Published: April 3rd 2012June 30th 2011
(N) The crossing from Bali to the Gilis left us shaken & stirred. So when our pubescent captain announced the arrival at the first of the three Gili Islands, Gili Trawangan, I didn’t care that it wasn’t the island of our choice – I just wanted to get the hell off. In the dark, we were ferried to the mainland in the standard wooden nutshell and experienced a second near-capsize as a large wave crashed into our boat, drenching us and our backpacks to the bones. The boat guy – another teenager – giggled and I had to stop myself from strangling him when he declared “No take boat from Bali in full moon - waves very biiiiiiig!”
When we made landfall, I fell to my knees and kissed the ground to the rhythm of the pumping bass that sounded out over the island. We had arrived in Gili T – party island and Mecca of Western excess and overindulgence – the Costa del Sol of Indonesia. It wasn’t what we were after, but like I said – I just wanted steady ground and a bed. So we marched along the beach past one identical bar after the other, looking
for a roof over our head that didn’t cost the remainder of our budget. In Gili T, capitalism rules. We walked to the northern end of the beach, where we had been told it was beautiful and quiet, and managed to secure a clean, new room slightly inland, rented out by an immensely friendly local man for a fair price. He was so happy about us staying with him that we couldn’t face checking out again in the morning. So although every fibre of our bodies was telling us to get off the island, we committed to staying two nights before moving on to Gili Air. We hit the pillows immediately, and the next morning woke up refreshed and ready to scout out the island. We tried to keep an open mind, but we weren’t taken by Gili T. We did some good snorkelling off the beach but that was all there was to the island – as Virginie had put it: “not charming at all”.
Gili Air proved to be an entirely different story. Slightly smaller, Gili Air managed to retain that relaxed “island vibe” that Gili T no longer had time for. The place was so chilled
it felt like our heart beats halved their speed the moment we stepped off the boat. Friendly, dreadlocked locals who wouldn’t have looked out of place in Kingston Town welcomed us and made a few feeble attempts at getting us to stay in their respective cottages, but without the usual and sometimes annoying persistence. When we said we were on our way to the north of the island, the replies were much like: “Hey, no worries, dude, I’ll go back to what I was doing before (=nothing); come by later and join us for a beer.” So refreshingly not feeling guilty, we marched our backpacks to the other side of the island where the aptly named “Lombok Indah” (meaning ‘beautiful Lombok’) bungalows were located. And my, was it worth the trek! The guesthouse sat on the tip of the island, with an uninterrupted 220 degree view of the sea, and sunsets that can only be described as In Your Face. Our shelter was a simple bamboo hut right on the beach, with a balcony big enough to mount two massive, decadent hammocks. Sod the schedule, we weren’t going to leave anytime soon! So for the next few days, we remained
mainly horizontal: in our hammocks, in the cushioned bamboo sun shelter, and on the beach sofa with a cocktail in our hand, heads bobbing to reggae music. (Actually we were probably drinking beer as we couldn’t afford sprits. But it felt like cocktails.) Aside from choosing what to eat for dinner each night, our only woe was 24/7 exposure to Bob Marley’s Legend album. However, it didn’t bother us enough to alter our daily routine.
After three days, Emma and Alex arrived to join us (our friends from the Philippines) and we carried on much the same as before. It was great to catch up, especially in such a beautiful place with nothing much to do but chat. One night, we hit a few beach bars in the name of a belated birthday party for me; our neighbours, a very nice German couple, also came along. Gili Air was also the stage of another reunion with Swiss Jay, who stayed around the corner and, following in his hippie parents’ footsteps, planned to stay in Gili Air for three months, topping up his funds with occasional bar tending.
After seven days of doing nothing in paradise, it was time
to move on to Lombok. The question was, where to exactly, as we couldn’t decide whether to climb Mount Rinjani, the majestic volcano inland, or head straight down south to Kuta (Lombok). Staying so long on Gili Air had put us behind schedule and we still had to figure out how to get to Flores: take the slow boat from Gili, fly, or travel overland straight through to Labuanbajo, its main port. Taking the overland route also gave us the option to explore some of Sumbawa island on the way (time permitting), or commit to a mammoth 30-hour ferry-bus-ferry trip which would take us straight there. So in the name of making up time, after long deliberation we decided to travel from Gili Air straight to Kuta. However, fate was to intervene, as on the walk down to the port we bumped into a fellow traveller who was headed to Rinjani himself for a second time. He called it the highlight of his last trip and sang its praises with such passion that we promptly changed our minds. There is a beautiful photograph of Rinjani in our travel guide, and before we took off from the UK, I did say
this was one of my must-dos... so why let it go now when we were so close.
Of course this last minute decision meant we hadn’t made any arrangements for the hike or a transfer to get there - a fact soon picked up by the Notorious Touts & Scammers of Bangsal; a group of bullies lingering around Lombok’s northern ferry and bus terminal who will switch from friendly to aggressive in an instant if you decline their offer of a 10min taxi ride costing the equivalent of 3 months local wages. We endured their abuse for a couple of hours until we realised the policeman I had consulted for assistance had also lied to us about transport connections, and that the bus we had been waiting for was in fact not coming. So we marched off towards the nearest town and soon found a minivan to take us to Senggigi, where we planned to organise our volcano trek. Bangsal was a very poor introduction to Lombok, but thankfully, in our opinion, not representative of the rest of the island.
In Senggigi, we signed up for a 2-day trek and took off before dawn the next day to
start our 7-8 hour hike to the crater rim. There, we would set up camp for the night and climb back down the next day. The hike, an ascend of 2 vertical kilometres, was hard but oh-so-beautiful. We started off in dense jungle inhabited by tropical birds and monkeys, trekked through a cloudy forest, and after we broke through the clouds, encountered an almost alpine mountain landscape covered in spring flowers and drenched in sunshine, with big birds of prey flying overhead. The trek would have been worth it even without a volcano at the top... But of course, the best was still to come. We arrived at the crater rim just before sunset, and almost fell over the edge in shock at the magnificent view. A variety of expletives escaped my mouth – only swear words were able to do describe the beauty that lay ahead of us. Matt didn’t try, he was speechless. The sunset was spectacular, and looking the other way, we could see all the way to Gunung Agung in Bali across the cloud bank below. We didn’t sleep a wink that night - it was too cold - but lay there happy about having made
the decision to come. Gunung Rinjani was an absolute highlight of our travels, on par with Perito Moreno and the Bolivian desert, and we will always remember the experience.
Next was Kuta, a small surfing town in Lombok’s south. And while it shares a name with the Bali’s capital of hedonism, that is where the similarity stops. Accommodation was half the price, there were only a handful of white faces (most of whom gliding past on scooters, clutching surf boards) and the sound of a thumping bass was replaced with the imam’s call to prayer - Lombok is known as the island of a thousand mosques. In Senggigi, we had made the rookie mistake of choosing a hostel amidst a triangle of minarets and were violently shaken from our slumber at 3am. This time, we knew to be more mindful of our location, and checked into a quiet, slightly decaying hotel with a swimming pool a few roads back from the beach at an indecently good price – the secret surfers’ rate. Next we got hold of a scooter and some petrol (contained in plastic bottles), and off we went exploring the town and the beaches. On our first
day, we went east towards Gerupuk, one of the area’s famed surf breaks. The asphalt road ended soon after we left Kuta, and upon our arrival there was such a lack of touristic infrastructure, we wondered whether we were in the wrong place. We were not – Gerupuk, Kuta’s most popular surf spot, consisted of a narrow dirt road, two competing villagers hiring out beaten up surfboards, and a handful of local fishermen who top up their income by ferrying surfers out to the break.
We loved it. Riding our scooter through the surrounding countryside, encountering potholes and deserted beaches in equal measure, felt like an adventure again. After a whole day of riding around, we headed to a humble, empty restaurant across from our hotel which served up the best pizza in Asia, served with extra cheese, garlic and smiles by the friendly owner. We promised to be back and remained true to our word.
The next day, the waves were calling our names – yes, even mine, for I had decided to brave Gerupuk’s legendary waves in the form of another surf lesson. It had been over a year since I first/last stepped on a board
in Muizenberg and I was feeling a little nervous about surfing an offshore break, but I was assured I would only be surfing the white water. So I was a little shocked when my instructor (who doubled up as boat captain) dropped Matt off where the big boys surfed, then turned off the engine and dumped me in the exact same spot. I protested, he ignored me, then a big wave approached. A huge wave. It was so big that I was too scared to dive under it, so I turned, closed my eyes and started paddling, for lack of better options. I had never even caught a wave by myself (during my first lesson, my instructor pushed me), let alone such a monster. But perhaps due to divine intervention (Anthony...?), I caught it and survived to tell the tale. Big waves kept coming, my “instructor” nowhere to be seen, so I kept repeating the manoeuvre and even managed to stand up on a couple of occasions. The waves, though monstrous, were actually quite friendly, nice and spilling, and the wipeouts were not nearly as bad as their size threatened. The pinnacle of my success saw me surfing one wave
almost all the way to the beach. But you couldn’t deny I was punching above my weight and I was happy to leave the water, feeling both relieved and smug – hey, I’ve surfed Indo with the big boys!!
While I rested on my laurels, Matt rode back to Gerupuk almost every morning, and he made some friends in the water– three impossibly good surfers from Chile and a couple of randoms, with whom we had a great evening out in a ramshackle bamboo bar that sold one-dollar Bintangs.
One afternoon, we rode up the west coast. Just a kilometre out of Kuta, the roads became ridiculously bad. Frequently, there were more potholes than road and I regularly had to get off the bike to leave Matt to negotiate the remaining bits of asphalt. When we passed villages, kids came running after us waving, adults stared with curiosity, as did the water buffalos that blocked our way. This was authentic, rural Indonesia, with spectacular landscape and magnificent beaches – they line all of southern Lombok’s coastline and most of them are deserted. We could not believe we found such paradise so close to Indonesia’s top tourist spot and
had it all to ourselves. Why more people don’t come here absolutely beats us, but every night we raised our bottles of Bintang and said a little thank you that Lombok, a stone’s throw from Bali, was a world away.
There are more photos below