impressive.
And if there is one valuable lesson we learnt on this island: no man is an island. If you’ve read my previous updates you’ll know that I had to ship my passport to Germany from Denpasar to get a UK tourist visa. After shipping it from Ubud, we got a reply from TLScontact (the third party visa company that handles most western European schengen visas) saying that ‘THEY WILL NOT SHIP BACK MY PASSPORT.’
So it is only after Antonia so graciously agreed to take a power of attorney to our storage space and rummaging through all our shit and finding the original document that is needed for pick up and sending this to another friend in Berlin. All the while she actually had to get ready to go to a trade show in Paris the next day.
Then our other friend Hagen, who is quite possibly the busiest person in the Berlin tech space, actually agreed to pick up my passport from the damned TLScontact and ship it back to Denpasar. It is because of friends like these that I will not be stuck in Indonesia forever. I picked up my passport today and I am the happiest girl in the world (with a brand spanking new visa!)
And these are the Seven Principles of Nusa Penida. Lest we forget.
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