West Nusa Tenggara is a province of Indonesia sitting just east of Bali in the island chain of the Lesser Sunda Islands. Our stay on Gili Air had brought us to the very westernmost (closest to Bali) end of this province; from there we would work our way eastward, first through the large island of Lombok.
We said our farewells to peaceful Gili Air and traveled by boat and bus over to Sengiggi, a coastal town on the big island of Lombok. This is a bit of a resort / pass-through town where we grabbed a nice room for a night while we planned our next adventure. Sengiggi isn’t particularly remarkable in any sense, nor is it relaxing (unless you’re paying for a secluded resort) but it does have a very nice beach which was entertainingly mobbed with locals on account of it being a holiday.
Our objective while on Lombok was to spend a couple nights trekking up Gunung Rinjani, the 3700m volcanic peak at the center of the island with a picturesque caldera lake and hot springs. It sounded a bit difficult but we’ve done similar hikes before and had a pretty good sense of what we’d be in for. After researching more thoroughly, however, we learned that hordes of uneducated and/or uncaring guides and hikers have turned the trail into a garbage dump over the past ten years. Further, while everybody and their uncle on Lombok claims to be a guide, only a select few organizations are both properly prepared and protective of the park (and these ones were quite expensive). What to do? Hiking and camping for us is much more than just the destination, we like to enjoy a beautiful and natural journey even if (or especially when) it’s challenging. While I’m sure we would have made the most of it had we gone we eventually decided that there are plenty of other opportunities in Indonesia and moved on.
This left us open for what, if anything, we would do on Lombok while there. We elected to stay a couple nights at a homestay in the center of the island at the foot of Rinjani. We imagined quiet jungle scenery and rustic solitude. The reality of where we ended up was a bit busier than pictured, including a rather proximate mosque (these are not quiet neighbors in the early morning) and lots of interaction with the countless members of the host family as well as other guests. The latter was of course quite fun and interesting as we joined the family at mealtime and for playing cards after dark.
We also spent several hours on a guided walk with one of the family through neighboring rice fields and jungle. This was quite scenic and well worthwhile to understand a bit more about what daily life is like in rural Indonesia. Farming occurs anywhere possible, and while rice is the most apparent crop, lots of others are cultivated: corn, chilis, vegetables, and tobacco. We made friends with several local dogs, sampled raw roasted cacao, drank too much coffee, and watched some of the endangered ebony leaf monkeys that inhabit Lombok’s forests. We observed – and confirmed later over a 12-hour bus ride – that Indonesians can survive indefinitely purely on cigarettes and coffee. Intermittent small portions of rice are a bonus and seemingly optional. We sucked down water and came close to starvation while our guide meandered along complacently without any nourishment beyond these two staples.
We stayed only two nights as that was all that was available, though it’s just as well as we were ready to move on. As before with Rinjani we struggled a bit to decide our next move. Lombok offered several other possible destinations but we weren’t really feeling like sticking around; we wanted to push further eastward to the island of Flores and the mecca of diving at nearby Komodo that had us very excited. How to get there wasn’t entirely clear, however. The target destination of Labuanbajo on Flores lay some 380 kilometers (240 mi) due east, across the long and fairly empty island of Sumbawa. Going from point A to B in Indonesia isn’t quite like travel anywhere else – a few hours distance in the States can easily be several days here. Flights for this leg exist, but at the last minute (and during what is apparently high season at Komodo) they were very expensive or sold out. Boats make this trip as well, a four-night journey in cramped quarters. Finally, overland buses (with ferries to connect the dots between islands) are the cheapest choice. We considered the boat option but ultimately decided we’d rather push through to Flores more quickly by bus. Boats aren’t exactly fast here.
Our travel began from the homestay down to the nearest sizable town on the backs of motorbikes (an ojek is a motorbike taxi and is quite common). There we got some tickets, waited, and caught the bus as it traveled towards East Lombok. Within a couple hours we (and the bus) were on a ferry headed to Sumbawa, the next island over. This was a decent size car ferry and over the couple hour trip we were entertained (and only slightly appalled) by the rustic conditions on board: passengers lying down in any available corner, chickens wandering around, simple meals being cooked by families on mats. It was a modest preview of the longer ferry ride we would take the next day.
Then it was back on the road in the bus for ten hours across dusty Sumbawa. When building this cross-island stretch it seems that the Indonesians must have already used up all of the straight road sections in their inventory, leaving only curved pieces to work with. We swayed vigorously left and right, back and forth, up and down the whole way. Happily this sort of road gives the Indonesian bus drivers ample opportunity to practice their favorite activities of honking and performing hair-raising passes.
Fortunately our bus was neither crowded nor smelly which made the trip far more tolerable than it would have been otherwise. We arrived in Bima, Sumbawa’s eastern city, sometime late in the evening. We found a grungy hotel room and wandered around the nearby city park to find some delicious street food and an interesting reception from the locals which ranged from the standard chorus of “hellos” from children, stares and comments from adults (Westerners being unusual in Bima) and some friendly conversation with the rare individual confident with English. Our journey resumed after six hours of sleep by means of another ojek ride, a rusted out skeleton of a minibus, and more ojek to reach the port of Sape.
From Sape to Labuanbajo – our destination – there is a ferry that runs once a day if it’s in working condition (it was). It’s a 6-8 hour trip between the islands of Sumbawa and Flores. This ferry was quite similar to the first, but more crowded and hotter. People were packed tightly into stuffy compartments, lying around on mats and cardboard, and nested in any shaded corner on the open upper deck. Chickens hunted around for crumbs and various mystery liquids oozed around on flat surfaces. It had the appearance of a refugee camp, but this is normal life here in Indonesia. We sought fresh air and so stayed up on the top deck trying to dodge the sun. Elaine eventually had the great idea, inspired by locals who had brought tarps and blankets, to make a sunshade using our clothesline and her shawl. We found a corner, built a small fort, and waited out the journey on the steel deck while gorgeous blue waters and green-brown islands slowly passed by.
After 34 hours of travel we pulled into the seaside town of Labuanbajo, Flores late in the afternoon with all our body parts and belongings. Success! The whole trip (including our room in Bima) cost less than $50 apiece. Being really excited about doing some amazing diving in Komodo National Park we shook off our travel fatigue, dropped our luggage, and headed off through the town to explore our options for getting in the water. We were certainly not disappointed – but that’s for the next post!