It’s baking hot and dirt-dry as we emerge from our silver tube down the stairs into the bright blinking midday light at Tambolaka Airport.
The sprawling tarmac is empty apart from our aircraft and a couple of men, their faces vaguely Papuan, in bright safety gear.
There’s a whiff of bitumen and a slight breeze. The sun beats down on the silent landscape. I resist the urge to lie down on the runway simply because it feels like I can and no-one will tell me to move.
Welcome to Sumba.
Out of place, out of mind, this island of ancient cultures and sword-swinging horsemen is 400km south-east of Bali, part of the Nusa Tenggarra island chain, which also includes Lombok, Sumbawa, Komodo, Flores and Timor.
It was the English naturalist Alfred Wallace who first realised the Nusa Tengarra Islands were fundamentally different to the rest of Southeast Asia, drawing what’s become known as Wallace’s Line in the Lombok Strait.
“This line marks the centre of a transitional and evolutionary zone where the lands, flora and fauna of sub-tropical Southeast Asia make a sudden and quite dramatic transition into the earth, plants and animals typical of Australasia,” writes Leonard Lueras in his book Surfing Indonesia.
Sumba is a large neglected island, an outpost of colonial Indonesia with 600,000 to 700,000 people, many of them living in remote villages accessible only by foot.
They are poor and relatively primitive. Malaria is still a threat, water has to be carried in, and centuries of malnourishment is betrayed by slight physiques of the Sumbanese.
Now Sumba is slowly being put on the tourism map by an intriguing luxury resort called Nihiwatu, which has become both the island’s largest employer and benefactor.
Founded by adventurer and networker Claude Graves in the late 1980s/early1990s, Nihiwatu is a place where extreme wealth meets extreme poverty and yet everyone leaves happy.
It’s a balancing act, one of give and take, and a relationship that has been built over many years.
Sumba – Getting there
It takes a couple of days from anywhere except Indonesia to get to Sumba,
Sure, there’s a couple of flights a day from Bali (either Garuda or Wings Air) but the timings are all wrong for international connections so virtually everyone has to overnight enroute.
The flight from Bali takes about an hour to the nearest airport at Tambaloka, on Sumba’s north-west coast, and it’s another two hours by car to Nihiwatu.
The road is terrible and has been washed away in at least three places, traffic slowing to a crawl, over-taking inadvisable due to crumbling edges.
Taxis are non-existent and so we catch a ride in the official resort transfer – a strange hybrid 4WD resembling an African safari truck.
We’re sharing with another four guests – a disparate global gaggle exhausted and little frazzled from the long trip.
There’s a couple from New York in the early 30s, their Swiss mate and his soon-to-be Venezuelan girlfriend, petite and gorgeous.
They are young, good-looking and and least one of them is very rich.
This became obvious when the New Yorker – an action man with a shitload of diving and surfing gear – is asked how many bathrooms his Hamptons house has.
Eight is the reply. That’s a lot of bathrooms. Which gives us pause for thought.
Who are these people? It’s a question that will get asked more than once over the next few days.
The town of Tambolaka is a main street with a hill and a few dozen shops selling sacks of stuff, several garages, one clothing store.
Maybe a couple of thousand people live there, though that’s probably generous.
It takes five minutes to move through town before we start to climb into the interior for the two hour drive across the island to Nihiwatu on the south-west coast.
Storm in The Hills
Sumba’s hill country is very different to the dry coast; green, more verdant.
A storm whips up and the rain comes down as we drive through the administrative town of Waikabubak, passing the occasional rice paddy.
We stop and I duck into a local store. The lights are off and it’s dark. A mother and her young son look surprised. They don’t speak English. I don’t speak Indonesian.
I hand over the equivalent of a $20 note. It’s clear they rarely see notes that size and have no change.
The journey continues. We get a glimpse of the ocean. Very blue.
Dusk is falling as we breast a hill and take in the breathtaking bay cradling Nihiwatu….
Various iterations of the Nihiwatu resort have been around for a couple of decades and the famous wave around which it is based has been there forever.
But things really took off when New York billionaire Chris Burch bought Nihiwatu for $30m from a no doubt grateful Claude Graves, who told Conde Nast Traveller that he and his wife spent their first four years there camping on the beach.
Burch is an interesting man with a lot of style. Now 63 he’s an entrepreneur who’s made a ton of money from fashion, and later property, most famously as the backer of his then wife Tory Burch.
At some point over the last decade or so he washed up on Nihiwatu, liked not only what he saw but also the way the resort was run, especially its deep connections to the local community.
Since buying it 2013, Burch has invested heavily in the resort – staff reckon the economics of isolation means there’s no chance he’ll make it back – and there are now 32 villas overlooking Nihiwatu.
The villas are built in the style of the traditional “peaked house” you see all over Sumba (like those above).
These houses are distinctive for their crazy soaring central peaked roofs, made from grass, that spread into four corners at their base, sheltering extended families and also livestock such as pigs.
Nothing like that at Nihiwatu of course.
The villas are spectacular, authentic but luxurious, the centre-piece an incredible four-poster bed, intricate with native carving.
There’s an indoor outdoor bathroom and lots of space. The proportions are grand and generous, the decor authentic, craftsmanship very high.
They’re private with a large lush garden and plunge pool. No need to leave, and many don’t, relishing the privacy.
Thanks to the hilly topography, all the villas have views. Unfortunately those very same inclines make getting around a mission at times so best to ask for one that’s centrally located.
For many years there was just a single restaurant and a small, dark bar adjacent to the water sports area, but now there’s also a really cool beachside restaurant and bar overlooking a new swimming pool and the surf break.
Nearby are the stables and a magnificent beach notable for the complete absence of platsic bags, bottles etc – a rarity in increasingly polluted Asia.
You don’t want for anything. Food is also very good with varied and imaginative menus at both restaurants.
Wine is expensive of course, and the selection is limited, but the stuff they have is good so what the hell, go for it.
Claude Graves went looking for the perfect wave and Nihiwatu comes pretty close, especially in terms of the setting, it’s spectacular.
Nihiwatu is a fast-breaking left-hander with a couple of good tube sections and long walls offering plenty of speed and power as waves wrap around the reef.
Tide is important here with a huge variation between high and low – often in excess of 2m. Low tide the wave is generally too fast and also extremely shallow.
And so most surfers aim to surf Nihiwatu on a rising tide a couple hours after low.
This is when the place pumps – ground swells, pitching take-offs, racing walls and scope to go for broke until the tide gets too high.
In reality this means you only get one or two surfing windows each day (unlike a place such as Uluwatu which can be surfed through all tides) so it’s a good thing that the surfers numbers are restricted.
Ten guests at any one time pay USD$100 to surf there and the resort ‘watermen’ – who effectively control the break – are also often surfing and catching waves, while occasionally running surf lessons on the main peak.
This means there can be sometimes be 12-15 people in the water on the smaller days, when it can actually feel cramped due to the tight take-off zones.
Complicating matters is the fact that Nihiwatu has upended surfing’s most fundamental rule – that the inside surfer has right of way.
At Nihiwatu “inside position is not priority”, which causes confusion, especially when you have a couple of ‘watermen’ calling guests into waves from the shoulder.
Of course, none of this matters when Nihiwatu gets big, say three to four times overhead.
The crowd thins dramatically and the actual wave gets better and easier to catch and surf – long take-offs, big sweeping walls and a Zodiac waiting to take you out again.
It got big one afternoon, easy 10 foot sets, and no-one was willing to take it on until the crowd at the beach bar saw local surf guru Terry heading out the back on his 8′ 6″ pin tail, crawling over the massive swells.
Perfectly positioned and without hesitation Terry stroked into the first good wave that came his way – impressively big, the drop taking forever – he angled on to the open face, setting an immaculate line without deviation, in the pocket, just out of reach.
It was a pattern that continued. “I don’t think I did a turn out there but I caught six waves and am happy – not bad for a 58-year-old,” said Terry who has been coming to Nihiwatu for at least a decade and makes a living coaching wealthy guests.
Soon he is joined by Mason, a slim South African from north of Durban who runs water sports at Nihiwatu. He quickly gets the wave of his life, dropping into a 10 footer , coming purposefully off the bottom and straight into a big long tube.
Our friend from New York also makes it out – kudos for courage – but only catches one tentative wave, getting smashed for his troubles, showing the rest of us that to succeed, you must be committed.
Early the next morning the line-up was smooth and empty with eight foot sets. Powerful, perfect. I hovered nervously around the board room waiting for company. None came.
There was no option to paddle out by myself as I was heading home in a couple of hours. So glad I did.
The setting was mind-blowing, no wind, pure glass, clear sky an hour after sunrise, waves better than the night before, glorious swells- – wide, strong, full of intent – rolling in corduroy lines, breaking down the reef.
Three waves was all I got and on one I wiped out. But as I discovered that’s all you need when Nihiwatu is at its best.
Nihiwatu has deep routes to the local community. In fact, “through the generosity of Burch, a portion of profits are now repatriated into the Sumba Foundation, which Graves founded in 2001,” says the resort website.
The Sumba Foundation has been extremely active in reducing the local incidence of malaria, which continues to take lives in Sumba, through the distribution of mosquito nets.
It’s also working hard to improve access to water, a big issue for many Sumbanese. Most villages are really old and have been built on hill-tops to ensure they were easy to defend from attacks by a rival tribe, which used to happen with some regularity.
Nihiwatu employs many locals. Of its 320 full-time staff, 308 are from Sumba, making it the island’s largest employers, which more than anything sheds on the Sumbanese economy – which is tiny.
A job at Nihiwatu is treasured and staff do everything in their power to make guests happy, with a genuine spirit of hospitality.
They are the heart and soul of this experience – in tandem with the amazing landscape – ensuring a special experience for everyone who visits.
A unique experience. We loved it.
For more information visit: http://www.nihiwatu.com/