All blog posts I have found about Gili Air have titles like “10 amazing things to do in the Gilis” , and surprisingly I haven’t found any posts on what the experience of traveling to the Gilis by boat. The closest I’ve come is Adventurous Kate’s story of Shipwreck in Indonesia – which is how I thought my story to the Gilis would end…The Lonely Planet only recommended two boat operators (Scoot Cruises and Gili Cat) which where both fully booked by the time we decided to visit Gili Air – more about Gili Cat later… Anyway, we needed to get from Bali to Gili Air by boat, and that’s where this story begins…
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For those who don’t know, the Gili Islands are 3 idyllic islands located to the north west of Lombok and are a common tourist stop for visitors from Bali. There are no cars allowed on the islands, just dirt roads you can wander by foot, between breaks from snorkeling with turtles in turquoise waters, before retiring to your bungalow for a night of sound sleep. Sounds romantic, right? Well, it is. But getting there is another story.
On TripAdvisor nearly all reviews of boat operators to the Gilis are ranked with barely one star with reviews like “Worst day of my life” and “Would rather be in hell than take the boat to Gili Air again.”
Should we trust their reviews?, we wondered. Maybe all of these people were being dramatic, maybe there was nothing to worry about. These reviews were probably written by the tourists carrying big suitcases traveling by tour bus… not flexible backpackers like ourselves.
In our desperation to get out of Seminyak we reluctantly booked our “tickets” to reach Gili Air through a taxi driver, who “had a friend” (don’t they all…) who could get us tickets. We went this route because both Scoot Fast Cruise and Gili Cat did not have tickets available for the next day.
What boat company is it? we asked our taxi driver, and he assured us we’d get tickets with Eka Jaya, a fast boat operator we had heard of, at least. When we showed up to Padangbai Harbor, he dropped us at an unnamed tent. There we waited, and waited, and waited, until a guy in plain jeans and a t-shirt came over and told us to follow him. But, I thought, shouldn’t he be wearing, like, a polo shirt with the boat company’s logo on it?
He handed us each a laminated card that read MARINA SRIKANDI. Shit. This wasn’t one of those fast boats Lonely Planet had recommended… or even one that I’d seen reviewed on TripAdvisor.
Fast boats from several different operators pulled into the harbor, and each one looked like a small ferry. Each one tall and looking like it could withstand some decent sized waves. Then I saw a small, low boat, pulling into the harbor. It looked like a baby compared to the others. Written on the side of it was MARINA SRIKANDI.
Look, my boyfriend said, pointing to the back of the boat as we boarded. There are like 5 engines on it! Even if some of them fail, we’ll still make it. Somehow, this was supposed to make me feel better.
Initially, there seemed to be nothing to fear. We gave our backpacks to the guys working on the boat who loaded them on the roof, and stepped down into the low cabin. As the boat pulled away, we could see Bali from a distance and the colors were breathtaking. I was even thinking about how great it would be to have an interior design based on a Balinese color palette (guess you know where my mind goes when it wanders). For the first 10-15 minutes everyone aboard the fast boat was laughing and looking out the windows. The waves were calm as we traveled along the coastline of Bali. We were surrounded by travelers who were just like us, which somehow always puts my mind at ease.
ICEBERG, ugh I mean, WAVES AHEAD!
Then the water started to get dicey. Ok, ok, no problem, I thought. We were going pretty fast and sometimes there was a big drop in the front of the boat when we leapt over a wave. My palms were a little sweaty, but no problem. Just a bit of discomfort, some waves here and there, but c’mon, this is the ocean! What did I expect?
I should preface this by saying that things like this don’t usually freak me out. I’m usually one the who scoffs when others are scared (driving along cliffs after the Road to Hana for example), and think that it’s too self-important to expect that of all the times something would go wrong, it would happen to you.
BANG. Another drop from the front of the boat as we leapt over another wave. BANG, BANG, BANG, the drops kept coming. All good, nothing to worry about, I was telling myself. The guys captaining this boat do this all the time… multiple times a day! Nothing to worry about, nothing.
The drops got noticeably bigger as the waves grew around us. Suddenly, the boat seemed quite small compared to how many people were in it and how much luggage it was carrying.
The waves now came from the left and the right instead of only from the front of the boat.
Soon they were lapping the windows next to our seats. It’s one thing to have waves coming for the nose of the boat. That’s ok. But waves coming from the sides… The luggage was piled high on top of the boat, increasing its center of gravity. This thing could tip over in a large wave.
Making an escape plan – smart, or manic? Still not sure
Despite our speed (which was fast), our boat was rocking from side to side with waves of several meters on either side. Remember, US readers – a meter is more than 3 feet. I’m talking waves of 9-12 feet on either side of this boat.
This is when my small panic set in. It’s ok, I told myself, I’ll make an escape plan. The emergency escape latch is right above me. Good. If the boat capsizes I can try to swim up and push that open.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend showed no signs of fear (typical). Drink some water, he said, trying to help me calm down, or maybe he noticed that I was sweating profusely.
I couldn’t turn my head to look at him. I could only look straight ahead, gripping the bars in front of me. DRINK SOME WATER? No, I had a plan for this water bottle. How could he be so foolish?!
When the boat would capsize (and I was sure it would), who knows how long it would take rescuers to find us out there. We’d be floating in salt water under the burning equatorial sun. No, I wasn’t going to drink this bottle of water. This water bottle was going to be my LIFE LINE (maybe OUR lifeline if he already drank his whole bottle of water) when we would escape from the boat. This was the only fresh water I would have. No way I was going to waste it by drinking it before the boat would capsize. Hmmph really, drink this water?, I thought. I could hardly understand how he could think of wasting the precious water we had.
Of course, I couldn’t tell him this. Mostly because I was so tense couldn’t speak and the only thing I could manage was to desperately cling on to the metal grips around me.
More waves. The waves on the side of the boat looked to be nearly as high as the boat itself. A pair of British tourists behind us laughed nervously that they were getting wet from water coming in through the broken seals of the window. One of the guys working on the boat threw open a door and rushed inside to pass out barf bags to fellow passengers.
All around us the boat had nearly gone silent with all of us either holding back vomit or gripped with fear, besides the shrieks some let out with each BANG the boat made when it slapped down against the next wave. At least I wasn’t sea sick. A full grip of anxiety was controlling my body, so there was no possibility of throwing up.
But of course, nothing would happen to me. I had my escape plan – just in case! Also, my family and friends would later applaud my foresight, I decided, when I had been smart enough to escape through the emergency exit with my bottle of water…
The ocean is a desert with its life underground…
I need something to keep my mind busy, I thought… just like during the marathon. Yes, this was JUST LIKE the marathon! Ha! I had to think of something to repeat to myself so I could keep going. In hindsight, I’m pretty sure this signaled my pending insanity.
The first thing that came to my mind was the song Horse With No Name by America – because I’d heard it in an episode of Breaking Bad a few weeks before our trip.
I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name
It felt good to be out of the rain
In the desert you can remember your name
‘Cause there ain’t no one for to give you no pain
Look babe, we’re halfway there, my boyfriend tried showing me on his GPS.
Somehow, at that moment, the only thing that gave me hope was that the FICTIONAL character, Walter White, had survived when he was stranded in the desert. So I’d surely be OK when the boat would capsize and I’d be stranded in these waters between Bali and the Gili Islands.
The ocean is a desert with its life underground
And a perfect disguise above
Like a crazy person I kept repeating this to myself over and again in my head. Maybe because the song downplayed the power of the ocean? See?, I told myself. Nothing to be afraid of.. cause the ocean is a desert with its life underground.
Whatever the hell that means.
I repeated this in my head for a good 10 minutes straight.
Babe, look! There’s Gili T! See, we’re almost there, my boyfriend said. Great, I forced out through a clenched jaw.
After a few more minutes, the waves finally mellowed out and we pulled up to the first stop, Gili T. At that point I realized I was so tense that I was shaking (and probably hyperventilating). Slowly, very slowly, I was able to take a few deep breaths. I leaned my forehead against the bar on the seat in front of me – I’d made it. Somehow the boat hadn’t capsized.
After a stop at Gili T we continued 10 minutes further to Gili Air, our final destination. We got off the boat and safely onto land. Thank god that was over.
So you want to go to the Gilis?
You should! Absolutely, you should. But please, heed my advice:
- Do some research ahead of time and please get tickets with a reputable fast boat (if there are any)
- Please go on a boat that is bigger than the one I took
- Ask someone you feel you can trust if the waves are going to be OK before you go (honestly, that person is ideally a westerner or someone familiar with western safety standards)
- I advise you to strongly consider flying to Lombok and taking a boat from Lombok instead. Flights from Bali to Lombok are cheap (€20-30) and the boat ride from Lombok to the Gilis is only 15 or 20 minutes on a slow boat.
When we arrived to Gili Air we spoke to a couple from Gili Divers on Air Dive School, and they confirmed to us that the fast boat operators will run the boats under nearly any conditions – if they can make money, they’ll take the boats out. It’s not until several boats cancel their trips that other companies will take notice and cancel or postpone their trips as well.
Tragedy on Gili Cat Fast Boat
At the end of our trip, I started googling dangerous things that had happened to tourists in Indonesia. Thankfully, I waited til we only had a few nights left to do this… Remember Gili Cat which I mentioned in the beginning?
I found a very tragic story that happened in September 2016, only 3 months before our trip. 2 passengers were killed and 14 others were wounded when an engine on a Gili Cat fast boat exploded after leaving Padangbai Harbor. One passenger lost both feet. Please take this tragedy seriously and plan your trip to the Gilis with safety in mind.
Planning your trip to Indonesia? My go-to guide book is always Lonely Planet, and I used it to plan my trip (on the go)