Sumba Island: Indonesia’s gem

This post describes the beautiful island of Sumba and its idyllic setting, a perfect getaway.

Sumba Island is a honeymooners’ paradise, and hands down, it is the most beautiful island in Indonesia. Surprisingly, it is not commonly visited even though it lies just east of Bali (see our post on Bali) and hosts one of the world’s most exclusive resorts (world’s best hotel, 2016, 2017 – Travel and Leisure). Those who do visit are usually surfers because of its astounding surfing scene. Sumba’s history and traditions are very different from the rest of Indonesia and together with its incredible natural beauty, is a visitor’s dream. If you are interested in seeing a different side of this massive Indonesian archipelago and especially if you are looking for an ideal honeymoon location, then this is one spot not to leave it off your itinerary.

An empty drum makes the loudest sound – Indonesian proverb

Sumba has also attracted anthropologists who find the customs and traditions instrumental in understanding the human condition.

Anthropologist Webb Keane writes; “What attracted me to Sumba was that there was a highly elaborated tradition of poetic speaking that was vital and that everyone seemed to take seriously. It wasn’t just a specialized thing and it wasn’t an esoteric dying tradition. It was something that was at the heart of people’s interests in their lives. It was so alive that people would constantly be quoting passages in the way people used to quote from Shakespeare or Cicero or the Bible in the 19th century.”

Sumba is one of the Lesser Sunda Islands and is in the province of East Nusa Tenggara, with 4,270sq miles, and the population is estimated at 770,000. To the northwest of Sumba is Sumbawa, to the northeast is Flores, to the east is Timor, and to the south is Australia. Colonization of the island began in the 1500s by the Portuguese.

Prior to colonization, Sumba was inhabited by the Melanesian people, indigenous inhabitants of Malanesia (sub-region of oceania encompassing a wide area from New Guinea to Fiji). It was also inhabited by the Austronesian people (indigenous people of Maritime Southeast Asia, Madagascar, islands of the Pacific Ocean and Taiwan).

Nihi Sumba

The easiest way to fly to Sumba is from Dempasar, Bali with Garuda Air to Tambolaka airport in Sumba (approx 1 hour flight).

The island’s most popular resort is the Nihi Sumba, which has been ranked as one of the world’s five best eco-hotels and was awarded the world’s best hotel of 2016 and 2017 from Travel + Leisure for its native ambiance and authentic local experience.

The drive from the Tambolaka airport to Nihi was approx 1.5 hours. The resort picked us up and the drive was blissful.

NIHI Sumba has earned a reputation for one of the world’s most coveted surfing spots, initially discovered by Claude and Petra Graves in the late 1980s during a worldwide search for the perfect wave. Known as “God’s Left” or often “Occy’s Left” (after Australian surfer Mark Occhilupo), the wave is popular for its required skill of navigation. To maintain a surfing experience that is said to be unparalleled in the world, Nihi Sumba limits the surfing to ten registered surfers per day.

Despite its expensive rates, the resort becomes fully booked at peak times. It has a stable full of distinguished Sandalwood horses and provides horse tours on the beach and into the villages.

Sumba’s Pasola

One of Sumba’s intriguing ancient cultures is the Pasola Rituals. The rituals include war games performed by villagers riding horses and throwing wooden spears at each other. The word “Pasola” is derived from the word “Sola” or “Hola” meaning a kind of a long wooden stick. It is used as a spear to fling each other by two opponent groups of horsemen.

Two groups are made up of 25 men each, mostly from the upper and lower villages, they wear traditional clothing during the ceremony. At the start of the ceremony, a prayer is led by the Rato, a traditional priest. After the prayer the Rato throws his spear between the groups, and the game starts. The festival is held every year in February or March in Kodi or Lamboya, unfortunately the exact dates are not predictable, because it is decided by the Rato and announced only one or two weeks before.

Sumba Island Horse tour into the villages

Take a horse ride through some of the villages for an innovative and thoroughly enjoyable way of meeting the villagers and seeing the countryside. It is also a great way to experience the magnificent open beaches. The Sandalwood horses used by Nihi Sumba are a breed native to the island and takes its name from the Sandalwood Tree. Most of their horses are retired racehorses.

Twenty-five to thirty percent of the village population practices the Marapu, a form of ancestral religion that is practiced mainly in Sumba and Flores. Both the Christians and Muslims on these islands tend to combine their faiths with Marapu. Since Marapu is not an official religion of Indonesia, all Indonesian citizens are required to identify as a member of one of the religions sanctioned by law, members have chosen either Christianity or Islam to self identify.

Although culturally rich and strong in traditions, Sumba is one of the poorest islands in the Indonesian Archipelago. A majority of its inhabitants live below the Indonesian poverty line. Rice is planted wherever there are sufficient supplies of water, although the short rainy season in most areas does not yield enough food for daily consumption.

Indonesia as a whole is faced with the complex challenge of supporting economic growth and improving living standards for both urban and rural dwellers. Sumba has had to depend on the central government’s sporadic emergency aid in order to stave off famines due to crop failures.

Sumba’s Megalithic Burials

Sumba still uses megalithic burials or large stone internment graves for prominent individuals when they die. Burial in megaliths is a practice that was used in many parts of the world during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages and has not survived in many places in the world. The fact that the practice has survived in Sumba has attracted international scholars.

Ron Adams of Simon Fraser University, after examining the reason why the practice is continued today, concluded that Sumba’s megalithic burials benefit both the individual and the group. For the individual household, there are wide ranging benefits such as helping with marriage negotiations for a son or daughter by giving the tomb holder credibility. It can also help when one needs to borrow livestock for other social purposes and to establish debt relationships. For the clan or village, building tombs enhances the stability and corporate power of the clan as the main holder of land titles. Inter clan relations are important in resolution building.

Sumba Village Life

Indonesia is one of nine malaria-endemic countries in the South-East Asia region, accounting for 21% of the regions reported cases and 16% malaria deaths. Sumba has one of the highest occurrences of malaria in Asia. In 2004, an estimated 20 percent of all children died or became severely brain damaged by malaria before the age of 10. In 2004, the Sumba Foundation was established to deal with the malaria issue in Sumba. The Sumba Foundation’s world-renowned malaria expert, Dr. Claus Bogh, joined the Sumba Foundation to develop malaria and health programs. Since 2004, the number of malaria cases have been considerably lowered, due mainly to screening and distribution of nets and other programs run by the Foundation.

Many of the villagers have never ventured outside their village. Also, unlike many of the places in Indonesia where social media is famously popular, many of the villagers in Sumba do not have access to internet. We stopped on our way to our hotel to greet a woman and two children. The little boy, about 5 years old, recoiled from us and appeared genuinely terrified. We asked our guide what he was afraid of and we were told that the little boy had never seen ‘white’ people.

Due to Sumba’s isolation from the central government in Java and its relatively small size and population for Indonesian standards, the island has historically lacked adequate support in terms of the distribution of already limited resources needed for economic growth.

Waikabubak is one of the central hubs in Sumba although it is a loose collection of little villages that sit in the middle of pristine fields. You can also venture out from Waikabubak into the smaller villages that surround it such as Kampung Tarung. All are unique, filled with treasures that have not been touched for centuries.

Mondisti’s Sumba Travel Tips

  1. Sumba is the most beautiful island in Indonesia and a dream to visit.
  2. The Nihi Sumba resort, although expensive is a worthwhile investment.
  3. The horse tours into the villages are a great way to meet the villagers and see the sights.
  4. Sumba has an interesting anthropological history.
  5. The pasola is a custom worth experiencing but hard to time.
  6. Surfing in one of Sumba’s most famous activities but if you are not a surfer, there is certainly enough to experience without it.
  7. A four day itinerary is good but you will want to stay longer.