A small is­land in In­done­sia that’s too-per­fect-to-be-real

Oi Vietnam - - Front Page - Text by Stephe­nie Har­ri­son Images by Tony Kuehn

Put In­done­sia's Nusa Lem­bon­gan Is­land on Your Bucket List

IN ALL HIS WIS­DOM, the Buddha once coun­seled, “It is bet­ter to travel well than to ar­rive.”

Gaz­ing out across the roil­ing waters of the Bali Sea where the tip of a slowly sink­ing ferry boat bobs be­neath a tide of crash­ing waves, I am be­gin­ning to won­der whether I might not live long enough to ex­pe­ri­ence ei­ther of those things.

A 60 kilo­me­ter swath of wa­ter known as the Ban­dung Strait sep­a­rates Bali, In­done­sia from a clus­ter of three is­lands known col­lec­tively as Pu­lau Penida. It is one of the most tur­bu­lent pas­sages in the re­gion, and the jour­ney is made all the more per­ilous by the rel­a­tively du­bi­ous safety records of In­done­sian fer­ries, which do lit­tle to in­spire con­fi­dence in their pas­sen­gers even in the most serene sail­ing con­di­tions.

But boats are the only means of reach­ing this trio of is­lands, and per­haps it is this nau­ti­cal gaunt­let that ev­ery trav­eler must face to en­sure that on the other side par­adise still awaits. With no cars, no Western chains, spotty Wi-Fi, and some­times even no elec­tric­ity, a voy­age across the strait is said to be like trav­el­ing back in time, to the glory days of Bali 20 years ago.

From largest to small­est, the is­lands that beckon across the wa­ter are Nusa Penida, Nusa Lem­bon­gan, and Nusa Ceningan. All have their charms, but I am like the fa­bled Goldilocks, fix­ated on the mid-sized Lem­bon­gan. It is the most de­vel­oped and vis­ited of the three­boast­ing ev­ery­thing from man­grove forests and fish­ing vil­lages to Ba­li­nese tem­ples and killer surf breaks, it seems to have a lit­tle some­thing for ev­ery­one. The con­sen­sus is that Lem­bon­gan is nei­ther too big nor too small, not too busy or too quiet, but just right. It sounds like per­fec­tion, but watch­ing as the boat off­shore fi­nally slips to a wa­tery grave, it’s hard to shake the sense that this is any­thing but a ter­ri­ble omen.

The fol­low­ing day breaks with the sor­bet hues of dawn punch­ing through dol­lops of cloud as the sky swiftly shifts from warm to cool tones that match the sur­face of the sea. Ru­mor has it that the cross­ing is calmer ear­lier in the day, and I am first in line to buy tickets for the pub­lic boat that will ferry us across. I have heard hor­ror sto­ries of boats be­ing danger­ously over­crowded and over­loaded, of pas­sen­gers shar­ing the space with all man­ner of live­stock for the 90-minute cross­ing, so I’m re­lieved to find that when we cast off, there are only a hand­ful of other pas­sen­gers and plenty of room to spare.

Although ini­tially placid, about an hour into our jour­ney the wa­ter turns choppy and hos­tile. Mas­sive waves tear them­selves from the sea and bat­ter an­grily against the sides of the boat.

Our cap­tain does his best to steer the dod­der­ing craft around the swells, but even still, we are tossed about like rag dolls on a roller­coaster. It never feels as though we are in dan­ger—the crew is un­flap­pably non­cha­lant, sug­gest­ing these con­di­tions are noth­ing to worry about— but just the same, I’m glad I caught the early boat. I’d hate to be out here when the weather is ac­tu­ally a con­cern.

As Nusa Lem­bon­gan fi­nally glides into view, all cares and wor­ries dis­ap­pear.

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