Sunday, November 6, 2011

Becalmed on Rote Island - Indonesia

Pictorial by Barry Greville-Eyres
Featuring Nusa Tenggara Timor traverse; Kupang; rustic community-based tourism at Nemberala's Kioen Traditional Village; adventure water sports including surfing, fishing and snorkelling; and essential travel tips.

Atambua street scene - the first major Indonesian town encountered along the road traverse from East to West Timor. It is home to the Roman Catholic Diocese where the Diocese's population is over 95% Catholic, among the highest percentages of Catholics in all of Indonesia. In 1999 Atambua received over 200,000 internally displaced persons from adjoining Timor-Leste as a consequence of independence related violence and unrest.

Roadside vendors peddle fruit and vegetables particularly flowering papaya bracts which when cooked and consumed have powerful anti-malarial properties.

 Kupang, the largest portside city in West Timor, boasts some interesting architecture in an eclectic mix of old and new. 

Police Officers Tarsiseran and Rincan captured on duty at the Kupang ferry terminal

Slow vehicle ferry bound for Rote Island which can take anything up to 5 hours based on tides and weather conditions

Kupang ferry terminal high and dry waiting for the incoming tide prior to departure for Rote Island

Kupang boasts many easteries in this case serving mouthwatering Javanese-styled cuisine - butterflied barbecued fish, nasi goreng special, Asian greens and freshly blended fruit juices 

Generations of Timorese have carved out a new yet precarious life in Indonesian West Timor as part of their own diaspora although thousands of internally displaced individuals and families are still marooned years after cessation of Indonesian occupation and civil unrest

Final approach to Rote Island were one is greeted by spectacular scenery and exuberant fishermen

Besialu Reef Nemberala - Clean barrels to be had! Pic. courtesy of David Ralph

Becalmed on Rote Island is an accurate assessment of the surf conditions encountered on my recent pilgrimage to Nemberala having missed out on sizable swell a week earlier. My underlying torment and frustration soon gave way to reluctant acceptance and I sought solace in the sheer beauty, synchronicity and simplicity that best describes Nemberala and life on Rote generally. The swell at Nemerala arrives directly from weather patterns and cold fronts generated, down south, at Antarctica tracking across the southern Oceans. It receives the very same south to south westerly winter swells that march into Jeffrey’s Bay – South Africa and send breaks such as The Point, Mega and Super Tubes going off. Nemberala offers equally exotic-named breaks such as The Steepie, Magic Mountain, Inner Tubes, The Bommie and in close proximity Boa and Suckies. Seemingly, some of the surrounding islands also offer up a variety of interesting breaks, many of them yet to be surfed and named.
Out of sheer desperation a few diehards were dropped off at the main Nemberala break where we, with good grace and humour, hustled over wavelets lapping at the edge of Besialu Reef.  We all gazed wistfully towards the horizon willing for some swell to magically appear but we were treated, instead, to a stunning sunset which ended our brief interlude on the island in dramatic fashion. There is no doubt that I was surreptitiously seduced by the entire experience and will most certainly find my way back when Nemberala has its very best to offer surfwise.

A cave-side view of Boa - with easy access to the right hand reef break which is legendary under the right conditions
Boa's exposed reef is easy underfoot and allows quick easy access to the break. Nemberala with its variety of breaks is in the distant background.
The Kioen Traditional Village at Nemberala is run by Jenet and Dave and provides rustic accommodation as part of an affordable 'package deal' including meals; adventure sports (snorkelling and fishing) and more importantly, information on wave and weather conditions from resident surf-pro Dave 
Designed and built by Dave using mostly natural bush materials, the traditional eco-village is located within the existing village arrangement yet is small,  intimate, earthy and subjected to the subtle, restorative and simple rhythms of Indo-Rote island life
Dave and Jenet's pioneering tourism venture, wholly intergrated within the local village community, is beginning to gather momentum as local and international tourists alike begin to discover its charm and sheer magnetism

Jenet's Place - Lualemba bar and restaurant, located on Nemberala's main street and within eyeshot of the famed left hand break is the centre of social and gastronomic attention. The fare is a fusion of Indo-Western influences sure to satisfy the hunger pangs of exercise junkies and couch potatoes alike. Its little wonder that odd South African's had surfed Nemberala's best - in this case Boa's right hand reef break.   

Traditional village life on your doorstep ... villagers 'cook up' the sap extracted from the male fruit of the Lontar or Fan Palm. Excess moisture is boiled off and what remains is a syrupy sweet concentrate that is bottled and used widely as an organic, palm sugar extract. Nemberala is renowned on the island for the quality of its Gula Java (Javanese sugar) which is transport by road and sea, in copious amounts, to West Timor.  Lontar palms (viewed in background) are sizable, tall trees and require considerable skill to shin up to the crowns where the sap is 'milked' and collected in woven baskets almost daily during the dry season.   

The cooking process reduces the concentrate to a golden syrup-like consistency and sweetness which is the pièce de résistance when served on Jenet's organic banana pancakes. The fan palm is an extremely versatile and important tree for the island inhabitants. The leaves are used for thatching, mats, baskets, fans, hats, umbrellas and writing materials. The palms are known to live for over 100 years.

Local wildlife

Dave, Nune, Cosme and Anis (background with mask) who is the sole inhabitant of Do'o Island which is a superb snorkelling and fishing location.

Do'o Island roughly an hour boat ride from Rote Island with superb coral reefs in fore and backgrounds

Dawn thunderheads amassing over Nemberala

The blogger (left) with Dave share bragging rights having bagged a giant trevally and mackerel respectively after a spot of fishing between Do'o and Rote Islands

Le Mans-styled start to catch the return ferry from Rote Island to Kupang

Travel Tips

·         The Nusa Tenggara Timor (NNT) traverse from Dili-Kupang-Roti-Nemberala is a fascinating road and sea trip but is long and demanding especially if running according to tight timelines;

·         One cannot escape the officialdom and necessary paper work – 30 day tourist visas are available at the Indonesian Embassy in Dili at US$45 p/p and special vehicle permits are required from the Ministry of Transport;

·         I would highly recommend undertaking the trip with a Timorese guide or friend as this only serves to enrich and enhance the experience besides all the other, more obvious advantages;

·         Travel times vary according to traffic, road, weather and tide conditions but the following are conservative travel estimates: Dili-Indonesian border post 1.5-2.5 hours; West Timor traverse including Atambua-Kupang 5-8 hours; prepare to overnight in Kupang; slow vehicle ferry from Kupang-Roti 6-8 hours (including embarkation, travel time and disembarkation);  Rote Island road traverse including Roti-Nemberala 1.5-2.5 hours. The Kupang-Rote Island vehicle ferry schedule is a 'moving target' and delays or cancellations are frequent. The one-way fee for a car or SUV is approximately US$55 which covers passengers.

·         A more sensible travel option could be a flight from Bali-Kupang and then the express passenger ferry (2-3 hours in duration) from Kupang-Roti. On arrival on Rote Island, a transfer can be arranged by Jenet and Dave (Kioen Traditional Village) to Nemberala from the ferry terminal. Once at Nemberala there is no real need for your own transport as motorcycles are available for hire at nominal rates;

·         Shop around for accommodation at Nemberala as lodgings can vary from resort-styled to community-based. I would personally recommend the Kioen Traditional Village (email: . Its important to book well in advance to secure accommodation especially during the peak season (March-October).        



  1. Thanks for another great photo-essay! It was a pleasure to read and view. When I look at the island of Timor in Google Maps, it looks like most of the roads are in Timor-Leste and there's very few on the Indonesian side. Is that correct, or are the maps just incomplete.

  2. Thanks Walt for your feedback - the roads in WT are generally very good, far better than in TL.I suspect that the mapping of roads in WT is incomplete, for whatever reason, as you've already pointed out.


  3. Hi Barry.

    Great blog...lots of useful info.

    I'm planning a surf trip to Nemberala around August 2012.
    I was planning on just turning up but by the sounds of it maybe I should book accommodation beforehand.
    How crowded are the surf breaks...What time of the year were you there?


  4. Hi Peter,
    Indeed – it appears that an advance booking is the best way to go especially if looking at more affordable accommodation. There are also not many options available either. I visited in October and missed out on surf altogether but I should imagine that the likelihood of getting surf in August is far greater as Rote Island will still be receiving surf generated from weather patterns / cold fronts produced far down south – especially if early August. Obviously you’ll be at the mercy of the weather & surf Gods. As to how crowded Nemberala gets…. An unknown quantity for me… but seemingly when the place works surfers tend to find out and are drawn to the place but with a number of breaks working at the same time I doubt it will be as bad as the Bali breaks. For deeper local insights contact David Ralph …. he is pretty helpful and easy going. Good luck mate!

  5. Great read. Although it's now several years since you wrote this article I'm guessing not much has changed. I'm hoping to visit Rote this year, you're description has been very helpful.

    1. Most welcome David thanks for your feedback.... i do know that David Ralph has upgraded their accommodation somewhat...if you are a keen surfer just make sure you visit at the best possible surf time otherwise you will be somewhat disappointed.

      PS If interested in viewing a great photo-essaying site check out link is fun to view without heaps of text