Archive for the ‘Indonesia’ Category

The mighty Mahakam River (Sungai) flows 980km from the centre of Indonesian Borneo in the district of Long Apari to its mouth at the Makassar Strait, where it embraces the Celebes Sea. The sprawling, rapacious city of Samarinda, a longtime backpacker magnet, lies 48km from the river mouth. Its equatorial climate makes for a swift transit and its from here that we started our 3 day Sungai Mahakam adventure having taken an early morning bus from Balikpapan with Kiswono, our local guide originally from Jakarta, Java.

A popular starting point amongst the guides for river exploration is Kota Bangan, a disheveled riverside town some 4hrs by bus north-west of Samarinda. For the supply chain of East Kalimantan this daily trip is a battle of whit and nerves. Like many provincial roads in Borneo (both Malaysian and Indonesian), the road has been ravaged by the burden of overloaded lorries ferrying the spoils from man’s rape of the land. Trucks laden with coal and timber splutter along the shredded tarmac, increasing the strain on the already creaking infrastructure. During the day sporadic police presence curbs excessive loading but at night, with the authorities safely tucked up in bed, conniving truck operators plough the roads with cumbersome loads. The net result is a road that resembles war torn towns where the sight of flat tarmac is a welcome respite from potholes and crumbled rock. In places the road has collapsed entirely into the ravines at the side, reducing the width to a barely passable dimension. Along this road travel the masses; school children, farmers, housewives, fishermen, businessmen, middlemen and your everyday traveler. It’s 4 hours of mental torture; if the incessant thump of bus on rocks doesn’t break your spine, the cacophony of stressed engine noises and creaking chassis will split your mind. One journey tested our nerves; imagine what it’s like to rely on this route for your livelihood. The local people have to accept poor standards from a government that isn’t too bothered.

From Kota Bangan, public ferries provide easy and cheap access to the upstream villages. The inner river is littered with Dayak Villages, the homes of the indigenous people whose ancestral land has long since been invaded by the modern prospectors. The Dayak people have their own language, customs, law and territory. They are animist in belief though some have recently converted to Christianity and Islam, the dominant religion on Borneo.

Instead of bedding down in the large ferry, Kiswono employed a local boatman called Adi to whisk us upriver at a quicker pace. Our boat was better than anticipated for a motorised canoe; it had its own canopy to shield us from the unrelenting sun and cushions with back rests acting as makeshift seats. From the crumbling wooden jetty of Bangan we headed across the immense Lake Sanayang (apparently 40,000 hectares) towards Muara Muntai village. White people are rare commodities in these parts, so the children of the village are excited to see you and come running out to the wooden boardwalks to wave and cheer. It’s a beautiful welcome.

Dayak Village, Sungai Mahakam, East Kalimantan

The local villages are built along the riverbank. Work is exclusively as fishermen and the men, sometimes accompanied by their wives, plough the waterways every day from dawn to dusk and often beyond. The houses are made from wood and sit adjacent to the river with wooden boardwalks providing a path between the houses and down to makeshift jetties. Most of the jetties are simple planks or wooden logs meshed together. It’s basic and rustic but it works. Occasionally a bright shiny house leaps out from amongst the ageing timber. Interestingly, in every village, no matter how small or poor, the mosque (Masjid) is built from quality materials and looks in far better condition that any of the houses. The villagers obviously take great pride in their religion and its edifices. I can’t help wonder what is more important though, a nice shiny mosque or better buildings for the people?

A lake of many colours

In the morning of our second day we headed out past Jantur Village into the impressive Lake Jampang, even larger than Sanayang. It’s quite a journey just to reach the far end.

The lake provides an array of beautiful sights and colours. The deep brown water of the river and its tributaries gives way to a shimmering blue as you reach the depths of the lake. Above the intense blue of the sky glistens in the sun. Occasionally wisps of fluffy cloud break the monotony of the sunshine. Every now and then a floating tuft of forest debris drifts by, either clumps of vegetation and reeds or large logs broken away from fallen trees. On either side, floating forests emerge from the horizon’s mirage. There are large groups of trees whose base is submerged in water at high tides. These trees give the appearance of old forests suddenly flooded. They provide a wonderful reflection that makes for excellent photos. Tucked amongst these floating trees is a myriad of fauna and the sight of a hawk or eagle is not uncommon overhead.

The stunning scenery can easily transfix you. The gentle lull of the boat quickly becomes soporific and only the regular shout of “Selamat pagi” from the fishermen wakes you from the slumber. It has to be one of the most relaxing ways to spend your time. However, after 7 hours in one position, your spine may well send a different message.

A step back in time at a traditional Longhouse

In Mancong Village, tucked neatly away down a small tributary of the Mahakam, you will find something truly unique. Behind the small wooden jetty, visible through a patch of trees, is a well-preserved traditional Longhouse. The Longhouse, some 60m in length based on a crude measurement, dates back several centuries. Before the 1950s the Dayak people lived in such communal houses with up to 4 families in each room. Today these longhouses are rare in Kalimantan, reflecting the pressure to preserve the unique social and cultural heritage of these tribes.

Dayak Longhouse, Mancong Village, Kalimantan

Kiswono lamented the lack of concern shown by central Government for cultural preservation in Kalimantan; their financial efforts remain focused on the established tourist destinations like Bali. The issue is compounded by the march of consumerism and capitalism amongst the young generations of the Dayak people; the teenagers are migrating to Indonesian cities in search of bright lights and better opportunities. It all leads to an impoverishment of cultural heritage and the likelihood that traditional village life could well die-out within 20 years.

Though the local government distills its rule through irregular communication, it’s still the Dayak tribal leader that the people turn to for guidance and governance. Old habits die hard. It would appear that the central administration is more concerned with extracting financial value from the Dayak’s ancestral lands, mainly through coal mining, than maintaining effective rule by direct government.

From Mancong, Adi expertly steered us along the Baroh, a shortcut that intersects the main artery of the Mahakam and takes you east towards the famous triangle at Muara Pahu where Irrawaddy Dolphins are often spotted. It had been one of the main objectives of our trip to seek out these creatures as they can only be found here and in parts of Thailand. Although we had seen one, briefly, in the morning, we hoped for more time observing their behaviour and beholding their beauty. Alas it was not to be. One hour of patience revealed nothing and with darkness drawing in, we had to head south and back to our base at Muara Muntai.

The incessant march of human greed

Since the 1970s, the Dayak people have faced an insidious threat; human greed. Their ancestral lands are rich in natural resources and the rape of the land is evident. As you pass by bus between villages, coal mining and logging projects leap out from the forest. Vast swathes of primary rainforest have been destroyed to make a quick buck.

To appease the locals, the Central Government insists on the big companies making concessions to the villages; this usually involves a token effort, perhaps a small cash investment in the community but nothing lasting. The state of the homes and buildings is lamentable; outdoor toilets that float on wooden logs over the river are ramshackle and seemingly held together by nothing more than goodwill. We passed one toilet hut that had broken free and was tilted at an impossible angle into the river. Downstream children were playing, oblivious to the human waste flowing towards them. There is innocence and there is low quality of life; here the two mix worryingly.

The big companies and Central Government are making the most from the Dayak land whilst the villagers continue their lives seemingly unaware. Kiswono believes that they will eventually wake-up to this exploitation as their patience and good nature has a limit; however, this epiphany may well be too late to preserve their culture and economic future.

It’s another tragic human story. The people are wonderful, their treatment by others more sinister. As we walked around Mancong village, children and adults greeted us warmly. Though the Dayak people are far more laid back than their city counterparts, the warmth of their kindness is no less glowing. Their smiles reflect an inner peace, a sense of synergy with the natural world. We can highly recommend taking a trip up the Sungai Mahakam and exploring the local villages. The scenery is spectacular, the pace of life soothing and the people incredibly endearing. But I wouldn’t want to live this way.

Love jamer & bro senior x

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The Komodo trip, though exhilarating and worth every penny, damn near broke me. I touched down on terra firma with a nasty eye infection, scabby arm and exhaustion from lack of sleep. The plan to hook up in the evening at Paradise Bar for a session to celebrate the trip was short-lived. My eyes were bright red and itching. The eye bogeys had come to town and the smoke in the bar was killing me. For those of you who know me well, I don’t do ill. I lasted 1hr before my grump drove me away and to the peaceful confines of our over-priced room up in the cliffs at Chez Felix.

Labuanbajo harbour Flores

I awoke to sore eyes and major disappointment. We had planned to take a 2-day detour inland to Ruteng to explore the beautiful countryside of Flores but my eyes were too painful to consider the dirt and grime of bus travel. Muneeza urged me to find a Doctor but I insisted it would clear up soon enough. At 4pm I went to the Doctor. My eyes were like bright red saucers, reminding me of the worst days of childhood hay fever. The kind lady had a quick scan (obviously I mean that she scanned me, for the pedants among you) and then reassured me it was a common infection and she has seen much worse. Tablets and drops were dispensed quite cheaply and I strolled out of there with a renewed spring in my step. The drops burned slightly but a little pain is usually a good sign, right?

We sat around The Lounge, a very cool bar cum restaurant hangout popular with locals and backpackers alike. It’s the best place in town for high-speed wifi that enables decent Skype indulgence. A friend of ours, Caroline, told us about a snorkel trip run by an American chap called David who lives in Labuanbajo. He’s a volunteer English teacher, in his 50s and very laid back. Every few weeks he organises a boat trip out to some of the nearby islands that offer incredible snorkeling and beautiful beaches. He charges each tourist 100,000Rp (about £7) to cover the boat hire and then invites local people to come along for free in exchange for making a basic nasi goreng (fried rice) lunch. It’s an admirable gesture because most local people can’t afford to make the trips that tourists take for granted. It also encourages visitors to mix with locals and get to know their culture a little better. And it enables young kids to see the natural beauty of their home and you can’t say fairer than that. Some people have kind souls.

I encouraged Muni to talk to him, as I was land locked for 3 days on Doc’s orders and didn’t want her to lose out as well. After a quick chat she decided it was a good option and booked for the next day. Early Saturday morning on the 16th I walked my jani to the meeting point, then headed to The Lounge to catch up on some work. Yes I still live life on the edge.

At sea, with no care in the world

As Muneeza was not due home until 6pm, I had a somewhat leisurely day on the Internet, indulging in some networking to try and set up work from my return. The corporate whore lies dormant but not for long.

As the day dragged on for the man with no eyes, I became more and more envious that my jani was spending a day island hopping in this paradise and getting to meet the locals. As 6pm approached and passed, I became more and more impatient. I wanted food! A call at 17.30 told me they were on their way back but at 20.15 still no sign. Alarm bells started to ring. You hear of boats sinking without trace in Indonesia due to the rather lackadaisical health & safety standards, and my paranoia mounted. It then also struck me that I knew nothing about David. Could he be a twisted sex pest in disguise? Was he the kidnapping type? I fired up Skype and phoned a friend to keep my mind for wandering into the abyss of imagined horror. I was genuinely relieved when Muni walked into the bar around 20.30, somewhat exhausted from a long day.

Luckily she had a great time with David and the local posse. The women brought their young kids with them and Muni’s body clock is ticking louder than a terrorist’s vest, so she was happier than a heroin addict in the golden triangle.

Over dinner Muneeza recounted her day’s exploits. It made me rather jealous. They explored some of the smaller, secluded islands and enjoyed wonderful snorkeling, apparently the best of our trip so far. Having described to Muneeza what vibrant reefs are like, I was happy that she had finally experienced one. For her though the most enjoyable part of the trip was playing with the children and helping teach them how to snorkel. She’s a natural with the little people, must be why we’re so suited!

Repetition, repetition, repetition

The next few days became like Groundhog Day. We got up, ate the oh so basic free breakfast at Chez Felix and walked down the hill to town, always passing another guesthouse and asking ourselves, “are the rooms better value there”.  On the penultimate day in Flores we discovered they were and much cleaner as well. We cursed ourselves at spending a whopping £5 too much per day. My birthday came and went in the blink of an eye; to add to my present of dodgy eyes, my Macbook packed-up and sat there beeping at me intermittently. Was Karma trying to tell me something?

Each day, once in town, we would do some admin on the Internet, such as sorting accommodation and flights for the Philippines. Next would be a cheap lunch at a local shack where really nice fresh fish, rice and vegetables cost only £1 each. Most afternoons we would return to Chez Felix for a siesta, then head back to town late afternoon for some random walking, wrapped up with a nice meal before heading home around 21.00. The tablets I was taking were making me drowsy, so I was in bed and asleep by 21.30 every night. After 5 days of taking my medicine and using the drops, the eyes were hardly any better and I started harbouring fears of eternal blindness. You can’t beat that spiraling male hypochondria.

On Tuesday we finally left Flores and flew back to Bali. All flights were delayed due to bad weather at Ende, so we sat at Labuanbajo airport for 2 hrs trying to pass time. The airport is a classic island affair and there is absolutely nothing to do, so the time dragged like a limp body.

We got to Bali and headed direct to the beach town of Bingin, about 45mins south. It’s a long and winding road to Bingin and the area reminded me of Cornwall. Narrow windy lanes lead down to obscure parking bays from which narrow beaten paths trail down to rocky outcrops and golden surfing beaches. Due to its remote access, the hoardes of booze hands head north to Kuta and Legian, leaving the more chilled surf customer in Bingin and the nearby towns. It meant we had a lovely time in peace and comfort and the surprisingly good quality Bingin Gardens. Surfers amongst you, it’s a very cool place to hang out.

Bingin beach Bali

It took us 30mins to get to the beach, by which time we were drenched in sweat. There wasn’t really a sunbathing area as the bay was riddled with rocks but the scenery was stunning, enhanced by the slowly fading sun as it set for the day. We got back to our cottage around 6pm and my eyes were really hurting, no doubt ruined by the sweat-sun cream killer combo. I felt sick and couldn’t face food, so passed out by 8pm. I was starting to wonder if I would ever see clearly again.

Singapore bound

We headed back to Kuta mid morning on the 20th and stopped enroute at a pharmacy as I’d had enough of the worsening eye situation and was actually genuinely concerned. I discovered that the eye drops I had been given were useless; they were meant for kids, so it wasn’t surprising the infection had not cleared. With new medicine and renewed faith, we boarded the plane for Singapore and a brush with the pace of a modern city after so long in the wonderfully slow lane of Indonesia.

Love jamer & muneeza x

Since my early teens, courtesy of the infectious enthusiasm for wildlife of David Attenborough (yep Nick I too realised my schoolboy error), I’ve dreamt of seeing the Komodo Dragons. However, my geographical dyslexia prevented from realising that on our travels we would be passing through the very region where these pre-historic looking beasties dwell. My spatial concept of Indonesia was pretty poor and it was only an email from a friend that alerted me to the proximity of these creatures. On Gili T we haggled with the tour operators and booked a fully inclusive (allegedly!) 4 day boat trip from Lombok for a cool 1.4mRp – approx £100 each. We woke bright and early, well not bright because I was too excited to sleep, and met the other happy campers at the jetty on Gili T at 07.45 on Monday 11th April. The adventure had begun.

Day 1 – Gili T to Labhuan Lombok

Day 1 is the dull day. Though it started well with beautiful weather and the realisation that most people on the trip were easy going and good fun, the journey was tedious. We had to take a small boat over to mainland Lombok, then get fleeced by a pony-driven rickshaw to take us to the awaiting bus 1km away. From there it was a long schlep over to the port of Labhuan on the east coast of Lombok. We didn’t arrive until about 3pm and though everyone was in a good mood, we were all amping to get on the boat.

The boat was very basic, about 50ft long and made of wood. There is a small deck and an inner area with a basic wooden ‘table’ below which is the storage berth. There are no windows, it’s an open space with railings to which weather proof sheets are hung to protect from the elements. In the middle of the boat is the captain’s cabin where the navigation takes places. Behind that is a small space for the crew (5 in total) and the cooking area. To the aft (I think that’s rear in sailor-boy speak, though I’m not really that knowledgeable about a sailor’s rear) is a small cubbyhole that consists of a water tank and western toilet. We discovered quickly that the toilet washes directly into the sea, so nobody flushed when the boat was anchored at our swimming and snorkelling spots. Above this is a small sleeping area, like a mini deck. High enough to crawl along, it’s impossible to stand. There are 14 mattresses laid down to allow each passenger to have somewhere to sleep. Each person gets a sheet for the night. It’s basic, very basic. The sleeping area is fully covered with waterproof tarpaulin and you can peer out to sea through small gaps.

The boat left on time but beneath thunderous clouds and torrential rain. We battened down the hatches and had to be content with conversation instead of views.  Visibility was poor and the waves slightly choppy but we sat back under the covers and got to know each other. Our boat was uniquely European and full of interesting people:

  • 4 chilled Swedish lads from Lund, all 20 and taking a 2 month holiday
  • A group of 5 Dutch boys and girls, all mid 20s and but travelling together
  • A Frenchman from the Alps living in Switzerland
  • A lovely German couple from Stuttgart
  • A lovely English girl from Kent who teaches in Saigon
  • A lone-wolf Swedish chap with an at-times unfathomable accent but a good music collection
  • An interesting German chap taking a break from work.

17 sea-hardened shanty loving Lombok pirates led by a merry crew of Indonesia harlequins.

The plan to find a beach and enjoy and afternoon swim was canned due to poor weather. Instead we moored near a small island off the northern coast of Sumbawa and had an early night. There really isn’t much to do on a boat in the middle of the sea.

Day 2 – Coastal Sumbawa

We awoke to the sound of the uncontrollably loud boat engine at 03.00 on Tuesday morning. Some of us tried to rest more, others got up to await sunrise. I stumbled downstairs at 06.00 to discover I had just missed a pod of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. I was gutted and they didn’t return, so I resolved to get up earlier the next morning.

The day was spent sailing along the northern coast of Sumbawa with a few stops enroute. Sumbawa is beautiful. Rugged cliffs sweep along sun-kissed bays and sandy beaches call out to be visited. There are verdant slopes leading up to steep peaks and the odd volcanic cone thrown in for good measure. With the sun beating down on the island, it’s a compelling sight and conversation stopper. As we drifted along, the peak of Gunung Rinjani, the tallest volcano on Lombok, appeared from the mist  in the distance.

Our first stop was at a small inlet where a hidden trail winds its way to a stunning waterfall about 400m inland. The water has carved several small pools at different levels, so you can sit and bathe as the water cascades from above.  It was a great place to take a natural shower after 1 day of constant travelling, licked by a salty wind.

Muni at the Sumbawa waterfall

We then headed for some snorkelling action. The reef was average but some parts were alive and vibrant with a plethora of colourful fish. It was a passable snorkel sight but the most enjoyable part was standing on the boat and gazing at the crystal clear turquoise water. Oh island in the sun…

We then settled in for the long night ahead. The distance between Lombok and Flores is vast for a slow moving boat, so we had to sail through the night, which meant the constant humming of the loud engine below us. On the plus side it drowned out the incredible snoring skills of one of the Swedish lads. However, given my light sleeper syndrome, it meant I had almost no sleep.

Day 3 – Red Beach and Komodo Island

I got up for the sunrise and this time saw dolphins near the boat. Watching an Indonesian sunrise on a boat surrounded by dolphins is an experience worth waiting for. Ironically, having had zero sleep I was in a great mood. Despite being tired and it being before 6am, my surroundings filled me with a sense of calm.

Day 3 was business day for me; it was the first day on the trip when we would hit one of the islands where Komodo Dragons are found. Before that we had two pit stops. The first was to climb a hill on a small island that afforded amazing views over the surrounding archipelago. It was a hard sweaty 20min climb but worth the effort. However, I had managed to scalp the end of my little toe on a sharp piece of wood, so the climb was agony. But I am a hero so I forged on undeterred.

Island bay off Sumbawa

The next stop was Red Beach, a place my friend has told me was great for snorkelling and where he swam with manta rays. The setting is stunning; the island is surrounded by other small, green islands. The beach is beautiful golden sand with a tinge of pink. It arcs around the water in a crescent shape. The water near the shore is peppered with coral reef, amidst which are pockets of sand so you have a lovely mix of salt and pepper. Further out past where the boats anchored is clear turquoise water. It’s a genuine island paradise. The reef is also alive and flourishing in some parts. The colours are better than anything I’ve seen elsewhere on our travels.

We hit Komodo like a gaggle of excited school kids on a field trip. First we had to sit through the ranger briefing about the island and safety tips for encountering the dragons. The Komodo Dragon is a giant monitor lizard that grows up to 3m long and 90kg. It feasts on fauna such as deer and buffalo and its bite contains poison from sceptic jaws. To kill it will bite a sleeping animal, then track behind for up to 4 days until it dies a slow and agonising death. The dragon is equally dangerous to humans and if bitten you have to seek immediate medical attention to prevent blood poisoning. Whilst a sighting is never guaranteed, we opted for the long hike so it was likely that we would encounter the creatures on the walk.

We set off eager to spot some wildlife and didn’t have long to wait. We came around a bend in the path and straight ahead was a large female dragon, relaxing on the path away from the heat of the sun. She turned to glance at us and we were told to be quiet and walk slowly to not disturb her. We got within 4m of her and stared open-mouthed. After about 10mins she got up and ambled off. The dragon walk is quite strange; they kind of waddle from side to side and use their enormous tail for propulsion and balance.

Komodo dragon in Komodo National Park

We followed the trail up a few small hills out to a viewing point where we could see across the bays of Komodo Island. The trail was enjoyable and at the top of the largest hill we saw a smaller female dragon relaxing beneath the shade of a tree. She lazily looked us up and down and then went back to sleep. We returned to the ranger camp and discovered 4 larger male dragons congregated around the huts on the lookout for food. We stopped and watched them for about 20mins, awe struck. We got back to the boat thrilled at the encounter and talked about the experience for a long time. It was a happy crew that went to sleep on Day 3.

However, before we could sleep, our boat was invaded by the Canadians on the other boat on the trip. Fuelled on beer and whisky, they shattered our peace. What had been a chilled evening enjoying the sight of flying foxes overhead and the noise of their chatter in the trees turned into booze fuelled shouting, screaming and far too many “oh that’s so awesome” statements. They swam back to their boat to bring more booze. Finally they left to the screech of, “oh wow the water is so awesome”.

Day 4 – Rinca Island and homeward bound to Flores

I got up even earlier on the last day to soak up the sunrise. I was rewarded with a rainbow effect as deep red gave way to subtle orange and then yellow before the blue sky arose from the depths of slumber. We had the customary dolphin swimming alongside the boat and on each side we were surrounded by bright green hills and sandy beaches. Indonesia is truly special.

Indonesian sunrise Komodo island

We sailed straight to Rinca Island, the other part of the Komodo National Park and the only other place on earth where wild dragons are found. It was a brief 1hr journey and the approach was understated. There is a small wooden jetty behind which sits a basic cabin where the ranger sits. It must be a long day because the boats come in the morning, then it’s siesta time.

After the obligatory safety briefing, we set off with our guides Elvis and Cuba. Yep honestly, why would I make that up? There were 3 dragons lazing near the staff huts, no doubt hussling for food. It’s not a tourist set-up because the people don’t entice the dragons with food. However, komodo dragons are natural scavengers and quite intelligent, so they often track down people and sit around waiting to pounce on scraps of food or perhaps tasty human flesh.

We hiked for 2 hours through open savannah and dense forest scrub. In flip-flops it was a little bit arduous but I battled on regardless. We stopped under some trees by a babbling brook and a buffalo emerged from the forest. It looked at us, gauged we were no threat, and settled down at the water pool to refresh. Every now and then it swung round and showed us its balls. A touch of class on a hot day on Rinca.

The walk was more interesting than Komodo as the island has a slightly more varied topography. The views from the top were incredible though there were no dragons in sight. With only a few minutes of our hike left, we stumbled upon an adolescent male dragon ambling along our path. It was in no hurry so we followed at snail’s pace for about 10mins. Eventually it decided enough was enough and headed into the undergrowth for some privacy.

From Rinca we set sail for our final destination, Labuanbajo on Flores Island. We stopped enroute at a gorgeous beach on a tiny island for a final swim and snorkel session. Alas for me I had picked up an eye infection and had to stay on the boat, soaking myself in the blistering sun. We arrived in Flores around 3pm and headed straight to the Merpati ticket office to sort our return journey to Bali from the Singapore connection on April 20th.

Beach near Flores

The realisation of a dream

So how do I feel having realised a childhood dream? Pretty spectacular actually. I’d be lying if I said there was no element of anti-climax but the past 4 days have been wonderful. We were lucky to have such great company on the boat and our crew really looked after us. But most of all it was incredible to see the Komodo Dragons in the wild, watching us as they sunbathed. These animals have lived on the islands for more than 40m years and their population is constant. Up close and personal, in the words of the Canadians, “they’re awesome”. Except coming from me this is no redundant superlative, it’s fact.

Love jamer & muneeza x

We’d heard about the Gili islands from many people we’ve met on our travels and also from friend on Facestalk. The Gilis consist of three tiny islands of the north west coast of Lombok, the island that lies at the western tip of the Nusa Tenggara in Indonesia. I did some research on the travel forums but all I found were lamentations about the rapid surge in tourism that has converted previously Robinson Crusoe hideaways into beach retreats for the bros and bro-hos. One particularly bitter thread posted the comment “The Gilis in the 80s were wonderful but now they’re just full of bloody tourists”. We thought we’d add to the swelling numbers of sun seekers.

We swept rapidly through Bali, landing in Denpasar on April 7th and heading direct to the tranquil port of Padangbai by taxi. We opted to spend 1 day enjoying snorkelling at Blue Lagoon (hugely over-rated though) and wandering town talking to the locals. Indonesian people are so friendly and happy that it’s really nice to just hang and chat with them for a while. Most of them speak very good English as English is like an unofficial second language on most of the islands.

Through our guesthouse we booked the fast boat out to the Gilis for Saturday 9th and headed out early with a large crew of eager tourists.  The boat takes about 90mins and en route you pass along the coast of Bali and over to Lombok before heading out to the Gilis. We were fortunate to see many dolphins swimming along with the boat, always a privilege.  The approach to Gili Trewangan, the largest of the Gilis, is fantastic; the boat arcs around Gili Air and Gili Meno towards a sun-kissed stretch of sand surrounded by palms. The backdrop is the rugged coastline of Lombok with its verdant slopes and moody clouds hanging at the peaks. It is the paradise I’ve long been looking for.

Lombok coastline

I thought fondly of the bitter forum posters when the latest rabble of gringos dropped down on the shores of Gili T to invade the island.

Saturday night fever

I was encouraged by a local tout to check out a new bungalow resort away from the beach strip called Woodstock. About a 5min walk from the boardwalk, Woodstock lies in a peaceful village surrounded by local homes. It’s more like being in the middle of a farming community than on a beach island. It opened 2 months ago and is run be a lovely Indonesia man and his team of super friendly staff.

Initially I was annoyed because the tout has misled me about price – it was 250,000Rp instead of the 150,000Rp promoted at the jetty. The manager was sympathetic and said he could give me the room for 200,000Rp with breakfast included. I was sore that I’d been lied to and said I needed to speak with my wife. Muneeza at this point was en route having been picked up by a horse driven cart. When she saw the room we both agreed it was a cool place so we would pay the extra.  It has proven a wise decision because it is away from the noise of the bars and free of irritating booze-fuelled kids. There is a lovely retired Dutch guy here who is travelling with his mid-20s Indonesian wife; she is tiny and stunning. He has done well!

Woodstock bungalows Gili Trewangan

We decided to do nothing on Saturday except book our Komodo trip. After some haggling we managed to get the 4-day trip down to 1,400,000Rp per person, saving over 600,000Rp each from the prices in Bali. Ever since I first saw Komodo Dragons on a BBC wildlife documentary produced by Richard Attenborough, I’ve wanted to go looking for these giant lizards. Now I finally have my chance and we leave on Monday 11th.

In the evening we tucked into a wonderful beachside fish BBQ – I tried Grouper for the first time and it was superb. Muneeza had a red snapper (I leave the gags to you). We then hit Sama Sama bar, which has live music every Saturday. The staff are really lovely and know how to have a good time. As the local band plays its mix of Indonesia blues and reggae, they dance behind the bar. The crowd started to swell after 9pm and a Canadian lady who is living here for a while got on stage and started to perform her own songs. She was excellent though she smelled a bit wrong.

Sama Sama club Gili Trewangan

Happy hour broke us both. Muni hit the vodka and I indulged in some sharp Jamaican dark rum. It just so happened that we got talking to a half Jamaican chap who lives on the island and he was most entertaining. A few sheets to the wind, we decided to head home before we really ruined ourselves; a rare moment of savvy judgement.

Around the island by foot

I awoke on Sunday morning with a dry mouth and pounding head. The joys of middle age drinking. After breakfast we hired snorkel equipment (a bargain 45,000Rp for everything) and set off on our intended around-the-island walk and snorkel mission.

The first place we jumped in was rubbish as there was no reef and no fish, so walked further and bumped into a Finnish lady who snorkels here a lot and she showed us the best place. Though the reef was average and much of it dead or dying, there was an abundance of sea life. We saw large shoals of fish and lots of bright colours. It was a pleasant place to snorkel but the current was really strong. We had to get out about 500m further down the beach and walk back because it was near impossible to swim against the current.

Snorkel beach

After a quick rest we set off around the island in search of the next snorkel spot.  Alas the weather changed fast and soon the dark clouds descended. The waves picked up and the tranquil waters churned with sand. Visibility deteriorated and we decided to call it a day. We enjoyed the walk around the rest of the island before heading back to Woodstock for a power nap.

And here I sit on Sunday evening, rain cascading from dark grey clouds. It’s not the tropical paradise you dream of but tomorrow we head off on the eagerly awaited 4 day boat trip to trek for Komodo Dragons on the islands of Komodo and Rinca at the eastern tip of Nusa Tenggara. The next post will hopefully include pictures of the beasties, fingers crossed.

Love jamer & muneeza x

 

I’ve been looking forward to Indonesia for a long, long time. When we touched down at Medan airport in Sumatra, I was a happy man. It was time to explore a continent so diverse and immense that even 12 months here wouldn’t scratch the surface.

The briefest of touch downs in Malaysia

Our stopover in Kuala Lumpur had been rather disappointing; the plan was to head out to meet Muneeza’s friend in town for a session as our plane the next day wasn’t until 3pm. I booked us into the “5 star service at 1 star prices” Tune Hotel at the ICCT Terminal. The plane arrived late and by the time we checked into our hotel it was already past 11pm. We tried to get a meter-taxi to no avail and discovered that it would cost us over 100MYR (about £25) each way to the bar and at least 1hr each way. As the bars close between 2am and 3am, we canned the night out.

Our room is best described as a shoe-box. We struggled to find floor space to put our bags. You had to pay extra for towels and to use the electrictity! It’s the Ryanair of hotels. It was rubbish. The marketing slogan was no doubt dreamt up in a soulless boardroom where Tarquin squealed with delight, “Well what we really want to say is that our service is platinum but you don’t have to pay a high price”, to which Camilla replied, “So you mean 5 star service at 1 star prices, ya?” The board tossed each other off with such joy they never stopped to think about the reality of the service they were providing. Having worked in marketing for years, I doubt that is far off the mark.

In a rare moment of indulgence, I booked us a private taxi direct from the airport to our destination in the mountains, Bukit Lawang. We were greeted by a friendly chap but instantly hit rush hour traffic. Medan at rush hour is like Dhaka but add to this an incredible flood. The rain has been unusually heavy this time of year, much like Thailand, and the city’s drainage system is too basic to cope. The river was overflowing and the streets were awash with muddy water. The water level had already encroached up to people’s front doors by the time we passed through at 5pm and the rain was still cascading. We just hope people’s homes weren’t badly damaged.

The intrigue of arrival by night

It took a 3hr journey winding through the hills to reach the small town of Bukit, hidden amongst Sumatra’s finest rainforest. We arrived in the dark so had no concept of the town’s layout, just an impenetrable wall of dark forest on all sides. We were met at the drop off point (there are no roads direct to the guesthouses by the river) by Fii, one of the guides at Green Hill where we are staying. He informed me it would be a 15min walk to Green Hill. Already knackered, I then had heave the big bags the whole way, up and down small slopes, so that by the time was arrived I was drenched in the sweat that only humid rainforest can create.

To the bat cave, Robin

We woke up at a leisurely pace on Saturday 2nd and hit town to find a local SIM card so I could text home and wish my bro a happy birthday. Our walk through town was really calming; the people here are so friendly. I know I’ve written that often on our travels but it continues to be true. Indonesian people here are very relaxed and greet you with warm smiles and a cheery “Selamat pagey” (Good morning).

We decided to head out to find the bat cave a few km out of town along the bank of the Sungai Bohorok River. We crossed a new suspension bridge, gently swaying in the breeze, with the river rapids gurgling 20ft below. On both sides of the river you can see the verdant slopes of the rainforest, crammed with lush green trees and shrubs and the occasional sound of birds and monkeys echoing from within. It’s as if Bukit has been closed off from the outside world at nature’s behest.

The walk to the bat cave was fun. The rarely visible path winds past the Ecolodge and between local homes. It then heads out into the lower levels of the forest and the track deteriorates rapidly into a slushy mud trail that is churned up frequently by passing motorbikes. With no roads away from the main town, travel by motorbike along mud trails is the only feasible mode of transport but the heavy rains ensure it is hard going.

After 2km the trail takes a sharp turn inwards towards the rainforest. The entrance to the cave involves a steep climb up the crevice between slippery rocks. Basic wooden ladders help on the more dangerous sections. The entrance to the cave is wide and high and you are instantly hit by the smell of damp and bat sh&t. It’s an acrid smell. The cave consists of 3 main chambers but we were only game to find the darkest depths of the first chamber. Moving beyond involves a degree of crawling and that’s not my bag.

The cave is silent apart from the faint sound of dripping water that is present in every cave system I’ve ever been in. At first we couldn’t see any bats, we could only hear their shrill chatter. After a bit of probing with the torch I managed to discover the source of the noise; parts of the cave roof were covered with small bats. Most of them would have been sleeping, as it was midday by this time. We stayed around to enjoy the experience and then headed out before the afternoon rains came.

Muneeza at the bat cave

We stopped for lunch at a local shack over the river and had an incredible meal of rice, vegetables and curried pickles for less than £3. A lovely lady served it and the place was full of curious locals, surprised to see tourists away from the tourist restaurants.

Back at Green Hill we booked our 2-day trek for the next day and hit the hay to get some much needed rest ahead of the big day.

The pristine wilderness of Taman Nasional Gunung Leuser

After a hearty porridge breakfast we set off with Fii, our guide, to the national park in search of wild Orang-Utans. The entrance is accessed by canoe, crossing the river rapids. The strong current means the 30m crossing takes about 3 seconds. It’s a fun entry to a national park.

The Orang-Utan (Malay word for ‘person of the forest’) is the world’s largest arboreal mammal. It once was found throughout South East Asia, now sadly it can only be seen in Borneo and Sumatra. Researchers are fearful of the continued impact that deforestation for logging is having on these creatures’ natural habitat. Orang-Utans are clever animals and grow big and strong, up to 90kg. Their lifestyle is not compatible with a shrinking forest; they need vast spaces within which to swing freely. The co-owner of our guesthouse, Andrea Molyneaux, is a respected Conservation Scientist so we felt comfortable using her guides, confident they would respect the Orang-Utans and their environment.

Day 1 starts at 8.15am with a quick ascent to the Bohorok Orang Utan feeding platform. Twice every day rangers feed semi-wild orang-utans that are slowly being rehabilitated into the wild.  These animals have usually been displaced either human interference, either by the effects of logging or being held in captivity. The platform consists of a wooden shelf between two large trees. The viewing area is fenced off about 20m away. The rangers bang the platform with large stones to call the orang-utans. After 5mins of waiting we saw a distant movement in the trees, then a flash of orange hair teased our eager eyes. A few minutes later, with no sighting yet a lot of shaking of tree branches, a young female emerged from the canopy and gently swung down to be fed. Orang-utans are graceful animals; their movement is almost languid and they swing gently between branches, seemingly in no hurry. A troop of long-tail macacques surrounded the platform, eager to get in on the food action but the rangers kept them at bay.

The rangers got up suddenly and left. The reason became clear when a huge male Orang-Utan came into view. He was a genuinely wild animal and the rangers will never feed wild animals as it discourages their natural behaviour. We had to retreat to give the male space. He swung into view between two trees. It was a beautiful sight; his large, long orange arms held him in place and he looked intently at us. We left him in peace, eager not to compromise his personal wilderness. 10mins later as we headed along the trekking trail, he swung back into view, seemingly following us, intrigued. I looked straight at his eyes and he leaned his head towards me and looked straight back. It was a wonderful moment.

Male Orang-Utan in Bukit Lawang

We encountered another 6 Orang-Utan in the next few hours as we marched up and down the steep slopes of the rainforest. The paths here are treacherous in places as the heavy rain strips away the surface foliage and reveals slippery mud tracks. The slopes are steep so if you slip, there is a genuine danger of bad injury. We had to focus hard to remain upright. It’s no surprise that the Orang-Utans were able to keep track of us as they glided elegantly through the trees above us.

We had heard the stories of the famous Orang-Utan, a female called Mina. She is renowned for her aggression towards guides and visitors. It’s the fault of humans of course. Over the years many tourists, encourage by irresponsible guides, have fed her food. Now when she sees a human with a bag, she expects food. If none is forthcoming, she gets angry. Apparently more than 70 guides and 2 tourists have been injured over the years. We came face to face with Mina in the heart of the forest. She appeared as if by magic and started walking towards us. One of our guides tried to distract her but she was intent; she started to run for us. Fii told us to run back quickly; we obliged. I’ve never seen Muneeza move so fast! Eventually, after about 10mins of being chased, Mina scarpered up a tree. The cause was the presence of another female, Jacqui, of whom Mina is afraid. The pursuit by Mina was then replaced by being stalked by Jacqui, baby Orang-Utan around her waist. Jacqui followed us for nearly 30mins and the guides, though not scared, were a little bit concerned that we didn’t come to any harm. This is the Orang-Utans home and if they don’t like our presence, who are we to argue?

Sleeping under the stars

The afternoon was really tiring. We had to snake up and down the steep hills to reach our camp by the river. The hills became increasingly steep and going down was hard, dangerous work. I slipped many times and Muneeza was finding it hard going on her knee. We were relieved when we emerged from the trail around 4pm and saw the fresh, rushing river infront of us. To get to the camp down the river we had to sit in a rubber tube and be guided through the rapids. The current is so strong that you need an experienced hand to get you across safely.

At camp the sweaty clothes came off quicker that a teenage boy. After 8 hours of sweat it was amazing to jump in the cold river and wash the pain away. The current, even in the shallows, was still strong and if I let myself float I was taken quickly downstream.

We were joined at camp by two Dutch girls who we had met earlier on the trail. They were lovely and spoke incredibly good English, so conversation flowed well.

The camp was as basic as it gets. The tent had been made with bamboo poles for the shell and plastic sheets hung over the top to prevent you getting wet and to insulate from the wind. There are no doors and the whole structure is open to the elements and to wild animals. There were 4 of us, 2 guides, their assistants and the chef. The chef whipped up a surprisingly good meal for such as basic camp; chicken curry, fresh fish from the river in a garlic stew, tofu and vegetables, rice and a lentils dish. After a long day, it tasted like heaven and we ate ourselves into a satisfied slumber.

Camp at Bukit lawang

The girls chilled beneath the tent and I went off with 2 of the chaps for a spot of night fishing, which involved sticking a rod in the rocks (no childish giggles please) and then rolling a big joint. I’m not sure if catching fish was really the aim, or simply the chance to escape the non-smokers and get stoned. Either way, I’m all for embracing foreign cultures, so I helped them. We spent the next hour chilling beneath the stars, surrounded by the night noises of the forest. It was a serene experience.

We headed back to the tent and then the local boys decided it was time to mess with our minds. Over a few glasses of ‘jungle juice’ (gin with passion fruit) they showed us various mind tricks to see if we could get the answers. Some of them were highly creative, using matchsticks to create visual puzzles. Others involved classic card tricks but my mind was too shot to cope.

The final game was called The Orang-Utan Game, a card game that involved making the right actions depending on what card was drawn; for a joker you had to laugh like a crazy man, for a king you had to salute and say “to the King”, for a Queen you had to comb your hair with your hand and say in a girly voice, ‘The Queen’ and so on. It was made up by one of the stoners one night in the jungle. It may sounds rubbish but after a few drinks and a smoke, I couldn’t stop laughing even if I didn’t understand any of it. What made it better was that one of the chaps has the funniest laugh I’ve ever heard. He was funnier than the game.

We passed out late beneath the starry sky. It took me a while to drift off because the sounds of the forest are hard to ignore once they get inside your head. It wasn’t a great night’s sleep; the ground was so hard, we had no mattress. Every time I turned, I woke up. At daylight I got up and sat by the river to enjoy the break of day.

Rubber dingy rapids, brother

Day 2 was an easier affair; we decided to take the gentle trek to the waterfall. We walked up river and crossed twice using the rubber rings. There were 2 waterfalls; the higher one was accessed by a slippery mud path and was about 20m high. The lower waterfall was easier to reach and about half the size. Fii encouraged me to dive in and join him for a Jungle Massage; this involved standing or sitting beneath the cascading water where the pummelling of the water created a natural massage effect. Initially reluctant I responded to his call of “never try, never know”.

It was worth it. The massage felt great. After a night sleeping on hard mud and rocks, my back and shoulders needed it. It actually became quite addictive and I ended up lying down under the torrent of water and giving my whole body a deep muscle massage. We stayed for an hour, enjoying a fruit picnic that one of the chaps prepared for us, a healthy cocktail of passion fruit, pineapple, watermelon, banana and orange.

Natural water massage

We left and returned to camp for a light lunch before making the journey back to Bukit. The return journey was done by raft so we didn’t have to walk any further. The raft was constructed by roping 4 large rubber rings together; at the front all our gear was stored in waterproof bags and one of the guides sat to steer using a wooden pole. At the rear sat the chef with another pole to guide the raft. In the middle we sat, two people to each ring. It was great fun and we got soaked. The rapids are quick but not too manic so it’s easy to stay in the raft. It’s not the most comfortable way to travel, with Muneeza leaning back into me for 40mins so I could no longer feel any sensation in my important parts.

We enjoyed a few beers with the guides at the guesthouse before hitting the hay early for a much needed sleep.

We spent our final day in Bukit kicking back and soaking up the jungle vibe. In the afternoon we hired rubber rings (a bargain 80p each) and ventured back to the river for a spot of tubing. The starting point is the crossing to the national park only 5mins walk from our guesthouse. At this time of year the water level is still low, so whilst the rapids are quick enough to make it fun, they’re not too sharp to make it potentially dangerous.

The trip down river is fun. The rapids spin you in and out of rocks, through deep waters and the shallows, sometimes dragging your backside over a hidden rock. It was a good mix between calm sailing and a fast soaking. At the jumping off point, just before it starts to get a bit more intense, there is a large rock face where you can jump and dive into the deep water. I leapt in and forgot about the current, so when I thought I was at the surface I was actually a few feet below. I surfaced having inhaled half the river.

I would love to come back and trek for longer to get deeper into Gunung Leuser. The Orang-Utan is truly the king of the swingers; no disrespect to people from Essex.

Love jamer & muneeza x