Becoming Lombok

Travel & Leisure Southeast Asia Magazine – January 2009

It looks like Heaven needs a good rain. Its outskirts could not be dryer. There are a few struggling tobacco plots in the parched brown hills. One abuts a compound of lean-to thatched bamboo shacks with satelite TV.

Here are some other things you didn’t know about Heaven. You get here via a narrow dirt track, which feels more like a trench. Some of the drops are so deep, I actually grunt as the car [yes you can drive to Heaven] lurches forward. Skateboarders will be pleased to hear that Heaven is equipped with an expertly molded, concrete half-pipe. Oh, and I should also mention that Heaven is actually right here on planet earth. In Lombok, Indonesia.

Yes, that Lombok.

Bali’s much less renowned next door neighbor, an island rich in white sand beaches, epic surf, spectacular diving, and car-less offshore islands. An island that, thanks to a forthcoming international airport and a US$600 million makeover may soon be Southeast Asia’s hottest destination. I came here to discover where she stands now as the spotlight approaches. Which is how, 13 days after leaving Bali, I found Heaven.

Day One: Hey Mister Mataram

Mataram is a quintessential Indonesian city. It’s chaotic and dirty, full of traffic and life, and although tens of thousands of tourists come through the Mataram airport every year they usually go straight to the beach. Almost none explore the city.

My presence in the soaked streets caused an immediate stir. Locals shouted, “Hey Mister!” from every angle. A group of young motorbike mechanics waved me over for some muddy, bitter Lombok coffee, and a local artist insisted I join him for some spicy, tangy noodles at a street stand behind the mall. The place was packed with the young and beautiful. One pearl-skinned girl was especially gorgeous. She kept looking over with her big eyes, silky jet-black hair, and coy smile. It was a smile that stopped the rain.

Days Two & Three: The Kuta Situation

Kuta is a labyrinth of turquoise bays, white sand, world-class beach breaks, undulating tobacco fields and massive headlands. Given its drop-dead good looks, it’s no surprise that it also happens to be the vortex of Lombok’s onrushing metamorphosis.

The town rambles for a kilometer or so on two main roads that span the diameter of Kuta Bay. There are surf shops, local cafes, backpacker homestays, and legions of friendly locals, all of whom are Sasak people, Lombok’s indigenous Muslim culture.

After finding a bed, no mean feet at the peak of the August high season, I stumbled onto a street party. There was an electronic marching band, a traditional Sasak drum corps and young girls in thrones being carried around on the shoulders of men. They gathered in the coconut grove and paraded through Kuta’s streets. In the musical mayehm I met Mia, a local Sasak girl in a sarong with a kind smile and crooked teeth. She explained that it was a school carnival held to honor Indonesia’s independence. Then she invited me for Lombok coffee at her souvenir stall down the beach.

Soon I was sitting on yet another concrete floor, holding yet another cup of Lombok’s signature muddy black (which at this point I’m starting to love), served by Mia’s beautiful, and quite pregnant older sister. Mia sat down next to me then moved away with a smile. Concerned, I gave myself a whiff. She laughed.

“No! Not your smell!” She said. “It’s Sasak culture. We not sit too close to man.”

“Oh, so in Lombok if a girl moves away from you it’s a compliment?” I ask.

She nods. “And don’t laugh, but even after they’re married, husband and wife not sleep together all the time, only when they try to make baby. After the baby comes the man sleeps outside the lumbung (Sasak huts with vaulted thatched roofs), and the woman sleep inside. That’s the Sasak way.”

We sip and snack on fresh mango in silence. Then I stand and survey the line of bamboo souvenir stalls on the beach. Mia shrugs.

“Change is coming,” she says.

“Yeah. Is that a good thing?”  I ask.

“Depend. If they hire local people, it’s good. There’s not much money here.”

Oh, but there will be. Emaar Property, a Dubai development concern is poised to transform Kuta’s pristine coast. The team planned their Kuta takeover from Astari, a stylish, Aussie-owned vegetarian restaurant nestled high in the hills with a commanding view. Gaz, one of the owners watched unnoticed as they unfurled blueprints and eyed a plot of land that encompasses three enormous bays.

“They pointed from the West end of Kuta Bay to the East end of Tanjung Aan,” he tells me over beers at Ketapang Café. “They also talked about doubling the road.” Gaz and his wife Helen came here twenty years ago, and they’ve heard talk about Kuta’s development before. “But this time, it’s different,” he says. “Word is that they’re breaking ground on a Ritz Carlton Hotel in Tanjung Aan this January.”

The next day I drive my motorbike to Tanjung Aan and find a virgin horseshoe bay with five silky, sugar white sand beaches. At high tide, the bay is ideal for swimming in its bathtub warm waters. At low tide the villagers descend to harvest seaweed, which will eventually find its way to Japanese sushi bars.

If the Emaar plan called for one or two hotels here and there, Gaz, Helen and the expat residents that love Kuta as it is would be less concerned. But with US$600 million to play with Gaz is concerned Kuta will become another Nusa Dua – Bali’s paved over resort complex that has transformed a sweet beach village into a massive maze of resort towers and golf courses.

But the truth is, nobody knows what is about to happen. All the small businesses on the main road may soon be wiped out when the road doubles in size. Which means the insanely good (and ridiculously cheap) chili crab at Lombok Lounge may no longer be available. And Family Café, another delicious Kuta institution serving sensational Sasak sate – minced chicken, shrimp, fish and beef, mixed with fresh coconut and spices, molded and grilled on lemongrass stalks – may also be condemned. Or it may not. In Indonesia developers are not required to divulge information to the public. There is no public voice, and there are no development standards.

As a result, Kuta is in limbo.

After dinner I drive to Mia’s to pick her brain about her uncertain future. A future that may bulldoze her souvenir stall and find she and her friends, who are all full of personality and intelligence, waiting tables or cleaning rooms at a swank resort for less than US$100/month. I wonder if she considers this a good opportunity for the Sasak people. But when I arrive, she’s sitting apart from a local boy who obviously adores her. So I drive on.

Days 5-10, Gili Trawangan

On Gili Trawangan, the largest and most popular of Lombok’s white sand, car-less Gili islands, Lombok’s tourism surge has already begun. The Gilis first blipped on the tourism radar during the 90s, when Bali was rising to global prominence and backpackers and divers descended in search of quiet beaches, warm water and coral reefs teeming with life.

This was my second trip to Trawangan in as many years, and a lot had changed. As I hunted the coastline in a desperate search for a vacant beach bungalow [last year finding a room was a snap, this year I was lucky to snag one], I passed a dozen construction sites, slalomed between a half dozen young families, and couldn’t help but wonder where the drugs had gone.

Once you couldn’t walk ten feet without a dreadlocked beach boy hawking weed and shrooms with a surreptitious whisper. This year – thanks to a recent drug bust featuring undercover cops posing as pirated DVD hawkers – the dealers were gone. And when I found a beach lair it was on the newly developed, yet still pristine, northwest coast, where the water is the turquoise shade you dream about, the snorkeling is superb, and you’re still just a 20-minute beach stroll from the scrum of restaurants and bars.

But Gili T is still a small town, and within an hour of checking into my room I run into Simon Liddiard, an old friend, Gili T’s original dive resort pioneer, and the first ever westerner with a Trawangan address.

Simon, is a handsome, stocky forty-something Brit with a tremendous dive pedigree. He once held the world record for the deepest dive with a Re-Breather, and remains one of the world’s pre-eminent tech dive instructors. He was already an accomplished diver when he came here from London 20 years ago to start Blue Marlin Dive, the first dive resort on the Gilis.

He now owns four dive centers, a live aboard dive ship, and he’s buying real estate and building villas in Gili T’s beautiful palm dappled interior. As we peddled toward his home (bicycles are the preferred mode of transport here) in the Kelapa Villa development, villagers waved and smiled. His is clearly a multi-million dollar operation yet he’s managed to remain approachable and well liked by the local community.

“Part of the reason is that my local partner is the son of the first Indonesian settler here,” he says as we roll into the coconut grove. “Remember, the Gilis were only settled 55 years ago. Sasak and Bugis farmers came over from Lombok and Makassar to plant and work the coconut groves and never left.”

The same thing happened to expat dive instructors like Simon. The Gilis have a certain addictive quality. I’ve felt it myself. Something about dropping down 30m, practically tickling the chin of a sea turtle as reef sharks circle in the morning, observing a huge school of Mantas soaring through the blue at 20m in the afternoon and dining on fresh grilled seafood on the beach as the moon rises, makes Gili Trawangan hard to leave.

But it had been ages since the shady coconut grove netted any real income. That changed when Simon began building. Now there are a dozen villas, all privately-owned, varying in size from one-bedroom to five, less than half a click from the deserted western shore.

Simon’s place is a tropical palace. The kitchen has granite counters and a sub-z fridge, the massive open-air great room spills onto the private pool deck, tropical flower garden and manicured lawn that roll toward the swaying palms. Villas this size sleep up to eight and can be rented for US$550/night. During the August high-season, the Kelapa Villas were full.

“Tourism has risen every year since 2002,” says Simon. “We didn’t even have a low season this year. And all the development is going high end.”

Chris Thorpe, the British owner of Trawangan’s popular Irish Pub, Trina Nog, agrees. “Tourism is up 70%, he says. March this year was busier than August last year.”

“Part of that is because the new fast boats from Bali make the Gilis more accessible than ever. Also our tourist market has shifted,” says his wife Miriam Thrope, also English, and part owner of the Tirna Nog pub, Cocos Café, and Bale Sampan Bungalows, a new luxe beach bungalow development.

“We used to get the gap year kids and backpackers in their early twenties. Now most tourists are in their late 20s and early 30s and they’re coming with their children,” she continues.

Still, diving remains the heart of Trawangan’s tourist economy. On my last dive with Simon I sucked Nitrox and dropped to 50m. Visability was tremendous, and from my vantage point this vast tecnicolor wall appeared infinite. In truth it drops to over 1500m. Going this deep has a certain vaguely psychedelic loopy affect on the brain. Coral throbs and sways as I commune with a 6-inch long, flourescent green nudey branch – the biggest one I’ve ever seen. I am convinced it knows the secrets of the universe.

Day 10 – My James Bond Moment

Few things in life make you feel as badass or as glamorous as a speedboat trip from a rustic, barefoot island to a 5-star resort. Take it from someone who has skimmed directly from the white sand and turquoise water of Gili T to the Oberoi, Lombok’s best hotel.

From the jetty I was quickly ushered into my teak pavilion outfitted with antique Sasak art and sculpture, and a wide veranda with sea and sunset views. I was not alone. Over the next two days we swam in a four-level infinity pool, snorkeled a local reef, napped deeply in the shade on a luscious daybed, enjoyed a couples massage that lured us to edge of consciousness, feasted on mixed grill sate and icy Bintang by candlelight, and bathed together in an exquisite marble tub.

I don’t mean to brag, but my lovely guest was quite obviously impressed with the entire experience. Which proves that although Oberoi’s brand of luxury may not make you sexy… it can, at least for a few days, make you sexier.

Day 12 – Rinjani and her Waterfall

Leaving the Oberoi was much less fun than arriving. My sweetheart was headed back to Bali and I was hitting the gritty road once again. This time I was headed toward the foot of Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia’s second tallest volcano.

Rinjani has spiritual gravitas. Balinese Hindus (which make up 10% of Lombok’s population) and Sasak Muslims (80%) consider it a sacred mountain and make pilgrimages to its peak throughout the year. Tourists from all over the world make the grueling three-day trek to the peak, as well.

The mountain also has climactic significance. Its peak attracts a steady stream of swirling rain clouds which shower the valley with fertility and feed a tapestry of rice paddies, tobacco (destined for your Marlboro Reds), cashew, mango, banana and coconut palms. Some of that water gushes down the slopes in the form of jaw dropping waterfalls.

I visited Air Terjun Singang Gila in Senaru, the defacto starting point for most Rinjani treks. The falls are a popular weekend picnic spot for locals. When I arrived after an easy 20-minute walk I was quickly baited to the falls where the hearty and foolish edged close to the hard foaming cascade that exploded over black volcanic stone 40m above. The water was frigid, and the closer I got to the mist, the harder it was to catch my breath. Finally, I arrived at the point of contact, and I was hammered with blissfully chilled Rinjani water. The locals went wild.

Day 13 – Heaven

Still Lombok’s lush interior isn’t nearly as captivating as her beaches. Heaven On The Planet, a surf resort nestled on the cliffs near Ekas, is within spitting distance of some of her best. And if the Gods were to grant building permits for heaven, he’d probably choose Kiwi developers. Not that Keary Black and Moira Healy are prototypical developers.

Black originally developed this land while living in Ekas and running an economic development project for the local village. That project failed, but the surf lodge succeeded and ended up bringing the village much needed revenue.

It would be easy to say that the location deserves all the credit for their success. The lodge is actually 5 detached, basic but comfortable chalets, four of which are set high on the pristine cliffs, which are eerily reminiscent of Bali’s Bukit 30 years ago, and come with spectacular views. There are three world class breaks. One is a beach break, and the others are short boat rides away. Although surfers are the main patrons in heaven, divers can drop along a seldom-explored 45m coral wall. The soft corals are gorgeous here.

But it’s not all about nature and adventure here.

“I knew we were in a special place when we were building and something went wrong. The locals stopped everything, killed a chicken and poured blood into a hole,” says Black. “Then something worse happened, so they slaughtered a goat and poured blood into another hole. Then they roasted the goat.”

Local input didn’t end there. Villagers were so captivated by the possibility of heaven, they often sat around in wonder as Keary and Moira ate dinner. Afterward they’d all pile into the couple’s house to watch DVDs. That family atmosphere is still alive here. The staff eat and surf with guests, and are generous with kindness and laughter.

If this were, in fact, the afterlife, nobody would be disappointed. Especially at sunset, when the rippled bay flashes hot pink then melts into a deep purple, before the light fades and the stars carpet a black dome sky.

“We don’t have a 5-star resort. We have a million-star resort,” Keary says over one last shot of Sauza Blanca. I look up then ask, “Would you mind if I stay another night?” Keary and Moira grin.

The word “no” doesn’t exist in heaven.