Gili Trawangan; In which we take a vacation from our vacation; Sea turtles and their all-you-can-eat salad reefs

There was really only one thing we wanted to do on Lombok - climb Mt. Rinjani, the second-highest volcano in Indonesia. That couldn’t happen in the end, for two reasons. First, Sheryl was still recovering from her concurrent bouts of enteritis and Dengue Fever and wouldn’t be in any kind of mountain-climbing shape for some time to come. The second was money. Indonesia has realized that a good way to stimulate local economies and siphon off a much larger share of the tourist rupiah is to make hiring a guide mandatory for nearly all national parks, nature reserves, volcanoes and anywhere else anybody might want to do some hiking. I hate trekking with guides, but I’d do it if it was the only way, except that guide fees would be roughly $30 and (since Sheryl wouldn’t be carrying anything) a porter would be the same again, and we’d have to carry all our food, water and equipment, plus arrange transport ourselves, plus feed the guide and porter. I couldn’t make it work out to less than about 2,000,000 rupiah (C$225). Trekking operators in Senggigi are greedy, and a packaged trek (ugh) would be about double that. We just weren’t willing to spend that kind of money, even if Sheryl had been healthy enough to enjoy it.

So instead we made one of the sudden lateral changes of plan of the sort for which we’ve become infamous, and decided to head for Gili Trawangan to relax in the sun and the waves instead. Gili Trawangan is one of three small islands off the northwest coast of Lombok. The word “gili” actually means “small island” in fact, although the guidebooks (and hence all the tourists) insist on referring to Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air as the “Gili Islands” - the Island Islands - which amuses the locals to no end.

It was a half-hour drive along the coast to Bangsal harbour. We were told by a few different people that there was no public transport to Bangsal. Normally that claim is suspect, but in this case it seemed to be true. We caught a ride with a driver for one of the trekking outfits for slightly less than it would have cost to charter a bemo, and we didn’t see any other vehicles along the way. At Bangsal we got a place on a boat with 46 other people and huge amounts of cargo. The little vessel was seriously overcrowded, and because none of the locals wanted to sit on the sunny side it was raked dangerously over to one side. One of the bamboo outriggers was submerged and the other high above the water. Somehow we made it to the island, but I wouldn’t have bet on our chances if the sea had been even slightly rough.

After all the drama, bad luck and difficult travelling we’d been doing lately, we felt that we needed a quiet place to relax, recover and take some time away from the dirt, noise and chaos of Indonesia proper. We needed, in fact, a vacation from our vacation, and Gili Trawangan fit that bill perfectly. Most of the time, when people hear that we’re taking a long break to travel, they imagine us on an endless succession of relaxing beaches, working on our tans and without a care in the world. The reality is usually laughably far from that scenario, as regular readers of these dispatches hardly need to be told. In this particular case though, that was exactly what we needed.

Of the three Gilis, we had settled on Trawangan as offering the best combination of (relatively) cheap accommodation, decent food and good snorkelling. Gili Trawangan has an unfortunate reputation as the Party Island. It’s well-deserved. There’s a bar and restaurant strip along the east side that’s loud and overrun with drunk, badly-dressed Australian kids who take the fast boats over from Bali. But, although tiny at two kilometres by three, Gili Trawangan is quite big enough that we don’t hear any noise from the strip in our room right in the middle of the island. The prices of food and rooms are unfortunately tailored to the expectations of the Bali crowd, as well. But it’s still not very expensive, and per the terms of our vacation, we’ve agreed not to worry about money for the next few days. And it’s the best food we’ve had since we left home. There are candles on the tables by the beach, soft lantern light, and of course the drinks are cheap and generous. This last was a godsend for me, at least - I always work better with a drop of rum, and Indonesia has been making me need a drink since the first moment I set foot in the country.

Gili Trawangan is a lovely, clean, quiet place. There are hundreds of friendly, healthy cats, and there are no cars or motorcycles allowed on the island. The lack of engine noise is partly made up for by the roar of gas-powered generators during the constant power failures, but most of the time the chaotic din and caustic air of Southeast Asia aren’t present here. In place of motorcycles there are bicycles and pony-carts, which serve an island this tiny perfectly well.

Western tourists outnumber Indonesians here, and Australians outnumber both combined. There’s nothing in the least genuinely, authentically Indonesian about the experience here. They don’t even pretend. In my last dispatch I derided both the locals and the tourists in Senggigi on Lombok for exactly this situation, but for some reason - maybe because it’s an isolated island enclave, or maybe just a shift in my own mindset from “travelling” to “vacationing” - it works, here. Maybe it’s because the vast river of money that flows through here has left its mark. The standard of living for the 1500 or so residents is much, much higher than in any other part of the country I’ve seen, and so the nakedly avaricious hustling of Senggigi is mostly absent. Or again, maybe I’m just a damn hypocrite and I feel like relaxing for a little while and pretending I’m not in Indonesia.

In any case, the water is clear and warm and the snorkelling is good, though Pulau Weh’s was better. Lots of fish, corals and anemones cluster along the reefs around the island. Steep slopes down into vanishing blue kept us busy practising our free-diving. We saw a few immense, patient sea-turtles cruising the reef or grazing on corals. It’s amazing how much they can tear up a reef while they’re eating - it’s like a huge salad bar for them. One big old turtle we kept meeting must have had a shell more than a meter long, and was practically tame. He really didn’t mind when I dove right next to him while he was eating. I could have touched him, I was that close (not that I ever would).

Besides the turtles, there were lots of other fun things down there. Sheryl saw a lionfish and was attacked by a territorial Tomato Clownfish defending his anemone, and we saw eels, yellow boxfish and once a big black and white speckled Star Pufferfish, and I was attacked by a huge Titan Triggerfish. Diving to the bottom, we could see moray eels, brightly-coloured sea-slugs and strange-looking Mantis Shrimp. I still haven’t seen a manta ray. I’d thought maybe here, but it seems they mostly pass through during their migration in December and January. Someday I’ll see one.


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Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
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