Dawn came on the morning we would pay our respects to Gunung Abang. While M. slept on, I wandered out, in beautiful light, onto the road running through the village, in search of breakfast and food for the trek. I found the first requirement – freshly cooked bubur, or rice porridge, ladled straight from a steaming aluminium vat into two takeaway plastic bags. The cook, an elderly lady with a leathery face and broad grin, deftly aimed toppings of fried garlic, chilli, herbs and – yes – popcorn, into the bags’ narrow mouth, then expertly twisted them shut with an elastic band. As an afterthought, she threw an extra handful of trimmings into a separate bag: “no need to pay” she said. My second gift of the morning was an extra Balinese-style pancake – rice flour dough with a grated coconut and sugar filling. Trail snacks were less easy to find. I bought bananas, but had to be content with other sweets and processed bread for other fuel.
The day was yet young, and the clear, enthusiastic chorus of birdsong was so loud it drowned out the putt-putt of a distant irrigation pump, and most of my thoughts. I breathed in great lungfuls of sweet air, awash with the mixed scents of flowers, incense from houses, and vegetable gardens. The large, flat fields with their rows of cabbages, or tomatoes on bamboo lattices, the hangars where bunches of spring onions hung drying, and the backdrop of volcanic forms, reminded me intensely of Hokkaido. In September, I thought – there was something about the light.
Back at the house, M. was up and about, and as we ate, I listened with interest to more family tales.
“I’ll finish the story later,” she said, as the sun crested the hill, dispelling the coolness of the night and pleasantly warming our skin.
“Perhaps you can do it while we’re panting up mount Abang,” I joked. Or so I thought!
Leaving our crash helmets behind to avoid the risk of theft while we hiked, we drove the half hour to the foot of the trail, and although we passed police in several spots, they seemed unconcerned by our obvious disregard for the law – otherwise known, here at least, and unlike in Ubud – as “going native”.
Around mid-morning we reached the parking area above the eastern shore of the lake. The trail to the summit is unmarked, but a friend had told me that as long as we kept going up, and avoided radically changing direction, we would be fine – and this turned out to be the case. M. led us off, with, let us say, considerable enthusiasm, or to be more precise, setting a blistering pace – and proceeded to continue with her story, without missing a beat or once catching her breath. With her cotton sun hat, shorts and trainers, M. looked, walked and talked, as though she were going for a stroll in the park. I fell in behind her, following this petite, Australian bundle of energy with nascent apprehension – what if she was a secret Lara Croft, ready to drop me at the first opportunity and be just waking from a prolonged nap when I arrived gasping for breath at the top!
We had been climbing, slowly but steadily, the track narrow and threading its way through the forest. Before too long we reached the first of three temple shrines my friend had mentioned. Here the jungle cleared, affording us a spectacular view for miles around. Things looked more dramatic up ahead, dark clouds came and went and Abang was shrouded in mist. Left of the path was a sheer drop. From here the path became steeper, and would leave us little respite from there on. I somehow ended up in front, though M. was never far behind and I still suspected I was finding it tougher than she was. I carried our small pack, which contained only 3 litres of water, a flask of tea (essential), warm clothes and food, but I was sweating profusely. Several times, Balinese walkers – in groups, of two or three, sometimes more – passed us on their way down. Most greeted us warmly, some even wishing us (ominously?) “Good luck!” The second temple – another small cluster of shrines – was in a wide clearing among the trees. Here, a larger group of local youths sat together, laughing, smoking, and chattering gaily. They too were on their way back, and one announced we still had two hours to go – I chose to believe he was exaggerating. M. found the clearing enchanting, and indeed with visibility of only a few yards, and the mist rising eerily around us, the atmosphere was magical and surreal.
Up we went once more, the path of reddish-brown earth heavily rutted, with ravines in places chest deep. Here and there were roots acting as natural steps, or handholds, but mostly it was smooth, slippery and punishing. In parts, tree trunks lay fallen across the path.
“Do you go over this one, or under it?” M. called from behind.
“I went over,” I replied, not going into details – I had in fact hoisted myself ungracefully on top of it on my stomach, then managed a somewhat uncontrolled slither off the other side.
The one after that formed an arch-shaped bridge we ducked beneath, and on the next, in a hairpin bend, I slumped down for a well-needed rest, to which even M. did not object. A family shared our bench – he an older Westerner, she a local woman with her grown-up son.
“It gets less steep from here,” the man informed us.
He was emphatically wrong, but what neither M. nor I expected was to emerge onto the summit clearing so soon after our halt. For a moment, I even thought there must be some mistake, but we could go no higher, and both the temple and the summit altitude marker – 2,135 metres – confirmed we’d reached the peak. We felt thoroughly pleased with ourselves, and I, somewhat relieved. A cup of tea was called for, and while we shared the hot beverage and I slowly revived, M. sat on the side of the wooden floor of a shrine, ate a banana, a boiled egg and a Balinese cake, and wrote a letter, releasing and letting of all the unwanted things within her she wished to discard. She completed the ritual by folding the paper tightly, and depositing it in a hidden spot, where the spirits of the place, perhaps, blessed it – at any rate, since our return from Abang, M. tells me her energy feels very clean, and her mind focused.
The downward leg was quick, but strenuous in other ways. M. spent some of it “tobogganing” in a crouched position, and some of it on her bum. Her shoes were inadequate, and try as she might, she kept slipping and sliding and skidding, while steering as best she could. Far from complaining or getting flustered, she found it all hilarious, and her laughter was infectious and thoroughly uplifting. With better soles, I stayed mostly on my feet, but acquired a nice coating of Abang trail soil on my hands.
Back at the first shrines, we paused again. I refuelled, while M. sat patiently by. The food sent a rush of sugar coursing into my veins, and I felt my energy return. Assisted by endorphins from the exercise and the bliss of immersion in wild nature, a sense of supreme well-being enveloped me. And a great happiness too – the trip had been a joy, and M’s company a great pleasure. As I sat with her gentle, bubbly and feminine presence beside me, a warm feeling slowly engulfed me inside.
We got to our feet and resumed the final meanders of our walk. We reached our Scoopy, and I coaxed it cautiously along the stony, skiddy track back to the road. It was time to head back to base, pick up our luggage, and return to Ubud. As we cruised along a now the now familiar road, we reflected upon how truly blessed and lucky we were to be able to travel unrestricted and enjoy such an excursion in the current global context. As early evening loomed, we found ourselves retracing the route we had come along. Before long, we had commenced the long, regular descent south. As I freewheeled down the straight, wide highway, my mind went quiet, my heart felt content, and my spirit deeply at peace. The bike coasted effortlessly, and on the empty road, I felt the timeless joy of just being alive.
A while later, M. shifted on the back of the bike, and broke the silence. “This is about as close to freedom as you get,” she said, perhaps reflecting on our whole two days. And in that, I felt, she was exactly right.