Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Original Pirate Material

As I write this I’m sitting at the window of an apartment in San Francisco, on a warm Sunday afternoon watching people head in and out of the Italian Café and Dry Cleaners across the street. The kerbs are populated with large shiny 4x4s and family estates. I can hear two local women chatting about thier hair and a hip replacement on the pavement down below, backed by the soundtrack of ranting Pharmaceutical adverts on TV and an occasional police siren peeling out. The internet works properly. Right now, I couldn’t be further from Indonesia, geographically and metaphorically.

It’s been nearly been nearly two months since we left Indonesia, and although it seems like a hell of a lot longer, it still feels vividly fresh. In all we were only there for one month (Visa limitation…) but we saw and did so much in that time it really felt like double that.

Indonesia is, frankly, massive. You would need a very long time to see all of it properly. It’s hugely spread out, spanning thousands of miles from the Western tip of Sumatra to its most Easterly point in Papua, bordering New Guinea. No country anywhere in the world is so disjointed. Large expanses of water separating the islands mean whole communities have basically incubated in isolation from each other and most people are simply too poor to travel, so you end up with what really feels like lots of smaller individual countries rather than one big one. It makes for fascinating travel.

Bali, and some partying was the first stop. After the restrained civilization of Malaysia it was perfect. Neither of us really knew much about it other than its reputation as a package holiday hotspot so we were both really surprised at just how much we liked it. We had arranged to meet friends Spud and Katherine in Kuta, the islands main resort and party town in the South, literally a few miles from the airport. Kuta basically seems to be like Ibiza town for Australians. It is a seriously crazy place; a maze of streets lined with clubs, bars, shops, restaurants and tattoo parlours. The traffic is ridiculous and comprised mainly of bleach-haired surfers on mopeds with boards strapped to their bikes, and locals driving the wrong way down the pavements. Pedestrians have no rights. Children and old people equal double points.

Usually this sort of place would send me running rapidly in the other direction – but I have to admit I liked it. It’s tacky and noisy and full of tourists on the rampage, but its undeniably good fun for a few days. Decent food is everywhere (and stupidly cheap), and you can get average accommodation for a tenner a night. Or a lot less if you’re not too bothered about frills. We spent a couple of nights just eating out and hitting the bars, and then hired some mopeds to do some exploring.

Trying to drive a moped around the towns Bali is basically a real life version of Wacky Races, except with worse drivers and weirder looking characters. Three lane highways become six lane death-races, nobody signals, and everyone is trying to get where they are going as fast as possible. They are total loons. It was worth it though. Once you get out of town and start to head down the coast it’s a whole different island; Bali has got some incredible beaches. The sort that make you say WOW when you see them. I have no idea why anyone would want to stay in the same resort for two weeks there when there are so many places to explore. Over the course of the next few days we spent a lot of time on the bikes, avoiding bent police trying extort tourists (“there’s one! Floor it!!), and getting wildly lost in country roads. We found some amazing spots including Ulawatu beach, home to one of Bali’s most famous surf breaks - Racetracks, accessed via a tidal cave, and watched some locals ride some of the biggest barrels I’d ever seen.

From Bali we decided to head over to the small neighbouring Island of Nusa Lembongan, which takes about an hour and a half by long tail boat. If you’re going to Bali, you really have to come here. It is stunning. There no cars on the island at all – just pushbikes, a few vintage flatbeds and some locals hiring mopeds out - other than that it’s basically a rural village on an island. The islanders themselves are almost exclusively Balinese Hindu and make their living from cultivating seaweed and drying it in big colourful piles all over the island. Being a small offshore community, fish is also one of the main methods of subsistence, and it’s easy to get basic but tasty food.

We grabbed a couple of bikes from an old guy round the corner from us, and spent a few days battling steep hills on our hairdryer mopeds (often rolling down them the wrong way…) and bombing around in the blazing sun trying to find some of the hidden beaches on the island – which is easier said than done. We could see some of them from various vantage points, but finding the tiny tracks that lead down to them took some detective work. As with Bali they were worth it – pristine white sand, crystal clear water and some occasional decent surf too.

We’d only been in Indonesia for a week or so but were already completely falling for it. Compared to Thailand it felt like an undiscovered gem – we had whole beaches to ourselves some days and some spectacular views. From Nusa Lembongan it was easy to see just how volcanic Bali actually is – the huge cone of Mount Agung on the island looms high over the Badung Straight between the islands, and nowhere was this more impressive than at 5am just after sunrise when we chartered a boat with a local fisherman and went trolling for Tuna. Watching the colours bleed through the mist over the glassy morning sea, revealing the vast volcano is one of the more magical starts to a day I can remember.

It seemed like every other boat but us had caught that morning, so we gave in and drifted off the reef and snorkelled instead, which was spectacular – we saw some huge parrot fish, massive dome-headed Trevally and shoals of all sorts marine life that were new to all of us. When we got back to shore we were given a fresh five pound tuna by a friend of the fisherman, who told us to head down to his brothers for lunch in a few hours where he’d cook it for us. As Spud pointed out a fresh tuna like that would cost an arm and a leg in a decent restaurant back home. We got eight good steaks out of it and he only charged us about a tenner each for the fishing and snorkelling – crazy. I can’t imagine eating fish any fresher than that.

After an idyllic few days of lounging on quiet beaches, biking all over the island, dining on super fresh seafood and home-made Arak, we decided to head to the Gili Islands. Now we hadn’t realised this, but there is basically no cheap way to get to the Gilis which lie East of Bali, other than paying an extortive price for the one direct boat that leaves every day. It’s a speedboat and takes one and a half hours. The other option is a combination of about 4 boats and 4 buses and takes eighteen hours. There wasn’t really any choice. We would discover later getting around in the more rural parts of Indonesia is not exactly easy. As it happened the boat was great fun – we climbed on the roof and sat and ate fruit and drank cold lager while bouncing at 60mph across the waves…see the pictures for Club Tropicana action…

If Nusa Lembongan seemed small then the Gillis were tiny. The Gillis are made up of three tiny islands off the coast of Lombok and have no cars or mopeds, just horses and carts and pushbikes. They seem to have acquired a bit of a legendary status on the travel circuit, we had met quite a few people who’d been, and while it’s clear that these tiny islands have felt the impact of commercialisation they haven’t lost their appeal. You can still find some decent accommodation at a homestay in the backstreets of the village. If you’re a heavy sleeper you get free five AM wakeup calls too from the muezzin at the mosque next door, which gets all the roosters, dogs and donkeys going mental! Cheers Allah!

The bulk of the week or so we spent on the Gili Islands was spent on Gili Trawangan, the larger of the three islands. Along with snorkelling with Turtles and spending too much time in the bar, Spud and I went fishing with the locals off the pier, and got totally shown up by cheeky six year olds catching Barracuda with hand lines, while we caught sod all with our rods. Our egos were badly bruised. We did the only thing we could to make ourselves feel better. Dress up as pirates and go to a pirate party. To be honest it was a bit concerning that we’d managed to put together some pretty convincing outfits using only the contents of our rucksacks, but by now after eight and a half months on the road with the same clothes we were probably actually starting to resemble pirates anyway…

Sammies birthday was spent on Gili Air – the smallest of the three islands where we managed to get a surprise cake made. We concocted homemade rum cocktails and ended up trekking through the jungle under a full moon to find a party that didn’t seem to exist -but found a jazz bar in the middle of nowhere instead – very weird. Bu at least it wasn’t an Irish Theme Bar. Or playing Bob Marley.

From Gili Air we said goodbye to Spud and Katherine - they were heading back to Bali for some more surfing before heading onto Sumatra. We were going to Lombok for a few days, to climb Mount Rinjani - the second highest Volcano in Indonesia at just over twelve thousand feet. It was going to be a pretty sizable trek, taking 3 nights but it looked immense. We had found a guide and negotiated the price, and then both contracted conjunctivitis. Winner. The doctor told us categorically that we should not be climbing any volcanoes for a good few days. Added to this there was some nasty weather headed for Lombok, and with a real risk of heavy mud flows on the way up, Rinjani was now out. So, we spent a couple of days there before catching the slow ferry back to Bali where we would head East for Java and try again to see if we could find ourselves another volcano to scale. If my GCSE Geography served me rightly, they had a few...

View our pics here:

Bali, Nusa Lembongan, The Gili Islands & Lombok


  1. Nice post with excellent pictures. The pictures alone would make me want to go there, because they show how much character the place has!

  2. Great blog, really enjoyed it. Visit us for travel deals at www.comparetoptravel.com

  3. Awesome post .i hope everybody will like your post

  4. Great Post and amazing Article.Story has so Inspired me.really I Like this.hanks for sharing.

  5. Really nice post. very well written article. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Nice post. Thank you for the info. Keep it up.