Looking for paradise, Southern Lombok
Sipping at a young coconut in the shade of a pohon waru, a gnarled tree with spade-shaped leaves, I squeezed the cool white sand between my toes. The smell of grilled fish, freshly caught from the sea, wafted over from the beachside warung – a small trio of shacks in bamboo and alang-alang – while a row of brightly painted outrigger canoes lay lined up on the shore.
At roughly half past ten on a Thursday morning, Bama and I pulled into the unpaved car park at Selong Belanak. From Kuta it had been a westward journey of almost 19 kilometres, taking the winding high road along lush hillsides and villages where uniformed schoolchildren waved and shouted “hello”. It was our driver from Senggigi, dressed in a cheery rose-coloured batik shirt, who suggested it the day before. “Go to Selong Belanak,” he told us, “There’s only one villa there so far.”
It was a name that seemed both distant and exotic, rolling off the tongue with surprising ease. Selong Belarak. Benalak. Belanak. Bama grinned as I struggled to get it right the first few times. In Bahasa Indonesia it is a subtle change that marks the difference between a soybean and a donkey, a head and a coconut, or a carrot and a telephone booth.
The sea folded into a ribbon of jade green before tumbling, with a loud roar, onto the sand. From our vantage point in the shade, we watched the surfers paddle out into the bay, beneath a dramatic line of ridges that marched off into the hazy horizon. Selong Belanak was a refreshing change from the beaches we had already seen – unlike Kuta and Tanjung Aan, no one was trying to push us a hard sell.
At eight o’clock the next morning, Bama and I piled into a minivan headed to Tanjung Ringgit, a rugged, surf-beaten peninsula in the island’s extreme southeast. For the next two and a half hours we passed through a flat, dry landscape of tobacco fields and gaily-painted primary schools. Village after village seemed to be in an open competition to build the grandest and most beautiful mosque. Nailed onto nearby trees were visions of what was to come: fanciful, multi-storey creations adorned with dreamlike minarets and colourful domes, the main entrance approached by an oversized stairway.
Our navigator in the passenger seat gestured and tapped on the glass. “Pasar tradisional.” We came to a brief stop as the early morning light slanted into the open stalls of a buzzing roadside market. Window rolled down, I breathed in the smells of fresh produce – chillis, squid and fresh fish – while vendors squatted between small heaps of fruit and vegetables.
The final five kilometres reminded us of the conditions we endured in Laos, travelling Route 13 from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. We slowed to a crawl, navigating broken, pot-holed roads more suited to a hardy jeep. A rocky single-track beyond the lighthouse led to a wind-blown cape where brilliant blue waters surged into the cliffs. Tucked away in the bushes stood the rusted hulk of a Japanese artillery gun; when installed in World War II it would have guarded the southern approach to the Alas Strait.
But it was not the raw landscape or the view towards Sumbawa that had prompted us to make this journey. Before the road petered out at Tanjung Ringgit, we noticed garish highlights of pink on several tree trunks, a splash of unexpected colour in a parched, surreal forest devoid of leaves. Here an improvised bamboo gate marked the entryway to a 300-metre-long dirt track. It too, was decorated in a loud, fluorescent pink.
A local man approached as the driver rolled down his window. “You’ll have to park here. Yesterday several cars went down and couldn’t come back up.” We hopped off the minivan and started down the dusty trail. Rutted, half-destroyed and littered with stones, it would lead us to the fabled sands of Lombok’s Pink Beach.
Pantai Pink – or Pantai Tangsi to local residents – was a completely deserted stretch of virgin sand, where the only footprints were our own. Far above us a single villa perched unobtrusively on the hillside, seemingly empty and partially hidden in the foliage. The lone beach keeper pointed to a small boat at anchor in the bay, with an offer to take us snorkelling in the nearby islands. He spoke of a cave the Japanese tunnelled in World War II, and how the beach appeared more pink in the early morning or late afternoon. Our local navigator looked around at the surroundings and frowned. “It’s nothing special.”
“You’re not going to go for a swim?”
He shook his head, retiring to the shade as we excitedly made our way down to the water.
I have never seen – or felt – sand as fine as I did that day at Pantai Tangsi. I could not resist scooping up several handfuls and letting it fall to the ground, dissolving, as in an hourglass, through the gaps between my fingers. In the background the surf washed over the beach, turning it gradual shades of pink from countless pieces of crumbled red coral.
I looked down at the sunlight dancing across the sea floor and wondered if it was all a dream. One and a half hours of absolute bliss ensued, as we immersed ourselves neck-deep in the tropical cerulean and floated without a care in the world. We rose and fell with the incoming waves, laughing like children when the rising tide pushed us to shore.
The same driver who pointed us to Selong Belanak just days earlier had given us two maps of Lombok, packed with twisting roads, childlike illustrations and a bevy of names that filled the page. Running across the top, in bold lettering, was ‘Paradise Island’. Now, as Bama and I swam off a pristine, pink beach with hardly a soul in sight, we realised the truth of those words.