Asia travel

Catch a new wave: a surfing safari to Sumbawa

Indonesia's Sumbawa island is ideal for surfing, and the food is great. Relatively unknown today, the island could become a popular destination in the future, writes Holly McDonald

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 08 January, 2014, 10:13pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 April, 2015, 3:20pm

WHO DOESN'T LIKE TO sample the local cuisine when they're travelling somewhere new? But in Bima, the main eastern city of Indonesia's Sumbawa island, the answer to my query about what I should try isn't promising.

"Rice!" says the hotel concierge with some enthusiasm, after thinking a bit too long. "Our rice is good in Sumbawa. You should try the nasi goreng."

While I don't mind a plate of nasi goreng (Indonesian fried rice), I was hoping for a more exotic suggestion. My companion and I head to Bima's street nightmarket, a street-long congregation of kaki limas - "five-feet" mobile vendors, named for their two wheels, a stand and two feet.

The chicken satay is drenched in peanut sauce and comes with rounds of chewy lontong (rice cake), a chilled bottle of Teh Botol (iced tea) on the side; we tuck into martabak, a thick pancake smothered in grated cheese and sweetened condensed milk, for dessert. The meal costs us the equivalent of a few US dollars - we may not have found some indigenous cuisine, but we're happily sated.

We've in Sumbawa for a weekend. Two nights isn't much time to spend on the sprawling island, between Lombok and Flores, but the sights of Bima, the key town, can be taken in quickly.

First we see the mosque, a fading shingled beauty with a waterless fountain out the front and a caretaker dozing inside.

The muezzin holds some wooden items beautifully carved in Arabic script; uniformed schoolchildren amble through on their way home from school.

At the museum, the former Sultan's palace - the only other sight in town, we're told - a caretaker shows us through dusty historical exhibits and rooms furnished in royal style.

Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, stayed in one of the rooms, and it still bears his name today.

Centuries ago, Bima is believed to have fallen under the control of Java's Majapahit empire, after Javanese traders stopped by on their way to the lucrative Spice Islands. But in the 17th century, the area fell to the control of South Sulawesi rulers. The Dutch took over in 1605, although they left Sumbawa's sultans with a fair degree of autonomy.

Sumbawa is famed for being home to one of the world's greatest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.

In 1815, Gunung Tambora exploded, killing more than 10,000 people and blowing an entire kilometre off its peak. These days it can be climbed, although not during the monsoon.

We head down to Sumbawa's second famed destination, the coastal town of Hu'u, where Lakey Beach lies. It was first visited by a dribble of surfers decades ago, and is now a stop on the international surf competition circuit. It's a few hours drive along good roads passing salt flats, paddies and the foaming ocean.

Two judging towers punctuate the pounding reef break - one new, one old and slowly being eaten away by the sea. Our hotel is reputed to be the best in town; more rooms are being built, but my relatively new room feels ocean-aged already. People come here to surf and not much else.

But with more travellers looking to escape crowded Bali and even Lombok these days, this could one day be an alternative for more than just surfers.

It's a thought that horrifies another hotelier along the beach, who fears all the development mass tourism will bring, and warns us that we shouldn't write about the place. But we're hardly the first travellers here - the beach is dotted with fair-haired tourists heading out to catch some waves. Although the fresh fish is delicious and the surf breaks are reliable, for now this remains an adventurer's destination.

So we go adventuring, skidding along the stunning wild coast by motorbike, passing startled cows and an occasional fisherman, until the main road ends at a bridge over a small but thundering waterfall; we can imagine why climbing Tambora is a bad idea when it is wet. Looking back, we see a stunning peach and violet sunset.

In the morning, we zip back along the coastline,watching mists pooling in the arms of the peninsulas. We stop to buy some honey, Sumbawa's most famous export, harvested from wild hives that are smoked to chase the bees away. The season runs from March through to May, and the honey is snapped up by merchants from Jakarta and other big towns around Indonesia, says Sahrul, whose family sells honey.

One hunting trip - which can last for five days - can yield "50 Bintang bottles" of honey, "but when they're unlucky, they'll come back empty-handed". A big bottle goes for 100,000 rupiah (HK$64). The locals sell the honey rather than eat it themselves or process it, Sahrul explains.

Indeed, back in Bima on our way to the airport, we spot the occasional hand-painted dijual madu or "honey for sale" sign outside houses or shops.

For now, it's probably fair to say that surfing, volcanoes and honey are Sumbawa's best attractions. But down the track, given the scenic undeveloped coastlines and the thirst for adventure of many young Indonesians and backpackers, Sumbawa has the potential to be so much more.


Need-to-know basics

Getting there
• Cathay Pacific flies direct from Hong Kong to Denpasar, bookable online for HK$5,488. 
• Mandala Tigerair is offering online promotional direct flights in January for HK$3,069.
• Garuda Indonesia flies from Denpasar to Bima for HK$1,052.

Staying there
• At Lakey Beach, we stayed at the Aman Gati. Rooms from US$44/US$55 for a single/double., tel: (+62) 3617438073
• In Bima, we stayed at Lambitu Hotel. Rooms from 220,000 rupiah (HK$140). Tel: (+62) 374 42222

Getting around
Cars with a driver can easily be hired on arrival at the airport in Bima. As a sample fare, the standard rate from the airport direct to Hu’u for a car is 708,000 rupiah.