The immediately visible differences when arriving in Lombok from Bali often leave many travellers bemused and slightly startled. This is the first of a chain of islands stretching towards northern Australia that make up Nusa Tenggara, with the Lombok Strait acting as a natural barrier to flora and fauna known as the Wallace Line.
Travelling Nusa Tenggara by motorcycle
Compared to the tropical forests and jungle to its west, Lombok is a rugged and somewhat barren landscape with an entirely different kind of beauty. The climate is hotter and drier, vegetation is not as lush or dominant and even the animal life varies greatly, giving Nusa Tenggara an entirely unique natural identity.
These islands are also extremely culturally diverse and have the largely Islamic islands of Lombok and Sumbawa immediately to Bali’s east. Moving further we come to the predominantly Catholic Flores with its history of Portuguese colonialism before reaching arid Timor and the Protestant majority that live there.
This is a stunningly varied part of Indonesia that is amazingly easy to travel by motorbike or with local transport, yet it remains largely unappreciated by travellers to Indonesia.
Travelling Nusa Tenggara by motorcycle
The vehicle ferry from Bali-Lombok departs Padang Bai every hour and arrives in Lembar on Lombok’s west coast. Crossing with a motorbike costs around 10 USD and will take between four and five hours (loading and unloading times vary and sometimes cause a considerable wait in Padang Bai).
Most people don’t hang around long in the unattractive harbor town of Lembar and make straight for the beaches of Senggigi about 20km to the north. Senggigi is Lombok’s principal tourist destination ideally located along a particularly beautiful section of coastline near Mataram, Lombok’s capital city.
There are successions of isolated coves just north of Senggigi that can be visited by boat and will guarantee a whole beach just to yourself. A few days should be spent in this area exploring hidden alcoves and noting the differences between Bali and Lombok.
The beaches of Lombok’s west are rightfully popular but the most impressive attraction in Lombok is undoubtedly Mount Rinjani.
Volcanos that add to the prehistoric landscape
The spectacular, semi-active volcano stands at over 3700m tall and dominates the entirety of Lombok’s landscape. With the low-lying clouds that are a feature of this part of the world, reaching the summit of Rinjani feels like you’ve entered a new world where mountains are islands and fluffy clouds are the sea that separate them.
From Lombok the public ferry departs Labuan Kayangan on the east coast daily heading to Potatano in west Sumbawa. The travel time is approximately 90 minutes and the trip will cost 3 USD with a motorbike.
Sumbawa is less developed, much poorer and much less visited than Lombok, but it is also much wilder and culturally traditional. Surfers have long known about the island’s unique scenery but a lack of infrastructure and tourist interest means they are a group of few visitors.
There is one long road connecting Potatano in the east to Sape in the west and public transport does little other than rumble up and down this long stretch. With the flexibility of your own motorbike however, it is easy to discover and explore Sumbawa’s secret treasures including Pasar Syketeng (local markets), the Dalam Loka palace and countless secluded beaches and rocky outcrops.
Getting to Flores from Sumbawa is again just a matter of taking the public vehicle ferry that departs daily from Sape in east Sumbawa to Labuan Bajo in western Flores, costing just 3 USD with a motorbike. Flores (‘flowers’ in Portugese) was given its name by settlers who were amazed by the sprawling, aromatic forests of the island, but only now are travellers to Indonesia beginning to capitalise on its rich treasures.
In recent years the island has somewhat become Indonesia’s ‘next big thing’ with secluded beaches, fantastic diving and snorkeling and a backdrop of rugged volcanoes. A 670km long highway running by rivers, lakes, forests and canyons connects Labuan Bajo to Larantuka in the east and is possibly the best biking experience you can get in Indonesia, even with all the potholes.
The western part of Flores acts as a gateway to nearby islands including Komodo and its prehistoric, lizard-like inhabitants. The harbor town of Labuan Bajo and its surreal sunsets is booming with the influx of tourists and has become the fastest growing regency in Indonesia, but even so most visitors use it as a springboard to the nearby national park.
In eastern Flores the Kelimutu National Park and its spectacularly coloured volcanic lakes remains a must visit for any travellers. The town of Moni at the base of the mountain acts as the basecamp for hikers and is where most visitors stay. A sunrise trek brings you to Inspiration Point on the western rim of the Kelimutu crater in time to see the first rays of sunlight creep over the horizon. As the light breaks the volcanic crest and pools in the crater below three deep, volcanic lakes and their rarely seen qualities are revealed. One of the Kelimutu lakes remains turquoise year-round, while the other two fluctuate between shades of red, brown and orange dependent on their mineral content at the time.
Cruising the coast from Moni to Larantuka
The drive from Moni to Larantuka on the eastern coastline takes only a couple of hours taking you through some of the islands most mountainous region. Some travellers stay a night or two in Larantuka to get a look at the fresh fruit and seafood of the bustling night markets, but most pass through briefly on their way to western Timor.
The vehicle ferry departs Larantuka headed to the capital of Timor, Kupang, every Thursday and Sunday at 2pm and costs approximately 10 USD for the 14-hour journey. This is by far the longest and most uncomfortable ferry you will take between Indonesian islands and unfortunately, it is also notorious for being overcrowded. The ship arrives at the ferry terminal about 13km from the centre of Kupang at around 4:30am.
Kupang is regarded as a university city throughout Indonesia and the abundance of youth here is driving a visible cultural movement.
Students sporting the latest technology navigate the city using the fleet of bemos (small buses) that blare the latest dangdut track and add to the already deafening and chaotic traffic. Despite the noise, heat and general activity of Kupang, many travellers end up staying here longer than anticipated on their way to Roti or Alor.
The small but charming Lavalon bar has an ideal oceanfront location and the cool, blue pool of Crystal Cave remains a local secret. Even so, most people only pass through Kupang on their way to the scenic islands of the Alor archipelago, directly north of Timor, or Rote, which lies just to the southwest of Timor
In Alor animist traditions endure and locals are more than happy to share their ritualistic culture with foreigners who are genuinely interested. Despite the closeness of these islands to Timor they were less influenced by Dutch and Portuguese colonialists than the mainland and retained much more of their indigenous identity as a result.
Where to stay on each of the different islands
Lombok – Senggigi is the most popular tourist area of Lombok and there is a better range of accommodation here than anywhere else in Lombok. Budget options start as low as 6 USD per night whilst those seeking luxury can stay at 5-star resorts like the Sheraton.
The Gili Islands off Lombok’s north coast have become a popular getaway from Bali and tourism there is flourishing. Budget accommodation is available all down the main beach of Nusa Trawangan, whilst midrange and more expensive options can be found on the other side of the island and on neighbouring Gili Meno and Gili Air.
Kuta, not to be confused with the famous Kuta in Bali, has the best beaches in Lombok and surf that can rival even the best breaks in Bali. Accommodation here is more expensive than other areas of Lombok and you can expect to pay a minimum of 20 USD per night for a good room near the beach.
Sumbawa – Sumbawa has far less tourist infrastructure than Lombok and infinitely less than in Bali, but there are a few beach hostels and bungalows that cater mainly to the surfers that come for Sumbawa’s famous breaks. Lakey Beach is a particularly part of the island and there are some solid budget options that front onto the beach and can be had for about 10 USD per night.
Flores – Labuan Bajo is a rapidly expanding port town that has managed to retain its charming look despite increased tourism in recent years. Most visitors to Flores stay in the small town in one of the backpacker hostels or bungalows, and there is a reasonably strong backpacker community in town. Labuan Bajo is also the gateway to the Komodo National Park, which attracts a number of visitors to the region each year.
Timor – Outside of Kupang, there is very little in the way of tourist accommodation in West Timor and you’ll be hard pressed to find a good option even in the capital. Along the scruffy waterfront there are a few solid midrange options that provide basic but clean and comfortable rooms at a reasonable price of 10 to 20 USD per night.
When is the best time to visit Nusa Tenggara?
The rainy season that has such a huge impact on tourism in Sumatra, Java and Bali is not as strong once you pass the Lombok Strait and head east into Nusa Tenggara.
In fact, in many parts of Nusa Tenggara the rainy season is the best time of year to go as the countryside is green rather than brown and the rains bring a welcome respite from the heat. Certainly Timor is more appealing in the months from September to February when the land isn’t as parched and dry and the sun isn’t so strong as to make you feel lethargic.
Another reason to visit during these months is that the malaria outbreaks that can be so problematic in Nusa Tenggara are seemingly more common during the drier months.