We tumbled out of the airplane like a sack full of puppies onto the steaming hot tarmac at Tambolaka Airport in Sumba, accepted the huge drinking coconuts pressed upon us by our smiling driver and set off on our way to Nihiwatu resort, our home for the next 6 days. The road wound past terraced paddy fields, cashew plantations, villages made of clumps of thatched roof huts, craggy mountains and cliffs falling away to reveal crashing surf in the distance. Pressing our noses up against the window, we watched scenes from within a time machine.
Goats, dogs, chickens and toddlers ambled across the arbitary path with nonchalance. A wedding procession of men in ceremonial ikats led a buffalo towards a sacrifice table, their parang swords swaying from their waists as they strained with the great animal. A bunch of tiny knee-height pranksters jumped out of bushes in front of our car and screamed HELLO and then dashed off giggling. I pointed out to my children the Dr Seuss-like towering kapok trees by the road with their football sized wads of cottony fruit, used to stuff bedding in the tropics. My 7 year old Finn sniggered and said that it should be called the rabbit tree as it looked as if someone had hot glued bunnies to its branches.
When I’m in Bali, the Indonesian phrase I use the most often is “Berapa harganya?” What’s the price? How much? Which is swiftly followed by “Yang mahal!” Too expensive! While travelling in Sumba, the phrases I use the most are “Awas!” Watch out! or “Hati Hati!” Be careful!. And sometimes at particularly thrilling times these phrases can be combined to form a continuous AWASHATIHATIAWASAWASAWAS!!! Maybe I’m fretting too much. Everyone else is chilled. As the Malays in Singapore say, Jangan Tension! Hang loose!
I watch as a man climbs out of the passenger window of the moving truck in front of us and clambers onto the roof to join the 5 small children already crammed on top of the bouncing vehicle. A minute afterwards, the truck passes under a broken electrical cable dangling overhead, sparking with live menace. Somehow the people on top of the truck survive. At this point, Finn turns around and tells me that he must spend the rest of his life in Sumba.
Once we’re safe in the luxurious and serene surrounds of Nihiwatu resort, we settle into our villa like feet sinking into warm sand. The shoes are unpacked and never worn. Our gracious, enthusiastic butler Reuben is quickly adopted into the family and becomes Uncle Reuben to the children. Reuben brings the children an endless array of treats, from french fries and swimming floats to a pair of beautifully hand carved miniature replicas of the parang sword he wears at this waist at all times. Finn gets sword fighting lessons and thumps the bougainvillea outside our room half to death while Reuben eggs him on. Reuben later comes back with an ikat cloth which he carefully wraps around Finn’s waist and inserts the wooden scabbard into. Finn doesn’t take it off for the rest of the holiday, sleeping with his sword under the pillow.
Nothing is off limits here. Finn gets to drive speedboats, ride in the front of a Land Rover, and even gets a diving lesson with a real adult sized air tank, jacket and regulator. My 5 year old girl Dylan signs up for a cookie baking class, has a hair smoothie at the spa, wades around rockpools and makes up cocktail orders. On Day 3, she tells Natalia the Guest Relations Manager that she would like to have a job at Nihiwatu running the Kids Club Programme. Dylan thinks that she can teach children cutlery balancing, flower hair weaving and of course (deep breath) MAKING COOKIES!
Our teenager Sean is the most sedentary of the bunch, initially circulating on a closed circuit of bed, computer and pool, but Nihiwatu works its spell on him and he ends up busting some cool moves on the dance floor at White Party Night and the next morning, he decides to go for a breakfast hike with his dad across the cliff tops to a secluded beach at Nihi Oka.
Unlike Bali where everything has is neatly packaged, parcelled out and available for sale, in Sumba there are no compartments, no separation. You are at one with everything and everything is one with you. Food is handed to you in banana leaves and as soon as you pull the toothpick out, rice bursts out over your ungainly tourist hands and you end up licking your palms without a trace of shame. Chickens and pigs live in houses next to grain stores, toddlers and parents. At the market, piles of sweet potatoes, betel nuts and bananas spill over each other on the grass. We walk around barefoot all day whether we’re hiking across the paddy fields or waterfalls (flip flops just get stuck in the mud) or going for lunch at the beachside restaurant, and at the end of the day the soles of our feet are indistinguishable from the land, darkened with mud, grit and sand. This is life without makeup, at its most raw and vital.
Nihiwatu resort must surely be one of the most beautiful resorts on earth, with its pretty thatched roof villas, panoramic ocean view and hot pink bougainvillea lined rock paths. But more importantly, Nihiwatu is also one of the most responsible. The resort buys coconuts from locals, and instead of throwing away the husks, they feed them and the oil to their biodiesel fuel processor which powers the generators, air conditioners and hotel equipment. Fish is caught by traditional methods by the staff in the morning and turned into free flow plates of sashimi at the bar in the evening. Organic gardens, chickens and compost heaps are a given.
The Sumba Foundation is the resort’s charity and it has reduced Malaria infection rates by 85% in West Sumba since its inception, supplying more than 16 primary schools with supplies and water. Every time we venture outside the resort on hikes, we see the big yellow water tanks with the red Sumba Foundation tank in the surrounding villages, the foundation having provided more than 240 water stations across the land and healthcare to over 20,000 people.
On Thursday, we are invited to a presentation at sundowners on the Sumba Foundation. Health Program Director Dr Claus Bogh, also a senior adviser and malaria expert for The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, talks to the resort guests about two of the latest patients the Sumba Foundation has helped – a pint-sized girl, born blind, who can now see again after her cataract operation, and a 13 year old boy who they are helping get a prosthetic limb to help on his arduous walk to school. My children stuff their faces with hot sea salted popcorn offered to them by Reuben and ask us many questions long after the video ends. Why does that boy have only one leg Mama? Where are the parents of those children? Why does everyone in the family share the same bed in Sumba? Why can’t I walk to school by myself like all of the other children here? Good, big questions for little people.
As the days go by, Sumba works its magic and the tight knots in my neck, shoulders, and gut loosen. I start to feel languid, going along with the flow. Even though I’m not remotely sporty, I sign up for a long hike to Blue Waterfall, one of the many glorious waterfalls in the area, and the Irishman and I trek for hours through the rainforest, the sweat rivulets down our neck merging into a continuous wash in the heat. Just when my ankles are about to give out, we hear the soft white noise of crashing water in the distance. The canopy of trees thins out and we arrive at a majestic waterfall, spraying explosively from a hole in the cliff side and churning a whirlpool into the surface of a topaz blue lake.
I have never been one for swimming in natural waterholes, but I can’t get peel off my sticky shoes and t-shirt fast enough. Plunging into the crystalline pool, the Irishman and I swim out towards the spout and climb onto a boulder just out of its torrential path. Overhead, the cliff face is covered with thick, dripping moss. Little water icicles dangle off the emerald covered rock, eternally forming and reforming, as beautiful as diamond shards on a Christmas tree. The waterfall roars high over our heads and sends iridescent arcs of droplets which drench us from head to toe as we shriek with laughter.
The next day, I wake up early and clamber onto a fishing boat with the Irishman and Finn and head out to the Fish Aggregating Device seventeen miles offshore, which we have heard so much about from Chris, Nihiwatu’s resident fishing expert. The FAD sounds fancy and we expected something akin to a floating Death Star in the ocean, but it turns out to be a bamboo raft, anchored with oil drums to the seabed with a weight. Algae forms around the FAD and that attracts small fish, which then draw bigger fish. As soon as we put out the lines, an entire shoal of about fifty huge mahi-mahi fish turn up for the bait. A French guest on the boat reels in the first one. The Irishman has a go at the second one, but not without a good eight minutes of wrestling with the fish, a huge female mahi mahi.
I decide to have a go. Chris hands me a rod with something tugging gently at the end. It feels deceptively easy as I start turning the reel, but that’s because the fish is still far away and swimming towards the boat. And then all of a sudden, I feel a giant yank at the end. “What’s that!” I yelp. The supremely capable Chris leaps into action, shouting orders in Bahasa to the boatman to steer towards the fish and simultaneously issuing me a rapid-fire stream of instructions. Hold the rod upwards, stabilise the end against the rail, lean over to let some slack in the line and quickly reel it in on the downward motion of the rod. Don’t stop reeling! When the fish starts another violent bout of struggling, let him have some more line and when he is exhausted, start the process again. Don’t stop reeling! Ok, stop reeling! Put the rod up! Now point the rod down.
This is like ballet, a technical dance with its own peculiar rules and rhythm. I learn to waltz with my fish. Forward I go, spinning like a maniac, backwards I arch, feeling the fish take my weight like a tango partner. My left arm cramps and aches as the fishing rod is on the wrong side for a right-handed person, but the show must go on.
After what seems like an epic struggle, the fish tires and allows me to gain on it, pulling it closer towards the boat. It makes one final leap in the air, and we all gasp. It is a giant dolphin-like creature, golden with blue spots. Chris bellows more complicated instructions to the boatmen, manouvring the boat into final position, as I bring the fish as close as I can to the side. It thrashes and flashes just under the surface of the water. Chris runs over grabbing a spear and stabs my dance partner in its side and brings it up to the deck and hollers for everyone to stand well back as the giant fish spasms all over the floor. He manages to wrestle it into the ice chest and one of the boat boys quickly slams down the lid and sits on it as the fish thumps angrily inside. Finn watches with fascination, and perhaps a touch of morbidity.
Later on, back at the boathouse, we measure my fish and it is the biggest of the haul, 11 kilos and 1.3 metres, as long as Finn. Its glorious neon yellow colour has faded out of its skin. I feel a shard of sorrow. Over the past few years of living on the farm, I have become intimately acquainted with my food, learning to slaughter our free range chickens, ducks and sheep. So why does taking the life of this fish feel so different? It was a wild, abundantly available fish who had lived a long healthy life, caught in one of the most ethical ways, due to become food for the resort with not a bit of it wasted.
But I was connected from my sternum to this magnificent creature with a taut line vibrating with its energy. It was a worthy opponent. As I remembered the glory of its metallic cobalt and gold skin, I thought about our pet peacock back home and said a prayer for the fish. And for us, that we would not waste the precious, worthy life that we had taken.
So many more memories. Having a bath with Dylan in a gigantic bronze outdoor tub. Watching a boy not much older than Finn learn how to use a harpoon. Seeing horses and buffaloes bathing in the waves. Watching the ruby red sun sink into sea from the Nihiwatu yacht. Eating the freshest fish on earth with rice and a fiery tomato sambal on the beach.Learning to surf with the Irishman under the watchful guidance of Chad and Kaieve, Nihiwatu’s two bronzed resident surf gurus, in the famous Nihiwatu break, one of the best in the world. The wave is a thing of beauty, a perfect tight roll, running left to right along the reef. When it gets big, it hurls against the boulders, smashing into a fine mist. I swear you can taste the negative ions in the air.
On our last night, the staff of Nihiwatu arranges for a special surprise dinner for Sean’s 16th birthday. We are led to a special birthday table, ensconced within walls of palm fronds and with a giant bougainvillea rising out of the centre of the tabletop. When we go around the table, taking turns to say what we are grateful for. All of us have our own highlights;- diving, hiking, fishing, cookies, but the children agree that this has been the most amazing holiday they have been on and say that they never want to leave. Sean says that he is most grateful for Reuben, and just then, Natalia, Reuben and the rest of the staff turn up with a birthday cake and sing him happy birthday in English, and then in Bahasa. Sean is presented with a wooden birthday plaque, an ikat sarong, a pair of board shorts and big hugs from everyone.
Later that night, I look at Finn as he sleeps bare chested, one hand on his wooden Kris, and think who is this Robinson Crusoe child? Will there still be golden monster fish in the ocean for him to dance with when he grows up? Whether it is possible for this Sumba to exist in a rapidly changing world. The night air is velvety and outside a frog starts his baritone chorus, breaking the crisp stillness. The next morning we pack our bags in a surreal stupor, six days went by in a heartbeat. As we walk out of the door, I notice that the kids have erased the sand door mat outside our deck which used to read “Welcome The Leahys” and have written “We LOVE Reuben” in it. Nihiwatu, we will be back. In the meantime, we are happy just to know that you exist.
*All photos with the Nihiwatu watermark are copyright of Nihiwatu, all other photos are mine