Indonesia's numbers astound: more than 17,000 islands, of which 8000 are inhabited, and over 300 languages spoken across them. It's a beguiling country offering myriad adventures. The world’s fourth most populous country is a sultry kaleidoscope draped along the equator for 5000km. From Sumatra's western tip to Papua's eastern edge, Indonesia defies homogenisation. It's a land of so many cultures, peoples, animals, customs, plants, sights, artworks and foods that it's like 100 countries melded into one.The people are as radically different from each other as if they came from different continents, with every island a unique blend of the people who live there. Over time, deep and rich cultures have evolved, from the mysteries of the spiritual Balinese to the utterly non-Western belief system of the Asmat people of Papua. Dramatic sights are the norm. There’s the sublime: an orang-utan lounging in a tree. The artful: a Balinese dancer executing precise moves that would make a robot seem loose-limbed. The idyllic: a deserted stretch of blinding white sand on Sumbawa contrasting with azure surf breaks. The astonishing: Sunday mobs in a cool, glitzy Jakarta mall. The intriguing: the too-amazing-for-fiction tales of the beautiful Banda Islands' twisted history. The heart-stopping: the ominous menace of a Komodo dragon. The humbling: a woman bent double with a load of firewood on Sumatra. The delicious: a south Bali restaurant. The shocking: the funeral ceremonies of Tana Toraja. The solemn: Borobudur's serene magnificence.
Few isles tempt the imagination with the lure of adventure quite like the wild land of Sumatra. An island of extraordinary beauty, it bubbles with life and vibrates under the power of nature. Eruptions, earthquakes and tsunamis are Sumatran headline grabbers. Steaming volcanoes brew and bluster while standing guard over lakes that sleepily lap the edges of craters. Orang-utan-filled jungles host not only our red-haired cousins, but also tigers, rhinos and elephants. And down at sea level, idyllic deserted beaches are bombarded by clear barrels of surf. As varied as the land, the people of Sumatra are a spicy broth of mixed cultures, from the devout Muslims in Aceh to the hedonistic Batak Christians around Danau Toba and the matrilineal Minangkabau of Padang. All are unified by a fear, respect and love of the wild and wondrous land of Sumatra. Danau Toba has been part of traveller folklore for decades. This grand ocean-blue lake, found up among Sumatra's volcanic peaks, is where the amiable Christian Batak people reside. The secret of this almost mythical place was opened up by intrepid travellers years ago. While these days Tuk Tuk – the knobby village on the lake’s inner island – is on the beaten Sumatran overland path, it's still one of the undisputed highlights of central Sumatra.
The heart of the nation, Java is an island of megacities, mesmerising natural beauty, magical archaeological sites and profound traditions in art, music and dance. Boasting a dazzling array of bewitching landscapes – iridescent rice paddies, smoking volcanoes, rainforest and savannah, not to mention virgin beaches – most journeys here are defined by scenic excesses. The island is at its most excessive in the cities: crowded, polluted, concrete labyrinths that buzz and roar. Dive into Jakarta's addictive mayhem, soak up Yogyakarta's soul and stroll though Solo's batik laneways en route to the island's all-natural wonders.Home to 140 million people and the most populated island on earth, Java travel can be slow going, particularly in the west. However, the rail network is generally reliable and efficient, and flights are inexpensive. Your endurance will be rewarded with fascinating insights into Indonesia's most complex and culturally compelling island. The world's largest Buddhist temple and one of Indonesia's biggest attractions is Unesco World Heritage–listed Borobudur Temple. It's built from two million stone blocks in the form of a massive symmetrical stupa, literally wrapped around a small hill. Standing on a 118m by 118m base, its six square terraces are topped by three circular ones, with four stairways leading up through carved gateways to the top. Viewed from the air, the structure resembles a colossal three-dimensional tantric mandala (symbolic circular figure). Rising from the guts of the ancient Tengger caldera, Gunung Bromo (2329m) is one of three volcanoes to have emerged from a vast crater, stretching 10km across. Flanked by the peaks of Kursi (2581m) and Batok (2440m), the smouldering cone of Bromo stands in a sea of ashen, volcanic sand, surrounded by the towering cliffs of the crater’s edge. Just to the south, Gunung Semeru (3676m), Java's highest peak and one of its most active volcanoes, throws its shadow – and occasionally its ash – over the whole scene. The vast majority of independent travellers get to Bromo via the town of Probolinggo and stay in Cemoro Lawang where facilities are good. There are other options in villages on the road up from Probolinggo. Additional approaches via Wonokitri and Ngadas are possible.
The mere mention of Bali evokes thoughts of a paradise. It's more than a place; it's a mood, an aspiration, a tropical state of mind.The rich and diverse culture of Bali plays out at all levels of life, from the exquisite flower-petal offerings placed everywhere, to the processions of joyfully garbed locals, shutting down major roads as they march to one of the myriad temple ceremonies, to the otherworldly traditional music and dance performed island-wide. Almost everything has spiritual meaning. The middle of Bali is dominated by the dramatic volcanoes of the central mountains and hillside temples such as Pura Luhur Batukau (one of the island's estimated 10,000 temples), while the tallest peak, Gunung Agung, is the island's spiritual centre. On Bali you can lose yourself in the chaos of Kuta or the sybaritic pleasures of Seminyak and Kerobokan, surf wild beaches in the south or just hang out on Nusa Lembongan. You can go family-friendly in Sanur or savour a lavish getaway on the Bukit Peninsula. Ubud is the heart of Bali, a place where the culture of the island is most accessible, and it shares the island's most beautiful rice fields and ancient monuments with east and west Bali. North and west Bali are thinly populated but have the kind of diving and surfing that make any journey worthwhile. Yes, Bali has beaches, surfing, diving, and resorts great and small, but it's the essence of Bali – and the Balinese – that makes it so much more than just a fun-in-the-sun retreat. It is possible to take the cliché of the smiling Balinese too far, but in reality, the inhabitants of this small island are indeed a generous, genuinely warm people. There's also a fun, sly sense of humour. Upon seeing a bald tourist, many locals exclaim 'bung ujan', which means today's rain is cancelled – it's their way of saying that the hairless head is like a clear sky.
As beguiling, beach-blessed and downright blissful as its near neighbour Bali, Lombok is now much more than just a surfers' paradise. Gunung Rinjani, Indonesia's second-highest volcano, dominates Lombok's topography, and is a magnet for trekkers. Winding up its jungle-clad slopes (which takes a few days) reveals an ever-changing succession of fecund tropical vistas. Once on the summit, the sight of jaw-dropping sunrises and volcanic calderas, and a sense of conquering the entire island, are rewards for the weary. Green trekking initiatives such as pathside trash removal make it possible to give something back to this genuinely awesome, active volcano, sacred to both Sasaks and Hindus. It's also possible to while away a few pleasant hours hiking in little-visited Taman Wisata Alam Kerandangan. Aside from the backpacker-friendly hubs of Kuta and Senggigi, Lombok's party scene isn't technically on the island at all, but in its tiny offshore satellites, the Gilis. And one Gili in particular, Gili Trawangan, is internationally renowned for beach parties, raucous hostel bars and blissful beachside cocktail joints. While there's much more to Gili T than layback drinks and excitable twentysomethings, it's clear what many come here seeking.The barely clad young things that throng its streets, hung-over but discussing what's going down later that night, is all the confirmation needed.