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Bali is noted for the great beauty of its landscapes, from coastal lowlands to exhilarating high mountain lakes, barren limestone plateaus to thick monsoon forests. Hills and mountains are everywhere and the surface of the island is scored by fast-flowing rivers, deep ravines, rugged saddles, and alluvial slopes covered in rich volcanic ash.

Except for the coastal plains, there are few flat areas. A west-to-east volcanic chain (an extension of Java's central range) divides the island in half. Crater lakes are found at Batur and Bratan, Buyan and Tamblingan in the rich submontane rainforest area around Bedugul. Bali's mountains, floating among the clouds and covered in tall forests, stand in contrast to the wild and rugged beauty of the volcanic craters, some of which are still active.

The south-central plains are intensively cultivated. Terraced rice fields dominate the landscape-myriad small rectangles of still water mirroring the clouds.

As you leave the heavily farmed southern plains and head north, the landscape changes from cascades of rice fields to gardens of onions, cabbages and papayas thriving in the cooler climate. Thatched-palm huts change to sturdy cottages made of wood, tile and stone, built to withstand the heavy rains.

In the alpine highlands of Bali are mountain streams, prehistoric tree-ferns, wildflowers, creepers, orchids, leeches, butterflies, birds, and screaming monkeys, while tall pines and cypress soar high above the mountain villages of Bedugul, Kintamani and Penelokan.

The island's far western region, known as Pulaki, is an unspoiled, under populated marine and forest wilderness. Legend has it Bali's first people had their origins here in a lost, invisible city.

In the far north there is a sharp drop from the mountains to a narrow strip of fertile coastal plain around Singaraja. The lowland coastal fringe of the north is narrow, and the absence of rivers makes the land dry and less suitable for intensive rice cultivation. In contrast to the southern coast, the water off the calm north shore is shallow for up to a kilometer out to sea.

The palm savannahs, tall grasses, and clusters of pilang (Acacia leucophloea) trees give the Prapat Agung Peninsula of the far northwest a distinctly African appearance.

The length of Bali's coastline is 460 km. Only about eight percent of the beaches consist of white sand, and they are found mostly in the famed resorts of Sanur, Kuta, Uluwatu, Nusa Dua and Tanjung. The remainder of the beaches, such as a magnificent 30-kilometer-long stretch in Tabanan Regency, feature gray-black volcanic couscous-like sand and are almost deserted-like being on another planet.

The coast from Sanur extending down through Benoa Bay is long and sheltered, lined with 1,400 hectares of natural mangrove forests and mudflats. Because so many of the original mangrove stands suffered from the effects of salt making, shrimp ponds, coral collecting, and the charcoal industry, a major reforestation project has been underway along this coastal strip since 1992.

Bali's six volcanic peaks, all exceeding 2,000 meters, trap rain clouds that swell the rivers rushing down from the highlands through deep, narrow gorges overgrown with lush tropical vegetation. Running parallel to each other north to south, irrigating the rice fields on the lower slopes, are Bali's two major rivers, the Pakrisan ("Kris River") and the Petanu ("Cursed River"), their history steeped in myths and legends. Both are regarded as holy; it is on their banks where most of the archaeological remains of Bali's ancient kingdoms have been found.

The astonishingly rich coastal plains of the south have given rise to Bali's unique civilization. Until recent times, the entire southern drainage of the island has been politically divided into eight small but powerful rajadoms. These partitioned, pie-shaped realms of south Bali were always aligned north to south along the ravines rather than east to west. Travel on Bali has always been hampered by deeply cut longitudinal ravines.

Even today, because of the island's difficult topography, most highways carry traffic north and south. Bali lies over two major tectonic plates-the rigid Sunda plate to the north and the Indo - Australian plate to the south - that grind over one another, producing frequent geologic instability.

One of the worst natural catastrophes of this century was the 1917 earthquake in which a series of tremors devastated the eastern and southern regions of the island, followed by a major eruption of Gunung Batur. When the tremors came to an end, 1,500 people had died and 2,431 temples and 64,000 homes had been destroyed.

Another extremely destructive eruption of 1,717-meter-high Batur occurred in 1963. In August 1994, after lying dormant for 20 years, the volcano began to erupt again, venting more than 600 times a day and shooting hot ashes and smoke into the sky for months.

Bali's highest and most revered mountain, Gunung Agung, which also erupted in 1963, destroying villages and covering fertile rice fields with rivers of lava and showers of ash and debris.

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