Nusa Lembongan A Gondola Ride Through the Mangrovesby Bill Dalton


Nusa Lembongan: A Gondola Ride Through the Mangroves
by Bill Dalton

Given its storied reputation as a paradise isle, the westerly sea approach to Bali – the low-lying horizon of a drab port town – is anti-climactic. The eastern exit out of Bali on the other hand is a dramatic turbulent passage across the Bali Strait with mighty Gunung Agung looming up in the east.

I had climbed aboard the Scoot boat and disembarked from Sanur early in the morning to beat the heat. Bouncing across the mile-deep body of water to Nusa Lembongan, the prow of the fast boat ferociously slapped the waves as it neared the low scrubby island 11 km southeast of mainland Bali.

Measuring only 4 km by 3 km, Nusa Lembongan is ringed by palms, mangrove swamps, and white sandy beaches with glorious views. The terrain in the interior is dry with volcanic stonewalls and processional avenues crisscrossing cactus-covered hills. Crops are meager. The only fruit available is melon. All food must be imported from the mainland. A long suspension bridge in the south connects to the sister island of Nusa Ceningan.

Apart from the port, there are few commercial centers. Seaweed farming and fishing are the main economic activities. Giving boat tours to the mangrove forest and to snorkeling and diving sites help the locals supplement their income, particularly when business slows down in the off-season. Beverage and snack warung can be found scattered about the island, some serving amazingly cheap fresh fish dinners.

My destination was the peaceful untouristed northeast of the island. I had heard that a tour of the near intact mangrove forests offered opportunities for nature photography, an exposure to the diversity of the environment and an essential break if you’ve been too long in the city.

In Jungut Batu, I hopped on an ojek motorbike taxi for the rough 15-minute ride to Mangrove Point. Along the way we had to negotiate with self-appointed but insistent “official” who made his living selling bogus tickets. Towards the end of the road we passed by some beautiful and idyllic warung and bars decorated with seashells, driftwood and other recycled materials, all with ocean views over the sea.

This quiet beachfront, the departure point for local fishermen running boat trips, I found a guy straight away. I accepted the first price offered – Rp100,000. Propelled by a pole, the boat was a flat-bottomed punt designed for use in small rivers and shallow water channels. The tour at first passed by seaweed farms, the island’s most valuable cash crop. The tide was low and people were wading out around the rocks. Beyond was a snorkeling area with calm water, the gentle current pulling a few snorkelers over some healthy coral reefs as a boat cruised along nearby. They yelped as they spotted fish.

I had the boatman go out a bit into the ocean in order to take in the swamp from a different vantage point. The odd splashes of cold water felt refreshing. The mangrove area – really a dense forest – is quite large and covers the whole north and eastern portions of the island. From the sea, it looked like the outer edge of a great wilderness. We glided through a narrow creek where the mangroves eerily enclosed the boat, the roots scraping its side as our punter pushed against the seabed with his long pole.
Mangroves (Rhizophora) become even more interesting up close. This strange type of forest – Indonesia accounting for 20% of the world’s total mangrove cover – is totally foreign in the temperate regions. The trees actually grow in salt water, their trunks supported by twisting prop roots as well as aerial roots extending downward from the main branches. The impressive mangroves of Nusa Lembongan, unlike those in many parts of Bali and Indonesia, are very tall in places, some more than two stories tall. The forests here are in good condition and the water relatively clean.

A number of conservation projects have been implemented to protect them. Among the most active is The Nature Conservancy (www.nature.org). This doesn’t mean that the environment is pristine. I saw some rubbish in the water borne by the currents and later when I took the bad road to the east side of the forest, I found that what is well preserved on the west side is a disaster on the east side where a large pile of smoking trash blots the landscape.

As the boat moved through the tunnels of mangroves, we stayed mostly in the cool shade of the trees, surrounded by blue and turquoise water while absorbing the scenery, the silence, the tranquility and the comforting hypnotic sound of lapping water. It was a step back in time – what the Amazon River might feel like – minus the piranha.

Normally, mangrove forests are gloomy with the absence of animals except for insects, a few birds such as the blue-colored Kingfisher, crabs and tiny fish, which the locals catch for food. I saw a monitor lizard (biawak) swimming by that was almost the size of a fresh water croc. Back on land, an Australian couple told me that they had seen small black tip reef sharks about 30 cm long.

Drift Snorkeler’s Nirvana
After 45 minutes, I had enough of the green monotony, so we made our way back to the departure point to fit in some snorkeling before the day ended. If the tide is high, it’s possible to duck-walk and swim out to the rich coral reef in front, but it wasn’t long before I was approached by Pak Wayan who offered to take me out.

I didn’t expect a teeming underwater wonderland, but as it turned out this is one of the best drift snorkeling sights you can experience on this side of Bali, superior even to Crystal Bay on Nusa Penida. The water was lovely, warm and clean, the coral attractive and the visibility excellent. Maybe not World Class but the cost was minimal: Rp75,000 to hire a boat and snorkeling gear for a one hour drift enlivened by many varieties of fish – box fish, stone fish (don’t touch them!), a weird white sand fish, plus fans, clowns, bats, angels and many more.

I spent the rest of the afternoon at the warung-style café, a fabulous chill-out spot called the Mangrove Stop Restaurant. With its enchanting location, laid back ambiance, lounge chairs, reggae music in the background, freshly made Indonesian food and ice cold Bintangs, this hangout is Old Bali with a twist.

After a simple, quick, surprisingly delicious lunch of spring rolls with peanut sauce and fresh barbecued Jack Fish with french fries, I lazed about on a deck chair on the beach, occasionally walking along the sand and dipping in and out of the shallow and muddy lagoon. Looking out over the vast grey-green ocean, it was one of those perfect moments that you never want to end.

Practicalities
Public boats to Nusa Lembongan run from Kusamba and Padangbai, but the most popular point of embarkation is Sanur’s stasiun bot. Slower large public wooden boats (prahu motor) leave in the morning at 10:30 am; in the afternoon the waves are too rough. For the 1.5-hour (Rp100,000) passage, sit on the roof with its sweeping view of the ocean and possible sightings of dolphins.

The fastest boat is Scoot, Jl. Hangtuah 27, Sanur Kaja, tel. 0361-285-522, www.scootcruise.com. Cost is Rp499,000 round trip which includes free hotel pickup. Perama (www.peramatour.com) boats also service Nusa Lembongan from Sanur, departing 10:30 am (Rp110,000 round trip), returning from Nusa Lembongan at 8:30 am. Reserve an open return date by contacting tel. 0361-750-808.

On Nusa Lembongan, there’s no need to book the mangrove boat tour or snorkeling with any of the companies on the beach, on the main road of Jungut Batu or with any of the outfits along the road out to Mangrove Point that offer tours. Why? If you deal directly with the boat captains, you can get a tour for half the price at Mangrove Point.
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Mangrove Point can be reached by foot or motorbike from Jungut Batu. Rent a bicycle for Rp50,000. To get your bearings around the island, rent a scooter or motorbike for Rp75,000- Rp100,000 per day. All roads are in a very bad state and super bumpy so make sure you are a good driver or a good rider. Driving licenses don’t seem to matter – no one asks, nobody bothers you or cares. Take your own motorbike over from Bali for an additional fee. Before you check into your accommodation in Nusa Lembongan, ask for a free motorcycle ride to the mangroves or agree to a reasonable cost to be taken there.

If you arrive at Mangrove Point before 10.00 a.m., you’ll be almost alone. There’s no charge for entering or parking in the mangrove area. Even non-swimmers can take part because the tour is through calm shallow channels. Be prepared with insect repellant as mosquitoes are numerous in the enclosed parts of the mangroves. Consider taking an umbrella for shade. Don’t take any valuables on the boat or leave any unattended.

Take your pick of boatmen. Pak Blaxy, Pak Mogli, Pak Bobo and the usual Wayan and Ketut are all available. At first the boatmen might ask for as much as Rp200,000, but just laugh because the standard rental for a dugout style poled punt boat is Rp75,000-Rp100,000. Don’t count on the boat person being a real tour guide. They don’t speak English that well and even if they could their knowledge of the mangroves is limited. Access to the mangroves depends on the tide. Often the boatman tries to cut the tour short, so agree to a length of time beforehand. At low tide tours take from 20 min. to an hour, with the average being 45 minutes.

For a snorkeling tour from Mangrove Point, expect around Rp150,000 for the transfer from your Nusa Lembongan hotel by motorbike, the boat rental, mask and flippers. Sometimes a boatman will tell you that the tide is changing and the current is getting dangerous, but that’s just a scam so you will come in after just half an hour. They say the same thing to everybody.

For divers, the mangrove area offers passable diving for all levels on a sloping coral reef, with small bommies and table corals inhabited by small fry while marble rays and other larger species inhabit the deeper water with sharks are occasionally sighted. A reputable outfit is Big Fish Diving (http://www.bigfishdiving.com), who has an office in Jungut Batu, email info@bigfishdiving.com, sms 081-353-136-861.

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Copyright  2014 Bill Dalton
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