Flying into West Sumbawa’s capital Bima, tends to leave a lasting impression. If you’re approaching from the west, you’ll get a bird’s eye view of the massive Mt Tambora crater before descending towards the airport near the bottom of the Bay of Bima. And this is where it gets tricky – for Tambora you’ll want to be seated on the left hand side of the plane but on the right, you’ll have a fabulous view of the Bima salt pans.
Occupying roughly 1,800 hectares around the bottom of Bima Bay, the salt pans are vast and impressive. The high salinity level and extensive natural estuary system, coupled with the hot, dry climate are ideal conditions for salt production.
Bima has a long history of salt production. It is widely believed Bima salt was traded throughout the Indonesian archipelago for centuries, possibly making it as far afield as Malaysia and the Philippines via the Bugis sea gypsies. Describing the island as it was before the devastating 1815 Tambora eruption, Dutch administrators Schelle and Tobias recorded “There are saltpans in Bima, which supplies the entire coast and part of Boneratte, Manggarai, Saleijer and Bonie with salt from these.”
Nothing much has changed since those times. Bima salt still remains one of the islands most important commodities and production is still largely a cottage based industry. Most salt pans are farmed by individual families or small cooperatives. The process involves inundating the ponds with salt water via a series of natural and man-made waterways and then waiting for the sun to do its work. Since rain is the enemy of salt famers – a single heavy shower can set the natural evaporation process back weeks – salt farming is compressed into the dry season.
Basically, if you’re approaching or leaving Bima along the southern route, either to Lakey Peak or making a trans-Sumbawa journey to/from Sumbawa Besar, your route will take you past the saltpans. For a close up look or to walk among the saltpans, ask your driver to stop or hop off the public bus at any village once you hit the saltpans, such as Palibelo on the outskirts of Bima. If your timing is right you may see the salt farmers collecting their harvest by hand.