Mark Twain once said: “Throw off the bowlines, sail away from the safe harbour. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” Faraway, exotic islands are always ripe for discovery, but one doesn’t normally expect them to be delightfully raw or rustic at the same time, especially when referring to the most hallowed name in the luxury hotel business.
I haven’t been camping since I was small, but there’s something inexplicably charming and whimsical about tents, in no small part thanks to a childish fascination with the outdoors, a wild sense of adventure, campfires, singsongs with toasted marshmallows on skewers; all part and parcel of a wholesome scouting summer expedition. Fast-forward a few years and my peripatetic, nomadic spirit hasn’t dimmed – in fact, this very yearning to reconvene with nature, far from the madding crowd, is about to receive a huge boost, in the guise of a smart eight-seater Cessna Caravan. Destination: Moyo Island.
From the memories of a bucolic British childhood to the present-day Hieronymous Bosch-style hell that is Bali’s off-trod Denpasar International Airport, with its concatenation of fetid, stale odours – read: a dizzying cocktail of sweat and antiperspirants from rushed tourists colliding and collapsing in the crowds – and the ever-present smoking denizens loitering on every corner, sitting, standing, hanging, hawking with inquisitive, greedy eyes amidst the humid chaos, there’s no time to escape like the present.
Taking a bird’s eye view, Moyo Island is a Lilliputian particle of land belonging to the world’s largest archipelago state, Indonesia. With over 17,500 islands and counting, nearly two-thirds are uninhabited, leaving plenty of room for exploration. There are two ways to reach this piece of paradise: the first is to take a 45-minute flight-hop from Bali across to Sumbawa, then a 15-minute speedboat ride to Moyo. Or better still, take a direct flight from Bali to Moyo on the amphibious Cessna, which takes approximately an hour and is available throughout the dry season from April – November.
Once airborne, leaving the mania of Bali’s tourist epicentre behind, the fun has just begun as aerial vistas jostle to astonish and captivate the viewer. The rugged island coastal scenery of lush and plump greenery, characteristic of the remaining untouched pockets of Bali, gives way to shimmering seas of brilliant blue hues before reaching the dense verdant jungle carpeting a healthy chunk of the land of Lombok below. Crossing the Lombok Strait and the faunal boundary of the Wallace Line, which runs between Borneo & Sulawesi – and thus Bali and Lombok on our journey – presents a contrasting biological picture: where Bali is humid and lush, Lombok and all the eastern islands beyond are characteristically drier and display different animal and, to a lesser extent, plant life. Even birds observe this change in eco-zones, despite the shortest distance between Bali and Lombok being only about 35km.
Gliding seamlessly through Lombok’s interior, the topography then takes a more lofty turn as jungle makes way for leviathan mounts of a more sombre shade which, in turn, act as a magnet for billowing clouds that bring the clear views to a close…until we pass by the gentler green hills of the next island, Sumbawa. The highlight of this pneumatic journey: passing the majestic heights of Mount Rinjani for a close-up. The strato-volcano’s seminal sight, reaching 3726m, dominates much of the Lombok landscape.
As we motor on, it occurs to me how intrepid this journey feels: Indonesia is vast, spanning more than 5,000km from the Indian to the Pacific Oceans, and although hugely populated, this demographic statistic is partially confined to the main island of Java. Once heading out eastwards, past Sumatra, Java, Bali and below Kalimantan, and into the Regency of Nusa Tenggara and beyond, the pace of life and indeed time gratefully slows down.
In fact, we are slowing down, as our Cessna dutifully descends, with propellers still enthusiastically turning, whilst our destination appears on the horizon, 15km off the coast of Sumbawa. Moyo Island is larger than I expected, with 36,000 hectares to its name, and secured nature reserve status back in 1976. It may not warrant much on a map of Indonesia, but here is a land of dense jungle and savannah plateaus, reaching a height of over 600m in places, blessed with waterfalls and limestone spring-fed pools, accommodating a whole variety of life within its boundaries: bats, boars, buffaloes, deer, monkeys and several birds of prey, and that’s not even considering the marine-life in the deep blue hinterlands.
Finally, we touch down on the water, elegantly skating towards the jetty buttressed by the gentle arc of Amanwana Bay and I immediately appreciate just how iridescently clear the waters of the Flores Sea appears below, where squadrons of sea-life are inquisitively gathering. The diversity is staggering, with designer fish of every size and colour out on guard to welcome us to Amanwana, “Peaceful Forest”. The ethereal tented camp backdrop seamlessly blends into its setting with only the smallest hint of canvas peeping through the foliage beside a beach the colour of lemon sherbet. I step out of the float plane and on to the boardwalk where fervent handshakes are delivered all round, a shot of something tropical to appease the palate is proffered, and the first of a myriad cold towels to soothe and signal my arrival, displaying the putative Aman warmth, from a neat khaki’s-and-cream-clothed crew, before being genially directed along the sand pathway beneath the forest canopy to my Ocean Front luxury tent.
Don’t be fooled by the surprisingly simple, earthy exterior: this is first-class canvas chic bearing many of the hallmarks of the Aman pedigree. Forget pokey, leaking scouting shelters, my temporary tented abode is nothing less than stately in size, measuring 58-square meters and displaying the renowned Zen-like credentials: discreet yet omnipresent personal service (courtesy of the 4:1 staff/guest ratio); the resort’s profound sense of space amidst a glorious setting; understated sophistication and eco-sensitive design, whose clean lines remove any trace of swank and gilded swagger, which formed the quintessential luxe look of yesteryear.
Instead, welcome a warm, subtle palate of corn-blush wheat and buttery creams splashed upon muslin drapes and inviting divans to provide a calming base, together with carefully selected Indonesian objets d’art to complete the picture. I enter the tented palace and witness the imposing signature interior: a net-swathed, king-sized bed takes central stage, with a finely carved large wooden desk behind, facing large banks of sea-facing windows on three sides which draw in natural light and create a compelling view of the watery panorama outside. In fact, it is the perfect vantage point to witness tonight’s sunset sky filled with a melange of baby-pinks and blues punctuated by sweeps of grey brushwork as a tangerine sun disappears. Moreover, with only 20 well-positioned tents in the camp making up the only resort on the island, replete with 15km of coastline at your disposal, your privacy is assured and the feeling of thrilling castaway isolation is accomplished. There is an inviting sense of integration with the forest, which largely covers the extent of the resort, and when even the timid, rare Rusa deer willingly comes into the Amanwana park to graze at night, you know you’re somewhere special.
During the night, the forest ambience reaches its apex: the requisite chorus of croaking frogs compete with the rhythmic-click mating calls from cheeky cicadas and geckos. An occasional bellowing, guttural sound like an out-of-tune tuba fills the camp with its echo and takes me by surprise the first time. I later learn that this call belongs to none other than the delicate and eternally shy Rusa deer, which so delighted me earlier with a first encounter over dinner (where a growing portion of the menu is grown organically by-hand in the camp’s impressive chef’s garden), whilst cautiously grazing in sight of the open-air pavilion. The endemic deer species are a valuable part of Amanwana’s eco-flag-flying Moyo Conservation Fund founded in 2008. Under the auspices of the resort, and as a seamless facility for guests to contribute to the programme, the Moyo Conservation Fund proactively protects the 12,000 hectares of the resort, as an integral part of the island’s nature reserve, through a selection of conservation projects including: rescuing and monitoring turtle eggs; restoring damaged coral reefs; patrolling the surrounding land and sea to protect trees and reefs from illegal logging and fishing; and, of course, encouraging the reintroduction and subsequent breeding of Rusa deer in their sanctuary at the resort; as well as educating the 3,500 or so islanders on conservation and community work.
As a new day breaks, I enjoy an al fresco breakfast outside my tent facing the waves lapping against the shore and contemplate the myriad options in my new wilderness playground. The wonderful thing about Amanwana is that you can be as active or inactive as you wish. Guests can take many guises: a hiker, an ornithologist, a water-sports enthusiast, a diver, or even a sun-worshipper, all such needs are expertly catered for. My indulgence selects the opportunity to invoke my inner Indiana, and Amanwana has many options to challenge, delight and capture the imagination of its guests. With seemingly impenetrable jungle on my doorstep and some of the most untouched coral reefs in the world a few steps away, it would be rude not to…So, after sipping the final vestiges of my homemade ginger and honey tea, I’m off on my first adventure: destination Barry’s Falls.
Amanwana holds a flotilla of boats at its disposal for guests to explore the far reaches of the Flores Sea and we are fortunate enough to have Poseidon on our side today, blessing us with calm, inviting waters for our journey along the coast of the island. We carve through a sea so blindingly blue, drawing in the raw clarity of the early morning sunshine, which shoots tendrils of silver across the surface of the dappled water. I squint under my polarised shades attempting to take pictures of the silvery film of light against the deep blue, but fail miserably – it’s clearly a location scene alone. Once on terra firma, we trade our vessel for a vehicle, and what a steed it is. A restored old Japanese WWII army battlewagon, or so I’m told. Indie would be pleased…and the jolting, knockabout journey traversing the mud track peppered with potholes adds to the experience!
The jovial driver solemnly stated that the journey would take hours when prompted early on, but we arrive within 30 minutes (I love the unique character of island time). The vision is jaw-dropping: a photogenic main waterfall cascades spring-fed water into a succession of smaller limestone, turquoise-tinged plunge pools below, altogether framed by the forest. As I turn around to share my exalted sentiments with my guides, a glorious picnic hamper is swiftly spread out before my eyes…Following a hearty filling, I elect to hike all the way back to the drop-off point.
Back on the boat, I eagerly prepare my dive paraphernalia with the patient aid of my dive-master. A mere 10 minutes from Amanwana elicits a selection of statuesque reef walls, some up to 100m deep, and with it some of the most colourful and pristine coral colonies you can find – a tribute to its protected marine park status. A treasure trove of treats is promised at Labuan Aji’s circular reef, with walls descending down to 60m deep, so this is where we disembark. Following our backward roll scuba entry and once under the water, the crystalline clarity allows me to quickly spy vivid corals peeking up at us with millions of tiny coloured eyes. Graceful Gorgonian fans (some are over 100 years old!) swing astride stag horns and rotund barrel sponges, whilst capacious plate corals complete the coral cityscape. Platoons of Parrotfish, Lionfish, Triggerfish, Snappers and Sweetlips populate the marine scene straight out of a BBC Blue Planet episode, and naturally the tinctures transform by night – an unmissable highlight. But the piece de resistance? For all you macro-enthusiasts out there: a Spanish Dancer, one of the largest and most colourful of all nudibranchs.
To complete this Eden-esque afternoon, what better way than to retreat back to the resort and devote quality time to unadulterated, unruffled relaxation to ease away all the day’s exertions at The Jungle Cove Spa. I take the meandering path down to a corner of the camp and find the double treatment room facing the sheltered cove, shielded by tamarind trees and large parasols – the perfect hideaway setting. The therapist starts kneading my back, releasing tired muscles and knots, before my skin is granted a dermatological treat with a sea-salt scrub glazed with the sweet nectar of local honey, which smells divine and gives my skin a golden luminescence. I then complete my treatment with a nourishing ambrosial milk and herbal soak in the sunken bath, just steps from the water’s edge. I have never been to a spa, which taps into the elements so intimately and so exquisitely with its al fresco set-up.
As I recline, with a gentle salty breeze behind me, I close my eyes in supine bliss to listen to the waves in motion close by and almost hear the sea breathing – what stories the big blue could tell! Here, on these islands in centuries past, explorers and merchants of the colonial spice trade regularly passed by and probably saw a similar scene as I do today. Maybe a few visitors of old ended up here lost at sea. However, JRR Tolkien’s words still ring true: “not all those who wander are lost”, and although modern-day Moyo is still as refreshingly remote and unchanged, Amanwana is purposely a place to lose oneself and return to nature. VANESSA THREAPLETON-HORROCKS
A stay at Amanwana costs from £530 (US$800) per night staying in a Jungle Tent. The rate is subject to an additional board charge of £90 (US$135) per person per day, which includes all meals, non-alcoholic drinks, laundry, short treks and non-motorised water sports. The rate is subject to 21% tax and service charge. Transfers by floatplane between Bali and Amanwana are charged at £265 (US$400) per person each way. For reservations visit www.amanresorts.com or call toll-free on 00 800 2255 2626.