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Bali: Birding for beginners

A walking safari in the rice paddies outside Ubud teaches two young boys about winged creatures and local working conditions

Published 21 Dec 2017, 14:00 GMT, Updated 12 Jul 2021, 15:00 BST
Javanese kingfisher

Javanese Kingfisher

Photograph by Getty

"Look! Look!" shrieks Sumadi, jabbing her finger at the bundle of feathers swooping across the rice field. The, bulbous orange beak is a giveaway in Bali — this is the Javanese kingfisher. Set against a backdrop of broccoli-green forest, the outline of a volcano and dreamy, contoured paddies, it's a hugely uplifting spectacle. Thomas (eight) and Oscar (seven) train their binoculars on the bird and are transfixed, as they have been by our magical surrounds for the past two hours.

We're in the equivalent of the green belt of Ubud, in countryside that emerges just two minutes' walk from the main street of this popular tourist town. I've taken my sons on a walk with Sumadi, a local bird guide, who has the manner and gait of a Balinese David Bellamy. We share the footpaths and ridges between rice fields with a handful of other foreigners and I'm struck by how courteous the moped drivers are who also use these tracks.

"Look! Look!" Sumadi shouts once more. We stare vacantly, this time clearly missing some avian must-see. "Breaking-back work," she smiles, pointing to the elderly lady setting out the young rice plants, one by one, in the paddies. Sumadi is on to something, making the point gently for young Western ears and eyes that this is idyllic for us but less so for those who shape this view.

I like Sumadi a good deal, and so do my sons. She somehow keeps them hypnotised by Bali's wildlife for another hour — that's three hours in the tropical heat. We see Javan pond herons, all kinds of swifts and the Pacific swallows whose name echoes the huge journeys many birds must make to reach these shores. The boys handle a preying mantis, startle a monitor lizard and slurp, dribbling as they do, from guillotined coconuts.

It turns out they are having a unique experience in more ways than one. I ask Sumadi whether Balinese children ever come on such walks. Not often, she replies. "People think more and more that if you go to the rice fields you're uneducated. I offer to take school groups out but the teachers are afraid, they ask me if it's safe."

The huge banyan trees with their aerial roots are another eye-popper for my sons. Some are bound up in black-and-white cloths. The Balinese believe all trees have souls, and the chequered blankets keep the evil spirits at bay. I'm struck for the umpteenth time how, for somewhere so established on the international resort circuit, Bali steadfastly remains a place that uses tourism to reinforce and bolster its culture, not the other way round.

I'm soon reminded, though, that, just because we're in Bali, we're not inured to the classic family upheavals of holidays back home. Back in Ubud, we clamber into our taxi back to the Alam Jiwa hotel. Our three children (Hannah (10) has now joined us) collapse into thermonuclear meltdown over whose turn it is to sit by the window. My wife, Lucy, her mind's eye fixed on the chilled Bintang beer waiting on the veranda, sighs and prepares to intervene. Nearby, a woman has been biding her time. Now she sidles up to Lucy, oblivious to the fireworks fizzing around the interior of the taxi, and asks: "You want massage?" Incongruous as this was, at that moment, she could have named her price.

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