It’s 4:00 am. We are climbing up a narrow, gravelly path. The alpine scenery of lush forest replete with pines and ferns has now fully transitioned into a barren, rocky trail up the volcano. We are like a fellowship of Hobbits making their way through Mordor. The pale light from the full moon bathes our path as we scramble on all fours through 45° inclines, fighting our way to the top. Every hour or so, we stop to rest, stretch and fuel up with energy bars.

The perfect silence from 2500 meters up is staggering. So is the view of the moonlit island, as far as the southern Bukit peninsula, from the spiritual center of Bali.

That night, Laurent and I are making the ascent of the frighteningly vertical face of Mount Agung, Bali’s highest peak and most active volcano. Agung is revered as the island’s holiest mountain, a replica of the mythical Mount Meru and the dwelling of Mahadewa, the supreme manifestation of Lord Shiva. On the way up, our guide Gede stops to pray at the few Hindu shrines that dot the way to the summit – we’ll need it.

I feel a potent mixture of excitement and fear, from the risk of hiking up an active, Alert Level 3 volcano, which last erupted only a year ago. The government says we’re not not supposed to be there. But Gede has been running hikes up the summit again for the last month. Daily seismographic data checks and constant connection to a local alerting center make it a calculated risk.

Although we know we shouldn’t, we can’t stop ourselves and ask Gede, our guide:

– “How much longer to the top?”

– “45 minutes”

30 minutes later…

– “How much longer to the top?”

– “45 minutes”

– “Didn’t you just say 45 minutes 30 minutes earlier?”

We reach the summit shortly before sunrise. We’re exhausted – a 2000 meters elevation gain in 6 hours, on nearly no sleep, is no joke. The wind is chilling and my makeshift mountaineering attire (I layered two t-shirts, a surf lycra and a wafer-thin sailing Patagonia jacket) don’t help much. I hadn’t planned to be anywhere near frosty this year.

But we made it. We’re standing on top of the sleeping dragon. We feel it breathe, as smoke comes out of the crater. A deep sense of awe fills me as I realise – the Earth is alive! And I am small as a pimple.

The Hobbit

The sun rises on the horizon, clouds beneath us, revealing a 360° panorama of Bali and the neighbouring islands, as far as Lombok. We are on top of the world.

Time to come down, literally and figuratively . Going up wasn’t even half the battle, as I was to painfully learn. On the steep way down, my hips get stiffer and my knees wobblier by the minute, cushioning the impact from sliding on rubble or gravel.

I fall a few times. My legs turn into jelly and I fear they will collapse any time – or worse, I’ll trip up and tear something. Is that what old age feels like?

After only one hour, I am shattered, and despair takes over as I realise how much further we have to go. So I force myself to only think about the next step. One more step.

Eventually, it takes us a full 8 hours to go down. We reach the departure point 15 hours after we left and I fall to the ground, dead beat. And fulfilled.

Gotta keep on movin’

2 weeks earlier, I had left Medewi, after spending a whole 3 months there. It was still possible to surf in this area when most of the island’s beaches were closed because of COVID-19 lockdown, so I had made my nest there.

I met incredible humans in this village, made a Balinese family, had the surf of my life and lived my beach bum dream in my little wooden cabin overlooking the ocean.

But while I enjoyed it for a while, the nest was getting stale. Our little international lockdown beach community turned sour — too much mindless partying, same superficial conversations, spiteful gossip, people falling out, etc. My lower self was thriving though and “The Toine” went to town a few times: intoxicated, reckless, loud, obnoxious. Feeling like I was losing boundaries (one of my self-defeating patterns when living in community), I started retreating within and avoiding people I had been hanging out with just a few weeks earlier. Besides, things were opening up throughout the island as lockdown was slowly ending.

Time to move on and explore.

So I buy a scooter from my friend (and local family) Papa Ugis for a mere 8.5 million IDR (~£500). After 4 months on the island, I had already spent half that money on renting one. Got the papers and all. It’s the first vehicle I’ve ever owned – a true millenial.

My scooter loaded like a mule, I drive to Uluwatu, in the Bukit peninsula, to meet my friend Laurent who had rented a villa with friends for the weekend.

The Bukit

Although I’d been in Bali for over 4 months, due to the lockdown that was now just ending, I hadn’t spent any time in the Bukit yet. A shame as it’s by far the most picturesque area of the island.

Ebony white, chalky cliffs (covered with verdurous, green meadows) dropping dramatically into golden sand and cerulean waters. A medley of scenery. It’s as if the Seven Sisters had decided to relocate to the tropics.

With Laurent, we make plans for an epic road trip throughout the island. With the advent of “The New Normal” — not an indie rock band, but an attempt by the government and travel operators to resume tourism with heightened COVID health and safety measures — it was the perfect time to see it all without the crowds.

Before leaving the Bukit peninsula, however, I have to surf. Not only is it the most stunning region of Bali, it’s also home to its best waves. The world-famous breaks of Uluwatu, Padang Padang and Bingin are all on a small stretch of the peninsula, at the tip of the island. The southern hemisphere’s winter (your summer, probably) groundswells, coming all the way from Australia, wrap just perfectly around this headland, transforming it in a true wave machine.

Oh and the breaks are rather deserted too. Conversation starters in the lineup often include how lucky are we to surf these waves with only 5-20 surfers, not your usual 100+ zoo. Apparently, it’s not been that way for at least 20 years and probably won’t be that way ever again. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Surfers are selfish animals — we want to keep the fun all to ourselves so we really don’t like it when it’s crowded.

I surf Balangan, a secluded little beach that’s avoided the massive hotel developments mushrooming around the peninsula, keeping its laid-back, “hang at the warung” vibe. My first day there was scary, with some double overhead sets. For half an hour, I observe and nearly turn away. Glad I didn’t, as I catch a few of these impossibly fast peeling left-handers, in between paddling out some monster sets. That’s Balangan for you: speedy waves, sometimes barrelling, often closing out, where keeping a highline is a must. It can really be frustrating too, where hours can go on without catching anything good. But if you make it, you’re in for a ride.

I surf Dreamland, one of the only right-handers in the Bukit. Quenching my thirst for frontside (I’m regular footed), wave after wave, I carve hard against its walls at sunset. Standing in the folding enveloppe of green-turning-pink water at dusk, I was a part of nature’s glorious painting.

Best of all, I surf the legendary Uluwatu. I mostly go there with Dan, a lovely American fellow and all-around good egg I had met in Medewi. As I write this, we’re on a surf trip together, along with Anais and Virginie, two fabulous French ladies we’d also met there. Lucky to call this bunch my friends.

Beyond the wave, surfing Uluwatu is an unforgettable experience. Walking 50 meters of stairs down the cliff into a spectacular cave, ducking through holes to make it to a secret beach, paddling out in crystal-clear water, surfing just beneath the bluff… fills you with wonder. And then of course, the wave, this perfect-left hander spitting machine, barrelling on cue. Although I initially find it challenging — this fast, hollow wave on my backside — after coming back time and time again, I start flowing with it and it graces me with some of the best rides in my life.

After all this stoke, it was time go explore the island.

The road trip. 400 kms on my loyal scooter.

Sidemen

I drive east to Sidemen, a bucolic backcountry village tucked in valleys layered with rice terraces. It’s so quiet you can hear rice stalks being cut by farmers over 50m away.

A time to relax and do nothing (quite the achievement for me) in a beautiful little hotel with a view. My 3 days there are spent reading, taking walks, playing kites with some village kids.

And having long lunches and engrossing conversations with Bob and Aleja, a couple that is staying there too.

Bob is The Most Interesting Man in the World. An intrepid adventurer, he has sailed from California to Indonesia on his own sailboat for 3 years through Polynesia and circumnavigated the whole of South America in a camper van — twice. His stories remind me of some of the travel writing greats like Paul Theroux: curious, observant and witty.

“The number one rule of sailing is to always ground your tackle”, he imparts after I share some of our anchoring disasters in Thailand with Rob, our vessel nearly lost to sea. I try to suck in all the knowledge from this wise one. And I realise I hadn’t met such traveller on my journey yet. I wonder if, in the age of Instagram and digital nomads, this brand of explorers might just go extinct.

Amed

Well rested and fed, I leave for Amed, a quaint fishing village in the north east.

No waves there, but plenty of divers. French people too – I even spotted baguettes being sold in your usual convenience store, very telling.

Bali is a weird place that way. Tribes and subcultures cluster in the same cities with staggering intensity. Just like the Factions in the Divergent series, you’ve got:

  • Spiritual in Ubud
  • Hipster in Canggu
  • Surfer in Uluwatu
  • Diver in Amed

Geographical echo chambers, with their own culture and set of values, these tribes don’t tend to mix much. You’ll know when you see a Canggu person in Ubud – a friend once pointed at one.
But what if you belong to several of these subcultures at the same time? What if you have a layered identity, a multidimensional personality? What if you are Divergent? Well, that’s how I feel in Bali. Not identifying with a single cookie-cutter community, but wanting to mix ‘em all.

In the spirit of the Factions, I had come to Amed for…surprise, a diving course! More specifically a freediving course at Apneista.

I am in for a treat. I get one-on-one, VIP treatment, being the only student on the course and learn so much about breath, human anatomy, mindfulness, the physics of gases… The biggest learning though is that the urge to gasp for air when breath holding is actually…well, not to gasp for air. It’s to release excess CO2. My body does not lack oxygen, as they prove to me by strapping a blood oxymeter on my finger, displaying I still have north of 95% oxygen left in my blood when I can’t hold it anymore. Mind-boggling. A lot of the freediving training, then, is not about absorbing more oxygen, it’s about building a higher CO2 tolerance through various mind and body techniques I won’t go into here. Fascinating stuff.

The dive itself is a truly meditative practice, climbing down a rope, deep in the big blue. No sound, no light, it’s all about keeping the mind still to go deeper. The meditative balance of the descent is easily lost though, from improper equalisation or fears popping up. Eventually, I dive down to 15 meters.

The Big Blue

From the depth of the sea, I then go to climb the summit of the island — where this story started.

Needless to say, Laurent and I are broken for several days after this hike. We head back to Sidemen for 2 days of TLC, nursing our sore legs, hardly able to make it down any flight of stairs.

Lovina

Feeling a little better, we head to Lovina, a sleepy beach town up north. The drive there, 100kms on our scooter, is mesmerising as we drive through all sceneries and climates: misty jungles to icy pouring mountains until the sunny seaside. There’s really not much to do in Lovina, especially since tourism has virtually disappeared with the pandemic. The desolate restaurants and bars of the tourist strips, their staff waiting for Godot, makes the whole thing eerie, if not depressing. Nature, however, doesn’t care and so we go snorkel and dance with schools fish in the reef, catch a few with our fishing rods and watch dolphins backflip at sunrise.

West Bali

Finally we journey to the last destination of our road trip, the Wild Wild West – Bali West National Park. There, Jennifer, Laurent’s adorable friend, joins us and we become a trio.

We land in the most lavish villa I’ve ever stayed in, Corona prices making it a no-brainer. From its open living room, we revel in the majestic views of the jungle, of the ocean, and across the straight, of the Javanese volcanoes in which the sun sets without fault every single day. We dance to the sunset, each in front of their own window, social distancing of course.

We make the most of this palace, lounging, eating, philosophising, empathising and ideating. I am fulfilled by the deep, meaningful connection I have with those two. We even start a t-shirt business from my iPad (“the laziest business ever”), taking the piss out of the spiritual crowd

With the New Normal, we thought the National Park would be open. But it isn’t.

No big deal though, as we find ways to make the most of the untouched, pristine nature of the region by snorkelling in Menjangan, the best dive in Bali. Our captain, Konang — a Balinese version of Jimmy Chow with a past predilection for crystal meth we learn — takes us on a fishermen’s boat across choppy seas to reach the empty shores of the island. There we swim through the lively reef and its vivacious society of fluo citizens, so vivid they seem to come straight out of a flashy 80s commercial. The outline of a shark, a few meters below the vertical reef, scares the shit out of some of us and I am hypnotised watching a moray waiting for prey, hiding most of its body in rock and waving with the current.

Time to wrap our trip. We head back to Ubud.

Stray dog

On the way, I have an accident. Not paying attention to the car that’s braking in front of me, I brake late and hard on the wet, slippery road. Next thing I know, I’m on the ground, stunned — and scared. Luckily, my friends take good care of me and I make it out with only road rash. “Bali tattoo” they call it. I know now why locals wear trousers and jackets when driving long-distance.

Sadly, this is just the latest in a string of injuries over the past 2 months (which counted a sprained ankle, a foot infection and many, many scraps). Like a zealous landscaper, I’ve been tending carefully to this garden of wounds. Antiseptic rub, antibacterial ointment, gauze, straps and Chinese tinctures have become part of my daily toolbox. A crash course in first aid.

But at a deeper level, I see those physical traumas as a manifestation of my spiritual imbalance. I had been neglecting my practices, relaxing too much and losing my connection with Spirit, my connection with myself. With my Self. I had strayed far from the path.

The message was only getting louder and clearer — if I keep going, I’ll seriously harm myself or worse. Mama Bali, as they call her, likes to make herself heard. And will bitchslap you if you don’t listen.

So I listened. I reconnected with my practice, with my values, with myself. With my Self. Things have shifted dramatically since. I’m also much clearer on the balance I want to strike between relaxing into my environment and keeping strong boundaries while I travel, a tension I’d previously described here.

As I write this post, I’m relaxing in the laid-back neighbouring island of Lembongan.

And taking a break from Bali (holidayception) before starting a 200-hour Yoga Teacher Training that has been calling me in all the ways it could. I’d been considering it deeply, wanting to take my practice to the next level, but then my mind found a thousand reasons not to go. Still, the calling was there, brewing in the background. Until, on the day I had that accident, the day before applications for the training closed, we stopped at a roadside cafe lost in the middle of the island and I bumped into someone I knew. Less than a minute in the conversation, she said she was going to do a yoga teacher training and I knew immediately which one it was. “Fine” I thought “Surrender to the flow of life and just do it”.

Sometimes, you have to forget a little to remember who you are.

All that is gold does not glitter; Not all who wander are lost. The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost.

J.R.R Tolkien