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Nihiwatu: on the edge of dreams

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In the darkness, the sound of the crashing waves grew louder still. They churned up a hundred thousand grains of sand, gouging them from the depths and sweeping them up onto Nihiwatu beach. The rocks dotting the foreshore were pockmarked and worn – great stumps that doggedly clung to the land as the Indian Ocean surged and foamed around them, its waters quickening with the rising tide.

Walking beneath the constellations, I felt as though we were characters in a dream. And yet reality had brought us to an eco-resort on the wild coast of Sumba, Indonesia. There were four of us: four wide-eyed city dwellers more used to the neon-lit canyons of Hong Kong, where the glow of humanity sent a pallid haze into the night sky.

“Di sana, tidak bisa melihat bintang.”

Over there, I told the driver, you cannot see the stars.

We were navigating a dirt track en route from Tambolaka Airport, 90 minutes to two hours away. I had taken my place in the passenger seat, a young coconut knocking against the raised edges of the centre console. Here I found a parcel of banana leaf fastened with a toothpick, holding a small heap of roasted cashews coated in a tangy sauce. As we pulled away from the airport terminal, our driver Martin turned to me and smiled. “Grown in Sumba,” he said.

The flight from Bali takes only 50 minutes, but Sumba already feels like a different country. Unlike its neighbours to the north, the island is not volcanic, and 12 or 13 distinct languages are spoken among a population of less than 700,000. The differences are apparent even in the people themselves: compared to the Balinese, men in Sumba seem to have thicker, bushier eyebrows and more rugged facial features. These traits are reflected in the geography of their home island.

And it wasn’t just the landscape – what I saw through the windows suggested a culture that was raw and deeply spiritual. Martin pointed out the tombs in front yards, tapered rectangular structures with six bulbous flourishes on top. The traditional houses had tall, steeply pitched roofs, some in alang-alang grass, most in corrugated iron, but always with two wooden figures adorning the ridge.

We had arrived in Sumba at the start of wet season, and raindrops flecked the windshield for much of our journey. Eventually the winding road from Tambolaka led us into the limestone hills, where candlenut trees stood proudly on either side. At one point my eyes were drawn to a single trunk, ash-grey and thick, that loomed straight ahead. “Mahogany,” Martin told me.

In earlier times, Sumba’s most valuable commodity was perfumed wood, sourced from the forests that once covered the island. “Are there still many sandalwood trees here?” I asked in halting Indonesian. “Oh yes,” Martin replied, “many!” And then a longer sentence at shotgun speed: “But now…” I heard a jumble of unfamiliar terms, before finding a clue in “potong”, the word for cut.

As our vehicle edged closer to Nihiwatu, breezing over the parched, undulating landscape, it seemed as though we were miles away from the nearest town. Potholes began to litter the road; soon we were being jolted over an uneven mix of dirt and weathered tarmac. “Sorry, sorry,” Martin apologised profusely, “jalan rusak” – the road is broken.

But the discomfort was short-lived. At the final switchback leading down into the resort, we gasped at the sight of the untamed coastline, unfolding between fingers of land crowned with coconut trees and swathes of long grass. A simple T-shaped sign stood by the roadside: “NIHIWATU”, it declared, “WELCOME TO THE EDGE OF WILDNESS”.

Upon arrival I craned my neck at the soaring roof of the Menara – part lounge, part bookshop and bar with a stack of buffalo horns on the back wall. From the floor of raked sand a series of rough-hewn tree trunks rose into the air, supporting an intricate web of rafters in teak and bamboo. Soon we were escorted to our villas, down pathways lined with rough stone walls and arcs of bougainvillea, framing perfect views of the sea.

Out on the waters a small boat was bobbing in the swells, beyond a left-hand break as it tumbled over the shallow reef. Occasionally, bolts of lightning and claps of thunder broke the monotony of a steely grey sky. But the rain was no more than a drizzle – in time the weather would clear for an alfresco dinner and a walk on the beach, where we listened to the ocean’s roar as it ebbed and flowed beneath a veil of stars.

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Between Bali and Sumba, in a Bombardier jet

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On the tarmac at Tambolaka Airport

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Nihiwatu beach from the resort’s entrance

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Sumba vernacular meets the Med

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Wamoro Villa A – home for three nights

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My favourite feature: the writing desk and its solid wood chair, wide enough to fit two

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View from the veranda

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Prelude to breakfast above Nihioka Beach

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Nihiwatu’s private left-hander – with big swells it can reach over 12 feet high

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A scene worthy of ‘Castaway’

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Morning wanderer

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Back from a surfing session

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An Indian Ocean sunset

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Soul and solitude

38 Comments Post a comment
  1. Flores was already quite raw, but from your photos I can tell that Sumba was even more so. You’re very lucky to get the chance to stay at Nihiwatu on your first ever trip to Sumba, and the weather seemed to be quite nice when you came despite the fact that it was already in rainy season. Such an eloquently written post, James!

    November 30, 2014
    • Thank you, Bama! You would have loved Sumba – parts of it reminded me so much of Flores, from the tribal villages to the cashew trees by the roadside. This trip came out of nowhere and I’m still in disbelief that it actually happened.

      November 30, 2014
  2. Ahh James your descriptive account of this dream journey to Sumba is absolutely enchanting! Your photos are amazing, but it is your evocative writing that leaves a mark. Thank you for introducing me to yet another beautiful destination that I had not heard of before. Sumba is going on my ever lengthening Indonesia list 🙂

    November 30, 2014
    • It’s my pleasure, Madhu. And thanks in turn for writing me such kind words. 🙂 I’ll confess it took a long time to put this together – I hope it does justice to the raw beauty I saw at every turn. Sumba (and neighbouring Flores) is just the kind of island you and R would appreciate!

      December 1, 2014
      • James, just stopping by to wish you a joy filled Christmas and an abundance of travel in the coming year! 🙂

        December 25, 2014
  3. Wonderful post that will inspire day dreams as I ‘travel’ into Monday 🙂

    December 1, 2014
    • Appreciate that – and I hope it didn’t exacerbate those Monday blues! 🙂

      December 1, 2014
  4. That sunset picture is incredible, thanks for sharing.

    December 1, 2014
    • Glad you enjoyed it, James. Thanks in turn for the comment!

      December 1, 2014
  5. Indonesia is so beautiful!
    I have never heard of Sumba before.
    Only been to Sumatra.

    December 1, 2014
    • I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Sumba is not well-known (except maybe to surfers), and yet it is just a short hop from Bali!

      December 1, 2014
  6. Wowww cool, James… First time you arrived to Sumba and enjoy Nihiwatu. Did you spend other days to explore Sumba island or just stay in Nihiwatu?
    Ahh I want go there someday *menabung dulu* hahaha

    December 1, 2014
    • Yes Halim, it was an impossible dream come true! Sadly it only lasted four days – the trip was specific to Nihiwatu so we spent all our time in the area surrounding the resort. There is so much to do though, from village visits to jungle hikes to watersports… the schedule was action-packed and full of adventure!

      December 1, 2014
  7. I’ve always been interested in Nihiwatu, thanks for bringing it to life for me. After endless surf trips to Bali and Lombok I think it’s time to branch out a bit further and this looks like the perfect spot.

    December 1, 2014
    • I didn’t see the waves at their biggest, but they were still impressive nonetheless. Better book your spot as soon as you can – apparently the waiting list for surfers is two years long!

      December 1, 2014
      • Wow, must be really popular. Looks like a great spot even without the surfing.

        December 2, 2014
  8. Fantastic post. Thanks for the discovery!

    December 1, 2014
    • You’re welcome – I had no idea I was going until just five days before!

      December 1, 2014
  9. Hmmmmm I think I would like it there 🙂
    Lovely post James – completely transported even though I’m in Hawaii which certainly has its own tropical charms.
    Alison

    December 2, 2014
    • You most certainly would, Alison! 🙂
      Island-hopping across the Pacific sounds like the perfect pre-Christmas trip – I’m already looking forward to your stories (and photos!) from Hawaii, Samoa and Fiji. I’ve never been to any of those places.

      December 2, 2014
  10. Hi James. The photos are very nice, as well as the writing desk and the veranda, indeed 🙂

    December 2, 2014
    • Makasih, Wien. I’m glad the weather was mostly sunny – we did get hit by hujan deras but it didn’t last too long. 🙂

      December 2, 2014
      • Terima kasih kembali James. Oo I see. How if dancing in the rain? 😁

        December 2, 2014
      • Well we were hiking in a jungle at the time… it really wasn’t the best place for dancing!

        December 2, 2014
      • I thought you went to the beach. Haha

        December 2, 2014
  11. You are very lucky to experience this (posh) resort.

    December 3, 2014
    • Yes – I was beyond lucky I think. That couldn’t begin to describe how I felt to be there.

      December 3, 2014
  12. oh my god so beautiful!!!
    http://www.vivrepourinspirer.com

    December 10, 2014
  13. Wow, what an amazing place! Looks like paradise.
    Loved the post 🙂

    December 20, 2014
    • Indeed it was – perfect for a honeymoon I think! 🙂

      December 30, 2014
  14. Awesome Picture! What a lovely place.

    December 20, 2014
  15. Wow! Stunning place! Must add it to the list of places to visit.

    December 20, 2014
  16. Hi James,

    I’ve been wandering about Flores and Sumba on the internet for the last week. Don’t really have any plan to visit those two beautiful islands in the near future, but they seem to be calling me.

    Nihiwatu looks spectacular. You are very lucky to have experienced it and I am envy now! :p The beaches and the sunset, as always in eastern part of Indonesia, are beautiful. The fruit platters and coconuts also look very inviting.

    Ps: Thanks for following me on twitter, definitely follow back 🙂 and so happy to have come across your blog.

    December 30, 2014
    • Hi Firsta,

      Both should go on your wish list – Flores was so beautiful and unspoilt that going to Bali afterwards was actually a bit depressing. And Sumba is such a wild, fascinating island.

      Yes, I couldn’t believe it when I got the invite… it was the best surprise of this year. Nihiwatu is truly a remarkable place, but given the price tag I don’t know if I will ever have the chance to return!

      PS Sama-sama, saya senang to connect with you via Bama. 🙂

      December 30, 2014
  17. Fabulous place! Love the pictures so much.

    January 13, 2015
    • Thanks! It is my favourite resort in the world… and I don’t see that changing for a very long time.

      January 16, 2015
  18. Wow, James, you are so lucky that you have visited Nihiwatu … I think it’s one of my dream resort 😉

    Anyway, you should go back to Sumba and visit some other places … I think you will love it!

    March 9, 2015
    • Yes, I was beyond lucky Timothy! The resort invited me on a press trip late last year.

      I adored Sumba and it’s certain that I will go back in the future. What I experienced around Nihiwatu was only a small part of the island. 🙂

      March 10, 2015

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