Largely unexplored, North Lombok offers a peek into an exotic world of natural wonders and ancient communities. Under the shadow of Mount Rinjani, a stunning coastline and beautiful rice terraces await you, as well as a culture that holds strong to its traditional values. Only 35 kms east of Bali, there’s a special charm to North Lombok. Few tourists venture to this destination, making your sojourn here even more magical.
NORTH OF SENGGIGI
I studied the map of Lombok with my tour guide and driver, Alyn and told him of my ambitious plans. “I want to know what is north of Sengiggi. I’ve heard of an ancient culture where only two traditional villages still remain somewhere up in the north. Can we go there?” Alyn was a bit surprised. “Yes, I know of these two villages. Do you really want to go there? I usually just take people to Mount Rinjani.” “Yes,” I replied, “I want to go. I want to discover the hidden heritage of North Lombok.”
With the map spread out before us, we planned a five-day trip and set out from the busy town of Senggigi, the well-developed tourism centre of Lombok and headed north.
The road hugs the ocean and winds its way around the coastline, offering cliff top vistas at regular points. Idyllic white sand beaches and coves dot the coastline with small warungs (stalls) serving food to the locals and the very few tourists who visit this beautiful area. There are no large tourism developments along this stretch of coast, however, a little tucked away oasis does exist at Sire Beach.
Discretely nestled in its own little world is Tugu Lombok. It’s worth a stop here for lunch and a swim. This small boutique hotel is a showcase of Indonesian heritage, and is exquisitely furnished with antiques. So, if history is your thing, you could spend quite a bit of time discovering all the treasures and old statues in the spacious gardens, and then wander the lobby and enormous rice barn- shaped open restaurant, full of classic artwork and relics.
If you fancy a bit of pampering, the treatments at the Buddhist Borobudur-styled temple spa are simply out of this world. After a scrumptious lunch, I take a walk along the perfect white sand Sire Beach, which offers views across the Lombok Straits to the Gilis, a group of three little islands, only 15 minutes away, which are accessible by boat from Tugu.
SENARU WATERFALL MAGIC
Our detour inland to Senaru is the next highlight. Scenic villages and fishing towns spread out at intervals along the coastal road. In the foothills of the mighty Mount Rinjani, this delightful little town is alive with mountain climbers and eager young backpackers getting ready to take on the serious five-day trek to the summit of Rinjani, the second highest mountain in Indonesia at 3,726 metres above sea level. You have to be in a good physical condition to attempt this challenging climb and organise supplies, tents, porters and a guide in advance.
For those not so inclined to reach such lofty heights, me included, Senaruoffers beautiful nature walks. It’s worth taking one or two days to simply soak up the atmosphere and cool temperatures, and to enjoy the forest trail walks and highlights of this stunning mountain region.
Approaching Senaru, you wind your way up the hill with the temperature dropping noticeably. A small hotel with picturesque little cottages is a great stopping point and I find it pretty difficult to leave this idyllic spot.
The Pondok Senaru Cottages and Restaurant position their dining room tables so they are literally perched on the edge of two very dramatic vistas. Sipping a coffee from your perched position, you first take in the forests that cling to the mountainside, and at eye level, you look across to one of the tallest waterfalls on the mountain. The drop is 40 metres, but from this spot, there’s only silence and nature between you and the thundering mass of water across the valley. As you drag your eyes away from this show of power and beauty, you look out towards the ocean across a series of rice- terraces cascading down the valley.
The highlight of Senaru is the well- maintained forest trail that leads to the two massive waterfalls – one very close (only 20 minutes away) and the other one, an hour further on. As I enter the forest, I hear crashing above me in the trees and look up to see a family of monkeys swinging from branch to branch, on a serious quest for jungle food. The first waterfall, known as Air Terjun Sending Gila is pretty impressive with a 40-metre drop. The trail brings you right underneath the spray and foam of this cascading natural beauty. If this is all you can manage, it is well worth it. However, with a bit of extra effort, the next waterfall offers a little more.
I am keen to see the next waterfall and my guide takes me an alternative way through an old tunnel, flashlight leading the way. We have company on the way as docile bats dangle above us. The knee-deep, swift-flowing water keeps me alert and moving at a pretty keen pace. We pop out into the sunlight about 10 minutes later, and continue on, accompanied by a variety of birdsong. Around 30 minutes later, we arrive at our destination, Air Terjun Tiu Kelap.
I hear the thunderous roar of this massive waterfall well before I see it. This is a much bigger waterfall and worth the extra one-hour hike. The sheer volume of water cascading over the black volcanic rock wall leaves me speechless (and temporarily deaf!). A perfect, natural swimming pool beckons me in and I take the plunge, braving the icy cold, pure water, and soaking in the exhilarating power of the thunderous fall. A delightfully revitalising experience!
In my quest to find the unique ethnic Wetu Telu people, we take a narrow road, a little off the beaten track, and find our way to Segenter traditional village and a little further on, Senaru traditional village. These people are Sasak and maintain a strong Muslim faith while practising a mix of ancestor worship and to a lesser degree now, animism. They like to do things in threes. They pray three times a day (instead of the regular five times as practised by Muslims worldwide); embrace the ideal of the Holy Trinity – the sun, the moon and the stars as representations of heaven, earth and water; and believe the head, body and limbs represent creativity, sensitivity and control.
Senaru traditional village has 20 families living together and a total village population of 79 people. A village elder, Sukrati, invites me to sit on the communal platform known as the berugak to learn about their village ways: Their birth rituals, weddings and funerals. The village sustains itself by growing crops in the rich volcanic soil on the edge of Mount Rinjani. They grow grains, rice, tobacco and coffee. The people follow the Sasak calendar and have many auspicious days throughout the year. Sukrati also speaks of their age- old practice of stick fighting, still regularly performed in the village. “We use shields made from buffalo skin and rattan. It is very exciting to watch,” he goes on to explain, “The fight is in rounds of three and we must fight till blood is drawn. It is not a violent sport and if the opponents show any anger at all, the fight is finished.” The blood that spills on the soil is symbolic and ensures a good harvest for the coming season.
The village houses are beautifully- preserved in the original style; many that had fallen into disrepair were faithfully restored in 1997. Today, what you see is a well-functioning traditional village, where life revolves around the communal ‘talking platform’, and where employment is around 95 percent, and sustainable agricultural practices blend with nature. Though small in numbers, the people maintain the Wetu Tulu culture and way of life. To have a glimpse into a tradition dating back to the 14th century is truly a unique experience.
The other Wetu Telu village I visit is Sengenter, with a population of 429 people comprising 117 families living together. Their houses are low-lying and as you step inside, across a raised doorway, you must duck down quite low. Nengsanom, a village elder explains that this is intentional, because it means you have to lower your head as you enter, therefore bowing and paying respect. This village sustains itself by growing tapioca, corn, spinach, peanuts and soy beans, and they produce one harvest of rice a year.
Both these villages are fine examples of an ancient culture living in harmony with nature, practising their traditional ways and staying strong in their faith.
The rich fertile volcanic soil of the beautiful Sembalun Valley spreads out from the eastern slopes of Mount Rinjani and turns a verdant green during the wet season. Agro tourism is developing in this area, and I stop at Sembalun Agro Villa and Restaurant that opened for business four months ago.
Here, I have the opportunity to savour something that’s a first for me: fresh strawberry juice, the fruit having been picked from the fields next to the villa. What a delight! A vast patchwork of colourful fields spreads across the valley floor and neatly planted rows of cabbages, potatoes, strawberries and garlic greet you in all directions. It is a scenic wonder from the top of the pass above the town of Sembalun Lawang.
Sembalun Lawang village is another access point to start the trek to Mount Rinjani, and apart from Sembalun Agro Villas, there are homestays and other low budget options available. The Rinjani Information Centre is also worth a stop with their extensive display of information explaining the Mount Rinjani trekking routes and short walk options, the local flora and fauna and much more. The centre can also provide you with tents, local trekking guides and supplies. Apart from the summit hike, there’s a lovely four-hour guided village walk and a wonderful wildflower walk, both of which can be easily arranged via the Information Centre.
North Lombok is an adventure. In the shadow of Mount Rinjani, you have a world of beauty and natural wonder, with very few tourists sharing the space with you, making it one of the best-kept secrets in the vast Indonesian archipelago.
The mountain is sacred to Hindus and Sasaks, and offerings are made to the gods at certain times of the year. These pilgrimages involve many people, including Balinese who offer gold
and jewellery to the lake during the ceremony of pekelan before they make their final ascent to the summit. Danau Segara Anak is a cobalt blue, crescent- shaped lake that has formed 600 metres below the crater rim and is 6 km across.
The mountain now has an active volcano. This cone emerged only a couple of hundred years ago. The summit is 3,726 metres. However, it used to be over 4,000 metres before the eruption in 1257. The peak erupts at intervals, and over the last decade, has sent ash and smoke over the entire Rinjani caldera. The healing properties of the natural hot springs here are well known to locals, and many trek here with their medicinal herbs and soak in the mineral water.
Trekking season is April to October. Check with the Rinjani Information Centre first ( +62 0878 6334 4119, Open 6:00am to 6:00pm). Due to landslides, the trail is closed during the wet season from November to March.
THE SUMMIT CLIMB
The most popular route is the five-day trek starting at Senaru and finishing at Sembalun Lawang.
Sembalun is the second option. This is a two-day return trek but is very steep and quite gruelling.
It is mandatory to take a guide. Registration is at either RIC in Senaru or RIC in Sembalun. It is advisable
to take a porter. Guides will only carry a light daypack, so one or two porters are needed to carry your food and supplies. Agencies in Senggigi, Mataram and Gili Islands can also organise Rinjani treks, including your return transport from point of origin.
Story by Stephanie Brookes
Photos by David Metcalf