Sumba – NOT Sumbawa!
Sumba’s beauty is a well-kept secret, even amongst many Indonesians, leaving this island paradise pristine and charmingly underdeveloped. Twice the size of Bali, only few people even recognize the name, suggesting that we may refer to Sumbawa instead. We only learned about Sumba thanks to our nice travel acquaintance and Indonesiaholic Micki, who we met a few months earlier in Azerbaijan. Ok now… I will now stop my rumbling about why Sumba is so amazing and instead start telling what we experienced in our ten days on the western side of this island.
Sumba in general has two major attractions to offer to its visitors: The first is its untouched nature with amazing beaches, teal lagoons, vast mahogany and teak forests as well as scenic mountain ranges. The second is its unique tribe culture. It manifests in the setup of the local villages, the ancestor cult and ritual celebrations. The cult is similarly sophisticated as the ancestor beliefs and funeral ceremonies we encountered in Tana Toraja on Sulawesi.
Sumbanese villages in the Kodi region
Our first day out on Sumba’s roads leads us to the region around the village named Kodi. After an hour and a half drive through teak and mahogany forests, rice paddies and cashew plantations, we arrive at one of the local villages, also called Kampungs.
The majority of Sumba’s inhabitants is still following the Marapu religion – a belief that spiritual forces such as gods, demi-gods or spirits of the ancestors addressed through offerings and rituals can influence future events. This belief reflects in two architectural characteristics that directly catch our eye:
- Megaliths in the center of the village – Like in Sulawesi’s Tana Toraja the ancestor cult and animist religion in Sumba is still actively practiced and modern concrete versions of former megalithic tombs are frequently being erected. Having your ancestor’s remainders nearby makes it more likely that your offerings are accepted and that the spirits will influence earthly matters according to your desires.
- High rising thatched rooftops – The center region of the thatched roof has a very sharp angle while the outer areas have less slope, giving the roofs the appeal of a rectangular Gandalf’s hat with broad brim and pointy tip. Let’s try this: Imagine Gandalf’s hat depicted in a painting by Picasso in his Cubism period and you get very close to the real thing. Anyways, there is no practical reason to build a roof in this way, but the locals believe that a high roof brings you closer to the ancestor spirits living in the skies above and thus consider a high roof as a status symbol, demonstrating wealth and power. Somehow it is always the same – size matters.
Did I mention that the Sumbanese tribal culture is a bit complicated? Let’s start with the welcoming ceremony. When arriving in the village we start off with greeting the elders sitting in front one of the huts and fill in a guestbook. The most notable elder there is usually the Rato – the Marapu spiritual leader. While filling out the guestbook the villagers expect a donation to the village – nothing big but roughly 1$ (R10.000) per person. This money goes into their “social security fund”. If anybody in the village for example gets sick and can’t afford the medication, the village supports him as good as they can. Next part of the welcoming ceremony is distributing cigarettes to the men, sweets to the children and betel nut to both men and women. Soon afterwards, everybody is comfortably drugged or at least pleased with the gifts and we are invited inside the huts.
Each hut is built in a similar way: The rectangular wooden, mostly bamboo, constructions are held together by lashing and dowels rather than nails. Stilts raise the living space from the ground. Beneath the slightly elevated level with the living area are the stables, where horses, pigs and chickens rest in the shade. The living area is divided into one half for the women and one half for the men. In the center is a fireplace where the cooking takes place. One level above the living area is some space for stowing the harvest and seeds for the next year. The hut has no solid side walls. Palm mats can be rolled down for some protection but during day time they are usually left open to vent the building.
Walking around in the village and taking a closer look at the people living here also reveals two more interesting aspects of Sumbanese culture.
Some of the elders, amongst them the Rato we meet, have their scarves flung around their head like turbans. Many men wear sarongs, which are pieces of cloth, loosely tightened on the hips. They end below the knee. A huge long-bladed machete is tucked away in their waistband. John later tells us that the tradition of wearing long-bladed knives causes quite some bloodshed until today when men get drunk on palm liquor and instead of having a fist fight end up using their knives in a stupid pub fight. Pretty savage, isn’t it? It is also worth noting that the Sumbanese people were head hunters in former times and having a knife close by seemed to be advisable back then.
We visit two more villages in the Kodi region this day and get a good impression on the life of the people in the villages. Yet, due to the existing language barriers we surely do not fully comprehend the way of thinking and the rich culture of the Sumbanese villagers. However, the small glimpse we get into their world is already very interesting.
Danau We’ekuri lagoon on the western shore
For a nice cool down, we make a stop at the Danau We’ekuri lagoon, which from this day on easily lists in my personal top ten of marvelous places to take a swim in this world. Set in between trees and rocks, this roughly 200 times 50 meter large natural basin holds waters in the most magnificent turquoise colors. Schools of small fish sometimes break the surface and take a leap into the air. The sound of waves, washing in fresh water from the sea at the western end of the pool, is calming and relaxing. Except for the four of us, only a couple of local children are playing in the waters and curiously look over from time to time, sometimes giggling when being caught while taking a peek. The water temperature is just right and we take a long swim.
The mountain village Sodan
Another noteworthy village excursion that we pursue the next day brings us to the mountain village Sodan. We have to leave our car at a river crossing and continue on foot from there. A 5km walk through the windless midday heat of a green valley and up a steep hill awaits us. The picturesque landscape compensates for the strenuous hike in the burning sun: We start out walking in a green valley following the river, surrounded by grass covered hills. In the distance we already see the thatch-roof houses of Sodan on the top of the mountain. The higher we ascend, the more elements enter the picture. First, the river arms come into view, enclosed by high palm trees and greens. Then, a bit further uphill, the ocean appears beyond the hills in its majestic blue.
After 1.5h, we arrive at the first house in Sodan. In Sodan the head hunter tradition was long upheld and live is still very structured around the old traditions. When we arrive, some of the women jump into some shirts or blouses. In their culture, it is normal to sit around bare breasted but they seem to be aware that this is not the case in western culture. After having finished the welcoming ceremony, the Rato shows us around. He is especially proud to present us the ritual drum, which, according to him, until very recently was still tuned with human skin. The Rato also explains to us that the village’s location up in the hills gave them a significant advantage in the warfare with other tribes as it was easily defended and that Sodan was well-known in the whole south-western region of Sumba for its success in headhunting raids. In Sodan, also the Andung, the wooden pillar on which the heads of the enemies were hung after a head hunt is still erected. It stirs some fantasies about how this place may have looked a hundred years earlier.
The second part of our stay, we relocate our base to the small southwestern town of Waikabubak. The city itself has not much to offer, but we find a nice Warung close to the central square which has a good selection of vegetables and fish for a very, very low price. Our hotel receptionist rents us a scooter via a friend. There are some shops nearby to fulfill all our basic needs. Directly next to the town center are two traditional villages, but after our very authentic experiences in the more remote parts of the island, they have little more to offer. Still, Waikabubak is a great place to start explorations of the southern region with its breathtakingly beautiful beaches. Please also note that, while we explored the village Sodan on a day trip from the north, Waikabubak is actually much closer and thus would have made an even better base for this trip.
The Southern Beaches
Marosi Beach, 32 km away from Waikabubak, is easily one of the most beautiful beaches of Sumba and for us, also one of the most beautiful ones that we have seen in Indonesia so far. A large atoll naturally divides the beach into two parts each offering kilometers of extremely fine white sand. The crystal clear waters invite for a swim, but we arrive already at low tide and decide to relax on the beach instead. The only peril that befalls us on the beach are sandflies. We don’t notice them at first but when we leave we all have a good share of itching little bites all over our bodies. Take some repellant with you if you should be going to visit.
The Kerewee beach lies a couple of kilometers east of Marosi beach. It also boasts fine white sand and in addition has higher waves, making the kilometer long beach a surfer’s paradise. As a bonus, the beach is almost free of sandflies. There is a homestay directly on the beach and we have a great lunch there together with some other visitors surfers that are staying here at Kerewee for a couple of nights. What a relaxing place to hang out!
We arrive via plane from Bali in Tambolaka and have set up our base at the Oro Beach Guest house – a nice, yet slightly overpriced place run by a German/Indonesian couple, located directly on the north-western shore of Sumba.
The almost complete lack of touristic infrastructure on the island is boon and bane at the same time. While we love the unspoiled experience, it is complicated to find transportation and accommodation on your own. There is no shop renting out scooters! After some investigation we find locals who are willing to rent their private scooters for a slightly elevated price. The first days on Sumba we spend together with Maria’s parents who are visiting us and we decide to get a driver/guide with a SUV to get around on the island. Our highly recommended guide John (phone: +6281337479988 mail: firstname.lastname@example.org) is a great personality and explains to us a lot about the local culture, belief system, flora and fauna.
So why do we like Sumba so much?
No matter if you want to explore local culture, do some hikes in the hillside, ride some of Indonesia’s best waves or just hang out pretty much alone along kilometers of fine sand beaches – Sumba has it all. The lack of infrastructure also gives you a bit of an explorer’s feeling, which is hard to find today in a world where even the most remote spots become slowly developed. Give Sumba a shot while it is still in this beautiful untouched shape!
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