(CNN) — Bali first captured Kayti Denham’s heart when she came to the Indonesian island for her honeymoon in the 1980s.
“When the plane door opened onto the tarmac, the heady tropical aroma promised everything the UK did not,” she recalls. “The chance to be frolicsome and sun-drenched.”
She held that memory close, and returned to the island now and then to reconnect. The marriage didn’t last, but Denham says she fell more deeply in love with Bali than she ever has with a man.
After 25 years in the UK, Denham moved to Australia’s Byron Bay, where she launched a range of aromatherapy skin care products with a friend. Later in Sydney she worked with a local production company as a scriptwriter.
Fast-forward to 2004, when Denham left Australia for a teaching job in Bali, which led to a series of positions with international schools on the island. She continued to take writing commissions on the side, including a stint writing for Scottish chef Will Meyrick, founder of Sarong and Mamasan, two of the island’s most celebrated locavore restaurants.
A lifelong lover of live music, Denham crossed paths with Robi Supriyanto, frontman for the popular Balinese rock band Navicula. In Indonesia, Supriyanto is known not only for his energetic grunge-inspired performances, but for his involvement in sustainable agriculture and his efforts to encourage pride in the farming life, passions that Denham shared through her work with Meyrick and studies with permaculture guru Bill Mollison in Australia.
“If you want to know Balinese culture, just open the traditional Balinese calendar,” Supriyanto told CNN in 2018. “Everything relates to agricultural elements. If you want to preserve Balinese culture, you have to preserve agriculture too.”
Denham discussed such ideas with Supriyanto, who lives in Bali’s Ubud town with his American wife and child.
“We talked about how nice it would be to establish a home farm where one could practice permaculture and grow organic produce,” she says. “For me, it probably comes from fantasies I had when reading Laura Ingalls Wilder books as a child.”
“I had to work on trust and have people trust me”
Supriyanto helped her find a semi-rural property in Tabanan Regency, often referred to as “the real Bali,” where terraced rice fields follow the land’s natural contours with the sleeping volcano of Mount Batukaru in the background.
Stone-walled family compounds employ subak, the Balinese community-based irrigation control system, for their farms.
Here Denham could make her dream real. She formed a partnership with Supriyanto to secure the land in 2015, and through a lawyer drew up contracts that designated Denham and her daughters Kepsibel and Severen, both living in Australia, as legal lessees.
“I didn’t have a pile of money to invest, just my monthly teaching salary,” Denham says. “I had to work on trust and have people trust me. The phrase I repeated to myself over and over was ‘It will work out.'”
The 1.2-hectare property abuts national conservation forest near Desa Sanda, a village which, as Denham puts it, “lives by seasons and rituals, market days and motorbikes.”
Denham leased a plot of land surrounded by durian and mango orchards in a village that “lives by seasons and rituals.”
Surrounded by durian and mango orchards, the plot slopes from misty wooded hills into a valley and through a terraced coffee farm inherited as part of the purchase, before ending at a natural spring. The spring flows into the Balian River, sacred among the Balinese because 16th-century Javanese Hindu sage Dang Hyang Nirartha placed his staff in the river, giving it the power to heal the sick. The river empties into the Indian Ocean at Balian Beach, famed for its uncrowded surf scene, 40 minutes away by car.
“I can’t see the ocean from the land, but it’s cooler up in the hills,” says Denham. “Beautiful clouds roll in during the afternoon, and at night the skies are often clear and bright.”
Finding the right limasan
Two years after acquiring the land, Denham and Supriyanto traveled to central Java to find a limasan, a traditional wooden home with a millennium-old design history in Java and South Sumatra.
The high, hipped roofs collect hot air that rises during the day, keeping the lower living area cool. They’re popular nowadays with developers who tweak them into luxury villas or boutique hotels, but Javanese locals are less enthralled with maintaining the old structures, and are happy to sell them wall-by-wall.
Denham found a vacant limasan in the former royal capital of Surakarta, commonly known as Solo these days, and after negotiating a price — $7,000 — hired artisans to disassemble the home, load it into a truck, and deliver it over 600 kilometers to Bali, which cost about $650.
The Javanese crew arrived in shorts and t-shirts, and Tabanan’s cool mountain air took them by surprise.
“I went to the land shortly after they were supposed to re-assemble the limasan to find them shivering around a fire,” Denham says. “I rounded up blankets, jumpers and jackets, and we built a sleeping shelter. But in addition to not taking to the mountain weather, there was tension between them and the local Balinese.”
Eventually the Javanese went home to Solo, and Denham finished the house with the help of Ketut, a Balinese artisan who had worked on the home she rented in Kerobokan.
She continued teaching to maintain funds for building her dream. Whenever possible, she drove from Kerobokan to Desa Sanda with her builder Ketut to monitor progress.
When it was finished, the re-assembled and expanded T-shaped home measured 11 by 10 meters in front and 22 by 5 meters in the back. An indoor toilet was added, and Denham began moving in furniture, bookcases and antique trunks.
The interior began taking shape, starting with a huge kitchen centered on a large table seating 12.
“I still had one foot in the expat-oriented international school world, but I started getting closer to the Sanda community, and hearing of their desire to make the village an eco-tourism destination,” Denham says. “Up the road from the house, there’s an organic bakery, making fresh bread and cakes to sell to cafes down south. I also found locals making organic jams, handmade soaps and shampoo.”
To develop the land surrounding the house, a group of locals and expats, including a number of Denham’s former international school students, organized a “Permablitz,” a kind of rapid-attack permaculture event. They built bamboo outhouses with long-drop toilets, and started work on an organic vegetable garden, while camping out and playing music with the locals in the evening.
Seeing the property fill with coffee, cacao, durian, mangosteen, and avocado, all grown organically, Denham felt her dreams meld effortlessly with those of the community.
Kept away by the pandemic
In July 2018, Denham flew to Australia to take a teaching job in a remote outback desert town, returning to Bali over school holidays to work further on the house. She spent most of her 2019 Christmas vacation moving the remainder of her worldly goods from Kerobokan, where her lease had ended, to Sanda.
She made a decision that rather than unpack, she would store everything safely and give herself the opportunity to sink into the ambiance of her beautiful house, with its antique wooden living room, spacious kitchen and spare lockup room where she stored her material life.
“The rain fell, the leaves dripped, the birds called, civets screeched and nothing much else happened, except for one night when a hunter took shelter from the rain and gave me a bit of a fright. But those last days in the house were nothing short of heavenly.”
She flew back to Australia after Christmas to resume teaching, telling her Bali friends, “See you in April!”
When April 2020 came, the unexpected pandemic travel protocols left Denham stranded in Australia. It’s now been over a year since she’s been to her home in Bali. At this point, Denham says “I’m living on WhatsApp messages. I get sent pictures of my beautiful house in the big woods, empty and waiting for my return.”
A local family is taking care of the house in her absence. Not long ago, Robi’s band recorded a live music video in the garden. The coffee farm is producing organic, sustainable robusta.
“Some of that coffee arrived on my doorstep last week,” says Denham. “Whenever I brew a cup, it lifts me to a place I have not yet lived, but which I have dreamt of for years.”