- Sumbawa, east of Bali, is a draw for surfers and those looking for untouched parts of Indonesia to visit – but for how much longer?
- An international airport under construction has already started a property boom, and will vastly increase tourist numbers
In 1936, when American Bob Koke reportedly became the first person to catch a wave off Bali’s Kuta Beach, he inadvertently became the catalyst for mass-market tourism in Indonesia.
Surfers are credited with popularising once-hidden coastal gems, from the Bukit Peninsula, in Bali’s deep south, to the sparkling satellite islands of the Nusa Penida archipelago.
Now the phenomenon is being replicated on the west coast of Sumbawa, the ninth largest of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands. Known as the Wild West of Indonesia for its gold and copper mines – Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine is the second largest in the country – the island is also home to some of the country’s best-rated and most consistent waves.
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When surfers started travelling to Sumbawa in the 1980s, the only way to do so was by land and sea from Bali via Lombok.
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Today, most visitors fly from Bali to the capital, Sumbawa Besar, from where they take a half-day ride in a taxi to one of a dozen or so surf lodges. But an international airport under construction on the west coast promises to make the journey even shorter and has sparked a property boom that will indelibly change this slow and dreamy corner of the world.
To see West Sumbawa before it changes and with the freedom to explore at leisure, I am travelling there the old-fashioned way, on a motorcycle from Bali.
My journey begins after dark, with a two-hour ride from the tourist hub of Canggu to Padangbai, a harbour on Bali’s east coast. I arrive at midnight and within an hour I’m in the cabin of a large vehicular ferry crossing the Lombok Strait. With three seats to myself and air conditioning, I sleep soundly.
The sun has not yet risen when I disembark in Lembar, a port on Lombok’s west coast. Another two-hour ride on roads that vary from a near-empty six-lane highway to two-lane country roads heaving with traffic takes me to Kayangan, on Lombok’s northern coast.
There I board a smaller vehicular ferry and find a seat in the cabin so I can catch up on more lost sleep. But my plan is thwarted by a pair of buskers – he in a cowboy hat, she in an abaya, the long cloak worn by Muslim women – belting out distorted Indonesian love ballads through a speaker the size of a double-door refrigerator.
Sure, the area will change. But hopefully not too fast
Maxim Romanov, Russian and a Sumbawa resort owner
I relocate to the rear deck. There is nowhere clean or shaded to sit, so I lean against the railing for the remainder of the 90-minute cruise, watching Lombok’s Rinjani volcano fade into the horizon.
Twelve hours have passed since I left home when I disembark at Poto Tano, a port town in Sumbawa’s northwest. It’s baking hot.
Mining trucks thunder down the road, scattering herds of semidomesticated goats. The only surfaces that are not the colour of dust are the red tin rooftops of waterfront villages.
I follow a thin metalled road that cuts through dry scrubland until it curls back to the coast and transports me to … the Maldives: a place of powder-white beaches, turquoise waters, islets and offshore reefs.
I pass the site of the new airport and a fishing village in which horse-drawn carriages are still the most popular way to get around, and veiled women sort and dry seaweed on the side of the road.
After 40 minutes on the road, I reach a towering cape where the bare, bone-dry coastal hills change into Jurassic green mountains and the long sandy coastline forms a honeycomb of coves and bays.
At Ballona Beach, part of a craggy bay 5km (3.1 miles) long, there are two surf lodges on the sand, but they closed during the Covid-19 pandemic. A barefoot resort set on a coconut plantation called Whales & Waves is the only place to stay now.
The other guests are mostly Bali-based Russians. The owner, Maxim Romanov, is Russian, too, and he presents me with a glossy prospectus for a multistorey resort and residence of beachfront villas with pools that he will start building this year.
“There’s no beachfront land left in West Sumbawa,” he says. “It’s all been snapped up by investors. They’re waiting until the airport opens and the price of land doubles.
“Sure, the area will change. But hopefully not too fast.”
The following morning I take a kayak into the bay, paddling from islet to islet, peering through water as clear as gin at coral gardens pulsing with marine life. I skirt the edges of pristine mangrove forests and pass a fishing village with brightly painted fishing boats, where a group of children splashing about in the water yell, “Hello!”
And just when I think it can’t get any better, a sea turtle pokes its head out of the water next to my kayak before shooting off.
Back on my bike, I continue south, crossing caramel-coloured rivers and following bumpy dirt tracks that lead to different points of the coast: Balad Beach, where the only hotel looks haunted and the only restaurant has no cold drinks; and Secret Beach, where I scamper down a track in the jungle to a sandy strip shaded by palms that’s as picture perfect as its name suggests.
Then I detour a few kilometres inland, cutting across rice fields to Semporon Tangkel, one of three waterfalls on the mid-coast. The bubbling cascade rushes down an eight-metre (26ft) cliff into a natural swimming pool edged by moss-covered rocks.
When people get here, they switch off on the first day. I think that’s a precious commodity
Joe Patterson, Australian owner of a surfing lodge in Sumbawa
In Bali and Lombok, picturesque waterfalls see hundreds or even thousands of visitors every day. I get this one all to myself.
In the afternoon I reach Maluk, a hardscrabble mining town that feeds and houses workers from a Chinese-operated copper mine and smelter on the coast.
Surfers know this place for Supersuck, one of Sumbawa’s most iconic waves, and as home to one of its oldest surfing lodges, Merdeka House.
Set on the apex of a cape that rises 80 metres above the coast, with incredible 270-degree ocean and mountain views, Merdeka House is more of a shared house than a normal hotel.
Guests often surf together and every evening share a meal of fish or chicken, vegetables and rice, with their laid-back host, Australian Joe Patterson.
“I fell in love with this place the first time I came here, in 1999,” he says. “It was quiet, the locals were mellow, it was remote but not too remote. And the waves were world class.”
About 90 per cent of Patterson’s guests are surfers, but there’s a lot to do for those who don’t surf, he says. “When my father visits, we follow a three-hour nature trail along the coast, and we take fishing boats out to go snorkelling on the reefs.”
“When people get here, they switch off on the first day,” he adds. “I think that’s a precious commodity. You can’t do that easily in Bali any more unless you stay at a big resort.”
Eva Darracq, a surfer from France spending two months travelling around Indonesia, concurs. “I wanted to get some waves in Bali, but Bali is not like it was the first time I went there 20 years ago. Nor is Lombok,” she says.
“Now Sumbawa is the place to get away from the bar and cafe scene and find empty waves. And from a woman’s perspective, I feel very comfortable here.
“This is a conservative Muslim island but the people are friendly and relaxed.”
I spend a second night at Merdeka House and then a third, reading on the balcony and watching slow, hot sunsets as the local fishing fleet heads out to sea and the Muslim call to prayer wafts from a mosque.
I swim and explore the market in Maluk, a maze of stalls set in an unventilated hangar filled with the banter of vendors and the odours of the fish, fruit, spices and fabrics they sell.
From Maluk, I continue south along a series of steep hairpin turns that cross a dramatic mountain range to Sekongkang. The village is home to Yoyo’s, West Sumbawa’s most popular wave, and the point where the coastline turns to the east and the views all become “next stop Australia”.
With long, empty beaches, rugged coastal promontories and vertical rock formations that rise from the sea, Sekongkang is reminiscent of coastal southern Australia.
Most of the tourists and foreign residents in Sekongkang are Australians, too. People like Eanus, who owns the run-down but popular Castaway Surf Retreat, where I stay; and Justin, who co-owns Lisa’s Garden, a cafe that serves surf “grub” such as chicken parma, breakfast burritos and carrot cake.
The following day, I take a wrong turn and end up at Lawar Bay, a baby-blue lagoon set in a perfect arc of sand sandwiched between towering capes. Part of the beachfront is occupied by Kirana Retreat, another barefoot resort, set in a coconut grove.
The general manager, Wayan Krisna, a hospitality veteran from Bali, tells me that nearly all of his guests are surfers. But he expects that to change when the airport opens; his employer is planning to build a second, larger resort overlooking Yoyo’s in anticipation of growing visitor numbers.
Nevertheless, Krisna has his doubts.
“You’ve probably noticed accommodation in Sumbawa is double or triple the price of Bali. That’s because logistics and freight are difficult here, and everything costs us more,” he says. “It’s also very difficult to find staff in Sumbawa.
“The locals don’t know much about tourism. Mostly they know how to work in mines. We need to bring in staff from Bali and Lombok, and that costs more, too.”
Krisna also points to a different development style in Sumbawa, which favours wide-open spaces. “In Bali, the buildings are close together because land is very expensive. But look at the size of our retreat. We have 21 acres but only 10 guest rooms.
“We didn’t cut down any trees. We kept it natural. People here are trying to find a balance between nature and development together.”
“I think Sumbawa will probably end up looking like Bali in the 1990s,” he concludes, “when things were a little busy but not too busy.”
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This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (www.scmp.com), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia.
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