It all started with a wave. In the 1980s American surfer, explorer and adventurer Claude Graves and his wife Petra began exploring Sumba in eastern Indonesia, a wild island paradise with a history of warrior kings and fearsome headhunters. One day, as legend has it, the couple stumbled onto a deserted arc of white sand fronted by one of the best surf breaks in the world. This magical place would become Nihiwatu.
Unfortunately, when I first lay eyes on this legendary break (known simply as The Left) it’s more of a whimper than a wave. It’s the wrong season for surfing and the break is a mess of low, frothy whitewater, rather than the perfect curving barrel it should be. Though it hardly seems to matter. Nihiwatu may have begun life as a rustic surf lodge for the true believers, but it is now much more than that.
Over the past 15 years, the resort has expanded from the original handful of huts into an ultra luxurious eco-hideaway. The villas manage to be understated and spectacular at the same time, with the high thatched roofs native to the island, huge glass windows, enormous beds surrounded by breezy white curtains and private plunge pools. My villa even has a private bale at the bottom of the garden overlooking the ocean, the perfect spot to take in one of the island’s famous sunsets. Each villa is assigned a personal butler that can be reached by two-way radio (there’s no phone service here) and my butler, Reuben, seems genuinely delighted to be taking care of me. It’s as much a resort for families as it is for honeymooners with accommodation ranging from secluded one-bedroom love nests to multi-villa, self-contained estates sleeping at least eight.
The Graveses sold their interest in the resort in 2012 and Nihiwatu is now owned by US entrepreneur Chris Burch and South African hotelier James McBride, who have undertaken a massive expansion project over the past 12 months. Nine new villas have already opened and another 13 are scheduled for 2015 (bringing the total to 22), along with a treehouse spa. But despite all this, Nihiwatu still retains a distinctly Swiss Family Robinson feel with meandering paths, woven archways and squawking birds. Even the main dining room has a sandy floor. The resort’s slogan is “On the edge of wildness” and it does feel that at any moment the rolling palm and papaya trees could extend their reach and erase any trace of humanity.
McBride is in residence during my stay (work is currently underway on his private home here) and his passion for the resort and for Sumba is evident. From the beginning, Nihiwatu has been about developing relationships with the local people and improving their fortunes alongside those of the resort. Nihiwatu is the largest employer on the island and the resort is essentially non-profit with all proceeds going back into the Sumba Foundation, established in 2001. The foundation has built 15 primary schools and five clinics, supplied over 170 villages with clean water and reduced malaria by 85 per cent. The resort has also made a serious commitment to conservation, buying up land to replant trees (and prevent overdevelopment) and using renewable energy sources. McBride genuinely believes, as Claude Graves did before him, that the resort has a responsibility to the people of Sumba – and he puts his money where his mouth is.
McBride is also introducing one of his personal passions to the resort this year – polo. The Sumbanese are one of the few tribal groups in Southeast Asia to breed and ride native horses, and the resort has an extensive riding program (and resident horse whisperer) in place. McBride is the founder of British Polo Day (an exclusive competition for the horsey set that travels the world) and will be introducing an event on Nihiwatu’s private beach this year using local horses. There will also be a reenactment of the Pasola, an ancient and violent mock battle on horseback that always ends with blood on the ground.
Sumbanese life is ruled by the weather. During the dry season, the island can go up to seven months without a drop of rain, turning the lush jungle landscape into a parched and arid desert that more resembles Africa than Southeast Asia. I am here at the start of the wet season and the sky remains cloudless until my final day when it begins to rain – hard. So hard in fact that I half expect the animals to begin arriving two by two in anticipation of the ark. Rain has only begun to fall in the previous few weeks but already the land has sprung back to life, a sparkling palette of vibrant greens, thundering waterfalls and muddy rice paddies ready for the next crop. But the rain also brings with it the mosquitoes and the little buggers are my constant, biting companions for the duration of my stay. The signature scent of a visit to Nihiwatu is mosquito repellent.
Surfing is what started Nihiwatu, but there’s now a huge activity program on offer. I am keen to try my hand at stand-up paddleboarding and eagerly head down to the river one morning with Marshall, a South African surfer who is now one of the resort’s resident watermen. As is to be expected of a man in his position, Marshall is tall, tanned and heartbreakingly handsome – so I am even more disappointed that I exhibit no sporting ability and spend most of my time flat on my back in the shallow water. It seems I have invented fall-down paddleboarding. Marshall is even good-natured enough not to laugh – well, not out loud anyway. The river takes a sedate journey through the Sumbanese back country, past wallowing buffalo, tiny villages and squealing naked children who attempt to hitch a ride with the more experienced paddlers. I enjoy the experience but I suspect my paddleboarding career is at an end.
I have more success on dry land with an early morning hike to the secluded Nihioka beach. If Nihiwatu is beautiful then Nihioka is paradise. Two tiny beaches flank a rocky peninsula with creamy white sand and crashing turquoise waves, and a few flower-strewn pavilions have been set up around the cliffs. In one awaits my personal spa therapist ready to massage my feet. I lie back wrapped in a fluffy white towel and decide that I would definitely do more hiking if there was more massage involved. But the pièce de résistance here is breakfast, served in a tiny treehouse on the edge of the cliff. Staff from the main resort serve up fresh fruit, coffee and pastries, before cooking toast, bacon and eggs over an open fire. McBride has big plans for Nihioka too and this year couples will be able to spend a full day here, ensconced in a private pavilion with two spa therapists and butler service.
One evening I ride along the beach on one of Nihiwatu’s horses, powerful, stocky native ponies that have been crossbred with Australian thoroughbreds. The Sumbanese traditionally ride bareback, though I was pleased to be provided with a saddle. The new open-air yoga pavilion will be completed when the resort reopens for the season. Perched dramatically above the resort with a sweeping view over the bay it will be a stunning spot for a downward dog, and there are plans in place to introduce packages with a holistic wellness focus.
The Left manages to put on a show on the morning of my last day. I am eating French toast on my verandah when I spot a handful of surfers, sleek and dark as seals, bobbing about in the swell. I watch one figure break away from the pack, paddle to the crest and effortlessly ride the wave in towards the shore. He is hooked. Nihiwatu’s famous wave has created another devotee.