Jenny Hewett escapes the crowds of Bali and immerses herself in Indonesia’s unspoilt gems
Something very mysterious happens when you board a boat from Bali and head east. Raw juice-chugging hipsters and chronic soul-searchers make way for a less obnoxious breed of traveller. Ripe Aussie accents begin to dilute, but the scenery starts to shift sharply in the Antipodeans’ favour. This morning I’m in a fast boat closing in on a small trio of islands in the middle of the Badung Strait less than halfway to Lombok. Within moments of arriving on the shores of Nusa Lembongan, everything I thought I knew about South East Asia is ripped right out from under my flip-flops.
The people exude a similar warmth, the sand is a tad whiter, but here on this teeny eight-square-kilometre island, the landscape is inexplicably different. It’s one of the first things I notice as I jump calf-deep into the milky green sea following the half-hour trip from Sanur. Million-dollar villas are perched high on harsh limestone cliff faces, the waves violently crashing onto rocks below and sending a soda fizz of whitewash into the sky. The brush is incredibly dry, almost wiry compared to Bali, helped in no part by the four-month absence of rain. I can’t shake an uncanny sense of rendezvous. But why? Ironically enough, considering the saturation of tourists from the Southern Hemisphere, the islands to Bali’s east were actually once connected to the land mass now known as Australia.
This small cluster of islands belongs to some 17,000 that make up Indonesia, but they boast something most don’t: they sit right on the Wallace Line. On one side of the archipelago live monkeys, on the other, marsupials. Bali is lush and tropical, the islands to the east, somewhat dry and arid. What British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace discovered in 1859 after eight years living in the jungles here was that Asian animals inhabit Indonesia to the west of the Wallace Line (as it’s called now) and those evolved from Australia inhabit the islands to the east. Nusa Lembongan is where tigers and elephants stop and cockatoos and kangaroo-like marsupials start.
When the islands eventually broke away from Australia, the treacherously deep waters in the Lombok Strait prevented fauna from crossing over into either territory, and they have remained on either side ever since. This fascinating piece of natural history alone makes Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Penida worthy of a visit. There are no cars here, so transportation is limited to motorbike or a ride on the back of a mini utility truck. It’s a game of ducking and leaning-in to avoid decapitation as the vehicles whiz around corners, narrowly missing trees. Our driver, Ketut, is not the most reliable or skilled of manoeuvrers, but it only adds to the adventurous nature of this place.
Winding roads lead to Mediterranean-style beach clubs, hidden coves and breathtaking natural rock formations including the appropriately named Devil’s Tears. If the name wasn’t forewarning enough, the churning sound coming from the edge of the cliffs will surely frighten. This is Nusa Lembongan’s version of Boom Crash Opera. I watch from a safe distance as sets of waves roll in at speed, creating a myriad of cascading waterfalls draped in green seaweed as water spurts up into the sky. It’s a thrilling showcase of mother nature and one of those locations where trying to get the perfect selfie could lead to death.
The relaxing, low-key vibe on Nusa Lembongan bears an undeniable likeness to the Greek Islands, and much like they do in the Mediterranean, we settle into a beachfront spot most afternoons for lunch. The nautical-themed Sandy Bay Beach Club overlooks a small cove and the chilled-out beats, cold drinks and decent seafood make it hard to leave. Worlds away from the chaos of Bali, this is the closest thing you’ll get to nightlife here. It’s so alluring, that our group returns for dinner most nights.
The next morning I’m up bright and early for a surf lesson with Kadek, a local guy who comes highly recommended. I awake to find the mini-truck trailer canopy bent wildly out of shape. It seems Ketut took a corner a little too sharply last night and snagged a massive tree.
But that is the least of my troubles. “Where are we surfing today, boss?” I look down at the sea off the boat, the water is crystal clear and all I can see is coral, lots of it. “Lacerations”, says Kadek, now steering away from Mushroom Bay towards a sizeable break a fair way off the island’s main beach. He’s not joking. My co-rookie and I exchange a mutual glance of uncertainty. It’s not the first time I’ve learnt to surf, but it could be the last. To my relief, Kadek has it covered and keeps a watchful eye. I feel uncomfortable, out of my depth, but manage to stand up a few times before an epic wipeout puts me on spin cycle and I take my board to the head. So that’s what this is all about.
I’m up again early the next day, this time for snorkelling. A local boat takes our group to three locations, circumnavigating the island in the process. First stop is Mangrove Beach, rich with coral and marine life including trumpet fish. Next we veer around to the southwest coast of Nusa Penida, which is much bigger than it’s comrades, but far less built up. I plunge off the boat into Gamat Bay and then later Crystal Bay, where the landscape shifts to emerald seas and black sandy beaches.
The next day Ketut steers us in the direction of Nusa Ceningan, the next island over and best explored on scooter over the course of a few hours. I’m on foot, but that doesn’t stop me. From here, I watch seaweed farmers tend to their crops and stumble upon Le Pirate Beach Club, a funky budget boutique hotel, with a beautiful pool overlooking the ocean and offering drinks and burgers.
The islands are joined by a narrow suspension bridge, where tourists and locals line up patiently for their turn to cross. It’s the closest thing you’ll find to a jam in these parts. Unlike these gems in the Badung Strait, Bali’s notorious traffic problem and the sheer size of the island can make it a daunting task to explore. Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Ceningan and Nusa Penida are still relatively undiscovered, manageable and packed with adventure. Don’t waste any time getting here if you want to get a feel for the real Indonesia.
This piece was first published in Gulf Life, the inflight magazine of Gulf Air.
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