Indonesia's answer to Ibiza

NEW 'IBIZA': White sands and lapis lazuli waters of Gili Trawangan are as good as any tropical island going around.
NEW 'IBIZA': White sands and lapis lazuli waters of Gili Trawangan are as good as any tropical island going around.

My first impression of Gili T? It's an island where first impressions count.

The beautiful are everywhere. They are young, they are wealthy and they are living the cliches of an Ibiza and Cancun holiday on a tiny island squeezed out of a pipette onto the surface of Indonesia's Lombok Strait.

Gili Trawangan, shortened to Gili T by a tourist with Sasak language pronunciation troubles, has all the hallmarks of a once-bohemian Indonesian tourist location now in the throes of being discovered by the mainstream.

That future is now, and it is hard to say what it will mean for a Muslim island it takes just two hours to walk the circumference of.

But today, as the blazing sun of an Indonesian dry season rises to full strength, the beautiful are contemplating less tedious affairs.

They swim with turtles on the coastal coral, they drink at restaurants with white-sand floors, they flirt with the virtues of magic mushrooms with lunch. With no police on the island, there's little they can't do.

The most popular activity is bathing in swimsuits designed by fashion labels with headquarters thousands of kilometres away.

As one woman decides to take her swimsuit off, a call to prayer rings out from the island's mosque.

Gili T is the best known of three droplet islands to the immediate northwest of Lombok, Indonesia called the Gili Islands.

Gili means "small island" in the local Sasak tongue.

The "small island islands" are 2 hours boat ride east of Bali which, in comparison, seems truly immense.

All three are blessed with the cliched tropical island experiences. Coral reefs make them snorkelling havens, lapis-lazuli deep water makes comparatively cheap scuba diving popular, and white-sand beaches border each of the islands like rays in the sun.

Each island is different: Gili Meno is Gili mini and has family friendly vibes.

Gili Air is home to a decent amount of upmarket accommodation and an indecent amount of posh people staying in it.

And then there's Gili T, the jewel in the guidebook writer's crown.

Where Bali has 3.5 million inhabitants and at least as many scooters, Gili T has 750 locals and no scooters. None at all.

It is a deliberate attempt by tourism authorities and local businesses - mostly owned by Chinese investors - to preserve the sanctity of an island that had no inhabitants at all until the 1930s.

The biggest noise on the island's single circular road is the sound of the clunking hooves.

Cidamos - colourfully decorated horses pulling carriages - are on the island to transport tourists' gear to hotels and to provide gullible newbies with a tour of the island.

Today, I'm one of them.

My cidamo driver, Uman, moved to Gili T from Java three years ago. It seems to be a common thread on the island. "I came here three years ago from Java." Uman likes the laid-back life. And the girls.

He points out the only significant rise on the island, a hill used as a gun bunker by the Japanese in World War II.

That's about it as far as history on the island goes, Uman says, falling silent.

The topic of conversation turns to New Zealanders, who he never sees on the island.

"It's England and Aussie and German here. Not just ‘g'day mate' like Bali. Europeans too. But New Zealanders, no."

Uman is amazed that New Zealand Maori still exist. Distracted, he hits a bump at high speed and I smack my head on the roof.

As the main beach comes into view again, Jack Johnson's summery voice-guitar combo blasts from hotel pool speakers.

Two women in bikinis are in the pool, one arm occupied by a drink, the other resting on the pool edge, eyeing up the throng of lads in John Lennon glasses walking past.

At the mosque, the call to prayer chants on.

McDonald's hasn't yet found Gili T. Lunch on the island is a glorious mix of fresh seafood, prawns, and mussels and things I've never contemplated on a plate before, covered in traditional spices and sauces. This is where Indonesia does it better than any Pacific Island.

After walking it off, I lie on the beach and read.

Beside me, the token old man - you'll find him on every Indonesian beach - sits in Speedos rubbing lotion into skin burnt so many times it's a seemingly impossible combination of red and brown.

A bold young diver has spotted a turtle just 10 metres out from the beach. Girls in the water coo at him.

Five girls in their late teens chat about their exploits the previous night on towels a few metres down.

As their giggles become fits of laughter the mosque behind the beach begins another call to prayer.

My eyes close. Two worlds mix. It's harmonious, beautiful. An impression that counts.

MY Lombok-based guide, who asks me to call him One, insists when we arrive on Gili in the early morning that I cannot stay past sunset.

I glare at him, as my bare feet wade through the sand.

Days in Gili T start with the sun rising over the immense Mt Rinjani volcano on Lombok and end with it setting over the equally spectacular Mt Agung, when it is visible through the haze of Bali.

Then the DJ sets start and the dance of the young and free begins. When there's a dearth of accommodation on the island, newly-formed couples use the beach to get acquainted.

"You could stay here for weeks, yes?" says One. "But we are going at 2pm."

The reason is simple from One's point of view. The mindbogglingly deep - 250m at its deepest - and famously rough waters of the Lombok Strait make getting to and from Gili T an experience in itself.

Most of the long narrow vessels available along the Lombok coast are designed so they can be beached easily.

The consequence of this is that they are missing the stability of a keel and use the outboard motor as the rudder.

And as the blood-alcohol content of Gili T tourists builds in the sun, so too does the swell.

By 3pm, One is fretting.

The boat is late getting here. The other vessels that were parked in the shallows have already left for mainland Lombok.

The shadows of trees have descended on the beach, and the flirting 20-somethings who were flicking sand at each other an hour ago have made their way to the bar.

Everyone is preparing for a Scotty-T-like night out in Gili T.

As the boat finally appears on the horizon, rollicking from side to side, my stomach begins to churn.

Unlike most Indonesian tourist hotspots, Gili T was first colonised by backpackers not surfers.

Swell doesn't crash onto the beach on Gili T - instead it meanders at right angles past the island, making the beach perfect for swimming.

It means the boat back to Lombok will have to take on some of the larger swells sideways, something that is tough enough in a medium-sized cruiseliner, let alone a medium-sized dinghy.

Sure enough, there are times on the return trip where the boat tips agonisingly, and times when it leaves the water completely, crashing in slow motion back onto the concrete-hard surf.

The spray soaks and the nerves in the boat are palpable but our captain is an expert.

As we reach land, my ears are ringing. Even though it's miles away, they're still filled with the chanting from Gili T's mosque.

Chris Hyde travelled courtesy of Wonderful Indonesia.

Sunday Star Times