Savu (Sabu or Sawu) Islands
If you’ve never heard of the Savu Islands that’s not surprising; few people have. They’re not exactly on the tourist and well frankly, they’re not exactly on the trail to anywhere. Situated roughly midway between Timor and Sumba Island they officially belong to the expansive Lesser Sunda Islands group but they’re on the extremity.
The island group is comprised of three islands, from largest to smallest Rai Hawu (or Savu), Rai Jau and Rai Dana but as if they’re not already remote enough, Rai Dana is actually 30km southwest of the other two; a lonely, uninhabited island pounded by the Indian Ocean swells. The southern coastlines of the other two islands cop the swell too, resulting in some great surf breaks. No surprise then the vast majority of the very small number of travellers that make it to the Savu’s are surfers.
Not that you have to ride the waves to appreciate the islands whose appeal lies in simple island life, culture, history, traditional villages and palm fringed sandy beaches. The islands are part of the Savu Marine National Park in recognition of the fringing coral reefs and marine mammals like dugong, dolphins, whales and turtles that frequent the pristine waters of the archipelago. All three island are low lying although according to scientists, they’re actually rising by about 1mm a year due to tectonic plate movements beneath them. Like Timor, they have a hot and arid climate, something that has shaped the Savunese culture over thousands of years. Traditional clan agreements control water distribution and cultivation comprises of a mix of trees and shade crops like coconut and water economical garden crops of mung beans, corn, sorghum, root vegetables and limited wet rice cultivation.
No one quite knows when the islands were first inhabited but certainly since Neolithic times. Archaeologists believe that Lie Madira cave on the north coast of Savu was occupied at least 6,000 years ago. The origins of two ancient ceremonial bronze axes discovered near Seba in the 1970’s is unknown but other relics discovered on the island can be traced to the Majapahit Empire which ruled from the 12th – 14th centuries. There also evidence linking the islands with Indian, Arab and Chinese traders from the 13th century, long before Portuguese and Dutch spice and sandalwood traders arrived on the scene. Captain Cook even put in an appearance, landing on Savu in 1770 on his way to Batavia, fresh from discovering the east coast of Australia.
The islands main centre is Seba on the central northwest coast of Savu Island. It’s not much more than a rustic village really but it has enough to satisfy most traveller’s basic needs such as ATM facilities, a few small stores, a market, transport, accommodation and a few warungs. It also has a gorgeous wide beach which incidentally is where Captain Cook and his crew landed.
In the hamlet of Lede Ana 5km southwest of Seba, you’ll find the freshwater spring of Loko Wadu Wae, a nice shady place to cool off. Lie Madira Cave is located at the village of D’aieko, a little further on. Apart from the caves historical connection the Neolithic man, this deep limestone cave has some interesting stalactites and stalagmites formations and fresh, clean spring water. The surfing hotspots of Savu Right and Savu Left are found just offshore here.
Just inland from Seba are the villages of Rai Lolo, renowned for Jariwala art and craft workshop and artefact exhibition and nearby Namata village which has an ancient megalithic ceremonial site and market where traditional handwoven ikat is sold.
In village of B’olou at the eastern end Savu, is the old fortified compound of Horati where ancient ceremonies are still regularly performed. Some of the islands best beaches are found along this eastern section of coastline.
Over on Rai Jua Island near Lede Unu, is Kolo Uju traditional village and an ancient water well called Madja, a remnant of the Majapahit period. The locals still draw water from this well during times of drought. The best beach on Rai Jua for swimming and snorkelling is located near B’ee Point on the northeast tip but surfers usually head to the other end of the island to surf The Wedge.
The remote Rai Dana is rarely visited but it still holds significant importance to the Savunese who believe that when they die, their spirits reside on Rai Dana. Out of respect to the spirits of their ancestors, the island is left alone apart from an annual cleansing ceremony. For outsiders, it’s pretty much off limits.
Susi Air runs daily flights between Kupang and Tardamu Airport near Seba but you need to book early during the peak (surfing) from May to September as seats are limited. Alternatively, there’s a twice weekly slow ferry service between Kupang and Savu Islands. Delays and cancellations are normal during poor weather, especially during the windy months of July and August. The moral of the story is make sure you’ve got some wriggle room with regard to connecting flights on either side of your visit to Savu.
Accommodation on the islands is limited to a handful of hotels (penginapan) mostly in Seba and a single hotel in Ledeunu on Rai Jua. The standard is generally poor to acceptable and prices pretty high for what you get, allegedly because the owners have colluded to fix the prices. That doesn’t stop you seeking the best value for money though so ask to have a look at the rooms before you book in.