Indonesia: the rooster and the rice terrace
There’s something comforting about little islands: vast open plains may be awe-inspiring in their magnitude – and Wordsworth’s Sublime was found among the Lakeland’s mountain peaks – but there is a certain feeling of sanctuary to be found in small spaces. With over 17,000 islands, Indonesia is particularly seductive. Quiet southern Lombok is the perfect spot to learn mastery of a scooter and spend days on end idly navigating paradise.
In the afternoons rural roads are barely passable with thick, heavy, bright red mud – but in the still mornings, punctuated by the cries of roosters and muezzins, there is a special sort of freedom to be found.
“Lombok’s undisturbed stretches of sand are shared only with early-rising fishermen and the occasional stray dog.”
The beaches of Lombok are all but abandoned. Those determined enough arrive early to stake a claim to the splashes of shade, and it is easy to spend whole days together drifting from shadow to sea to coconut vendor.
In neighbouring Bali, the beaches are littered with hungover backpackers sprawled across plastic loungers and the seas are a frenzy of surfers and kite boarders. Lombok’s undisturbed stretches of sand are shared only with early-rising fishermen and the occasional stray dog.
Flying over Lombok reveals glimpses of perfect dark squares amassed along the turquoise coastlines. Throughout the world, the success of islanders is dependent on their ability to understand the perils and possibilities of the sea.
“Throughout the world, the success of islanders is dependent on their ability to understand the perils and possibilities of the sea.”
Scooters are fitted with surfboard racks; dreadlock-bedecked backpackers buzz along the coastal roads, rushing after rumours telling where to find the best waves.
Lombok is all about getting hopelessly lost, waving at schoolchildren, following an ice-cream seller on a scooter as they lead the way up an implausible, impassable path, and smiling at shy women who reach for petrol stored in repurposed Absolut bottles to refill a drained tank.
Indonesia’s colourful birds of paradise have nothing on the animated groups of women who walk to work together, small children scooped onto their backs and flip flops slapping cheerfully along the road.
“Tourism in Bali was developed long before Elizabeth Gilbert wound up her ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ journey in Ubud…”
Boats leave from the chaotic village of Tanjung Luar on nightly expeditions in pursuit of sharks, sometimes pushing nearly as far as the Australian coast. The fins are brought back to be exported by wealthy Chinese who are pitiless when it comes to dealing with one of the poorest communities in Indonesia.
Fortunately, scooters are happy to bounce along even the roughest roads – just as well when the tarmac starts to peter out and grass verges argue their way into prime position.
The greatest motorways in the world are tens of thousands of kilometres long, linking sprawling cities with their gleaming spires and skyscrapers; it may be only the slightest fraction of that and with space for tricycles rather than trucks, but this road leads to an isolated palm-fringed, pink-sand beach.
“…there is nothing that defines the colour green more emphatically than a rain-drenched rice paddy in the early morning light.”
There are dozens of mosques under construction in rural Lombok: with a simple bamboo framework in place, the dome is completed first. Splashes of orange, blue and red domes clamour for attention in the dark green masses of tree-covered slopes.
Tourism in Bali was developed long before Elizabeth Gilbert wound up her ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ journey in Ubud, although her devoted disciples appear in their droves sporting colourful lycra outfits and natty little yoga-mat backpacks. The Sacred Monkey Forest is full of people declaring loudly it is a Terrible Tourist Trap, simultaneously squealing with delight as tiny monkeys pull cheekily at their shoelaces.
Some of Bali’s rice terraces – including this relatively unvisited one that shall remain nameless for reasons of preservation – are UNESCO world heritage sites: there is nothing that defines the colour green more emphatically than a rain-drenched rice paddy in the early morning light.
“In Indonesia, so much depends upon a green rice paddy, damp with rain, dotted with strutting roosters.”
Grand coastal road trips are associated with America, Australia and South Africa, but Bali’s northeastern corner has a winding road that promises an unrivalled unveiling of mesmerising views.