Private Island Paradise
Dr Elaine Kim heads to Nihiwatu for a holiday that exposes her not only to the beauty of the secluded island of Sumba, but gives her an exclusive look at the island founder's impressive efforts to help the local inhabitants.
"OK, name one moment where you felt life could not get any better," Sanjay said. He was one of the party sitting around the wooden dining table on Nihiwatu's cliff top restaurant, where we were taking a leisurely dinner of authentic Indonesian dishes, sand under our bare feet, lights twinkling around us and the sound of exuberantly crashing waves drifting up from the rugged coast below. Sanjay was the funny guy on the table; irreverent, random and always toting a full sack of side-splitting one liners and sure conversation-starters. He was being contemplative now, and we all turned to listen. "Ok I'll start," he continued. "Today under that waterfall. That was pretty perfect. That moment I did think life couldn't get any better".
He was talking about Lapopu Waterfall, which a group of Nihiwatu guests had trekked to that morning. They had described their adventure to me - crossing a small bamboo bridge, the only way to reach this canyon pool, where water cascades down the moss-covered rocks from a mountain spring 100 metres above. This was just one of the surprises that lay hidden on the island of Sumba.
I was in Sumba to experience Nihiwatu at the invitation of the resort’s co-owner James McBride, a luxury hotelier with an exuberant, inimitable personality, and whose passion for Nihiwatu emanated through his every word. Sumba is a mere hour’s flight from Bali, two and a half times the size of that neighbouring island, and 15 times that of Singapore, but none of us had heard of it before. It remains isolated, and as exotic as the name suggests. A visit to the island is like a step back in time, and Nihiwatu, the only resort on the island, is the only place there where you can find accoutrements of urban civilisation and modern creature comforts.
Nihiwatu occupies 300 hectares of this vast, unspoilt wilderness, giving the guests staying in its 33 private villas a seclusion seldom found in today’s world. But staying here is by no means roughing it. The villas employ traditional Sumbanese architecture and interior décor, but you also find all the trimmings of a modern luxury resort: air-conditioned bedrooms, giant four-poster beds swathed in sheer curtains, and private butlers. I had my little one in tow, so they put me in Kasambi- a family villa with two spacious bedrooms and teak-decked bales looking out onto an infinity pool, linked by a beautiful, open-plan “Great Room” lounge, with private dining, and living areas, bar and kitchen. Nihiwatu provides much to draw us out of the cocoon of our villas. “God’s left” is what they call Nihiwatu’s perfect wave that breaks on the beach right in front of the resort, and which drew Nihiwatu’s founders Claude and Petra Graves to the spot nearly 30 years ago. Surfers make the pilgrimage to remote Sumba just to experience this famous left hand break. To add to its elusivity, only 10 surfers are allowed to hit this wave each day. For non-surfers, there are the spa, yoga sessions, diving, fishing, horse-riding on the beach, and treks and excursions like the one that had brought the others to Lapopu Waterfall.
I had wanted to join them on that hike, but had made other plans for the morning. I was meeting Alexandria Wyllie from the Sumba Foundation, visiting the foundation being a key impetus in my coming here. Claude Graves had founded Sumba Foundation in 2001. When he first arrived on Sumba’s shores in 1988, he and Petra lived in a tent on a beach, their home for years as Nihiwatu slowly took form. Inevitably, they grew to know the local inhabitants, and the love for the local people and culture, along with a desire to alleviate sickness and poverty among them arose. The foundation achieves its mission through well-managed, cost- effective and results-driven projects. These include a malaria-eradication programme, building wells and maintaining tanks to provide access to clean water, running clinics to provide basic healthcare and supporting schools to increase access to education. The numbers are impressive: 15 primary schools, 48 water wells, 5 clinics; 172 villages with clean water, 85% reduction in Malaria.
I spent some time at the Sumba Foundation Malaria Clinic, run by Dr Claus Bogh, a malaria control expert who worked at the Indonesian Ministry of Health, and who serves as special advisor to the The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On any given morning, over a dozen locals queue up outside the simple clinic hut, often toting young children feverish with malaria. Sumba has one of the highest prevalences of this infection that kills over 3 million people a year worldwide. A 2004 survey commissioned by the Foundation found that an incredible number – an estimated 20% of local children died or became severely brain damaged by malaria before the age of 10 and one in three mothers tragically lost at least one child to malaria. The clinic treats around 50 patients a day with life-saving malaria drugs. This, together with simple preventive measures like providing mosquito nets to villagers and educating the population has led to that marked 85% reduction in Malaria incidence since the programme’s inception in 2005.
The relationship between Nihiwatu and Sumba Foundation is deeply entwined. Nihiwatu is the biggest employer of Sumbanese, and continues to direct profits towards the Sumba Foundation to better the lives of the locals. It was heartening to see sustainable, conscious tourism at genuine work. Nihiwatu welcomes guests to get involved in the philanthrophy work, be in through volunteering or sponsoring projects. In this way, just as the beautiful island brings a bit of heaven to visitors, guests bring a bit of heaven to this island as well.
On our last morning on Sumba, James hosted us to breakfast at Nihioka, a nearby valley being developed by Nihiwatu that you could trek to. As I had a toddler in tow, a pretty legitimate reason to skip the one to two hour long, arduous hike, this wasn’t really an option for me. Everyone had been cajoling me to join, those who'd been on it before swearing by how beautiful/stunning/exhilarating the journey was, but Luke and I took the easy route, climbing into an immense jeep, painted in army green and looking like it came straight out of an African safari. This was intentional - James' vision for Nihiwatu was to be "a cross between Singita and Aman", an ambitious direction that got me excited - Singita's luxury safari camps and Aman's ultra-luxe resorts are my absolute favourite destination hotels. The sheer magnitude, impossibility even, of the task became more apparent in conversations with James.
Sumba is an isolated island where every single item needs to be shipped to Bali, flown in by private plane and transported via a two hour journey on unpaved dirt tracks. And while one of the commendable goals in developing Nihiwatu was to provide employment for the incumbent population, it must be remembered that the locals were, till recently, tribal villagers, accustomed only to farming as a vocation, and pretty much none had ventured beyond Sumba's shores to modern civilization. Bearing all this in mind, Nihiwatu's existence is a sheer miracle, borne out of the early founders' and current owners' stubborn belief in the impossible. This reality was in plain sight as we rumbled, bumped and jolted across the rudimentary thoroughfare, passing wide swathes of muddy farmland and small villages where shy, half-naked children stood outside thatched and timber-planked huts, staring as we passed or waving tentatively. But as we approached our destination, what had inspired the founders' labour of love became equally apparent. Alighting and making our way up a hill-path, we found ourself at a cliff edge, and below us thick white waves crashed audibly against a cluster of rocks along the cliff floor, then spread across the white sandy beach of the curved bay. The water stretched endlessly towards the horizon, glittering in brilliant shades of cyan and indigo. There was no one else for miles around, save the Sarong-clad Nihiwatu staff stationed at various points along the path, bearing cold lemongrass-scented towels or freshly-opened coconuts, leading us to the treehouse huts where they stood ready to give us a foot and neck massage. It was simultaneously rustic and extravagant. Likewise was breakfast, taken at a beautifully-laid table on a platform perched on cliff edge, next to a large fire pit over which bacon, eggs and toast cooked over smoking coals. Across the platform, a wooden staircase led down to a sandy beach cove. The others had started to arrive shortly after us, exhilarated by their hike, and ravenous, making for a delightful breakfast of good food and conversation. And the perfect end to a morning? Running down and plunging into the cool water for a late morning swim.
That same evening, we headed to Nihiwatu’s stables for a sunset ride on the beach on Sumbanese horses. These once-wild horses were trained under the best horse-masters that Sandlewood Stables could hire, and are as spirited as they are beautiful. Beginners are encouraged to be hand-led horseback on a stroll, but I had started riding at the age of 9, so ambitiously thought I could handle riding solo. My horse would have none of my trying to wield him into a subdued compliance - all too ready to break into a free cantor and fast gallop at the slightest encouragement, and not as keen to slow down. It was exhilarating, and if I hadn’t lost myself in the moment, in the wind, the waves, the gorgeous sunset and the pink sand, perhaps I would have found it terrifying. When I dismounted, I found myself thinking I wouldn’t have wanted to miss that experience.
In some sense, it was much like a visit to Nihiwatu - adventurous, slightly out of your comfort zone, but a beautiful, and exhilarating experience, something u surely wouldn’t want to miss.
For more info: Nihiwatu: www.nihiwatu.com/ Sumba Foundation: www.sumbafoundation.org
Dr Elaine Kim is a doctor in palliative care, and looks after terminally-ill patients in their homes with HCA Hospice Care. Outside of medical work, she is a partner at designer boutiques Trinity Bridal in Hong Kong and Trinity Gallery in Singapore, and is also the co-founder of CRIB, a social enterprise that empowers women to become successful entrepreneurs. Travelling often for work, leisure and volunteer missions, she writes about her trips, regularly contributing tatler_tatler_stories to various publications. Elaine is a mother of 2 young boys, Kyan and Luke, and is married to venture capitalist John Kim. You can follow her on her travels via Instagram @elaine_kim.