Bandit Island (Helbig, 1939)

Noesa Penida, "Bandit Island" by Karl Helbig (1939)

This article is a rendering of the travels of German archaeologist Karl Helbig on Nusa Penida in 1938 & 1939 combined. The texts of these articles vary only in detail, indicated where necessary. Helbig published an article in "d'Oriënt" and "Tropisch Nederland", in 1938 and 1939 respectively. The images provided in this article are from both magazines. Please, refer to sources below. English translation by Godi Dijkman; the original Dutch text can be found here.


images left: Magazine cover "d'Oriënt", June 4th, 1938: right: "Tropisch Nederland" (1939)

Departure from Koesambe

It is surprising that the island of Penida is so rarely visited by foreigners, although it is situated this close to Bali, the tourists island par excellence. There are hardly any roads in the famous temple districts in the east and southeast of Bali where Penida is not clearly visible. It rises from the frosted blue waters of the Indian Ocean, like a table with sharp, steep cliffs on the spot where it narrows into the Lombok Strait. It measures 20km across and from the closest cape at Koesambe (Bali) it is located at a distance of not more than 12km. In a manner of speaking, it is there at anybody's reach. This is the reason I entertained the idea of visiting the island during my trips across Bali.

helbig-dorient-1938-juni-11Moreover, a number of fellow countrymen - the only ones at that tome to have visited the island, inspired by artistic and folklore curiosity - so far have related some of its curious aspects and so I found myself looking forward to the first occasion to make the crossing. This, however, is not possible by steamer or motorboat and one is forced to take a proa or "Djoekoeng" - all the more romantic, I would say - the adventurous canoes giving their charm to the Indian waters. The journey starts at Koesambe, a Mohammedan settlement making its living from fishery and salt panning.

When, one afternoon, together with my travel companion, I arrived at the village, a first disappointment was awaiting us. I had hoped to be able to make the crossing that same day, to commence our four-day rambles on the island the next morning at dusk. The wind, however, proved unfavourable and heavy trade winds loomed. The time was December, a month which can often and quite unexpectedly bring torrents of rainfall to the south coast of Bali. The fishermen reckoned from experience it would be best to wake shortly after midnight in order to reach Penida by daylight.


Image left: Typical semi-conical hills of the coral karst terrain with corn plantations in the somewhat more humid valleys of Nusa Penida (Helbig, 1939)

Enfin, of course we didn't want to miss out on a nightly journey, as we wouldn't like to lose time either, we thought, and so with two dark-looking fellows I agreed on the time and price of the trip. At a cost of two guilders, they were ready to ferry us across to Sampalan, located at half a coast's length, and at the same price they proved willing to meet us in Toja Pakeh - at the shortest possible distance form Koesambe, for the return crossing. We found lodgings with the "mayor" of Koesambe, who at the same time held a small luncheon gathering, so after a hospitable meal we also got a few hours of sleep.


Image right: The steep cliffs of Nusa Penida - see article on page 11.

Around one o'clock our fishermen collected us. There was a bright full moon above the palm trees, the illuminated beach and the sea. Penida's ink-black silhouette contrasted to the bright sky. There was much activity at the beach. An entire fleet of fishing boats prepared for the journey out. Quickly, whatever we had in terms of luggage was taken into the djoekoeng and we sat down on a bamboo seat just behind the mast. One dozen helping hands got hold of the boat, pushing it with all their force, and with routine-like certainty they pushed the boat across the remaining stretch of beach and the high surf. Only seconds from entering deeper waters, both of our pirates jumped nimbly in the vessel and some minutes later we sailed in the direction of our destination with softly bulging sails for a quite crossing.

There was just enough space for us to take a semi-seated or semi-recumbent position. The moon, fatigue and nightly winds, together with a softly undulating sea en the realisation of finding ourselves in a veritable South Sea Vessel, created a unique atmosphere, one which fate bestows upon us cultured beings only far too rarely. However, a merciless disillusionment came upon us: around four o'clock in the morning pitch-black clouds devoured the moon, fierce winds blew, which cast our vessel up and down the waves. On top of this, torrential rains left us wet to the bone, as there was no way to protect us from it. Shivering with cold, we anxiously awaited our arrival and when the ghostly torches of the fishermen on Penida were finally visible, we had the impression of having crossed a distance of at least forty, instead of just four hours.

Arrival at Sampalan

From all sides curious eyes stared us at when we set foot on Sampalan's shores. White visitors are a rare sight around these parts; generally they are civil servants. Our first call was the highest authoritarian, a Balinese of high cast. In the only house reminiscent of our own homes, available on this island, he rules over 33,000 inhabitants. Except for the few Mohammedan Malay at our destination Toja Pakeh, he is the only person with whom we are able to converse in the Malay language. Even the majority of the village heads, with whom we had dealings later on, hardly mastered the general communication language of this archipelago. All of the people here are of Balinese descent, of a special type. For a very long time, until their raid at the start of this century, the rajahs from Kloengkoeng, the most important area in South Bali, have used Penida as a place of banishment for disobedient subjects.


Images above: Malay natives on Nusa Penida at the Demang's office; Malay woman of Nusa Penida at her loom (Helbig, 1939)

The people exiled to this island have not always been just criminals, but also many people who were not able to pay off their debts, political intriguers and victims of "women perkaras" [transgressors of marriage laws?, Sidemen]. Just from the fact that the current population has cultivated this naturally needy land to the highest degree, it is evident that the core of these people cannot be made of only bad and useless human elements. Nonetheless, the island is still called "Bandit island", a name we find on old maps, like 'Noesa Pandita' (Island of Priests), which most likely is a corruption of Penida, a word, which probably means "bad chalk", and as such is rather suitable for this limestone island.


Images above: The shadow of Gunung Agung on Bali; The proa, which will take us to Nusa Penida, is prepared for the journey (Helbig, 1938)

With the aid of a civil servant we manage to convince an old farmer with a truly Odyssey-like appearance of a sheep herdsman to become our carrier. One man hardly suffices to carry all or our luggage, but despite the endeavours to get a second one, our efforts were merely met with refusal on part of the population.

However poor they may be and however eagerly they would seem to make a few extra cents worth of money, still they cannot be made to labour in foreign service. The fact that they do not dispose of many earthly goods may become apparent from the fact that the main currency, except for small copper coins, is still the ancient, pierced Chinese kèpèng at a value of one seventh of a cent! Three kèpèng, for instance, is usually paid for a small bamboo cup full of peppered palm wine. This seems, moreover, the only drink on the island, apart from brackish groundwater and insipid rainwater, to be had on the island.


Images above: On the beach at Kusamba; all buildings on Nusa Penida are made of coral rock; saltpans along the coast (Helbig, 1938)

There are hardly any islands as needy as Penida in this generally blessed archipelago. By nature it is a limestone block risen from the seas, and therefore has all its less favourable characteristics: arid soil, poor in minerals, scanty plant growth, very few animals and above all: scarcity of water. Rainwater does, however, fall abundantly - as we ourselves were able to enjoy for half a day - but the porous rocky soil directly absorbs rainwater and transports it into subterraneous crevices along the valleys, which quickly remain dry once more.


Images above: Pura Batu Medau, the most sacred temple of Nusa Penida; entrance to a Hindu temple on Penida; Hindu offering shrine in a temple court on Penida (Helbig, 1938/9)

Water scarcity

During our travels, despite the rain, we did not see a single drop of streaming water! Travelling the island is, because of this, hard. As there is no forest - a tiny sacred patch of forest in the centre of the island can hardly be called a 'forest' - the winds blow from all sides across the island and as the highest elevation is some 500 meters. Despite water scarcity, the hot, rocky soil, sudden stillness and scorching hot sun, walking is nonetheless a pleasure. After a few hours, the skin becomes red with sunburn and the nose peels as we travel.

No forest, no wood, just rocks. Thus, it becomes evident why the population only knows "stone culture". Houses, village walls and entrance gates, temples (except for some high pagoda made from wood and grass), thrones for the gods and statues: everything has been created from soft limestone rock, the only rock available on the island. This material, moreover, is needed for the construction of primarily houses and constructions related to culture (cultuurbouwsels), but also for agricultural fields. Besides a narrow strip of land in the northwest, which has been turned into a large coconut plantation, the entire island consists of hilly terrain characterised by conical hilltops typical for tropical limestone landscape.


Images above: A water reservoir at Tanglad on the Nusa Penida plain, built by the Dutch Colonial govenment; A typical mountain village of the island. The inhabitants are helpful and hospitable, though despite their poverty, they are too independent to work for money (Helbig, 1938).

Hence, only terraced agriculture is found here and the many thousands of terraces dividing the surface are each supported by limestone walls. Bearing in mind the toilsome labour needed to construct these terraces, one can only feel respect for the diligence and care of the population. My respect becomes even greater, when observing these terraces up close. Not a single pebble, not one bit a weed is to be discovered in between the crops. Truly, a gardener couldn't take more care of his beds with more love. Wherever we went, farmers and their entire families were busy weeding, hacking, and cleaning.

Rice culture & salt mining

There is hardly any rice on the island, and it only thrives in the most humid parts of the dales and 'earth funnels' (aardtrechters). Of course, there is no natural irrigation, given the absence of flowing water or abundant wells. Corn is the staple food, consumed by the vast majority of the inhabitants. Besides, there is lots of cattle, as there is plenty of grass and therefore live cattle is the main export commodity to nearby densely populated Bali. Many times I was reminded of an alpine meadow, as we passed herds of colourful cattle on the upland plains. Of course, the many prickly cactuses and thorny bushes, growing everywhere, do no not fit our imagined landscape.

The population on the scorching hot north coast makes a living from salt mining, similar to the Balinese just across the Bali Strait, the primitive way: in flat plates, earthenware filters and cleft palm tree trunks in the form of troughs. From this north coast the first day we ascended along impassable roads towards to high plain. We would not have managed this uphill walk without repeated rests in the scarce shade of some peevish acacia. Our old porters would disappear during these intervals, only to reappear with refreshing Djuwat fruits [Syzygium acumini] in taste somewhere between a slee and plum. This fruit grows on crooked trees in between terraces and are virtually the only fruits available in Penida, and only during certain seasons.


Screeching, white cockatoos above our heads kept us company during our breaks. There are many of these animals on Penida, whereas they are virtually absent on Bali. Of course, there is a reason for this: in former times, cockatoos also lived on Bali, but due to their quarrelsome and thievish behaviour they were sent to Penida as unwanted citizens, just like some people. At least, this is the story as people tell it on Penida.

On the high plains, in the oftentimes quite extensive villages, we finally find water. The brackish water down at the coast could not quench our thirst. Each house gathers rainwater in earthen reservoirs, which have to be imported from Bali as there is no local material to construct them. Apart from this, on the instigation and with the support of administrative civil servants, rainwater catchment systems have been put in place in nearly every village. They consist of piled-up structures of corrugated iron plates put together in a perpendicular fashion, the reverse of a roof, with a drainpipe leading to a tank. A hefty lock to the lid, to which only the village head has access, proves that water is one of the most desired and carefully guarded treasures. On top of this, in this area where water is this scarce, the people have constructed a number of cement tanks of some thousands of cubic metres content. But even in the rainy months of December, these tanks only contain a few centimeters of water, which was less than clean, as we were able to ascertain while bathing underneath one of the drainpipes.

Images below: Seat of the gods in a Hindu temple on Penida.; Monument in a Hindu temple fore-court on Penida (Helbig, 1939)

helbig-tropisch-nederland-1939 347bhelbig-tropisch-nederland 1939 347

Everywhere we went, we caused quite a fuss. Most of the time, women and children would hide themselves as quickly as possible, or ran off immediately, rendered possible by the large slashes in the women's sarongs. The women do all the weaving and dyeing as they master the art of obtaining red, blue and yellow dyes from plants. However, as soon as we arrived in a village en established ourselves for the night, as is the custom, at a meeting place near the temple, all kinds of people, children and adults, appeared at the garden wall to investigate each an every move we made. Yet, every time we ventured out towards the wall, all heads immediately disappeared as if struck by a sabre, until after moments of having been hidden in deadly silence they resurfaced as if pulled up by a string. It is understandable that we provoked them again and again to show this curious behaviour. As we did not dispose of provisions, camp beds, servants, cooks and more of this type of 'cultural ailments', in a certain way we depended upon the population's hospitality, and we were indeed not disappointed at that.

Without further ado, temple gardens were put at our disposal, as was the case for mats to sleep on and so forth. Also, a large pot of corn porridge mixed with cassava tubers was prepared for us at my request. I was quite sorry, however, that I wasn't able to converse with the people as I unfortunately didn't speak Balinese.


Images above: offering place for a certain god in a Hindu Temple on Penida; Karst hill slope turned into terraced agricultural land, Penida (Helbig, 1939)

What a beautiful trip this was. The panorama from the high plains was a true sight. The great Mount Agoeng on Bali, in blue, sharp shadows, or amidst many clouds, a sacred mountain of the gods for many Penidanese, is also visible to us. Further to the east there is the coast of Lombok, with many curves and rocks. In even more veils on Lombok, there is Mount Rindjani, even higher, and all to the west, every now and again, one vaguely discerns the volcanoes of East Java. On the west coast of the island are the two smaller islands of Tjeningan and Lembongan, separated only by narrow sea straits: flatter, hotter and marshier than 'Mother Penida'. These, of course, are her children. A story of Tjeningan relates that it originated from a grounded proa. A man would have sailed from Java to Bali and on the way back he found Mount Agung in his way. He ran into it with full steam, to split it into two parts. But the ship capsized, and this became Tjeningan.

helbig-dorient-1938-juni-16aImage right: steep cliffs on the south coast of Nusa Penida (Helbig, 1938)

One morning, we stand on the south coast. In comparison, even Rügen [North Germany peninsula] is by no means an equal match. Below, the water is so clear, that the sea floor can be observed clearly. But at the foot of the cliffs, weathered away by seawater, the waves break into a raging surf. I stand still and look downwards. Where in the entire archipelago did I ever see such great and wild beauty? Java's famous south coast is not a match either. There will surely be many more foreigners like me who, full of emotion and in amazement, for a few moments only, have read this exalted book of nature. Deep in though, I asked the village head of the closest settlement, who accompanied us to this spot, whether indeed this place had been visited by many foreign visitors.

"O, for sure!" he replies. "Many white people have been here!" But I wanted specific details: "Very many? Perhaps as many as ten or twenty?" "O, no!" he answers, almost indignant. "So far there were four, as far as I can recall!" Well, there should have been thousands, I thought, but perhaps it is for the best that this beautiful piece of nature has not yet been devoured by the tourist industry and remains a rare pleasure for those few, who take the trouble to look for it.


  • Helbig, Karl – Noesa Penida. – d'Orient, 1938, no.23 (4 Juni 1938): p.11-16: illustrations
  • Helbig, Karl – Noesa Penida, Het “Bandieteneiland”, in Tropisch Nederland, Veertiendaags Tijdschrift ter Verbreiding van Kennis omtrent Nederlandsch Oost- en West-Indië. Onder redactie van Prof.Dr. A.W.Nieuwenhuis, Dr.Z.Kamerling, S.A.Reitsma, Prof.Dr.B.G.Escher en C.K.Kesler, Bussy, Amsterdam, Xie jaargang afl.21 (6 februari 1939), p.329-333, & afl.22 (20 Februari 1939) p.343-347; illustrations

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