With daily Garuda Indonesia flights to Pinangsori, 

Colours takes a closer look at the historic and natural intrigue of an often-overlooked destination.

Words and photography by Suwandi Chandra

The island of Silabu Na Menek with its impressive 70m-high cliff face.

The island of Silabu Na Menek with its impressive 70m-high cliff face.

Sibolga lies on the western coast of North Sumatra, facing the Indian Ocean. Centuries ago Indian and Arab merchants in search of rich natural resources for trade were known to cross the seas and access Sumatra using this western gateway.

High-quality camphor exported from the nearby port of Barus drew colonial interests, and its strategic value as an important harbour quickly transformed the once small village into a thriving trading port, with the English and Dutch establishing trading posts here as early as the 17th century.

Passengers on board the glass-bottom boat on the way to Putih Island from KM Nauli.

Passengers on board the glass-bottom boat on the way to Putih Island from KM Nauli.

By the 1920s Sibolga had become a major Dutch settlement, with roads, an armed police force, an inspector’s office, water office, notary office, commercial district and even a Chinese quarter. British, American and French traders passed through regularly, and it is believed that Stamford Raffles too spent time here before moving on to Bengkulu and then on to establish his own trade port in what would later become Singapore.

The crystal-clear waters surrounding beautiful Putih Island.

The crystal-clear waters surrounding beautiful Putih Island.

In the years leading up to Indonesian independence, Sibolga was the setting of many battles. Today there are but fragmented remnants of the fascinating history that took place here. There are still a number of old fortresses you can visit in the main town, and history buffs will certainly enjoy strolling through them to relive maritime tales of yore. But beyond its historical attractions holidaymakers will be relieved to find Sibolga’s natural beauty relatively unscathed by the tides of time and war. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately for those in the know) Sibolga is often overlooked as a destination, skipped over by surfers and beachcombers making their way to Nias Island via Sibolga Bay.

The reality is Sibolga has just as much on offer as its famed island neighbour Nias, arguably more if you prefer a tropical holiday that includes island hopping. Sibolga Bay, also known as Tapian Nauli (meaning ‘beautiful beach’ in the Batak dialect), is where passenger boats depart from, connecting to the surf haven of Nias. But within the bay is a collection of smaller nearby islands, each with its own distinct beauty and character.

Hotel Wisata Indah stands tall right beside the ocean. It has its own beach as well as a private jetty: perfect for island-hopping.

Hotel Wisata Indah stands tall right beside the ocean. It has its own beach as well as a private jetty: perfect for island-hopping.

My island-hopping adventure begins at Hotel Wisata Indah, which stands tall right beside the ocean with a private-access beach. The accommodation is rather humble, but if you book a top corner suite, you’ll be treated to stunning sunrise and sunset ocean views right from your room window. But the hotel itself isn’t the main reason I’ve checked in. I’m here to join a mini cruise. After breakfast I head out to the private beach and clamber into a glass-bottom boat tied to a jetty. It transports me and a few other passengers to the KM Nauli (www.naulicruise.com), a mini cruise vessel. She doesn’t look like much from the outside – it’s an old US-built steel-hull boat – but the vintage look suits my eager sense of adventure and gives the boat a certain character. Step inside and you’ll be pleased to see the interior converted and retrofitted with seven comfortable cabins equipped with all the usual creature comforts and en-suite bathrooms. The vessel accommodates up to 15 adults and, if you wish, you can charter the entire vessel for larger, private groups.

KM Nauli mini cruise ship, a US-built steel-hull ship.

KM Nauli mini cruise ship, a US-built steel-hull ship.

Despite it being a rather old vessel, it does capture a sense of bygone luxury with a comfortable lounge area decked out in varnished wood paneling. The lounge is air conditioned to beat the heat and has a large flatscreen TV for movie nights when the weather isn’t too nice. This is where meals are served, and on nights when the weather is breezy and beautiful, dinner can be enjoyed on the top deck accompanied by sweeping views of the clear surf and sky. It’s essentially a floating hotel with great service quality to match.

Our first island visit is to Putih Island (literally ‘white’ island), so called for its white sandy beaches. We board the glass-bottom boat to reach the shore, and this time instead of a view of shallow sands we’re treated to a vibrant display of large corals so close to the surface, teeming with underwater life. As soon as we hit the shore I’m ready to do some snorkeling myself, and luckily the cruise crew always have snorkeling and scuba gear in tow along with a certified dive instructor with expert knowledge of the surrounding waters.

A local on Putih Island serving fresh coconut to freshen up during the hot day.

A local on Putih Island serving fresh coconut to freshen up during the hot day.

After a good few hours of fun in the sun and surf, we return to the top deck of the KM Nauli to enjoy a lunch of fresh seafood: a lovely spread of grilled fish, prawns, fried calamari and sides of local veggies, nasi goreng and a selection of spicy sambals of course, all prepared on board by a talented kitchen staff. To wash it all down, don’t forget to crack open a coconut fresh from the tree and drink in the sweet, sweet coconut water along with the paradisiacal views as you enjoy the ocean breeze kissing your cheeks, the sun on your skin and the sounds of the waves breaking and crashing on islands near and far. I can assure you, your worldly stress will melt away in minutes.

Next on the map is Mursala Island, which is said to have inspired the setting of Skull Island in the seminal 1933 Hollywood film King Kong. The largest of the nearby Sibolga Bay islands, Mursala was also the shooting location of the 2013 Indonesian movie of the same name. As we make our approach and thick, untamed rainforest, craggy stone walls and a 35m waterfall pouring out into the ocean come into view, it’s not hard to see just how the rugged beauty of this formidable island might inspire a filmmaker.

_SCP6302The Mursala Waterfall is an unforgettable sight to see in person and an icon of the island. Its source is Indonesia’s shortest river, flowing for only 700m before its fresh water cascades from a height of 35m over a reddish-grey granite cliffside directly down into the ocean. Indeed, it looks like something straight from a scene in King Kong.

If you’re compelled to swim the turquoise waters below, simply don a life vest – the water is deep – and jump right in: you won’t regret it. I know I didn’t. By the time I was back on board the KM Nauli heading back to the city to catch my flight, my only regret was that I had to leave. However, I am grateful for the memories of history and of rugged paradise. I’ll be hopping across these islands again sooner rather than later.

For full article please check out all pages from photo below:

Mandarin/Chinese version:

Japanese Version:

For the PDF version please click here: Garuda Jan 2015 Sibolga

Full Colours Magazines, January 2015 edition please click HERE.

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