Traveling overland, especially on a budget, is anything but convenient, but there’s no better way to get to know the country you’re traveling through than by taking public transportation. Our overland trip from Mataram (on Lombok) to Labuan Bajo (on Flores) was what you might call a learning experience (unless you wanted to call it a nightmare, but we’re trying to see the glass half full here). The trick is getting where you need to go for the best value, considering money, time, and overall travel experience. This was our goal when we decided to split up our trip into several days on Lombok using public transportation—save some money, see some sights, and relax here and there on the way. Well, it was a nice idea. Here’s what we learned and how you can avoid some of our blunders:
First of all, you should know we planned our trip using Lonely Planet’s Southeast Asia On a Shoestring, the 15th edition (2010) as an aid. In general this is a great tool, but there is no way Lonely Planet could have prepared us for this leg of our trip. Many of the prices listed in the book for lodging and transportation in Lombok were way off; either the authors went during low season (we went in high season) or they were men (and we are not. But more on that later).
We knew from the book and from asking locals that we needed to get to Labuhan Lombok on the east side of the island in order to get across Sumbawa to Flores. We wanted to split up the long trip by stopping somewhere else on Lombok for a night or two, and from what we read and saw on the map there were two decent options: Kuta in the south or Senaru in the north. Kuta is a small beach town, and since we had just been on the beach, we chose Senaru instead, a small town at the base of sacred Mt. Rinjani. From what I could tell it was a little easier to get to/from, and it sounded beautiful (1 out of 2 of those assessments was correct).
Mataram —> Senaru:
We started at the Mandalika bus terminal in Mataram (we originally got there from Gili Air), where we found a bus that went to Anyar. Lonely Planet told us it would cost 20,000 rupiah for one person, but we couldn’t get a price any lower than 40,000 rupiah each (Fail #1). From Anyar it is a short drive to Senaru. Lonely Planet said there would be bemos to take us this stretch, but in fact there are none (Fail #2). You’ll have to hire a car or motorbike to take you up the steep hill from Anyar. Our bus driver offered to take us the extra distance for 20,000 more rupiah, but in hindsight 20 might have been a bit much to pay for such a short distance.
Senaru is beautiful, if you have the time and money to do it right. Trekking Mount Rinjani is the main reason to visit here. A Rinjani trek will cost upwards of a hundred dollars for a few nights, meals and guide included, and can be arranged at your hotel. If you’re not planning on trekking we wouldn’t recommend making the journey to Senaru, unless you have several days and want somewhere quiet to chill out away from the crowds. Just make sure you’re going to spend enough time to make the ride there and away worth it. We only stayed a night, and though the quiet and the scenery were nice, it didn’t quite make the journey out worth it. We stayed at Pondok Indah for 100,000 rupiah/night (including breakfast and spotty wifi) and left the following morning for Labuhan Lombok.
We should have known we’d have a long day when just getting from our hotel to the bus stop was a hassle. We paid an outrageous 15,000 each to drive the 5 minutes to the bus stop, after assuring everyone at our hotel that, no, we didn’t want a car to take us to Labuhan Lombok. Upon arriving at the bus stop, the driver of our car (apparently upon divine inspiration) suddenly announced that the bus wasn’t coming today until 1:00 (it was around 9 am at the time). Well, since we had been told the bus comes every hour, we took our chances anyway and he drove dejectedly back up the hill.
The public bus stop is just a random spot on the side of the road, and upon our arriving there we were surrounded by an innumerable and endless supply of men offering rides to Labuhan Lombok for the bargain price of an arm and a leg, each. We started out kindly averting the never-ending questions “Where are you going?” and “How much?” by asking what time the bus came. We got exactly four different answers. After a little chin-rubbing and consulting in Indonesian with the rest of the men, someone would tell us not until 3, 4, 1, or 2:00 and then offer us a ride for 400,000 rupiah. This lasted for about half an hour, us standing or squatting on the side of the road with our backpacks, and dozens of men gathered in a circle around us, conspiring in Indonesian and making offers in English. We refused the initial, insane offers of 3-400,000 rupiah ($40 USD for a 2 hour drive) and prayed they were lying about the bus not coming for 6 more hours. During this time I was thinking two things: “God, I wish I knew Indonesian,” and “I wish I knew karate.” 30 minutes later the bus arrived, and we pushed our way through the crowds of men consulting with the driver and bargained for 40,000 rupiah each to Labuhan Lombok (make sure you tell the driver you don’t want a ferry ticket; you can take care of that later).
When we arrived in Labuhan Lombok, just up the road from the ferry port, we were surrounded by another crowd of men making offers. Long story short, we bought a combined bus/ferry ticket to Bima on Sumbawa for 150,000 each (it included 1 free meal, which ended up being at 2 am. But hey, I’ll take free food anytime!). In hindsight this was too much to pay, especially considering our bus didn’t leave for another 6-7 hours. Try to get a lower price than this; the bus only takes you to Bima, where you’ll have to get another bus to Sape to catch the ferry.
This leg of the journey was probably the most frustrating part, even though the actual travel time from Bima to Sape is 2 1/2 hours. When we arrived in Bima we were immediately offered taxis and bemos to Sape, but we opted to take the public bus, which we were assured earlier would only be 20,000 rupiah each. Since our bus was late in leaving, we missed the public buses that leave from Bima in the morning in order to catch the 8am ferry in Sape to Labuan Bajo. The next bus wouldn’t leave for several hours, so we asked how much a bemo would be, and we were shocked when the driver told us 300,000 ($30 USD for a 2.5 hour drive!). Even by bargaining we could only get him down to 200,000, so we decided to wait for the bus. Later on we met an English man named David who was immediately offered 40,000 rupiah for a bemo to Sape. I know, we were confused too. But that’s for a later blog entry. All’s well that ends well, and we got to Sape eventually for 20,000 rupiah on the public bus.
The first thing you need to know is that all the guide books will tell you there’s only one ferry a day from Sape to Labuan Bajo, and it leaves at 8 am. This isn’t necessarily true. When we arrived in Sape we assumed we’d have to stay the night (accommodation here is slim pickings!) since we missed the 8 am ferry. But we later learned (through the same annoyingly lucky English man, who spoke with a few locals and got the low-down) that another ferry was going to arrive at 4 pm. Initially all the staff at the port told us there would be no ferry, but when we pressed them about the 4 pm one they gave up the goods. A ferry did arrive at 4 pm, but it didn’t leave until after 11 pm. Some people who boarded with us had direct tickets from Mataram to Labuan Bajo, which they used to get on. We had no direct ticket, and the ticket office was closed, so Kim and I paid the man collecting tickets at the ferry the 46,000 rupiah ticket price, and he let us on (we’re not sure where that money actually went, but we weren’t too concerned). The ferry traveled overnight to Labuan Bajo, around a 7 hour journey, and we arrived there in the morning.
None of this is to scare anyone away from overland travel. It can be confusing, frustrating, and overwhelming, but Kim and I learned a ton and were much more savvy because of it. We also gained some great memories we wouldn’t have gotten otherwise, like a group of old women and their vegetables overtaking our bus who had a complete fascination with Kim’s turquoise ring, and talked with each other about it at length in Indonesian. Or a man on our ferry to Labuan Bajo who used a combination of sign language and charades to either a) tell us about the komodo dragons or b) warn us about a very large, winged creature living somewhere on the boat who once bit a giant chunk out of someone’s side. Overland travel is where the memories are, but if you want an easier time traveling, here are your options:
- Fly to Labuan Bajo airport from Lombok or Bali.
- Book a direct ticket from Mataram to Bima or Labuan Bajo. You can also book a direct ticket from the Gilis to Labuan Bajo for 400,000 rupiah.
- On the way back, it’s possible to book a direct ticket for 500,000 (during high season) from Labuan Bajo to Denpasar on Bali (we did this and it was much easier, though not as memorable).
Also, be sure to check out our general travel tips for Indonesia!
Also, be sure to check out our general travel tips for Indonesia!