The rough narrow racetrack through the rice fields was lined with thousands of people; illegal betting was rife, and I had just escaped being trampled to death by a pair of magnificently decorated bull buffaloes.
We were at Negara in West Bali, watching the famous buffalo races. This traditional sport, believed to have originated as a simple ploughing contest, is staged every year between July and November. Despite my near-death experience at the side of the track, the non-existent safety measures, the unfathomable race rules, and the absence of a beer tent, this was a truly thrilling and spectacular event.
The contest features Bali’s sleekest, most handsome water buffaloes, and the winning bulls will go to stud, based on the theory that fast bulls can also plough fast. Teams are divided into two clubs, from the eastern and western sides of the Ijo Gading River, and as many as 200 buffalo may take part. Each race is comprised of two pairs of bulls running against each other at speeds of up to 60 kilometres per hour around an erratic 2-kilometre track. Festooned with strings of bells, silks and decorative harness, each pair is hitched to a gaily-painted wooden chariot, driven by a precariously-balanced whip-happy jockey.
In the days leading up to the races, the bulls are fed up to 50 eggs per day; they are given beer and herbal potions, massaged and sung to sleep. Before the start of each race, fresh chilli is inserted into each animal’s bottom to give it that extra push.
As the races drew to a close, we walked to a field where the buffaloes were resting after their exertion. We stroked their gentle faces and watched as one man loaded his wife and kids into one of the little chariots and led his triumphant team home by foot.