The rough narrow racetrack through the rice fields was lined with thousands of people; illegal betting was rife, dozens of makeshift food stalls were selling Fanta and nasi jingo, 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 or ‘Makepung’. The sport, which is said to have originated as a simple ploughing contest, was introduced by migrants from the island of Madura and 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 lack of First Aid facilities, the unfathomable race rules, and the absence of Portaloos and a beer tent, this was a truly thrilling and spectacular event. A loud jingling of bells heralded the next wave of contestants and, once again, the crowd leapt out of the way and the ground shook as two more buffaloes thundered around the corner. 

The contest features Bali’s sleekest, most handsome water buffaloes, and the winning bulls then 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. 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 herbal potions, massaged and sung to sleep. Apparently, before the start of each race, chilli paste is applied to each animal’s anus to give it that extra push.

Festooned with strings of bells, silks and decorative harness, every winning team gains a point for its club, with the most stylish contenders picking up bonus points for the splendour of their presentation. The event is full of hilarity and mirth as jockeys are catapulted out of their carts and the occasional tourist is pulled out of the path of the speeding participants.

As the races drew to a close, we walked over to a special area where the buffaloes were resting and feeding after their exertion. We stroked their gentle faces and watched them being unharnessed from their carts and coaxed into large open trucks for the journey home. One man loaded his wife and kids into one of the little chariots and led his triumphant team home by foot.


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