Archipelago Journal :Southeast Sumbawa

Just 40km beyond the legendary Komodo National Park, southeast Sumbawa offers beautiful white-sand beaches and thriving coral reefs. Tommy Schultz crosses the Sape Strait with world-renowned conservationist and filmmaker Valerie Taylor aboard the pioneering Seven Seas to explore this beautiful and seldom-visited corner of Indonesia.

Words by Tommy Schultz

“If my friends and I want to still see beautiful corals and masses of fish, we come to Indonesia.” Eighty-three-year-old Valerie Taylor is recalling adventures from a life spent exploring the most beautiful places in the world with her late husband Ron. The couple filmed the underwater sequences in classic Hollywood films such as Jaws and The Blue Lagoon.

Valerie and I are aboard the Seven Seas, the traditional Buginese phinisi schooner that was one of the first liveaboard boats to lead scuba diving safaris to the most remote destinations of Indonesia. We’re here to explore a corner of the archipelago that even veteran explorer Valerie has never seen before.

Last night we crossed the Sape Strait from Komodo National Park to arrive at our current anchorage in southeast Sumbawa.

To the north, the towering peak of Pulau Sangeang etches the horizon with its perfect volcanic cone. To our south, the Sumbawa coastline encircles us – the Sumbawa Island is in West Nusa Tenggara Province, Indonesia. The island is fronted to the west by the Alas Strait, to the east by the Sape Strait, to the south by the Indian Ocean, and to the north by the Flores Sea. 1wide bay of craggy igneous stone protecting us from the powerful Indian Ocean swells of the Antarctic. Sumbawa’s south coast is world famous among surfers for its perfect waves.

At first light, we enjoy a tasty breakfast of traditional nasi goreng cooked piping hot by Totok, the ship’s talented Balinese chef.

The ship’s bell tolls as Tobias, a burly Florensian affectionately nicknamed ‘Big John’, calls us from the waiting tender boat. It’s time to venture out from our Seven Seas ‘mothership’ to explore the hidden lagoons and rocky points that are too shallow for the phinisi.

The cloudless Sumbawan sky above is a dome of deepest cobalt – judging by the windswept trees and ochre hillsides, it’s been a long time since the last rainfall.

Big John smiles broadly as he guides the twin-engine tender along the coast; we can see the dappled shades of multicoloured coral gardens in the shallow water. After 15 minutes in the speedboat, the vibrant indigo of the Flores Sea dissolves into a radiant sapphire.

Nearing the crescent of white sand beach, our boat is completely surrounded by an expanse of perfectly blue water that looks more like a seven-star swimming pool than one of the least-populated reaches of the archipelago.

There’s not another soul in sight as our little crew of castaways leaps out of the tender boat, our bare feet landing on a carpet of chalk-white sand with the texture of powdered sugar. The mark of another footprint cannot be seen.

We spend a few blissful hours walking along the beach, swimming out into the crystalline waters, and diving from
the prow of the tender boat waiting in the lagoon.

Our conversation on the beach moves to the coral reefs we spotted earlier. What might the scuba diving be like here?

Not wanting to leave the question unanswered, it’s time to get back to the boat for lunch and prepare for our afternoon dive.

The spicy aroma of Chef Totok’s curried fish wrapped in banana leaf fills the galley, and the tang of the Sumbawan sea breeze on the air circulates through the homely dining area.

Valerie is excited to be diving again in Indonesia, and she’s sharing the incredible sensation of pure freedom she feels when she’s underwater:

“I feel like I’m flying. I’m not walking, struggling, carrying – I just fly through it. Diving takes me on a voyage of wonder and beauty.”

In her eight decades spent learning about and exploring the world’s oceans, she’s appeared on the cover of National Geographic (twice!) and received a knighthood from the Netherlands in recognition of her marine conservation efforts.

It’s a thrill for all the guests aboard to join this exploratory expedition with Valerie, and, as everyone digs in to Totok’s curry, the lunch conversation buzzes with speculation of what we might see on the afternoon dive.

After a short post-lunch break, the ship’s bell rings out again and it’s time to prepare the dive gear for the afternoon trip. Not a moment is wasted as our tanks are loaded into the tender boat and Big John once again takes the helm.

He guides us to a secluded bay, the shallow water sparkling in the afternoon sun. With a last check of my underwater camera, I take the plunge into a spectacular Sumbawan coral garden.

I’m gliding past outcrops of colourful coral, tropical fish darting and weaving within the protective cover of the reef. I can see the light in the shallowest area of the reef is perfect for underwater photos; sunbeams give the area
a cathedral effect.Preview (opens in a new window)

Suddenly, I see the bullet-shaped outlines of several juvenile black-tip sharks – a good sign that the reef here is healthy. They’re hunting a shoal of shimmering sardines, their silver sides glinting in the last light of the day.

I hear John’s outboard motor rumbling to life, the signal that it’s time to return to the boat before it’s too dark.

Taking in the Sumbawan sunset from the upper lounge of the schooner, Valerie watches the colours fade from mango yellow to sambal red to the charcoal black of night.

She’s remembering the highlights from an adventurous life, her connection with the ocean the unifying thread tying it all together.

“My relationship with the ocean just happened; there was no plan. I just did it. Still doing it,” she says. “I’ve had the best life of anybody I know. How lucky can you get?”

Jakarta to Labuan Bajo

Flight Time3 hours 15 minutes

Frequency 7 flights per week

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From Colours October 2019


5 Senses – Touch
Powder-fine Sand

Like walking on an enormous avenue of powdered sugar, the white sand beaches of southeast Sumbawa’s hidden bays are some of the finest in all of Indonesia. Under the light of the strong midday sun, photographers will need to adjust the brightness on their cameras to balance the brilliant tones of these chalk-white beaches.