Stone Jumping and Surfing: Nias Island, North Sumatra

Stone jumping (hombo batu) and surfing are the two most well-known attractions for tourists coming to the island of Nias, 75 miles west of Sumatera, which only take place in Teluk Dalam on Nias’ south coast. Young Nias men jump over 2-meters stone walls for Rp 50,000, in the village of Bawomatoluo. Meanwhile, surfing was introduced and developed by foreign tourists on the beach of Sorake.

Coming all the way to Nias, however, tourists should not limit themselves to stone jumping and surfing, since the island — with a civilization dating back to the Dongson period of North Vietnam — has a unique traditional architecture adapted to the frequent earthquake tremors in the region as George Junus Aditjondro writes.

Two original solutions were created by the Nias ancestors. Firstly, all houses were set on a series of vertical pillars (enomo) which are not anchored into the ground, but rest on stone blocks.

Secondly, the vertical pillars were reinforced by slanting piles (ndriwa), which created a very resistant earthquake-proof three-dimensional structure.

While surviving earthquakes, Nias traditional architecture is presently endangered by two big challenges, namely deforestation and modernization. Nias has largely been stripped of its forests over the past 150 years since head hunting ceased and the population grew rapidly. This has nearly depleted the native efoa, manawa dano, and simalambuo hardwood trees, used for the pillars of the traditional clan houses (omo hada), chief houses (omo sebua or omo nifolasara) and large meeting halls (omo bale).

Secondly, modernization has reduced the strength of the clan (mado), with most Nias people preferring now to live in Malay houses, while the government has also forsaken Nias traditional architecture in all official buildings.

The billions of rehabilitation and reconstruction dollars channeled to Nias through the NAD-Nias Rehabilitation and Reconstruction Body (BRR), overlooked the need to revive this cultural heritage of Nias.

Fortunately, two European charities — the German aid organization, Johanniter Unfall Hilfe, and the British Turnstone Tsunami Fund — have assisted the rebuilding of remaining omo hada on the island. Johanniter cooperated with the Nias Heritage Museum (Museum Pusaka Nias) in Gunungsitoli, the capital of the Nias district, while the Turnstone Tsunami Fund cooperated with the Medan-based North Sumatera Heritage.

With Johanniter’s assistance, Museum Pusaka Nias has helped families rehabilitate 26 traditional wooden houses in 13 villages. In addition, with financial assistance from the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta and the Muenster and Konstant Municipalities in Germany, the Museum has rehabilitated eight more traditional houses in seven other villages. Then, with the assistance of other donors, the Museum has distributed funds — ranging from Rp 200,000 to Rp 5,000,000 — to 357 traditional house owners to rebuild their traditional houses.

The museum was trusted by all those donors due to the serious dedication of its director, Johannes Hammerle, OFM Cap, a naturalized German-born priest, to revive Nias traditional architecture. The Museum director has studied chief houses (omo sebua) since 1990, and supervised the construction of the museum compound — with its various wooden buildings — according to Nias traditional architecture, involving Nias and German carpenters.

In the museum compound, one can observe a South Nias rectangular wooden house, used as a guest house, where the author has twice stayed, and a North Nias oval wooden house, used as an office building. The oval house, called omo laraga, originated from Sinandraolo village near Gunung Sitoli. Owned by the family of Ama Jeni Telaumbanua, it collapsed during the 2005 earthquake.

The traditional house was rebuilt in the museum compound and modernized with an indoor toilet, with the financial assistance of Brigitte Ott and Guenter Ott and their colleagues from the German International School in Jakarta. The omo laraga was inaugurated on June 22, 2007, with the traditional house inauguration dance, Fameheu Omo, by high school kids dancing and jumping on the floor, to test the house’s structural strength.

Meanwhile, the Turnstone Tsunami Fund has rebuilt the chief house (omo nifolasara) in the village of Hilinawalo Mazingo, the oldest omo hada in Southern Nias. This magnificent chief house had survived nearly three centuries, but was in desperate need of restoration after falling victim to intense sun, rain, insect infestation, neglect, and finally, the March 2005 earthquake.

In 2005 and 2006, the Turnstone Tsunami Fund focused on training a younger generation of Nias men, ranging from 23 to 50 years of age, by the elderly village carpenter, Ama Liana, in four-week courses, supported by the Carpenter’s Company of the City of London.

Following two carpentry courses, all houses in Hilinawalo Mazingo and four surrounding villages had been fully repaired by mid 2006. In addition, this project also supported a reforestation education project with local teenagers, led by a Nias school teacher, Yamin, and using afoa seedlings.

Thanks to these massive programs, Nias will have much more to offer to tourists than swimming and snorkeling in Teluk Dalam, watching stone jumping in Bawomatoluo, and surfing at Sorake. It would be nice if BRR and all aid agencies contribute to reviving this unique cultural heritage.

As Roger Miall from the Turnstone Tsunami Fund suggested is his email letter to me, some help from BRR to build a road to the village of Hilinawalo Mazingo would encourage tourist to visit the restored chief house. Meanwhile, tourism agencies should incorporate visits and short periods of living in Nias’ omo hada in their packages, similar to tourism packages in Sarawak, East Malaysia, where tourists are encouraged to visit and live in Dayak long houses. Or in Mentawai, where tourists also can visit and live for short time in the indigenous people’s longhouses.

The author is currently researching the reconstruction of Aceh and Nias, and can be contacted at