Bali: Poo-beans worth the climb

By Kieran Nash

After stumbling up a volcano in the dark, Kieran Nash enjoys Bali's best brew.

A woman roasts beans to make kopi luwak, after they've been conveniently processed by the Asian palm civet. Photo / Kieran Nash
A woman roasts beans to make kopi luwak, after they've been conveniently processed by the Asian palm civet. Photo / Kieran Nash

When I'm travelling, I usually try to stay away from eating poo. But sometimes exceptions have to be made, especially when some of the world's best coffee is involved.

I was in Bali, the tropical home of beautiful, rubbish-strewn beaches, friendly locals and thousands of drunk Australians. It's also home to some of the world's most expensive coffee, an Indonesian variety known as kopi luwak.

It's costly - more than $100 a cup in some countries - because it is made from the droppings of the Asian palm civet, which eats the plump coffee berries, which are partly digested in the stomach before being dropped back into nature.

Enterprising farmers then collect the droppings, wash and roast the beans and sell them to wealthy tourists.

I suppose I could have wandered into a cafe in Kuta and ordered a cup of the thick, brown brew, but where's the fun in that? With a puritanical work ethic in mind, I decided to climb a volcano first.

The taxi came to our Seminyak lodgings at 2am. The driver, unsuccessful in his attempts to wake our small group with the horn, sauntered into the villa, calling out names and stinking the place out with his cigarettes.

We dozed in the van to the driver's non-stop chatter for the two-hour drive northeast to Mt Batur, an active volcano in the Kintamani region. Here we slouched out of our vehicle and into the base hut for a hot cup of tea.

Minutes later we were crunching up a scoria track in the pitch dark. I hadn't realised what a tourist attraction the volcano was - about 300 other people were stumbling around with their torches. The only difference was they seemed to be experienced hikers, complete with the right gear. We had just cheap beachwear which made the steep goat's track tough going.

About two hours' later we arrived at the summit, a shack where workers from the village brought us another cup of tea.

As the black sky evaporated to a light grey, all I could see of the supposedly incredible view was a thick fog, which left clothing and hair damp and the spirits damper.

Then, all of a sudden, the carpet of cloud started to sink, giving the crowd a peep-show of the mountain. The sun started to burn through the horizon and we were left with an expanse of lake, mountain and lush rainforest to gawk at. The view hinted at the spiritual magic of Bali that people talk about but don't often see.

With that box ticked, it was time for the descent. It was a completely different experience than the ascent, what had seemed like the slopes of Mt Doom on the way up was actually bush and farmland.

Back at the base camp the guide suggested we invigorate our tired bodies with some kopi luwak, to which we heartily agreed, leaping back in the van for the short drive to the kopi house.

We arrived at a small mountain hut overlooking a green valley, a local woman roasting beans, the sharp aroma blowing through the airy room.

Two large trays showed the produce - one filled with pale, washed beans, the other containing unwashed beans with a dry brown crust.

The woman in the hut showed us to the civet enclosure. The little mammals looked like a cross between a cat, a possum and a Tasmanian devil. It looked like the type of animal you wouldn't want to pat, let alone eat its droppings.

We sat at the table and the kopi was brought out, accompanied by Balinese clove cigarettes. The small white espresso cups held the piping-hot dark brown brew which hit the tastebuds with a rich, strong flavour and no bitter aftertaste. It was like the coffee equivalent of an expensive whisky.

After imbibing one cup ($10) of the kopi, we were encouraged to tip our cups upside down. The thick muddy dregs supposedly formed the shape of an animal, which would bring the bearer good luck. The closest anyone came was a weird jellyfish shape, the blobby creatures not traditionally known to change fortunes.

Driving back from the mountains to the hustle of Kuta and Seminyak, it seemed like a lot of work for a cup of coffee, even if it was supposedly the best in the world. But if I had the choice between climbing a volcano and drinking the muck that comes out of most office machines, the climbing shoes would be going straight back on.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand flies direct from Auckland to Bali twice a week during winter (June 19 to October 14). One-way internet fares start from $599 seat only, $629 with a bag, or $679 with the works.

Getting around: There are several tour operators in Bali who offer the chance to try kopi, including pinehbalitours.com and balisunrisetours.com.

Further information: See bali-tourism-board.com.

Kieran Nash paid his own way to Bali.

- NZ Herald

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