I headed to Lombok just as Bali was celebrating Galungan. For Balinese Hindus Galungan is a celebration of the creation of the universe and a period when their ancestral spirits visit the Earth. Just like in a Hollywood film this festival symbolises the victory of Dharma (good) over Adharma (evil), and encourages the Balinese to show their gratitude to their creator and sainted ancestors. People dress up in white and colourful clothing, carry offerings on their heads, decorate the streets with penjors, slaughter sacrificial animals, and pray at temples.
A four hour journey through an oily, polluted sea, and rough, stormy, wet weather conditions eventually brought me to Lombok. From a distance the island didn’t look as exciting as Taiwan’s Lanyu, however, it was a much larger island and with an impressive volcano, so my stay here promised to be unforgettable.
The ferry docked at Lembar in South Lombok, the main port for ferries, tankers and Pelni liners arriving from Bali and beyond. Although the ferry port itself was scruffy, the azure inlets surrounded by steep green hills compensated for the faded architecture. Lombok is the second most visited islands by Aussies after its big sister Bali. It’s full of beaches and less populated than Bali. Lombok, like the rest of Indonesia, is primarily Muslim, where the call to prayer echoes across the island throughout the day and mosque roofs add an interesting embellishment to the verdant volcanic landscape.
I was aware that Indonesia is a highly religious country and that Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, however what I initially thought to be alcohol in Bali I found here too. Indonesians do actually produce their own alcohol, called Arrack, which is made from coconut flowers, fruit, red rice or sugarcane. A so called Indonesian rum, it’s made and sold in Indonesia. But the murky, yellow stuff sold in Absolut bottles at roadside stands is actually petrol, sold to passing bikes at a small premium of the regular petrol station price.
Well, relatively small, the price seems to fluctuate depending on a customer’s skin colour. Bargaining happens to be a normal daily routine here, since on my first day I found only one operating gas station during a 100km ride. All the rest were either closed or deserted.
Lembar is located in the South West part of Lombok and has only two road directions to other parts of island — North and South. The First led to the island’s biggest city, Mataram, which I chose to leave to the end. Instead I went to the Sekotong peninsula first. February isn’t a great time to travel here as heavy winds and tropical rains make the journey hellish. These few days were not so exciting, in fact pretty horrible. It isn’t much fun riding on a scooter rented from Bali, in constant fear of it breaking down and having taking to take it back on a truck. It isn’t much fun going at 20km/h on muddy and puddle-filled roads up and down the hills. Either this whole region simply had no concrete roads, or maybe I had turned the wrong way.
The biggest problems were still waiting ahead for me. I should have known better, as the the hills had previously been used for mining and had now been left as mud tracks. Almost two years ago, when local communities first discovered seams of gold in these hills, gold mining in this scenic landscape became a cottage industry for the small villages of the area.
At that time mining was mostly carried out by the farmers and fisherman of the area, digging small amounts of golden rocks in the hilltops. The women of the village then took the rock to roadside stalls where it was crushed by hand and the gold extracted. People from outside the area started flocking to Sekotong and a gold rush was born. This cottage industry began to grow — some say with disastrous consequences for this slowly developing area. Soon the hills were crawling with people, creating visible scars in the landscape and later causing a landslide as a result of the tunnels made by miners inside the hills. 9 local people were killed and dozen others injured.
I was riding for over an hour on the muddy, rain-destroyed road, until I came upon another hill which was much taller. My scooter tires had no studs so would spin and slide, which made the uphill riding experience impossible so I had to push it. I must have seemed pretty clumsy to the locals, I was pushing my scooter, wearing flip-flops, drenched swimming shorts, a jacket, and a nazi-style helmet. Tripping or dropping the scooter would result in a big drop down. The same road continued further after I reached the top and made my way down the hill. I was travelled through flooded rivers, rice paddies, rocky trails and eventually reached an asphalt road and the village. The hard work and struggle of this experience made the journey an unforgettable one, forever etching this part of Southern Lombok on my memory.
The sweeping coastline that stretches east of Sekotong is scattered with small snack stalls and huts with thatched roofs on deserted beaches and peaceful offshore islands, nestling amidst clear blue waters. I stopped to have some tuna being sold by a local woman and buy a bottle of gas before continuing my journey to the east coast.
While most travellers only tend to visit North Lombok and the Gili Islands, the South remains a quiet, rural area with a deficit of roads. Growth of tourism on the island has resulted in a growth in development with companies moving from north to south and wiping out local villages to establish expensive resorts. In Lonely Planet Bali & Lombok journalist Adam Skolnick wrote about his unfortunate visit to one of these areas; he ended up being surrounded by fifty angry villagers with sticks and sickles. People mistook him for land buyer and threatened to kill him if he didn’t leave.
When deals go bad, and some do, tensions flare on the ground. South Lombok has been ground zero for this kind of activity for years.
— Adam Skolnick.
Ever since the Suharto days large developers have attempted to purchase and develop land in the East Indonesian paradise by making shady deals with people unfamiliar with the true value of their ancestral land. Just like Suharto’s youngest son Tommy did in Bali in 80s, using the Indonesian Army to force landowners in the Nusa Dua and Dreamland Beach areas to sell land at cheap prices to a company controlled by him.
Similar activities are taking place around Kuta — the coastal town in South Lombok. Kuta is known for its spectacular scenery with cliffs, mountains, pristine white sand beaches and transparent blue waters, and of course is well known among surfing hippies from Australia. Kuta offers a wide variety of accommodation and restaurants, ranging from backpacker offerings to 5 star resorts for more wealthy travellers. Many people come to Kuta to relax, lie on the beach, surf, or rent a motorcycle to tour around.
Most of Kuta retains its traditional, sleepy fishing village character. The local people live in housing settlements, called kampungs and are largely unaffected by tourist activity. Travellers can walk along dirt roads and see the villagers going about their normal daily activities where children live a carefree life of playing in the muddy river and climbing trees. Most locals here are friendly to foreigners.
Development companies are not as friendly to the locals. Today quite a few development companies have projects underway in Kuta. The locals fear that when they’re finished another concrete resort complex like Bali’s Nusa Dua will rise up and wipe out everything, including the small villages that stand there.
Or maybe not. The truth is, nobody knows what is about to happen, because in Indonesia developers are not required make their plans known to the public. There is no publicisation and there are no development standards.
After miles of riding through undulating landscapes I finally reached my destination for the day, a place with 3,000 inhabitants — the Sekaroh peninsula. I stopped in a place with a beach where no one spoke any english and I had to find my way around using only hand gestures and facial expressions.
The rain stopped and the sunlight drenched the clouds. I was absorbed by the silence and the beauty of my surroundings. I didn’t want to swim or drink. Paradise for me was captured in that moment of simply admiring life around me — playing kids, dogs and passing by cows. I waited for a while and went back to Kuta to find a place to stay.