Similar in size to Bali, with equally stunning forested hills and valleys, surrounded by equally sweeping sands, and boasting an even more impressive volcano (Rinjani is visible from everywhere across the island), it’s hard to work out why Lombok seems so relatively wild and untouched compared to it’s world-famous neighbour.
As our plane descended through the clouds, we could see the rugged landscape, dotted with a few small villages, spires of smoke from burning crops in the fields, and huge domed mosques towering above other buildings and trees. We wound our way south from the airport along single lane roads to sleepy Kuta; part fishing village, part surfer paradise.
If you’ve been to Kuta in Bali, think of this as the anti-Kuta. This collection of family-run warungs, single story fishing houses, interspersed with the odd surf shack, dotted along 5 or 6 tree-lined lanes, and set along a stretch of grass topped cliffs dividing crescent beaches, in front of world famous swells, couldn’t be further from it’s party town cousin in Bali.
We met some interesting people in Kuta, the Czech surfer on his way home from Perth, via the surf spots of Asia, and a Finnish diplomat and French social enterprise founder on holiday together from Nepal. We heard what it’s like to start a business in Nepal, learn English for the first time by moving to Australia, and travel the world as a diplomat, over drinks served from a converted VW camper.
Kuta’s discovery as a world-class surf spot means some tourist businesses are starting to pop up; from the rough-around-the-edges surf shacks, or smarter garden guesthouses with wooden bungalows set around a pool (a great bonus for us, as the waves made swimming in the sea pretty hard), to the Dr. Ding shops offering surfboard repair and the often sad sight of children selling bracelets up and down the streets. Some had heart-wrenching pleas – “Please brother, business is bad” – whilst others, 10 year old Jonny and Aldi, went for a disarming curveball approach: “Hi, whats your name? I know all the capital cities in the world, test me!” (they really did know ALL the capitals), which lead to games of rock-paper-scissors, to determine how many bracelets we should buy.
Mopeds are the best and cheapest way to get up and down the coast, they all come kitted out with a metal surf-board rack, so surfers can just drive along the coast and choose between one of the many perfect spots. Minus the surf boards, we headed out to explore, and found amazing beach after amazing beach, interspersed with incredible countryside drives passing wandering water buffaloes, and rice paddy farmers.
A highlight was walking to the top of the headland at Putri Nyale beach from where we watched one or two surfers in the dark blue waters ahead, that softened into a flat, turquoise bay to one side and crashed into rugged cliffs the other. When petrol got low we pulled up at a roadside petrol station which was about as far removed from an Esso garage as you can get. A line of re-used rum bottles were lined up in a wooden rack, filled with transparent yellow petrol. The guy selling it brings out a funnel and pours in the amount you want. Easy, and not a magazine and chocolate combo-deal in sight.
The best view of all was from Ashtari, found on our drive to the white-ish sands and calmer swimming waters at Mawun beach. A stunning drive winds between hills, through valleys, and up engine-screamingly steep climbs, as well as passing some questionable tourist attractions and the odd illegal gold mine we’d read about, and finally reaches the restaurant perched high on a hilltop overlooking Kuta town and the bay in the distance.