|Influences||Elizabeth Gilbert, Tim Winton|
|Bio||Leisa Hawkey is a third-year Bachelor of Arts student, majoring in Creative Writing. At fifty years of age, Leisa decided she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. As a creative non-fiction writer, Leisa is drawn to memoir and is currently writing a travel memoir based on her search for her grandfather's lost Jewish heritage.|
It’s one o’clock in the morning when I meet Nyoman inside a dimly lit shack. A worn checked flannelette shirt and soiled black trackpants hang from his lofty frame. On the side of Bali’s tallest mountain, he silently hands me a slender bamboo pole and a headlamp. His smile reveals an array of crooked teeth, stained a deep brown; probably a sign of betel nut chewing I surmise in the absence of the more expensive cigarettes favoured by most Balinese men. I smile back, hesitating, as his shabby Dunlop Volleys contemplate my not yet broken-in vegan boots. My driver Moyu, now my only lifeline to the outside world, grins, winks, flicks his cigarette butt, and reassures me with a thumbs up that all is well.
‘Nyoman best guide,’ he says. ‘No good English. You see sunrise. I wait here for you.’
What brought me here to this dark unknown place, alone, seems to aptly reflect my desire to release myself from the known, the safe everyday world that confined me to the obligatory social institutions of marriage, family and work. My previous short family trips to Bali had also restricted me to the mundane tourist hotspots of Kuta, Legian, Seminyak and Nusa Dua; all complete with complimentary welcome drinks, warm hand towels, cheap massages and cocktails.
So here I was, single, free to explore the inner and outer landscapes, safe in the knowledge that the majority of Balinese people are devoutly and fervently averse to any actions that might reflect on them in a future life.
Therefore, my decision to climb Mount Agung manifested from a childishly curious place, from where I could entertain bold and somewhat risky activities without the intrusive fears and concerns of others.
I first witnessed the full majesty of Mount Agung from a stand up paddle board on the nearby island of Nusa Lombogan. To my delight, she shed her cloudy robes as a gold spun sunset lazily liquified into the silken ocean. The following week in Ubud, in a yoga studio with floor to ceiling windows, her naked conical form intoxicated me. I felt this connection, a shift, a desire to uncover her secrets that seemed only for me. Later that same week, sipping Jasmine tea on the upper deck of Café Medari, she summoned me from across patchworked rice fields with a metaphysical ubiquity that defied logic. Yoga had made my body and mind strong. She knew it too. This moment had arrived, manifested, and I needed to act. The fear of not going was greater than the fear of failing to make the summit.
‘Slowly, slowly.’ Lulled Nyoman.
Just ahead, three other small groups advance into the immense blackness. Like a swarm of errant fireflies, the soft rays of their headlamps expose a disarmingly lush, gently sloping, path. At our first rest stop, the guides rustle through white plastic bags, solemnly placing offerings and burning incense; an act of devotion to mountain god Mahedewa. The fragrant tropical air seals me in a cocoon of deep solitude as I consider the unknown that lies ahead. I stare as Nyoman’s liquified betel nut wad squelches as it hits the ground. Our eyes meet briefly as he quickly places the next wad in his mouth, handing me the bamboo pole, before disappearing momentarily into the darkness.
Suddenly the path narrows and becomes alarmingly steep. I lose my footing in the loose earth.
‘Slowly, slowly. Careful.’ Nyoman cautions as I nod, catching my breath. Each, almost vertical stride requires me to lean heavily on the bamboo pole; my free hand erratically clutches at young saplings to counterbalance. The crutch and back of my jeans are soon soaked and my body cools quickly as we briefly rehydrate and push through the next two rest stops. I’m surprised we are keeping pace with the much younger groups. If I’d taken the easier five hours return Mt Batur option I’d have almost reached the summit with three hundred other tourists. I interject my own thoughts with, “I’m no tourist… I’m an explorer of life!”
Just past the halfway point, our group of twelve solidifies around a crackling fire that also conveniently dries my sweat soaked jeans. We gasp in disbelief upon learning that Nyoman has climbed this mountain over three thousand times. He briefly stops masticating on his betel nut, flashing us a cool grin, before turning to expel another stream of dark liquid into the darkness. As if on cue the fire dies, and the thick clouds part announcing a glorious full moon. Below, I can just make out the outline of Nusa Lombogan; its soft skirt hemmed by a pretty necklace of streetlights. My skin cools as Nyoman rubs his hands together, motioning that it’s time to don my windbreaker, beanie and gloves and head to the summit.
For the next forty-five minutes, we corkscrew our way towards the summit, scrabbling sideways, crablike, across the now barren landscape. Although fatigued, I sense this immense strength, this power deep inside that continues to guide me, trusting Nyoman’s steadiness. I ignore the pleas from my thighs to stop.
After five hours and a two thousand metre vertical climb, eleven of us make it to the summit. As a blush of pinky orange graces the horizon, I savour the warmth of the black tea Nyoman offers. Across an ocean of roaring clouds, the even higher peak of Mount Rinjani on Lombok, dominates the rhythmic sky. Any further attempt to describe this scene seems futile; what I witness transcends words.
‘So, where’s the chair lift down?’ I ask Nyoman.
I know he doesn’t understand me, and I don’t seek an answer. The group has quickly dispersed; vanishing over the edge of the mountain, leaving Nyoman and I alone. The descent will take around four hours, and I’m in no hurry. I commend my vegan boots, my body and my mind for getting me this far.
‘We go slowly, slowly.’
Nyoman is so patient. He carries my backpack and I let him. Each step down requires an extraordinary focus, and I soon adopt the mantra of slowly, slowly for each step.
Now I know why we go up in the dark; daylight reveals all that darkness conceals.
The day is warm and clear, so I retreat to wiggle out of my jeans into my denim shorts. My bare Bali brown legs and feet revel in their freedom. I spot Nyoman watching me, still chewing his cud. I boldly meet his gaze, and he turns away, squirting another mouthful of nut juice into the dirt.
Perhaps I imagine it; but further down where the stringy saplings meet the forest edge, smoke is rising from the earth. I’m sure Nyoman flashes me a concerned look, but there is no fire, no smell, no danger, so we continue. By now my caged feet are loudly protesting, each downward step propels my toes into the ceiling of my boots. They pulse and scream, demanding to be set free from their vegan prison. Perhaps foolishly, I grant their wish, and briefly delight in feeling the warm earth against my skin. Nyoman shakes his head.
I once read that feet represent our understanding of ourselves and our life. I’d never liked my feet: my Grandmother’s bunions; the tip of my big left toe lost in a lawn mower battle; the collapsed arches that internally rotate my knees, the band aids keeping the blisters at bay. A bit of a hot hobbit mess really. But this mountain, this journey, is asking me to honour all of me, to let go and accept that inner love that so eludes me.
I stand tall and feel the power of this mountain move through me as if we are connected. She gathers in my exhausted body, my beaten heart and strong mind and asks me to give more. She is going to keep pushing me until I surrender, break and reassemble myself from the ground up.
As I descend, deeper and deeper into myself, painful cracks begin to tear open my most tightly guarded emotions. First tears, then sobs, then a gut wrenching howl that brings Nyoman rushing to my side. He leads me to a shaded spot and gives me water.
‘Sokay, sokay. We sit. Rest.’
‘I’m sorry. I’m okay. Long walk for me.’ I reply, avoiding his kind eyes. ‘Much longer to walk?’
‘Forty minutes.’ He holds up four fingers. I want to thank him now for taking care of me, for being my guide. I join my hands in gratitude and bow my head.
‘You good guide Nyoman. You good man.’
‘Sank you. You good lady. Strong walk,’ he replies.
We continue for another forty minutes. When we get to any steep sections Nyoman reaches for my hand and says, ‘slowly, slowly’; sometimes I don’t let go. Another forty minutes go by, and I suspect that Nyoman either doesn’t know how long forty minutes is, or he knows that lying to me is the best way to keep me moving. I’m perfectly content with either of these scenarios.
Four days later Mount Agung begins to rumble. Like me, she had finally let go, erupting for the first time in fifty-four years. I see now that Nyoman was the mountain: silent, tall, solemn and gracious. Extending his hand to me was an act of pure devotion to Mahedewa. It took a mountain to move the mountains within, to release the layers that I had buried for so long.