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Gili Trawangan | The Dive Island With Spirit

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Aerial view of Gili Trawangan (Photo: Hugo Salvachúa Garcia)

Mark Crowley Russell celebrates the unique community that makes one of the world’s hippest dive destinations also one of the most resilient. Photographs by Alfred Minnaar

As soon as I arrived on the island of Gili Trawangan, I didn’t want to leave.

As most travellers will understand, ‘good vibes’ are neither mystical in nature nor do they have to be chemically induced, and Gili T is a special place with a special vibe. It has a warm and welcoming atmosphere that is a direct product of the community spirit that pervades the island – the sort that makes even short-term visitors feel at home.

I think that sentiment sums up this wonderful little island very well – and it could be no more firmly exemplified than in the way the island’s community came together in the wake of the earthquake that hit Lombok and the surrounding area in August. A friend of mine calls the island ‘Gili Tralala’, and I referred to it at the time as a ‘happy little island’, which may seem insensitive comments to make in light of the tragedy, but I also think the positivity behind such carefree sentiment is what brought the residents together during the aftermath.

Lives and livelihoods were lost; buildings collapsed and businesses suffered, but through it all the islanders kept on smiling. A picture circulating on social media of a small stall where an old lady was selling water and hot coffee summed up the indomitable spirit of the island. ‘We may have lost today,’ it said, ‘but we will never give up on tomorrow.’

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The Girls of Gili T attempt a world record underwater human pyramid

The dive community, in particular, rallied round in support of Gili T, and also the neighbouring islands of Gili Air, Gili Meno, and the main island of Lombok, the epicentre of the earthquake, where most of the damage was wrought and most lives were lost. Dive centres – all of them – became focal points for the clean-up and restoration of a group of islands that rely almost solely on tourism – much of it water-based – for their income.

‘Gili’ simply means ‘small island’ in Sasak, the native tongue of Lombok, Bali’s eastern island neighbour, and hence there are many other ‘Gilis’ located throughout the region, but it is this little trio, situated just off the north-western coast of Lombok, that has become most synonymous with the name. 

I first became aware of the Gilis in 2013 during my time as a dive centre manager on Nusa Lembongan, a small island off the south-eastern coast of Bali. The Gilis had long been established as tourist and diving destinations, having grown steadily in popularity since the 1990s, as backpackers sought alternatives to the growing hustle and bustle of Bali.

Closest to Lombok, Gili Air was the first to develop as a tourist destination, but the diving around Gili Trawangan, further offshore with easier access to deeper waters, was considered to be better. The advent of fast-boat services to the islands in the mid-2000s shortened the journey time from Bali to under three hours, and brought with it a rapid expansion in tourism. Gili T’s reputation as a diving hotspot began to grow, along with its reputation as a party island.

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Most of Gili T's dive sites are only a few minutes away by boat

This reputation was repeatedly reinforced to me by friends and customers at the time: Gili Air was the place to chill; Gili Trawangan the place to party. Gili Air was ‘the island of the morning’; Gili T was ‘the island of the night’. Nonetheless, I felt it would be remiss of me not to visit before I left Indonesia. However, during the voyage to Lombok, my preconceived bias was confirmed when all the teenagers disembarked at Gili T, and all the slightly older passengers accompanied me to Gili Air. 

I enjoyed my short stay on Gili Air. With its tranquil atmosphere and beach-front bars and restaurants, it reminded me of Dahab, in Egypt. I was not, at that time, looking for a non-stop party place, and hence I decided not to make the short trip over to Gili T. 

Four years later, I found myself feeling ever so slightly guilty about letting my preconception cloud my decision not to visit. Only slightly, though, as I tucked into some mie goreng (fried noodles) in a shack on the beach, and realised that I missed this sort of place very much. I took a selfie; I was feeling grand.

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Large gorgonian fans can be found at the deeper reefs around Gili T

The strains of Bob Marley – Indonesia’s default beach-front mix tape – filled the air as I strolled along the road that encircles the 3km-long island. There is no motorised traffic on the Gilis; transport is by foot, bicycle or the small horse-drawn carriages known as cidomos.

The central location around the ferry terminal is very busy, but not in an overly claustrophobic manner, and within a short distance, the aggregation of larger establishments grows thinner. The spaces in between dive centres are populated with everything from local Indonesian eateries to hipster cafés, juice bars, steakhouses and, of course, the legendary Tír na Nóg, because Irish pubs are everywhere.

The earthquake struck on a Sunday evening in early August and it saddened me to see pictures of that same stretch of beach filled with tourists clamouring to be evacuated, with the piles of food and medical supplies waiting for distribution, and the island’s panicked horses being herded onto boats destined for Lombok so that they could be fed and watered.

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Dive centres such as Manta Dive became makeshift refuges and medical centres following the quake

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Doctors and medical students gave up their holidays to tend to the local children, while others helped to rebuild and evacuate the island's horses

Following the earthquake, Alfie Minnaar, DIVE’s photographer and resident instructor at Manta Dive, who hosted my visit, sent photographs of the resort where I had been staying. It had been turned into a shelter and makeshift medical centre. The pictures showed the rapidly shipped-in military, the remaining dive professionals and some tourists moving supplies to the higher ground where many of the island’s residents fled in fear of a tsunami that, fortunately, never arrived. 

A few doctors and medical students had given up their holidays to provide care to the local population, while everybody who was able to do so devoted their time to fixing the water and electricity supplies, rebuilding fallen structures, and bringing much-needed provisions over from Bali. The clear-up moved on apace, and some of the leading dive centres on the island were taking bookings a few weeks later and, by the start of September, were up and running and open for business. This was a monumental effort considering the damage that had been done. 

And all the work was sorely needed. The earthquake struck in the middle of the high season, meaning a substantial loss of revenue in the run-up to low season. And the island relies on tourism to survive.
Prospective tourists may be hesitant to visit, but they shouldn’t be. Knowing divers as I do, the centres will have pulled out all the stops to ensure that visitors can enjoy the best of the diving that the Gilis have to offer.

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Blue spotted ribbontail rays (Taeniura lymma) and leaf scorpionfish (Taenianotus triacanthus) are frequently spotted among the coral

Some people – unfairly, in my opinion – are critical about the quality of that diving. I think even some of Gili T’s most ardent supporters would concede that it’s probably not the best diving on the planet, but only with a certain amount of justified reluctance. What constitutes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ diving is often in the eyes of the beholder, and I think I have more than enough experience to say that if I enjoyed it, so will many others.

There is some broken coral, mostly in fairly shallow water where increased diver pressure has undoubtedly had a deleterious effect on the reefs, but it is not the primary cause of the damage. Indonesia has been historically among the worst places in the world for dynamite and cyanide fishing, and the mass bleaching events of 1997/98 and 2015/16 hit the region hard. Strong currents have hindered the re-establishment of coral on some of the Gili Islands’ reefs.

What problems there are have not gone unrecognised. Since 2000, the Gili Eco Trust has been working tirelessly behind the scenes with GIDA, the Gili Islands Dive Association, and SATGAS, an initiative founded by Indonesian fishermen, to maintain and improve the reefs through conservation programmes both above and below the waters. 

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Amongst many other conservation initiatives, the Gili Eco Trust runs a Biorocks coral reef nursery

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The bright colours of the deeper reefs are typical of Indonesian diving

Despite the damage, there is much to be enjoyed on those reefs. Many divers will delight in the presence of more green turtles during a single dive at the appropriately named ‘Turtle Heaven’ than might otherwise be encountered in an entire week of diving in other locations. Whitetip and blacktip reef sharks were spotted during my first four dives around Gili T, which is not a bad record at all.

Sunset Reef is in a good state of health, and I found Hann’s reef, with its large blocks of old coral and the resident, photogenic, sponge-dwelling turtle particularly delightful. In the deeper waters, however, Gili T diving really comes alive. Simon’s Reef and Deep Turbo, for example, are magnificent. An Advanced Open Water certification is required for visiting them, and despite the number of divers on the island, I found them much less crowded than expected.

Bright arrays of large gorgonians are found among gently sloping coral reefs with a white sand background, and large heads of slow-growing coral species, always a sign of a good, healthy reef, are in abundance.
Fish life is as brightly coloured, voluminous and diverse as one might expect in Indonesian waters. Stingrays, octopuses and cuttlefish are easily spotted, and closer inspection reveals the likes of leaf scorpionfish and pygmy seahorses. There is always a chance that larger visitors will pass by.

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The sponge-dwelling resident green turtle (Chelonia mydas) of Hann s Reef is as chilled as the tourists 

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Honeycomb moray eel (Gymnothorax favagineus)

The deeper reefs and generally calm conditions are partly behind the reason that Gili T has become a major hotspot for technical diving. The island is home to world-record CCR deep diver Will Goodman of Blue Marlin Dive Tech, and Theresia Gollner, recently awarded as TDI’s highest certifying instructor in Asia. Along with Manta Dive and a group of other centres, the strong community behind the island has led to many recreational instructors exploring the realms of deep technical diving. Near-perfect conditions, an easy supply of helium and oxygen, plus the close proximity of a recompression chamber in Lombok, all make Gili T an outstanding location to learn the craft.  

As a result, the tightly-knit technical community has come together to present a close, dedicated, and much younger aspect to an activity that many divers around the world still erroneously regard as the preserve of older, mostly male divers. Gili T breaks that mould and presents a fresh face to the world of technical diving, one that is divided almost equally between men and women. Furthermore, the influence of technical diving among recreational instructors is without question beneficial towards the recreational community as a whole.

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Focused and prepared, Theresia Gollner is one of Gili T's leading ambassadors for tech diving

A second charge laid against Gili T, and the seed of my ill-conceived former prejudice against the island, is its reputation as a non-stop party place. This is not entirely without foundation, and during my first evening, sitting in Manta Dive’s very friendly little bar, I could hear the nnts nnts nnts of distant, insistent beats, as the party people headed out into the night.

Outside the dive centre, however, two chaps on the beachfront were strumming away on acoustic guitars, with vocal harmonies so perfect they even made Wonderwall sound good, a creditable achievement.

If gyrating to electronic noises and flashing lights while downing Extra-Joss-laced shots is your thing, you can find plenty of places to do that. Alternatively, if you’re at an age where hip-twiddling might not be as high on the agenda as it used to be, you can also find a place to chill out and relax after the diving day. A leisurely cycle to the other side of the island will bring you to Sunset Beach where, as the name suggests, you can watch the sunset from the beach. The only sounds are of the gentle surf, the clinking of glasses, the hooves of passing horses, and Mr Marley’s omnipresent crooning.

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You don't have to go far to escape the crowds

In terms of accommodation, I was fully expecting to be housed in a comfortable but basic homestay-type room, but my hosts, Manta Dive, dismissed yet another of my preconceptions. Their small resort is on a parallel with some of the more luxurious accommodation that I have enjoyed over the years. A terraced row of rooms faces more traditional wooden lumbungs, with a long pool, hammocks, and a pleasing array of tropical vegetation in between. The rooms, with excellent air conditioning, wide-screen TVs, outdoor bathrooms and large double beds are, quite simply, splendid. Gili T has a wide range of options for travellers, from budget rooms to luxury villas, plenty of which are well away from any potential late-night disturbance. 

Part of Gili Trawangan’s charm is the island’s extremely broad capacity for acceptance. It is a young island, but not unwelcoming to visitors on the right side of 40 (ie older than, you whippersnappers!), although being ‘young at heart’ is a definite prerequisite for visiting. It is an island without prejudice, be that with regards to age, gender, race or creed, rec or tech. Gili T is an island that has something to offer almost everyone, and you don’t have to stray too far from your lodgings in order to find it.

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The bustling night market is a wonderful place to refuel after the diving day, with a huge selection of local cuisine available.

Behind that acceptance, as with the disaster recovery efforts, is the strong community that supports the island, especially that which exists within the resident dive population. The wellbeing of the guides, instructors, managers and support staff who provide the dive experience is important because – as I know all too well – unhappy dive professionals do not perform to the best of their abilities, and do not a good holiday make. It did not go unnoticed that most of the staff I met have remained on Gili T for several years.

‘I wish I didn’t have to leave,’ is a common sentiment echoed by divers as they come to the end of their vacation. I’ve visited many places that I didn’t want to leave as a customer, but also probably wouldn’t want to work in as a professional.

As I waved goodbye to Gili Trawangan, however, with a pang of wistful longing for my old life, I really wish I could have lingered a while longer. 

Need to Know
  • My hosts on Gili Trawangan were Manta Dive, with huge thanks to Ben and Harriet and the rest of the wonderful staff: www.manta-dive.com
  • Fast boat services to the Gilis are available from Serangan, Sanur, Amed and Padang Bai; Serangan is closest to Ngurah Rai International airport in Denpasar, Bali. Gili Bookings is highly recommended: www.gilibookings.com
  • Indirect flights to Bali from the UK can be found from under £400, although often with an extended journey time. I flew with Cathay Pacific from Manchester to Bali via Hong Kong for £454, a journey of 19 hours: www.cathaypacific.com
  • Theresia Gollner works for Blue Marlin Dive Tech: www.bluemarlindivetech.com
  • To read more about the Gili Eco trust and their conservation initiatives, visit www.giliecotrust.com
  • For more of Alfie's stunning photographic art, visit www.alfredminnaarphotography.com

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