So Near, and Yet So Far (Lombok)
The Jakarta Post -- WEEKENDER | Sun, 11/23/2008 2:49 PM |
For years, Lombok’s vaunted tourism potential has remained unrealized, to the chagrin of some and the delight of others. But with an international airport under construction and the investors moving in, this little island could finally be on the brink of lucrative, if irreversible, change. On a drive around the island, Imogen Badgery-Parker finds that when it comes to development, Lombok still has a long way to go.
The view from the hills over Kuta Lombok, on the island’s south coast, is one of untouched tranquility. The land stretches out in shades of green, rice paddies peeping through the clutter of palm trees, the rugged coastline dropping hillocks into the achingly blue waters. From up here, the only sign of civilization is the ragged road and a telecommunications tower, but somewhere down there are villages of farming and fishing folk, engaged in the business of just getting by.
Somewhere down there is a strip of guesthouses, restaurants and a surf shop, more superimposed on the town than part of it. One or two places offer live music but the main entertainment here is still the sunset. For many, Kuta’s quiet is the very reason they’re on this side of the Lombok Strait, rather than in Bali; the near neighbors are worlds apart.
Driving west along the coast road out of Kuta is to go off the beaten track onto the battered, bruised and broken one, battling along on what is more pothole than road. This is not gentle country, nor an easy drive, but the destination is worth it. Those who just want to relax or hide can do so in blue-and-white bays, such as Mawan, where the most desirable beachfront property is overrun with bamboo shacks and brightly painted boats, the working fishermen apparently oblivious to the bikini-clad tourists paddling in the shallows. Those who want to surf can find world-renowned waves, especially at Kuta, Gerupak or Mawi beaches. Or they can head further round the coastline to Bangko Bangko, also known as Desert Point, a windy outpost on the island’s westernmost tip, accessible via an arm-wrenching drive along a track of sand and rocks.
Desert Point has nothing but a couple of bamboo kiosks, gazebos and disordered bungalows, from which emerge incongruously oversized surfers, come for the legendary waves. Surfing done, they sit by the sand, clutching equally oversized Bintang bottles, watching the sunset as the fishing boats flicker like competitors in a recreational yachting race.
Such rough, intense beauty was never going to stay that way for long. Investors are snapping up great slabs of land, drooling over visions of luxury villas and tourist dollars (once they sort out the certification and lack of electricity and water). The greatest of these is Emaar Properties from the United Arab Emirates, which has announced plans to build near Kuta – for US$600 million, on some 1,200 hectares with seven kilometers of waterfront – five-star resorts, luxury residences, a marina, a golf course and boutique shops.
In two years or 10, that view from the hills above Kuta will be changed utterly, and who knows what kind of beauty will be born.
The revered Mt. Rinjani, Indonesia’s second-highest mountain, dominates the north of Lombok. From mountain to coast is farmland, dotted with mosques and villages, home to the island’s three million people, most of whom are indigenous Sasak. Although it is only about 80 kilometers from one side of the island to the other, when driving the island seems larger, with the quality and chaos of the roads keeping the average speed down. Nevertheless, from Salaparang airport near the capital, Mataram, on the west coast, you can get anywhere in Lombok within a couple of hours: north to the resort strip of Senggigi and the legendary Gili islands; northeast to Rinjani and the rural retreat of Tetebatu; or south through the city of Praya to the beaches.
The drive is a picturesque tour of an agrarian lifestyle, through villages and towns and past people working the fields: rice, tobacco, coffee, corn. Lombok is the westernmost island of West Nusa Tenggara, officially the nation’s least-developed province, which gets by on agriculture, tourism and overseas remittances from tens of thousands of migrant workers. If Lombok is going to be the “next Bali”, as some hype would have it, it has a good 25 years to catch up on.
But its secret to closing some of that gap lies on an empty expanse near Praya, where ant lines of trucks kick up dust and a small roadside sign hints that here is the future of Lombok – here, PT Angkasa Pura II is building an international airport. The airport has been talked about for eons, but with construction finally underway, it could be operational in a couple of years. This airport, designed to handle three times as many passengers as the current one, will also help ease the burden on Denpasar, landing tourists here and shuttling them across the strait.
Complementing the development is a new road: a highway to the capital, northwestern tourist attractions and the fast boat to Bali. It is an even shorter trip to the beaches and future resorts down south.
If anyone is nervous about the new airport’s impact and the ascendance of the south, it is those in the more-developed northwest, not least the resort town of Senggigi. Senggigi, minutes north of Mataram, is a 10-kilometer strip of resorts and entertainment spots hugging a splendid coastline of beaches. While each resort offers its own brand of protected paradise, from the road the town is an unprepossessing place. The resort walls block the beaches from anyone not a paying guest, while the other side of the road is a hodgepodge of shops, tourist offices and restaurants, interspersed with vacant lots. At nighttime the strip comes alive with flashing lights and competing wails from the numerous karaoke joints. But continue north out of town and you are back in that dark Lombok quiet, the hills rising on one side of you, the black nothingness of the sea blotting out the other. Drive a little further, though, and more lights appear in the distance: Gili Trawangan, where the partying really starts.
Gili Trawangan is the largest of the fabled Gili islands – the others are Air and Menos – which entered backpacker lore years ago. They are a paradise for diving, snorkeling, lazing and partying (on soft drugs and hard), and have no motorized transport or paved roads. You can walk the sandy track around Trawangan in a couple of hours, past dive centers, souvenir shops, cafes offering mixed juice and magic mushrooms, sophisticated bungalows and private holdings to “downtown” – a row of classy restaurants and bars, their tables and chairs in the sand. Inland are the houses, the villas, the local residents supporting the tourist industry and all its demands.
Trawangan remains a mock desert island with mod cons and good food. On Trawangan, you can lie in bed to watch the sun rise over Lombok, then walk the 50 meters to the water and snorkel over the reef, taking in tropical fish and a turtle or two before heading back for breakfast on the beach. During the day, the white sand is dotted with pink bodies on deck chairs, as boats come and go for diving and sightseeing trips. At night, “downtown” is lit with lanterns; you can pick your own seafood for the barbecue or sprawl on cushions in a gazebo, sampling a dazzling range of cocktails before moving to a party where the band plays all night. People come to Trawangan for a couple of days and stay for a month, then return year after year for a brief island escape from reality.
But the Trawangan reality is not all peaceful charm. It seems that for every tourist sprawled by the water, there is a construction worker, and for every completed building there is one on the way. The money is moving in – more families and honeymooners are visiting, where once it was just backpackers and divers – and now there are plenty of fancy places alongside the cheaper ones. Those who have been here a while complain of change from the influx of workers: The sense of community is gone, they say, thefts are up and the illicit drug problem just keeps getting worse.
Like the community, the infrastructure is under pressure. Fresh water is at a premium: It all has to be piped or shipped in. The island’s only generator is overburdened, and blackouts are increasingly common.
Development might be the long road out of poverty but, as Lombok is learning, growing means growing pains.
At the witching hour between midnight and sunrise, the view from the lonely lighthouse at Tanjung Ringgit, on Lombok’s southeastern tip, is like that over an enormous city, as the lights of the fishing boats crowd into the blackness. Above, the stars seem not only more plentiful than anywhere else but fatter too, great splotches in the sky as though here you are just that bit closer to heaven.
When the stars fade, the fishermen return home with their haul. The sky breaks open in pink and orange over the mist-draped island of Sumbawa, next in the diverse Lesser Sunda Islands chain.
It is not the kilometers that make this place remote. Reaching it is a rough drive along a rough road, through seemingly uninhabited scrub and cotton trees, the arid hills falling away to unkempt beaches. There is plenty of proof this desolate, windswept point is not at the end of the world, but it almost feels it could be.
Yes, the developers are coming, with their tourists, traffic and trouble, but out here, it seems that some parts of little Lombok are just too far away.
The Best of Lombok’s Tourism Today:
Head south to Kuta Lombok and other beaches nearby: Gerupak, Mawi and Ekas. Kimen Surf on the main street has all the gear and information you need, along with surfing lessons and motorbike hire. Desert Point is harder to get to, but has world-class waves.
Best seafood barbecue
The seafood is great anywhere on Lombok, but Scallywags on Gili Trawangan stands out. Choose what you want from their display of fresh fish and seafood to go straight on the barbecue. Meal comes with a salad buffet.
Rudy’s in Gili Trawangan is good value, friendly and lively. Settle in for the night on a cushion in one of its burruga (gazebos).
Earn those hours lazing on the beach by putting on some warm clothes and tackling the tough climb up 3,726-meter high Mt. Rinjani. There are various routes, taking up to five days, through protected forest to the massive freshwater lake and natural hot springs.
Head to the Sunset Bar on the west side of Gili Trawangan, and watch the sun set over Bali’s Mt. Agung.
G’Day Inn in Kuta Lombok is a friendly, family-run place with simple, clean rooms, and a great little restaurant/cafe. Ask for the prawn curry – it’s not on the menu, but it should be. Tel: 0370-655342.
Best beachside bungalow
The recently opened Beachcombers Cottages sit right by the beach on the north side of Gili Trawangan, with excellent views and all the mod cons – huge bed, A/C, cable TV, minibar and hot/cold freshwater shower in a dreamy alfresco bathroom. Tel: 0878 633 33309.
The rural village of Tetebatu is a cool, lush mountain retreat, from where you can do plenty of hikes or bike rides through country lanes to nearby craft villages and waterfalls.
If you want to visit several places, tourist center Senggigi is the most convenient. It has all the tourist facilities you need – car/driver hire, tour organizers and transport, including the shuttle boat to Bali.
It seems odd to visit an island famous for its beaches and mountain, only to head for the river. But if you are staying near Mataram, Crocodile River Cottages is an unexpectedly wonderful find, its luxurious timber bungalows alongside the Meningting river offering a quiet hideaway. It has bar, restaurant, room service, massages, river cruises, tourist information and beach transfers. Tel: 0370-664 6444.
Book a room at mid-range Flush Bungalow on the east of Gili Trawangan. Pull back the curtain and mosquito net, and watch the dawn without even leaving your bed ... until it’s time to go eat banana pancakes for breakfast. Tel: Ping on 0819 1725 1532.
Big Bubble Dive on Gili Trawangan has fully certified instructors to give dive lessons and to take you to the area’s best world-class spots.
Best private island experience
Gili Nanggu, near Lembar (the port for the ferry to Bali) in the southwest, is a small island with nothing but the Gili Nanggu Cottages (Tel: 0370-623783) and a Buddhist temple. At full moon, you might have to share your island with monks from around the world, come to worship at the temple.