Couchfish: Ghost story

Couchfish: Ghost story

A weekend in the hills with a rubdown, a walk and a ghost.

The family and I are up in Bali’s hills at the moment. A bit of a long weekend of R&R with a cooler climate. Perched on one of Mount Batukaru’s ridges, the small, family-owned resort is not short of views—I’ve written about Sarinbuana before. In the distance, South Bali’s lights flicker, sometimes, like now, with a wild electric storm beyond.

Closer to home, there’s a deep river valley dotted with tiny icy waterfalls below us. Crickets hum, roosters call, and now and then, the rumble of distant thunder. Oh and the dog, nestled, half under a blanket, half over my feet, making random dog noises.

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It is early morning cold. For Bali very cold, I’d guess 17-ish degrees centigrade. The lying weather app says 22 degrees, but that is for Tabanan, closer to the sea and a few hundred metres below us. Eight seasons a day feels normal here. Yesterday the weather turned and tendrils of mist weaved around the palms in minutes while visibility plummeted. Will and I sat in the ochre-walled cafe under a blood-orange hue lamp sipping hot chocolate. Outside, the wind and rain buffeted the glass while the mist tendrils quivered. A weather tantrum.

A good spot for some dream work. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

In the morning, I scooter a little to the southeast, three kilometres as the crow flies, to have a Rolfing session. As mentioned before, I’ve put my back out, so when Sam realises her Rolfer has a weekender nearby, it seems sensible to give him a try.

It takes me about a half-hour to get there, riding a tiny track that links this ridge to the next. Cute little bridges cross the same river that tumbles down to form our waterfalls. It has been raining, and the trail, paved but rutted, is slick with mud and moss. Steep in places, I ride slow, brakes tight. All the while the bike twitches against gravity, wanting to cartwheel off into the abyss.

It isn’t an ideal ride for a guy with a tortured back, but I make it. Once atop the next ridge, I coast down, by small rice terraces and through smudges of villages. Left then right, then left, left, left, always downhill. The foreigner house is obvious, surrounded by coffee bushes and banana trees. I step over the gushing subak water, by the dangling penjor, and into his grounds. Below a beautiful pool glistens.

An uphill downtown. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

He’s a New Yorker and in no time he gets to work on me, chit-chatting as he manhandles me like meat on the slab. We talk about robusta and arabica, he pronounces it cawfee. His hands never stop moving, wrestling, regardless of if he’s talking or listening.

It’s not till I’m giving him the potted history of my back, that his hands stop. I tell him how, when I was 23, a Sydney chiropractor matter-of-factly told me my legs would one day be amputated. He pauses, hand still, then after thought, says,

“No, I wouldn’t have said that. You have strong legs, and they’re very heavy, but no I wouldn’t have said that.”

Then his hands start moving again.

The previous day, I take my dog, Skye Govinda—don’t ask—for a walk. It is cool, but not raining, and while my back is bad, walking is ok. We walk up for a bit to where there is a signposted turnoff into a pocket of rainforest. Also signposted is Pura Luhur Jatiluih, but with no distance. With no phone signal, I decide to walk and see where we get to.

Always look up. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

After an initial stretch of coffee and other cash crops, we enter the jungle. It is apples and oranges to the plantations. As I’ve written on Taman Negara, in the jungle, humidity jumps, shade closes in and insects yell rather than sing.

Skye and I walk on. The trail is a two-track concrete path, not in bad condition I guess, but it looks like a long time between uses. Mud that washed over in last night’s rain squelches underfoot as I break its virginal surface. Not a scooter track in sight.

Deeper we go. Up, up and up, always up. There is a jungle orchestra on both sides, a river roars somewhere below and to the left. A bit of rain comes, though the canopy is so thick we get the occasional obese dollop rather than rainfall. Then, as quick as it comes, the rain eases, replaced by mist. The temperature drops, the sweat on my shirt turns cold. The air is still, the mist doesn’t blow in, rather it forms out of nothing, surrounding us. Curling, snaking, fogging my glasses and touching my skin. Skye snaps at flies and chases lizards—the mist doesn’t bother her.

Just keep walking. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

We reach a small rest-stop sala, access to it barred by a bamboo pole. One of the guardians is a dog, its bright tongue lolls, a scarf tied around its neck. The scarf on account of the cold I guess—I wish I had one. The temperature has shifted from cool to cold, the mist thickens, warping nature’s sounds.

We continue on, Skye looks up now and then to check I’m still there, her tail beats, otherwise quiet aside from panting. Fist-sized seed pods, coloured bright orange and yellow dot the trail. I look up trying to decipher their source, then up the path, waiting for Hansel and Gretel to bound by. The jungle insects hum punctuated by the occasional crash. Errant cows?

It feels a bit weird, a bit creepy, we’ve been walking almost two hours and haven’t seen a soul. We push on, to a bad stretch of mud. After sloshing through it, I flick off the leeches as best I can, then am distracted by my phone beeping. A signal! I check Google Maps and figure the temple is about another 500 metres. “Screw the leeches, let’s get to the temple,” I say to Skye.

Woof. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

The mist is thick and it plays monkey with the sounds. The birdsong echoes, hooting reverberates, the crashes are erratic. We reach what I guess is a scooter parking area in busier times but it is overgrown and untended. The worn temple signage is in part scratched out. The first set of stairs are mossy and wet, I can see the next set through the mist.

As with the resting sala earlier, the next set of stairs have a bamboo pole angled across. As I don't have a sarong or sash with me, I decide to turn back. First though, we sit for a rest, me in a small sala, Skye at my feet.

Then things get weird.

Straight out of fairy tale land. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

It is silent, with no sign of other people—not for some time. Sitting there, the mist bulks out, the temperature drops, and my skin goosebumps, hairs on end. The feeling, the deep-seated intuition is clear, there is someone behind me. Right behind me.

I can feel them there. If they breathed I’m sure the hairs on the back of my neck, already at attention, would feel the breath. I go to look around, to see who is there, when I see Skye.

I freeze.

She has stood and turned towards me. Her lips curled back in an ugly snarl, she growls from her gut. She is fixed like stone, her eyes staring into space ... straight over my left shoulder.

Welcoming. Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I’ve written before about ghosts and hauntings—I’m the kind of person who thinks the X-files is a documentary. I’m a believer.

At this moment though, I’m terrified.

Of course, when I turn, as Skye barks, there is nothing there. Mist, mist and more mist. No grimacing baby doll with a machete—only more mist. I’m creeped out and we leave.

We scuttle down the stairs, Skye as keen to leave as me, and as we walk, I still feel like there is someone else with us. I don’t look back till the last moment—before the stairs would fall out of sight.

Here comes the mist (again). Photo: Stuart McDonald.

I see something, a dark shadow in the mist, moving from right to left above the first set of stairs. I’ve goosebumps as I type this, but yes I’m sure it was the mist or my eyes playing tricks, or a smudge on my glasses. Really. I’m sure that is all it was.

As we walk out, through the woods, the errant cows are going mad, banging and crashing to the left and right. We pass the leech ponds. We pass the Hansel and Gretel seed pods, we pass the guardian dog statue with its scarf.

I don’t look back once.

Then we’re out of the woods, back into the coffee plantation, under the sunlight. I can hear a scooter in the distance.

The next day, after my rolfing amputation confessional, back at the lodge, I get talking to the owner. She’s a Kiwi and we chat for an hour or so about this and that, about Covid and tourism and what not. She mentions there have been a few deaths in the area, one the other day—a heart attack.

It always pays to keep your offerings up to date. Photo: Stuart McDonald

Our conversation wanders. The road has deteriorated—local funds for road repairs now go to Covid matters. A passed away neighbour had been developing a repository of Balinese musical instruments. I’d heard of his parties in the past, and my host reiterates they were something to behold—and belisten.

Somehow we end up at my ghost story. She pauses, thinking back to our earlier conversation about the woman who died of a heart attack.

“You know, thinking about it, you shouldn’t have been up there. People stay away from there after a death—until everything is looked after.”

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It’s raining now. I can hear something hooting, the crickets are burping, the river tumbling. I can see the airport and soon the first flight of the day will be lining up. The thunderstorm has faded and the dog is ready for her morning walk.

We will walk downhill today.

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The Couchfish podcast. Following a day by day itinerary through Southeast Asia—for all those people stranded on their couch.