A confetti cloud of blue-green chromis damselfish dances in the crystalline waters above a beautiful cauliflower coral. Beams of morning light sparkle and refract across a panoramic view of shallow coral reef. Beneath the surface, my buddy and Bali surfing legend Mega Semadhi swims towards the school of fish, arms outstretched, the water almost as clear as the air above. Gliding past an underwater garden of delicate corals – staghorn, table, acropora and many more – Mega appears to be flying. As he approaches the damselfish, they form a synchronised orb of silvery blue, darting and weaving together as Mega passes by. He finally returns to the surface to catch his breath.
“Did you see that?” Mega calls out, excitement ringing in his voice. Below his feet, a pair of Moorish idols dart past, adding an exclamation point to his observation.
We’re exploring a little-known cluster of gilis (“small islands” in the local Sasak language) in the southwest corner of Lombok. For most visitors to Indonesia, mention the word “gili” and their thoughts go immediately to the trio of legendary islands further north – Gili Trawangan, Air and Meno. Together, these tiny dots of tropical beauty have accounted for the majority of visitors to Lombok. But we are here to check out a different pristine island chain – “the other Gilis” – starting with the idyllic Gili Asahan, a 140ha outcrop of coral crowned with a hilly interior that is home to about 150 residents. It’s located a few hours by car from Lombok airport or a three-hour fast boat ride from Bali.
As we swim in the waters surrounding Gili Asahan, I’m amazed to find the coral reefs in such great condition – it’s not every day you can snorkel a reef with such a variety of healthy hard corals. Across the globe, coral reefs are under threat as rising sea temperatures make bleaching events much more common. Corals can only survive in a very narrow temperature range; above that temperature, the coral polyps expel the symbiotic algae upon which they depend for food, and the bleached skeletons of the polyps are all that remain. In 2009 and 2015, the El Niño warming pattern caused widespread coral bleaching in Indonesian waters, so this is a heartening discovery.
After a couple of hours of swimming, we head back to Gili Asahan Eco Lodge, a boutique resort built by hand almost entirely from driftwood and other reclaimed timber. A refreshing sea breeze flutters through Nautilus, the resort’s open-air restaurant. Keen to find out more about the local reef conservation efforts on Gili Asahan, we are meeting with Separi (like many Indonesians, he uses only one name). The soft-spoken 37-year-old is a local environmental activist who has spent the past five years developing the ecotourism potential of the Gili Asahan area.
“When I started this project on Gili Asahan, I didn’t know anything about conservation,” admits Separi, who spent the first seven years of his career working for a mining company. While working in Borneo, however, Separi met folks working at WWF-Indonesia. “They helped me to understand the importance of saving the natural beauty that is all around us in Indonesia,” he says.
Separi grew up in the city of Mataram on mainland Lombok, but his grandfather was originally from Gili Asahan. With a desire to reconnect with his grandfather’s roots, he finished his work on Borneo and returned to the remote island to explore ways of making a difference. While snorkelling around Gili Asahan in 2014, Separi was shocked to see bleached and broken corals everywhere he looked. According to locals, the reasons for the damage were both natural (El Niño warming events) and manmade (tourists who can’t swim and end up standing on the corals).
“I think maybe 70% of the coral was broken, only 30% looked like it was alive,” he recalls. Inspired to save the island that he and his grandfather loved, Separi decided to act. He connected with the Wildlife Conservation Society in Mataram, which provided guidance on the basics of coral reef biology. Armed with newfound knowledge, Separi launched a grassroots coral restoration project that transplants live coral fragments from the remaining healthy areas to the spots that were damaged. Together with four local volunteers, Separi built concrete cubes measuring 40cm across, implanting the coral pieces in the concrete for them to grow.
“Corals typically grow only up to four centimetres per year, usually just one centimetre,” he explains. “However, our transplanted corals averaged five to seven centimetres per year, but a few have grown as much as 10!” Over the next couple of years, Separi and his volunteers moved the restored corals to the areas of damaged reef to replace the dead corals.
Most of the islanders are fisherfolk, and with the decrease in coral cover, the local people realised they were catching less fish. Eventually, most gave up fishing entirely because of the dwindling populations on the reef. “In the beginning, the local people didn’t understand that when there is no coral, there will be very few fish,” Separi says. “But that is changing now.” Leaning forward in his seat, Separi says earnestly, “I hope the local community will continue to preserve the beautiful islands we have here and help save the corals.”
Inspired by Separi’s enthusiasm for the beauty of this region, Mega and I decide to head next to Gili Kedis, which is “one of the most beautiful islands in all of West Lombok”, according to the conservationist.
We decide to leave at first light the next morning for the hour-long boat ride. Waking up before dawn, the only sound is the distant call to prayer at the local mosque. The gentle rays of the sun glow in the east. In the distance, you can see Lombok’s iconic Mount Rinjani and even Bali’s sacred Mount Agung on a clear day. Mega and I toss our snorkelling gear into the waiting jukung (small wooden Indonesian outrigger canoe), tethering a stand-up paddleboard to the bow of the boat for our journey to Gili Kedis. Our boatman is a quiet fellow, who grabs quick naps when he’s not navigating the jukung.
The morning sea is mirror calm as we leave Gili Asahan in our wake, heading east to pass Gili Layar, Rengit and Anyaran. Of the 10 gilis in the southwest of Lombok, only Gili Asahan and Gili Gede have more than two families living on them. All together, the islands offer a wealth of activities from snorkelling to freediving and stand-up paddleboarding. There are 32 identified scuba diving sites in the area, but because of its remoteness, there aren’t any dive shops on the islands. Any diving at this point would have to be done on a liveaboard boat or through a dive shop on mainland Lombok.
Our jukung makes great time, arriving at Gili Kedis in just over an hour. We step ashore to find that it is every bit as beautiful as Separi told us: a tiny jewel of white sand surrounded by sapphire blue water and a lush coral garden. Walking a lap around the entire island takes just a little over five minutes.
Mega unties the stand-up paddleboard and paddles away from the idyllic beach. The clarity of the shallow water creates the illusion that he’s floating on air. We spend more than an hour on the island before another tourist boat even shows up. At about 10.30am, with the sun high in the sky, we decide to continue our island-hopping voyage, leaving the beauty of Gili Kedis to the newcomers.
Turning the bow of the boat to the west, our boatman gets us to Gili Nanggu in about 15 minutes, and we find an islet also surrounded by coral reefs and a wreath of bone-white sand. On our return to Gili Asahan, we stop to snorkel at Gili Layar, where we encounter an energetic school of sergeant major fish.
“I’m definitely going to bring my girlfriend here,” Mega says with a smile as we’re climbing back into the jukung after snorkelling. “She can relax on the beach while I’m surfing Desert Point.” The legendary surf break is just across the channel from Gili Asahan, but the spartan accommodations at Desert Point are probably less appealing to those not surfing. Mega is certainly on to something with this Gili Asahan-Desert Point getaway. I’m just surprised I haven’t heard of anyone doing this before.
Back at the Gili Asahan Eco Lodge restaurant, we arrive in time for a lunch of wood-fired pizza. Jana, the resort manager, tells us that more foreign tourists are slowly discovering Gili Asahan and its surrounding islands. “Everyone has heard of Gili T, but some people look at the map and bypass the bigger island, coming straight to us,” she says. With more visitors reaching the other Gilis, there’s a greater need for conservation awareness, making the work done by Separi and his team ever more necessary.
In the late afternoon, we hike the trail behind the villas, climbing the steep hill to the resort’s yoga hut, and are rewarded with stunning views of Gili Goleng just across the channel. As we descend the trail and reach the beach, the first glimmers of starlight are shining. I watch as the skies deepen from cobalt to indigo. The arc of the Milky Way appears as if by magic, and the stars burn with intensity.
Drinking in this placid scene, I make a silent pledge to return soon and explore more of this amazing little-known corner of Lombok.
SilkAir flies three times weekly between Singapore and Lombok. To book flights, visit singaporeair.com
SEE ALSO: Here’s what to see, eat and do in Lombok
This article was originally published in the September 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine