Sabu is an island apart. Six hundred kilometers east of Bali, it drifts alone in an empty sea – a strip of pale sand, a line of white surf, and a long, green bank of lontar palms.
Of Indonesia’s myriad landfalls, this is one of the remotest of all, a place still straining at the furthest end of tenuous transport links. Flashy motorbikes and mobile phones have yet to dominate here. Small boys ride half-wild horses across the windswept hillsides, old women weave dark ikat cloth on bamboo verandas, and a warm welcome in thatch-roofed villages comes in the form of a mouthful of betel nut and a mug of palm wine. If you’re looking for the Indonesia of travel fantasy, a place where you can feel as though you are following only a few steps behind the earliest European sailors, this might just be it…
Sabu is part of East Nusa Tenggara Province, and getting there is half the adventure. It is just 450 square kilometers in size, and home to some 60,000 people, one of the archipelago’s most isolated communities. Kupang, the capital of West Timor, lies 250 kilometers to the east; Waingapu on Sumba is a similar distance to the west; to the south there is nothing until Australia. Kupang is well connected by air to Bali and Java, but beyond that point you’re at the mercy of time and tide. When the weather is good a rickety government ferry makes the crossing – 16 empty hours rolling over the swells of the Sabu Sea – once or twice a week, and a somewhat faster if equally unreliable air connection is maintained by Merpati with its smallest twin-prop planes. But once you arrive, banking in over the tree tops, or stepping ashore with wobbly legs on the little jetty, you’ll find that the journey was worthwhile.
The point of arrival in Sabu is the little township of Seba. This is the quintessential tropical outpost – a place of potholes and puddles where a handful of motorbikes heading for market counts as the rush hour. The electricity supply often fades and falters, and the arrival of the ferry from Kupang is the highpoint of the week. Tin-roofed mosques and churches stand between the palm trees, and vendors preside over mounds of betel nut, or lengths of dark, hand-woven ikat cloth. There are a few friendly homestays here, where adventurous travelers can bed down and plot excursions to the wilder parts of the island.
For a place that still seems to teeter on the edge of the known world Sabu has had a remarkably long history of European engagement. Sometime early in the 17th century Portuguese travelers from neighboring Flores and Timor made it here, and in 1674 a lost Dutch trading ship ran aground, prompting the first open conflict between the people of Sabu and the outside world: the terrified islanders killed the shipwrecked sailors, and when the Dutch authorities heard the news they launched a punitive raid. At the time Sabu was ruled by five warring kings, each master of a miniscule realm. The Dutch formed an alliance with the ruler of Seba, but they failed to defeat the neighboring principalities, being beaten back by Sabunese warriors lodged behind high defensive walls.
You can still see the stone defenses of the local stronghold at the village of Hurati in the east of the island. An old Dutch cannon lies in the undergrowth. Eventually the Dutch signed treaties with the chiefs, but the European presence amounted to nothing more than a single lonely administrator, camped out among the lontars and left to his own devices for years on end.
In 1770 the great English navigator Captain Cook stumbled upon Sabu on his way home from exploring the Pacific. The island, rising unexpectedly from the horizon, was “so little known that I never saw a map or chart in which it is clearly or accurately laid down,” he wrote. Cook and his crew spent several days exploring the island, bartering with the locals for cloth and supplies.
Cook’s writings about Sabu form the earliest significant foreign account of the island, but what is striking is that much that he saw remains recognizable today. And standing on Sabu’s white beaches in the 21st century, it sometimes seems as if the topmasts of the Endeavour have slipped over the western horizon only a few days earlier.
Today most of the people of Sabu are Christians, and barnlike churches stand on the steep hillsides of the interior. But old traditions are still strong, and in some of the more remote villages families still pursue their own Jingi Tiu faith, with its ancestor worship and sacrifices. The village of Namata, south of Seba, is a stronghold of old ways. Great stone graves dot the village outskirts, and the roofs of the wooden houses rise in long ridges of lontar palm thatch. Locals here will tell you that the first settlers came to Sabu from India, and when they arrived they upended their open boats for shelter. The ship-like rooftops of the village houses commemorate these first dwellings. On the edge of Namata, on a slab of soft yellow sandstone, there is a carving of a European sailing ship, a record of some early landfall by outsiders. It looks as though it was carved yesterday.
Travelling further afield from Seba you will find white roads winding through rolling hills. Sabu is a dry island, grazed by fine horses brought to the island by Arab traders in centuries past. At times the windswept landscape looks more like African savannah than the Indonesian tropics. The southern shoreline is a place of bony limestone outcrops and angry seas, but on other, more sheltered coasts there are empty beaches of soft white sand where seawater is left in upturned clamshells to evaporate – the old way of collecting salt. Hollow waves wrap along the offshore reefs: most of the trickle of travelers who make it here are wayward surfers seeking to escape the crowds of Bali and Lombok.
The shores of Sabu are studded with lontar palms. For local people this is “the tree of life”, a source of fiber for thatch and clothing, of sugar, and of course, of alcohol. Captain Cook noted that the locals brewed “a very sweet agreeable Cooling liquor” from the sap of the lontar, and they still do today, collecting the liquid each day in cups made of leaves. It ferments as it collects and is ready to drink straight from the tree. Visit any village here, and once the excitement has died down you’ll likely be offered a cup of this mild, refreshing wine.
The other mainstay of Sabunese culture is the island’s distinctive ikat cloth, died by hand and woven on back-strap looms by local women. While the cloth of neighboring islands is all bright colors and wild motifs, Sabunese ikat is dark and understated in a series of earthy browns and blacks. The key designs are creamy floral whorls, borrowed from Indian cloth shipped into the east of Indonesia before the arrival of European sailors.
When Captain Cook left Sabu, sailing west, past the hulking offshore island of Raijua, then one of Sabu’s five separate kingdoms, and clipping the tiny uninhabited islet of Dana, home of departed souls in the Jingi Tiu faith, he swore his crewmen to secrecy about the place they had just visited.
More than 200 years later the secret is still well kept…
© Tim Hannigan 2013