Jealously guarded for decades as a ‘secret spot’ by surfers, Nias Island as a whole seems to have been entirely overlooked by other travellers. Colours heads to Indonesia’s wild west to see what the country’s hidden ‘surfer’s paradise’ really has to offer.
Words and photography by Mark Eveleigh
It’s clearly low season on Nias. There’s only one other foreigner I can spot in Gunungsitoli Airport, and I barely have to glance at him to be sure of two things: he’s a surfer and his ﬁnal destination will be Sorake Beach.
We chat as we wait for our baggage to be offloaded, and the Aussie surfer fills me in on the expected surf conditions at what many rate as one of the 10 best waves on the planet. He’s been crunching statistics for the last month, analysing wave charts and swell directions and Googling satellite images of the weird hieroglyphic scrawls of distant storms that are circling way out across the Indian Ocean.
“Swell size won’t be big,” he tells me, “but the interval between waves would seem to suggest that it’s picking up.”
I take all of this in with just a pinch of salt. In practice, the sea often has a way of throwing the unexpected at you. The fact is, while I intend to catch a few quick waves during my stay, I’m not here on a surf trip. I’m here to discover what southern Nias has to offer the visitor beyond the natural thrill of those epic waves.
Within minutes of arriving at Sorake Beach, I’m heading across the reef with a borrowed board under my arm. The taxi had deposited me on the beach in front of Hash & Family Surf Camp and I’d introduced myself – briefly and very distractedly – to owner Hasrat ‘Hash’ Wau. As we talked, I’m sure Hash was aware that my gaze was constantly drawn over his shoulder, beyond his hardwood verandah, towards an uncrowded line-up where the legendary wave known as ‘Keyhole’ was working its crystal magic on a lucky trio of surfers.
The shimmering reef and the speeding blue barrels would have tempted a saint, I reassure myself as Hash’s 14-year-old surfer son Jackson leads me across a piece of land that is younger than he is. In 2005 an earthquake devastated this coastline, raising the seabed at Lagundri Point until it was left high and dry, above the reach of all but the biggest waves.
A collection of battered signboard surfboards (patched-together casualties, perhaps, of heavy days at Keyhole Point) are nailed up, advertising the ‘charms’ of a little row of ramshackle homestays along the curve of white sand that connects Keyhole with the bigger outside break known as ‘Indicator’.
The surfing hippy explorers who first camped in these jungles in the early seventies might barely recognise the place. The Sorake of today is infinitely more hospitable but, even now, there is a thrilling frontier feel to this little village.
“I was born up here in Botohilitano village the same year that those first Aussies were camping down on the beach,” Hash tells me as we drive up through tangled jungle the next morning. Like most of his friends, Hash has worked in other regions – finding work for periods in Medan and Padang – but almost invariably they return, adamant that there’s nowhere that quite compares with southern Nias.
There’s an atmosphere here that is hard to find anywhere else in Indonesia, and it’s a mood that stretches way beyond the wave-line. Nias has a unique island culture and a rhythm of life that seems in tune with the gently pulsing folk music and the attractive lilt of the local language.
At Botohilitano (literally ‘Land on the Hill’), we climb ancient stone steps adorned with the snarling heads of lasara dragons and step back in time onto the wide cobbled streets of a traditional village that, apart from the bloom of satellite dishes, has changed little over the centuries. It’s washing day, and colourful racks of clothes, like flowering creepers, deck the streets in front of the old timber houses known as omo hada. The drying products of real harvests – cacao, coffee, rice, betel nut and nilam leaves (for making the patchouli oil which was once Nias’s most important export) – are spread on woven mats across the cobbles.
An hour later I feel like Jack climbing the beanstalk as I heave myself up the monumental steps into the interior of the king’s house in Bawomataluo. Everything seems to be impressively oversized here, and I’m slightly intimidated to imagine the sort of giant who could take such lofty steps in his stride. But I am relieved to find that Bapak Laowo Fau is a man whose own sense of hospitality far outmeasures his physical stature.
“The first king, my great-great-great-great grandfather, is still buried on the hill behind this house,” Bapak Laowo Fau tells me. “Experts are not sure where we came from before, but I believe our ancestors migrated from Vietnam.”
In fact, stone tools found in Togi Ndrawa cave, central Nias, prove that the island has been populated for at least 12,000 years. It sometimes seems that the list of possible migration routes – experts have claimed Taiwan, Cambodia, Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam – outnumber even the list of anthropologists who could have made these claims. (And just to add more confusion to the mystery, Hash agreed with my assumption that the enigmatic Nias language has distinct similarities with the language of far-off Madagascar.)
We say goodbye to Bapak Laowo Fau, and as we clamber back down to the street I realise that perhaps these giant steps are only to be expected of a people who make a pastime of hurling themselves over two-metre dry-stone walls. The ancient hombo batu (jumping stone) at Bawomataluo measures 2.1m tall, and as we step out into the sunlight we see that three young athletes of the village are already limbering up for a display of speed, flexibility and sheer unadulterated guts that could put to shame even the most courageous of the big-wave chargers down in the bay.
As the afternoon shadows lengthen, Hash suggests a sunset surf session, and on the basis that this could be considered viable ‘research’, I agree. We load boards onto the car and set off on a little surfari with Hash’s sons Jackson and 11-year-old Kevin.
When we walk out onto the sand, I realise that Muale Beach must surely be one of the most pristine in all Indonesia. An unbroken curtain of arching coconut palms throws its shadow over a gleaming scimitar of talcum-powder-soft sand that stretches, unmarred by a single building and utterly deserted, as far as the eye can see around the bay. Hash points out the location of surf spots at opposite ends of the bay. Even here, just an hour from Sorake, we have found a new paradise that rarely sees a surfer. Hypnotised by a crimson sun that’s rapidly sinking into an expanse of unbroken ocean, we decide to skip the surf and simply sit and watch.
I am well on my way to realising that there is a lot more to Nias than just legendary waves.
Jakarta to Nias via Medan
From Colours May 2016
5 Senses – Sight
Marvel at the sight of the legendary Fahombo stone-jumpers of Nias. Every village has its little group of local heroes who are able to leap over the walls, which typically measure about two metres high. At Hiliamaetaniha, 16-year-old Haryanti Wau is one of just five young men in the village who are fast enough, agile enough and courageous enough to jump over the 1.95m hondo batu (jumping rock). He clears it with such style that awestruck spectators have been known to suggest that it’s about time they built a higher stone!