The Troubadour in the Garden

  • Garden Kafe at the Yoga Barn, Ubud, Bali, Indonesia

Soaked in sweat but with every cell in my body singing after my morning yoga class with Nadine at the Yoga Barn in Ubud, Bali, I descend the rocky steps to the Garden Kafe for a much needed breakfast. Safety isn’t much of a consideration in Bali, and there is no railing.  I take care to watch my feet going down the unevenly placed stone steps.  The Garden Kafe is the first raw food cafe in Ubud, opened in 2009, serving vegan, vegetarian and some cooked food.

Ubud is the centre of touring more recently inspired by writer Elizabeth Gilbert’s “Eat, Pray, Love” book about finding herself in Bali. If you’re after yoga, meditation, rice fields and healthy food, this is your destination.  Groups of middle-aged white single women are commonplace.  Sadly not all of them will meet Mr Right in Ubud like Elizabeth.  If you would rather “walk in, crawl out” and get a tattoo when drunk, visit one of the hundreds of bars down on the coast in Kuta, Legian or Seminyak.

garden-cafe-yoga-barn1-495x400The Yoga Barn complex has an organic feel, as if it is a root vegetable that has grown higgledy-piggledy in the tropical sun.  At the end of a narrow laneway, the entry courtyard, complete with splashing fountain, is a welcome oasis from the 35 degree celsius heat and 100% humidity.

Downstairs in the Kafe, people lounge on chairs at brown wooden tables, or on sofas on raised platforms against red cushions.  The cafe is a covered veranda, high above the open deck of the main yoga studio below, surrounded by palm trees and the roofs of nearby buildings.  There is no long view over rice fields, which have given way to development.  In the rainy season the Kafe would be a very damp place.  Electrical cords snake up through thatch, and pipes exit from jerry-built concrete walled rest rooms.  The tiling in Bali is often beautiful.  The blue and white floor tiles and painted brown and white wall frieze are focal points.

the-yoga-barn_garden-kafeMost of the clientele are white, young and fit, dressed in yoga attire such as shorts or stretch leggings and singlets.  In the tropics, only 947 km from the Equator, the less clothing the better. Looking at the faces and listening to the voices around me (and having talked to some in my class earlier), I recognise English, Swiss, Australians, Lebanese and South Africans.  I must be the oldest person on the verandah.  I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.

All of the staff are brown, mainly young Balinese women and men.  Pay is so low that there is always a lot of staff in retail businesses, which are often owned by Javanese or international expats.  So tip well if the service deserves it.  My guide Nyoman on the climb up 1,717 metre Mt Batur supported a family of eight, and did the 5 hour round trip up to three times a day in hiking boots that were falling apart.  He almost cried when we gave him the equivalent of a $20AUD tip.  I wouldn’t have made it to the top for sunrise without his gentle encouragement and firm hand to guide me up the steep, rocky track.

While I had hoped to try out Balinese rather than Bahasa, which is the language spoken in the rest of Indonesia, saying “halo” to the waiter is easier for my tongue than “om swastiastu”.  I find “suksma”, thank you, better.  But the smiling Balinese have given up correcting my pronunciation.  Sadly I have no ear for the musical intonations of Asian languages.  Apparently this is not necessarily my fault, given that our soft palates form as young children while we master our language.  There are differences in the palates of those who speak Asian languages and those who speak European ones.

I dig in to my delicious Ayurvedic breakfast of kitcheree – warm “organic lentils and brown rice stewed with ginger, turmeric and garam masala, finished with broccoli, spinach & coriander” in a rustic pottery bowl.  My ageing osteoarthritic joints are getting good treatment today from yoga, ginger and turmeric.  The iced lemon tea is the icing on the cake.

A young, tanned, blue-eyed, nose-ringed and dread-locked South African man across the table strikes up a conversation.  He’s been busy on his laptop while we’ve been ordering.  He breaks in as if he’s already part of our discussion.  He asks us the usual: “Where are you from? When did you arrive? How long are you staying?”  I ask him the same.  Is he a writer, I ask?  No, he’s a troubadour he says, and staying at the Yoga Barn to consult a healer, as he’s worn out from giving to the world through song.  It’s the first time I’ve met a troubadour.

Turns out he is sponsored by people from around the world to produce his songs on his website, and to do other unspecified good deeds for humanity.  A countrywoman of mine, an Australian, apparently gives him $100AUD a month.  He says he rang and asked why she was giving so much money to a stranger.  She was said to have answered, “if you can make other people feel as good as you made me feel, it’s worth $100 a month”.  I wasn’t sure if he was a miracle worker or a gigolo.

My friend Maria says later he’s a charlatan travelling the world on other people’s money.  Being a romantic, I think of art patrons in the Renaissance, and take down his name so I can look up his site.  I don’t, and time goes by, and I think I’d rather donate to a charity for children in Asia, than support a white, privileged South African to travel the world writing songs.  Then I do look him up, and hear some magical music.  I’m glad my parting comment to him was to take care of himself:  “you can’t pour from an empty cup, look after yourself first”, my new mantra for 2016, from a Facebook meme.

Back at the Garden Kafe, it’s very quiet except for the construction noise next door.  It’s always quiet in a yoga studio space and there’s always construction noise in Asia.  We tip the staff and buy large, crumbly, crisp, home made choc chip cookies in crackling cellophane bags (you can’t be too healthy).  I’m grateful for them after I climb Mt Batur the next morning.  I eat the whole bag.


We’re at the Port Douglas marina at 8am for our snorkelling trip to the Great Barrier Reef.  The blue and white catamaran Silversonic looks like the BMW of the Coral Sea.

IMG_1984The water is glassy, reflecting the grey cloud-covered sky.  The forecast winds haven’t arrived yet in this small protected harbour in Far North Queensland.

The crew line up to greet us in their blue and white t-shirts.  The photographer takes snaps as couples and groups board – our whole day will be photographed if we want.

Once aboard, there is a safety demonstration and an announcement over the loudspeaker:

“Don’t jump overboard as soon as you put your life jacket on.  Wait till you hear the captain say ‘abandon ship’, and then jump.  And when you’re in the water, start singing and having a good time, because it’s 26 degrees celsius in there and we’ll be rescued in about 30 minutes”.

The boat seems half empty.  We’ve easily nabbed a forward-facing cushioned window seat with a timber table for the ninety minute trip.

Our destination is the Agincourt Ribbon Reef, seventy kilometres north-east of Port Douglas, on the northern outer edge of the reef. I wonder why it’s named after the French location of an English victory in a long-forgotten war.

The Great Barrier Reef is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.  The coral polyps make up the world’s biggest living organism and can be seen from outer space.  I lived in Far North Queensland in the mid 1980s but never made it out onto the reef as my children were babies.  Oh, how I wish I had.  Since 1985, the reef has lost more than half of its coral cover, according to a study published in October 2012 by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  So I try to manage my expectations.

IMG_1986As we get further out, the swell and white caps increase.  The sea and sky remain grey and there is no hint of the wonderland beneath.  The twin-hulled, double-storey catamaran handles the swell well, but some passengers are getting sea-sick.

We are offered tablets with our buffet breakfast, but I decline.  I remember a boat trip on Lord Howe Island in the early 1970s when my whole family spent the trip asleep thanks to these tablets.

We arrive at The Point.  A coral peak breaks the surface, like the battlements of a European castle, ready to tear the hulls of unsuspecting wooden boats.  Captain James Cook, the first European to map Australia’s coastline and claim Terra Nullius, the Empty Land, for the English, ran into trouble in these shallow waters.  His boat was damaged nearby.  Cape Tribulation, now the last remaining coastal rainforest in the world, was named by him.  The thousands of Aboriginal people who lived sustainably in the so-called Empty Land had preserved its beauty for 60,000 years. 

We don black lycra suits with yellow hoods, and laugh at being in “onesies” in late middle age.  My partner is nervous as he hasn’t snorkeled for decades, and never this far out to sea.  He’s not a water person – this trip is my dream.

The dive platform is lowered into the water at the stern of the boat.  We descend the steps, sit on the edge, and slip into the water. The swell lifts us like flotsam.  It’s a wild day down here, with a current running and visibility reduced.  Even for an experienced diver and snorkeler like me, the effect is disorienting once I put my face in the water, like a slow washing machine.  My partner feels dizzy and gets out quickly.  I slow my breathing and float.


Gradually the undersea world comes into focus.  The fish are so overwhelming in number that when I try to identify them, it’s hard to remember which multi-coloured colour scheme belongs to which.

Giant Sweetlips near Corbett Reef

The giant greenish sweetlips are sheltering under coral shelves like shy dogs.  Their lips look like they’ve been for botox.  The hard coral is covered with scratches from turquoise parrot fish which use their parrot-like beaks to release and eat microorganisms.

The fish are bright against the dull coral.  It’s as if a flock of colourful birds are nesting in a drought-stricken forest. The coral is mainly green and brown, with splashes of blue and yellow.  I see one piece of pink coral the size of a human head.

I snorkel for a long time, until even in warm water, I get cold, and my fingertips look like prunes.

Back on board, the passengers are quiet.  Perhaps like me, they are overcome with visiting another world where schools of fish seem like flocks of birds, and coral walls like cliffs.

We travel short distances to Turtle Bay and Castle Rock.  Our snorkel guide Paul, in his red lifeguard vest, takes us on a tour.  He freedives to bring up a pineapple sea cucumber and a slipper coral with a black featherstar inside.  We bob around him, and touch the rough, brown pineapple-like skin of the largest sea cucumber on the reef.  It moves along the ocean floor and eats sand, he says.  It eats all the organisms in the sand, and excretes clean sand.  The reef has its own vacuum cleaner.

Before Paul can return the coral, the featherstar detaches itself from the smooth inside of the slipper, which reminds me of a large Cinderella shoe.  We watch the thin, black feathery legs of the small star as it descends.  It curls up and drifts, making itself even smaller to hide from predators.

I see three white tipped reef sharks, varying in size up to about two metres.  I remind myself that the sharks are not interested in me.  They have a smorgasbord before them.

I hope for green or loggerhead turtles, but none arrive.  I find out later that the loggerheads are only here from October to December.  I’ve been lucky to snorkel before with green turtles.  If I have a sea totem, it’s them.

Paul tells us that the turtles eat jellyfish, which is why they so often eat plastic bags, which look like jellyfish in the water.  I resolve to stop using plastic bags.

At Castle Rock, the final site, a huge submerged coral outcrop rises from the reef floor.  The water is rougher, as waves crest the reef.  I stick close to the white sandy bottom as outside the reef, the ocean floor  descends quickly to 2.5 kilometres.

Paul dives down again, and swims over a giant clam.  It closes quickly, thinking his shadow is a predator.

His final gift to us is finding clownfish hiding in anemones.  Better known as Nemo from the Disney film, their bright orange, white and black colouring is strangely hard to spot in the pale pink anemone.  I wonder at the odds of survival of a tiny one the size of my thumb-nail.

I stay in the water till the final few minutes.  This may be the last time I see the reef, so I cherish every second, even though I’m cold and my leg is cramping.  I’m overawed by nature’s beauty and balance, and saddened that so many human influenced factors are destroying this wonderland.


We head back to Port Douglas at speed, the spray obscuring the picture windows.  We laugh until we almost cry at the photo of us

in our lycra suits.  We look like a couple of middle-aged superheroes.  We assure the worried photographer that nothing is wrong.

Though in one sense, everything is wrong.  I wish I had superpowers and could save the Great Barrier Reef.  That would be a battle worth winning.


The Gift

It’s 7.30 am.  I walk into Nielsen Park at Vaucluse via the access road along Shark Point on Sydney Harbour.  Orange-barked angophora trees line the path, shedding large sections of their thick, papery bark. I imagine the many uses the Gadigal people had for this forest harvest.  Black and white magpies check for worms on a cleared grassy area. I pause on a bench, drinking in the view over the harbour to the opera house, bridge and city skyline, framed by the eucalypts of this small suburban national park.

Greycliffe HouseResuming my walk, I pass Greycliffe House, a gingerbread style neo-Gothic mansion built in 1852 from local honey-coloured sandstone.  It was a wedding gift to Fanny Wentworth from her father, William Charles Wentworth, a leading figure in colonial Sydney.  Fanny never lived here.  Back in Victorian times when horse and carriage was the only means of transport, it was too far from town, and escaped convicts roamed the countryside, holding up travellers.

Steep steps lead down to the western end of the netted beach.  The park rangers and volunteers have planted flowering grevillia down the slope and the feathery pale yellow and white flowers wave in the breeze.

I leave my towel and bag on a bench beneath a 200 year old fig tree, whose roots are entwined with the honeycombed sandstone rising up the hill.  I make my way along the broad promenade stretching the length of the beach, taking a detour down steps to the white, soft sand.

Kayakers scoot around the point and early morning swimmers greet me.  The sand shelves steeply into the clear, cool, green depths of the harbour, and I dive into the champagne water.  The water is calm, except for the occasional wake of a passing ferry which gently lifts me like a bobbing cork.

After mNielsen Kiosky swim, I order eggs and coffee at the 1920s kiosk, built of sandstone and fronted by pink and green glass windows.  I take shelter from the sun under an umbrella and watch the passing boats on the harbour.

When I was a child,  a cyclone wire fence prevented access to this beach without payment.  My father convinced the Vaucluse House Trust to tear it down.  Thank you Dad, for helping make Nielsen Park free to all who wish to enjoy this diamond of a place.  This daughter would happily live here.