Travel Story "Natural" Lombok steps out of Bali's shadow

Photo of Angie Tomlinson

Is Lombok the Bali of 20 years ago? The answer is both yes and no... 

Lumped together in guide books and said in the same breath, Bali and Lombok may be separated by just a sliver of ocean, but the two islands are entirely different beasts.

Is Lombok the Bali of 20 years ago? In some ways yes, but in many others no.

I ask our Balinese airport escort in Denpasar what she likes about Lombok. She says it’s still “natural”. She means natural not in terms of wilderness, for the 4725sqkm island supports a population of five million, but natural in that many are still going about their everyday farming and village life.

The coast is not completely lined with international hotels, hip bars and cutting-edge restaurants. Perhaps that elusive “authenticity” remains in Lombok. Ramshackle huts and tiny stores line the road, farmers dredge through the rice paddies, scooters whiz by — child and wife on the back grappling bananas, husband driving with long snake beans draped across his lap. Horses pulling carts pick up shoppers from the market.

Perhaps that paints too much of an idyllic picture. Litter is an issue and material possessions are often meagre. Maybe it’s the breed, the workload or the nutrition, but the animals are on a miniature scale — the horses, cattle, scrawny chickens, the obligatory street dogs.

Like Bali, tourism isn’t new to Lombok. We’ve been coming here for years, but the pace of development diverges.

At Sheraton Senggigi Beach Resort, one of the founding international hotels, account director Yunartha Adiwijaya says the island is Bali 20 years ago. Interest in Lombok from Perth grew in 2013 and 2014 when Jetstar flew direct, but that flight was short-lived — unable to fill seats, the airline dumped the route.

The Sheraton has exactly what many Australians expect from their Indonesian holiday — lush gardens, beautiful resort pool, direct private beach access and a bell that signals happy hour. “It’s definitely less busy here than Bali, and the traffic is nowhere near as bad,” says Yunartha.

The most apparent difference between the two islands is religion. Bali is majority Hindu, Lombok is Muslim.

It is known as the ‘island of 1000 mosques’ and they are dotted throughout Lombok. There are domes of every colour — baby-blue, green and yellow are popular, some are patterned, some gold-topped. They peek from between palm trees and in the middle of villages. Right in the city centre is the biggest of them all — the Islamic Centre NTB.

That’s not to say you can’t find touches of Hinduism in Lombok. I visit two water temples. The serene Taman Narmada was built in 1727 by King Anak Agung Ngurah Karang Asem as a miniature replica of the summit of Lombok’s Mt Rinjani and its crater lake.

Less than 10km away and built in 1744, is Taman Mayura, meaning “peacock”, after they were used to kill snakes in the thick forest. Now locals use the peaceful surrounds as a park, fishing in the lakes and posing for pre-wedding photographs.

Lombok’s Sasak people, who make up about 85 per cent of the population, have direct ties to the Balinese in language and race.

We get a peek — albeit a constructed one — into the local culture at two villages.

Behind the hand weaving shop of sarongs, table runners and rugs is the village of Sukarara. Neatly swept dirt tracks link homes between the bamboo, geese and chickens. The cylinders hanging from the eaves at one home are beehives, I’m told. At another, an elderly lady sits winding cotton onto spools, a baby asleep under a muslin cloth, her mouth making the tiny sucking motions of babies everywhere.

At this village the men are predominantly farmers, the women weavers. Girls as young as 10 learn the trade from their mothers. It takes about a month to make a sarong, completing 8-10cm a day. One woman works on a complicated pattern which will sell for about $350.

The second settlement, Ende Sengkol, is a show village of traditional Sasak huts of bamboo walls and grass roofs. We duck our heads to enter, a deliberate ploy to show respect to the older by bowing. Inside, light filters through the gaps in the bamboo that give ventilation.

The divide between Lombok and Bali is biological, too. 

In the mid-1800s, the father of biogeography, Alfred Russel Wallace, described a line in the narrow strait between Lombok and Bali, dividing two very different faunas. On Lombok, there were Australian cockatoos, honeyeaters and marsupials, and on Bali, now-extinct tigers, barbets and woodpeckers.

Wallace explained “the western part to be a separated portion of continental Asia, the eastern the fragmentary prolongation of a former Pacific continent” and biogeography was born. 

The Wallace Line marks the edge of the Eurasian continent and the oceanic islands.

Unlike much of lush Bali, Lombok is arid around its coastal fringes, with equatorial forests at its volcanic centre. It’s here that you will find many of the island’s waterfalls. We visit Benang Kelambu, within the Rinjani Geopark, after a five-minute scooter ride with my Valentino Rossi-wannabe rider, 22 year-old Sury.

Benang Kelambu is a curtain of water against a backdrop of greenery. If the promise that the water will make a 70 year-old 17 again is true, the 175 steps back up shouldn’t worry you. 

So is Lombok akin to Bali? Perhaps a case of same, same but different? 

For me, the Lombok Strait may be narrow but it’s a great divider for divergent experiences.

Duration: 07m 00s Seven West Travel Club

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Disclaimer

Angie Tomlinson was a guest of Ministry of Tourism, Republic of Indonesia.

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