No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.
My plans for a road trip on Java ran hard aground against Indonesia’s special COVID regulations for domestic travel. To take the ferry between Bali and Java you need a PCR test within 48 hours of travel. PCR test kits are in short supply in western Java, so even one overnight stay put me at risk of an indefinite stranding.
No thanks! Instead, I decided to do a 210-km lap of western Bali, with some snorkeling on the north coast at Lovina Beach and an emphasis on twisty turny remote mountain roads.
I started with a run up the middle of Bali, skirting the main caldera of the Buyan Bratan volcano complex. I’ve been up here before, and normally this road offers a spectacular vertical landscape. This is the rainy season, though, and unpredictable… so instead I got the inside of a cloud bank with visibility that often dropped to just a few feet and didn’t slow the cargo trucks down at all.
The fog was chilly, so I stopped for a coffee on the caldera rim where I would normally sit and admire the view. Not much to see.
Bali is known for its waterfalls. I’d searched along my intended path and found a couple of likely candidates, one of which was nearby.
The Golden Valley Waterfall lies just below the cloud bank to the west of the Bratan caldera. Nearby on Google Maps you’ll find the Golden Valley Eco Cafe, but I doubled back twice before I understood that neither the waterfall nor the cafe is anywhere near the road. Instead, there’s a trailhead at the road, marked by a faded sign, and a little old lady selling crinkled smiles, week-old fried bread, and a supreme sense of patience.
The trail down to the waterfall was… faint. It’s pretty clear nobody had been that way in a long time. If it weren’t for the occasional bamboo step cut into the mountainside, I might not have found my way across the three rattan bridges that brought me to the falls.
The Eco Cafe was abandoned.
But the thing about Bali is that it has something to teach you if you’re willing to pay attention.
I’m reasonably certain that the Golden Valley Eco Cafe was never a cash cow. There are too many waterfalls on Bali and Instagram nomads are too poor for any one facility to strike it particularly rich, and in any case: watch the video. This thing is way off the road!
Nevertheless: despite its abandonment, the Eco Cafe is a tidy facility. Somebody put a lot of care and artistry into carving it out of a remote Balinese ravine. It’s beautiful!
When you go down to the pool underneath the falls, there’s a little cairn… just a short tower of rocks stacked on top of one another. It’s the sort of thing that gets knocked down every time there’s a heavy rain, and it’s the rainy season. Yet today the cairn was standing.
Which brings us back to the old lady selling fried bread up on the road. Who do you think is hoofing it down the ravine every couple of days to beat back the encroaching jungle and restore that stack of rocks against the day when tourists return to Bali? I think I know who.
There’s a magnificence in that kid of patient optimism.
I spent a the next couple of nights hanging out at the Puri Saron hotel at Lovina Beach on the north coast, with a nice long afternoon snorkeling in the middle. Lovina is famous for reefs and dolphins. The reefs were spectacular, but it turned out the dolphins are early risers and had already moved on by the time I hit the water.
First thing the following morning I was back on the bike and headed west. According to Google Maps, about 400 square miles of Western Bali has no roads at all, which is doubly impressive when you’ve seen what does show up as a road there. My plan was to skirt the edge of this area and see if I could find a couple more waterfalls.
The first one was a bust. Google Maps demanded a left turn that would have required a helicopter and left me sucking wind on the wrong mountaintop with a couple of randy monkeys for company. I did find some friendly locals, but apparently I am better equipped to ask for directions than I am to understand the answer.
So I punted.
Next stop was Air Terjun Tujuk Manis, and it was much more interesting!
Google stopped me in the middle of a stone village halfway down a mountain, where an alley brought me to the head of a staircase leading down into a ravine.
The climb was epic. See the video… the waterfall at the bottom was no great shakes—certainly not after the Golden Valley experience—but the stairs were an absolute masterpiece! They were endless, descending a good thousand feet of elevation down into a deep ravine. Unlike much of the construction I’ve seen on Bali they were beautifully built, with steel railings, lamp posts, and a metric ton of elbow grease.
Remember, this is a remote village in Western Bali! Even during the best of pre-Covid times, it’s unlikely they got more than a dozen visitors a day. Forget the building at the bottom of the ravine: those stairs must have required thousands of man-hours to complete.
We could argue the business case for building something like that, and it’s a loser: there is no hope whoever built those stairs will recoup the investment in their lifetime. The waterfall at the bottom would be utterly inaccessible without them, and I’m glad to have seen it, but the economics are what they are: building those stairs was a bad idea.
Still… just like the old lady at the Golden Valley falls, we have poor people with no hope of reasonable compensation doing incredible work where almost nobody can see it.
Isn’t there something heroic going on here?
In my professional life I have been involved in one way or another in over a dozen startups. Most have expressed some vision of mine, and most have failed. I am heartbreakingly familiar with the drive to innovate and damn the consequences, the compulsion to roll up the sleeves and MAKE something. I own it.
I also recognize that the impulse to create needs to be tempered by adult supervision if an enterprise is to thrive. The alternative is a magnificent staircase down a hole in the middle of nowhere. Investors frown on that sort of thing.
But just for a minute, let’s appreciate the folks who REQUIRE that adult supervision. Because without the audacity of confidence, without the ridiculous idea that we can build something utterly new, we would ALL live in remote mountain villages with week-old fried bread for dinner.