Sea Hearts Recon: Spanning the Indonesian Archipelago
The Sea Hearts Recon Series is all about finding the best places in the world for you to visit. We do the hard work. Our mission is to come back with the facts and stories to help you decide where to travel to next. Surf travel made easy!
“Bienviendos a Rote,” was probably the LAST thing I expected to hear when I saddled up to the bar at the T-Land Surf Resort on an island in the Lesser Sunda, Eastern Indonesia . “Hablas Espanol? I heard you speak Spanish,” asked the clearly Indonesian bartender. I blinked and stared blankly. Turns out, I do speak Spanish and so does Ruben, a native of the Island of Rote. Ruben learned Spanish from the expat owners of the resort, where he has worked for the last seven years.
Ever since I decided there was more to Indonesia than Bali, I’ve developed a passion for sifting through the lesser known surf destinations scattered throughout the archipelago. Websites and Instagram accounts often paint a very different picture than what I encounter after countless hours in transit. Just like with most things, you can’t trust the glossy pages of a magazine or the filtered and Photoshoped press images that are too readily available on Google. You need to be on the ground to feel the vibe, in the water to know the power of the waves, and amongst the action to know the ferocity of the reef.
This little hobby of mine has sent me searching far and wide from the desert-encased breaks of the far east to the rampantly green jungles of the west. Indonesia is comprised of over 18,000 islands that a traveller from a previous generation could scarcely hope to learn about in a lifetime. These days, luck is with us. We have the Internet, maps in the palms of our hands, and the businesses of radically adventurous expats.
These pioneers fought malaria, dengue, loneliness, religion, and seemingly bizarre cultural differences to stake a claim on countless far flung islands. Now we reap the benefits of their sojourns into the unknown. Transportation, running water, flushing toilets, speed boats, and hot Western meals can be found in the most remote locations and every wave has its history. Strong willed men and women are the reason you have a roof over your head in many of Indo’s most famous surfing outposts. They are also the reason I was speaking Spanish while drinking a Bintang - Indonesia’s national beer - in Rote.
I now return from each trip with more than just intel for the average travelling surfer. I rarely buy souvenirs. Instead, I carry the story of each innkeeper that becomes inseparable from the memories of good waves, good food, and good vibes or lack thereof that should help you decide where to go next.
As a side sojourn to the Sea Heart’s Lombok Surfari this March, I visited two very different islands - Java and Rote - on my mission to find the best spots for our trips.
Our flight is late. My four year old daughter watches another episode of Australian cartoons and shuffles on her stool in the Circle K Market. The air is stiflingly hot, the hottest I think I’ve felt in Indonesia, yet locals wear jackets and jeans. We’ve done Bali to Kupang, and finally fly from Kupang to Rote just as night falls.
It’s been a long day so when a rotund man grabs my board bag and says, “T-Land Resort,” I follow. He hands me off to another driver and we’re off into the twilight behind about ten other vans full surfy looking types. Our driver speaks no English and I start to become paranoid that I didn’t ask enough questions before getting in the car. Were we going to the fabled left called T-Land or the local organ harvester? I wasn’t sure and had no way of finding out.
So I succumbed to my fate and watched as we passed through village after village. I noted that in addition to the normal goats and dogs that lurked on the road like banana peels on Mario Cart, pigs of all sizes and colours ran amok in the yards and gutters. Pigs are not a common sight in non-Bali-Indonesia as over 87% of the country’s Muslim population does not eat pork. I also noticed a few crosses adorned with fairy lights. By the time I reached Nembrala, the small village where all those surfers were headed, I had deducted that the residents of Rote were Christian and that I wasn’t going to lose my liver or kidneys.
We met the resort owners, had a coconut, and retired to our room. The accommodation was upscale by Indonesia standards, with A/C and windows completely sealed from mosquitoes, and a huge outdoor bathroom with an indoor and outdoor shower. A king bed beckoned, and I was ready for it.
The next morning, I woke up early to get a real appraisal of the resort. A thatched roofed dining stood along side the pool. White rocks covered the ground reminding me that it gets extremely hot here. Rote is just 500 kilometers from Australia and is the second southernmost and nearest island to the land down under in Indonesia. Islanders make a living by harvesting rice, the lontar palm, and seaweed in addition to fishing. I watched as the locals tended to their seaweed farms - long lines of rope submerged in shallow water - from the resort’s quaint, absolute oceanfront sunset bar.
Finally, Adriana and Ivan, two of the owners, emerged to discuss why I’d come all this way. Surfing, of course. Adriana offered to watch my Valentina with her daughter, who’s also called Valentina. Ivan radioed the boatmen that ferry guests from the resort beyond the reef to where T-Land offers up left-handers that break for over hundred meters before they section and offer another take off point for a long ride. As we motored over the exquisite turquoise bay full of seaweed traps and star fish, I learned how the pair of Spanish couples had come to Rote and set up a business.
“Ruben (the other owner, not the bartender) and I were on a holiday through Indonesia and we heard there were waves here. When we got here we found paradise. There were very few other westerners and so we bought land, sent for our girlfriends, and stayed. That was seven years ago.”
This very simple story is contrasted by the sheer complexity of living in a place that is two flights from Bali. “Everything is expensive, and most things have to be brought from Bali. We’ve been waiting on a new washing machine and a container full of other supplies for three months,” comments Ivan as we jump overboard and paddle towards the reef.
I follow Ivan, relying on his years of experience to find the best take off spot. We experience that funny moment where we’re sizing up each other’s surfing ability. I can tell he’s surprised a woman would jump on the boat without hesitating or asking tons of questions. He remarks about how small my board is until he sees me ride it. I’m about 20 feet inside of him when he misses a wave and I capitalise. I fly down the line on a three foot left, find my feet, and push the rail into a few big backside carves. 150 meters later I kick out as the wave crumbles on itself and start the long paddle back out.
We have about 20 minutes of going wave for wave. It’s soft, far from perfect, but fun. Then the tide begins to fill in and the long walls are gone. We signal for the boat, climb aboard, and I ask three zillion questions about the potential of the set up. Turns out T-Land holds when the swell gets much bigger and offers up long rides that often link over two hundred meters. Its tide and wind dependent with the winds best in the mornings during Indonesia’s prime surf season, April to October. There are other waves in the area including a shallow wave best in big swells called “Suckies” and a right hander with great potential that I would visit without surfing the next day called Boa.
The bit of swell we rode would dissolve over the next few days, leaving plenty of time for paddle boarding with my Valentina, making extensive use of the swimming pool, and combing the pearl white beaches for shells and coral.
Each evening, we’d have a Bintang Raddler and Shirley Temple respectively and chat with Ruben the bartender in Spanish, English, and Indonesia. His Spanish was impeccable, accent and all, and I learned that he worked as a school teacher in the village by day and a bartender by night. I also learned all about the challenges of life on Rote. Adrianna and Ivan have found a way to run a business, have a family, teach the locals Spanish, and get us vactioners into the surf on the edge of civilisation. With all this on, they stay true to the point of moving to a remote island in Indonesia and they always make time to enjoy the sunset at the end of each day.
WHERE: T-Land Resort at Nembrala Beach, Rote, Eastern Nusa Tenggara, Indonesia
WHEN: Wait until the surf season kicks into full gear. Early April was too early as we saw very little swell. I’d say May to October, with the biggest swells in July and August.
WHY: If you like getting away from it all, are looking for a resort on the beach with a wave out the front, and want an easier-left-hander, T-Land is your place. If you are still learning or prefer a longboard or fun board, you’ll definitely like this wave. The right looked like it gets good to epic. T-Land Resort is happy to accommodate groups and families and can offer babysitters for your little ones while you surf.
VIBES: Laid back island times on the edge of the archipelago.
TIPS: Bring a board with some foam, expect to eat most meals at the resort as there is not a heap of options near by. Keep in mind boats beyond T-Land incur a charge.
Check out T-Land Resort Here: https://www.t-landresort.com/
Watu Karung and the Eastern Java coastline is accessed by flying into Yogyakarta. Yogyakarta is known as the cultural centre of Indonesia and is home to the world famous, UNESCO-recognized Borobudur Temple, although I never ended up seeing either. After the harrowing drive to our surf destination on the coast, I abandoned my desire to see more of the city or its ancient Buddhist shrines because they required extra car time.
We left the Yogykarta airport at around 4 PM headed for Istana Ombak, a surf “resort” in the Pactian Region of Eastern Java. The ride started out as most in Indonesia do: a lot of horn honking, motor bike traffic, and the blur of warungs and shops, but turned into an entirely different beast as we left the city. Think: flying through villages and around blind curves at 80 to 100 kms/hour. I closed my eyes, tightened my seat belt and tried to sleep. Nightfall came and that mean dodging dogs, goats, cows, chickens, and motorbikes without lights. I recalled the Indonesian traffic rule - bike hits car, car’s at fault, car hits truck, truck is at fault, truck hits bus, bus is at fault - and prayed to the traffic gods for safe passage.
After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at Istana Ombak - or the “wave palace” in Indonesian - to find 25 Javanese guests in the restaurant. I figured they were just there for dinner until the owners Rod and Dewi apologized for mistakenly double booking my family of three and the group.
We put the day behind us while we ate dinner and talked with Rod and Dewi. Rod was a fifty-something charger from Lennox Head who left Australia fifteen years ago and found this little spot in Java. At that moment, his right leg was heavily bandaged and he hobbled around on crutches, but I could tell from the photos on the walls of his resort and the boards in the rafters, he liked heavy slabs and barrels during his prime.
Dewi was a local Javanese woman with a beautiful smile and a welcoming, hospitable manner that was noted by nearly every person who reviewed Istana Ombak on TripAdvisor. Dewi was the ying to Rod’s macho Australian male’s yang.
“This is the top destination in Indonesia for bodyboarders,” one such sponger would tell me in the water the next day. When I awoke and gazed out from our ocean view room perched above the kitchen, I saw why. The breathtaking bay was flanked by sheer cliffs on both sides that undoubtedly created the structure below for a set of equally slabby and heavy right and left-hand waves.
I surfed the right with varying success each day. Until my third or fourth day when I paddled out alone while the swell building and wasn’t comfortable getting myself into the takeoff spot for fear of looming sets. This wave was a great place to practice steep takeoffs. Allegedly, it normally throws a barrel over the head of those who make the drop. I can’t say I got a barrel but I certainly surprised myself by landing on my board and setting up for a bottom turn wave after wave. I neglected the left due to its mixed-up, heavy nature and watched the body surfers enjoying a sloppy slab or two.
On the big day, we hired a van and drove 45 minutes of winding, animal filled roads to Pacitan town. There we surfed a murky brown beach break at the mouth of a harbor full of boats and trash. The waves were small but perfectly rippable with steep but easy walls of fun that soothed the bruises on my ego from surfing the slabs.
Upon rumors of an epic river mouth down the beach, we asked our driver to take us searching. We found a custom chopped motorcycle show in the field, but not the super long lefts I had seen in videos. Instead, the brown ocean swirled and sputtered in the onshore winds. Images of what-could-have-been danced through my head as we moved on.
Back at the camp, Rod told more stories of his political dealings and payoffs to keep the Wave Palace in operation. The Javanese played in the pool and I wondered if the wave out the front was worth all of Rod’s struggles. We may have missed it, but every wave has its day.
WHERE: Istana Ombak, Watu Karung, Pacitan, Eastern Java
WHEN: We’d bet on July through September for the most consistent swell and chances of seeing the river mouth on fire.
WHY: You’re looking for somewhere off the beaten track with a swimming pool and a wave directly out the front.
VIBES: The village of Watu Karung was very peaceful and full of friendly people. Most of its inhabitants spent their weekend combing the reef for anything that moved at low tide. At the time we visited, we were often the only surfers in the area and shared the peak with all bodyboarders.
TIPS: Once the swell started to pump in Watu Karung, the waves seemed scary so we headed to Pactian for more user friendly alternatives. Bring a step-up or two and extra fins. Ask to check out the Goa Gong Caves, waterfall, and surrounding area. Also, Desa Lisman, owned by Rizal and Marlon Gerber is an accommodation alternative that looked epic but wasn’t open when we were there.
Check out Istana Ombak here: