The ferry docks at Lembar in the south west of the island. We immediately drive north to Bangsal, the jumping off point for the Gili Islands via Matram, the capital; the drive is under an hour taking us up over monkey lined mountain roads. Around every corner there’s a troop of monkeys just waiting for their opportunity to pounce on the car, which isn’t helped by Martin slowing down and opening my window! As the window comes down, a huge dominant male eyes us up, looking as though he is about to jump!
The Gili islands are situated on the north-west coast of Lombok, three small idyllic islands, Gili Trawangan, Gili Meno and Gili Air. Each of the islands are surrounded by white sand beaches, turquoise waters and coral reefs, which provide a perfect setting for some of the best diving in Lombok. Gili Trawangan is our first port of call, renowned for being the party island of the three, Gili Air is the most populous with locals and the closest to the mainland, however is considered to be much quieter and more relaxing than Trawangan, while Gili Meno is the smallest of the islands, and the least inhabited.
On the final approach to the port, we are directed to an open car park, which is about 1km away from the main port entrance, where we are told that we are not allowed to take the car any further. Given that we would not have any secure parking, we decide to head to Senggigi where Blue Marlin suggested we could leave the car. Hesitating, we decide to go back to the check point as it just did not seem right that we could not take the car all the way down. Our hunch proves correct, and we are finally allowed through, it was just the locals trying to get extra money from us. We find secure parking in a covered garage for 25,000Rp per night.
We had planned to board the public boat to Gili Trawangan for 10,000Rp each, but as we arrive it is pulling away, and we would have to wait for another thirty or so people to turn up before the next one left. Instead we opt for a tourist boat costing quite a lot more but would take us straight over.
On reaching the island, we try several places for accommodation and in the end find somewhere reasonably priced, with air con and hot water to keep us both happy!
In the evening we head out to the main strip for dinner, the main street had changed a lot since Martin was last here over ten years ago, with swanky restaurants, and what appeared to be hoards of people on package holidays, how he wished it was like the “old days!”. Still, there is a chilled out vibe here and friendly locals curious to know where we are from.
We find the prices for food extortionate even compared to Bali, and opt for the over the priced Irish bar Tir na Nog, for dinner. (The chicken burger was good, but the beef burger was spongy and tasted like it had no meat in it at all.) Everyone is congregated around the bar, waiting (almost) patiently for their turn to down a shot or two!
It’s Martin’s birthday today, we decide to have a chilled out day relaxing, going snorkelling and also book in for his Advanced Open Water course and a Discover Scuba course for me with Blue Marlin.
We choose Blue Marlin, as Martin had completed his open water here back in 2003, and had a good experience with them.
We walk for a while through the main thoroughfare and try a few spots up the coast for snorkelling. The first spot at the top of the main beach is good, a thirty metre swim over sea grass brings you to a nice wall dropping off to maybe twenty metres. Just back from the wall is a scattered garden of coral with so many fish it’s like a tropical aquarium.
We next head to Halik reef, on the northern side of the island. This time we have a fifty metre swim over a shallow reef before the water starts getting deeper. It is worth the effort, as once out, we are in a garden of coral, and there’s a huge variety of fish in the crystal clear waters. We spot a snorkeler waving to us in the distance, we swim over to him, where he points down and I see my first turtle, a Hawksbill which is swimming effortlessly beneath us. We swim with it for a while, following it to the surface where it takes a couple of breaths of air, then descends down again into the deep.
We relax on the beach lounging on a private beachside deck before later going out for dinner, seeking some late night entertainment and a couple of drinks at the Sama Sama reggae bar. The local band is really good, playing most of the requests, including mine of Kingston Town!
Martin wakes early and heads to Blue Marlin for his first of three dives today.
The fist dive is at Simon’s reef, a deep dive at 30m, the water is fantastically clear, with lots of good coral and fish. There is a sandy bottom between large sea mounds, with an immense pinnacle at the end surrounded by cuttle fish and turtles.
The second dive is at Bio Rocks just of the main street. The intention was to perform underwater navigation exercises, however once entering the water, the current gains strength and even changes direction making completing the navigation skills extremely difficult. With quite a few people in the group it feels crowded with everyone getting in each other’s way.
I take my first dive at Shark Point with Martin, a shallow dive of 12m, but it goes a little wrong. Just a few metres down, my ears are aching and my mask is leaking! Further down and my whole mask suddenly floods and I just can’t seem to get it to clear. At this point I begin to panic slightly, swimming along but not actually being able to see anything. My vision is suddenly impaired, I’m not able to see a thing and the instructor is not able to communicate with me as underwater pretty much the only way to communicate is with sign. The instructor makes the decision to continue despite me being in a dangerous position, trying to clear my mask and accidentally floating towards the surface, the whole thing is just going wrong.
Martin comes over to have a look, having kept back, not wanting to get in the instructors way. He is quite shocked, and quickly signals to the instructor that we should ascend to the surface to clear the mask. The instructor ignores him and continues to pull me through the water, which is pretty pointless as I’m not actually able to see anything and wondering what is going on at this point! Luckily Martin comes over again, takes hold of me and this time the instructor finally prepares to ascend, while he guides me up to the surface. We swim back to the boat and wait for the rest of the group to return.
Martin is furious that the instructor took so long to take action. Not only was it dangerous to have someone who had not equalised correctly, who was panicking but I also had zero visibility which meant it was pointless to continue. We felt that the instructor should have taken the whole group up once issues arose, so that the issue could be remedied and the whole group could have continued the dive together. It’s funny that before descending the instructor said that if one person has a problem then everyone has a problem, but in practice this did not seem to be the case.
On our return to the dive centre, Martin complains about the events to his instructor, and also considers cancelling his course with the centre.
The fist dive of the day is an Underwater Videograpthy course. I’m dropped in at Shark Point with an $8000 video camera to play with. On entering the water, I find the current is a lot stronger than ideal to be taking video footage. Trying to stay steady in a fast moving current with a video camera is quite difficult and not the really the environment to be taking your first underwater video course. I do manage to get some good footage of a few turtles, a moray eel and a puffer fish around the deep canyons which run parallel to the shore.
The second dive is at Sunset Point; a gently sloping reef with tables of coral. The dive site is not so great as it has a lot of dead coral, however we do see turtles, schools of bait fish, and linger around a white tip reef shark.
Later that day Martin’s dive instructor comes over and offers me the opportunity to have one extra dive for free.
We spend the day relaxing by the beach.
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Today is my second try-out for a discovery dive and I hope it will be more successful than the first! Wet suit and weight belt on, Martin kindly carries my air supply tank (without me asking!) as we walk with my dive instructor down the main road and turn off down to the beach. I put the air tank on my back, it weighs a ton! It doesn’t help that the water is really shallow and has sudden deep drops which makes walking in difficult. Once it gets deep enough, my fins and mask go on and we both swim on our backs out to a blue buoy. Respirator in, I press the deflate button on the BCD and slowly descend with the aid of a rope going down from a buoy. Just a few metres down, my ears are already starting to hurt so I try to equalize going as slowly as possible.
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It works and before I know it I’m swimming along the coral reef spotting schools of tropical fish, moray eels and a huge fluorescent fish resting in the middle of a sunken railed box. It’s an exhilarating feeling!
We set off at 6:30 for our night dive. It had just been raining, the sky is cloudy, and with strong winds, we hope the underwater conditions have not deteriorated. Checking our gear and torches, we roll back in to the water in complete darkness. We are a group of nine, one instructor, one dive master and the rest advanced divers. The group is split in to two, and we descend into the depths.
On descending, it is amazing how much you can actually see with a torch underwater, the conditions are perfect, with great visibility and only a slight current.
We pass large sleeping fish within the holes and coral, lion fish out hunting and turtles who glide off in to the distance. Small shrimp and large lobsters light up in our torches beam. We reach the Bounty wreck, just off Gili Meno which is encrusted with coral, and surrounded by fish; most of them appear motionless and sleeping.
My dive light fades out, so the instructor swaps mine for his. Unfortunately a few minutes later this one dies too, leaving me in the pitch black, yet with so many divers around I am able to see the instructor to get another.
As we ascend, we are asked to turn off our dive lights; one by one people move their hands and then their fins, and the water suddenly comes to life with bright green bioluminescent plankton.
All in all, diving at night was a fantastic experience, one I would like to do again.
I continue my open water course with Blue Marlin as an act of good faith for providing the additional one to one first dive. My instructor, James, is borrowed from another dive school, Trawangan Dive, as there aren’t enough at Blue Marlin. We go down using a buoy line, another open water group going down just before us, but within a few minutes, one of the students has come to the surface and is quickly swimming back to the boat. Another then pops up and goes back down again only to come back up again as she had pressed her inflate button instead of her deflate on the BCD (buoyancy control device).
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Once the group has finally gone down, it is time for my descent. I decide to take it slow, giving myself plenty of time to equalize. Once down, I do a partial and a full mask flood and then it is time to swim. I manage to follow James but keep drifting up as I don’t yet know how to breathe correctly and become neutrally buoyant. I descend a bit further but then end up drifting back up again. The sun has also disappeared which makes the water darker. On the surface, I do weight belt and full BCD removal skills.
Nicole’s birthday today, which is spent relaxing!
I spend a few hours in the pool training with James and get all of the skills done, working on buoyancy and the correct breathing technique.
Final exam done, it’s time for two dives today, one at Shallow Turbo and one at Halik reef, both at a depth of 18 metres. For the 11:30 dive I assemble my BCD and check the equipment by doing a pre-dive safety check. It all goes onto the boat and 15 minutes later, my BCD is on and I fall off the boat backwards into the water. There is a pretty quick current which I let carry me through the water for a few minutes, before arriving at the dive site. The sun is shining through the water to a white sandy bottom dotted with colourful coral, and a variety of species of fish make an appearance. James is pointing and I turn around to see a fantastically huge Green turtle sitting by a rock looking extremely grumpy!
We also see a stone fish, which is so well camouflaged that it is hard to distinguish it from the rock it has attached itself to. Next up is a lobster and a moray eel.
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I do some underwater skills including a partial mask flood and full mask removal followed by cramp removal and a fin pivot.
The next dive is at 2:30 but that’s not before doing a 10 minute float and swimming 20 lengths of the pool non-stop! But there’s no time to waste as the boat is going out soon so the wetsuits go on, (two short length ones to stay extra warm!). We go down to Halik reef, a steep slope on the northern side of the island, hard coral in shallower water giving way to soft coral as we descend. We spot turtles, and schools of glistening silver fish. I complete a skill using a compass and a CESA skill (controlled emergency swimming ascent). I then do a tired diver tow at the surface.
All exams and skills are now completed which makes me a qualified open water diver!!
In the evening we pop in to Blue Marlin to settle up, enquire about further dives and to find out what was happening with our certification. At this point, I had completed the advanced course, however my log book had not been fully signed off, nor had I any other evidence of completing the course. I ask the person behind the counter if I could have something to show I had completed the course, but before he could answer, a Mexican dive instructor butts in, suggesting that we don’t trust the dive centre, he acts completely out of turn, to the point of turning his back on us and walking off. We find his behaviour unprofessional, and decide to dive with a different dive centre the next day.
Following the run in with this instructor we find it hard to recommend Blue Marlin. Yes their equipment probably needs renewing which you can live with, but it’s the instructors who make the dive, show you the best sites, and keep you safe. But when they have attitudes like this, it is better to dive somewhere else where they treat you with a little respect.
The next morning we pop back to Blue Marlin to settle up again. It’s a good job Edwin is there, as he able to sort out everything we need.
We decide to take a final fun dive together with another dive centre, walking with our tanks and going in off the beach, as the boat was now not going out for the 9am dive. We descend to see cuttlefish hovering just in front of us. A few minutes into the dive, a current that feels quite strong is taking us quite quickly down the beach. We drift past a wall with an array of fish on it. James gets us to check our air supply gauges and we signal to let him know how much we have left. Holding onto a rope for support, the current pushes my whole body sideways. But instead of swimming into the current, I let the current take me with it and we end up back on the beach sooner than expected! When we surface, James says if I had descended further, the current wouldn’t have been as strong and I could have then swum against it. But it’s all experience and will hopefully know what to do for the next time!
Dive prices on the island are fixed for both courses and fun dives, however you can bargain for one to one training or a smaller group on fun dives. Most dives centres prefer to add you to a group, simply because they make a lot more out of it, i.e. some usually have 4-6 per group for an open which is not ideal. We went to most of the dive centres on the island and the majority if you ask, will give you one to one training, ensuring it is just you and your instructor, with no extra cost. Blue Marlin however see this as a premium and will charge you more, their list price for a one to one open water course is $600. Your best bet is to shop around and openly request one to one, no one wants to be in large group whether training or on a fun dive!
2nd July Gili Air
Walking down to the port with luggage in hand, we jump on a tiny boat taking us on a 20 minute journey to Gili Air, speeding past Gili Meno on route. The most populous of the three islands, it certainly doesn’t feel it at all as we land. Negotiating a price for transport i.e. a horse and cart, we are bumped along the sandy track up the coast, the carriage leaning dangerously to one side, as we hold on trying not to fall out! There is no motorised traffic on the Gilli’s, which adds to its peacefulness and chilled vibe.
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Stopping at a few bungalows on route, we find the prices here seem to be higher than on Trawangan so decide to continue all the way up to Legends bar and find a big and new room next door just back from the beach. Martin had remembered staying around here on his last visit but the room he had stayed in was long gone.
We go for a stroll down to the beach stopping at Legends bar and cafe for some R&R and some lunch. Settling back on some oversized cushions on a private raised timber deck, we watch the crystal clear waters gently lapping the palm fringed white sandy beach. The temperature is 35 with hardly a cloud in the sky and the cool blue waters look inviting, so we both give in to temptation and jump in! This is definitely one of the places we have come closest to a tropical paradise so far on our overland adventure!
We come back for a couple of sunset cocktails as reds and orange fill the sky. Bali’s Gunung Agung volcano at 3142m provides the backdrop to a spectacular sunset.
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The tide has gone out a long way exposing large areas of sea grass, with many locals in the distance fishing and collecting shellfish.
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The first time Martin was here, the beach was 30-50m further out, with a road running alongside the northern beach, however in the last 10 years, it has all been eroded away. It appears the locals have an unwinnable battle against the erosion.
The atmosphere here is idyllic and extremely laid back, just a handful of other people on the beach compared with the busier and more boisterous Trawangan.
We stay on the beach after dark for a while after everyone has left, just a couple of bats flying above our heads, finishing our cocktails which are followed by a delicious prawn curry and rice. During dinner, we spot a group of local men which have walked out to sea with lanterns, the waiter tells us they have gone to look for octopus, shrimp and fish.
We decide to go exploring underwater today, taking our snorkelling gear with us down the beach, passing a long row of beachfront berugas. There is a gentle current which we drift in along the edge of the reef. We are careful to stay within the confines of the buoys as we have been warned that beyond the reef there are strong currents which can take you out to sea.
The water is cool and clear, however in the shallows there are many sea urchins, one wrong foot would likely result in a nasty spine piercing your fin and foot. There is an abundance of tropical fish, we spot angel fish, lion fish, clown fish, barracuda, large moray eel, miniature jelly fish, puffer fish, trigger fish and others! On the way back into shore, I see a huge bright green shrimp with yellow and pink pincers, which shuffles its way into the crevice of a rock.
Even as we get to the shallow water near the beach, there are some large edible looking fish swimming just below us. Yum!
Stopping in a cafe with timber decks and cushions overlooking the beach, we have some fresh tuna, watching a young boy of about eight fishing with two rods, each time looking thoroughly disappointed at not finding anything at the end of them!
I stupidly forget to bring the purse along and with Martin having bashed his toe on a rock which is now swollen and black, there is no option but to go all the way back and get it!
On the way home we spot a few nice new-looking bungalows and enquire about prices. We had planned on leaving tomorrow but seeing as these ones are a bit cheaper than our current hotel, we spontaneously decide that just one more night can’t hurt!
We head to the bar for sunset cocktails and then walk the dark path down the beach towards the south of the island passing a lot of empty beachside restaurants. Once we get towards the end, we find the Zipp Bar which has a few people in and seeing as they have a buy 1 get 1 free offer on cocktails, decide to give it a whirl…
The Gili Blue and Long Island Iced Tea don’t have much alcohol in them and we are still waiting for our food nearly 50 minutes later. The food finally arrives, the barbecued tuna kebab and vegetable prawn curry are both tasty, it’s just a shame we had to wait so long for them!
We pack up and head a few doors down to our new room and go for a snorkel. Today we spot no less than three turtles, big bright blue starfish which carpet the sea bed, pipefish, puffer fish, lion fish and lots more.
That seems to be more than enough work for one day on a tropical island so the rest of the day is dedicated to lounging!
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Martin & Nicole