British photographer and writer Liam Kennedy talks all things Bali cascades.
The old man with one tooth wouldn’t stop smirking at me.
He had watched from a small bamboo perch for the last ten minutes as I heaved my way up the impossibly steep, water-speckled steps.
A slight misstep would see me slipping, expensive camera kit and all, back towards the base of the waterfall.
The drive to Sekumpul Falls from our retreat in Banjar Hills, was long and the difficult walk had taken its toll on my legs. Still, I had come this far and, now barefoot, I wasn’t going to give up when the peak might be so close. There was something in that smirk though… he knew something I didn’t.
“Selamat siang” I heaved through the fire in my lungs. Nothing. He just stared and maintained that knowing smile.
What was it? What wisdom did he hold in that goofy gaze? I’d hoped for a nod or a shake to indicate whether I was nearing the summit. Instead, he took an icy can of Fanta out of his pocket and sipped it through a straw, dropping his gaze, and leading mine, to study the three leeches that were currently devouring his leg at an incredible rate.
I must have done a pretty blunt double take, because when I looked back at the old man his smile was even broader, the sole grey tooth trying its very best to hang on to the straw.
I’ve heard of the health benefits and the occasional use of leeches in Bali but the sight still managed to make my skin crawl. But hey, if you are going to spend an afternoon leeching yourself, why not do it with this view:
From his perch, the old man would have watched my entire ascent. He’d seen me wading through the river, camera kit held anxiously over my head as I battled currents and sharp rocks (and potential leech bites apparently).
It was worth it!
Sekumpul Falls were a beautiful spectacle. One of the jewels of Northern Bali, the cascade dwarfs many of the other contenders as it threads its way through the dense jungle and deep, steep valleys like falling silk. Up close, the force is magnificent but the valley acoustics lend the area a peaceful background white-noise as you move from the base:
I can see why he would chill there. I gestured to see if I could sit beside him for a while to enjoy the view. He nodded and for a few minutes we sat in silence. The gentle whirr of jungle insects and the hush of the waterfalls whispering rush settled the soul. The peace was all around me; in the air, where afternoon sunbeams capture drops of mist and burst them into rainbow prisms; in the rhythmic sigh of the swaying bamboo and the steady breathing of my silent companion; in the endless green of it all. I wanted to stay there. I didn’t want to climb anymore but my girlfriend, who had chickened out, was waiting at the top. I wished the old man well and continued on, leaving him to his peace, his bucket of leeches and his Fanta.
Something was bugging me about that Fanta…
After only fifty or so more steps of panting and wishing I had an iced drink, the path levelled out unexpectedly.
Wait. That was it. How did he have an icy drink? I had trekked for an hour and a half by this point. There was no way….
Then I saw the restaurant. The path looked familiar and as I rounded the corner I was greeted by my partner pointing at the eatery we had departed from, hours before. The path had split in two and, on the advice of the waiter, we had followed the bottom trail which we were assured would lead us to the waterfall. It did, thats true, but the top path on which I was now returning was a mere five minute stroll to the spectacular viewpoint. The trek had been beautiful but treacherous and my lady could have made the viewpoint without breaking a sweat if we had taken the top path. That, I think, is why the old man smirked. How many clueless tourists will he see struggle through the jungle while he perches and purges, knowing that his spot is the best view of all? Those legs must have been leeched for many years in that perfect location. He probably had a full set of teeth when he first started sitting there.
Back on our bikes, we wound our way through endless idyllic villages, each blooming with flowers and festivities. Without realising, we had joined a Hindu precession that snowballed through each village, despite the heat.
The Galungan festival was in full swing at this time of year, and the colourful bamboo Penjor lined our path. Priest-like leaders acted at once as spiritual guides and traffic calming officers, blowing whistles and herding the dancers and the crowds through country roads. What started as a small, motorcycle-sized gap being maintained beside the precession, soon became a way-too-small-for-a-motorcycle-sized gap, as the crowd swelled. We ended up taking almost an hour to overtake, spending most of the journey walking the motorbike with aching legs. In the end we dipped into ditches and rode grass verges in a heart-stopping game of leapfrog with the crowd.
Everyone was festive and friendly and most wanted to practice their English in the minutes we walked beside them. After each move up the column we would find ourselves stuck again, striking up conversation with another beaming reveller. The calm conversation, cut by sudden rushes of adrenaline, produced a heady cocktail of fun that would gleefully continue until we reached the head and rode away to cheers and applause for our persistence.
We rode on into the melting sunset, dusty and worn but grinning from ear to ear. Behind us, the music of chimes and whistles, the flare of festive colours and the toothless smile of content faded in the glow of warm memory.