It’s 7am on a Saturday and low tide has exposed acres of shallow pools and coral-crusted rocks. Two boys trot up on their ponies, splash around a bit, pose for the camera and then set about giving their steeds a good wash. This magical encounter is just one of several during Verne Maree’s three days at Nihiwatu, the sole luxury resort on Sumba island.
What is Sumba? About an hour by plane from Bali, Sumba island is a number of things: one of Indonesia’s biggest, most sparsely populated and least developed islands; a haven of exquisite surfing beaches and seas that teem with life; an archaic culture with unique and fascinating traditions.
Is it “the new Bali”, as has been tentatively suggested? One sincerely hopes not. In the words of Nihiwatu founders Paul and Petra Graves: “One only needs to observe Bali to see how quickly tourism can degrade a once-pristine area.”
I’ve packed a selection of sandals, as I do, but here it’s literally impossible to wear anything but flip-flops. Beyond the villa, it’s all beach sand underfoot. That includes the floor of the open-sided dining room; level and smoothly raked each day, but sand nonetheless.
The food here is outstanding. Each morning at breakfast, you make your selection for lunch and dinner from the menu provided; if you want something else, the skilled chefs are glad to oblige. Emphasising freshly caught fish and local fruit and vegetables, Nihiwatu’s creatively healthy cuisine could form the basis of a detox getaway, especially if you also sweated it out with a daily hour of yoga from a highly experienced instructor. But it would be a shame to miss out on the stunning cocktails whipped up at the bar each evening at sunset.
Wandering around our family villa, it’s hard to believe all this space is ours. It comprises three free-standing buildings: two huge bedrooms with en suite bathrooms, flanking an enormous living room. They share the swimming pool, bar and alfresco lounging and dining area below, ideal for two luxury-loving couples.
“Eco-luxury” is the buzzword all over the world, but Nihiwatu’s approach is really something special. When the Graves first arrived here in 1988, eco-tourism was in its infancy, and they undertook the entire project in consultation with the people of the district. More than 95 percent of the 120-strong staff are Sumbanese. English language and hospitality industry teachers have been brought in to train them.
Aussie builder Clayton, who headed up the recent redevelopment of Nihiwatu, has in the process been teaching basic engineering and construction skills to the local community. His team of Javanese artisans has been specifically tasked with imparting their skills to the Sumbanese, he tells us.
All buildings are designed with an authentic Sumbanese feel – massive roofs with soaring chimneys being the most distinctive feature – and constructed from locally sourced bamboo, teak, stone and alang-alang grass. The soaring poles supporting sky-high ceilings were recycled from traditional buildings, we’re told; the Javanese added the totemic carving. In the villas, wardrobes and cabinets are exquisitely finished with hand-cut coconut shells, and just up the hill is a coconut bio-diesel plant that helps power the resort.
On-site eco-friendly technology includes recycled water systems, on-demand gas water-heaters, and LED lighting powered by compressed air, batteries and inverters. Cunningly, an air-conditioner set into a lower ceiling above the mosquito-net-swathed bed area cools just that space, so you sleep in bliss.
No surprise, then, that Nihiwatu was chosen as one of Five Best Eco-Hotels in the World by Tatler Travel Guide UK (2006) and continues to win awards such as the British Travel Award for Responsible Tourism (2007) and Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award (2010).
Into the Blue
Guests don’t come for the eco-friendliness, though; most of them come for the surfing, and Nihiwatu takes surfing seriously. Only its guests surf this wave; prospective surfers have to declare themselves surfers at the time of booking, and no more than ten registered surfers are accepted at any one time – that way, you can be absolutely sure that the wave will not be over-surfed.
Nihiwatu is my new favourite beach: a 2.5km crescent of powder-white sand that ends in a magical rocky cove, the most perfect place (apart from the boathouse bar) to find yourself at sunset.
Our timing has been lucky. Not only is it a new moon with extremes of high and low tide, but it’s low around sunrise and sunset. Early on Sunday morning, I go out in my “rock-robber” booties to find 20 to 30 villagers wandering through the huge expanse of exposed rock-pools beyond the boathouse. What are they collecting in those plastic pails? Unlike the sea-urchin harvesters I met on my beach run yesterday morning, at least one group is picking plump green seaweed.
A couple of boys on horseback trot up – brothers, I’d guess – for a bit of splashy fun and to wash their ponies in the warm, shallow waters. Again, it’s a lucky encounter; on a weekday morning, they’d be at school.
Assistant manager Christian Sea is a superb surfer, I’m told, an inspired fisherman and all-round man of the sea. He grew up in the Caribbean as the son of sea gypsies, and for the past three years and more has led the resort’s Into the Blue water-sport programme. This encompasses surfing (including lessons) and tandem surfing, kite-surfing, stand-up paddling, outrigger canoeing, snorkelling, free-diving and scuba diving at the house reef and beyond, and boat fishing, spear-fishing and more.
Our pre-breakfast fishing expedition with him is a treat, though neither Roy nor I are great fishermen. It’s our last morning and the sea’s the calmest it’s been in four days – glassy-blue, almost oleaginous. Set down on the side of the boat, my cup of coffee doesn’t even slop into its saucer.
Fishing is hardly ever like this: within ten minutes, in the vicinity of an eight-metre-deep pinnacle they call Magic Mountain, a handline zings. Three minutes of hectic teamwork later, Roy has the honour of landing the 20-pound wahu – or ono, if you’re in Hawaii. “It’s the best for sashimi,” crows Christian. (He’s right: come the end of the day, we’re treated to delectable wahu sashimi with our cocktails at the bar.) A much bigger fish gets one of the outrigger lines buzzing a little later, but we lose it.
Hunter’s pride satisfied, trawling the south-western coastline of Sumba for a while gives us some idea of the hugeness of the island. Within easy reach of Nihiwatu – by boat or by car – are a number of other surfing spots in case you want a change from the resort’s famous break. Christian points out pristine dive-spots, indicates a cave where there are always five or six turtles to be seen, and wishes we’d brought snorkelling gear to take advantage of the exceptionally calm, clear seas.
Flying fish flash in and out of view, while flocks of doughty little plovers skim low, low across the gentle swell. A hundred-strong pod of dolphins delights us, but very briefly; Christian says the intelligent creatures have been made people-shy by the attempts of hungry Sumbanese to net them. Sailfish are plentiful here, and at least a dozen are captured off this boat each year; happily it’s just for the sport, after which they’re released.
Culture and Ritual
Though the majority of Sumba’s 650,000-strong population is Christian – mainly Protestant with a good sprinkling of Catholics – about 30 percent of the people still adhere to the animist religion, marapu, and its ancient customs have also been incorporated into Christian worship.
The Friday afternoon of our arrival at Nihiwatu, a nearby village is holding a funeral for an elder leader. We’re invited along to witness the customary sacrificial slaughter of a water buffalo. I’m half-disappointed (and wholly relieved) to find it’s all over by the time we get there; some of our fellow-guests who were less fortunate look a little green.
On Saturday morning, we set off on a cultural tour with driver Martin and senior staff member Dato, who has been with the Graves from the start. First up is the weekly market, where Dato scores some rough tobacco and rolls it into a pre-Rizzler square of maize husk. Lovely, yes, but no thanks… I’ve renounced that particular vice.
It’s also OK to say no when you’re offered betel nut, the seed of the areca palm wrapped with limestone powder in a betel leaf and chewed for its narcotic effect. Ground limestone helps release the nut’s active ingredient. It’s also responsible for the complete ruination of Sumbanese mouths, eventually grinding their teeth down to blackened stumps.
Next stop is Waigali, the traditional village featured in the red-bound Sumba Foundation coffee-table book that’s in each room.
Waihola is Dato’s own village; we’re greatly honoured when he takes us into his house, even getting his daughter – one of six beautiful children – to light the central fire. We see how the smoke rises through a permeable trapdoor and into the giant chimney stack, where meat and fish can be smoked and rice, tapioca and other goods are stored.
Village tours are shopping opportunities, of course; at the first, I buy a carved pair of marapu fertility figurines; at the second, one of the hand-woven ikat (sarongs) that Sumba is known for. I bargain, very gently though, and get it for about S$70.
What is the Sumba Foundation?
Established in 2001 and partly funded by support from Nihiwatu guests, the Sumba Foundation works in a variety of ways to uplift the lives of the local people.
To find out more about these and other wonderful projects of the Sumba Foundation, visit www.sumbafoundation.org. It deserves all the help it can get.
No flights from Singapore get to Bali early enough in the day for you to connect with a Merpati Nusantara Airlines (or Batavia Air or Pelita Air Services) flight to Sumba’s Waingapu airport; you have to spend the night in Bali.
We took a Wednesday 5.30pm KLM flight from Changi Airport to Bali Negurah Rai airport and stayed at the Harris Tuban Resort, only a kilometre or five minutes from the airport. That’s its main attraction; but it does have clean, air-conditioned rooms surrounding a pool, and a super 90-minute massage for 250,000 rupiahs (S$30) from the little poolside spa. It also has a lobby café for snacks, light meals and Bintang beer.
The 90-minute drive from Waingapu airport to Nihiwatu Resort is no bother; in fact, it’s a good opportunity to see some of the countryside, drive at the villages and wonder why on earth the buildings have such oddly shaped roofs.
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