There is little in the way of history to discover on the Gili Islands as they were uninhabited until relatively recently. They are not without some intriguing attractions, however, and boast a marvellous bird park, turtle hatchery and of course dreamy white sandy beaches as far as the eye can see. The Gilis offer a very different cultural appeal from Bali.
Islanders are Muslim and known as ‘Sasaks’ with their own distinctive language, cuisine and arts. It is every bit as colourful as the more recognisable Balinese culture. In fact it is one of the most tolerant Muslim societies in Indonesia where the dawn call to prayer is often drowned out by the thumping music from Gili Trawangan’s infamous all night parties.
Head inland a few metres and explore traditional village compounds where rickety bamboo shacks and shady banana groves rub shoulders with chic boutique bungalow resorts. Here chickens and goats roam free on dusty roads and children play barefoot without a care in the world.
Gili Meno Bird Park
This is a surprisingly grand attraction featuring spacious aviaries containing exotic birds of paradise, hornbills, parrots and flamingos which are all well cared for and in a decent state of upkeep.
There is also a small enclosure with wallabies and a komodo dragon. It is all well maintained and easy on the eye and feeding time is always photogenic and great fun. It makes for a rewarding and quite educational couple of hours away from the beach. The small cafe bar by the main reception is worth a look as the owners have turned it into a shrine to John Lennon and the Beatles. It is quite a surreal sight with almost every square inch of wall space filled with artwork and memorabilia of the ‘fab four’.
A major attraction in the Gili islands is the unforgettable opportunity to swim with hawksbill and green sea turtles. All the islands have a healthy population, thanks in no small part to the work of the Gili Trawangan Turtle Hatchery.
There are several large holding tanks containing infant and adolescent turtles which are reared from birth before being released into the ocean. This happens twice a year and is accompanied by lots of pomp and colourful celebrations. Admission is free and donations however small are very gratefully accepted.
Also located on Gili Trawangan is an imposing 500ft hill which offers a terrific vantage point for the famous ocean sunsets. It looks out across to Bali as a vivid red sun drops slowly behind the sacred volcano of Mount Agung.
Nearby is an intriguing Japanese WWII cave where you can still make out the remains of a large gun which was used to pick off allied troop ships passing through the Bali Strait. To get to the hill, turn inland at Buddha Dive Resort on the ‘Sentral’ beach strip from where it is signposted for 200 metres. At the end of this street simply climb the steps to its summit.
Just 30 minutes away lies the spectacular tropical scenery of North Lombok which is a dream destination for adventurous types. Spend a steamy day exploring the dense Pusuk rainforest, filled with wild macaque monkeys and beautiful waterfalls. Just a little further is Lombok’s most prized natural attraction.
The soaring Rinjani volcano is a majestic sight and rises to over 13,000 feet. It is Indonesia’s most challenging climb and takes an arduous four days. Inclusive treks can be booked at many tour agents throughout the Gili Islands and prices cost from rp800,000 which include a guide, porter and all camping equipment.