Sempu Island: A Once-in-a-Lifetime Trek

By Mark Graham on 11:50 am Apr 13, 2013
Steep tree-lined slopes surround the lagoon on three sides, while on the remaining side, a formation of grey rock protects the bay from the waves of the Indian Ocean. (JG Photo/Gita Utari)

Steep tree-lined slopes surround the lagoon on three sides, while on the remaining side, a formation of grey rock protects the bay from the waves of the Indian Ocean. (JG Photo/Gita Utari)

I had heard this legendary beach mentioned on several occasions over the past few years. Backpackers — whom I usually do my best to avoid like the plague — would talk in hushed, reverential tones about a beach who’s beauty eclipsed that of anything Thailand or the Philippines had to offer.

I was always skeptical. In my experience, beaches are usually better on postcards than in reality: the sea is never quite the same shade of turquoise and the sand is not as powdery and white as on the tourism adverts. The world-renowned beaches I’ve visited in Phuket, Bali, Krabi and Lombok have been pleasant enough, but they’ve failed to really take my breath away. Thus, it was more in hope than expectation during a recent trip to East Java that I decided to visit Sempu Island.

I think that some of Sempu’s mystique is due to the difficulty and expense in getting there. From the serene but uninspiring city of Malang, one must hire a car, Rp 400,000 ($40) a day with driver and fuel, for the two-hour journey through some precariously narrow and winding roads to Sendang Biru beach.

This is a picturesque spot with a small strip of golden sand and a harbor filled with small, brightly colored boats.

Upon arrival, a faded sign directed me to the tiny, dilapidated tourist information office. It is here one must apply for a permit to visit the island. While waiting to complete the necessary bureaucracy, I examined the posters adorning the walls. Rather than promoting the island’s beauty, they seemed to have the goal of discouraging would-be adventurers from going there.

One focused on the island’s dangerous fauna with pictures of cobras, tree snakes, wild boar and enormous monitor lizards glowering threateningly at me. The second featured a collection of gruesome images of people being evacuated from the island. They lay on orange paramedics’ stretchers, pale faces grimacing in agony as blood oozed from gauze-covered wounds on their legs, arms or torsos no doubt the victims of cliff falls, snake bites or a wild boar goring.

I was beginning to doubt the wisdom of the trip when my companion and I were asked to complete the simple permit form with our contact information. This was presumably for the purpose of notifying our next of kin when we fell prey to one of the island’s predators. We paid the permit fee (Rp 25,000 a person) and were informed that we would also need to hire a boat (Rp 100,000) and a licensed guide (Rp 100,000).

As we walked to our boat, our guide Bambang made sure that we had brought enough water for the journey. He also looked disapprovingly at my stylish new leather sandals and suggested that I rent a pair of rubber climbing shoes. I sulkily acquiesced and left my footwear on the boat. We barely had time to enjoy the scenery on the boat ride as five minutes after boarding, we were dropped at an inlet on Sempu Island. As we waded ashore, Bambang casually mentioned that the trek to the beach would take around two hours. He ensured us we were lucky; during the rainy season the same trek usually took four, but could even take as long as seven hours.

I had imagined strolling through a well-kept path as brightly colored butterflies flitted in front of my eyes and playful gibbons whooped and swung in the canopy above us. I suspect I had watched Disney’s “The Jungle Book” once too often as a child, because the reality could not have been more different.

Firstly, there was no path at all. We had to haul our way uphill by holding onto and stepping on protruding tree roots and trying to avoid the pools of thick, sticky mud which surrounded them. The jungle was dark and largely lifeless, with nothing to see except the occasional discarded Indomie packet, empty Aqua bottle or broken sandals (I was now grateful for my ugly plastic shoes).

After 30 minutes of brutal, monotonous trekking, my companion and I were drenched in sweat and breathing hard. We asked Bambang, hopefully, whether we were close, like kids on a long car journey: “Are we nearly there, yet?”

He did an excellent job at disguising his contempt; he just shook his head slowly, smiled and continued climbing. Several times, I lost my footing and was forced to desperately cling to a tree trunk, terrified of becoming another statistic on the evacuees’ poster. On other occasions, my feet slipped on rocks or branches and I sank shin-deep into the mud.

After an hour we had fallen into a rhythm; we no longer spoke, we just kept our heads forward and trudged stoically on. We knew we had gone too far to go back. We ignored the pain in our limbs and the sweat stinging our eyes and kept walking. The final 10 minutes were the best and the worst; we broke through the trees and again felt the sun on our faces. We followed a rocky path alongside the shimmering ocean. The temptation to be distracted by its seductive beauty was almost irresistible, but the path was narrow and treacherous. One wrong step could see you plunge nine meters onto the jagged rocks below.

By now, my legs were weak and shaky and I clutched at hanging vines with desperation. Suddenly, we turned a corner, scrambled down a steep slope and incredibly, we were there.

We were confronted by a truly amazing vista. The bright sun glinted on the crystal clear ocean, which lapped gently against the pristine golden sand. Steep tree-lined slopes surrounded the lagoon on three sides. On the remaining side, a formation of grey rock protected the bay from the waves of the Indian Ocean, the occasional crash and spray of foam the only clue to their existence.

My companion and I dropped our bags, dumped our sweat-stained clothes and somehow found the energy to run into the water. It was shallow, warm and inviting with no currents at all. I floated on my back and looked up at the cloudless blue sky. Amazingly, the journey had been worth it. This was paradise.

Later my companion and I walked on the cliffs and looked out onto the vast expanse of ocean, feeling that we had the whole island to ourselves. Our guide told us that many visitors camp on the peaceful beach (tents can be hired at Sendang Biru beach). The idea of barbecuing freshly caught fish on a campfire under the stars was certainly an appealing one. Instead I dug my slightly crushed McDonald’s breakfast and cans of Bintang out of my bag and lay on the sand, not wanting the day to end.

As the tide mysteriously receded and the sun sank in the sky, we bade farewell to this heaven on Earth and steeled ourselves for the hell of the return trek.

As we reached the cove at which we would be picked up and collapsed into the boat, my companion turned to me. Her face was drenched in sweat, her hair was plastered against her cheeks and neck, her legs, shorts and top splattered with mud, and her formerly white trainers were barely visible behind the thick coating of muck.

“Darling,” she asked, “can this be our last adventure?”

Too tired to answer, I put my arm around her shoulder and nodded my head. I am delighted I decided to make the journey to Sempu Island. It is a breathtaking beach and easily the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. However, for me at least, it will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.