Active volcanoes, inviting beaches, fascinating traditions. Indonesia has so much to explore. Words Gabrielle Jaffe
With a population of more than 250 million people spread out over 17,000 islands, Indonesia boasts diversity that few other nations can match. Whatever kind of traveller you are, this country offers incredible experiences that are bound to please.
Best for wildlife lovers: orangutans in Kalimantan
Thousands of square miles of some of the world’s oldest rainforests still cover Kalimantan, the Indonesian side of the island of Borneo. One of the easiest ways to explore these primordial jungles is to visit Tanjung Puting National Park, a protected stretch near the southern tip of this enormous island. To get there, you’ll need to take a motorised long boat called a klotok. Watching the riverbank transform from uniform palm plantations to a wild tangle of greenery, as swallows dart overhead and coffee-coloured waters lap the boat, is an exciting experience in itself. But the main draw here is the chance to come face-to-face with an amazing animal that shares 97 percent of its DNA with us.
Several rehabilitation centres for orphaned and injured orangutans in the park, including Tanjung Harapan and the better-known Camp Leakey, provide the closest experience to spotting orangutans in the wild. They are in their natural habitat, without cages or fences, coming and going as they please, but unlike truly wild orangutans, these rehabilitated primates do not fear humans, so it’s easy to get close to them – sometimes as near as a metre away. It’s hard not to wonder at their likeness to humans as you watch them cradling their young. Orangutans are certainly the star of the show in Tanjung, but it also has other performers: acrobatic gibbons swinging pendulum-like on their long arms, bickering grey macaques and curious proboscis monkeys with their obscene noses.
Many companies arrange trips here, but be sure to choose a responsible one. Wild Orangutan Tours (www.wildorangutantours.com) runs well-organised trips with highly knowledgeable guides. You can choose to stay overnight in an eco-lodge or in the open air on the boat under a mosquito net with the soundtrack of the jungle to send you off to sleep.
Best for hikers: Lombok’s mega-volcano
Mount Rinjani’s crater rim rises up 3,726 metres, dominating the skyline of Lombok, the island next to Bali, while its enormous caldera stretches out over five miles. This behemoth’s huge eruption in 1258 pumped so much ash into the atmosphere that it triggered a year without summer across the globe. Thankfully, it’s settled down since then, although the mini-volcano, Mount Barujari, which formed in the centre of its giant crater lake, still explodes regularly with enough gusto to create an exciting spectacle, but not so much as to be a real danger.
These days, Rinjani makes for an epic trek, which can typically be done over three or four days. On its outer slopes the landscape varies from rolling, grass-covered hills and forested paths to an extremely challenging lunarscape of black volcanic scree that will have you slipping one step back for every two forward. Aside from the satisfaction that comes from completing this challenging ascent, you are rewarded at the top with a spectacular bird’s-eye view of Mount Barujari rising from the crater’s lake and views as far as surrounding islands including Bali.
After descending into the caldera, there’s a chance to revive tired limbs at the crater lake and natural hotsprings. Be warned though, this trip is not for the fainthearted. You’ll camp in tents each night and even the fit will suffer after hours of scrambling up steep paths that crumble beneath your feet.
Things are made considerably easier by coming prepared with proper hiking shoes and coats and by hiring a good guide. Avoid booking through agents in Bali and instead book directly with a local group such as Galangijo (www.galangijo. com), whose well-trained, English-speaking guides stick with you throughout, carrying all your water and food, and provide all-important equipment (including hiking sticks and headlamps) and even a toilet tent.
Best for water babies: Sail the islands
Some of Indonesia’s most picturesque spots are the hardest to get to – islands without airports but plenty of tempting beaches and interesting flora and fauna. These destinations, only accessible by boat, also tend to be free of the tourist hordes. Choose the boat that’s going to take you there carefully – every year cheap tourist cruises and local ferries sink in Indonesia. Before booking, check the vessel isn’t overloaded and that there are enough lifeboats and a radio on board.
Seatrek Bali (www. seatrekbali.com) has 30 years of experience running sailing trips throughout Indonesia; its crews are knowledgeable about currents and its luxurious schooners are packed with safety equipment. One of its most popular cruises is the seven-day Dances, Dragons and Magical Lakes expedition, which showcases the cultural, geographical and marine diversity of the Nusa Tenggara region. Setting off from the Catholic island of Flores, the boat glides through turquoise waters, stopping off at sparse (and unpopulated) islands on its way to Hindu Bali. Along the way, guests meet three-metre-long komodo dragons, swim in crater lakes, watch tribal rituals and witness hundreds of ‘Batman signs’ silhouetted against blood-red sunsets as fruit bat colonies fly past.
There are also daily snorkelling opportunities at coral reefs teeming with tropical fish, the odd sea turtle, manta rays and even sharks. But perhaps the best bit is the view from the boat itself: it’s only when you are set back at sea, looking out at Indonesia’s many peaked islands and islets, that you can appreciate the true magnificence of this area known as the ring of fire.
Best for beach seekers: Bali’s quiet side
With its enchanting mix of flower festooned Hindu temples, abundant rice paddies and sandy coast, photogenic Bali has long reigned over the tourist circuit. But much of this island’s original charm is lost at the most popular places, such as Kuta and Seminyak, where heavily built-up resorts, clubs and crowds blight the shoreline. If serenity is what you’re after, you’ll find it 20 minutes up the coast at the less-developed Canggu. While Kuta and Seminyak sport postcard-perfect golden beaches, Canggu’s glittering, volcanic black sands, dramatic waves and rocky outcrops give it an otherworldly air.
Two dark, brooding beachside temples add to the atmosphere. Come sunset, worshipers dressed in white chant incantations to their gods, crossing paths with surfers who are busy silently offering their own prayers before they take on the intimidatingly big breaks here.
Unobtrusively set back from the beach, Hotel Tugu (book through www.secret-retreats.com) is the perfect hideaway from which to enjoy this tranquil stretch of Bali. This 22-room, family-run boutique consists of a handful of antique-filled villas, separated by fragrant gardens.
You can book a room with your own private plunge pool and koi carp pond. In keeping with Bali’s laid-back spirit, Tugu also has an ‘eat-where-you like’ policy so you can choose, for example, to breakfast on the beach or dine under the moonlight on the bridge over the hotel’s lotus pond. Tugu also boasts an open-air spa and can organise experiences such as Balinese dance classes.
Need to know
Etihad Airways flies direct to Jakarta from Dhs2,595 return.