Sometimes being an eclipse chaser takes you to the most remote and unknown places. For many chasers, the two eclipse destinations last year (Faroe Islands and Svalbard) were unknown to them or places that they never thought they would go to and this year, it was the same for me. The eclipse path this year went through much of Indonesia, covering some well-known places, but also a lot of remote, unexplored places. Based on some great information from my eclipse friends from Follow the Sun, I chose to watch the eclipse on Pulau Belitung, a small island that is probably the least known place on the entire eclipse path.
I spent four beautiful days on Pulau Belitung and I enjoyed every minute of it. Since Lonely Planet to this date hasn’t included it in their guidebook on Indonesia, I had low expectations on how much there would be to do and see on Pulau Belitung. But even before landing in Tanjung Pandan, the biggest town on the island, it became clear to me through the windows of the plane that the island wasn’t boring; it was simply unknown and completely unexplored. I was overly thrilled to be able to explore this little unknown pearl, although I knew that I wouldn’t be the only Westerner there due to the eclipse, which I didn’t mind, as it would then be easier for me to find some travel buddies.
Because as awful as it might sound, meeting a Westerner in a remote place in South-East Asia is like meeting family. You instantly connect and want to find out more about one another. Not because I don’t want to be around locals, because trust me, I do, but because our culture and language is so different from the Indonesian, it can be tough at times and therefore is a huge relief to have someone to share the culture shock with.
On my first day on the island, I spent the time checking out the beach near my hotel; trying not to tread on the millions of small crabs on the beach, wandering about the streets of Tanjung Pandan and watching the most gorgeous sunset with the locals.
I had seen a few Westerners around, but not as many as I would have thought. But in the evening of the first day, I met Janis from Latvia and Ian from England and although we probably seemed like an odd group, we decided to hire a really cheap car for the next three days and travel the island together.
We spent the first day in the North part of the island, checking out some beautiful beaches, hanging out with locals and going on a five-hour boat trip to some stunning islands just off the coast of Pulau Belitung. In order to get a boat, Ian asked local fishermen if they would take us, and although we weren’t able to communicate with them apart from our limited drawing skills, we had a really enjoyable day!
The first island that they took us to was Lengkuas, a beautiful little island surrounded by granite rock islands that can only be reached by walking through the water. The island is famous for its 19th century lighthouse built by the Dutch that can usually be climbed. Unfortunately, because of the increasing amout of tourists, the lighthouse had been closed for the eclipse and a few days before and after. The view of the islands from the top is supposed to be amazing, so we were quite disappointed, but nevertheless, we had a great time on Lengkuas and where able to enjoy the other great things that this tropical paradise had to offer.
Lengkuas Island was a great place to hang out, so we left later than planned, which meant that we would only have time to see one more island before sunset. Our local guides took us to a small island, which I have forgotten the name of, but it was very unique with large granite rock piles on the white, sandy beach. On the island, we had a small meal, apart from Ian, who ended up buying way too much food. But there were some very happy cats waiting for our return in Tanjung Pandan, who enjoyed his leftovers!
We had a great day on the sea and got to see some really unique places and finished the day off with a stunning sunset.
The next day, it was my turn to drive, and that was the first time that I have ever driven on the left side of the road. It was a challenge and I made some mistakes, but I’m glad that I did it! It’s another thing to add to the list of missions that I’ve accomplished abroad 😉
We started off early and went to Tanjung Tinggi Beach to relax for the first few hours. Tinggi is the most “famous” beach in Pulau Belitung, although nothing on the island can really be classified as such. Like the islands that we visited the day before, Tinggi has many types of granite stones, but unfortunately, these weren’t very enjoyable for me. As I went to take some pictures of Ian and Janis, who were swimming in the sea, I slipped on the rocks and hit my knee and elbow. The staff of the restaurant at the beach helped to clean the wounds, but it later got infected. But most importantly, I managed to save my camera 😉
We had a long day ahead of us afterwards, as we had decided to drive through the island to the East side of the island to look for the perfect place to watch the eclipse. Our first stop was the beautiful Kaolin Lake, which we chose as our eclipse location.
Driving to the east was an interesting experience. The further east we got, the more rural and remote it all seemed. While Pulau Belitung is definitely not a tourist destination, the northwest is much more tourist oriented than anywhere else on the island. We had a few things that we really wanted to see in the east, so we tried our best to use the very undetailed maps that we had been given and the road signs that were almost non-existent.
It was clear that the locals in the East weren’t used to seeing Westerners, although we did manage to find a few people that spoke English, when we asked for directions for our first stop, the Open Pit in Kelapa Kampit. We were really lucky to find two lovely local girls, who offered to be our guides for the day! We often experienced that locals would take us to places without expecting anything in return; I think they just really enjoy showing off their beautiful gem of an island.
The girls guided us to the Open Pit and it became clear to us that we would’ve never found it without the help from locals. A little word of advice, if you ever go to Pulau Belitung: Ask, ask, ask and ask! You’ll never be able to find anything on your own, unless you know the place inside out, and the locals are the friendliest people that exist on this Earth. I still need to learn to do this myself though, as Ian was the brave one jumping out of the car every two minutes!
After a small and steep hike, we got to the lookout point for the Open Pit, a lake with bright green water. It’s an extraordinary place that is an inheritance of an old mining area that hasn’t been used since the 90s. In my opinion, this is the most beautiful place on the island, and although it does take an effort to reach it, it shouldn’t be missed.
The girls decided to follow us to Manggar, the second-largest town on the island, where we wanted to check out a beach for the eclipse. On the way, we stopped by a magnificent Chinese temple, the Fu De Ci temple in Kelapa Kampit, where we were lucky enough to experience a traditional dance. Afterwards, we were invited inside, where we were treated like VIP and given giftbags. It was obvious how much the locals love their island and want to promote it, in the hopes that tourism will grow and become a source of income for the islanders.
The girls then took us to Manggar, where we went to a lovely and lively beach, where there was all sorts of entertainment going on. There was a band playing traditional Indonesian music, a food market and games on the beach. It was a great place to end the day, before driving the long way back to Tanjung Pandan.
On my last full day on Pulau Belitung, the event that I had been waiting for for what seemed like forever, the total solar eclipse, was finally happening. I described the precious moment in my previous post – read here!
After the eclipse, Ian and I decided to explore the South part of the island, while Janis spent the day on a beautiful beach in the North.
While the East side of the island was manageable to travel through, the South part proved to be much harder. As we turned south just outside Tanjung Pandan, we were already surprised to see that the roads got much smaller. We were on the main road to the South, but it certainly didn’t feel like a main road. We met almost no cars or motorbikes and it became clear to us that the South is a place that no one really visits.
Halfway through our driving, we stopped at a beautiful beach and although it wasn’t a world-class beach, I really liked it because of how peaceful and calm it was. The locals at the beach were very curious and it was obvious that this beach is one that no tourists ever visit – well, except for us.
We had one place that we really wanted to visit in the South – the Batu Baginde rock, where the view of Pulau Belitung and the surrounding islands is said to be amazing. But getting there was an almost impossible task. We didn’t count, but I’m sure that Ian got out at least 50 times during our roadtrip to ask locals for directions. But unlike everywhere else on the island, we met no one who could speak English and the locals laughed when we showed them the map – I guess they don’t need a map on the island, so they’ve never learnt how to read one. Most of them were surprised to see tourists in their small villages, but they were all very friendly and eager to help. One man even gave us some rambutans from his tree and they were delicious!
The road to the rock just kept going on and on, and we were both certain that we had missed it somehow. But still we kept moving, hoping that the locals had understood us and pointed us in the right direction. And finally, after I don’t know how long on the road, we saw it! We saw the rock and now we just had to find the beginning of the trail.
But of course, that was also easier said than done. We found several openings in the forest, and even when we were certain that we had found the right one, it lead us to another rock; one that we wouldn’t be able to climb.
So on the road we went again and the search continued. As we drove slowly and looked for any sign of Batu Baginde, we finally saw the smallest signpost ever on the side of a tree. We had found the beginning of the trail, but it was already getting close to sunset – and to the time that we had promised to pick Janis up. We still had to drive back to the North as well, but we agreed that we just had to climb the rock now that we had finally found it.
And I’m really glad that we did! It was my first ever attempt at rock climbing and although it was scary to begin with, I ended up loving it! And the view at the top was so amazing; I wish we could’ve stayed there to enjoy the moment just a little bit longer.
Although there are not many touristy things to see and do in the South, it was my favourite place on the entire island. We saw so much wildlife while driving (including monkeys and a snake!!) and the locals there were so curious and sweet; I did feel a bit like an alien, but it was such an interesting experience. My favourite incident was when I walked into a small village shop to buy some water and there were 8-10 children, who all turned around and pointed at me while gaping in disbelief. I swear that they had never seen a white person before.
My experience with the local Indonesians was very different and much better on Pulau Belitung than my experience in Jakarta. Although I still got the odd “hey miss” in Tanjung Pandan, I didn’t feel intimidated at any time on the island and instead, I enjoyed posing for photo after photo with the locals. Despite the language barrier, the locals always tried their best to help us out, and without the help that we received, we wouldn’t have been able to see all of the beautiful places that we did.
Pulau Belitung was in many ways what I had hoped it would be like; remote, unspoilt and absolutely stunning. It’s nothing like Jakarta, Bali and other places that tourists visit in Indonesia; this is the real Indonesia, a place that has still not been influenced by the Western world. I don’t think that it will remain a sleepy paradise for long though, so see it now, before everyone else chooses to do the same.