Time passes slowly on Lombok. The small Indonesian island is only an 2,5 hours flight from Singapore and 35 minutes flight from Bali, but in many respects these neighbours are worlds apart.
Lombok’s coastline is bordered by unspoilt beaches, while inland, rows of bright green rice paddies stretch out for kilometres, and looming in the distance is Mt Rinjani, an active volcano. In recent years, the construction of an international airport, new roads and luxury accommodation options have signalled the island is vying for more tourist dollars. If you’re after a comfortable yet authentic experience, now is the best time to visit.
About 85 per cent of the 3.1 million population of Lombok are Sasak, a people closely related to the Balinese except that their religion is predominantly Muslim.
The Sasak locals are incredibly welcoming and excited to share their culture with visitors, which is an enriching experience for someone who has never strayed beyond Bali’s Hindu-influenced culture.
To gain the most from this adventure, I joined an eight-day Discover Lombok tour run by Aussie company Intrepid. The tour begins in Sanur, Bali, and circles Lombok before finishing on the small tropical island of Gili Air.
After arriving on Lombok, our group of seven piles onto a bus and we drive inland to a village called Tetebatu. It seems like every flat surface in Lombok has been converted into a rice paddy; the verdant fields cover the landscape like an enormous patchwork quilt.
Our accommodation in Tetebatu is quite basic, but what it lacks in home comforts is made up for by the immense hospitality of the locals.
We’re given a tour of the surrounding farms, which in addition to the rice fields include coffee, cacao, macadamia, coconut and chilli plantations. When a local farmer notices our group admiring the coconut trees, he directs a young boy to shimmy up a 10m trunk and cut a few down for us to drink. Schoolchildren run to the front gates to wave. Bolder young ones yell “hello” repeatedly until they receive a “hello” in return, at which point they’ll dissolve into a fit of giggles.
Local tour guides take us for walks through the surrounding villages and proudly show off their speciality exports. In one village the men dig up slabs of clay, while women expertly churn out marvellous pieces of pottery. In another the men tend to fish farms in a local stream and the women weave delicate fabrics using wooden looms. And at every turn locals are planting, tending and harvesting rice.
The next day we head to the coast, arriving at Labuhan Pandan just in time for dinner.
The bungalow accommodation is run by brothers Harry and Deny, who recently convinced their father his waterfront coconut field might be better used as a relaxing stopover for tourists, and they weren’t wrong. The sand here is a dark grey and highly magnetic, owing to minerals expelled by nearby volcano Mt Rinjani.
The boys’ mother cooks all the food. A few Australian dollars will get you an enormous plate of fried chicken, curry or a whole baked fish all prepared using traditional Sasak recipes.
On day four, we drive several hours to Senaru, a village at the base of Mt Rinjani and from there it’s a 30-minute hike through a monkey forest to the Tiu Kelep waterfall. With an experienced local guide to show us the best route, the walk is not too difficult and we’re rewarded at the end with a glorious view of the 45m fall. I brave a quick swim in the pool at the bottom of the fall. The icy cold water is refreshing after walking through the humid forest.
Leaving the mainland behind, we board a fast boat to Gili Air, one of three tiny tropical islands in the ocean between Lombok and Bali.
The small landmass is surrounded by gorgeous white sand beaches and blue water as clear as glass. There are dozens of restaurants, spas and hotels, making it the perfect location to unwind after several days of adventure.
There’s a strict “no motorised vehicles” rule on all three islands, so if you want to get around you have to either walk, cycle or hire a horse and cart.
Not content to sit around all day, the group decides to hire a local boat driver and snorkelling instructor to take us to several reefs around Gili Air. Only minutes into our journey the snorkel instructor calls the driver to stop and motions us to look ahead in the water. A few seconds later several sea turtles surface metres from the boat so we all grab masks and scramble off the side to get a closer look. The largest turtle is about 1.5m from head to tail and our guide estimates it’s at least 60 years old. It slowly swims along the edge of the coral reef, which, much to our delight, is also home to hundreds of vibrantly coloured tropical fish.
It’s authentic and natural moments such as this that make Lombok such an amazing destination. Bali’s less attractive tourist elements cast a long shadow, but there’s absolutely no excuse for giving up on the region entirely.
With an oasis such as Lombok so close by, it’s time to discover some of Indonesia’s underappreciated destinations.
From Singapure just 2,5 hours flight. From Denpasar, Bali, you can join a tour that includes transport by boat to Lombok. Alternatively there is a 20-minute flight, or a ferry trip.