Thursday, October 31, 2013

Gili Meno

Gili Meno is not hugely disimilar to Gili Air – it is a tiny and beautiful island with a population of 400 and little in the way of development (it doesn't even have an ATM). The significant difference, however, is that Gili Meno's restaurants and bars are spread out around the island's coast (which takes about an hour to walk the whole way around) with areas of beautiful beach in between with nothing overlooking it. It just feels much quieter than Gili Air – at no point could we see more than a dozen other tourists, and often far fewer. It's also even sleepier than Gili Air, with everything closing early and nothing even close to a late-night party scene.

We spent some relaxing time on the beach, as well as walking around the island, stopping at various points for food/drinks/relaxing in bean-bags/hammocks. It was really lovely.

Gili Meno may not offer as much as Gili Air when it comes to food and drink, but it does have something that Gili Air does not – a turtle hatchery. We spent plenty of time watching tiny baby turtles splashing around, playing and fighting, and sponsored one (if anyone meets a turtle named Koopa-Troopa in the future, tell him his adopted parents say “hi”).

We also visited the bird sanctuary in the centre of the island. It is quite a sad place because the birds are kept in quite small enclosures, along with a few non-avian inhabitants (specifically a goat, a crocodile, and a kimodo dragon). However, after speaking to the owner, who has run the sanctuary for only the last two years, it appears that most of the animals have been resued and have nowhere else to go. He is also planning to make significant improvements so hopefully conditions will improve. The bright side was that we were able to go into some of the enclosures, and get up close and personal with some impressive birds.

The undoubted highlight of Gili Meno was a dolphin spotting trip. There is one man in the Gilis who offers dolphin spotting tours. He is an Indonesian bloke who goes by the name of Dean (which may or may not be his real name) and who hangs around outside one of the dive shops on Gili Meno. It was only after handing over a considerable amount of cash to him that we started to question i) whether we would see him the following morning as agreed, and ii) why, if there are dolphins to be seen, does nobody else offer such tours. However, he seemed like an honest guy, and had freely told us that sometimes he sees no dolphins at all which, bizarrely, gave us some confidence. All we could do was cross our fingers and hope for the latter.

Fortunately “Dean” was there at 5.30am the following day, and we set off along with an American girl named Christine who we had befriended at our guesthouse. The trip started well with a nice sunrise, but time passed, and passed...and passed some more without any sign of a dolphin.

2 hours in I muttered what turned out to be the magic words: “It's just not going to happen is it”. In the same breath I followed that with: “was that a pair of fins?”. Over the next hour we must have seen around 30 dolphins as they surfaced while feeding. There may well have been playing a game with us as every time we got close to a group they disappeared and another group appeared in a different direction. We did, however, get close enough to see some pretty well (although only briefly) including one who playfully leaped out of the water. It was great!  Unfortunately the dolphins were too quick for us to get any really good photos, but if anyone is interested in some wobbly footage of the ocean then feel free to let me know.


I hadn't even considered being able to get any closer to the dolphins until Christine asked if we could swim with them, and the crew replied with something along the lines of “I don't see why not”. Unfortunately the sight of my pasty torso scared the dolphins off, because as soon as we were ready to jump in with snorkels and fins on we couldn't get close to any. The crew had an innovative solution; they suggested that we hang on to the bamboo floats either side of the boat as it chased the dolphins. Christine sensibly opted out, but Monique and I were stupid enough to give it a go.

The dolphins saw more than just my torso, because as the boat took off and I hung onto the float my shorts were very nearly left behind us. Shorts tightened I managed to hang on long enough to see the blurry outline of a dolphin as it swam a few metres under me. Have I swum with dolphins? Well, I wasn't as much swimming as I was hanging on for dear life, and what I saw was a fuzzy grey dolphin shape, so I'd probably have to say “no”, but it was a pretty awesome and unique experience.

On the way back to Gili Meno we stopped off to do a couple of hours of snorkelling which included a couple more turtles, plenty of cool fish, and a beautiful eel. The highlight was a huge and beautiful hawksbill turtle who let us float directly over her for ages as she drifted along doing her own thing.  I also enjoyed spying on some scuba divers below us. It wasn't the best snorkelling spot in the Gilis, but by any other standards it was really great.

Reluctantly, with our flight to Singapore fast approaching, we left Gili Meno behind us as we took the fast boat back to Bali. Gili Meno had been just what we had been hoping for – beautiful and relaxing, a sort of holiday within a holiday.

Gili Air

Although Monique and I were drawn to Indonesia by its temples and volcanoes it was the beaches and diving of the Gili Islands that we were most excited about after hearing some great things about them. The Gili Islands are three islands off the North coast of Lombok which is, in turn, an island off the East coast of Bali. Gili Trawangan (a.k.a. Gili T by the cool kids) is known as the party island; Gili Meno is known as the quiet/romantic island; and Gili Air is somewhere in between. We decided to head to Gili Air first as it had more options for diving than Gili Meno, and we weren't really interested in partying with the youngsters on Gili T.

The fast boat from Bali takes only 2 hours but is extremely expensive for our budget, so we took the longer and cheaper option of a (very) slow ferry to Lombok followed by a taxi to Senggigi (which we shared with a Finnish guy we met on the ferry) where we stayed overnight before taking an early boat to Gili Air. We were a little concerned about arriving on the island without pre-booked accommodation because every guesthouse we had enquired with was full, and there are limited options on the small island. However, our concerns were unfounded as we immediately found a basic bungalow near to the harbour that met minimum requirements.

Our initial explorations revealed Gili Air to be a beautiful and fairly undeveloped island. By way of an example the island only has one ATM which rarely has any cash (fortunately we were pre-warned of this potential difficulty). It was certainly the relaxing place we were looking for, but to be super critical we were slightly disappointed by the beaches. The majority of development on the island is on the East coast which is almost entirely lined with beach-side restaurants/bars. Unfortunately the beach is very narrow (5-10m) and so there wasn't really any decent area of beach that wasn't directly overlooked by the people eating and drinking in the restaurants/bars. Not exactly the secluded bays we had hoped for. In addition, the sea around Gili Air has a very strong current which doesn't make it idea for taking a dip.

Whilst I had been on the dive course Monique had done some snorkelling immediately off the coast of Gili Air. After my course finished we went on a glass-bottomed boat trip around the islands to enjoy the snorkelling further out. The boat itself was a bit disappointing as the glass-bottomed element occupied only around 2 square metres of the boat, however we intended to be spending most of our time in the water, so this didn't prevent us from having a great day.

At the first snorkelling stop alone we saw 5 turtles, and we probably saw around a dozen throughout the day. They are stunningly beautiful creatures, and are so chilled-out that they let you swim along with them without reacting any more than giving a cursory glance over their shoulder (apart from when a couple of our fellow snorkellers decided they wanted to try to touch them, prompting a swift change of gear and an effortless getaway). Monique's highlight of the day (and one of the highlights of the whole trip) was just as we were returning to the boat and I spotted a turtle; Monique followed it and a few moments later the turtle surfaced just feet in front of her, and then again a moment later. Monique is convinced that the turtle knew that she needed cheering up.

On the other snorkelling stops we saw scores of beautiful tropical fish, and spectacular coral reefs. The wildlife around the Gilis is so rich and diverse that every moment you spend in the water there is so much to see that it's difficult to take it all in – I won't bore you by listing the various types of fish we saw, but it suffices to say that it was like being in the opening scenes of Finding Nemo (although it turns out that Nemo is pretty easy to find – virtually all of the large anemones were home to a family of clown fish). It was far and away the best snorkelling I have ever done.

The lunch stop on our boat trip was on Gili Meno, and was long enough for us to decide that we preferred the even less developed Meno and wanted to relocate there, and to locate a suitable guesthouse and make a reservation for the following day. Result!

In the evenings we were able to enjoy some beautiful sunsets whilst sitting out at one of the many bars/restaurants with seating on the beach.

I also loved the availability of fantastic seafood on Gili Air. Many of the beach-side restaurants had seafood barbeques in the evening where you could select what you wanted from that day's catch and have it cooked to your requirements. The food was fantastic, especially when combined with happy hour!

Our stay on Gili Air had not exactly been perfect; it wasn't quite the white-sand paradise that we had (perhaps unfairly) hoped for, and scuba diving had not gone to plan for Monique. Even so, it was a really memorable place for me, and had some great moments for Monique too.

Monday, October 7, 2013


We were attracted to Sanur by its reputation as a quiet place to stay, so much so that it has gained the nickname “Snore”. After a hectic three days in which we had covered a huge distance from Jogyakarta we were in need of some rest, and after the place we had stayed the previous night were quite excited to stay in a proper guesthouse with luxuries such as a toilet and the absence of the smell of fish. Our chosen guesthouse is worthy of mention due to the fact that the central courtyard around which the rooms are situated was full of trees along with a large number of the owner's aware-winning songbirds. If I'm going to be woken up early in the morning by birds then I prefer them to be award winning songbirds!

There is very little to be said about Sanur to be honest. It has a long and unremarkable beach with some choppy water that's not great for swimming. The beach is lined with smart looking resorts but to be frank if I had booked a beach resort in Bali I would have been extremely disappointed to find myself in Sanur. It's not that its a bad place by any means, but if you're looking for a beach resort there are many better options in Indonesia.

Normally we wouldn't have stayed in Sanur for more than a night; however the previous three days had been extremely tiring and we had plenty of admin that needed to be sorted out before we moved on - boring things like laundry, sending a package of souvenirs home, a post-dengue fever follow-up for Monique, buying some suitable beach clothes etc – so we ended up staying for 4 nights.

One of the perks of Sanur is that the variety of available food was much greater than most other places in Indonesia, so some proper pizza and great gelato was a welcome change to the rotation of fried rice, fried noodles and (for me) satay chicken that we had been mostly eating so far. We also managed to meet up with our Dutch friends from the Bromo/Ijen trip for dinner one night.

Before leaving we took advantage of the very cheap massages available, and enjoyed a very good Balinese massage (a relaxing oil massage which also includes some elements of Thai massage which we both love) to get us into the relaxing mood ready for spending the next week or so at the beach. We also did a spot of souvenir shopping to top up the package we were sending home to be heavy enough to send by sea, and couldn't resist buying a few things from a shop with a very apt name:

Sanur was far from the most memorable stop on our trip, however it was certainly a relaxing one, and a decent stop-off on the way to the Gili Islands.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Ijen Crater and the Blue Fire

After leaving Gunung Bromo we had another long journey to the Ijen Crater. Frustratingly, rather than staying in the same minibus with the same people then next two days of the trip would involve multiple changes of bus and personnel, and lengthy waits in between without any explanation as to what was going on. It often looked like organised chaos. However, I must confess that it was quite nice to be able to sit back and let someone tell us where to go and when rather than organising everything ourselves as we normally do.

We eventually arrived at our hotel late in the day, and were shown to our room which appeared to be a family's lodging. All of the usual inhabitants' belongings remained in the apartment – most notably a huge stuffed dog, a plethora of baby oil, and a pile of plastic containers filled with a variety of malodorous dried-fish based snacks. The bathroom was a communal open air shack with a tap, a bucket and no door. Apparently the hotel is often overbooked during the high season, so the tour operators rent rooms from the local families nearby to house unsuspecting tourists. Without meaning any disrespect to the family who had vacated their home for the night, it was awful (so much so that a couple of girls opted to sleep on the bus rather than using the local accommodation). Without much choice we went straight to bed in preparation for an early start later that same night. So luckily we weren't in the room for very long.

This trip has involved more mornings that have commenced at an hour starting with a 4 than I had ever envisaged. However, there was no such lie-in this time; we awoke at 12.30am ready to set off to the Ijen crater at 1am! There was some last minute drama, when it appeared there was insufficient room on the bus for everyone. Since we had added this portion of the tour last-minute by way of a conversation with one of the tour staff, our places on the bus seemed most in jeopardy. Not knowing what to do, we decided to simply write the tour add-on to the top of our ticket, which seemed to be the 'official' way of keeping track of who was doing what. Fortunately, this seemed an unnecessary precaution, and our presence on the bus was not questioned.

After a 30 minute or so drive we started to hike up to the crater in the pitch dark with only our torches to assist. Obviously we couldn't see anything of the landscape, however the clear sky and lack of light pollution gave a stunning view of the stars which helped to illuminate the path as we ascended. Why, you might well ask, were you hiking up a volcano in the middle of the night? It's a pretty fair question. The answer is that we were in search of the Blue Fire. The active vent at the bottom of the Ijen Crater is a rich source of elemental sulphur which supports a mining operation. In order to safely mine the sulphur the toxic fumes must be burned off, and only at night are the blue flames from this process visible.

After a couple of hours of trekking upwards in the dark we reached the top of the crater. Looking over the edge of the crater we could see the blue fire some 300m below us. It was...underwhelming. What I didn't realise at that time was that we were going down into the crater. We donned pollution masks to make the eggy fumes more tolerable and started the deep descent into the crater. It was extremely slow going; it would have been slow going in daylight as the descent was steep and the rock extremely loose, but clambering down the slope in the dark meant that only a snail's pace was possible.

The sight that greeted us at the bottom was really remarkable. Through the thick smoke we could see huge bright blue flames. It was a spectacular sight!

Upon closer inspection we could see the miners working in amongst the flames to extract the liquid sulphur before allowing it to cool and harden, then breaking it up into moveable chunks. Astonishingly we were able to go right next to the fire and view the extraction process close-up.

To say that it looked like unpleasant work would be a huge understatement. However, the extraction was just the start of it; the next step was to transport the sulphur up 300m out of the crater, and then down the volcano. The chosen method for transporting the sulphur along this route is two baskets at either end of a bamboo pole that is carried across the shoulders. I have no idea why a more efficient/comfortable method has not been developed. Apparently a full load of sulphur carried by this method will weigh in excess of 75kg (i.e. more than I weigh), and a worker will usually make two trips per day. All that to make about $15 a day!

After spending 30 minutes or so at the bottom of the crater we made our way slowly back up. It was hard enough to climb up the steep and slippy slope without taking 75kg+ of sulphur with us! We then walked for around 30 minutes further up the mountain just in time to see the spectacular sunrise.

Once the sun had risen we were also able to appreciate the beautiful view in the opposite direction, including the view down into the crater.

After sunrise we made our way back down. The journey downwards was much more pleasant because we could actually see what was around us! We could also afford to feel smug in the knowledge that all the people who were walking upwards had missed both the blue fire and a stunning sunrise for the sake of an extra few hours in bed.

The remainder of the journey to Bali continued on the same “organised chaos” basis. After reaching the East coast of Java our bus unsurprisingly did not materialise, and we boarded the ferry to Bali by foot. After reaching the other side we were then directed on to a public bus, rather than the private bus we were expecting (presumably the tour staff for that section of the operation had pocketed the savings). There was still time, however, for further drama – some passengers at the front of the bus witnessed the driver fall asleep for some 30 seconds while driving before they were able to wake him up. The driver was extremely unhappy about the allegation (although, to be fair, I'm often a bit grumpy after a nap too), and pulled over shortly thereafter. Assuming that it was a rest break we disembarked from the bus, only for the driver to storm out of the bathroom shouting at us to get back on the bus and slapping himself around the face to prove that he was awake. Whatever he had done in the bathroom had clearly woken him up!

The driver clearly bore a grudge against his accusers and those travelling with them because when they got off he proceeded to stand on top of the bus and throw their luggage at them. Two Dutch girls whom we had befriended (they had been the ones who tipped us off about the blue fire) and had hoped to meet up with again in Sanur also got caught up in the madness and decided to get off early. We reluctantly stayed on the bus as we had no idea where we were in relation to our destination, or how else we could get there. Thankfully the driver calmed down significantly and even handed our luggage down to us when we got off in Sanur.

Drama over we had made it to Bali unharmed and were looking forward to a long sleep and some beach time. The 3 day trip had been exhausting, however we had covered a lot of ground in a short space of time and had seen some truly amazing sights in the process.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Brilliant Bromo

We were aware that Java had some really great sights to offer; however we were also aware that we had a limited amount of time to explore a huge country (it's the 16th largest country, the largest archipelago with over 17000 islands, and the 4th most populous country!), and Monique was extremely keen to spend a good amount of the time we had at the beach. We therefore decided that the best course of action was to go on a three day tour that took us from Jogyakarta to Bali via some of Java's unmissable sights.

The first day of the trip was an extremely long day of travel in an uncomfortable minibus. Fortunately the other people on the bus were friendly which helped the day pass more quickly. Most notable amongst them was a really enthusiastic Japanese guy who was travelling alone, who had not allowed the fact that he is deaf prevent him from visiting 50 countries. Meeting him made me feel slightly foolish for complaining on the occasions when we have encountered difficulties on our travels.

We arrived at our hotel late and got about 5 hours of sleep in before getting up at 4.30am to make our way to Gunung Penanjakan for sunrise. After having to wait a while for our jeeps to pick us up we arrived just as the first signs of light were visible over the horizon. There were too many people at the viewing point for our liking, so Monique and I clambered up and along the slope to a more secluded spot where we could sit with an uninterrupted view of the spectacular sunrise.

Normally we wouldn't have been able to take our eyes off the sunrise; however as the landscape was illuminated an even more spectacular sight was revealed to our right – Gunung Bromo (a.k.a. Mount Bromo) an active volcano, surrounded by an eerie lake of mist with Gunung Semeru behind it.

It was undoubtedly the most impressive sunrise either of us had seen. The combination of a sunrise that would have been remarkable in of itself along with a view of the huge volcanoes was truly amazing. We just didn't know where to look!   Even looking back on the photos it's hard to believe that they are real.

As well as the spectacular view, the rising sun also revealed the precariousness of the position we had adopted to view sunrise. Whilst clambering up the slope we had been aware that it was steep and slippy due to the loose soil; what we hadn't realised was that only a few feet further down the slope turned into an almost sheer drop of a significant height. Our chosen spot was revealed to be even more treacherous than it was secluded – no wonder we were the only ones who had gone there! Needless to say we made our way back to where the normal people had watched the sunrise extremely slowly and carefully.

We were then taken to Mount Bromo itself. We were dropped off about 10 minutes' walk away from the volcano, and we made our way across the perfectly flat and extremely dusty plain (known as the Sea of Sand) that surrounds the volcanoes and which had been covered in mist from our elevated view. The dust clouds kicked up by passing vehicles made for a rather surreal atmosphere as well as some interesting photos.

We then climbed up the extremely crowded stairs to the top of Gunung Bromo. It had been freezing cold on Gunung Penanjakan (it is, after all, 2,770m tall), however the steep climb soon warmed us up. The area immediately at the top of the stairs was extremely crowded so we pushed our way through to where we had more space to see into the crater. The crater is huge and the amount of smoke rising from it left no doubt that it is definitely active (in fact it last erupted as recently as 2011).

We had been told that we would be able to walk around the crater, however after we had walked only 20m or so around the fairly wide ledge at the edge of the crater began to narrow, and it continued to narrow until the ledge was no more. We probably could have continued round further, however the volcanic dust was extremely fine which meant that one wrong step would have sent us sliding down 300m into the smoking crater. On reflection it didn't seem worth the risk for a slightly different view so we turned around, pushed our way through the crowds again, and walked around the ledge of the crater in the opposite direction where, although it narrowed, it remained slightly less treacherous.

I had absolutely no idea that we would be able to stand right on the edge of such an active volcano and look down into the crater without any sort of restriction. It was both thrilling and a little scary. However, after a short while enjoying the sight of the crater it was time to head back down. We had two choices: i) push through the crowds for a third time and walk painfully slowly down the stairs along with everyone else, or ii) run down the edge of the volcano through the volcanic dust at the risk of descending arse over tit. Obviously we chose option (ii) and had great fun half running and half sliding through the dust all the way to the bottom.

Our visit coincided with Indonesian Independence Day, a national holiday, which explained the high number of visitors and the prevalence of Indonesian flags.

It was still only 8am by the time we got back to our hotel, and by 9am we were back on the road heading for the Ijen crater.