The Nias Archipelago lies around 120km off the west coast of Sumatra, part of a larger chain of islands that runs parallel to the coast. The Nias Archipelago comprises of 131 islands, islets and sandy cays and includes the small Hinako Island group. By far the largest of them all is Nias Island, home to most of the archipelago’s 780,000 residents.
These far flung islands are spectacularly beautiful with rugged, mountainous terrain and beautiful beaches battered by some of the best surf in the world. They’re home to some unique and endemic fauna, having evolved in isolation from the neighbouring Sumatra. However, the islands are probably best known for their ancient megalithic culture, a legacy that goes back over 10,000 years to the original inhabitants, the Ono Niha.
Originally of Austromelanesian origins, they were later influenced by Asiatic peoples from Taiwan, Malaysia, Batak and China. Perhaps this is behind the Nias legend that life originated at the Gomo River where six gods descended and began the human race. Despite the mixed origins, the people of Nias developed a fascinating and unique culture that remains strong to this day. Traditionally, the Nias culture is quite militaristic and hierarchical with each village ruled over by a chief and council of elders drawn from an aristocratic caste, followed by commoners and slaves. Inter-village warfare was common, driven by a desire for revenge, slaves or human heads. Traders since prehistoric times, the islands later became the source of slaves for the Acehnese, Portuguese and Dutch right up until the 19th century.
This propensity for warfare heavily influenced the design of the Nias traditional homes called Omo Sebua which were constructed on massive ironwood pillars with towering roofs, making them almost impregnable to attack. They had the added advantage of being able to withstand many of the earthquakes that shook the island from time to time.
The traditional architecture and ancient megalithic stone monuments is what draws many visitors to the island and the chance to witness the ancient practise of lompat batu or stone jumping, where young men leap of stones up to 2m high. This remarkable physical feat originates from training ancient warriors undertook to enable them to leap over the 1.8m high fortifying stone walls erected around villages to ward off enemy attack. The ability to negotiate the stones were an integral part manhood rituals.
Nias Island has some 650 villages, many of which remain extremely traditional and safeguard the ancient stone relics. Hilisimaetano village in South Nias has more than 100 traditional houses and in the central highlands villages around Gomo, there are numerous old stone carvings (Rumah adat) dating back 3,000 years. You’ll need to engage a local guide and do some jungle trekking to access them though. Bawomataluo and Hilisimae villages are the best place to see stone jumping and colourful traditional war dancing as these rituals are regularly performed for tourists. Thankfully, the bamboo spikes that once adorned the top of the stone boards are no longer used.
Surfers should head south to Sorake Bay, close to the town of Teluk Dalam where there are world renowned left and right breaks off Lagundri and Sorake Beaches. Lagundri also has a good break for beginners with board hire and lessons available from the surf shop in Sorake village. The Hinako Islands just to the west of Nias also deliver consistent world class waves. Best known among them is Pulau Bawa and Pulau Aru although the smaller islands of Tello and Batu have some excellent lesser known breaks. Bawa can be accessed by a 2 hour slow ferry from Nias; for the remainder you’ll need to charter a boat.
The south is also the most scenically spectacular area and where you’ll find the “sun mountain” village of Bawomataluo with its massive stairway and an omo sebua, a circular megalithic flagstone that bears a faint sun engraving. More omo sebua can be found in the nearby villages of Onohondro and Hilinawalo and a little further north, Hilinawalo Mazino.
The gateway to Nias Island is the bustling town of Gunung Sitoli, midway on the islands east coast. Binaka Airport (GNS), 15km from town, has several daily flights from Medan (Garuda, Lion air, Wings Air). You can find and book flights online with tiket.com or a reputable travel agent once you’re on the ground in Indonesia. Alternatively, you can catch a ferry from Sibolga on the west coast of Sumatra to Gunung Sitoli (10 hours) daily or twice weekly to Teluk Dalam (12 hours) at the southern end of the island. There’s also a twice weekly ferry run from Sinkil in Aceh Province to Gunung Sitolo (6 hours). Tickets can be purchased on the day but be sure to arrive at least 3-4 hours early as tickets go fast.
Even if you’re not a surfer, the camps are probably preferable as some of the losmen leave a lot to be desired, particularly away from Sorake. There’s also a surf camp on Pulau Asu. You’ll find most of the surf camps online.
All the main centres on Nias are linked by public minibus but we’ve only touched on some of Nias’s better known attractions and there are many more. The best way to experience the mountain scenery, pristine beaches, traditional villages and meet the delightful locals is to rent a scooter from Sorake and just start exploring.