There is a dramatic transition as you head north through the valley between Mt. Agung and Mt. Seraya.
You travel from thick forests and fertile rice fields into plains of dusty rocks and cacti. What happened to all the water? Considering that the rains of the rainy season blow from the north, onto the northeast coast of Bali, one would imagine that this part of Bali would be wet and verdant.
The problem is that the clouds need to cool before they drop their rain and this doesn’t happen until they rise to pass over the mountains that ring the north coast. By the time the clouds have cooled sufficiently to drop their moisture they have already passed the coastal area. When it does rain, the foothills of the mountain get the benefit, the fruit trees and coffee plantations on the slopes get all the moisture they need. There is little rain absorbed into these areas, it tend to run off the slopes quickly. So when the rain water finally arrives back to the coast it is usually in the form of flash floods, and this water runs quickly back into the sea. This water challenge combined with the damage done to the landscape from the eruption in 1963 of Mount Agung makes this part of Bali a tough place to live in.
During the rainy season there is some rainfall and the landscape gets a dusting of green. But during the dry season some plants do grow here; wild grasses, kapok trees, cactus, who’s bright red flowers brighten up the sun burnt colors of the landscape.
There is one tree that thrives in these dry areas, it is the lontar palm and it is the salvation of more than one arid tropical island. When found in its natural state it has a full head of leaves. But when located near human settlements, their leaves are utilised for various daily needs, most of the leaves get cut off and all that is left is a rather pitiful silhouette.
Lontar palms are helpful in another way. Their inflorescence produces a yeasty and frothy liquid that is slightly alcoholic, about as strong as beer. A glass of this liquid called tuak consumed in the hazy afternoons has helped many of the local inhabitants forget their daily challenges. If tuak is not strong enough, it can be distilled into a stronger drink called arak which can be as strong as the legendary (and rare) 80 proof variety. It doesn’t take much arak to render the dry formidable environment. Arak is usually sold from warungs. The producers bring their latest batch to the proprietor of a warung. She pours a small sample onto the wooden table and tries to light it on fire. If it burns (with a pretty blue flame) she will buy it.
Unfortunately because this stress reliever is easily found and relatively inexpensive (even though it is technically illegal) there is widespread alcohol abuse here. There is also the threat that a dishonest producer will spike his arak with methanol or paint solvent to give it an extra kick. This drink has been known to kill.