One car, three tents, seven people and a hand drawn map on a booklet cover. Not all those who wander are lost, but we definitely were and that’s the beauty of it. Getting lost in Sumbawa is one of the most amazing things you can do in Indonesia.
Sumbawa is a remote island, even for Indonesians. It is positioned in the middle of the Lesser Sunda Islands chain, with Lombok to the west, Flores to the east, and Sumba to the southeast. Being the ninth largest in Indonesia, covering 15,448km2, Sumbawa is a fairly big island. It’s best known for its surfing and world-class waves found in southwest coast from Maluk and Sekongkang. Those, who go there from outside, are mostly surfers or miners. It belongs more to the Eastern part of Indonesia, making the majority of the population Muslims. It is a very different sort of place from the other Indonesian Islands. It’s far less developed than Java, Lombok or Bali, much poorer and pretty conservative in most areas of the island.
Gather the tribe and hit the road
To spice up our daily lives in Bali, we decided to explore the tremendous wilderness of Sumbawa’s less known off roads by ourselves with a rental car. Our car of choice was somewhat old Daihatsu Feroza and our crew was a global bunch of seven self-trained world travelers and soul seekers, one of them being 8 years old pioneer. It was good to have local friends in the gang, as things tend to go much more smoothly with companion that can speak fluent bahasa Indonesia. Knowing how to say just “Nasi Goreng” (fried rice) won’t do it in the remote areas and you won’t be seeing any foreigners around, except in the surfing area down in Maluk.
Our trip started from Ubud, Bali, crossing to Lombok from Padangbai with a ferry (5h), driving through whole Lombok (that took around 14h with breaks) and finally crossing again with another ferry (1,5h) from Labuhan Lombok seaport to Sumbawa’s Poto Tano on the north-west side of the island. Both crossings with ferries are fairly simple, but don’t buy your ticket from anyone else than the actual ticketing box. On Bali side it’s a typical scam to sell old or fake tickets to travelers before the actual ticketing box, do not trust these guys.
Trail and camping
Our journey took us around the whole area from the north to the west, south-west to the east and back to the north. From Pototano harbour to Taliwang famous for it’s chicken, Jalah, crossing the area of Newmont’s Batu Hijau mine, Raba-baka, Maluk, Sekongkang, Pantai Super suck, Yoyo’s beach, Santai beach, Pantai Lawar and many absolutely amazing empty beaches along the way. Heading back up was much easier through the roads of Dompu, Bima and Sumbawa Besar. Most of the area was covered in forests and jungles, some of them being burned down or taken down by forest fires. The coastline was filled with white sand beaches, a true necklace of hidden paradises. The area is sitting on the ring of fire, so the scenery is mountains and active volcanoes, with Mount (Gunung) Tambora 2850m, an active stratovolcano, being the most bad-ass of them, as it once had an explosion so large it changed the climate of the whole planet. Sumbawa is a truly unique spot.
We drew up and down the mountains and put up or tents wherever there’s no-one or nothing against it, that being pretty much anywhere. It was really something else that I’ve ever experienced before. The beaches were stunning, silent, empty and most importantly clean. No hazzle, no noise and no plastic. We were living the life like in a deserted paradise island of our own, in a thousand star hotel with a bonfire. Even though in Bali it’s illegal to stick up your tent anywhere else than in the national forest side, in Sumbawa we had no problems or complains about it from anyone. The best part of Sumbawa is all of the beautiful natural beaches along the coast that are mostly untouched by man. The surfer area of Maluk is laid back end for a nature trail and our first and last guesthouse stop. Having a proper shower was much appreciated after camping for almost two weeks.
On our trail we stayed far away from the crowded places for most of the time. But sometimes we would excite the whole village life with our bouncy performance of an arrival with dreadlocks hanging out from the window. Once we were spotted, there were hundreds of heads curiously rising up and observing our every move. The head of the village around Raba-baka explained to us that they have seen white people only in TV before and that the locals didn’t know we actually existed in real life. I felt like a celebrity waving to the crowd when passing a village.
Along the way you will see loads of cows, goats, horses, cats, dogs and every other crawling creatures. Sumbawa is especially famous for its horses and better yet – horse milk/mare milk or “Susu Kuda” in local language. Obviously we had to check it out and try the magical medicine for stamina. Mare milk is a milk secreted by horse mare during lactation to feed foal. It’s much higher in nutrients than cow milk, a local gourmet delicacy. Another delicacy of the area that we witnessed seemed to be sea turtle eggs. On an otherwise silent beach, we saw few guys coming down the beach looking for these eggs and without even asking for it, the guys were exited to demonstrate how to squeeze the soft egg and slurp it down the throat. Soon enough we’d find bunch of big holes dag into the sand with all the eggs gone.
Things to consider
Few things to keep in mind if you’re thinking of heading to Sumbawa with a car: the roads on the west side of the Island are crazy and zigzag trough high mountains and jungles. Some are still in construction stage with huge rocks and pebbles everywhere and some even go through rivers, so be prepared to drive in water too. You can’t pass with just any car or driver, proper vehicle in good condition and an experienced driver are as necessary as your drinking water supplies. The roads crossing Sumbawa Besar and Dompu are maintained and less insane.
Our trip itself was absolutely amazing, but we did get stuck few times with the car, once in the sand, once on an uphill of a mountain without gasoline, once with a broken tire and once again when the gearbox decided to die. Many facepalms were made during these accidents, but gladly all of them got resolved within some hours of waiting, thanks to our good teamwork and sometimes very helpful locals that stopped and lend their hands, minds and vehicles.
I don’t suggest this for people with weak nerves; this is no luxury retreat or package travel. If you’re into more intense realms of traveling and you want to experience something else than crowded beaches and clubs, you’re good to go. It’s an adventure that not that many foreign travelers do.