Imagine packing up your bags and moving to a remote tropical island in Indonesia with your whole family to experience a new culture and in the process providing much needed aid to the local community.  Matt Thistlewaite did just that and you can read about his adventure in the following interview I did with him.

1. Can you please tell me a little bit about your background and how you became interested in Rote Island?

I am a fireman living south of Sydney with my wife Natalie and our four kids. I have been travelling to Indonesia for the last 24 years, initially for surf trips with mates and later with my family for holidays.

Over the past 10 years I have been involved in mission trips to Indonesia after being impacted personally on my first one to Sorong, West Papua, in 2002 when visiting some local communities there.


These mission trips with Mercy Indonesia who are based in Bali, have led to our connection with their 13th children’s home in Ba’a, Rote`s capital city. The work that Mercy Indonesia are doing with disadvantaged kids is amazing, worthy of a separate story in itself as I could not do them justice in a few short sentences. You can see their website here:

In 2010 I led a small team into Sumba for the purpose of a mission trip. These trips do encourage and help local workers but also do wonders opening our own eyes to look at our own lives and the way we live. This trip highlighted a dream within me of looking into the possibility of setting up a Not For Profit family retreat that would ‘give back’ to the people of Indonesia.

Making kelapa roofing

2. For people who have never been to Rote Island how would you compare it to Bali or Lombok?

The people of Rote are very open and welcoming like the Balinese. I’ve heard Rote being compared to what Bali was like 20 years ago.. probably more like 30 or 40 years! When you drive through villages in Rote you will be spotted quickly as a tourist and hear calls of ’bule’ from the younger ones as you drive by. Stop for a chat and you will be asked a thousand questions by interested villagers.
The Rotinese are mostly Christian and very proud of their many churches throughout the island. In stark contrast to Lombok there is only one mosque which is in the main city.

Similar to Lombok it is quite arid in landscape. It sits right on the edge of the Australian Continental shelf and has some similarities also to Australia. Rote is a low lying island, no volcanoes, grass savannas, rolling hills and some very dramatic rock formations jutting out here and there from the land and from the ocean. Along the coastline on the western and southern parts there are magnificent stretches of pristine beaches and secluded bays. Many of which are accessed via plantation coconut groves. The setting sun viewed from these beaches are without a doubt the most picturesque in the world. In the S/East trade winds the red particles from Australia’s red centre are carried up which is what causes these blood red sunsets every night in the dry season.

Molly and Ita

3. Can you describe how the experience has been for your family and children?

The experience has enriched our marriage and enriched our relationships with our children. We feel like we are all on the same page with each other & share a common bond. It’s amazing what can happen when you take your family from a place where everything is at your fingertips, yet there is still this sense of “I don’t have what I want” to a place where living simply brings fulfillment!

The kids have made so many new friends….We all feel like we have an extended family now.

4. You mentioned in your blog that you were home schooling your children, can you talk a little bit about that.

I’ll let my wife answer that one as she was the teacher….

“I’ll be honest, I had no idea what I was doing!! My lifesaver was a friend who had home schooled her children and put me on to a beautiful 1 year curriculum that was based around discovering other countries and cultures. It was perfect for us & all the work was already done for me. The biggest hurdle was getting to a point of realising that we didn’t need to do EVERYTHING! Just the fact that we were living in a different country meant that the kids were constantly learning. Our youngest 2 were in kindergarten and Year 1 last year, so I figured learning to read & write and basic numeracy was what was important. Our Yr 5’er did lots of reading, spelling and we focused on mathematics. Our older son completed year 11 by distance education which is completely different from Homeschooling.

His work was sent to him to complete and send back and he had access to his teachers via phone for oral examinations and any help that was needed. Fantastic! All the kids are back at school here in Australia for the first term and are way ahead of the game which is very comforting. It’s true, there’s not the same type of respect for a parent as there would be for a school teacher but hopefully we’ll get better at that and overall the benefits, by far, outweigh this.”

View from school

5. Please tell us about the project you are working on on Rote Island.

Mercy Huts is a pilot project with the goal to empower families living in poverty on Rote Island, Indonesia by providing financial support, employment and training for them.

It will be a holiday retreat that is family friendly, with bungalows designed to fit a large family in simplistic, yet elegant, comfort. We want to create a place that has minimum impact on the environment. Positioned between a beautiful sandy ocean lagoon and a local village in West Rote, we plan to build 4 to 6 family bungalows, a restaurant and eventually a swimming pool if the need arises.

We will hire and train local youth as well as the children from the home in Ba’a as they grow to the age of employment. We will be providing training in hospitality and tourism as the retreat operates. All profits generated from this retreat will go toward support for Mercy Indonesia & empowering the local community of Rote Island.

6. What can people do if they want to get involved?

For anyone who is interested in getting involved, our main need right now is funding. We have had generous offers from people who would like to come and supply free labour, which we really appreciate yet, again, our goal is to give the employment opportunities to the local people. If you can`t help out financially, there are plenty of other needs. The local schools are lacking resources big time, so some material in Indonesian for all school years would be a huge help. Reading glasses are also a blessing if people have access to them. Second hand specs will be put to good use in Rote as well as surfboards and surf toys that we could use to teach the local grommies! We will be heading back over in April so we would love you to contact us if you think you have anything that may help.

7. How can people get to Rote Island from Bali?

To get to Rote Island from Bali, you fly for 1 ½ hours to Kupang out of Denpasar. From Kupang a daily ferry runs down to Rote at 8am-ish. Since the flights from bali all arrive around lunchtime you will need to stay overnight in Kupang which is a great opportunity to take in the atmosphere of the nightly seafood market.

The morning ferry takes about 2 hours. From the harbour town of Ba’a in Rote it is about a 1 ½ hour road trip by local bemo to get down to the Dehla area and Mercy Huts.

8. When I read on your site about 1 and 2 week holidays for 20 years, it reminded me of time share type of sales promotion. How can you assure people that the project will still be running for that length of time?

Being a project in Indonesia, like anything in Indonesia, we cannot ‘guarantee’ that the project will be running in 20 years. But we are doing our utmost to ensure every safeguard is in place. We can do as much as draw up a Statutory Declaration agreement between the organisation and our investors giving them some peace of mind they have the right to use their week in Rote every year until 2032 as long as Mercy Huts exists. Our carefully structured association along with a legally binding lease agreement is our best defence against unforeseen hurdles. In this part of Indonesia local relationships which is our strength, hold more ground than legal paperwork which is likely the same throughout the Archipelago.

9. Finally can you give any advice for anyone wanting to start their own charity/foundation in Indonesia?

My advice here would be to engage with someone early that knows what they are doing. It is well worth paying the money to get things done right from the start. Also, don`t do anything like this unless it is your passion.

You can find out more about Mercy Huts and contact details here on their website –