The screams grow louder as I descend through the lush tropical rainforest towards the river. A raft flashes around a bend, disappearing seconds later behind a curtain of lush foliage. But the glimpse is insufficient for me to judge whether the paddlers are screaming with fear or pleasure. I’m about to embark on a Bali river rafting adventure in Ubud.
The steps down to the river bed seem to last forever. By the time I reach the bottom, my legs feel like jelly and I’m bathed in perspiration. I refuse to even think about the climb I will undoubtedly have to make back up the hill.
Bali River Rafting – The Basics
We gather around our guide, Kingfisher, who has been a Bali rafting guide for years.
He instructs us to hold our paddles with one hand placed over the handle on top of the paddle for balance and the other grasping the throat of the paddle.
We learn where not to place the paddle.
“Never try to push the rocks with the paddle,” he warns us.
We discover that weight transference is the key to staying afloat.
“Swing your weight to the left or to the right when I say so. If you don’t, we might all be swimming,” says Kingfisher.
What to do if we fall in?
“Float on your back feet first downstream and wait for someone to pull you back into the raft,” he says.
By now, I’m apprehensively running scenarios through my head.
I’ve barely digested the encyclopedia of information when we’re told to put on our life jackets and climb into our rafts.
Our Bali white water rafting adventure is about to become real.
Bali River Rafting – The Experience
Kingfisher takes a seat at the back of the raft.
I’m happy to discover that my paddling partners are three strong-looking men – an Australian, a Belgian and a Singaporean.
I’m feeling a little more confident about the Ayung rafting experience ahead of us.
We drift dreamily past a local man meditating on a rock and into the swirling current.
Just as I begin to think that our Bali rafting adventure is going to be a cinch, there’s a cry from the back of the raft.
“All paddle fast. NOW,” shouts Kingfisher.
I dip my paddle furiously into the white water, responding to the urgency in his command. At first, our paddles are a blur of uncoordinated motion.
I bang my paddle against the Belgian’s and it slips out of my hands.
I reach forward and somehow manage to hang on to it. It’s a heart-thumping start to our Bali river rafting experience.
We continue to paddle as if our lives depend on it. And just as I find myself getting into the swing of things, Kingfisher shouts: “Stop. Paddles up.”
I hold my paddle horizontally above my head (feeling like a pro). The raft drops into a rapid and we’re tossed by the current towards boulders.
I scream as the side of the raft crashes into a rock.
The Belgian sitting next to me is thrown off his seat and falls onto the floor of the raft like a sack of potatoes.
The safety briefing runs through my head but I can’t begin to imagine how anyone caught up in the swirling currents while water rafting Bali could possibly position themselves to float calmly feet first downstream.
Anyone falling in is likely to be tossed about like clothes in a washing machine.
This is just one of the 25 rapids along the Ayung River.
The river is Bali’s longest and largest, a fast-flowing river that carves its way through soft volcanic rock along a series of descending rapids and vortexes of swirling water.
Whitewater rafting Bali – The Rapids
The Rapids have creative names like Butterfly Rapid, Snake Rapid, Ping Pong Rapid and the aptly named Pinball rapid (imagine bouncing off rocks like a ball in a pinball machine).
All these are classed as level two rapids, which are safe but with enough thrills for adventurous beginners seeking Bali water rafting thrills.
We repeat the routine over and over again: paddle, stop, hold paddle high above head, crash into rocks, then float in calmer waters.
Our entire journey is 11km; it takes us two hours.
At one point, we paddle close to a waterfall.
“Are you wet yet?” says Kingfisher.
“Wet enough,” I reply sensing a trick question.
Sure enough, he jumps out of the raft into the shallows and pushes us beneath the cascades so that everyone in the raft is soaked from head to toe.
“It’s the best way to cool off,” he laughs.
White water rafting in Bali – The Landscape
We break for a drink at a rocky alcove where local women clamber across the rocks to sell us cans of sports drinks.
Further on, the jungle that tumbles down the valley is a verdant palette of emerald, jade, olive and lime and all the shades in between.
As we float along the calm sections of the river, Kingfisher points out majestic Banyan, banana and bamboo trees.
Vines snake around swaying palms; Hindu shrines peep from behind green shrubbery; a brilliant blue-breasted Kingfisher flutters on a branch.
We learn how the jungle provides for the local people.
Coconut, sugar cane, betel leaf and areca nut are some of the plants used by the Balinese for food, medicine, or as materials for utensils, ritual offerings and building materials.
We float past tranquil rice paddies and a wall chiselled with moss-covered stone carvings that appear thousands of years old.
I’m amazed the chiselled wall is only two years old; it’s a testimony to the skill of Ubud’s modern carvers.
Ayung River Ubud views
Local stone carvers work with rocks from the river to create beautiful statues of deities, Balinese women and animals.
These stone carvings are everywhere in Bali, decorating temples, gardens and resorts.
High in the hills above us, there are luxury resorts with pavilions, courtyard gardens and health retreats.
Como Shambala, Four Seasons Sayan and Amandari are names I file away for another time.
From the river, the resorts seem like ethereal fairy villages in the hills.
Two local women are crossing a shallow section of the river, damp batik sarongs clinging to cocoa-coloured skin.
Their work clothes are high and dry in bags held above their heads.
The women in Bali are strong.
They load large folded rafts out of the back of a lorry, carry them down to the river on their heads and use their muscled arms to pump them up.
Our trip ends at a rest area with an Indonesian buffet of nasi goreng, satay and glutinous sweets.
Kingfisher gives me the thumbs up sign.
“Bagus? good?” he says.
I’m not sure if he means the food or the rafting. But I’m ready to do the rafting all over again.
River rafting is a fun activity if you’re travelling with teenagers or older kids but Bali is also a fabulous destination for a family holiday. Here is a great guide to help you plan your trip to Bali with the kids.
Where to stay in Bali
Bali has a range of accommodation to suit most budgets.
If you have a few extra days, it’s worth visiting the Komodo Islands.