Boom! Boom! A Balinese Rafting Adventure
by MARK LAIOSA
Surprises of all kinds surfaced on my recent whitewater rafting trip in Bali.
As our rubber raft spun in an eddy and the dense riverside shrubbery moved from left to right around us, I had an inherent suspicion that something was wrong. Finally, I realized we were turning counter-clockwise, a phenomenon affecting drains and eddies below the equator, and indeed a weird sensation for anyone from the Northern Hemisphere.
Whether spinning or floating on course downstream, rafting is an excellent way to enjoy the tropical forests and remote village lifestyles of rural Bali. While participants paddle and push through exciting rapids, they also observe remnants of a culture that has changed little over the past 400 years.
Called sungai in Balinese, several rivers flow from the lower slopes of Bali’s volcanoes and provide all levels of whitewater adventure. In general, conditions range from Class II (swift moving water with occasional white water) to Class IV (conditions closely resembling the spin cycle of a washing machine).
Three rivers are used most frequently by tour operators: the Sungai Ayung with its Class II rapids interspersed with quiet moving water; the Sungai Telegawaja in East Bali with its Class II–III water conditions; and the most challenging of the trio — the Sungai Unda — enjoyed by experienced whitewater rafters for its Class IV rapids.
Our own rafting excursion on the Sungai Ayung began with pick-up by a small van (called a “bemo” in Balinese) at our hotel at Sanur Beach, about 30 minutes from the capital, Denpasar. As we headed for the river, we observed vast rice fields alongside the narrow tarmac which our van shared with water buffalo (carabao), bemos and scooters. As we ascended the twisty Sayon ridge, gradations of green in the foliage created a striking and colorful pattern. Rural and unspoiled, the countryside created an impression of timelessness.
Our arrival in the small hamlet of Begawan was heralded by the squabble of scurrying chickens on the road. We headed for a walled compound and were greeted by racks of blue Iguana PFD’s (Personal Floatation Devices — I guess the marketing whizzes decided it sounded better than life-vests) hanging to dry in the humid, 85-degree air, aided by discreetly positioned fans. In the center of an open air pavilion, a giant television screened a video of a recent river run.
In the compound, we met our fellow paddlers. On my raft were two British honeymooners (nothing like Class II rapids to accelerate the bonding process), and two Japanese women. Our guide, Wayan Hahardika, went by a more abbreviated river name, Philips, and geared us up with the eye of a tailor. His five years at Sobek Bina Utama, the tour operator, came in handy as he expertly suited us with helmets, PFDs, and paddles. Once outfitted, we started down a paved walkway, with views of terraced rice fields, elephant-sized palm ferns and tethered carabaos surrounding us as we made our way to the bottom of the ravine.
The Business of Boom Boom
At the water’s edge, Philips ran us through River Safety 101, Bali style: “If someone fall in, do not pull them into the boat by the helmet. When you hear boom-boom! take your paddles out of the water and move towards the center of the boat.” Here, we also meet our companion raft, filled with fun-loving Australians and a cigar-smoking Dutchman who was more concerned about keeping his stogies dry than his person. Cameras and other gear were stowed in dry bags.
After our briefing and introduction to the other rafters, we pushed off from the fine, black- silt shore into clear warm water, gliding between draped palms, ferns, and mimosas. “Whack!” A beaver slap amid this exotic backdrop? No beaver — Philips was having fun with us, slapping his paddle on the water’s surface.
Ahead, standing waves tipped us off to the first set of rapids and I saw the tension on my partners’ faces. We gently rocked and rolled through the waves, finding ourselves in an eddy, intact and rotating counter-clockwise. After synergistic group paddling, we careened into the current. Wayan, our sweep (the person who paddles behind to pick up any gear that falls overboard) paddled in a worn Dagger kayak waterproofed with duck tape. He makes the five-mile river run twice daily, because “It’s fun — the water changes all the time.” When Wayan isn’t following the groups, he’s out front, videotaping and taking still photographs of the paddlers dashing through the churning rapids.
The Ayung River is no wider than 50 feet and is fed by many waterfalls. One waterfall drops about six stories and it was here that we put ashore for a quick shower. The water was slightly cooler than the air temperature and was refreshing. Around us, iridescent Blue Kingfishers darted between trees, while other birds rode the thermals overhead.
Back on the river, we passed settlements of bamboo huts along the banks. We saw local residents walking their portly pigs, using a switch to guide them along, and tending to domestic chores.
The members of our companion raft grew bored with the calm water, which resulted in a sloppy paddle stroke that escalated into splashing and the “accidental” spill of several people into the water for a swim. Passing rope bridges, waterfalls, wildlife, and smiling, curious children provided ample photo opportunities.
Another set of rapids soon ended our respite. Once in the waves, Philips shouted “Boom-boom,” and we realized we were losing a rafter. As we moved to the center of the raft, the newlywed husband fell in, and while Philips went for his leg and his wife his arm, I grabbed his PFD. River Safety 101 paid off! He was wet, but safe. Soon after, the water became calm and we moved slowly towards our destination, some open-sided bamboo pavilions.
A feast of local delicacies awaited us at the pavilion, including pineapple corn fritters on sticks — made with hand-ground corn mixed with pineapple and fried in coconut oil. Chicken and pork dishes were prepared with local herbs and spices. Countless beer toasts to a successful voyage ended the meal, and we started the 440-step ascent back to the compound. Along the way, hand-woven sarongs, carved masks, figurines, and flutes were offered for sale. An Australian gent had a fruitless exchange for most of the ascent with a hawker of a carved and painted duck:
“Well, perhaps I should have a look at it, a perfectly fine duck, but I don’t need a duck.”
Duckless, I finally entered the compound, steamed from the tropical climb. After a quick shower and change of clothes, we stretched out for our video, punctuated by Philips and his ever-insistent “Boom-boom!”
Several different tour operators offer runs on the Ayung River, including Sobek Bina Utama: tel. 011-62-361-287-509; fax: 011-62-36-289-448; e-mail: email@example.com.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under “Bali — River raft.”