HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, October 26, 2015

Diving & Driving on Lembongan

Finally, it's time for my last post on Indonesia. This was delayed by a four-day trip to Phu Quoc with Natasha and general procrastination. After this it's back to Vietnam posts.

The fast-boat trip from Gili T to Nusa Lembongan, located across the Badung Strait from Bali, was very comfortable thanks to the fairly calm waters. Bali loomed on the right the whole way, with Mount Agung, the tallest volcano on the island, dominating the view. After two hours we pulled into the harbor of Jungut Batu beach, and I was somewhat surprised by how relatively developed this part of the island is. Villas stretched up the hillside to the right, while hotels and restaurants spread to the left and water slides full of day-trippers from Bali sat in the bay.

I got a ride to the Secret Garden Bungalows, which I highly recommend, and headed to a restaurant along the beach for sunset and a beer. This became a routine during my three nights on Lembongan.

The following morning I was up early for more diving, this time with Big Fish Diving. When I arrived at the dive shop they asked if I had a hood or a long-sleeve wetsuit, to which I replied no, I just got certified. But more importantly, why would these be necessary? I assumed the waters around the island would be a similar temperature to the Gilis, which was a balmy 82 F (28 C). Turns out the sea around Lembongan is more like 64 F (18 C), a massive difference. It was explained that the currents come from different places than in the Gilis, which makes sense as the only landmass south of us was Antarctica. I was given a hood, booties and three layers of thicker wetsuits before boarding the boat.

We motored around to the south side of the island to dive off of Nusa Penida, one of the three islands in a group with Lembongan (the third being Nusa Ceningan). After suiting up we entered the water: it was deep blue and incredibly clear, but indeed very cold. It took my breath away at first, but after going under I adjusted somewhat. I also found that peeing in your wetsuit helped provide some warmth. I was nervous about the diving considering the issues I had had on Gili T, but the first dive went flawlessly. My mask fit like a glove and there wasn't much current, but I go through oxygen quickly and had to surface a few minutes before the rest of my group. This turned out to be a good thing, as right when I got to the surface a pod of bottlenose dolphins cruised by, dipping in and out of the water and clicking and chirping at each other. It was an amazing sight, and I couldn't believe I had been so lucky - the rest of the group completely missed them since they were much lower. We had seen a bunch of small stuff during the dive, but the dolphins easily took the cake.

This area is famous for manta ray and mola-mola (sunfish) sightings, as the islands lie on their migratory paths, and the other group on the boat saw both. However, they had advanced certification and could go much deeper, where it is easier to see big fish. We warmed up and had a snack on the boat before moving on to another dive site off of Penida.

I was perfect during this dive as well, and I was learning that as long my mask fit well and didn't leak I had no problem. I was getting better at controlling buoyancy and generally felt more at ease, though I was still blowing through my oxygen quickly. There was a fairly strong current at this site and we once again missed out on the big stuff, as the advanced group spotted more mantas and mola-mola. I was now determined to get my advanced certification at some point in the future. It is amazing how quickly you become spoiled by the number of fish down below, as you start to almost ignore big schools of beautiful fish in the hunt for bigger, rarer species. Still, the dives were beautiful, and were a huge confidence boost after the mishaps during my training course. After returning to Lembongan I cleaned up and returned to my usual sunset spot (yawn).
The following day was my last on the island, and while I could've gone diving again I decided to save money and rent a motorbike instead. After leaving the main tourist area I quickly realized how undeveloped Lembongan actually is, contrary to my first impression: the roads are in bad shape, there is plenty of empty space even on a small island, and parts look very poor. I made my way to the rickety suspension bridge which connects Lembongan to Ceningan, and driving across it sounded like riding on an old wooden rollercoaster. It definitely had something of an Indiana Jones-esque feel to it.

The estuary separating Lembongan and Ceningan.
I tooled around on tiny Ceningan and noticed a sign advertising a cafe called Ceningan Cliffs, with an arrow pointing up a hill. I followed the cratered road past ramshackle houses and around tight turns and eventually reached a peaceful cafe perched on the edge of a hill overlooking giant Nusa Penida and the deep blue channel between the islands. It was an impressive vista, all the more so because of the almost complete lack of human development in sight. Penida can only be reached by boat and is still largely off the tourism map, and it looked like nothing more than a vast expanse of jungle. I could see that a few secluded beaches had buildings here and there, but the nature was overwhelming. A brisk breeze howled through the channel, while strong currents churned the waters below. This was the area I had gone diving in the day before.

I enjoyed the tranquility for a bit and then got back on my scooter to head downhill. It was only then that I realized going down would not be fun - the road was steep and in terrible condition, and the brakes on my bike weren't great. I also didn't have a helmet, and medical care would be a long way away. Even with my experience on a bike this was daunting. I gave it a go, barely stayed in control after hitting a nasty pothole, and decided to just walk the bike the rest of the way down while holding the brake. The locals probably though I was an idiot, but I survived.
After clanking back across the little yellow bridge I headed to the southwest tip of Lembongan and found an area of amazing cliffs, where huge swells rolled in from the deep and smashed into the headlands in eruptions of foam and mist. The island is famous for surfing, and I now understood why.
Small ponds had formed at the edges of the cliffs, where bright green algae bloomed and contrasted with the incredible hues of the ocean. This was scenery unlike anything I had seen before, and I spent a good hour clambering around, watching the waves explode onto the rocks.

Eventually I returned to Jungut Batu via Mushroom Beach, where Bali's Mount Agung loomed in the distance, and packed up for my boat to Bali the next morning.
The ride to Bali took just 30 minutes, and it was then straight into a van to the airport. Driving through Denpasar, the manic hub in Bali's south, was jarring after two weeks spent on a staggeringly beautiful volcano and several stunning islands: traffic was relentless, Western chains littered intersections, and high-rise buildings abounded. After checking in for my flight back to Saigon I had ample time to reflect on the trip. I was actually heading home two weeks earlier than originally planned, as I was supposed to motorbike around Bali, but Lombok, the Gilis and Lembongan had been so amazing and eye-opening that I didn't think the uber-popular, uber-crowded island would be able to live up to what I had already done. (And I really missed Natasha.) Over 14 days of utterly perfect weather I had seen incredible things, both on land and under the sea, and knew that I would be back in Indonesia for more at some point. From the summit of Rinjani to 60 feet below the Badung Strait, the country had completely blown me away.

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