This story was originally published in the Australian Women’s Health magazine
I was bored with doing endless workouts within the four walls of a gym, running on the treadmill to nowhere, so I decided to take my workout to a new level by taking it to a whole new place. I swapped my treadmill for jungle trekking, my stepper for volcano climbing and my spin classes for cycling through rural villages. It’s Boot camp, Bali style.
The Ayung Sari Indah (Sharing Bali) retreat is in a small rural village about an hour and a half north east of Denpasar airport. If you want to experience the ‘real’ Bali, this is it. There are no ATM’s, no restaurants and no day spas. But what you will find are friendly local people, clean air and incredible scenery. ‘Civilisation’, otherwise known as the town of Ubud, is about 40 minutes away.
If your idea of slumming it is four stars instead of five, the retreat centre may be a lot more rustic than what you’re used to. It’s not a high end retreat and it doesn’t pretend to be. “There are only expensive retreats around, so I wanted to make it something simple that people like myself could afford to enjoy,” says Australian owner Karen Willis.
The name Ayung Sari Indah was bestowed upon the retreat by a local priest and means the ‘sweet nectar of the beautiful river’. It’s an amazing property featuring lush gardens, soothing water features, rice fields and jungle. Willis’ Balinese partner Wayan designed the entire property himself, down to the tiniest details.
The retreat has separate bungalows, most of which are traditional joglos (antique Javanese huts). They were sourced individually from neighbouring islands, shipped over in pieces and reassembled. They’re very basic, but clean and comfortable. The outdoor bathrooms are shared with the local fauna; snails that look like they’ve escaped from Jurassic Park, cute little geckos and majestic dragon flies that flit around while you have your shower.
The property also features several bales (open huts), where guests can relax and read a book. There’s also an upstairs yoga room which is open on two sides, revealing inspiring views over the tree tops, and a central bale where three meals a day are served.
I’m joined on the retreat by 6 other women with a variety of backgrounds, from a Sydney based chef to a cattle farming mother of two from the Northern Territory. “It gets people that don’t want to sit around the pool for their holiday or they want to kickstart their fitness program,” Willis says. “All levels of fitness are welcome and catered for and we have all ages from 20 to 70. We get a lot of mothers and daughters, a few sisters, but it’s fine for singles as well.”
As a yoga teacher, I thought I had some measure of fitness, but about five minutes into the first training session on day one, I realise I may have overestimated my cardio capabilities. At 6:30am, when on most other holidays I’d be sprawled out on my king-size bed, I am instead running through muddy rice fields trying in vain to catch my breath and my dignity. Our personal trainer, Jo Sharp, is a former policewoman and runs her boot camps like she’s still in the Academy. Clearly, Sharp’s idea of a ‘light, fun’ workout is not the same as mine. Anyone caught with their hands on their hips or their arms folded has to drop and ‘give her 10’, no matter where we are.
Sharp is very resourceful, incorporating whatever’s at hand into her workouts, including coconuts, bamboo poles and even a pumpkin (which later makes a delicious soup). She also makes good use of the amazing landscape surrounding the retreat centre. On day one she leads us on a trek through the jungle, down steep tracks and over bubbling streams. We stop for a break and watch our Balinese guides shimmy up the nearest tree to bring down coconuts for us to drink.
Once we’re refreshed, the boot camp starts in earnest. We lunge, squat, crab-walk and sprint our way back to the retreat, much to the bewilderment of the barking village dogs and the local kids who seem to find us quite entertaining. The day finishes with a whitewater rafting trip, where there’s more floating than paddling. The 300 steps on the way out of the ravine aren’t quite as relaxing, especially on legs already aching from the morning’s activities.
While day one seems to go forever, the rest of the retreat flies by. Every day starts with a ‘light’ early morning training session, which is followed by a variety of other activities including a yoga class, an abs-only session and Bali-style circuit training where we lift fruits and vegetables instead of weights. We also go on a downhill cycling tour which, true to its name, is almost all down hill and mercifully requires very little pedalling. During the tour we stop at a coffee shop, rice fields and a traditional Balinese compound to learn about how the locals live.
On day three, we take another trek through the jungle and down a ravine to the Ayung River which runs at the back of the retreat centre. The path is almost vertical in parts and we keep a group tally of how many times we fall on our backsides. The view from the bottom makes the effort worth it, as we stand by the river looking at the jungle rising up on all sides. It feels a little like we’ve gone back in time to some lost world. The climb back up the ravine is hard going, and our reward for making it to the top is another training session!
The highlight of the five days for most of us is climbing the nearby Mount Batur, despite having to wake up at 2am to reach the top by sunrise. If getting up at an ungodly hour isn’t enough, we each have to cart a bag full of dirt up the volcano in our backpacks to symbolise any emotional baggage we may be carrying with us on the retreat. With a fair bit of grumbling, we all manage to make the two hour climb to the top and watch as the sun lightens the sky to reveal an awe- inspiring view over Batur’s crater lake.
We all pour out our bag full of dirt at the top as a sign of letting go before starting off again. The trek on the way down is certainly easier since we can actually see where we’re going. The outing is perfectly capped off by a soak in the hot springs at a nearby hotel.
The final day of the retreat, despite my misplaced hopes of a sleep in, starts with an early morning hike through the rice terraces. After emerging from the jungle, we load two stretchers with donations we’ve brought with us and run with them all the way to the local school. Our arrival almost causes a mini riot among the 200 or so kids as we hand out pens, pencils and shoes for the poorest children.
For those worried it might be all work and no play, there’s an outing to Ubud for some retail therapy and relaxation. It includes a traditional massage at a local day spa; the perfect way to soothe muscles unaccustomed to so much activity. And for those who find cooking a good way of unwinding, the retreat also includes a class with Ayung Sari Indah’s cook Gusti who shows us how to whip up some of the amazing Indonesian dishes she has made during our stay.
Despite my initial reservations on day one, I found my fitness level improved quite quickly over the five days. The program had a great balance, which meant that when one part of the body was so sore it couldn’t be moved, we worked on another! And just to prove it wasn’t all for nothing, a tally at the end showed we’d burned off about 8,656 calories and took 67,200 steps. And after all that hard work, we felt we could reward ourselves with a Bintang or two.
Check out www.sharingbali.com