Located in one of the most remote parts of Indonesia, the Tanimbar Islands offer coral-fringed beaches, brilliant underwater panoramas, and a rich, multifaceted cultural heritage. For Colours magazine, Yogi Ishahib explores the gateway town of Saumlaki and surrounds.
Words Yogi Ishahib
On arrival at Mathilda Batlayeri Airport, I am immediately greeted by Pierre Temmar, the friend who invited me to Saumlaki, who will guide me throughout my stay.
His easy sense of humour brings a smile to my lips. “Enjoy being stranded,” he says, stretching his arms wide open. The Saumlaki locals and the inhabitants of nearby islands are known as the Tanimbar people, which comes from the word tnebar, meaning ‘stranded’.
There is probably some truth in this. Saumlaki, located in the regency of the Tanimbar Islands, is as far-flung as it is possible to get in Indonesia, close to the far northern tip of Australia. Its proximity to the island continent makes Saumlaki popular with yachters who sail along the stretch of water between Indonesia and Australia, from the Arafura Sea to the Indian Ocean. Each year, the International Darwin–Saumlaki Yacht Race and Rally increases the popularity of Saumlaki, situated in the south of Yamdena Island, as a must-visit tourism destination in eastern Indonesia.
From the airport, I head to Saumlaki’s Harapan Indah Hotel. Public transport is not yet available from the airport, but you can rent a car there. Throughout the 20-minute journey to the hotel, I enjoy the views of rocky hills and rows of coconut palms blowing gently against each other.
On the first day, I go straight from the hotel to visit the Monument of Christ the King in the village of East Olilit, about 3km from the town centre, the most visible symbol of the island’s Christian heritage, which dates back to the arrival of the Dutch in the 17th century. At a glance, the monument reminds me of the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro because of its elevated position looking across to other nearby islands. Inside the monument complex, Jesus Christ is represented in three large sculptures: the statue of Jesus Blessing faces east, the statue of Jesus on the Cross faces north, and the statue of Jesus and Mother Mary faces south. Walking among these magnificent, huge statues, I feel like a Lilliputian playing at the feet of the giants in Gulliver’s Travels.
Besides the Monument of Christ the King, Saumlaki has three other Christian tourism destinations: the Monument of First Baptism, the Monument of Missionaries’ Arrival, and the Monument of 100 years since the Introduction of the Gospel. Many people visit these religious sites during November, at the time of the celebration of Christ. Spiritual tourism in Saumlaki is growing; the roads leading to these destinations are now smoothly tarmacked and homestays are springing up. It is possible that, in years to come, Saumlaki will host large religious celebrations attracting huge crowds of pilgrims, similar to those held in Larantuka and Manado.
From Christian monuments to something far more ancient – on the way to the village of Sangliat Dol, we walk up 106 stone steps, laid at an angle of 35°, to get to a site from the Megalithic era. This ancient site of stone structures arranged in the shape of a boat has been named Natar Sori Fampompar by the local residents. Betel nuts and gin are offered to welcome guests and to ward off evil spirits. As soon as I chew the betel nut, my mouth is filled with a bitter taste, so I instantly take a swig of gin while continuing to smile, despite the bitterness lingering in my mouth.
Having visited all the monuments of Saumlaki the previous day, I decide to take a trip along the coast and check out the nearest island group. It takes only 30 minutes by car to Batlosa. A large rock of coral with a hole in the middle is the gateway welcoming visitors to this beach; the coral doorway of Batlosa is like an archaic version of the Arc de Triomphe. From here, you can visit Weluan Beach or Hidden Beach, where clear blue sea is flanked by two giant coral formations, reminiscent of Italy’s famous Fiordo di Furore. The best time to enjoy the beauty of Saumlaki’s beaches is from March to April and September to December. “In these months,” says Pierre, “the sea is calm, the wind isn’t too fierce, and the waves are at their best.”
If you want to experience a more advanced maritime adventure, you can take a speedboat to nearby islands such as Matakus and Selaru, leaving daily from the local harbour. To enjoy the beauty of the underwater panorama, dive or snorkel in the water off Matakus Island. The sea around Saumlaki is home to a variety of large pelagic fish such as tuna (thunidae), skipjack tuna (katsuwonus pelamis), and marlin (makaira sp), as well as demersal fish such as red snapper (lutjanus campechanus) and grouper (epinephelus). Fishing spots stretch from the Timor Sea to the Arafura Sea.
While in Saumlaki, I not only have the opportunity to visit various beaches, but also find time to visit the handicraft centre to explore the tradition of Tanimbar’s woven fabric. In the past, the art of Tanimbar weaving was only passed on through family lines, but today the cloth is produced by 12 different groups of weavers. “There are 45 motifs, but the main ones are the dorkie (net) and libir (arrow) motifs,” I am told by the head of one group, Sam Malisngorar.
The net and the arrow are symbols of Saumlaki life, which is rich in the maritime culture that has been preserved for many generations. From my experience, it is fair to say that Saumlaki should be considered as much more than simply one of Indonesia’s most remote places. It has such a great wealth of nature and culture to be explored.
Jakarta to Saumlaki
Flight Time1 hour 35 mins
Frequency 3 times a week
5 Senses – Sight
Batlosa Stone Door
This is a great choice for those seeking a beautiful sunset. The hole in the middle of this ‘stone’ coral door seems to capture the sunlight and allow its golden-tinged orange hue to penetrate the entire horizon. You can also watch the dozens of yachts that are ready to compete in the International Darwin–Saumlaki Yacht Race and Rally at the end of September.