Nusa Tenggara Surf Check

Posted August 2011

Surfer Mike Horton pulls into a shallow water barrel while surfing in East Indonesia circa 2011.

All water photographs courtesy of Ricardo, who I've lost touch with but thank so much. It was epic that there was someone on site to capture these moments.

Indonesia has over 17,000 islands and spans 5,000 kilometers (3,000 miles) from east to west. Including inland and surrounding seas, the country's recognized territory is over 5,000,000 square kilometers. It's not surprising and no secret that the country enjoys some of the best surf in the world.

The plethora of quality surf breaks does not mean it's always easy tracking down ideal conditions. My friend Chad Booth and I had been holed up in Bali for weeks. The surf was consistently fun, but we were ready for something new. We charted a sizable swell for a few days before making the call to head eastward to Sumbawa.

Getting around in Indonesia is often an adventure in itself. Riding motorbikes on dangerous roads full of more dangerous drivers is just part of the game. We drove mostly at night to avoid traffic, and caught up on sleep by stretching out hammocks on the upper decks of the ferries.

We reached our final destination in Sumbawa over 12 hours later. We arrived exhausted for a quick evening surf, primarily to wash ourselves clean from the journey, before heading to bed early. I was anxious to see what the morning would bring, and the sound of crashing waves all night didn't help me sleep.

Sumbawa is part of the West Nusa Tenggara province of Indonesia. It is the province's largest island, three time the size of its western neighbor Lombok, but home to about a third the number of residents. Its small population is due to a lack of work opportunities and frequent droughts from low rainfall. Sumbawa has one of the highest per capita GDP in the country due to the mining industry, but the highest infant mortality rate and lowest life expectancy of anywhere in the country. Many of its residents suffer from extreme malnutrition.

West Nusa Tenggara lies east of the Wallace Line, the boundary dividing the Asian and Wallacean ecozones. It  is quite different than the western islands of Bali, Java, and Sumatra where lush tropical forests are the norm. Lombok and Sumbawa consist primarily of desert-like terrain with arid climate. One thing the different regions have in common is volcanoes. Lombok's Gunung Rinjani (below) is Indonesia's second tallest volcano and one of its most active, while Sumbawa's Mount Tambora is responsible for modern history's most destructive eruption. 

Mount Rinjani volcano in Lombok. Trekking Guning Rinjani, an active volcano in Indonesia, is a popular activity

Chad and I enjoyed a good night's sleep and awoke early the next morning. The swell had well and truly filled in, so we waxed up the big boards for the long paddle out. It was hard to judge wave size as we made our way across the nearly dry, low-tide reef for the 15-minute paddle out the channel into the empty lineup. As we approached, we quickly realized it was solid.

Four other surfers and a photographer joined us in the lineup just as Chad decided to show us just how big it was. He dropped into his first wave deep and it sectioned too fast. It broke on his head, dragged him through the inside, and ripped his wetsuit jacket off. I mean literally. We found out later that afternoon that a fellow surfer found it an hour later flayed clean in half about a kilometer away. He was left stranded in knee-deep water on the reef for sometime before finally re-joining the lineup. We surfed a few hours before the tide change. After hearing a lot of stories about how heavy this break is, I can say it lives up to its namesake. (Below right, Chad just prior to detonation. Below left, me on a smaller one).

After a quick lunch, we headed forty minutes south. Renowned as one of Indonesia's best waves, we weren't surprised to find a dozen surfers already in the lineup and another dozen preparing to join in. It was significantly smaller than our morning session, but the waves were pumping and the vibe in the lineup was awesome. There were smiles all around by the time the tide dropped out and the last surfers came ashore.

The short-lived swell started dropping off the following day. Fortunately, that meant the break out front of our humble accommodations was more manageable and still relatively uncrowded. We enjoyed three more days of fun, uncrowded surf before two boats full of surfers set anchor nearby. We were ready to make our way back to Bali.

I always enjoy exploring new places, particularly in a country as diverse as Indonesia. There are so many different cultures and landscapes that provide such beautiful experiences. Bali is a worldwide tourist destination and such an amazing place, but Indonesia is so much more. I find it a shame that some many people don't want to see something different.

Sunsets in Sumbawa, Indonesia offer great photo opportunities but don’t forget to apply your mosquito repellant
Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton
Copyright © 2022 :: Michael Horton