We arrived at Bangsal port in Lombok to take the public boat over to Gili Air, the public boats are only about £1 each for the short crossing, the boat is only small, seating about 30, but of course more than that got on, we clambered on from the beach and set off to the legendary Gili Islands.
Gili Air is the Gili closest to Lombok, the medium-sized one about 2km across, Gili Meno is the next island over, a little smaller at 1km across, and Gili Trawangan is the biggest and furthest away, the island for partying. We decided we’d only go to the quieter islands, but Gili Air was still fairly busy.
None of the Gili Islands have any motorised vehicles on, only bicycles, horse-drawn carriages and the occasional electric scooter, which makes it nice and peaceful to walk around, as long as you’re not on the coast path close to the harbour where horses pull carriages up and down in the baking heat to transport lazy tourists who won’t walk 1km to their accommodation.
The beaches around Gili Air ranged from untouched white sand with clear water, to almost entirely broken dead coral, therefore un-walkable, to non-existent because of tide or erosion. But all of the waters surrounding the islands are known for the abundance of sea-life and therefore excellent diving and snorkelling.
We would just be snorkelling and decided we would try going out from the beaches using hired snorkels, it is definitely the best option, but can take some work when the reef lies around 100-200m from shore and at low tide the depth up to that distance will be just a few inches so it wouldn’t be possible to swim out.
We followed the tide and went out in the morning at high tide, desperately searching for the famed turtles that feed in the shallows around here, we repeated this each morning and saw lots of marine life, lots of coral, I even saw what I think was an Eagle Ray, but unfortunately no turtles, but we weren’t going to give up yet, we had plenty of days to keep searching.
We stayed on Gili Air for three days, doing much of the same, up early for a snorkel from the beach, sometimes being in the water for 7am, then we’d have breakfast and some more swimming or snorkelling in the afternoon. The evenings we sat on our terrace outside the bungalow and ate fresh mango and played cards, it’s really not a hard life being in the Gili Islands, it’s certainly the closest we’ve been to the paradise islands you picture in Asia.
After three days, we hopped on the inter-island boat and headed for Gili Meno, we found a very cheap bungalow for three days (just £10 per night) which for a tiny paradise island is quite a bargain, but then booked something nicer for the three days after that, which would be over my birthday.
This island was pretty much perfect island life, it was incredibly quiet, not many people, or horse-drawn carriages, and because it was Hari Raya, the end of Ramadan, some of the locals had even gone away back to family, so the Island felt idyllic.
One day, walking back from the beach, in to the village, we turned to walk along one of the narrow dirt paths, to be greeted by a huge bull stood directly in the middle of the path about 10 metres in front of us, we decided therefore that we weren’t going that way and had to make our way through some people’s gardens instead, which were full of goats, chickens and the occasional cow or giant lizard, Gili Meno really is that rural.
It meant that food wasn’t that easy to come across unless you wanted to eat in the couple of restaurants on the island which were expensive, but we found a great locals place for local mixed rice and ate that for almost every meal.
The day after we arrived, we rented some snorkels again, headed up to a point of the island on the far north, where people recommended to go to, if you wanted to see turtles, but by the time we got there, the reef slope 150m from shore was already covered in boats running tours and we knew we had missed our chance. We snorkelled out from the beach anyway, but didn’t see much other than the usual reef fish, we were determined by this point that we had to see one.
We put a plan together, we would get up at sunrise the next morning, get to a bit of beach close by that had shallow waters at high tide with lots of grass and hope to be there before anybody else. We couldn’t be the ONLY people who came to the Gili Islands and didn’t see turtles.
We got up, and were at the beach before any boats, only a couple of other people were around, as we were walking the coastal path, just as we got to where we planned to swim from, Stac stopped in her tracks and said she thought she saw something in the water, intrigue turned to excitement pretty quickly when she saw it again, it was a turtle’s head coming up for air as he was feeding in the shallows.
We quickly got our snorkels and fins on and headed in to the water, visibility was poor close to shore and the water was no more than 18 inches deep, but you have to swim to avoid the sea urchins in the grass, we had barely swam 10 metres when we saw him, a huge green turtle, over 1m diameter, nibbling on the grass on the seabed.
We approached slowly, he saw us, we watched him as he went back to feeding, he’d done this before, he knew people came out here every day. We swam close to him, never closer than a few metres but close enough to see his eyes, and swam with him for about 10 minutes as he started heading back out in to the deep. About 100 metres out he swam off over the coral and we never saw him again.
The only other time before this that we had swam with a turtle was in Brazil, but this one here was much bigger, we think he must have been a few decades old, at least, judging by his size, and he must know that when the tourists come out, it’s time to finish feeding and go back to the deep. We were happy and content to see just one in the wild rather than from a group tour.
The Hari Raya festival was while we were in Gili Meno, this is the breaking of the fast when Ramadan, the holy month, ends. This means that the locals have a big celebration and parade through the streets with fireworks and have a big feast. On the morning of Hari Raya, the guesthouse gave us the food they had for breakfast to celebrate, curried squid, chicken, eggs, rice cakes, fruit, it was a full feast and delicious, we love food like that for breakfast, Indonesia certainly do breakfast right.
The day after swimming with the turtle we moved to the nicer place, we treated ourselves to a nice villa for a few days, part of a resort that was brand new, with just a few rooms, the place was stunning. Expensive, but stunning. We had a luxury villa with a big comfy (novel in Asia) bed, private jacuzzi pool outside and a private terrace for sitting and relaxing on.
We made the most of it and spent a lot of time relaxing in the private pool and drinking too many beers, not because we drank too much, but because beer here is so expensive. £2.50 for a bottle of beer from a shop is expensive anywhere in the world, you would think Indonesia would be cheap for beer, but apparently not.
We did a group boat tour for snorkelling, it was awful, but it was only about £9 each so we weren’t too angry. It was basically just dropping you at snorkel spots with loads of other boats for about 15 minutes, getting you in the water then rushing you off to the next spot so they could have the day tour done in 2 hours, which they managed.
The worst part came close to the end though, all they seemed interested in doing was finding a turtle for all the tourists to see one, I wouldn’t have an issue with that, except, when they found one, they directed dozens of people to where it was, shouting and pointing so everybody went and harassed the one poor turtle that they found, I nearly lost my mind when I looked under the water to see dozens of people kicking fins close to this one small turtle in the shallows and people diving down to touch it and take selfies with it.
Whilst still in the water, I started shouting at one of the locals running the tour, probably not the smartest thing to do when they were our route back to shore, but I was livid, he couldn’t care less and just carried on. When the two hours was up I was so glad to get off that boat and calm down.
For my birthday, the 28th June, we had a great day, we got up and got to the beach for sunrise, snorkelled for a while then went back to the room and breakfast on our terrace, Stac had organised for the hotel to bring us our breakfast to the room and even pancakes as a birthday cake. So by 9am we had watched sunrise on a paradise island, snorkelled, ate a great breakfast of local rice, noodles, pancakes, fruit and tea.
We relaxed for the afternoon, then went out and had dinner on the beach on the west side of the island to a beautiful sunset, some nice food and a ridiculously expensive bottle of cheap wine… got to love Asia 🙂
One more day in paradise was spent doing the same again, snorkelling, eating delicious local food and enjoying our nice villa before it was time to go back to Bali, just a couple more days left in Indonesia. This means the end of the Asia trip is almost up, six whole months, 10 countries, amazing memories and amazing people, we can’t believe how quickly it has gone.