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» Rote Island, Indonesia. Remote one day, Bali the next

Rote Island, Indonesia. Remote one day, Bali the next

I finally relented and agreed to visit Rote as the only family member willing and able to make the journey for my brother’s wedding to a local girl whom I had never met. Not unreasonably, two days, three flights and an overnight stay in Bali, was deemed a step too far by other family and most friends. However, a staunch core group of longtime school pals, also dedicated surfers like my brother, and therefore with an ulterior motive, had made the commitment to attend. Like many seemingly arduous journeys, it was worse to think about than to undertake.

Rote, an Indonesian island in East Nusa Tenggara province, is to the southwest of the larger island of Timor. The uninhabited Pamana (or Ndana) island, just south of Rote, is the southernmost island of Indonesia. Rote is accessed by a half-hour flight from Timor’s capital Kupang, following a one-and-a-half-hour fight from Denpasar, Bali. The island was ‘discovered’ and is revered by ‘bule’ (westerner) surfers from around the globe, particularly Aussies. Driven by swells that build in the Indian ocean and off-shore trade winds during “the dry season” that starts in April and ends in October, long, rolling surf breaks over the outlying reefs, producing the endless barreling waves that most surfers can only dream of.  In the wet season the island transforms from a semi-arid and in some areas quite barren landscape to one that is lush and green, but paradoxically, the surf is generally not good then and many surfers head home to work, save money and return the next year.

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So, it’s no wonder that surfers, often not willing subscribers to the mainstream corporate ethos of 9-5 employment and the house in the suburbs, have drifted here for the surf and stayed, leasing beachfront land, building houses ranging from the most basic huts to handmade oases built from local stone, imported bamboo and other creative materials, and married the locals. But ironically, in many ways, the simple life they seek is far from it. They have traded the complicated pressures and demands of a western city lifestyle for the often more challenging complexities of day- to- day existence on the island. They came for the surf and stayed for the sense of community.  A few who made their lives and money in Bali in the early years and now find it over-loved by tourism, its soul destroyed by unchecked development and underdeveloped infrastructure, have moved on to Rote, the next frontier. This organic development did not initially have much impact on the subsistence-based island economy of rice farming and seaweed harvesting but that is all about to change.

I had heard the stories over the last ten years my brother has been visiting Rote to surf: the island is poor and undeveloped. Access was mainly by a four-hour ferry trip from Kupang, not by air. Local villagers’ wealth is often measured in pigs, goats and cows which roam wild to forage the land, along with the wild horses and are a danger to motorbike riders as they wander onto the roads. No mod-cons. Electricity was erratic and the food limited to fish and rice with the odd chicken, and, if you were lucky, pork. Visitors did not expect hot water, internet or air-conditioning. Other than the main sealed, two-lane ‘highway’ from the largest town, Ba’a, and airport, roads were bad to shocking and if you had a serious accident of any sort, western medical facilities were non-existent.

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Fast forward to now. The President of Indonesia, Joko Widodo visited Rote early this year – a first for the island- and with a huge entourage. There is a government plan to develop ten more tourism destinations; “Bali x10” and, although Rote is not officially one of these (yet), fledgling development is evident everywhere and is on steroids. Infrastructure is still desperately lacking but building projects, from beachfront homes, surfing camps, glamping sites to an ambitious major resort under construction and rumoured to have cost over $13 million to date, are well underway. Even the local town market site in Nemberala, near our resort villa, is being rebuilt; the ‘supermarket’ is brand new. Cheap homestays are still available but newer small, boutique resorts such as Rote Island Villas, near the town of Nemberala, where we stayed, now offer comfortable and clean airconditioned villas or bures, hot water, a pool, internet (still variable), fresh, tasty, food for three meals per day and one or two even accept credit cards.  Expect a vast difference in rates but you get what you pay for. There are still no ATMs that take international cards, except at the airport, to withdraw or change Aussie dollars to local currency. You can get an espresso coffee, a fruit smoothie and a passable meal at one of a handful of small ex-pat-run local restaurants- if the electricity is working that day (or if they have invested in a generator back-up). A local sim card is a good investment, as communication is otherwise fraught with difficulty and dependence on the sketchy internet.

Tours are now available for fishing the fertile and prolific marine reserve around the island, kayaking through the old- growth mangrove forest, beautiful at high tide with aqua water over white sand, and yoga classes are held at some of the resorts. Turtles, good coral, a huge variety of tropical fish and clear waters make for a natural diving or snorkelling haven if you find the right spot, often best by boat, guided by a local and within the reef. We passed a couple of kite surfers racing along parallel to the shore on an empty beach, revelling in the strong breeze, turquoise waters and exhilarating speed; all to themselves.The iconic local weaving, ikat, produces a coarse cloth ideal for furniture throws, table runners and bags with a variety of striking, traditional designs, featuring natural dyes and colours and may be purchased direct from the locals.

The hosts at homestays or small resort villa complexes such as ours, will arrange or often take you themselves, on half and full day surfing, snorkelling or fishing safaris. You can hire a motorbike, the ubiquitous form of travel (and I recommend insisting on a helmet to ensure you are covered by insurance in an accident) to tour the sometimes nearly impassable but empty coastal roads and tracks and marvel at the wild ponies, rugged, and even desolately beautiful, coastline, vast empty white sand beaches and multiple surf breaks. Be prepared with water and sunscreen (there are no shops) and expect to be sore and exhausted after a day on a bike on the broken concrete and rocky roads. But it’s well worth it.

The wedding was a surprisingly beautiful mix of east-meets-west cultures and a true glimpse of the gulf in a standard of living that visiting ‘bule’ take for granted at home. The devout Christian ceremony was a mix of Bahasa and English and held in the small remote village church, unpainted concrete with a tin roof and dirt grounds but remarkably cool in the heat of the day, with cross-ventilating windows. The hymns were sung as one voice by the attending local family and villagers and were beautiful, with no accompanying music necessary. The bride, in a full, white-and-silver sequined froth of crinolined gown, walked a carpet of pink polyester rose petals glued to a red carpet as traditional blooms are hard to come by; incongruous, and even more spectacularly beautiful against the meagre surroundings.

The reception was celebrated in the family compound with pet pigs, dogs and children mingling with guests from around the world and locals from around the island. It was easily the biggest event in the village for years, if not ever.  200 people gathered for the feast and speeches from nearly everyone present including family, friends and local politicians, celebrating the auspicious union with warm beer ( the ice had failed to arrive) and ‘sopi’, the local firewater distilled from the lontar palm tree, until late into the night. I can’t remember attending a wedding hosted by more generous and good-willed people, all of whom welcomed me and treated me with great warmth and respect.

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Michael, the German owner of La Hasienda, a hotel near Kupang airport, with a rooftop restaurant with views to the coast and a popular spot to spend the often long layovers between flights to and from Rote,  has noted a steady rise in international visitors. Not only surfers but families, from around the globe, keen to escape bustling Bali or simply seeking a new adventure. He expects the numbers to rise dramatically next season, since the earthquakes in Lombok.

Rote is no longer just for surfers, although the surf is still the main drawcard. For Bali- lovers who now find the traffic jams, prices and tourist traps have ruined the once idyllic experience or for those sick of hearing the oft-repeated phrase “… you should have seen it in the good ‘ol days,” and those looking for a new adventure and appreciate natural undeveloped beauty with no crowds, now is the time to visit this spectacular, rugged and naturally beautiful, undeveloped island.

For Rote, very soon, these may just be ‘the good ol’ days’.


Getting there

Garuda, Virgin, Qantas and Jetstar have flights from capital cities to Denpasar Bali, where you need to overnight. Garuda flies to Kupang and Wings Air has connecting flights from Kupang to Rote. A car and driver transfer from Ba’a airport to Nemberala (45 mins) will cost 300,000 rupiah (about $AU30) or will be provided by your resort.


Stay: Australian-owned Rote Island Villas, approximately 2 km from Nemberala. 3 villas can accommodate 2-4 pax each with flexible sleeping queen or twin beds plus sofa beds as required for families/ groups. Meals are served at a communal dining table in the indoor/outdoor lounge pavilion.

Rate of 150,000 Rp per night for 2 includes 3 meals per day, air conditioning, hot water, wifi internet, pool, tennis court, use of snorkelling equipment and all the spectacular sunsets you can photograph. Host Dickson Beattie will take you on a half-day surfing or fishing excursion or snorkelling.

Open April- October.