A few weeks prior to booking my flight to Bali the area had been hit by a series of major earthquakes. Lombok, the enormous island next to Bali, was probably struck the hardest (a 7.0 on the Richter scale) and the trio of smaller islands just off its coast, the Gilis, were also affected. So much so that all the tourists were evacuated.
While Jason and I wanted to visit the biggest of the three little islands, Gili Trawangan (Gili T), we held back until the last-minute due to the quake situation. Once we got word that certain hotels had opened their doors once more (mostly via the social media posts of travellers who’d chosen to stay behind and help rebuild) we booked a ‘fast boat’ service called BlueWater Express. It cost R1 200 for a return ticket for a trip from Serangan Harbour (a few minutes away from Kuta) to Gili T and took about two and a half hours in total with a quick stop to pick up more people en route. While there are cheaper boat services you can take, we picked BWE because it’s got a great reputation for safety and efficiency.
The moment you set foot on Gili T it just blows you away. The waters are an incredible turquoise, the sand is soft and white, bright pink Bougainvillea spills over every second wall and the streets are full of colourful horse-drawn carts. Motorised vehicles aren’t allowed on the island so, if you’re not in a horse carriage, you’re riding a bicycle or on foot which is cool ‘cos you could easily walk the island’s circumference in just an hour.
Prior to coming, we’d heard stories about tourists booking hotels online and then arriving to find them closed or reduced to rubble. Thus we only booked ours after arrival. I wouldn’t recommend this under normal circumstances – in peak season the Gilis fill up fast – but, in the wake of the quake, it was super-duper quiet.
Our hotel, Gili Breeze Tropical Bungalows, cost just R450 per night including breakfast and had a lovely pool right outside our rather luxe-little hut. It was just 2 minutes away from the beach and had decent Wi-Fi. If you’re a remote worker like me, you’ll be glad to know Gili T is pretty connected. I still think it’s best to buy a SIM card when you arrive, however. That way you’re online wherever you go, can use your phone like a GPS and open up a hotspot if , like me, you like to crush your deadlines on the beach.
The only negative was that it was very close to a mosque and the call to prayer is crazy loud and starts before sunrise. We were given ear plugs on arrival but I never manage to keep them in my ears so the first morning I woke up with a skrik but after a while you get used to it and it kind of added to the atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, it was strange and humbling to be on the island in the wake of the quake. While repairs where going on everywhere you looked, certain structures where still in ruins and many restaurants and hotels were closed. When we spoke to locals you could see they were putting on a brave face but many were shaken. Maybe it’s a weird comparison, but it kind of felt like being at a school that had just experienced a shocking tragedy, like the death of a student, and, despite being traumatised, everyone was being kinder to one another. Something that still sticks with me is the evening we walked past a group of locals who’d gathered under a marquee on the beach to participate in a communal post-traumatic stress counselling session. Everyone was holding hands and I spotted two policemen who looked like they were crying.
Quake aftermath aside, I really enjoyed my time in Gili T. While I’d been disappointed with the ‘swimmability’ of the beaches in Bali, this l’il island was heaven. The water is crystal clear, the shallows are sandy and, if you swim out just a little further, it’s a snorkelers’ paradise! You can rent a mask from stands on the beach for about R50 a day or simply bring your own. You don’t have to book any kind of special tour. Just wade right in and look for Nemo!
Swimming and sunning aside, there are lots of other things to do in Gili T and these are a few of my faves (as well as a few misses).
Get on yer bike!
Every hotel in Gili T offers bikes you can rent at a cost so nominal I’ve forgotten it. On the boat trip over, while I’d been curled into a ball below deck (there are days where I’m not so good on boats), Jason befriended Katy, an awesome American chica, and we spent a lot of time exploring the island together – Jason and I on wheels and long-legged, super fit Katy sprinting next to us on foot. (For the record, we kept saying ‘Get a bloody bike!’, but she’s just not into them.)
Although she denies it, I’m convinced Katy’s first impression of Jason and I were that we were a weirdo ‘swinger’ couple looking for a threesome. Still, despite our creep factor, we made friends in a flash and I was reminded of what it was like to be 12 again. For me, it was a glorious, simple age where anything could be an adventure and I spent all my days on a bike, flying around the neighbourhood in a happy-go-lucky li’l ‘street gang’.
Because there aren’t any cars on the island (just the odd construction vehicle here and there due to the current exceptional circumstances) you don’t have to worry about being hit by a speeding Honda Jazz. Your only hazards are the odd pothole or a darting island cat. (Interestingly, very few of the island kitties have tails but Jason insists this is due to inbreeding as opposed to an accident.)
Top tip: Don’t stop for the froyo. We pulled into Gilli Yo on a whim during one of our cycle sessions and I nearly died when my medium-sized tub of yoghurt with a few not especially exciting toppings set me back a cool R80. That’s a crazy price even by Cape Town standards. The froyo was nothing to write home about either and, to me, it tasted more like soft serve than yoghurt. I kind of wished I’d bought a much more satisfying Cornetto for R15.
Drink a mango beer
Beer is my friend. I also luuurve me some mango, so discovering Stark Mango Ale was awesome. It’s a little bit sweet, you’ll definitely pick up on the mango (it’s not subtle) and I’m kind of glad we don’t get it in South Africa or I’d totally end up in fat pants at AA meetings.
Top tip: Skip the ‘magic milkshakes’. You don’t want to mess around drugs in Indo. It’s the kind of place where you’ll get arrested for smoking a joint and rot in jail forever. Mushrooms, however, while still illegal, are sold openly in the Gilis and nobody seems to care. Like you’ll literally walk past bars with giant signs advertising their shakes. So ja. Odd. Naturally, Jason and I gave it a bash and, annoyingly, our first shake turned out to be plain old orange juice. When we pointed this out to our hustler of a waiter he just laughed it off.
A few metres on we found the real deal but this was even worse ‘cos, my God, they taste like ass! Like someone had pulled up a clod of weeds, cut off the roots (gritty soil and all!) and blended them into a glass of Sprite. I spat out my first sip within milliseconds. Later, I decided to suck it up and managed to get about half of it down by picking the roots (they legit look like roots, not mushrooms) out of my drink and chewing them, doing my best not to vom. Maybe an hour later I felt the kind of gentle ‘glow’ you might get from taking a fistful of painkillers. This lasted all of five minutes and I kind of sat there going ‘Really?! That was it?! Why weren’t the trees a pulsating, luminous shade of green? Where were my dancing, neon dolphins?!’ In all, I kind of wished I’d spent my money on another mango-flavoured beer.
Go straight to Pituq Waroeng. Do not pass go. I’m serious!
Pituq Waroeng is a traditional Indo vegan restaurant that doesn’t serve booze. Sounds awful, right? And yet it was one of the best meals I’ve had throughout all my travels in SEA. Myself, Jason and Katy popped in there for supper and ran into yet another American (a festive-looking dude wrapped up in fairy lights in a bid to be more visible on his bike at night) just outside the door and invited him to join us. Maybe it’s the fact that all small island’s have an innate ‘chill factor’, but the vibe on Gili T is ultra laid back which makes it very easy to make insta-friends. Being a party of four was great ‘cos we could literally order almost every single item on the menu. I’m not exaggerating when I say every dish was excellent but do not miss the jackfruit curry.
Top tip: Food is pretty hit or miss on the island. In Chiang Mai I can throw a rock and find something amazing to eat but Bali requires a little sussing. For this reason I’d suggest you check out other people’s plates or consult Tripadvisor before ordering. The first thing I ate on the island was a pizza from a beachfront restaurant and it was the saddest, grossest version I’ve had to date. Think a cardboard base topped with what looked like tinned tomato and giant chunks of raw onion.
Relish every sunset
Sunsets on the island are incredibly beautiful so don’t miss them. The moment you see that big ass fireball start to go down get your ass to a beach bar or buy a beer from a cafe, unfurl your sarong onto the sand, sit down and soak up the kiffness.
Top tip: There were lots of places we could grab a cocktail and sit with our feet in the sand. Some of them are crazily overpriced by SEA standards (R90 for a margarita in Asia?!) and yet they all serve up the same view so take your pick based on what’s in your wallet.
In all, I thought Gili T was incredible and really wished I had more time to explore the other two islands – Gili Air and Gili Meno. If you ever end up in Bali you’d be mad not to pay that extra grand and travel the two hours it takes to get there. Bali was great but Gili T was sublime.