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Gili getaway: island-hopping in Indonesia

Gili getaway: island-hopping in Indonesia

Looking up at 100 metres of jagged rocks and stones, high above the clouds and having scrambled through dense jungle for a long day, and with rain starting to fall, I started to wonder: what exactly had I got myself into? I was only minutes from reaching the crater of Lombok’s majestic but brutal Mount Rinjani – but those mere minutes would involve a hard slog up an essentially vertical rockface.

Buoyed by one of my fellow climbers’ music players, I eventually made it to the crater (some 2,600 metres), which overlooks a vast lake and on clear days allows you see across great swathes of the Indonesian island and far into the Bali Sea. We camped for the night on a craggy, desolate outcrop – wind howling against the tent, gobbling up the noodles and vegetables prepared with care for us by the heroic porters who accompanied us (and who removed all rubbish the next day; environmental sustainability is pleasingly no afterthought here).

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At sunrise, as we woke up on what seemed like the top of the world and the day came into its glorious own over the water, it all felt worth it. Trekking back down was just as punishing, but also exhilarating.

Lombok is a lesser known island compared with neighbouring Bali, although its tourism industry is starting to ramp up, particularly around the Kuta Beach coastline. Other than summiting Rinjani – which we didn’t quite do, since you need a three-day hike for that and we chose the lesser option – it’s still best known as a jumping-off point to the Gili Islands, three tropical outposts surrounded by coral reef, golden sand and plenty of low-key accommodation. Reached by boat from Lombok or from Bali (about two hours by speedboat) they are well worth a visit.

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Of the three, Trawangan, Meno and Air – all Muslim Islands, where the sound of the call to prayer can be heard from the sands – the former is the most established and popular destination. These days, families are better off on Air, where the party stops at 11ish; on Trawangan, or Gili T as it is known, the bars and clubs are spilling over well into the small hours.

Indeed, the Gilis are a partygoers’ dream: cheap beer, happy hour cocktails everywhere, and live music on the beach throughout the evening. But don’t let that put you off; for all that the Gilis act as a typical stop on the backpacker route, it’s more than possible to escape the hubub for some genuine relaxation.

Stay on the sunset side of the island, so named because it faces west, where there are growing numbers of stylish resorts and villas, not to mention clearer waters, since the majority of pollution sits on the other side. You’ll want a taxi to get there from the harbour, although it’s one with a difference; there are no cars on the island so travel is by horse drawn carriage. Overall, the islands aim for an environmentally friendly ethos, with signs encouraging you to refill water bottles and not waste resources.

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From the sunset side, you can enjoy any number of watersports, from learning to dive to paddle boarding; we hired a glass bottomed boat for the afternoon to take us snorkelling, and it was well worth it. Gazing at the multicoloured coral and sea mushrooms, spotting the tropical fish darting about unawares, and most of all trailing a giant turtle on its elegant course, I was mesmerised.

There’s little to do beyond the obvious: cheap eats (most of all the nightly seafood barbecues, where fresh tuna is a particular selling point) and soaking up the sun from your deckchair. But there are activities on offer if you wish, from horseriding and open air cinema on the beach (less concern about adverse weather conditions that at, say, Somerset House), through to an evening class with the Gili Cooking School, where we learnt to make the rice dish Mi Goreng, along with Gado Gado (tofu, vegetables, bean cake and satay sauce) from the unfailingly friendly chefs. And of course, you can always take a day or two out to hike up Rinjani. You’ll just be glad to put your feet up when you get back from the mainland.

Unsurprisingly, given its proximity, Australians have been flocking to the Gilis for aeons, but us Brits have been slower to discover them. If you’re heading to Bali, though, you’d be a fool to miss out.