It is not that often you come across World War ruins while visiting a south-east Asian tropical island with white sandy beaches. Or one would be tempted to think so. Actually, chances are that you will get to see such places as most of these small islands and its surroundings were in the thick of all the happenings during the World War II. Abandoned bunkers/shelters, war prison camps and shipwrecks are to be found across the entire region, be it on land or under the sea.
On my year-end getaway to Gili Trawangan Island, apart from the swimming, sunsets, snorkeling, sea-turtles and night-long partying, I decided to soak in a little piece of history too. A brief history of the Gili islands takes us back to the time during the Second World War when this place was used by Japanese forces as a lookout post, POW detention camp and naval base. Two of the most significant relics of that time include a patrol boat wreck off the coast of Gili Air which is now a popular diving spot and the remains of a machine-gun bunker on the hill of Gili Trawangan.
The climb up the hill takes not more than 20-25 minutes and is relatively easy with some rough but harmless terrain. The thick foliage of trees that covers the entire landscape on the hill provided some much-needed shelter from the blistering heat all along. A few meters up on the ascent, there is an interesting sight – a Hindu rock shrine draped in yellow sash and just a few steps away, there a small Dargah (shrine of a Muslim saint) right on the edge of the cliff.
Continuing up the hill and across some rough pathways through the forest along the slope you get the first sighting of the machine-gun bunker remains what now looks like the shell of a huge clam. The structure looks fairly strong and sturdy with just one crack on it. It seemed to have stood the test of time amid the roots and branches of the trees around it.
After, another few steps over the next 10 minutes I reached the summit of the hill where the land flattens up quite a bit. This is an excellent view-point for the entire island and beyond. You get beautiful views of the east coast of the island with backdrop of the picturesque Rinjani mountain range across the Lombok strait. While to the west are open seas with very distant views of Mount Agung in Bali. This spot would be an perfect place for the sunrise and sunsets if not for the ever-growing thick vegetation around.
A bit more of lurking around and I see these medium to big sized dents on the surface with trees growing from inside them. It was only after quite sometime, I realized these were actually openings of the underground tunnels that were built by the Japanese forces during their occupation of the island. These intertwined tunnels are said to run throughout most of the hill structure. In fact, the island derives its name from the presence of the tunnels – Trawangan originates from the Indonesian word Terowangan which means Tunnel.
The hill-top was a great place to just sit around in peace while surrounded by the lush green forest. For the entire hour or so, I am sure I was the only one as I went at mid-day so there was absolutely nobody else around. It was a perfect setting to understand the rustic nature of this island and get to experience its small but important place in history; an aspect which is often overlooked when people talk about Gili. This island is indeed a bit more than the portrayed image of a tropical paradise with beautiful beaches, pristine waters and all-night parties.
A bit of local folklore
The local villagers in the island believe the hill to be a haunted place and there are stories some development projects that failed to take off because of the malevolent spirits dwelling here. To be honest, the hill does have an eerie vibe to it with a worn out and desolate look. In fact, locals here prefer not to venture further beyond the above mentioned religious shrines. I was alone, but the only thing I feared was the presence of any snakes out there.
How to get there
From the harbor, keep going to the southwest part of the island for about 10 minutes (if cycling) and pass by the Paradise Sunset bar. The entrance to the hill is further ahead across the road from an undeveloped and deserted beach bar.
Gili Trawangan is one of the three small islands located in the Lombok Strait between Bali and Lombok in Indonesia. This island is ironically the biggest among the three – Gili Air and Gili Meno being the other two – and is a popular getaway destination among travelers in Southeast Asia.