We left Gili Air on the 8am shuttle boat back to Bangsal harbour where we picked up our transfer minibus headed for Kuta Lombok on the island's south coast. A surfing hot spot, Kuta Lombok (not to be confused with its tourist ghetto Balinese cousin) is laid back with marvelous beaches in easy reach and hardly any tourists. In keeping with that last expectation there was only one other person sharing our ride - Nils, a 25-year-old German guy taking a month's holiday from his working holiday in Australia. We were both on a vacation within a holiday and hit it off straight away. Upon our arrival in Kuta after a journey through the island's lush interior, it seemed only natural that we should go in search of two rooms. We all knew that there was an unwritten contract already in place, that we would stick together for as long as it suited us. Kuta was not really a place to be alone unless you were going to hit the surf and it is harder to meet fellow travellers in south east Asia than any where else I have been on my trip - mainly due to the lack of hostels outside the big cities. Not that I am complaining, I would find it very hard now to go back to sharing a dorm room.
We were in luck, two rooms were free at the lovely and spacious Yellow Flower guest house which would be our collective home for the next week. Overly roomy two storey buildings with oodles of veranda space flanked a courtyard with greenery and ponds populated with catfish. I am sure Trung was tempted to extend her fishing rod right there for an easy catch. It was the haunt of mainly Australian surfers both male and female with scooters modified to carry boards by means of detachable side racks filling the shady parking area out front. All in all, this was exactly what I wanted, a great chill out spot.
A scooter was going to be an essential accessory to our stay so we struck a deal with a guy across the road to take a pair of automatics for the coming days. After a lunch during which we were hounded by persistent gangs of children selling bracelets we went exploring. The kids could immediately sense that we were fresh blood just arrived in town and would not take no for an answer. I happily bought a bracelet for Trung but this only caused more trouble, with one of the older girls stamping her feet and huffing indignantly: "It's not fair! You must buy one from all of us!" Unfortunately, life isn't fair. After a day or two the hawkers left us alone to chase fresher targets.
I quite fancied some diving, especially since I had read that there is a dive site to the west where hammerhead sharks school. I really wanted to see a shark... So we went in search of Dive Zone, the local PADI outfit listed in Lonely Planet. We discovered it had moved its operation down the coast but that there was a new dive school in town attached to the Novotel resort so we headed eastwards and entered another world beyond the protective gatehouse and barrier to keep out the riffraff. A wheeled mirror was even used to check the car in front of us for bombs. It seemed to me to be just for show as a car bomb in the boot would have got past this check designed by the British in Northern Ireland to find bombs planted to detonate upon ignition.
I later found out that the sprawling high class French hotel was already 15 years old - it looked like it had been opened just days ago - but at the time it felt to me like a harbinger of things to come on this stretch of Lombok's coastline which has been on the verge of mass development for over a decade now. The son of former dictator Soeharto bought up large tracts of land using an Indonesian law which forces people to sell property should a government minister wish to buy it. Obviously, this did not win him any friends in the local community and whenever he started a building project it would always be burned to the ground. Enough was enough so he sold up to a consortium of Dubai-based developers who had, until the last few months, planned to roll out luxury hotels and golf courses over the next decade. However, due to unknown circumstances, the land has since been sold on once more. It seems certain that extensive development will come - the new international airport is nearby - but when or in what form remains unclear. I was glad to get there first...
We found the Gallic-flavoured Scuba Froggy shop on the secluded beach front Novotel occupyies on a sweeping bay around the headland from Kuta. It was run by Fared, a Tahitian sporting big tattoos, an athlete's physique and a thick French accent. I was instantly reminded of that Ben Stiller film Along Came Polly where uptight Ruben has his bride taken from him by an amorous French dive instructor while the newlyweds are on their honeymoon. Regrettably, I found it hard to take Fared entirely seriously at first because of the striking resemblance to Hank Azaria's character as he told us that the hammerheads left in August but there was still good diving to be had around Kuta. Nils and I both had our Open Water qualifications but Trung did not - she said she had done dive training in the pool but that she had never taken her exam. Fared kindly cut us a very good deal - he would take Nils and I for a 20m dive while Trung remained on the boat and then take the three of us on a shallow dive for the benefit of Trung. He would only charge her the price of a fun dive (usually the price is double for an unqualified diver) and charge myself and Nils for only one-and-a-half dives. We signed up for the day after next.
Our first full day was spent exploring the coastline to the west of Kuta. As the road ascended the first headland it quickly deteriorated - this was going going to be another rocky ride Indonesian-style. I was getting used to the lack of proper roads but I think it was new to Nils, although he totally took it in his long stride. As ever, Trung had my absolute respect and admiration for daring to ride passenger on my Honda... We passed a couple of small convoys of surfers heading for the breaks before we turned off in search of our first beach of the day, following a dirt trail dangerously downwards and then through a small fishing hamlet. We passed a herd of buffalo wallowing in a muddy pool, escaping the heat of the open plain, before we arrived on the shoreline. It was a nice beach but sadly littered with all manner of plastic waste brought in by the tide. I shuddered to think how much plastic must be out there in the open ocean as we puttered back to the main road and made a beeline for Mawum beach.
This was what it's all about, parking up at the end of a sandy path in amongst a cluster of fisherman's huts and racing onto a white sand paradise arcing around a wide bay of deep blue, turquoise and green waters. An array of small fishing vessels were primed on the shore waiting for the right conditions as the children flooded out of their homes to join us on the sand, relieving Nils of a red pen on the way. We promised to come back later with more gifts and for swimming and sunbathing - after we had checked out Mawi. We carried on, weaving in and out of potholes as the road wound its way through a cluster of hills whose slopes were ablaze, sending plumes of black smoke high into the air, the heat immense even from the road. After paying our entrance fee for Mawi we came to a parking area crammed with board-bearing bikes and squeezed in some how.
The white beach before us sat to the east side of a giant bay with numerous strips of white sand stretching into the distance, the water in front scattered with surfers bobbing on the swell who, one by one, suddenly sprung into action when the right wave came along. All this was bathed in an eerie yellow light caused by the sun
shining through the smoke polluting the sky above. Stunningly rugged, this was a surfer's paradise and not for swimmers so we headed back to Mawum's more tranquil scene, stopping at a shop to buy pens and exercise books for the kids. The second Trung revealed the gifts she bore she was surrounded by all the children from the tiny village. There was enough to go around as the kids were joined by their mothers and grandmothers and a couple of their fishermen fathers. The adults were obviously very grateful that we had come back with gifts as we had promised and told Trung so. Each child clutched onto their book and pen so tightly is was clear that they were not used to having many things of their own.
Later, when we returned from the beach to pick up our bikes, Trung was presented with a piece of paper upon which each of the children had written 'thank you' and their name. After getting a kiss from each of her new fans we headed off, happy after floating on our backs in the cool waters, while Trung had had
a go at fishing - finally her rod saw some action. On the way back we took a little tumble as we faced a steep section of dusty, broken road. The brakes locked and I slipped from the front of the bike while Trung was able to hop off. No physical harm but a few scratches to the bike. Funny then, that later that night the owner tracked us down to where we were eating and asked us to swap our modified scooter for the unmodified one he was riding. I was more than happy to...
That evening I discovered the awful truth - Trung had never used scuba hear before. Her diving training had focused around diving to the bottom of a pool. I quickly schooled her on the essentials - BCD, weight belt, regulator etc - and she picked it all up immediately. It remained to be seen if Fared would be fooled... We arrived bright and early at Scuba Froggy and were soon aboard the small dive boat with all our (brand new) gear. We skirted around the reef that sheltered the resort's beach and headed to the first dive spot at Gili Manji. Trung stayed aboard while Nils, Fared and I perched ourselves on the side of the boat and fell backwards into the water. As we descended I was having trouble with my mask - water was trickling down my face - until I located and fixed a kink in the strap. Problem solved. We followed the island from east to west, with OK visibility. We spotted a white eel and the usual array of reef dwelling fish (can you tell I have yet to learn how to spot fish accurately?). Nils was devouring his air at a prodigious rate and after only 30 minutes was well into his reserve tank. We had to surface, after a stop at five metres, and wait for the boat to spot our buoy and come get us.
The first dive was a slight disappointment and, clearly aware of this, Fared changed his plans for our second descent. We would now go to Scorpion Point on the other side of the bay and Trung would get to experience a proper dive site after all - if she could get over the sea sickness that had set in on the choppy waters while sitting out the first dive. After the necessary time lapse we kitted up again, assuring Trung that she would feel much better once she was in the water. Taking it all in her stride, she was over the edge backwards and embarking on her first dive. Nils and I descended while Trung was slowly nursed down, laden with a full weight belt, by Fared. She was having trouble equalising her ears and it was slow going but she made it down to the dive depth eventually.
I took her by the arm as Fared led us through a difficult series of narrow gulleys washed by the force of the waves rolling into shore. We were propelled along by each wave as I fought to keep both Trung and myself away from the rocks surrounding us. It was obvious the novice was really enjoying herself as she marvelled at the angel fish, sweet lips (a particular favourite of mine) and shoals of fish creating a psychedelic underwater mosaic. Once again, she was proving how fearless she is while Nils was proving he could keep
his air consumption in check. However, with the effort of guiding Trung it was my air that was being devoured this time. I was down to the last notch of my reserve tank when we surfaced after 45 minutes. It had been a really challenging and exciting dive and Trung was all smiles. For me, it had been a different experience - I had successfully led a beginner through part of a dive. And the best was yet to come. As we skimmed over the shallows on our way back to shore we spotted a huge eagle ray glide past the boat. I had seen a ray at last!
On the way back into town we were diverted around the back way as the main drag was being hastily resurfaced. More stretches around town would get a new tarmac topping over the coming days and we found out why - the Indonesian president was due to attend a meeting at the Novotel. It is amazing what can be done when the top man is about to pass by. After years of crummy roads suddenly the locals' wishes are granted out of the blue... The following day would have us dreaming of freshly paved roads...
Fuelled with banana and pineapple pancakes the three of us rode eastwards with the vague notion of checking out the remote south-eastern peninsular. After checking out a couple of beaches we found ourselves weaving along another broken road, spending more time on the dusty bike track running at its side than on the road itself. It went on like this for what seemed like an awfully long time until we crested on a headland and a huge bay came into view, the peninsular sweeping south at the far side. The shoreline ushered in a phase of smooth road as we picked up the pace and sped along causeways and swept through small fishing communities before slowing to cross a couple of rickety old wooden bridges, the slats creaking under our weight. We must have missed a turning as we ended up in Tanjung Luar - a few kilometres north of the peninsular.
I had read about the port's fish market famed for its shark haul... So, thanks to some of many directions gathered thanks to Trung's command of the Indonesian language, we parked up next to a gaggle of old women selling a fascinating selection of fish. There was a doe-eyed and porcupine-esque blow fish with spines erect sitting on a platter and a woman selling a silver
barracuda. Trung was already negotiating over the price of squid. She had already practically taken over the kitchen at a restaurant near our guest house to cook fish she bought at the morning market in Kuta. The squid would shortly get cooked up at a nearby restaurant. We walked through an open warehouse where women were gutting small fish before reaching the main catch - around 40 sharks shorn of their fins and laid out in rows on a concrete quadrangle. The hacked fins lay in a grizzly pile bathed in bloody water. No bets were being taken on where this gruesome catch was headed. Shark fin soup really does not appeal.
After our aforementioned lunch we hit the peninsular, making our way to Ekas where I took a few moments to recover from my latest low-speed scooter accident. This time it happened when I was turning around, barely pushing 1km/hour on the speedo. My hand slipped on the throttle as I pulled the handle bars fully round to the right, the bike lurched forward and then fell on top of me as I
crashed onto the rocky track below, grazing my leg, bloodying my lip and cracking my right wrist on a stone. Trung jumped to safety at the first hint of trouble. The bike, also, was totally unscathed, its fall cushioned by my flesh and bones.
Still, our final destination remained Tanjung Ringit at the tip of the peninsular. As soon as we turned off the main road we were in for a rough ride yet again - a rocky mess stretching ahead for 20km of winding and weaving. It was starting to get to Nils and I had had enough of the concentration required, even as the intensity was lifted by a troop of macaques crossing the road. What we found at the end of the dusty rock road was not a village but a lighthouse and a path leading to the cliffs beyond. We took a walk, glad to be out of the saddle, and were rewarded with a spotless view of Subawa to the east. On the way back Nils spotted an old artillery gun and bunker dating back to the war and the Japanese occupation. The lighthouse keeper greeted us as we returned to our bikes and invited us inside for a quick cup of tea and some biscuits. We couldn't stay long, however, as we had to be on our way if we were to get back to Kuta before dark.
It was with heavy hearts that we set off down that byway from hell but, thankfully, it is always quicker going back than it is coming. We all punched the air with joy when we made it back to the main road, knowing that tarmac would now be our partner for the rest of the return journey. Rather than retrace our rocky steps we headed for the main road inland, headed west and then took the turn going south and for Kuta, passing a couple of wedding processions along the way. We returned our scooters immediately, intent on having a couple of days using only our legs as a means of getting around, when we weren't doing nothing. My hands were sore, my wrist ached and my legs stung, but I could feel something worse - an infection in my right ear caused by the previous day's diving.
My ear was a big ball of hurt by the next morning and the pain had also spread to my jaw below making it painful to eat. Beyond the pain, I was as deaf as a post on my right side, my ear completely blocked. I needed to see a doctor and, as luck would have it, there was an international medical centre in Kuta. Trung talked a friend she had made across the road into lending us his motorbike for half-an-hour and off we went, Trung working the manual gears as only she knew how. I was seen immediately and an infection caused by trapped water was diagnosed and four types of medication prescribed: Anti-biotic tablets, anti-biotic ear drops, anti-inflammatory tablets and 10 diazepam to help
me sleep. The last addition was surely there to bump up the bill but, with my insurance set to foot the bill, I was happy to have them, sure they would come in useful at a later date. And then came the issue of payment. The doctor wanted me to pay around 600,000 rupiah in cash while I wanted him to claim from my insurance. Being British and blessed with the NHS I cannot comprehend paying more than £10 for any prescription and I won the day. I would get the medicine but the doctor would hold onto my driving license until he received the necessary forms from my insurers. Deal.
It took two days for him to get the form but I got my ID back during a quick stop-off on our transfer to the Bali-bound ferry. I also got my still no better ear pumped full of warm water in a bid to unblock it. The intervening time had been spent doing very little except writing, hanging out at a restaurant with OK wifi and drinking some Bintangs. The plan now, on 16th October, was to head to Kuta in Bali in preparation for my flight to KL and onto Laos and Trung's flight back to Jogja - both at 6am on the 18th. Nils would be staying in Bali. It was a four-hour ferry ride back to Bali sitting on the filthy upper deck. I wouldn't normally mind this but the locals were allowed on board first and grabbed all the space on the lower decks, leaving the tourists exposed to the sun on the unfurnished upper deck. After an hour in a minibus we arrived in bustling Kuta, reminiscent of a tourist black spot on the Med, and made our way to the hotel Nils had stayed at on his previous visit.
I vaguely - due to my bad ear - heard my name being called but figured there were probably plenty of other Steves about. But there they were, rushing to catch up - the Sinclair-Frances, like we were star-crossed travellers, our paths forever destined to intersect. And there they were the next morning as we headed out into the heat. We arranged to meet later for dinner and Trung and I whiled away the rest of the day. I did have an ear candle at one of the reputable massage parlours in a desperate effort to sort out my ear before flying. I was concerned what effects the changing pressure would have. I lay on my side while a long hollow candle was inserted into my right ear and lit. The flame created a vacuum inside the candle, sucking out all manner of gunk from within. All the while a girl massaged around my dodgy ear. It did not restore my hearing but I felt much better and this marked the beginning of the slow return of full aural senses.
All that remained was to track down the Aussies, who were also departing the following day, for dinner at a small street side Thai restaurant. Nils had been out on the town the night before and was taking refuge in his room. Arak can do that to a man. So he didn't join us. It was a shame we didn't get to say goodbye in person but it was really great to have him along in Lombok. I did get to say goodbye to the Aussies and then to Trung, as we bid farewell in our taxi at Denpasar airport at 4.30am, me heading for international departures and her for domestic. It had been an unforgettable time together in Lombok and the time really flew, so comfortable did we feel in each other's company. I felt sad but also certain that I would we would be seeing each other before long.
As for Indonesia, this was also goodbye for now. I knew I would be back with so many more islands to discover. It had been one of the great tangents of my life. I had gone from a vague notion of wanting to visit to giving it a couple of weeks to giving it almost two months. Into the bargain I had managed to stay one step ahead of the rainy season. Now I was heading to Laos in a manoeuvre outflanking the monsoons again, this time coming up behind the rain clouds.
In normal life threesomes are not generally a very good idea. Please dispel those images of menage a trois from your dirty little mind, I am talking about the gooseberry effect. Two is company, three's a crowd and all that. An ex-girlfriend of mine was pathologically averse to the number three when it comes to people. She would refuse any situation where she might find herself in the company of more than one but less than three people. However, when it comes to travelling I think three can be the magic number - not always, but sometimes. Like a temporary adoption without all the reams of paperwork and endless visits from social workers. Just as Vincent and Maude had taken me under their collective wing in Sumatra so Trung and I took Nils under ours in Lombok.