Mawi, a sharp shallow reef about 14km west of Kuta, is virtually empty compared with other Indonesian spots. (Kieran Nash)
Most people, when planning a holiday to Indonesia, have only one place on their mind: Bali. The Island of the Gods has it all – booming surf, idyllic beaches, high-end shopping and parties galore. But with the trappings of such a holiday destination also come the pitfalls. Popular beaches like Kuta and Seminyak are clogged with people; the sterile mega-resorts, like those found in Nusa Dua, ensure that culture is safely at arm’s length; and many bars fall victim to the worst examples of Westerners’ boorish drunken behaviour.
Those who want to experience a slower, more peaceful side of Indonesia should take the half-hour flight east from Bali’s Denpasar airport to Lombok, the next major island over. It is markedly different to Bali – more arid than lush, and the population is mostly Muslim as opposed to predominantly Hindu.
Lombok has brushed off a number of setbacks in the last decade or so. The tourism industry was hit hard in 2000 after mobs of Muslim protesters rampaged through the island setting fire to churches, with five rioters killed by police, and like the rest of the region, the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami wiped out much of the island’s infrastructure.
Today, however, it takes a fair stretch of the imagination to picture the island overrun by violent mobs. For example, the Gili Islands, off Lombok’s northwest coast, are three small atolls of unbridled serenity. But since they too are fast becoming popular with the Bali set, I ventured south, to a village called Kuta.
Make no mistake. It could not be more different from its Bali namesake. In place of two-lane roads clogged with taxis, there are narrow, single lane tracks devoid of any markings, often more pothole than road, where the occasional motorbike or horse and cart would have a hard time passing another vehicle coming the opposite way. It is not uncommon to have to weave through a herd of cattle, the beasts lazily ambling down the road, the only recognition a nonchalant swish of the tail.
Gone are the fancy fashion outlets and mega clubs -- the predominant structures that line Kuta’s main strip are thatched bamboo shacks, selling an impressive selection of fresh curries. Be wary, though, the relentless, incessant hawking of goods by local children can lead to some trying scenes if you are not as thick-skinned as they.
Development on Kuta is a recent phenomenon. At Ashtari, a natural food cafe that overlooks the village and beach, owner Helen Morgan said the biggest changes have taken place over the last four years.
“For years there was nothing,” Morgan said. “No electricity, nothing on the beach, just a few fishermen. It was extremely peaceful. It stayed that way for a long time.”
Aside from shopping for local goods, such as handmade bracelets or sarongs, or lying on the beach in a cocktail-induced stupor, Lombok has some fantastic surf spots that are devoid of the crowds that plague some of Indonesia’s more popular spots.
Kuta local Bagong -- or Gong for short -- with his mirrored shades and habit of rounding off every sentence with “man”, showed me Inside Gerupuk, a reef break a short boat ride off the coast. Pulling up to the spot, we found we weren’t the only ones – about a dozen other slender outrigger boats were anchored. The reef’s mellow breakers are excellent for learners, which unfortunately meant smiling novices would often drop in on my wave and fall off, their longboards acting like large, heavy missiles.
So I asked Gong to show me a surf spot that might scare off the beginners -- Mawi, a shallow reef about 14km west of Kuta.
After the hills gave way to flat tobacco fields, the beach suddenly unfolded in front of us. A rough collection of thatched, open-walled huts huddled on the grass, overlooking fine, golden sand, with walls of water the hue of thick green glass smashing onto the shallow, sharp reef.
Trying their luck in the breaking waves was a pack of about six surfers, leaving the break virtually empty compared with other Indonesian spots, which can easily attract 30 or more wave-hungry riders. Paddling out, the water was so clear I could easily make out the rock formations beneath me, a slightly unnerving sight given that fast, hollow waves can throw an unsuspecting surfer into harm’s way with the slightest change in balance.