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Rote Island, Indonesia: A Gem Hidden from the Tourist Trail

“Bule, bule, hello, bule!!” screamed young and old as I passed through their tiny village. Bule means foreigner – I’m not sure if they were really saying hello or they were just alerting their friends that a tourist was in town. I’d wandered a few kilometres from Nemberala, the tourist epicentre of Rote Island, and by epicentre I mean a few guesthouses and resorts catering almost exclusively to surfers.

Kids on Rote Island, IndonesiaThese kids were friendlier than they look!

This is an area of Indonesia not many travellers make it to.  The famous reef breaks attract a steady stream of surfers, mostly Australian, who often return year after year – but this is far from any backpacking trail, past or future.

Getting to Rote Island

From Kupang, the biggest city in West Timor, I took a fast (and in patches very shaky) 2 hour ferry trip to the port town of Ba’a, where I was greeted by Sam, a local guy with a very Australian way of saying “mate”.  A slow hour and a half trip in Sam’s bemo followed (Bemos are vans used throughout Indonesia for public transport). The countryside was dry and barren and the roads were just as lacking in life.

On arrival the first thing I wanted to do was jump in the clear blue water, but I’d found out the night before (after the shops had closed) that my girlfriend forgot to pack my shorts. The ferry left before the shops opened in the morning, and nowhere in Nemberala sold them. People always say make sure you pack your own bag – I think it’s to stop people putting drugs in them, but being so close to such nice water and having nothing to swim in seemed just as bad at the time. Luckily an Australian surfer, Arran, lent me some, and despite them being about 2 sizes too big they did the job. Arran has been coming to Rote Island for years and was a great source of information, not only about Nemberala but also the surfing culture that dominates it.

Nemberala Beach, Rote Island, IndonesiaKids in Nemberala, Rote Island, Indonesia

Nemberala has a couple of oddities that I hadn’t previously seen in Southeast Asian beach towns. Farm animals roam wild; I often saw more pigs on the beach than people. Apparently people label their animals and then let them loose – which isn’t a bad system if you have the space.

The other interesting aspect of village life is the location of graves. They seem to be placed around town at random, often right by the side of the road. I guess people just bury their family members on their own land, which again is a pretty good system. People (and animals) often use the graves as resting spots; it’s quite a site to see a group of kids just hanging out on graves!

Graves in Nemberala, Rote Island, IndonesiaA cow on the beach in Nemberala, Rote Island, Indonesia

There isn’t a whole lot to do on Rote Island if you aren’t a surfer. It’s quite big though, so I’m sure if you rent a motorbike you could find some interesting spots, but there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of tourist infrastructure away from Nemberala. I had a lazy few days, which consisted mostly of swimming, sleeping and going for short walks. I walked along the coast for about an hour one day and had almost that entire stretch of beach to myself. It was the most deserted I’d ever seen beaches of that quality in Southeast Asia – so if you’re looking for somewhere to truly get away from the crowds then Rote Island is a great choice.

A beach getaway isn’t complete without some decent sunsets, and Nemberala didn’t disappoint in that area either. I saw a couple of amazing sunsets, 1 in particular I’ll remember for a long time, not only for colours but for the lack of other people witnessing it. There were maybe 10 other people on the beach, and none within 50 meters of me. It was a great way to end my time on Rote Island. I’m not sure if I’ll be back, since it’s so out of the way, but it’s a place I’ll be raving about for the foreseeable future!

A sunset in Nemberala, Rote Island, IndonesiaA deserted beach in Nemberala, Rote Island, Indonesia

Further reading: Interested in surfing on Rote Island? This forum has some great information!

Had you heard of Rote Island, and would you like to visit? Leave a comment!

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Jon Algie

A travel blogger from New Zealand who hates talking about himself in the third person and has no imagination when it comes to naming websites.
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8 Comments

  1. July 16, 2014 at 12:35 am — Reply

    Beautiful! This has gone up a lot higher on my bucket list thanks 🙂

    • July 17, 2014 at 9:00 pm — Reply

      Thanks! There’s so many cool places in Indonesia!

  2. July 16, 2014 at 11:36 am — Reply

    You have to make an effort to get to some of the best places. This sounds like a nice, quiet place. I love that there were so few people around for the sunset.

    • July 17, 2014 at 9:01 pm — Reply

      Yeah, it was really peaceful!

  3. Evelin
    April 11, 2015 at 12:45 pm — Reply

    I wanna go to Rote Island too!! is it safe there?

    • April 19, 2015 at 5:50 am — Reply

      Hey Evelin – it seemed pretty safe to me. I’ve never felt unsafe anywhere in Indonesia.

  4. Asali
    June 24, 2015 at 10:59 am — Reply

    Great photos! Since Rote Island is so off the tourist path, how did you find out about the place? You have a lot of nice travels in off the beaten path places in Indonesia, and I was just wondering where your insight came from. Thanks!

    • June 26, 2015 at 7:02 am — Reply

      I just asked someone where the best beaches were close to Kupang and they told me to go to Rote – it was a good tip!

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