The Indo Project: Can Climbing Help Save an Island?

After the indigenous people of Indonesia’s West Timor prevented miners from destroying their sacred mountains, they sought sustainable forms of revenue. A team of kayakers and climbers traveled here with one question: Could climbing and adventure tourism be it?

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Sasha DiGiulian West Timor Indonesia Sport Climbing Rock
Sasha DiGiulian on the FA of Pass the Pigs (5.12b), West Timor, Indonesia.Julie Ellison

Monday, June 19, 2017

West Timor, Indonesia

Midday rain rolls off my shell and onto my pants in rivulets as I walk down a muddy jungle road. I’m near the village of Naususu-Mollo on West Timor, an island of nearly 12,000 square miles that’s split down the middle. This half is part of Indonesia, a country in Southeast Asia comprised of thousands of islands, and the other half is the sovereign state of East Timor. Rocky peaks shoot up through the blanket of jungle. The occasional footpath cuts through a wall of green on either side of me, and I glance up every few minutes, hoping to see more of the limestone that tempted us here. We are a team of 11 Western climbers and kayakers, on an exploratory mission to an island with no history of developed climbing. Raindrops pummel my face, and the thick mist makes it impossible to see. And this is Indonesia’s dry season.

I round a corner and stop. Tethered just off the road, a bull stares at me. I take a few more steps. My eyes drift upward. I almost trip over the rocks jutting out of the road. Behind the bull is 300 vertical feet of limestone.

At first glance, the smooth wall looks like just another one of the quarried faces that’s already fooled us on this trip. Mining has had a presence here for more than three decades, and we’ve seen the impact at a handful of sites, one of which had 90 percent of the peak removed, leaving a flat stump of stone. These quarries present striking walls that upon closer inspection yield stone that’s clean—too clean. But what sits in front of me is no mined stone. Fractured with irregular, shallow cracks, it’s a limestone wall of characteristic blue, yellow, and white streaks. My head spins with its potential: four- and five-pitch bolted routes up the middle, harder single pitches on the periphery, shorter lines filling in the gaps.

Naususu-Mollo village West Timor cave rock climbing cliff
The climbing potential near Naususu-Mollo village, West Timor.Yeehaw Donkey

The bull stares blankly as I fumble for my camera. Our team has barely climbed over the past 10 days of exploring the two islands of East Sumba and West Timor; I need to bring back proof of my find. With a group split down the middle, half kayakers and half climbers, we’ve spent most of the trip thus far on the coast of East Sumba, and the latter group is restless. Everything I brought has been some variation of damp, moist, soaking, sopping, waterlogged, soggy, and dripping for the seven days we’ve been here. But it’s all worth it for this right here.

As I snap a few more shots, the fog clears to reveal a massive dome, with the clean vertical section marking its left side. Three tiers of rocky faces comprise the dome, separated by tangled green jungle, with small caves dotting each tier. I follow the road down the curve of the mountain, stopping at each crag, snapping pictures. There’s the 100-foot cave that has a perfect, five-foot-long tufa, the blobby tufas dotting a 20-degree-overhanging wall, the limestone saddles jutting out of a triangular patch. Then there’s all the rock I can’t see.

We came here to find climbing potential, and here it is. A mini Thailand-
Verdon-Kalymnos-Céüse hybrid with a few hundred possible routes. I am proud to have made the discovery myself, however accidental. I walk twice as fast back to the huts to show the others what might be Southeast Asia’s next great climbing area.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Bishop, California

The dream email for a freelance climbing writer lands in my inbox: Do I want to go to Indonesia to explore climbing and kayaking potential?

Andy Cochrane, the then-marketing director of Oru Kayak, and Roberto “Berto” Gutierrez, founder/current CCO of Oru Kayak, were organizing a trip. Their San Francisco–based company makes foldable kayaks that can be carried in a backpack and easily checked for international flights, offering a unique way to access waterfront areas. Andy and Berto had an idea: By using the powers of content marketing and social media, could a publicized trip be the catalyst for a developing nation’s adventure-tourism industry? They decided to include climbing because Oru has found a lot of crossover between climbers and kayakers. “Both groups are known to travel great lengths to climb on good rock or paddle beautiful waterscapes,” Berto says. They needed a destination with all the right ingredients: some infrastructure, legitimate potential for climbing and kayaking, and most importantly, a desire from the local communities for Western visitors who’d bring adventure tourism.

In December 2016, a non-government organization (NGO) in Thailand connected them with info about the Mama Aleta Fund. Aleta Baun, known affectionately as Mama Aleta, is an environmental activist in Indonesia and a member of the Mollo tribe, the people who inhabit the mountains of West Timor and village of Naususu-Mollo.

Kayakers East Sumba Ocean Water
kayakers retrieve a climber during a deep-water solo mission on East Sumba.Yeehaw Donkey

In the 1980s, without consulting villagers, the district government gave permits to mining companies to quarry the mountains of West Timor for marble. As farmers and weavers, the Mollo people rely on the land to gather and grow food, find medicine, and harvest plants to make dyes for yarn. They consider the land, water, trees, and stone sacred; for the Mollo and other tribes, these things represent the skin, blood, hair, and bones of a human body. According to Mama Aleta, the Mollo people need the rock and stone like children need to breastfeed; the Mollo people call their home mountain Naususu: “breast.” For years, Mama Aleta watched trucks haul away stone, all while water pollution, landslides, and deforestation from mining increased.

She and three other women started walking from village to village, reminding locals how intertwined their lives are with the land. Her movement grew to include hundreds of people, and eventually she was attacked in an assassination attempt. She persevered, and her efforts culminated in 2006 with a three-year sit-in at the base of a major mining site. More than 150 local women gathered on the marble blocks and weaved their traditional cloths. Eventually, the Indonesian government took notice, and the mining companies ceased operations in 2010.

In 2013, Mama Aleta won the Goldman Environmental Prize. Now she is a legislator fighting for indigenous land rights, including protecting places on West Timor from commercial agricultural, oil, gas, and mining development. Part of her goal is to help communities manage their natural resources, as well as develop sustainable income. When the Mama Aleta Fund extended an invitation to Oru to visit West Timor, Berto, a lifelong climber, scoured Google Earth for rock, while Andy started looked for paddling.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

East Sumba, Indonesia

Sasha Digiulian deep water solo tanjung sasar east sumba rock climbing
DiGiulian making the first ascent of Yeehaw Donkey, a 5.12+ deep-water solo, Tanjung Sasar, East Sumba.Yeehaw Donkey

After 50-plus hours of travel, including four flights and more than a dozen car, bus, shuttle, and train rides, our group of Oru folks, journalists, and one pro climber, Sasha DiGiulian, is finally in Indonesia. I’m floating in a kayak off the northwest coast of East Sumba, watching DiGiulian climb. She takes on a vertical limestone wall above the Savu Sea. Holding lockoffs, highsteps, and awkward positions for 60 seconds or more, she tests nubbins, looking for solid holds, climbing onsight. As the holds crumble and plink off, she doesn’t make a sound or lose composure; she just keeps holding on.

When she reaches the final move, the crux, I stop what I’m doing—using my two climbing shoes to bail out Berto’s boat after it filled with water when he retrieved me from the drink during my short-lived attempt on the route. She tops out the 45-foot line, which she would later grade 5.12+, then jumps off with a holler.

Berto found this cliffline, a point called Tanjung Sasar, while looking at satellite images; an NGO then connected Oru with our guide, the Australian expat Sarah Hobgen. She and her husband, Uman, run Praikamarru Guest House, a small lodge in his ancestral village of Prailiu Village. She had come to Indonesia almost a decade before to work on her PhD, studying erosion and sedimentation in the Kambaniru River Catchment, a main-vein waterway of Sumba. With incredible paddling potential all along the coast, this spot on East Sumba seemed like the perfect opportunity to fulfill Oru’s original mission to use kayaks to access new climbing areas.

The sun, the water, the rock—it all feels like quintessential Indonesia, exactly what we came here for. Even the airport’s confiscation of the glue Lee brought for installing glue-in bolts in this wet, marine environment is a distant memory. We are eager to explore.

Friday, June 16, 2017

East Sumba

East Sumba starts out promising, with miles of sea cliffs, but then fizzles. As we soon learn after paddling farther down the cliffline, most of the potential routes would require full bolting because of ledges at the base, or at least a few bolts to put up a hand line. And without our glue, we can’t use the titanium glue-ins Lee brought. This leaves us with just two dozen expansion bolts, which Lee won’t use in the corrosive marine environment.

welcome dance Mollo people indonesia
The welcome dance of the Mollo people.Julie Ellison

The next day, we leave camp on the “four-hour drive” to our next stop, Danau We’ekuri Lagoon, a hanging lake beside the ocean. Twelve hours after pulling out of camp, we arrive. Multiple construction zones forced us to re-route, and in that part of Sumba where there are only four roads, you take what you can get. We drove through dozens of small villages where traditional Sumbanese peaked-roof houses lined the roads, and children played in the yards and waved enthusiastically.

In Indonesia, roads barely fit two cars across, and there are long stretches where they don’t. So when our driver, Marvel, speeds up, honks, and passes, barreling straight toward oncoming traffic, my heart pounds. Meanwhile, the roads teem with families driving scooters—as in, the whole family is on one scooter: dad driving, toddler behind him, mom (sometimes carrying an infant), and oldest kid behind her. For one curvy stretch, we follow a speeding bus with goats lashed to the roof. A teenage boy wearing flip-flops hops between them, securing the tie-down rope. Once, when a scooter pulls out in front of us, Marvel, who has gelled hair and diamond earrings, gets right next to the scooter, close enough that the truck’s side-view mirror brushes the guy’s sleeve. Marvel rolls down the window, spit rights in his face, and speeds off. Then he returns to tapping his finger and humming along with the Spice Girls’ “Wannabe.”

We do more driving than climbing in Indonesia. Halfway through the trip, the romance of travel evaporates, leaving me with the rawness of this place. Trash everywhere, three generations of families living in one room, kids playing in muddy yards, adults hanging around all day, paltry incomes only suitable for subsistence living. By US standards, these people are poor, but what does that mean when you have food, shelter, family, and your health? Our group is here for what we think is a noble cause—developing the local economy via adventure tourism—but it’s hard to justify that when it might be little more than the white-savior trope. After all, who will benefit more? Locals who, with limited infrastructure, may or may not find adventure tourism a viable source of income, or us, the privileged Americans who get to come here, have this amazing experience with all of our high-tech gear, then return to the land of $5 coffees, Instagram a few photos, and pat ourselves on the back? Philanthropy can never be completely selfless, because ultimately you feel better about yourself when you do it.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

West Timor

mined quarried peaks West Timor mountains
Some of the mined/quarried peaks of West Timor.Yeehaw Donkey

We flew to West Timor this morning. From Kupang, the point on the coast where we landed, we spotted a rock buttress where the Mollo people live, our destination. As we drive, we gain altitude, winding up through evergreen forests and into cooler temps. It feels like the mountains, and my mood brightens. Berto and I see rock in the distance and bounce in our seats. I comment on the change, and Berto responds, “That’s because we’re hill people.”

Fellow hill people greet us when we pull up to the Naususu-Mollo village. Mama Aleta, in her mid-50s and stoic, wears colorful ikats as a skirt and a headdress and stands amongst two dozen kids and adults underneath an archway of rough-cut trees. The other kids and adults wear flip-flops and also have ikats wrapped around their heads and waists. These traditional cloths are the main source of income for people on Sumba and West Timor. It takes several months for a family to make a half-dozen ikat scarves, which afford them just enough money to survive. They sell them at local markets and to tourists. We walk forward as the troupe sings and walks backward to greet us.

The group stops in front of the communal hut. We line up to shake every single person’s hand. They call us forward. Berto and Andy step up first, and a young girl places an ikat scarf around each of their necks. The rest of us follow suit, until ikats adorn all 11 of us. That night, we have a big dinner with everyone, at which Mama Aleta and local elders speak about the issues plaguing their home. We eat rice and homemade tempeh, with a spicy tomato salsa, bits of chicken, and cooked greens. Via translators, the elders detail how mining has disrupted their natural resources, ones they’ve relied on for generations. The Mollo people are excited to show us their home. They end the ceremony by asking us to help tell their story to the world.

I wake up early the next morning and open the door to our lupu (hut). I can’t see more than a few feet because of a thick fog and spraying mist. Dammit. At the communal hut, we eat breakfast and spend the next few hours wasting time with games like hacky sack and Pass the Pigs, and YouTube videos of Ninja Warrior Brazil. Around lunchtime, we head out for a walk; if nothing else, we can move our bodies and explore. The group splinters off in different directions, and I head off on my own, soon to make my epic discovery.

Monday, June 19, 2017

West Timor

Sasha DiGiulian tufa Pass the Pigs Sport Rock Climbing
DiGiulian tufa-surfing on Pass the Pigs (5.12b).Julie Ellison

After I show my photos of the limestone mini-mecca to the group, we head for the cave with the five-foot tufa. It’s the crag most likely to be “dry,” another relative term in Indonesia. Lee bolts his way out the path of least resistance, which climbs huge tufas; he drills anchors about halfway up the cave, 50 feet off the ground. Sasha then heads off on the three-dimensional route, moving between tufas and exclaiming about how cool the holds and movement are. After breaking a handhold and catching the full-body swing with one arm, she pauses 35 feet up. The holds and tufas disappear, leaving a featureless chalky-white face with a few seeping fissures. She spends three minutes inverted, shaking out and cleaning the smegma off the holds, before figuring out the moves and continuing to the top. She grades the route 5.12b. The rest of us take turns on the line, playing on the tufas and getting stumped by the crux. It’s a brilliant line, more than enough to make this whole trip worth it. We walk out in the dark, going the long way around to check out another crag Lee spotted the day before, a vertical face a quarter mile away. Monkeys screech in the trees, and I can’t help but wonder if they’re laughing at our silly efforts to climb.

The next morning, we wake up to sunshine. The group heads to the cave where they will toprope the existing line, Sasha will climb it for pictures and video, and Lee will bolt a second line on the far-left side of the grotto that’s separated by a hump of rock. A few hours in, Lee is ready to climb his new line, and he’s gearing up for it with me on belay duty when we hear what sounds like thunder combined with gunshots.

“Is everyone OK?!” Lee yells.

“Yeah, the huge tufa broke off,” someone responds. “The entire thing is gone!” Fortunately, no one was hurt, including the village kids who were scampering around on rocky slabs below. The dangerous reality of establishing FAs in a remote area like this, which sees massive amounts of rain, hits me. Looking at the numerous tufas Lee is about to yard on, I step to the side to belay.

beach sunset East Sumba Indonesia Landscape ocean
A perfect beach sunset on East Sumba.Yeehaw Donkey

Lee grades his route 5.12a, and it’s short but sweet, with the final moves including a cross-through off a perfect hand-sized ice-cream-cone tufa to another ice-cream cone, and then wedging a hip between two other tufas. Another Lee Cujes masterpiece. We climb the rest of the day, alternating between the two routes. Sasha climbs the original route about five times. Once, a villager whom we call Keanu because his hat says “Keanu,” climbs 5.10 terrain to meet Sasha at the second bolt. They share a laugh and a high-five before Sasha continues and Keanu chills on the ledge. It’s clear that he’s been up here before. Maybe this idea of establishing climbing on this random chunk of rock in the Indian Ocean isn’t so crazy after all.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

West Timor

All in all, we established two bolted lines (and removed the bolts since they weren’t marine-friendly glue-ins), two deep-water-solos, and a bit of beach bouldering. We also discovered an insane amount of kayaking both in the ocean and inland lakes.

waves ocean Danau We’ekuri lagoon east sumba
Waves thrash the undeveloped limestone cliffs adjacent to Danau We’ekuri lagoon, East Sumba.Julie Ellison

We leave Indonesia with big dreams of this next great climbing area, but the reality is that West Timor will never be Kalymnos. There isn’t enough climbing, it’s too hard to get to, and it rains. A lot. But for adventurous climbers, Naususu-Mollo will offer an amazing opportunity. After getting the go-ahead from Mama Aleta and other local leaders, a group of us will return in July 2018. We will build trails, create maps, equip routes, and help the Mollo people expand their infrastructure to welcome visitors.

“It will be messy, and it will take time,” Berto says, “but I believe we have planted the seeds for sustainable and positive economic growth that will help these communities preserve their lands.”

5 Indonesia Gear Essentials

Lifestraw Go


As a visitor on West Timor, you can’t really drink untreated or unboiled water, especially in Naususu-Mollo. Having another option like the Go bottle, with its built-in filter that lets you sip stream or lake water directly from the bottle, is key, especially at the crags. $49,

Sea to Summit DryLite Towel


For general travel needs and for keeping your piggies dry at the cliffs (no thanks, trenchfoot), it’s good to bring a light, packable camp towel like the DryLite, which weighs only 5 ounces (size L) and has an antimicrobial treatment to keep the funk at bay. $12–37,

Adidas Outdoor Terrex Scope GTX


Jungly Indonesia demands an approach shoe that’s completely waterproof. “GORE-TEX approach shoes are an absolute must!” says Ellison. “And the Terrex Scope GTX was a great option.” Meanwhile, its 4.5mm lugged sole with Stealth rubber provided gecko-grip on the rugged coastline approaches. $165,

Patagonia M10 Jacket


In West Timor’s wet, muggy climate, you need a jacket that’s impermeable but also breathable so you don’t turn into a human sponge. The M10’s three-layer H2No shell, with a long cut for alpine climbing, keeps the wet stuff off yet remains breathable and light (8.5 ounces). $399,

Mountainsmith T.A.N. Kit Cube Medium


This padded, water-resistant Cordura camera bag is great for exotic locales (read: harsh conditions and extended travel). It crams down easily into your pack yet functions as a self-contained, portable camera bag thanks to the removable shoulder strap. $60,

Visit The Indo Project at Oru Kayak for information on how to get involved with the next round.