Located just 13km off the north-east tip of Sumbawa, Sangeang Api is one of the more interesting islands in the Lesser Sunda Island group. For starters, it is literally a volcanic island, dominated by a soaring and active volcanic peak rising sharply from the surrounding sea.
The island’s volcanic complex actually consists of two overlapping cones; the older Doro Mantoi (1795m) and the newer, active Doro Api (1949m). The first recorded eruption of Sangeang Api occurred in 1512 with a further 19 eruptions in the years since. An eruption in May 2014 was an explosive affair that sent smoke and ash 20km into the sky and caused havoc with international and regional flights for weeks. The volcano was still smoking when the Roam Indonesia team sailed past a month and a half later and we knew then that we’d have to return for a closer look someday.
The most recent eruption was in November 2015 which resulted in smoke and ash plumes and incandescent emissions. With such an active volcano to contend with, it’s surprising that anyone chooses to live there. But Sangeang Api is home to a small community of farmers, deer hunters and boat builders who seem to take the changing moods of the volcano and the periodic evacuations off the island in their stride.
Most inhabitants live in the island’s only permanent settlement located on the south-western coast nestled above the beach at the foot of the mountain, occupying tiny thatched huts and eking out a subsistence living growing banana’s, papaya, cashews, buffalo, goats and chickens, supplemented by fish and the occasional wild deer or boar.
Following the 2014 eruption, Sangeang Api was chosen as the preferred location to build an enormous Phinisi traditional wooden boat. Not sure what the logic is here but I’m sure there is one. Nonetheless, the island’s population has swelled with a workforce of traditional boat builders from their sister village of Wera Sangeang Desa, on the adjacent Sumbawa mainland. When we visited in October 2016, the sight of the giant, almost complete phinisi boat perched over the beach was quite amazing.
Putting it all together, Sangeang Api certainly ranks as one of our more interesting island experiences. However, it may not be for everyone. The white sandy beaches common on neighboring islands are absent. Instead, there are black volcanic sand beaches which you’ll have to share with wandering buffalo and goats, but fresh water soaks seeping up through the sand in many places (including the main beach adjacent to the settlement) and the remnants of lava flows all add a bit of interest.
For snorkelers and divers, there are several underwater gas vents located near the northern end of the village beach. Ask the villages to point out the exact location. There are also several small fringing coral reefs along the island’s west coast, about 0.5-1 hour boat ride north of the village.
Climbing Sangeang Api, or more specifically to the outer rim of the volcanic caldera is possible with the help of an experienced, local guide, generally one of the island’s resident deer hunters. The steep lava flows on the southern flanks are impossible to climb, so the mountain is generally approached from the north. It’s a strenuous 6 hour ascent, followed by a 4 hour descent so camping overnight on the lower northern flank is required. A non-English speaking guide/porter can be arranged from the village and will cost around 300.000Rp per day.
Sangeang Api is best visited by chartering a local boat from Wera Sangeang village on the north-eastern tip of Sumbawa. Villagers will be able to organize a boat on request but be prepared to wait for one to become available. Expect to pay around 750,000Rp each way for the 1.5 hour island boat transfer.
Be aware that there are no facilities of any kind (including a toilet) on the island. If you’re lucky, you may be able to purchase some fish from the islanders, but otherwise they have no capacity to provide you with food, water or accommodation. So take everything you require for the duration of your stay. We took tents and camped on the beach but unless you’re planning on climbing the mountain, you could visit the island in a single, long daytrip from Bima provided you have a guide, car and boat transport lined up before you go.
Also note that none of the villagers speak any English and they specifically asked us to make it known that they prefer all visitors to be accompanied by a guide/interpreter. This will make your visit for both them and yourself a much more comfortable and enjoyable affair. We found the villagers welcoming and helpful, happily preparing our meals, showing us around and even providing our kids with use of a canoe.
A few notes on the giant phinisi boat we saw…Timber for the boat was shipped from south-east Sulawesi, Indonesia’s only other remaining traditional boat building location. At around 120 foot long, and costing approximately US$600,000, it is one of the biggest traditional boat building projects undertaken by the Sangeang boat builders. Due for launch a couple of months after our visit (October 2016), we’re told the plan was to launch it directly off the beach by rolling it across giant logs. Once in the water, it was to be towed to the mainland to undergo final fit-out including fitment of a reconditioned mining haul truck engine, before commencing life as a cargo vessel. Whether or not another phinisi boat building project takes its place on Sangeang Api was uncertain at that time, but even without this attraction, visiting the island still a worthwhile experience.