Spirit endures on Bali's sacred ground

'You get chills up your spine' ...Andrew Dobson's children, Natasha and Mathew, at the makeshift shrine in a Kuta car park.
'You get chills up your spine' ...Andrew Dobson's children, Natasha and Mathew, at the makeshift shrine in a Kuta car park.
Not forgotten ... a floral tribute on Kuta Beach, Bali.

Not forgotten ... a floral tribute on Kuta Beach, Bali.

Mathew Dobson looks like any other young Aussie out on the tear in Bali, showing his mates the site where the Sari Club used to stand.

But to this young man, the dusty car park in Kuta's raucous nightclub strip is sacred ground. Here on this day 10 years ago, his father, Andrew, was sitting in the front bar enjoying a drink when a terrorist's bomb blast ripped all tranquillity from Bali. It killed him and his mate, Lee Sexton, and tore their families apart.

Mathew is here because this is the place where he feels the presence of his dad.

''My father's spirit is here, not so much in Perth,'' Mathew says.

In Bali, the spirit world exists in and around daily life and the ancestors take a continuing interest in the lives of their precious descendants.

''Do I talk to my dad? Yes, I do. Whenever I'm in trouble, or I've got a problem at home, I ask him for help. To get through things.''

Mathew was just 11 when his father died. His big sister, Natasha, was 13. Two weeks after the blasts, they became the children who broke a nation's heart.

When federal Parliament held a tear-soaked ceremony, marshalling the nation's grief, their letters to their father were read out. At the time, his body had still not been found.

''Get well, Dad, and hurry up so we can go fishing,'' Mathew wrote.

''Hi, it's Tasha Bear,'' his sister said. ''It's just been so confusing around lately …''

Their father never did make it home. Just a few days before Christmas that year, a casket was given to the family and they held a funeral, cremating it.

Andrew Dobson was identified only by fragments of his body combed from the site and tested for DNA. All that remains of him at home in Perth is an urn containing some grains of Sari Club sand.

The two children are all grown up now. They remember their father as the man who wanted to spend as much time with them as he could, even though he was separated from their mother. Time with him meant fishing, camping, "heaps of movies", says Natasha, 23.

"A lot of loving.'' Mathew, 21, adds. ''Too much love!"

After he died, Natasha helped her mother take on the role of her little brother's protector.

"I grew up really quick,'' she says. ''I didn't have much of a childhood, really."

Until a couple of months ago, Mathew was even protected from the knowledge that the coffin they cremated was empty of their father. But the family has never shied away from Bali. They will go to today's anniversary memorial service but this is their 15th, perhaps 16th trip, in the 10 years since the bombing. It's the only way they know to visit him.

''To us, Dad never came home,'' Natasha says. ''He's here.

''I definitely feel a presence. I don't feel it at home when I go to memorials. But here, you get chills up your spine.''

The Dobsons are among more than 1000 Australians in Bali for today's ceremony to mark the 10th anniversary of the Bali attacks. They will be joined the Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, the Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, and the former prime minister John Howard.

Families, friends, supporters and survivors have made the trip to pay their respects, and to seek closure. Among the survivors now in Bali are Phil Britten, his scars etched like bubble wrap across his back and shoulders and down his arms; Michael Curtis, still engaged in a grim battle with his demons and only just able to summon courage to be here; Hanabeth Luke, the Angel of Bali, returning to the place where her boyfriend, Marc Gajardo, died, and where her attempt to save Tom Singer was immortalised on film.

Ordinary Australians were showing up at the Bali bomb memorial on Jalan Legian, too. Chris Basso, a holidaymaker from Melbourne, has no greater connection to the tragedy than do most Australians. But after visiting the memorial on Monday and laying a flower before it, her own tears struck her dumb.

''It just makes it all real,'' she sobbed before apologising and backing away. Others stopped to look at or light the candles which, by Wednesday night, had appeared outside the Sari Club site.

This island off the coast of Java has always been a mix of the sacred and the profane. The Hindu temples and ceremonies, the offerings littering the street, the scent of incense and woodcarvings and the doe-eyed locals with their shy English and peerless smiles have brought Australians here for decades in numbers that increase annually.

Bali's spritualilty and its elaborate and beautiful culture draws in the visitors, but cheap goods, loud music, drink and exotic sexual adventures are also a big part of the allure.

The 88 Australian men and women who died this night 10 years ago were partying in nightclubs, after all, in places similar to the ones whose beats still nightly rattle the stones of the Bali memorial across the road from the Sari Club site.

In daylight hours this week, though, the memorial has taken on the feeling of a site of pilgrimage. A stream of mourners has come - the mothers, mates, children of the deceased - climbing the steps to read a wall where 202 names are carved.

The presence of these sites - one a shrine, the other a car park that doubles as a late-night urinal - has not, and will not, stop the music. Stand on the curb in front of the memorial at night (as hundreds do) and you will be assaulted by the sounds and sometimes eye-popping sights of Bali's unrestrained night life.

Mathew Dobson's night out this week was a rare aberration, and to the chagrin of his protective sister. Caution normally stops them, and enclosed spaces with plenty of Aussies makes both nervous.

But they know that for most people, a trip to Bali is an opportunity to cut loose.

''That is exactly what our dad was doing,'' Natasha says. ''He was out having fun.''

''Go for it,'' Mathew says. ''This is Bali.''


8.45am: Multi-faith service in Queen's Hall, Parliament House, Melbourne

9.30am: National memorial service in Federal Parliament's Great Hall led by Governor-General Quentin Bryce. It will include speakers, musical tributes and the decoration of the national memorial wreath

11am: Memorial service in Bali starts sunset, Bali time: Surfers in a "paddle for peace"

11pm: A service in Kuta

This story Spirit endures on Bali's sacred ground first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.