Hidden behind Flores and Sumbawa islands at bottom of the Lesser Sunda Island group, Sumba tends to get passed over by most islands hoppers, including the organised cruises which usually stick to the north of Sumbawa. But there’s one group of people that come from all over the world to visit Sumba – surfers!
Almost the entire long southern coast of the island is exposed to swells generated by Southern Ocean storms thousands of kilometres away and seasonal south-east trade winds. It’s a surfer’s paradise with a wide variety of waves to suit beginners, world class surfers and everyone in between. “Occy’s Left” at Nihiwatu on the south-west coast is considered one of the world’s most exclusive waves.
But you don’t have to be into surfing to enjoy Sumba. The island has some of the best preserved traditional culture in Indonesia and is dotted with traditional villages, local markets, delightful river valleys and waterfalls. Almost the entire coast is lined with perfectly sheltered bays with fringing coral reefs for swimming and snorkelling and some delightfully laid back villages in which to base yourself. For adventure seekers happy to just get out there and explore, there’s a reward around every corner.
Endowed with gentle, undulating hills cloaked in waving russet grass and limestone cliffs, Sumba bears little resemblance to its neighbours. The locals tend plots of maize, cassava and rice but the poor soils produce barely enough to feed the islanders and with few other income streams, the Sumbanese are among the poorest in Indonesia. NGO’s and recent government attention has brought some improvement over the last decade and a trickle of tourists is providing much needed income which is likely to improve as word of the island’s sleepy villages and well preserved traditional culture seeps out.
The key to Sumba’s rich cultural history is its isolation. The Sumbanese believe the first inhabitants came not from somewhere else but descended from heaven via a ladder to found the first village of Wunga. On an island with scarce resources, warring between the clans and small kingdoms for land and trading rights was almost inevitable. Believing it would bring good harvests and wealth for the village, warriors brought the heads of slain enemies back to their villages where they were displayed on Andung (skull trees). Kidnappings and slavery between the villages were also common. For reasons of defence, villages were built on hilltops and surrounded by stone walls. Not surprisingly, the violence deterred visitors from neighbouring islands, sealing Sumba’s fate to one of geographic, economic and cultural isolation.
The best way to see Sumba is to grab some transport and poke around. The island is dotted with coastal and inland villages, local markets and pretty vistas. Over much of the island, gorgeous rivers and sweeping rice fields are overlooked by hilltop villages where most residents still live in distinctive thatched roof huts and remnants of the protective stone walls and ancestral tombs are still visible. In a handful of villages you can still find skull-trees and skulls. Villagers enjoy receiving visitors and a few words of Bahasa Indonesia goes a long way towards making your visit extra enjoyable. Always remember to sign the guest book and make a small donation for the privilege of having a look around.