On April 18, 2019, approximately 8 months after the earthquakes and aftershocks that devastated huge parts of Lombok, I hopped on my rented motorbike and set out with a friend on a weeklong bike trip around the island. We knew that tourists were still visiting the island, but most people were heading to surf in the south, in Kuta, so we weren’t sure what to expect with the rest of the island. We left the majority of our belongings at a hotel in Mataram, the capital and only major city on the island, and without a real plan or even data on our phones, we set off.
We started heading counter clockwise towards Senggigi, a beautiful strip of beaches on the northwest coast of Lombok. The drive was gorgeous, sun shining, and few other cars on the road. We realized pretty quickly that most businesses were shut, perhaps because low season was just ending. Around every corner was a new view of the coastline stretching off in the distance, beaches and barely a sign of human life in sight – no buildings, no electricity poles, nothing.
We finally made it up to Pamenang, where the sideroad we had taken joined back up to the main highway around the island. This part of the journey was definitely less pleasant because we constantly had big trucks passing us within inches of our small motorbikes on a single-lane highway. Because of that, we decided to take a shortcut down a side road marked on our mapping app which would take us up close to the northern slopes of Mt. Rinjani.
Unfortunately, it turns out that something marked as a major road on a map isn’t necessarily a major road, and our shortcut became an adventure in itself. The pavement soon ended, then the dirt road became a goat trail (including actual goats blocking the path) and we had committed so much time by then we couldn’t turn back. So, we bumped along until we finally emerged, to the local residents’ surprise, on the end of a real, paved road leading to the start of the Mt. Rinjani hike.
Mt. Rinjani is an imposing active volcano that serves as an extremely beautiful and rewarding multi-day hike for visitors to the island. At the time of our visit, Mt. Rinjani was still closed to hikers due to a combination of a long rainy season, which was just ending, and damage to the trails in the August 2018 earthquakes. We were happy to simply observe it from a distance, and the mountain became our compass on the weeklong journey, always letting us know where we were on the island.
As darkness was falling, we spent a couple of hours driving around the north part of the island and circling Mt. Rinjani. We were looking for affordable accommodation, and it was harder to come by than anticipated. The first problem was that because of the rainy season and Mt. Rinjani’s closure, there were no tourists in the area and none of the guesthouses had opened for the season.
The second, more serious and heartbreaking problem, was that the earthquakes had affected so many businesses and homes. For every few buildings we saw, there was an empty lot filled with rubble. The amount of devastation which people hadn’t been able to recover from was sobering.
Even during our time there, there was no WiFi anywhere due to an earthquake the week before—a small price to pay. What marked me the most was the realization that this was the reality of life for the people of Lombok. In a split second, your business, your home, even your life or that of your loved ones can be taken from you, so a 5.5 magnitude earthquake which knocks out power or communications is actually almost a non-event.
All of the guesthouses we saw were shut with no owners in sight, except for one we were lucky enough to stumble upon. Although it wasn’t actually open, the owner was kind enough to clean out a room which hadn’t been used since last year’s visitors. He was extremely friendly and accommodating, which was on par with the generosity and kind-heartedness of the people of Lombok that we had experienced so far. Every time we stopped by the side of the road on our trip, people would say hello with a smile, ask if we needed directions, and just be curious about our story.
After exploring the northern part of the island around the base of Mt. Rinjani, we headed out of town again, through some valleys and winding switchbacks. Every so often, some monkeys would run across the road and startle us. Lombok is a beautiful island, and makes me wonder if it’s what Bali looked like before it became taken over by tourism. The rice fields were lush and green, without a tourist in sight searing for the Instagram opportunity, and the waterfalls and beaches can be enjoyed without seeing a single other person around.
We drove down towards Kuta along the lower slopes of Mt. Rinjani, and we were surrounded by rice fields. They were full and green, and we ended up taking a side road that continued the trend of becoming a dirt path, this time weaving between rice paddies. It was truly spectacular, with not a person or car in sight, just the wind, the sound of insects and birds, and the rice plants swaying in the breeze. Behind us, the volcano stood firm and constant, its peak in the clouds, and ahead of us, the blue ocean and not a cloud in sight.
Driving into Kuta was a welcome relief after the devastation and lack of facilities for travellers in the north. For all the welcoming attitudes of the people we met, it still felt like we were getting in the way of their rehabilitation and reconstruction and intruding during a sensitive period. In Kuta, there was a lot less visible damage from the earthquakes, and there were a fair number of restaurants, guesthouses, and other tourists.
It was nice to finally get off the bike for a little while and relax after the long days on the bumpy road. We picked a guesthouse which was quite nice, with a traditional breakfast and little front porch. For the next few days, we went on some short trips to pink sand beaches, viewpoints, and surfing spots, and filled up on the foods we’d missed in the last week, from pizza to sushi to burritos.
After a couple of days, we left Kuta to head back towards Mataram and Senggigi. We spent our last night in Senggigi, in one of the few hotels still open in the town. It was a strange feeling, like we were in a tourist ghost town, where some locals still lived and worked, but all the restaurants, bars, and hotels were closed up. In the morning, we returned our trusty motorbikes and took a shuttle to the airport to board our flight to Labuan Bajo and the Komodo National Park.
Although I hope that the people of Lombok can fully recover from the devastating earthquakes of August 2018 and money from tourism can come back to the island, I fear that it may be only a matter of time until another serious earthquake strikes this part of the world. As my trip takes me to another part of Indonesia, I keep the positive attitudes and smiles of the resilient people of Lombok in my mind, and when I am faced with any obstacle in my life, I remember the grace and hospitality they showed me even as they rebuilt their homes and lives time and again.