Beyond Bali: Seek out the islands less travelled

There’s so much more to the archipelago than the beaches of southern Bali. But where to start?


The Maluku Islands, aka the Moluccas, were the original, fabled Spice Islands. Colonial European nations wrestled for control of them for centuries, with their spices being in huge demand to mask the taste of semi-rancid meats. These days things are quieter in Maluku. Its snoozy provincial capital, Ambon, has an ANZAC war cemetery for soldiers executed during an infamous Japanese massacre in World War II and the port is the jumping-off point for island cruises. To the north are the tiny volcanic twins of Ternate and Tidore, the original source of those spices, while to the east are the stunning Raja Ampat islands.


Amid Indonesia’s garland of islands, Bali is by far the most visited. On its remote north-western tip, Pemuteran Peninsula is your springboard to uninhabited Menjangan Island (Deer Island), part of Bali Barat National Park. This marine reserve, with world-class dive and snorkelling sites, is surrounded by coral reefs that host hawksbill turtles and eel colonies, while onshore are the barking deer from which the island takes its name. Travel to Menjangan via a 35-minute boat trip from Pemuteran, which is a four-hour drive from the airport through the scenic heart of Bali.


It’s a long flight from Denpasar to Kupang, West Timor, followed by a couple of hours on a ferry to Rote (or Roti) Island. Add another hour for the road trip to your resort at Nemberala village on the island’s south-west tip and you’ve truly earned a long stay. Fishing and surfing are among the main visitor activities, plus island-hopping and exploring by bicycle or motorbike. The competing “inactivities” include reading, massages and sleeping, plus Nemberala’s weekly market. For divers and snorkellers there are vivid walls and coral gardens around the neighbouring islands, as well as long drift dives. But the main drawcard on Rote is its surf.


Indonesia’s Kalimantan province covers much of Borneo, the world’s third-largest island. Its far southern jungles are home to two wildlife havens, Camp Leakey orang-utan orphanage and Tanjung Puting National Park. Both sanctuaries are adjacent to ever-increasing land clearances for palm oil plantations. Visitors can tour Camp Leakey, established in 1971 and still run by US primatologist Dr Birute Mary Galdikas. More than 300 orang-utans are nurtured here before their return to the wilderness. There are gibbon apes and proboscis monkeys as well, and to see them all together at a feeding session is a rare and sometimes comical event.

Gili Islands

Like stepping stones between Bali and Lombok, the three Gili Islands are an escape from the escape Bali once was. Think of the Gilis — Air, Meno and Trawangan — as Bali unplugged, although they too are heading up-market. The latter in particular has resorts with suites and sophisticated dining but overall the main events are simple: moon and stars, a few bars, beaches, snorkelling, scuba, reading, daydreaming. In two hours you can walk around Trawangan, the “big island”. Time it with sunset across the Lombok Strait, and watch as the sun sets behind Bali’s volcano, Gunung Agung.


Forget Daenerys Targaryen’s trio of flying Zippo lighters from Game of Thrones. Komodo Island’s “dragons” are real and earthbound. The world’s biggest lizard species inhabits two islands off the western tip of Flores Island. A bite from one of these 3m, 90kg creatures would lead to a messy ending indeed. (My guide says, “The dragons hunt alone but dine together.”) After you’ve seen these skinks-on-steroids on World Heritage-listed Komodo and Rinca islands, and swum at Rinca’s Pink Beach, you can sail on a traditional phinisi boat back towards Labuan Bajo town on Flores.


In the 1970s, Samosir, a big island in Sumatra’s Lake Toba, was a punctuation mark at either end of the rite of passage known as the Overland Trail, the journey from Australia via Asia to Europe, or vice-versa. Those days are gone but Pulau Samosir still sits in the 1300sqkm lake (said to be the world’s biggest and deepest volcanic lake). The local Batak people still welcome travellers to their hotels and guesthouses in Samosir’s main town, Tuk Tuk. Reach it by a four-hour drive from Medan. 


Sumba Island slumbers 400km east, and seemingly a century apart, from hectic Bali. It’s a serenely arid island whose half-million inhabitants are predominantly animists and ancestor worshippers with an overlay of missionary Christianity. Their pre-colonial Marapu culture is evident everywhere, from elaborate funeral ceremonies and massive headstones to the celebrated Pasola ritual horseback battles. The village of Pasunga is renowned for its megalithic tombs, royal monuments with horizontal slabs weighing almost 20 tonnes. And on the south-west coast sits luxurious Nihiwatu resort, featured previously in these pages.


The four peninsulas of Sulawesi Island, aka the Celebes, sprawl across the map like a starfish. From the port of Pare Pare visitors can travel up to mountainous Rantepao, capital of the Tana Toraja region, or “the Land of the Heavenly Kings”. Torajans are nominally Christian but with the roots of their culture steeped in ancestor worship and animism. Their “tongkonan” houses are capped by saddleback roofs with upturned gables that recall the boat hulls of their seafaring ancestors. Elsewhere see the stone monoliths, cliff-face effigies and “hanging coffins” that make Torajan culture so distinctive.

Mentawai Islands

This remote cluster off west Sumatra lures surfari charters in search of perfect reef waves wrapping around palm-fringed points, with only a handful of other surfers in the line-up. But even here the crowds are growing due to more boats and surf resorts. The waves range from 1-4m and the swell works year-round, with March to November the most consistent time. The journey is equally epic: a planes-buses-and-boats itinerary, via Jakarta and Padang, plus four-hour speedboat ride out to the islands. If that voyage isn’t long enough, stretch it out even further by swapping the speedboat ride for the local ferry.


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