Sunday, 18 May 2014

Castaways - Lombok and the Gili Islands

The four hour crossing had passed surprisingly quickly, and we went downstairs feeling fresh. We got our gear on ready to depart, all the time chatting to a lovely man from Java. By the time we had completed our mini photo-shoot (a flashback to the Sumatra / Java days) the ramp had come down and it was time to get off the boat. We had arrived.

Lombok is an interesting place. It is separated from Bali by what is known as the Wallace line, which marks the point where the animal and plant life switches from distinctly Asian to Australasian. It applies more to fauna than flora, but the difference was immediately noticeable. Although there are some species cross-overs, it was remarkably different in character. This is all the more amazing considering that the distance between Bali and Lombok is only around thirty-five kilometres.

Our plans were still a little up in the air, and we couldn't quite decide whether to stay on the mainland or head for the famous Gili islands. Knowing that getting to the islands could be a hassle we thought we might as well see how the land lay on Lombok itself, so turned off towards Sekotong. The bay itself was fabulous, a beautiful natural setting. Unfortunately however, we couldn't help but be put off by the enormous amount of plastic waste. It was washed up on the beaches and floating in the shallows. I am sure most of it is carried in from other parts of Indonesia by the current, but it was heartbreaking to see.

As our time in Lombok was limited and we wanted to make the best of it, we decided to abandon Sekotong and ride towards the Gilis instead. We followed surprisingly excellent but busy roads as far as Senggigi, deciding to call it a night there. It is a holiday town, so there were plenty of places to stay. We saw one on the road side that looked far too nice for the likes of us, but thought we might as well ask, as Indonesian room prices can vary wildly. I was amazed when the receptionist said it was only 180,000, and checked it with them in case I had misheard. They then proceeded to show me an exquisite room, looking out on to one fancy swimming pool. At this I checked the price again, causing the man to look a little awkward, and tell me it was actually 850,000. It had been a pretty big miscommunication, and I apologised profusely for wasting their time. They were incredibly sweet and understanding about it, and were happy to direct us towards cheaper lodgings.

We ended up in a cheap and cheerful place, that was perfectly adequate for our needs. The owner was a bit of a wheeler dealer, and offered us tickets for the shuttle bus, despite it being quite obvious that we had our own transport. We politely declined this offer, laughing and pointing at the bike. He seemed to find it funny also. I think he just couldn't help going for the sale.

Although it is pretty much all geared towards tourism, Senggigi itself was rather pleasant. Our walk into town took us past what appeared to be an abandoned resort, which looked like it must have been rather nice in its heyday. This might count as the shady part of town, as few steps on from it a man (who surely must be the sole drug dealer in Senggigi) offered us magic mushrooms. I gave him my best offended look and said no, to which he replied yes. I shouted back no as we walked away, so hopefully he managed to get the message.

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We were headed for Gili Meno the next morning, zooming up the scenic coast on perfect, twisty roads. The jump off point for the islands is the tiny town of Bangsal. We were slightly dreading having to go via this place, as all the information we could find online made it sound like a nightmare, full of cheats, hasslers and touts. Still, it was the only option if we didn't want to charter a private boat from somewhere else, so we were resolved to just navigate it as best we could.

We asked around at a few bike parks, and 10,000 per day seemed to be the going rate at all of them. We picked one that looked secure, parking the bike where we were directed. As we began unpacking, the attendant asked us how long we were staying. We replied three days, and he then told us it would cost 50,000. Oli gave him a disappointed look, before asking why he had lied, and telling the guy that he would never try to cheat anyone like this. Very quickly the attendant decided it was a “joke”, and that it was indeed 10,000 per day. To be honest we probably should have taken our business elsewhere, but it was hot and we had started unpacking, so just couldn't face it.

After checking the final price with the car-park guy about a thousand times, it was time to try and purchase our ferry tickets. We were well read on the various scams and schemes, so made our way to the official ticket office. Even this is not enough to ensure safety from cheats, as we had heard that even the staff might try to discourage us from taking the public boat by any means possible. Sure enough when we asked for public boat tickets the lady told us it was full, holding up a handy list of names. We said we would wait for the next one, and were told that there were no more, but that we could take another boat (for twice the price) in four hours time. We insisted that we wanted to take the public boat, so the lady told us that it wouldn't go until it was full, this time holding up an empty piece of paper, presumably to demonstrate that we might have quite a wait in store. Eventually we got the tickets we wanted, and went outside to wait on the beach.

In the event, we were on a boat within twenty minutes of our ticket purchase. This made me angry with the lady in the office, not because of the cost, but because she would have had us wait in the sun for four hours in order to make an extra £1. On the plus side though, the public boat was a fun experience. A mixture of locals and tourists were on board, as well as plentiful supplies of vegetables and eggs for the island. We all crammed on, which was no easy task given the amount of stuff and the rocking boat. Happily we all managed without falling in the sea, and it was an easy crossing over to Meno itself.

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We had researched a few places online, but not booked anywhere. We wandered around for a while, then realised it was far too hot to be lugging our bags. Oli left me in the shade whilst he went to find us a room. This was actually an excellent strategy, as it left him free to bargain. I am far too English and usually get embarrassed when he is being too cheeky. Me staying behind paid off, as Oli got us a beautiful room with hot water and air-con at a knocked down rate.

Once the heat of the day had receded slightly, we left our shady balcony and went out for a walk. Meno is a tiny island, ringed entirely by a long sand and coral beach. The sea appeared impossibly blue, sparkling in a variety of vibrant shades. The part of it that was closest to our hotel was relatively calm, but as we walked further down the waves grew significantly. We stopped and watched in awe as they swelled and broke. It was hard to capture the scale on camera, but if you look closely, you can see its enormity compared to a tiny boat, casually cruising over the top.

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A short way from here we discovered an abandoned resort. I have a strange love for a derelict building, and with no dogs or monkeys on the island it was safe to venture close. It was a strange place, but beautifully located. We wondered what had gone wrong and caused it to fail. It was not the only abandoned project on the island, and just a few minutes walk along brought us to another one. This was eerily set off by what must once have been an attractive swimming pool, now murky and brown. The bungalows themselves were in varying states of decay, with no guests in the grounds other than ourselves and a stray cat.

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Walked along the coast for a while longer, eventually cutting back across the island. This path took us past the salt lake, partially dry. It was a pleasant, shady walk along the edge of the lake, or at least it would have been if not for the spiders. Presumably attracted by the bugs living around the water, hundreds of spiders had strung up their webs in the trees lining the shore. I am no fan of these creatures at the best of times, but these were some of the largest I have ever seen, their thick legs spanning a distance that was easily larger than a man's hand. I did my best not to look at them, and resolved that I would never, ever leave the path.

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The next morning was bright and sunny, and we couldn't wait to check out the snorkelling that the Gili islands are so famous for. We rented gear from our hotel that had been patched up and repaired numerous times, and hit the water. The repairs on my mask had obviously not been too successful, as it kept filling with water every twenty seconds or so. As it was not far back to the hotel I decided to go and swap it for another. Still, what we saw in the short time we were in the sea was incredible. The variety of fish seemed almost infinite, their bright colours darting around the coral. There were so many species that we had never seen before, all busily getting on with the important work of swimming about.

We got out of the water and went to swap out the dodgy snorkel. On the way, a Dutch couple had told us that the snorkelling on the other side of the island was even better, so we decided to head that way. In the heat and carrying our gear it felt like a long walk, but we hoped that it would be worth it. The sea was a little rough, so our first attempt was not too successful. Like a wimp, I really hate waves. I don't know why, but once they get to a certain size they just scare me. Oli tried to encourage me into the water and past them, but I kept freaking out. Eventually though I did manage to get in, but my new mask was also crap. This time the pipe kept leaking, not ideal as I needed it to breathe. On top of this the currents were so strong that it made it difficult to pause and sort it out, which just made me panic. I am not a weak swimmer, and haven't felt like this in the water before. Oli decided I was being irrational, so tried to shout at me to shock me out of it. This did not have the desired effect, and made me more stressed. We decided to get out.

After calming down on the beach I was determined to give it another go. We walked a little way along and discovered a much calmer stretch. We swum a way out, and were rewarded with a beautiful coral garden, teeming with fish. We floated along in the current, pointing out any particularly colourful or interesting individuals to each other. It was amazing, but even with flippers the currents were not to be trifled with, which made it hard to really relax and enjoy it. I never want to be one of those fools that underestimates how dangerous the sea can be. Eventually we called it a day, swam back to the beach, and made our way home.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing, going for another walk around the island and for a good gawp at the waves. The only downer was the sheer amount of rubbish that was washed up on the beach. The parts of the sand that lie outside of the resorts get cleaned daily, but the other bits of the beach are more neglected. The amount of flip-flops, bottles, and general plastic detritus that ends up there is just so depressing. I don't know how much of it comes from Indonesia and how much is carried for miles from other countries, but people viewing the sea as a bin seems to be a problem on a staggering scale.

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That evening we decided to treat ourselves to a nice meal out, as we had spotted a place on the beach promising pizzas from a wood fired oven. I do like Indonesian food, but eating rice, tempe and noodles day in day out can get a bit much, so I have been quite enjoying eating something different whenever we get the opportunity. The pizzas turned out to be pretty good, and the beach front atmosphere made it a lovely evening.

The next day we ended up just lazing on the beach in the shade of a tree. From our vantage point we watched a doomed snorkel trip just off the shore. Dodgy outboard motors have been a feature since Cambodia, and the one on this boat seemed to have given up entirely. The customers were thrown a rope to keep them close to the vessel, and all drifted around haplessly for a while. Eventually the boat dropped anchor and the snorkellers abandoned, swimming to shore. I guess it was probably a case of you get what you pay for.

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We popped back for lunch at what had become our usual place. The staff there were so lovely and great to chat to. Plus, the lady made a mean perkedel, kind of like a potato croquette, which went down a treat with rice and chilli sauce. We definitely need to learn the recipe for them for once we settle, as my sister Georgina will love them.

Once the weather was a little cooler, we decided to try and attempt the walk around the edge of the island. We managed to take an accidental detour through the villages, getting a bit confused with our directions. People were friendly, and we saw a lot of seriously adorable children, all excited and cutely waving. I was a bit surprised however when one child responded to my hello with “Give me money”. I wonder where she learnt this from, as it seemed to be the only English phrase she knew.

After a lot of left rights and lucky guesses, we emerged once again at the coast. We pottered along the shore for a while, then sat on the beach and watched as the sun started to sink and a storm brewed over Lombok. Rather than sand this part was made up of corals and shells, and we were entertained for ages by picking them up and examining the colours and patterns. The delicate structure of a shell fascinates me even as an adult, and we found so many pretty examples. We left the beach as it began to get dark, slowly making our way home.

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It had been short but sweet, and the next morning we were headed back to the mainland. We arrived at what we thought was the departure point, then were told that due to the tide the boat was leaving from further down the coast. Not wanting to miss it, we hurried along with our bags, arriving like sweaty and dishevelled messes. We clambered onto the boat with everyone else, cruising back to Bangsal. Coming back, Bangsal was much easier to navigate. We politely declined the offers of taxis and shuttle buses, collected our bike and paid the correct fee, then were back on the road and heading back down the coast.

We were in no hurry, so paused plenty of times to admire the spectacular coastline. Sheltered bays contrasted with beaches that were pounded by huge waves, all of it gloriously undeveloped. The scattered resorts all appeared far too exclusive for our budget, but it really would be an amazing place to relax for a few days. The Lombok coastline certainly appears to be overlooked in comparison to the popular Gilis, and we hope that it remains relatively unspoilt.

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Back in Senggigi, we had a date. Frank (one of the German bikers from Laos) had made it to Lombok, so we had arranged to meet for lunch in town, with Oli and I planning to head off to the ferry departure point for Sumbawa later on. It was great to see him again, as we all had a lot to catch up on. Time passed quickly, and we ended up abandoning our plans to cross the island, instead deciding to stick with Frank and spend the night in Sekotong. Riding with another biker is always exciting, and it was a spirited ride down the island. We spent a brilliant evening drinking beer and chatting, feeling very pleased that we had declined to rush off.

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The place we were staying had a fabulous beach front location, and the rooms were basic, but clean and functional. Unfortunately however our room was not completely sealed, and had an opening in the ceiling into the roof. Unbeknown to us, this seemed to serve as a cockroach highway. Before bed we evicted a couple of enormous individuals, and also some little friends of theirs. To be honest I am not that bothered about cockroaches, so just went to bed.

I was woken at half five by a tickling on my arm, bashing it in confusion. We put the light on, and discovered a little dead centipede, which must have been the cause. As I was about to get back into bed however, Oli noticed a huge cockroach at the end, struggling on its back. We got rid of it, and I was surprised to discover that I really wasn't that bothered about it. I went straight back into a deep sleep, but Oli was wide awake until morning. All in all though we still both really liked the hotel, and to be fair, Frank had experienced bed-bugs in the hotel we had recommended to him in Padangbai.

We ate breakfast with Frank in the morning. He is really good company, so we were in no hurry to get going. We were shockingly slow in packing up the bike and getting ready, but eventually waved goodbye and got on the road. It was not a long drive to the ferry, but we did manage to make it longer by heading to the wrong Labuhan (Labuhanhaji instead of Labuhanlambok), which was poor research on our part. Detour aside, we arrived at the port a few minutes before the next departure, which was pretty good timing.

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We had not been able to give enough time to Lombok. Due to our limited visas this seems to be the case for pretty much everywhere in Indonesia, but we did like the island immensely. Compared with Bali there is very little tourism, and the landscapes are spectacular. The Gilis had been a nice diversion, but in our opinion the hero of the place was the coastline between Senggigi and Bangsal. This is definitely somewhere we would like to return, so who knows what the future might hold... maybe we will even be able to afford one of those lovely looking sea side resorts?

P.S. As a bonus, here is a photo of the man that appears on all the tobacco advertising billboards, of which there are many.

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