Nusa Penida, Paradise Regained? (Dijkman 2007)

Godi Dijkman discovers one of Bali's beautiful yet lesser-known neighbours.

The once overlooked island group of Nusa Penida is located to the southeast of Bali, and it consists of three hilly islands: Nusa Gede, Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Ceningan. Nusa Gede, or Nusa Penida proper, is the largest of the three, a hilly cone-shaped island that for a long time has attracted the attention of Hindus. Temples like Ped and Puncak Mundi are of specific interest to Hindus who return every year to get healing powers from the local deities. Some have it that the island is home to magical forces, black magic and ill omens. This may be linked to its dark past, the age of slavery, eternal feuds and the never-ending bickering between the various rajahdoms of eighteenth-century Bali. 

In many different ways, over recent past years, people have shown a renewed interest in the small island chain. Rumours have it Nusa Penida is up to some grand projects such as a golf course and Jatropha plantations. It appears that with these investments, large amounts of money will be brought into the island.

On a smaller scale, but all the more sensible, nature conservation projects have been launched. The Friends of the National Park Foundation, together with the Begawan Giri Foundation have successfully introduced a conservation programme for the Bali Starling (Leucopsar rothschildi), one of the world’s most endangered bird species, and native to West Bali. The Bird Sanctuary has set up a series of breeding facilities for the Bali Myna, and the first generation of eight wild birds are gaily populating their new habitat

Image: Banah Point, soiuthwest Nusa Penida (Godi Dijkman, 2007)

So why, one may wonder, does the Starling thrive on this island and not in its original homeland of West Bali? The main reason seems to be a fully integrated approach that combines nature conservation and community development backed up by the islands traditional adat laws, called ‘awig-awig’. Traditionally, all forms of life, nature and the animals that live in it, are protected in areas around temples. The link between religion and adat has created the ideal circumstances for a project of this size to succeed. Apart from the famous Bali Starling, other birds profit by these endeavours as well. The endemic Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea parvula) and the endangered Java Sparrow (Padda oryzivora) both get a chance of survival of this 'reinvented' natural environment. The Nusa Penida Bird Sanctuary conservation efforts stand out a mile in the otherwise muddy waters of national conservation policy, government regulations, and – most sadly – unhealthy competition amongst the various conservation organisations involved.

In the traditional village of Tanglad, nine people have recently formed a special co-operation programme to preserve the island's nearly lost weaving tradition. The weaving process is a very laborious one, and it takes six to twelve months to finish a cloth ready for use in traditional ceremonies.

Ngurah Hendrawan, a very amicable young man of around 35, is the co-ordinator of the Karya Tenun Ikat Alami Cooperative on Nusa Penida. He steers the nine inhabitants of Tanglad to make sure the right colours are produced and the desired patterns appear on the hand-made sacred fabric called 'kain cepuk'. These textiles are used to protect dancers during sacred performances and trance rituals. In cremation ceremonies, for instance, these textiles are wrapped around the coffin, and then covered with additional fabrics. Kain cepuk serves to ward off black magic, and hence cannot be seen or witnessed during the dance performance. It is used only in the most grave of ceremonial rituals.

Ngurah explains that the tradition of dyeing spun cotton has produced the 'bintang kurungan' or 'caged star'. Ketut, an aged woman of probably around 70 years of age sits in the shade of her house behind a loom. She learnt the art from her mother, but had to give up on weaving when circumstances demanded so. Now she is back into business.

There are three naturally produced dyes, which constitute the basic and prescribed colouring of any fabric woven here. The basic colours are red/brown, yellow and indigo. These three natural colours combined, in various shades of maturity, make a wonderful vivid display.

Tanglad is situated at an altitude of some 400m altitude and represents Nusa Penida culture in its essence. During a walk through this lovely village, one may bump into some of the most remarkable characters. One of those truly splendid people is the almost 100 years-old granny Made Rami. She is quite oblivious of her age and is the surviving memory of the island, having lived through such ghastly events as the massive killings that took place during the anti-communist witch-hunt in 1965-66, and the Dutch occupation of the island from 1890s onward. Grandma Rami is a former dancer, and must have worn all those lovely fabrics in her various performances over the years. Certain moments only, she radiates when telling the tales of forlorn days. She smiles faintly, adjusts her near-white hair and headband, and wanders off towards three antique temples in the centre of Tanglad to perform her religious duties.

Puncak Mundi is frequently visited by Hindu worshippers from Bali, Lombok and Nusa Penida itself. It is dedicated to Hindu God Shiwa and congregations of Hindus, and sometimes Buddhists, enter the temple to beseech the gods for safety and to get their blessing. The oldest shrine in the complex, called ‘Kursi Emas’ (Golden Throne) is of Buddhist origin. It is thought that this temple was entirely Buddhist up to about the year 500 AD. Interestingly, the island’s first encounters with the Hindu religion seem to have taken place well before contacts with Hindu kingdoms in Java were established. On top of the Kursi Emas, there are three statues covered in yellow and white cloth, representing the Hindu gods Shiva and Wishnu. Behind it, at one of the wooden shrines, attached to the front, one finds a curious wooden, gilded deer head. In another stone shrine, one observes a statue of the Hindu goddess Dewi Uma, one of Shiwa’s many avatars, and the ultimate religious ‘authority’ for Nusa.

Puncak Mundi is surrounded by beautifully preserved pristine forest. At the back of the temple complex is a magnificent and lofty Fig tree (Ficus sp.). The visitor is welcomed by the scuttling of large groups of Long-tailed Macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and the sounds of a variety of birds, such as the elegant black Drongo (Dicrurus sp.) and the bright-yellow Black-naped Oriole (Oriolus chinensis). Birds play a special role for Hindus and Buddhists. It is not uncommon to find people bringing birds from outside Nusa Penida to the island in order to release them as a token of their gratitude to the gods. One such finding was a juvenile Black Kite (Milvus migrans), found sitting comfortably amongst flowering scrubs near the village of Kutampi.

The entrance to Kentung Cave is well hidden below thick vegetation after a short walk, and difficult to find without a guide. Throughout the cave, you will find stalactites and stalagmites ‘in the making’. The bottom of the cave gradually gets moister as you proceed until it gets positively wet and slippery. After one gets accustomed to the dark and stifling heat, one hears the sound of hundreds of bats flitting around. There are two kinds of bats in this cave, the Sheath-tailed bat (Taphozous longimanus) and the Geoffroy's Rousette (Rousettus amplexicaudatus).

The cave is nicknamed Spiders’ Cave, and for a good reason: arachnophobics are warned! Under arches and near dark cavities in the walls, Kentung Cave harbours a collection of Tailless Whip-Scorpion (Amblypygi). They have an adult body of some 5cm long, four legs on each side of which the front legs look more like those of a crab, folded up whilst holding a pair of dangerously looking claws (pedipalps) and tiny hawks right in front of its mouth. These pedipalps are designed for grasping, like the front legs of mantids. Both front legs are extremely long, perhaps 15cm, and are used as feelers, like the antennae of insects. Fortunately, this pseudo-scorpion is not venomous and entirely harmless to humans.

In the midday heat, several men, women and children work in silence. Two boys sit amongst heaps of piled-up seaweed, neatly arranged by colour. The weed is dark green or reddish-brown when it is harvested from the sea, and it is let to smother in the heat of the sun under transparent plastic sheeting; in just a few days, the colour turns light yellow. The yellow seaweed is then dried once more in the sun on thicker plastic tarpaulin covering the sandy soil, and made ready for sale. The salty smell of the ocean hovers above the vast areas covered with drying seaweed, in between rows of humble shacks. There is good potential for seaweed farmers and sea grass would indeed benefit these coastal residents if it were not for one problem: coral and seaweed do not go together very well.

Commercial seaweed farming was initially a profitable business but caused the shallow waters along the north coast have become colder. It is not hard to imagine that minute changes in water temperatures at a depth of not more than 50cm, have a major impact on the local marine ecology. Hence, production is now declining and people find it more and more difficult to make a living from this nutritious marine crop.

At first glance, the rugged landscape of Nusa Penida has very little to offer. The hills have virtually been stripped bare of all trees, leaving behind a bizarre moon-like landscape of barren hills covered in long tropical Citronella grass (Andropogon genuinus & sp.). First impressions, however, are deceiving. The silence one finds on this island, the absence of noise and strangely comforting cool air in the higher regions, makes the experience a special one. The views from Nusa Penida to the north, especially from such high vantage points as Puncak Mundi and Tunjuk Pusuh, are breathtaking. At midday, the panoramic view from the temple near Tunjuk Pusuh at some 450 metres above sea level is awe-inspiring. One looks down on gliding green hills with terraced farming land, steeply rolling down towards the coast, underneath a blazingly blue, sun-lit sky. To the east, there is Lombok, quite clearly visible in fair weather. To the north, the faded contours of Mount Agung render this vista a near-magic one.

After having conquered a few miles of surprisingly smooth if, at times, frightfully steep and narrow tarmac roads leading to the interior, one discovers that the hills are, after all, not that blatantly naked. There are quite a number of undisturbed, pristine pockets of forest on the island.

One fine example of natural and unspoilt forest is found near the village of Sekartaji, in the remote southeastern corner of Nusa Penida. Sedihing Orchard, as it is called, is the home of the native Lesser Sulphur-crested Cockatoo (Cacatua sulphurea parvula). At present, there are only four of these birds on the island, and at Sedihing Orchard there are three living in a gigantic, bright-red flowering ‘Stinky Sterculia’ (Sterculia foetida). The fourth, and perhaps a trifle lonely, cockatoo can be found in an ancient and robust Kapok tree (Ceiba pentandra) near the village graveyard at Karanggede Orchard, just above the eastern cliffs of Nusa.

The most spectacular vistas on Nusa Penida are perhaps to be admired at Banah Point, on the southwest coast, a few kilometres from Tembeling village and forest. At Banah Point, one regularly observes quite a number of birds of prey, such as the Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus) and the majestic White-bellied Fish-eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster). With these spectacular views over the ocean, the waves down below breaking against the rocks, you might just get chance of seeing one of these raptors up close, since they tend to soar alongside the cliff virtually at eye level.

Getting there

Nusa Penida is only a few miles off Bali’s southeast coast. The ferry ‘Nusa Jaya Abadi’ goes from Padangbai (Karangasem Regency) to Sampalan on Nusa Penida. It is a modern and clean passenger ship which also carries a limited number of vehicles on board. Alternatively there are smaller boats leaving from Sanur, Kusumba and also from the harbour of Padangbai, or those with only a little time on their hands, may opt for the fast ferry connection to Nusa Penida’s smaller siblings, Ceningan and Lembongan, privately owned sampans.

Accommodation of the island is scarce and very basic. Your best bet is to contact the Nusa Penida Bird Sanctuary (NPBS) prior to departure (manager Bayu Wirayudha, Friends of the National Park Foundation, Jl.Bisma no.3, Ubud, phone 0361-977978. At the Nusa Penida Bird Sanctuary, call Wayan Kresna: +62 813 37229247.

Transport on the island can be arranged by the NPBS. With the recently introduced car-ferry from Padangbai, you can make reservations to take your own car or motorcycle with you.


  • Dijkman, G. (2007) - Nusa Penida: paradise regained? Godi Dijkman discovers one of Bali's beautiful yet lesser-known neighbours, in: KABAR Magazine Issue 13, Volume II, 2007, p.40-43,

social linkedin box white 24text: Godi Dijkman