Issue IX, Volume IV : May 2013
The history of the Gili's is only half as long as my own lifetime. In the 1980's fishermen from Lombok began to exploit the coral reefs that surround the Gili Islands and did much damage with unsustainable fishing methods. A handful of Western backpackers set up camps on the islands and paid off the fisherman to stop the destruction. By the 1990's the islands had become a lost world for hippies and an unspoiled paradise for divers. A few basic hotels opened up, while the former fisherman started running regular boat shuttles to and from Bali. These early settlers agreed to keep the islands as rustic as possible and have only courted eco friendly tourism. Growth has had to be slow, as there is no source of fresh water on the islands. Water and just about everything else has to be brought over from Lombok by boat. There are no paved roads, and the only transportation is by bicycle or horse drawn buggy.
Freddie and I left our friends Jeff and Erik in Bali, and boarded a speed boat called The Gili Cat that whisked us over to Lombok in just over an hour. It's a bumpy ride and not for those prone to sea sickness. This part of the Indian Ocean is particularly deep between the two islands and the sea is always rough. But soon the volcanoes of Lombok were in view, and we arrived at the small picturesque harbour where a few people got off, and a few joined us. Ten minutes later, we tied off on the jetty of Gili Trawangan, the largest of the Gili Islands with a circumference only three miles. The waters below the Gili Cat were the most startling intense blue that I have ever seen. Millions of tiny fish reflected the sun's rays in the water and created shifting waves of light under the surface. We walked up to the main street where a small dark skinned man loaded up our luggage on his cart. With our bags in place there was hardly any room for us, but he shifted a few things around and managed to get us on board much to the ponies chagrin.
Lucky for us, the first five star hotel has just opened on Gili Trawangan. The Hotel Sunset Ombak was offering big discounts before its grand opening later this summer. There were only ten guests in the hotel, sharing a 200 foot pool with a built in bar directly on the beach front. We had our own private villa within the grounds, which had its own fresh water bathroom. A big deal on this little island! The villa including breakfast and was only $140/night. Our first stop was to hit that massive, sparkling pool and the pool bar. Our bartender looked like a shy twelve year old, but we got talking to him as he mixed our margarita's. Ari was actually 29 years old and was born and raised on Lombok. He had never been to neighbouring Bali as he could not afford the $100 boat ticket. He dreamed of visiting London someday but the idea of boarding a plane was more than he could hope for. I told him we were so happy to have left the cold of London behind to visit to this tropical paradise that he called home. His eyes widened in wonder and he asked me: "what does cold feel like?". I almost laughed until I realized that if he had never been off these islands then he would have never experienced anything less than 80 degrees.
After a blissful night in our villa, we woke early to watch the sun rise. As soon as the first signs of daylight begin to colour the sky, the island explodes with life. A million birds chirp and chatter their morning greetings to each other and get straight down to bird-business before the sun gets too hot. Just outside our door was a small coconut tree about twenty feet tall. Just below the fruit, a huge Golden Orb Spider had spun a golden web a meter in circumference that shimmered in the sun light. Her grey body was the size of two quarters and her long, black, twig-like legs would fill the palm of your hand. I had read about these magnificent creatures. Their silk is one of the strongest natural substances on the planet, and in the past, fisherman used the webs as fishing nets. In the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, there is a golden cape that took ten years to make with over one million Golden Orb spiders contributing the silk. A priceless and amazing treasure.
After taking stock of the creatures on land, it was time to check out the sea life. There are many options for diving and snorkeling on the Gili Islands and a large percentage of the visitors are experienced divers. Freddie and I chose to do a day trip of snorkeling on a glass bottom boat that circled all three of the Gilis. We were joined by a handsome group of twenty-something's from France and Germany. The boat set off for Gili Meno where sea turtles are known to congregate. We dived down about twenty feet and were thrilled to see nine beautiful sea turtles slowly making their way between the corals and sand.
Another stop was at a shallow reef where millions of colourful fish made their homes among the anemones. The water was so clean and warm it was like swimming in a huge aquarium. The fish are used to human contact and took very little notice of us, but they do manage to stay just outside of arms reach. We stopped for lunch on Gili Air which has little more than a few beach huts and a jetty, but they served a damn good burger. On the way back to Gili Trawangan the waves kicked up and our boat was tossed around a bit which made for a thrilling end to a fantastic day.
One evening we were having dinner at the beach restaurant in front of our hotel. I shared my mahi-mahi with one of the islands multitude of semi-feral short tailed cats. This one was grey stripped, very tiny, and very pregnant. She followed us back to the villa where I gave her a dish of milk. She became our adopted kitty for the rest of our stay, napping on our sofa and greeting us every morning. With no vets or spay clinics and an abundance of fish restaurants, cats are here in greater numbers than the human population. But curiously, there is not a single dog to be found. I asked our waiter about this, and he said "dogs not on island" and then gave me a big silly grin. Well, that cleared things up.
They say "Life is Different" here in the Gilis. One afternoon we were heading home from the beach and a happy native greeted me with "Good Morning!" When I pointed out it was almost 5:00 in the afternoon, he grinned and said "Island Time". Among the beach huts there are signs advertising magic mushrooms for sale with promises of "dancing heaven bliss" and "bloody sexy fresh mega". Every night, one of the bars will host a dance party on the beach filling the warm air with the sounds of reggae and the smell of hashish. Bikini clad Western girls will be swaying next to dark skinned native boys and there is a sultry sexiness in the air. This would not be acceptable anywhere else in the Muslim world. But on the Gili Islands, there are no police, no government officials and no mosques. It may sound like anarchy, but it is far too peaceful for that. The Gilis are more like a Bohemian hippy commune in tune with nature and living under the radar.
It was interesting how quickly Freddie and I slipped into the Island Time way of life. Within hours, life in London's fast lane seemed a million miles away. After all I have seen and done in the world, I know I could never be content to live the rest of my life on an island of just three square miles. But I sure fantasized about it during those four days.