It was our second (and final) full day on Lombok and Ian wanted to go diving on the Gili islands. We’d been really enjoying our boutique hotel and its quiet intimacy and I was torn whether to go too or install myself on the becushioned sofa that stood on our huge balcony and read my book. We’d both grown rather fond of the accommodation at Sudamala, particularly the rattan thatched rooves that, when looked up at from inside made me feel a bit like a sandwich must feel inside a picnic basket. From the outside I’d noticed the quaint criss-crossed strips of fronds that formed a sort of outer cage over the thatch and wondered what on earth they might be for. When I start to relax there is no limit to the daft things I find myself contemplating. However, never one to shun the chance of a boat trip to an island and always keen for a snorkel, I decided to go too.
Collected from our hotel by 9 am, we were at the harbour by 10 and boarding what they call a ‘converted fishing boat’. We’d seen a lot of these boats lined up on the beach along from our hotel waiting to lure passing tourists for a trip out to sea. They seemed to be defined by a pair of sticky-outy ‘outriggers’, a bit like rollbars for boats, that protruded from the sides of the hull. It made them look comical. In truth, they looked a lot like the kind of beetles that were used in the 1960’s Beetle game, where players rolled a dice and had to put the limbs on the abdomen of a plastic beetle.
The trip out to the nearest of the three Gili islands, Trawangan, took a bit more than 45 minutes and the sea, though a bit choppy, was fine for silly old seasicky me. We were joined by three Chinese Malaysians from KL as well as our divemaster Paul, a lithe, hairband-wearing, ageless boatman with impossibly sinewy legs that were burnished like mahogany and a youngish lad called Ardi. It seemed we’d be in good hands with Blue Marlin dive school.
We stopped a little short of Gili Trawangan and the four divers and Paul entered the water quickly. As a lone snorkeller I fully expected to jump in and head off on my own, but no, Ardi would be my buddy.
It was a cloudy day and the current looked a little strong but they assured me that we’d stop when I was tired, wave and the boat would come and fetch us. I was impressed by the level of service and care. It was a great snorkel, with acres of reef to look at and a large variety of fish that nibbled at the coral or swept past in large shoals. I hardly noticed the time passing and enjoyed floating around peering down from my window on the underworld ably led by my guide.
The divers had enjoyed their experience too and had seen turtles, lion fish, octopi and nudibranchs and I wished I’d refound my diver’s nerve and joined them. After a lunch onshore in a basic bar that served beefburgers and beer among hoards of dive trainees and backpackers, the divers headed off once more out to sea while I opted to take a horsedrawn cart ride round the island instead and explore land. My ride was as lumpy as the boat trip earlier and the view disappointing. With mounds of dried branches, coconut husks, rough sand made rocky with coral and piles of palm fronds littering the roadside it looked like the kind of landscape you get after the crowds have left the site of a music festival, only here, the debris was all natural and faded to the same sun-bleached shades of grey or beige.
After 45 minutes and bored with the prospect of rummaging through shops selling the usual range of teeshirts and baggy trousers I spied a beach bar that had rows of fushia and magenta beanbags overlooking the sea. I’d sit there and wait for the divers to return. I took a photograph of the sea and failed to notice the grey clouds.
Only, five minutes into my sit big fat plops of rain landed on my arms. I headed for the shelter of a bicycle rental shack and watched as the rain fell thick and fast, saturating those who were out in it in seconds. Even under my corrugated iron roof I could not escape a drenching. The rain came sideways, the sandy street became a muddy stream and passing bikes and horsecarts showered me from the upward surge of puddles as they passed. In the end I made a run for it back to our meeting point. I couldn’t get any wetter so sheltering was futile.
Then the wind picked up, lifting the thatch from the palm frond rooves and ripping flimsy wood walls from their footings. Trees were ripped up by their roots and branches went flying. And then I thought about Ian and his dive buddies and glanced out to a sea that had become a milky grey. There they were, struggling up the beach towards us.
“Good dive?” I asked.
“Brilliant,” Ian replied. “Only when we came up to the surface, we had no idea what was going on and it was so wet and windy we could not see a thing. I have no idea how the boat managed to find us!”
The storm had begun to rage just as they’d return to shore and rain had slammed into them at an angle, which meant that the safest place to be was close to the floor of the boat and wearing their masks against the sharp shards that assailed them. Even the boatman tried to protect his face with a fin as he steered them to land.
“I guess you get used to this!” Ian had said to Paul.
“No,” he’d replied. “We get the wind and the rain, but never both together!”
Back on shore we tried to shelter, but the wind picked up tables and chairs and flung them in all directions. We were cold too and soon clasped mugs of tea and wrapped towels round us for warmth. The sea was a boiling seething mass that made me think of Dylan Thomas’ ‘fishing boat bobbing sea’. A greenish grey that Farrow and Ball would be proud of.
And then the rain stopped. But the wind continued to thrash from all directions and we headed, along with many other people, to stand on the shore and watch.
Paul approached us and tapped his diving watch. “We have to wait,” he said.
It had already been an hour and showed no signs of abating but there was such action going on out there that it was impossible to be board.
A scream went up and people began to point out to the shallows. A boat was going under and people were still on board. Dive instructors donned masks and fins and dashed into the water, bosses organised their staff to start bailing out those boats that were in danger and plastic buckets and wastebaskets were commandeered into operation. As boat after boat began to sink rescue operations kicked in as people tried to salvage wooden planks and mattresses or form tug of war teams to drag the stricken vessels onto land.
An hour or so later and more than five boats were lost to the waves. Ours, miraculously closest to the shore, seemed safe and though it seemed too dangerous to approach it, Ian stood there in his trunks – all his clothes, and his wallet and phone were on board. Eventually, he could stand it no longer and went off on a rescue mission. Two minutes later and the wind began to drop, little by little and patches of pale blue appeared in the sky.
The storm had begun a little before 2 pm. It was now 4.30 and would be dark by 6. I did a quick calculation. If we did not get on board by 5 we’d maybe miss the chance to get back to our lovely, cosy hotel room and would be spending the night here. Paul walked over to us and tapped his watch.
“Ten minutes?” he said. We heaved a sign of relief.
Before long we were on board, this time accompanied by several stranded folk who’d lost their boats. The boat crashed into the climbing waves, sending walls of spray all over us and yet again we were freezing cold and soaking wet. Yes, it was well over 30 degrees out there but we were really cold. Ian held on to one of my slippery hands while I clung onto the boat’s side with the other. I kept on looking from one shore to the other desperately waiting for the mainland to appear larger than the island. Ian, meanwhile had noticed the boat had only one engine and was panicking that, with no spare, we’d be up sh*t creek without an engine if something happened. But we made it.
Back on land our driver was waiting for us.
“You’ve seen this before, right?” Ian asked him.
“Never in my life,” he replied.
The roadside was littered with fallen trees, some already sliced into fat logs. People were collecting branches and transporting them home on their scooters or balanced on the top of their heads. Once we had to make a diversion through a field because the road was blocked. The sky was clear again and when we returned to our hotel people were sweeping up leaves and pushing puddles into flowerbeds. Tired, cold and exhausted we headed for our room and the prospect of a gin and tonic followed by room service on our balcony. But the room smelled as woody and damp as a stable. That lovely roof! Bits of straw littered the floor and doors had blown open. All the cushions on our balcony had blown away.
As I reinstated the cushions and made the table presentable enough for our gins, I looked out at the thatch on the other villas… all intact. Aha! Now I knew what those funny cages were for – they were hairnets for thatched rooves.