Words and photos by Brett Wortman (except where noted)
Australian surfers have helped forge the tourist industry in Indonesia since the first intrepid adventurers began searching the wave-rich archipelago for uncrowded breaks in the 1970’s and the tradition is continuing today in a remote pocket of Central East Java.
Three hours’ drive from Yogyakarta is a quaint little fishing village in the regency of Pacitan called IstanaOmbak. Life is very simple here. A colourful fishing fleet heads out to sea most days and those that don’t fish tend to their crops and forage what they need from the land.
The village consists of a few dirt streets and a couple of basic shops. It’s the end of the road, so the only traffic here are locals and the handful of lucky tourists who make the effort to get there.
One of those tourists was Rod Steeles, a surfer from Lennox Head who decided to investigate a tip-off from a friend. Rod had worked as a surf guide in other parts of Indonesia and he was looking for somewhere new to set up his own venture away from the crowds.
Rod fell in love with the place and purchased a beachfront plot directly between two headlands that are home to the best surfing waves in the area. He called his slice of paradise, IstanaOmbak, which is Indonesian for “wave palace”.
That was six years ago. The locals soon discovered the financial benefits of tourism and some families began offering homestays. Tourism continues to grow in the small village and the inevitable challenge is going to be to preserve all that has lured outsiders to the area in the first place.
Locally, IstanaOmbak is popular with young Javanese from the city who make day trips or come to camp on weekends. It has also found favour with affluent Indonesians looking for a peaceful getaway.
With this in mind Rod has created his resort so that it is not only appealing to surfers but to couples, families and groups looking for something exotic without sacrificing luxury.
IstanaOmbak is designed to be comfortable but low-key so that it blends in to the landscape. A modern infinity pool sits at the edge of the sand between grass-roofed buildings made to western standards but using local designs. From the beach and the nearby headlands you can barely spot the resort among the local buildings and that’s how Rod wanted it.
Resort staff are employed from the village and all produce comes from the local area. Food is a highlight at IstanaOmbak, with the staff on hand to prepare sumptuous meals of either local cuisine or western food on request.
Non-surfing activities include snorkelling, fishing, river cruises, moto tours and cave walks. One of Java’s premier caves, Goa Gong, is nearby and well worth a visit.
There is nobody trying to sell you things in IstanaOmbak, which makes it all the more pleasant to take a walk around the village and watch daily life go by. The tiny harbour is a great place to hang out, particularly when the fishermen are returning from sea with their bounty.
When you’ve had enough of village life you may like to spend a night or two in Yogyakarta and soak up the rich art and culture of the bustling city, or visit Indonesia’s most popular tourist attraction, Borobudur Temple, which predates Angkor Wat in Cambodia and is the largest of its kind in the world.
Whatever your chosen itinerary, you will feel like you have travelled to the edge of the map and rewarded for having done so.