The Philippines didn’t seem to want to let us go – our flight to Indonesia was delayed and we had to spend a whole day and most of the night at Manila airport. Seventeen hours of joy. Luckily we blagged our way into the business lounge so had free food and vaguely comfortable sofas – and our first glass of wine for six months! And we were excited for our eighth country and sixth month of the trip. But fatigue was the main feeling as we landed in Bali, cleared immigration, found a taxi and sat like zombies through the morning traffic to our hotel down in Uluwatu.Bali is a large island with a teardrop peninsula at the bottom, where lies wave-battered cliffs, quiet country roads and scores of surfers. The path down from our hotel threaded steeply through restaurants (‘warungs’) and surf shops, with stunning views. We had a fun few days here, admiring from a safe distance those brave and experienced enough to ride the violent surf, and frequently discussing the idea of having some lessons but deciding ‘one of the most dangerous breaks in the world’ wasn’t the place to start. We explored the country lanes that sometimes felt almost like Cornwall, climbed down cliffpaths to hidden beaches, visited the tourist capital Kuta (which is great if you like heavy traffic, Starbucks, Topshop and Burger King), and watched the sun going down from Uluwatu temple as waves hammered below and monkeys chewed on sunglasses.Instead we headed to Ubud, a popular town, near the centre of Bali. Jam-packed with craft and clothes shops for us tourists, it manages to keep its identity despite the branches of Accessorise and Billabong (I knock it but I did finally replace my sole pair of shorts after six months of grime and dust. May they rest in pieces). I had been before years ago for a friend’s wedding and the place seemed to be much busier now, with more cappuccinos and fashion boutiques than I remembered. Its tightly-knit streets were fun to walk around though, full of stone statues and friendly people, and we indulged in the ancient art of shop browsing.Right in the centre of the town is the Monkey Forest, which is, well, a forest with monkeys in it. A lot of monkeys. That like to nick stuff. Already having encountered them in Uluwatu we were on our guard but these ones were especially adept – unzipping rucksacks and swiping sunglasses – so the pleasure of the stroll through the stunning woodland and around the beautifully-carved temples within was tempered by a constant concern we were about to be lept upon by a hairy cousin at any moment. Especially after one did jump up at Nina and then angrily chased me when I splashed it with our water bottle, at which point I ran away like a coward. We avoided the tour bus hordes that went to the music and dance shows every night and found plenty of fun places to spend the evenings. Food and music were everywhere here, with lots of local bands playing old western songs as well as the traditional gamelan sounds coming out of speakers and temples. And the food was really great, which, frankly, was a joy after the Philippines’ generally dull tastes. Gado gado and nasi campur are our new friends. However we weren’t so sure about some of the local fruits which we can’t see Innocent adding to their smoothie range anytime soon. We also treated ourselves each to an incredible local massage in one of the countless spas tucked away in the small lanes. A day trip out to Gunung Kawi – an 11th century shrine in a deep river valley surrounded by rice terraces – was a welcome sample of the Bali countryside and it was tempting to explore the island further and do more of the bus rides and complex trips that characterised the earlier months of our trip. But with this being our last month, with a definite deadline of our flight home, we decided to keep things simple and our journeys limited. And so we put away our guide books for good and, after some more leisurely days strolling around Ubud, we headed on a boat to spend our remaining weeks on Nusa Lembongan and the Gilis, both nearby islands and both demanding little of visitors apart from relaxation. Lembongan was a bumpy boat ride of half an hour from Bali’s mainland and felt very different. A single quiet road ran the length of the main beach, dotted with homes, warungs and small bungalow hotels. Children played on the paths, cows and goats grazed in the woods and the adults who weren’t hotel workers or dive instructors laboured over the seaweed harvests they dragged in from the beds they planted in the harbour. This gave a refreshing local atmosphere to our stay but also a less refreshing atmosphere for our nostrils as the seaweed dried in the sun all over town.We scootered around the island which because of its tiny size should take about an hour although we stretched that out to about four by getting lost several times and by the road turning into a rubble-strewn footpath from time to time. The best part for me was driving over the rickity plank footbridge that connects to the neighbouring island; Nina very wisely walked that bit.We also had another dive day which was very different to the others so far. We jumped into a choppy sea (which left us both seasick) and descended into a colder and darker world than before, with the new sensation of waves buffeting us back and forth even at 15 metres down. After feasting our eyes on beautiful coral formations we heard the urgent signal of our guide tapping on their tank, and turning we saw the main attraction for this area – the giant Manta Ray, gliding gracefully out of the gloom. A creature of humbling size and bizarre appearance, it was a privilege to see and a memory to treasure. No photos, sorry! But here is one of Nina surfacing a good 30 minutes after my own air ran out, due to her having clearly grown gills.Lembongan was a charming place, where it was easy to let the days slide into each other, and we read books, Nina swam in the pool and I even did some yoga (or tried to at least). However, an even more mellow and peaceful destination awaited us, and so back on the boat we went, east to the Gilis.
Three islands off the top left of Bali’s neighbour, Lombok, the Gilis are now far from the remote backpacker secret they once were, and getting there is a simple case of jumping on one of many packed tourist fastboats. As we arrived on Gili Trawagan, and walked past bar after restaurant after upscale resort after ATM after trendy clothes shop in search of accommodation, and heard the usual suspects Bob Marley and Jack Johnson pumping from every other cafe (“Best espresso on the island”; “Happy Hour 5pm to midnight!”; “Big screen football matches live!”), it was obvious we were but a drop in the flood of people coming to these beach-encircled islands. However, even the most popular of the three, ‘party island’ Gili T (as everyone who wants an easy life calls it) is still in the relatively early days of development. Indonesians only started coming here, to fish, in the 1950’s and no cars or scooters, and sandy tracks instead of concrete, mean that, despite all my cynical descriptions, the Gilis are still worthy of tags such as ‘quiet’, ‘idyllic’ and, if you walked away from the crowds, squinted a bit and ignored the sounds of hotels being built, ‘castaway paradise’.Two days here and we began to get a feel of the island. We cycled around, which was a great plan till we realised deep sand and bikes don’t mix. So really we mainly walked around the island pushing two bikes. But a lovely place it is. The sky changes every few minutes on the Gilis, with clouds rolling over from Lombok’s and Bali’s volcanic mountains, adding variety to the deep blue skies (and stunning starscapes at night), and the sea goes from deep black-green to pale turquoise. The sound of the sea is never far, and inland the largely friendly and outgoing locals live connected but very different lives to those like us with our luxuries.We didn’t find the ‘party’ of this supposed party island, mainly as holiday season (dominated by Australians who we saw by the boat-load later on) hadn’t quite begun. Instead we often were alone at cafes and in the little shops we wandered around and there were more baby turtles in the sanctuary there than there were tourists. Our main destination of the three islands however is known to be even quieter. Gili Meno – which all the locals smilingly refer to as the ‘honeymoon island’ – is the middle and smallest of the trio and we arrived there for a ten day stay at a bungalow place run in the casual and friendly way we discovered to be the rule of thumb on Meno. No one was there when we turned up so a passing man sent his Man U shirt-wearing son running off to get the owner who strolled up smiling and continued to look after us in the same sleepy way for the rest of our stay. Sadly this meant the breakfasts he cooked were a bit rubbish but we liked him immensely, as we did all the cheerful people we met, all of whom, native or here for work from Lombok, embraced the island lifestyle as fully as any backpacker. Whether it was chatting to passers-by or playing dominos with staff at a deserted bar on the disused jetty, we felt very welcome here, and learnt more phrases than in almost any country of the trip. Our final stop was Gili Air, the closest to the mainland and a mix of the other two – with mellow deserted stretches and busy western-orientated restaurants – and was a peaceful end to a wonderful month. Except for a rather exciting five seconds when an earthquake hit with a loud boom. We spent more time chatting with locals, had one last dive to see our mates the turtles, snorkelled with fish of every colour, had as many milkshakes as is humanly possible to consume, whilst watching the waves and the blue skies, and the odd cocktail under some incredible sunsets. Our thoughts and conversations turned more and more to our return home, with all the positives – seeing all you lot after so long; brushing our teeth with tap water; mould-free pillows – battling it out with the downside of ending such an incredible six months. We feel immensely lucky, and grateful to all of you for helping, to be able to have done this in our lives and it will be a time we will never forget. Thank you to everyone for your kind and generous gifts which helped make our honeymoon trip so special.
As we flew home and the stewards brought us cake and champagne after I told them it was our honeymoon (I hope to ride that out til our tenth anniversary, at least), I wondered how best to finish this final post and sum up half a year of experiences. And then decided the following photos would do nicely… Thank you all for reading.