Located west of the island of Sumatra in the Indian Ocean are a chain of islands, running alongside Sumatra but separated from the mainland by a deep trench, they include the islands of Nias, Simeulue, the Mentawai islands and Enggano. Few early trading ships dared to approach these islands because of their forbidding appearance, veering instead to the ports of Padang and Bengkulu in Sumatra.
At over 5,000 square kilometers, Nias is the largest of those islands. It is 130 km long and 45 km wide, lying 125 km off Sumatra’s west coast.
This far-flung island with rugged terrain, fiercely independent people and a distinct hierarchical culture is a unique destination having remained largely resistant to outside influences for centuries.
Today Nias is most famous for stones and surf. Stone jumping (lombat batu) is a phenomenon where local young men jump over stone walls up to two meters high while the surf here is famous the world over for massive breaks and awe inspiring swells. Australian surfers in search of the perfect wave were among the first to “discover” Nias and the island is now home to the Indonesian Open surfing Championship at Lagundri beach.
This is an ancient land. While no one knows exactly how long people have lived on the island, according to Nias legend life originated at the Gomo River where six gods descended and began the human race. This is why Nias people call themselves ono niha or ‘children of the people’. From Central Nias people moved North and South developing distinctive languages, customs and art in each region.
Traditionally Nias villages are ruled by a chief who heads a council of elders. Society is hierarchical with the aristocratic upper caste at the top, followed by the common people, and below them the slaves.
The people here have a reputation for fierceness and a militaristic culture which is one of the reasons Nias has resisted the impact of foreign influences for so long. The warrior culture of Nias goes back for centuries when local villages would band together in coalitions and declare war on each other. Inter-village warfare was fierce and furious, provoked by a desire for revenge, slaves or human heads.
Along with being warriors, the people of Nias are traditionally farmers, cultivating yams, maize and taro. Pigs were considered a mark of social status and the more pigs you had, the higher your status in the village.
Throughout its history, the Chinese, Portugese as well as Arab traders have all explored Nias. The island became known as a source of slaves with the Acehnese, Portuguese and Dutch all probably having bought slaves from here at one time or another. In fact, up until the 19th century Nias’s only connection with the outside world was through the slave trade.
The Dutch assumed control of the island in 1825. Despite a century of contact and conflict with the outside world, Nias traditional culture today remains remarkably intact. The population of the island is spread over more than 650 villages, many of which are inaccessible by road.
Gunung Sitoli is the capital city of Nias with most of the islands tourist facilities concentrated there.
In Gunung Sitoli there are lots of small restaurants along the main street.
Most of the accommodation on Nias is quite basic and consists mostly of home-stays and losmen’s.
The mysterious culture of the local people here fascinates visitors. The ancient megalithic monuments and traditional architecture make incredible attractions for cultural tourists. Visit Bawomataluo and see the remarkable lompat batu or stone jumping. Hold your breath in anticipation as villagers leap over stones up to two meters high. This art derives from an ancient form of war training where jumpers had to leap over a 1.8 meter tall stone wall often topped with pointed sticks. Today this is performed as a tourist attraction and the pointed sticks are no longer used.
Experience a traditional war dance in the village of Bawatomataluo and Hilisimae. Dancers are clad in traditional costumes with bright bird feathers on their heads. There is a reason why surfers call Nias ‘paradise on earth’. Spectacular waves and sandy beaches make this a mecca for surfers from all over the world. Experienced surfers can do battle with the enormous breaks at Lagundri Beach. Surfing conditions are best from April to October.
Feel like an archeologist and investigate the pre-historic remains here which date back to the Stone Age. While little detail is known about the pre-history of Nias, the island is widely considered to be home to the oldest megalithic culture in Indonesia. Rumah adat – old stone carvings, can be found around the central part of the island. Some of these date back 3,000 years. Off the coast of Nias lie the islands of Pulau Bawa and Pulau Aru.
There is excellent surfing in Pulau Bawa which is accessible via a two hour ferry ride from Nias. To get to Pulau Aru you will need to charter a boat. Wander around the villages of Nias and take a look at the unique architecture which has developed over centuries to resist frequent earthquake tremors. The houses are set on pillars which rest on stone blocks. These pillars are then re-enforced by slanting piles which creates a very strong three dimensional structure. Some people say the design of these ship-like wooden houses was inspired by Dutch spice ships. Look at the intricate symbolic wooden carvings which adorn each house.
The village of Hilisimaetano in South Nias has more than 100 traditional houses. In the central highlands the villages around Gomo have some of the island’s best examples of stone carvings. This area is difficult to access though and it might mean a slug through the jungle or hitchhiking with a local to get there.
Patience is a virtue when getting making your way around Nias as transport can be slow and difficult to access.
In Gunung Sitoli the bus terminal is 1.5km south from the centre of town. There are also minibuses or opulet which go from Gunung Sitoli to the southern market town of Teluk Dalam.
Nias Island is located off the West Coast of North Sumatra. Gunung Sitoli is the gateway to Nias. Binaka airport is 15km from the town and the port if 5km.
Fly into Gunung Sitoli from Medan. Citilink operate two flights a day between Medan and Nias. Riau Airline operate one flight daily between Medan and Nias. SMAC also fly to Nias twice a week from Padang.
Boats go most days from Gunung Sitoli to Sibolga. Contact Pelni for information on ferries to Nias.