Rote Island is situated about 30km west of Kupang harbour and together with some small nearby islands included within the Rote Ndao Regency, is the southernmost of Indonesia’s islands.
It’s well off the beaten track but it’s palm fringed white sandy beaches, rolling grassy hills, terraced farming, traditional villages and exceptionally good surf have made it a very popular island destination with Timorese locals and travellers alike.
Rote’s orientation exposes most of its long southwest coast to some pounding Indian Ocean swells and the prevailing southeast trade winds, resulting in some world class surf from long winding lefts and daunting right breaks. Most of the best breaks are at the western extremity of the island within a stone’s throw of Nemberala Beach, consistently listed as one of Indonesia’s top ten beaches.
Away from the surf, Rote has some excellent snorkelling and diving locations that can be accessed straight off the beach or by boat. Sand banks, coral gardens or rock reefs are teeming with a wide variety of fish and marine species. Fishing is another drawcard, as the islands is known for its large schools of trevally, barracuda and snapper as well as a wide variety of bottom feeders. You can either fish off the beach are arrange a local boat to take you out to the deeper water.
Traditional culture remains strong among the indigenous islanders who still observe a clan-based societal system which divides the Rotenese into either a “Sunrise” or “Sunset” clan. Each clan is ruled by a male and female lords and several advisers and performs its own rituals during annual ceremonies when Rotenese men make offerings to their ancestors and the women perform ritual dances accompanied by the sasando, a uniquely Rotenese guitar constructed from the leaves of the Lontar Palm.
Incidently, the Rotenese regard the Lontar Palm as sacred, using almost every part of this versatile, drought resistant tree in many aspects of their day to day lives. Homes are constructed from the timber of the trunk, the palm leaves are used as roof thatching or woven in numerous products such as mats, baskets or traditional hats. The juice of the palm flowers is used to make tuak, an energy rich sugary syrup and palm sugar which has been traded widely throughout the Indonesian archipelago for centuries. Visitors will see palm sugar harvesting and production going on all over the island.
Rote’s administrative centre is Ba’a on the mid-northwest coast but most travellers head to Namberala where there’s a good selection of homestays, surf camps and beachside resorts, Prices vary widely and generally costs a little more than in Kupang but given the remoteness, that’s to be expected. On the plus side, many places include three meals a day in their tariff so whilst a first glance prices can look a little high, there’s certainly some excellent value to be had.
Most of Rote can be accessed by public minibus but one of the best ways to get around is to hire a scooter and just start exploring. Most of the accommodation places can arrange scooter hire or a car with a driver if you prefer. Ojeks are everywhere.
A daily fast ferry service operates between Kupang and Pantai Baru, a small harbour on the northwest coast of Rote Island. The sea crossing takes 2 hours, then it’s another 1 hour to Ba’a or 2 hours to Nemberala at the far end of the island by minibus or ojek. There’s also a slow boat that travels twice a week between Pepela on Rote’s east coast and the village of Namsain in Kupang. The slow boat takes around 6 hours and you’re still faced with the 2 hour trip across the island so it’s really an option of last resort. Both fast and slow boats are subject to delays and cancellation during poor weather. Alternatively, Wings Air/Lion Air recently commenced a daily flight between Kupang and Ba’a on Rote Island.