In search of the tourist-free Indonesian paradise of decades past, Brook Mitchell finds himself on Rote Island. Eventually.
Some time during the fourth day of waiting I begin to lose my mind. Malarial mosquitoes gather in numbers for their insidious evening raids, and my daydreams of perfect waves and swaying palm trees are interrupted by the rhythmic clang of a rusted ceiling fan. Outside, a dusty potholed mess plays host to a constant procession of hotted-up bemos blaring garish Indonesian pop. With little company other than my own swirling thoughts I reach a low point I never thought my travels would take me. Anyhow, any way, I want off this island. I pace and I swat, while the buzzing in my ears sends me quietly off the deep end.
I am in Kupang, West Timor’s grim capital and the first stop on a journey in search of the fabled “Bali of 20 years ago”. Depending on whom you ask, it still exists in far-flung isles around the Indonesian archipelago, and I’d heard whispers of a small island called Rote. Depending on the whims of the local weather, it’s a three-hour ferry ride from Kupang.
An overnight stop in Kupang is required for anyone travelling to Rote. All going well, the morning after your arrival, a ferry will take you across the Pukuafu channel. The dramatic confluence of the Indian Ocean and Timor Sea, Pukuafu is a stretch of water where strange currents, whirlpools and walls of chop bounce off jagged islands lined with volcanic stone, ensuring a harrowing journey. It is renowned as one of the deadliest stretches of water in Asia, even by Indonesia’s dodgy public transport standards. In recent years the crossing has seen more than its share of sinking vessels and lives lost. My arrival in Kupang has coincided with a not-uncommon run of strong winds with the potential to cause even more perilous conditions for the former European River Cat that is ill-designed for its use here. Mornings quickly turn into a routine of loading luggage onto the ferry, fighting for space, then sitting as the wind swells before heading back to town to do it all again the following day.
Kupang is a busy port with few redeeming features other than an impressive night market, serving the freshest catch of the day and regional specialities for next to nothing. The town was occupied by Japanese troops during World War II, which in turn saw it battered by numerous Allied bombing campaigns. Walking along the waterfront today, it’s not hard to imagine the place in the days after the raids. The buildings are a mix of the decrepit and crumbling, with no hint of charm and a thick layer of dust.
Captain William Bligh found his way here after the mutiny on the Bounty, and small reminders of his sojourn can be found around town, most notably in the one decent drinking hole on the waterfront, which has great old maps and memorabilia on display. The open-sided bar is a gathering place for a smattering of travellers and expatriates, many of whom are pickled from the early hours of the day. At best, they make for awkward company. The clang of the saloon-style bar doors is often the only break from their war stories of love and fortunes won and lost. After a little time in Indonesia one can recognise these characters pretty quickly, their downtrodden tales echoing through dusty bars from Timor to Sumatra. After my own recent break-up, I vow never to join them, although it dawns on me I am in much the same position. At least I’m keen to keep moving.
Thankfully, a change in the weather brings my bout of fear and loathing in Kupang to an end. Finally the ferry sets sail and I find myself in the small town of Nemberala on the spectacular palm-lined north-east coast of Rote. Rote sits just off the edge of the Australian continental shelf, a mere 170 kilometres west of Australian territory at Ashmore Reef. It’s so close to the lucky country the dry-season trade winds sweep up dust from the Red Centre – combined with the tropical sunshine, it conjures some of the more spectacular sunsets you can imagine.
Facilities are still basic in Nemberala. Water is drawn from wells prone to typhoid contamination. Generators produce power only in the evenings and on Sundays, and there’s patchy to no internet. Malaria is also a real threat, with little in the way of treatment should you succumb. The distinct possibility of being stuck on the island for extended periods only adds to the risk of travel here.
Surfers make up the majority of tourists on Rote. In the late 1960s a Peruvian world surfing champion, Felipe Pomar, set up a small homestay and has lived here since. The main wave is called T-Land, in recognition of a similar wave in Java, although some refer to it as Old Man’s Left, since the expats who surf it are generally of advanced years. It’s a long, left-breaking wave in relatively deep water compared with many headline Indonesian breaks. Other travellers, however, are slowly catching on to what Rote has to offer: friendly locals, truly stunning beaches and the simplicity of a life far off the grid.
Around the time Pomar crossed Pukuafu, surfboard in hand, James J Fox, a US-born, Australia-raised anthropologist, also made the journey over the channel. His motivation was not the search for perfect waves but to document the rich culture of the Rotinese people. Fox brought with him a small tape recorder, which the locals quickly dubbed “the voice catcher”. Catcher in hand, Fox set about recording the oral histories of the Rotinese. The picture painted through his work is of a proud Christian tradition woven with local legend as well as a fierce independence from outside rule. The Western religious influences are quickly evident as you traverse the island’s patchy and often dangerous roads. Whitewashed churches dot the island, surrounded by swaying lontar palms, picket fences and mobs of cheeky kids yelling "bulle" (Indonesian for foreigner).
Alongside stray animals and hordes of kids, Rote dishes up surprises around every corner. Dirt tracks often lead to small fishing villages, home to groups of Muslim fishermen famous across the archipelago for their seafaring skills. On Rote these groups still eke out a simple living subsisting on the daily catch, while practising Indonesia’s majority religion as the minority on this distant outpost. A highlight of my time on Rote is a few afternoons spent with one of these groups, watching them fish in their small bay and photographing faces that say more than I could ever pick up with my average Bahasa.
A few times a year you might be lucky enough to catch the local horse races. The method of determining the winner of these events seems a mystery to almost everybody. As far as I can tell, important factors include a combination of the best-dressed horse, its speed around the track and the rider’s dexterity in smoking a lung-busting Gudang Garam clove cigarette with one hand while controlling the reins in the other.
Another entertaining feature of life in Nemberala is the village pigs. They rule the streets here, ambling around town, hanging out under trees, sniffing the vast reef at low tide for a feed of crabs, and playing chicken with speeding mopeds. These pigs are as free-range as it gets, enjoying the benefits of their sty-free existence while awaiting their day of reckoning, which may come in the form of a wedding or Christmas feast.
The Rotinese have the distinction of being the first group to expel the Dutch, years before formal independence for Indonesia was achieved. As it was for the Dutch, some visitors find their time on Rote is not all carefree days swinging in a hammock waiting for the right tide and winds before going surfing under blood-red skies. Being the closest port to Australia, this is a stopping point for boats carrying refugees further south. Overloaded decks are stuffed with people seeking the sort of comfort and security most travellers on Rote are escaping, at least temporarily. Local stories abound of boats landing here or on small neighbouring islands, their passengers informed they’ve arrived in Australia then left to their own devices.
I also hear of boats sinking just offshore. Quite possibly at least some of these may go undocumented – another part of the often faceless toll of humans lost while seeking a better life in Australia. Reflecting on my earlier stresses – barely a minor inconvenience in comparison – I can only thank my lucky stars I get to travel to a place like this, enjoy the best of what it has to offer before returning to my privileged existence at home.
Rote is a spectacular place, and while I never got to visit that famed Bali of 20 years ago I’d hazard a guess this is every bit the joyful escape those early travellers found on the paradise island. Just hope for the winds to be in your favour, and save a thought for those heading further south.
Step one: get to Bali. Virgin Australia has flights to Denpasar from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth and Brisbane. virginaustralia.com
From Denpasar, it is a 90-minute flight on one of Indonesia’s domestic carriers to Kupang. Fares with Garuda cost about US$115 return. garuda-indonesia.com
The only semi-reliable way to get to Rote is via one of two daily ferries from Kupang. The morning ferry is the fastest (2.5 hours), and will take you to the port closest to the resort area of Nemberala. It costs about US$10 each way, but for surfers there’s often a variable tax of between US$1 and $5 to bring your boards. From the port it’s a 2.5-hour ride (about US$8) in a public bemo to Nemberala.
Flights to Kupang arrive after the morning ferry’s departure, so you’ll need to stay for the night. There are a few options. The most expensive is Kristal Hotel at about US$50. Two cheaper options are Hotel Maliana or Maya Beach Hotel, either of which will set you back around US$15 for a double with air-con and basic bathroom. kupangklubhouse.com
Hotel Maliana +62 380 821 879
Maya Beach Hotel +62 380 832 169
On Rote there is a range of options from cheap backpacker spots and surf lodges to higher-end resorts. The budget-conscious should check out the lovely Tirosa Hotel, a family-run business. A shack on the beach and three meals a day starts at about US$30. At the higher end, try Rote Island Lodge or Rote Surf House. Both fall in the US$58 to $125 range, include three meals and have a pool. Remember though, power is only connected in the evenings and Sundays, so even the more expensive places are relatively basic. roteislandlodge.com rotesurfhouse.com