Published: August 11th 2009June 1st 2009
Even the lamp posts are gorgeously decorative
You can all breathe a sigh of relief - no more blogs about boring, familiar places like Manchester. We're going exotic again this time, rewinding 3 months and returning to South East Asia for the 4 weeks we spent in Indonesia. It already seems like an awfully long time ago, but we're determined to properly finish this blog and bring our travelling memoirs to a suitable end (James also desperately wants to get his readership numbers back up after the Manchester all-time low).
In order to cover our Indonesian exploits we have to begin on a stormy evening in late April. Standing outside Kuching airport, nervously watching giant forks of lightning splintering across the cloudy night sky, the very last thing either of us felt like doing was climbing aboard a flimsy, metal box and getting much more closely acquainted with this tempestuous weather system. After a tortuous delay in the departure lounge, we tightly gripped our blind faith in the pilots superior knowledge of safe flying conditions, and stepped aboard. The following hour and a half of constant turbulence, surrounded by eerily placid, smiling locals, was enough to put even the hardiest flyers of air travel for life. Utter
relief on landing in the Indonesian capital soon turned to panic with the realisation that we only had 4 hours until our connecting flight to Bali. On reflection, this was probably for the best - having to get straight back on another plane prevented either of us from developing a permanent aversion to this method of transport.
Back on solid ground in Bali early the next morning, we found suitable accommodation and enjoyed a hearty 'thankful to be alive' breakfast. Bali is a fairly large island (around 5,600 km sq) and there is much to see and do. However, the majority of Western tourists seem happy enough to permanently settle in the 'party town' of Kuta. Consequently, the South-Western tip of the island has become Khao San Road 'by the sea': a nightmarish chavtopia with cheap drinks and promiscuous partners by night, and lying comatose in the sun by day. Yes, you can dine on 'fish n chips' and 'full English' 'til your hearts content, and buy 'hilarious' t-shirts offering insightful comedy gold like 'I shagged ur mum' or 'Donkey Cock'. All for under a pound! If only Newquay was sunnier, maybe these people would stay at home. The
Han at the Shore
Well-timed wave shot
saddest consequence of this small-minded tourism though, is that the reputation of the rest of Bali has been tarnished by the visitors to this one small part of the island. People feel qualified to say they've 'done' Bali after a couple of big nights out and subsequent hangovers on the beach - this couldn't be further from the truth. We were convinced that Bali must have more to offer than Kuta, and were determined to salvage the islands reputation from our initial negative impression. So, on our first full day, we hired a motorbike, left our bags in storage, and set off to find alternative, worthwhile 'things to do in Bali when you're sober'. Our perception of the place changed almost instantly. We took a long coastal road out of town, sticking to the islands Southern edge: glorious, abandoned temples and beautiful little villages, untouched by Western tourism, began to appear, barely 20 miles from the pulsing neon, pumping beats and puking revellers at Kuta Beach. We spent a wonderful couple of hours randomly exploring these sites: chatting to the friendly locals, wandering along dark, volcanic beaches, and beginning to fall in love with the real Bali. Some of the
mountain roads were just fantastic to drive along. James got so carried away, bobbing and weaving through rice terraces and over winding hilltop passes, that it was well past sundown before we reached our final destination for the night.
Ubud is the cultural heart of Bali and attracts its fair share of tourists (although a vastly different clientele to the norm at Kuta). It's the place to come if you want to get a feel for real Balinese life and heritage - traditional dances, theatre, art and buildings are on offer in abundance. Our one morning here was spent exploring the most impressive of numerous temples. In the warm early sunlight, the intricate carvings on these man-made constructions blended with the lush, natural surroundings to mesmerising effect. Catching a fleeting glimpse of the royal family breakfasting in the half of the royal palace not open to the public provided an added bonus to the mornings sightseeing. We were beginning to regret only planning for half a day here. There was just enough time before lunch to explore the lively central market and pick up some suitably cultural gifts for the parents back home. We found a wholesome-organic-environmental-veggie restaurant for
our midday meal - even the plates and cups were fashioned from recycled banana leaf. Suitably full of healthy fare, we separated for our final hour in Ubud - Han browsed some more shops and galleries (booooring) while James made some more Simian friends in the nearby Monkey Forest Sanctuary (quite obviously the better option). Far too soon it was time to get back on the bike and make our (convoluted) way back to Kuta. We purposefully took an extra long diversion to make the most of our hired wheels, and took in another couple of Balinese sites of interest. First, we made our way up, up, and further up, to a mountaintop viewpoint overlooking Bali's biggest volcano and surrounding lake. Then, we covered the entire length of the island to get back to Kuta before nightfall - finding just enough time to briefly stop at Gunung Kawi (a set of 11th century, 23ft high religious statues, cut into the sheer cliff face) en route.
Successfully back in Bali, and still in one piece, we returned the motorcycle, picked up our bags, and hit the hay! A disturbed nights sleep ensued, however, with James waking up half way through
the night in extreme discomfort - he'd somehow managed to get his anti-malarial tablet stuck in his throat! No amount of water-drinking, chest-bumping or dry-retching would shift it, but he finally managed to relax enough to get back off to sleep (more on this pesky, persistent little tablet later...).
An early start was required the following day, as we’d prebooked a 6am minibus to the port. We were on the ferry by mid-morning and docked on the Southern shores of Lombok 5 hours later. Straight back in the minivan to drive to the islands North-Western tip, 1 ½ hours of waiting and politely declining numerous scam artists , before getting back on the water for the brief, final leg of our journey to the Gili Islands. The ‘Gilis’ are a trio of very popular tourist islands, just off the coast of Lombok. Despite their proximity to each other, they’ve developed completely opposing personalities - Gili Trawangan is regarded as a party island (an offshore Kuta - for those who still haven’t had enough neon cocktails and fluorescent bar signs), Gili Meno is so laid back it’s horizontal, and Gili Air is somewhere in between. Being such boring oldies, we
opted for Gili Meno. For once, we’d managed to prebook accommodation (despite the obvious risk of agreeing to sleep on an ‘outdoor platform’ without inspecting it first). Luckily, the reserved lodgings exceeded all expectations - set back from the shore, in a lush tropical setting, our king size mattress was covered with a vitally important mosquito net, protected from the elements by a sturdy wooden roof, and beautifully framed on all sides by delicate bamboo blinds - secluded enough to make us feel alone beneath the stars, but less than a minutes walk to the well-stocked bar. Absolute perfection!
The island itself is tiny - you can circumnavigate the entire landmass in about half an hour - but there is plenty to keep one entertained. We spent a terribly exhausting day, partaking in numerous, strenuous activities: wandering, sunbathing, floating, reading, consuming fresh seafood and drinking to the setting sun. These were hard times. We acquired some snorkelling gear from our generous host the next day, and put it too good use exploring some of the best coral spots the Gili islands have to offer. This exertion had become to much by the afternoon, however, and we were forced to
return to the sunbathing and general beachfront-lazing that was steadily becoming the norm. The remainder of the day was spent planning our next steps, with us eventually reaching the decision to embark on the longest single journey of the trip so far - 36 hours by bus and boat to the island of Flores, then onward to the volcanic lakes at Kelimutu. These 3 multi-coloured lakes are one of the must-see attractions in the whole of Indonesia (according to Lonely Planet) but substantially ‘off the beaten track’ to reward only the hardiest of travellers…. like us!
Our epic journey began at 8am the next morning, as we boarded another tiny, overcrowded, canoe-type vessel back to the mainland. Then, some more scam-dodging in bandit country, before bussing it all the way to Lombok's far-Eastern edge. By the time our ferry docked on the neighbouring island of Sumbawa, night had fallen, and we had to endure another bumpy, overnight commute; spanning the entire breadth of the island and hitting lands end again by 7am. Tired and sore, we weren't really looking forward to the final 9 hour leg of our trip - chugging across the notoriously dangerous waters between Sumbawa and
Flores. Our spirits role slightly, however, with the welcome news that we'd only have to wait until 8 o'clock for the next ferry - just enough time to stretch our legs and consume some tasty breakfast noodles. By 8.30am, and still no sign of our vessel, we were beginning to worry. Only now did our smiling Indonesian companions decide to calmly inform us that: 'No, the ferry doesn't leave at 8AM - it's an overnight ferry that departs at 8PM!'. Such news was not pleasantly received. We were now stuck in a remote port-town on an unknown Indonesian island for 12 more hours - no hotels, no phone lines, no internet, and only one dilapidated shed serving noodles and egg. Predictably, it was now that the malaria tablet, still lodged in James' throat, decided to really flare up and start causing some extreme discomfort - every breath was painful and eating solids was agony. The realisation that this was probably the furthest we'd ever been from accessible and decent medical services, began to make us worry even more. The concern was grave enough that, with the whole day to spare before the next boat, we decided to take the very
rickety, very local, bus 2 hours back inland to the nearest proper town. We managed to find a functioning internet cafe and proceeded with some reliable online self-diagnosis (do we even need real-life doctors anymore?). Sufficiently reassured that James would probably survive the next few days, we jumped back aboard the rickety minivan and headed for the shore. A few more hours of mind-numbing boredom followed, before the rust-ridden ferry eventually arrived to transport us the 9 remaining hours to Flores.
We weren't exactly relishing the prospect of this crossing - these waters are world-renowned for being unpredictable and potentially fatal. Strong rip-tides, whirlpools and random currents have claimed many ships and lives over the years. Embarking on such a trip in the middle of the night only made it twice as unnerving: there's something about an angry sea in the dark - at best eerie, at worst truly terrifying. Still, with no other options, we climbed aboard and gained some sporadic shuteye on deck, before docking in Labuanbajo, Flores around 4am. After 44 hours constantly on the move, we were totally exhausted and looking forward to finding a bed for the remainder of the night, before continuing our
journey to Kelimutu around lunchtime. This plan was promptly scrapped, however, when we alighted the ferry to be greeted by a line of public minibuses, engines running and all departing within the hour. We'd already booked our return boat from Flores back to Lombok, and were running on a tight schedule without a day to spare. So, with no other choice, it was straight off the boat and onto the bus. The distance from Labuanbajo to the lakes of Kelimutu is relatively short (135 miles as the crow flies) but, unsurprisingly, the overland trip is far from easy. The island's interior is incredibly mountainous, and the only (unfinished) road traverses these natural obstacles by following the contours of the land in a horrendously twisty fashion. Such conditions mean the journey can take up to 20 hours, with an overnight stop required around halfway. This isn't a trip for the faint of heart.... or the queasy of stomach. After 10 hours of constant twisting, turning, climbing and falling, we were more than ready for a break. A cold-water shower and a real bed for the night seemed like total luxury after 2 days living and sleeping aboard buses and boats. We
ate, washed and collapsed into bed before the sun had time to set.
Feeling infinitely more refreshed, we were up bright and early the next morning, but dreading the prospect of another 10 hours enduring constant hairpin turns while stuck on a cramped and rickety old bus. So, to make the journey slightly more bearable (or incredibly exciting for James!) we decided to hire a bike and drive ourselves the remainder of the way. The roads were still horribly potholed and endlessly winding but, out in the fresh air, enjoying the sun and in control of our own vehicle, the trip became a pleasure rather than a chore (and James only nearly crashed twice!). We also made much better time than the local transport, and reached our final destination by 3pm.
Moni is the nearest village to Kelimutu, and provides most tourists with a bed for the night before the obligatory sunrise ascent to the volcanic lakes. Kelimutu is a volcano which contains three vast crater lakes. These lakes reside at the bottom of deathly steep rock faces, and were initially formed following an 1886 eruption. When they first appeared the three craters were filled with waters of
distinctly different colouration - red, blue and white. Over the years, this colouring has been in constant fluctuation, and currently stands at dark green, light green and pitch black (scientists believe these colour changes are the result of geological and chemical processes). The lakes are most impressive at sunrise, but rely on clear skies to really overawe the crowds. The night before our ascent ominous clouds gathered, and the rains began to fall. This continued throughout the night, and the heavens were still open at the time of our 4.30am alarm. This was not a good sign - with only one morning in which to see the lakes, we were faced with the depressing reality that our epic 4 day journey may have been for nothing. Still, desperate to make the trip somewhat worthwhile, we started up the bike and began the final half an hour ascent up to the volcano summit. This was particularly scary in the wet and dark - with a little 250cc, semi-automatic moped, traversing more narrow, winding roads up constant inclines that were in some places covered with gushing torrents of rainwater. Eventually arriving at the peak, we discovered that the other 10 hardy tourists
had made the trip in slightly more robust 4x4's.
Climbing the final steps to the volcano top viewing point, we still weren't sure whether we would be able to see anything. We needn't have worried - as if on cue, the rains stopped, the clouds dispersed, and we were treated to one of the most phenomenal sunrises in a truly unforgettable location. Sitting 1620m up, the lakes slowly materialised before our eyes until reaching their full, vibrant glory. We sat spellbound for what felt like hours, soaking in this spectacle and taking some much needed time out to reflect on the hardships we'd faced in the struggle to make it here. This quiet contemplation didn't last long however, as we only had 2 more days left to make it all the way back to Labuanbajo again. The return journey was just as arduous as before, but we found comfort in the knowledge that we'd successfully made it to our destination - almost exactly 96 hours after leaving Gili Meno. The feeling of achievement and triumphing against the odds made it all worthwhile.
Despite covering barely half of our 4 weeks in Indonesia, it seems like a wise idea
to bring this entry to a close. We might be home, and short on beach-lazing spare time, but James has managed to retain his impressive ability to waffle. We're still really determined to finish this blog properly though, so it hopefully won't be too long until we find time to write again. There's still enough material for a further 2 entries, so you haven't heard the last from us yet! We hope you're still enjoying reading as much as we're (James is) enjoying writing. Until next time.....
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