Surreal sculpture greets snorkellers in the waters off Gili Meno in Lombok.
Algae covers the eyelids, the lips, and the bald dome of the head. A rainbow- coloured fish stops to nibble a shoulder.
The hauntingly beautiful underwater sculpture by internationally renowned artist Jason deCaires Taylor is just 20 days old when I see it. It’s covered with new-growth algae now, but time will transform it into a living reef.
I am snorkelling just off Gili Meno, the middle of three tiny islands — Trawangan, Meno and Air — that stepping-stone their way north-west off Lombok.
Coral reefs and aquatic life have been bringing travellers to the Gili Islands for years, but Taylor’s art, Nest, adds to the attraction as well as to his body of work throughout the world, from the Caribbean and the Canary Islands to the River Thames, in his country of birth.
It’s a game of “dodge the other snorkeller” today, and I dive down to the 48 concrete human figures, standing together or curled up on the seabed, forming a perfect circle. Butterfly fish and schools of electric-blue moon fusiliers dart between the life-sized figures.
Nest has been deliberately placed at a shallow depth and in a current rich with nutrients; it’s expected that within a year the piece will be covered in coral. It is within swimming distance of the beach and the high-end resort Bask, which is due to open early in 2019 and which commissioned the work. There will be 87 villas, which private investors can buy. Baywatch star David Hasselhoff was an early purchaser.
Taylor says Nest’s circular formation echoes the circle of life. “Soft corals and sponges should flourish quickly, paving the way for delicate hard corals and a fully established reef,” he says. “Forty per cent of the world’s coral reefs have been lost over the past few decades and scientists predict many more are now at risk. We hope Nest will remind visitors of the many treasures of the underwater world and how fragile they are.”
While Nest provides a new attraction, the Gili Islands’ turtles are still very much the stars. A sighting here is almost guaranteed.
Our glass-bottom boat moves to the north of Gili Meno… turtle heaven. Snorkel-clad, I watch a turtle swim slowly towards the surface, much bigger than I had expected. His head breaks the surface and so do I, getting an intimate look at an intricate shell pattern, beaked nose and big reptilian eyes. He gulps air before submerging and swimming deep.
Hawksbill and green sea turtles are met by snorkellers on the surface and on the ocean floor by people learning to dive. Turtles paddle along among the divers, air bubbles floating prettily to the surface.
Travellers can stay at any of the three Gilis. I’m at Hotel Vila Ombak on Gili Trawangan, the largest of the islands at 3km long and 2km wide. Its beaches are lined with bars and restaurants, beach lounges and beanbags. Even in this tiny place, I spot a shamrock — Gili Trawangan claims it is the smallest island in the world with an Irish pub.
While the largely unsophisticated bars, cobbled beach road and party atmosphere speak of Bali of yesteryear, arriving from Lombok at Hotel Vila Ombak’s jetty is a bizarre reminder of Rottnest Island. Azure water, white-sand beaches, a harbour dotted with boats — Rottnest’s super-yachts replaced with Lombok’s long boats. And just like the WA island, the Gili Islands are car-free. There are just bicycles and small horse-drawn carriages called cidomos. The horses trot up and down the thoroughfare, bells tinkling for walkers to step aside. Besides carting tourists, the horses also transport goods and construction rubble — real work horses.
Gili Trawangan is known as party central, and while many visitors are young travellers and loved-up couples, there are also a few families, domestic tourists and older travellers. If there is one thing that’s a Gili Trawangan essential, it’s watching the sun set over the ocean and behind Bali’s now-infamous volcano, Mt Agung.
I cycle from the hotel along the beach to the other side of the island, rattling over cobblestones and dodging potholes, tourists and horses. With a sunset Bintang squarely in my sights, it’s a relatively easy ride.
Lazing back on a beanbag on the beach, it’s easy to relax as the sun set over the water, watching the silhouettes of those swaying back and forth on the island’s much photographed ocean swings.
I ride back in the dark… and it’s a thrilling ride, dodging people, boggy sand and horses. A torch or earlier departure may have been a wiser choice, but then, where’s the fun in that?
- The Gili Islands are a 10-minute fast-boat ride from north-west Lombok. I took a complimentary speedboat transfer provided by Hotel Vila Ombak. Public boats and tourist shuttle boats are also available from Bangsal Harbour.
- A room at the four-star Hotel Vila Ombak costs from about $94 per night. I stayed in a two-bedroom Akoya Pool Villa with private plunge pool, which costs from about $403 per night. vilaombak.com
- The Gili Islands have a challenge ahead in ensuring responsible development and tourism, and in conserving its coral reefs. Our guide’s fondness for handling the wildlife suggests the education work that needs to be done. He grabs an octopus out of its hiding spot and harasses a turtle to the surface. One of the groups working to protect the coral reefs and improve environmental education is the non-profit Gili Eco Trust. The group is striving to protect and restore coral reefs, and improve waste management and treatment of animals. giliecotrust.com
- For more on the Gili Islands and Lombok, see indonesia.travel.