It’s a sunshiny morning in late April 2018 when we land in Tambolaka airport, after a 55-minute charter flight east from Bali. We are in Sumba. On a map of Indonesia, to its northwest, is Sumbawa, to its northeast, is Flores, to its east, is Timor, and to its south, across part of the Indian Ocean, is Australia.
We jump on a car and head West, crossing a virgin jungle along tribal villages. I have not seen a landscape this pristine in most of Southeast Asia. I also have not seen any other traveller along the way over a 1,5 hour-drive rather than the couple sharing our ride. The feeling is remote.
In many ways, Sumba is like a lost world. It’s twice the size of Bali, and yet has only one-sixth of its population. A destination a little further from Asia’s usual beach holiday haunts, such as Thailand and Maldives, where I deeply inhale the sense of place. In this aspect, it’s so far, far away from Bali. There is no relevant industry or tourism to speak of. It’s the most impoverished region in Indonesia, where Malaria is still a concern, and as recently as the 1960s, headhunting was a common practice. But there is every reason to come here. This is an island where I get the spirit of Bali of 30 years ago that comes along with Sumba’s wilderness and ethnographic treasures.Foreign presence in the archipelago started around the 18th century when Chinese and Arab traders began to come, bringing in horses, exploring sandalwood and taking away slaves. Horses are found all over Sumba – only later do I learn they are still an essential element of its culture. Then, the Dutch East Indies took over the “Sandalwood Island” – as they liked to call it – and relinquished control of Indonesia after World War II, with Sumba’s official independence being granted in 1962.
Colonial forces, on the other hand, have never taken control of headhunting islanders, which in a way has contributed to preserving Sumba’s unique personality that allows me to experience this precious sense of adventure. Sumba has always been isolated on the far end of the country and, as a result, was turned into Indonesia’s wild, wild west. It remains isolated today. I feel immensely privileged as I navigate across the real jungle – a place that suggests Africa in chaotic Southeast Asia. The vast majority of its 600,000 population live like the old days: dispersed across villages, dependent on agriculture. Permissions to explore the territory are still negotiated with tribal kings and the few towns I come across are little more than trading posts or missionary settlements.
In West Sumba, all the way across the Indian Ocean, I am brutally attracted to the 2.5km-long white-sand beaches – that stands apart in a nation made up of thousands of volcanic islands. Rice paddies frame the blue ocean, while the cluster of black rock comes out of the turquoise waters. In the distance, I see mountains and more jungle.“It’s one of the most compelling beaches in Southeast Asia”, I hear my husband say. Sprinkled throughout the countryside are hilltop villages with thatched clan houses clustered around megalithic tombs. We are on the beach of Nihiwatu, watching horses going for a swim as we go for an afternoon walk. It doesn’t take long until I join them in the water, and in the next day, under an extraordinary sunset, I gallop along the empty and wild stretch of pristine white sands. There’s no evidence of human habitation, no footprints ahead of me. Then, on the same beach, there is a wave. A famous one. It’s called Occy’s Left, which has long been embraced by Claude Graves, who first set camp in Nihiwatu beach in 1988 and founded a surf resort. A few years ago, though, Chris Burch (ex-husband of fashion designer Tory Burch) took over the property and turned it into a luxury adventure resort. Occy’s, one of the best surf breaks in Indonesia, remains the main attraction of Nihiwatu but is also a controversial one. Since the early days it was established as a private wave in agreement with the local tribes. Only guests of Claude’s resort had the right to surf it and still today surfers staying at the resort need to pay a fee of 100 dollars to ride it. I start to have mixed feelings about how the “new explorers” handle the special wave. In a way, keeping Occy’s private helps to protect Nihiwatu against the crowds I often try to escape from, but I also believe a wave shouldn’t belong to any one person.
“One needs to be brave to get into the ocean. It is scary”, says Tiger, our local guide, as I wonder why we barely see any fishermen or locals in the water along the beaches of Sumba. “Fishing requires courage”, he explains, “Instead, most of us rely on farming, Sumba horses or Indian cows”. Natural riches on the side, the real Sumba experience is to dive into its culture. It is overwhelmingly rural, given over to old-growth forests, rice and maize fields, banana trees and coconut palms. We go deeper inland and visit century-old Sumbanese villages, including Praijing. I watch a group of men eating betel, the common intoxicant of the region, that turns one’s mouth bright red and reminds me of a previous expedition to Papua New Guinea. I also see the Alang – Alang, the tower of traditional bamboo and grass construction – Sumba’s distinctive architectural style. But it is true that some of the roofs, unfortunately, have already started to turn into concrete.
Sumba is an island of shamans and ancestor worship. It’s so connected to tribal culture, you feel the urge to get out and explore what makes up this lost world. The East is a highly stratified society based on castes, whereas the West is more ethnically diverse. The Sumbanese still believe in an animist religion, in which life is a kind of purgatory. Animals are both worshipped and slaughtered as part of rituals. Funerals involve the sacrifice of dozens of animals—pigs, buffalo, cows, even horses. Hand-carved spears and swords feature during the legendary game of Pasola – a festival in West Sumba considered the most important event in the island. It is played by throwing wooden spears at the opponent while riding a horse to celebrate the rice-planting season.
Sumba’s remoteness and isolation have long sounded irresistible to me. It’s a place where I experience pristine waterfalls where locals come to bathe, trek wild trails and ride wild horses. But to feel the heartbeat of Sumba is to meet its people, connect with its religion and witness its ancient rituals. Sumba makes me realise that even the most compelling wilderness is not as interesting as the people who occupy it.
We travelled to Sumba, Indonesia, from April 28th to May 2nd, 2018. First, we flew from Singapore to Bali with Singapore Airlines and then from Bali to Tambolaka airport with Garuda. We stayed at Nihi Sumba.