Ian Neubauer takes to the trails of Bali in search of epic off-road riding and out of this world scenery

Every year, more than five million people go on holiday to Bali, yet the majority venture no further than the well-trodden beach resorts of Kuta and Seminyak, or the jungle town of Ubud, which was made famous by the Julia Roberts film Eat, Pray, Love.

But when I flew off to Bali last winter, I wanted to see Bali beyond the well-trodden sites that appear in the glossy tourist brochures and ads on TV. And the best way to do that, I figured, was to join a guided enduro tour.

My enquiries led me to Bali Dirt Bikes, one of half a dozen two-wheel tour companies on the island, but the only one with a large fleet of quality European and Jap bikes. It also offers a wide range of trail experiences, from beaches to forests and jungles to the sand dunes of Kintamani volcano on the rooftop of Bali.

But rather than choose one kind of terrain over the other, I asked the manager, Putu, if I could ride all four. His answer was a definite yes – that they could compress all four terrain styles into an action-packed weekend ride to take me from the sea to the sky on the ‘Island of the Gods’.

Day One: Give Me A Bloody Two-Banger

The beaches in the eastern suburbs of Sydney where I live are great for swimming, surfing and checking out the local talent. But if I ever tried riding a dirt bike along any of them, I’d find myself in the back of a paddy wagon faster than I could say “But I’m innocent, officer”.

Yet, in the long, empty, black sand beaches of east Bali, riding on the beach is par for the course, with the hard-packed sand providing an ideal terrain to test out my ride: a 2017 KTM 250 Six Days edition.

I’m accompanied by Dika, a very switched-on local who spent a decade wiping tourists’ arses in luxury resorts until he scored his dream job as a guide with Bali Dirt Bikes, plus two local sweep riders mounted on souped-up Kawasaki KLX150s.

After half an hour’s farting along the sand, we hit a rocky headland that forces us to detour onto the coastal road. It’s a typical Balinese thoroughfare, only one-and-a-half lanes wide and heaving with SUVs, overloaded lorries and a million bloody scooters.

Riding along it is about as pleasant as being held back for detention by a priest at Catholic school, and I couldn’t be happier when Dika zooms off the road along a dirt track that takes us deep into a thick green forest.

The volcanic interior of Bali

Within moments we’re transported to the Bali of old, passing stone-age villages that seem frozen in time, ancient Hindu temples guarded by fang-tooth gargoyles and waterlogged rice paddies where farmers in conical hats plant crops by hand, the same way their ancestors have for thousands of years.

We stop for lunch at a satay stall where I order “anything but dog”. Following a recent news report by the Australian TV about how dog meat is sometimes used in place of pork in Bali. My order is both a valid precaution and timely punchline.

Dika and the guys crack up laughing, but not half as hard as loud as they do when I tuck into a chicken satay stick infused with so much f**king chilli that I spend the next five minutes running around like a chicken with its head cut off while swallowing the contents of half a dozen water bottles until the searing heat burning in mouth finally wears off.

After lunch, Dika takes us along a slippery rock-and-root-strewn uphill single-track with increasingly tight turns. I’m doing OK until I hit a 90-degree switchback hidden by thick green vegetation. When I try to correct my course it’s much too late, I lose my forward inertia and my bike’s handlebars hit the ground.

There begins a tragedy of errors where I come off thrice more within the space of a few minutes. The incline is not overly technical, but the strain of picking up a 100kg-plus bike in the stifling tropical heat, on terrain so slippery that I can barely find a purchase for my feet, takes the fight out of me, and I have no choice but to hand my bike to one of the sweeps.

I’m about to begin my uphill walk of shame when the sweep’s bike, a 300cc two-stroke version of the KTM Six Days, catches my eye. Thinking fresh, I throw a leg over it, hit the ignition, crank the throttle and clear the hill with minimal effort. I’d always been a little apprehensive of two-bangers and their brute phantom-weight torque. But from this moment onwards, I tell Dika, the two-banger is my weapon of choice.

Rice paddies which have been farmed for thousands of years

Late in the afternoon, we ride into a wide, dry river valley on the northern foothills of Mount Agung – a 3,031m volcano that dominates the entire landscape in east Bali. The last time Agung erupted in 1963, 1,600 people were killed, 86,000 had their homes melted by lava, and the rest of the island went hungry for a year after ash deposits killed the rice harvests.

Residue from the lava flow can still be seen in this riverbed today in the form of a red dye that colours the rocks, which is why the locals that live in straw huts in these parts call it the Red River of Bali. Overshadowed by the ominous volcano now shrouded in long wispy clouds and bathed in the soft orange light of the setting sun, the Red River looks like a scene straight out of Africa.

I wanted to see atypical parts of Bali, and these guys delivered in spades. But it’s just a prelude, Dika says, to what we’ll see tomorrow when we hit the black lava sands of Kintamani crater.

Riding the black beaches of eastern Bali

Day Two: Hill Climb From Hell

We spend the night at Tulamben, a sleepy little dive resort on Bali’s north coast famous for the wreck of the USS Liberty, an American cargo ship torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in 1942 that rests only metres offshore. I’ve never been a fan of diving – I just don’t trust those breathing machines – but I do take a long lazy swim along the coast, checking out the palm trees as I do my backstroke.

After a hearty cooked breakfast, we fuel up our bikes and head west along the coastal road, passing the Red River before veering inland along a clay road that takes us deep into heart of Basaki Forest. With towering hardwood trees, bristling ferns the size of cars and the sounds of birds and monkeys reverberating through the jungle, Basaki looks and feels like the Amazon or the wilderness of Borneo.

The going gets tough

The deeper into the jungle we ride, the more technical the terrain becomes. At one stage, I find myself stuck on a steep hill, on machete-trail hidden beneath metre-high elephant grass. The surface is made of fine black sand, and the more throttle I give it, the deeper I get stuck. I have no recourse than to dismount and let the sweep riders help me wheel my bike back down to the flat for a second go.

Dika advises me to try a different strategy this time around: short sharp bursts of throttle instead of a constant crank to prevent my rear wheel from digging its own grave in the sand. The trick works like a charm and I zoom up the hill, though in my excitement I cross a rut on a 45-degree angle and go arse over tit.

After a lunch stop, we hit the Kintamani Rainforest, carving a path along small gorges formed by the gushing rains that inundate Bali during the monsoon season from October to April every year. At times, these gorges are so narrow and deep we have to ride with our legs raised in the air.

Ian’s gang

We also cross paths with another group of trail riders – a dozen-odd men and boys from the Four Riders Dirt Bike club of Seminyak. Dika explains they are the sons and grandsons of dirt-poor fishermen who lived on what was historically one of the poorest areas of Bali.

But then came the tourism boom, with Seminyak at its epicentre, and those dirt-poor fishermen became millionaires overnight. By the look of these guys’ bikes – brand new Yamis, Hondas and Huskies – in a part of the world where the minimum wage is around £100 a month, I have no reason to doubt Dika’s story.

The final leg of our ride takes us to the town of Kintamani, which sits on the edge of the twin craters of Mount Batur at 1,500m above sea level. From here, one can normally see awesome 180-degree views of the lakes that formed inside the crater and the remains of a volcano that erupted some 25,000 years ago.

Yet on this day, Kintamani is shrouded in mist, looking not too dissimilar to a town in the Australia’s Victorian highlands or the Blue Mountains on a foggy winter’s afternoon.


But the fog melts away as we ride down a serpentine path into the craters, revealing a landscape that looks like it belongs on the Moon. We spend an hour or so scampering up pyramid-shaped hills, flying into the air and messing up clouds of fine black dust. But when the dust settles we get down to work – taking on one of toughest off-road challenge in Bali: the Hillclimb from Hell.

The only way up the 400m high slope, Dika explains, is to crank the throttle in third gear and then drop to first sans clutch just as you start to lose inertia near the top.

It sounded easy enough, but actually doing it is pretty much the opposite. The dusty sand on the surface of the crater is so damn fine that even riding on it in a straight line is a labour.

Ah, the open road

Add half-buried rocks the size of helmets and a series of natural whoops on the final approach of the hill, and you’ve got a recipe for humiliation and heartache. Even though he’s done it hundreds of times before and knows every inch of the hill like the back of his hand, it takes Dika two attempts to make it to the top My first attempt is laughable, as is my second and third.

But I refuse to say die, each time cranking my two-banger faster and harder until my ninth attempt when I take that bloody hill and smash it into the next century. You can see the video on my YouTube channel (www.bit.ly/hillclimbfromhell), but better yet, get yourself to Bali and try doing it yourself.

Playing in the volcanic craters

KTM 250 EXC-F Six Days 2017

Named after the International Six Days Enduro in Navarra, Spain, this special edition KTM is factory-equipped to handle long rides on dusty rocky terrain, with an improved seat for long-distance comfort, floating front brake disc for consistent braking performance and a radiator fan for optimal temperature management.

It was love at first sight when I first mounted the orange beauty, and the new-gen four-stroke donk had power to spare as I tackled the beaches and forests of Bali. But (and I never, ever thought I’d ever say this about a Katie Em), I found it underpowered and a little too heavy at 112.5kg (103.5kg dry weight plus nine litres of fuel) when tackling the super-slippery jungle trails of east Bali.

The 300cc two-banger version of the Six Days weighs only 2kg less, but the difference between riding these two models on tight technical terrain was like the difference between night and day.

Bali’s First Enduro Race?

As this issue goes to print, Putu of Bali Dirt Bikes is speaking with one of the world’s largest action sports promoters over a potential sponsorship deal for Bali’s first-ever enduro race. The three-day event will include much of the terrain covered by Ian during his jaunt around the island, plus a new trail Dika and the boys are currently plotting on the Kintamani Crater.

“We’re expecting about 500 riders to start the race in two or three different classes,” says Putu. “The last 200m of the track that we are building now will be a pretty hardcore hill-climb with lots of dust and rocks. Like the Erzberg Rodeo, it will be an elimination-style race. Only the best-of-the-best will make it to the top.”

Want to do this?

Riding there

Bali Dirt Bikes two-day enduro tour includes accommodation, fuel, meals, pick up and drop off from anywhere in Bali, use of safety gear and a near-new trail bike. Prices start from approximately £420, depending on your ride.

See: www.balidirtbikes.com for more information.

Staying there

The Swiss-Belhotel Petitenget in the heart of Seminyak, Bali’s upper-crust restaurant and nightlife area, offers deluxe queen rooms from approximately £40 per night.

See: www.swiss-belhotel.com.

Playing there

Finn’s Recreation Club in the hip surfer town of Canggu combines a waterslide park, pool, gym, restaurant and bar – the perfect place to acclimatise to the tropics or to wind down after a long hard ride.

See: www.finnsbeachclub.com.