Legend says that when humankind first made landfall on earth by going down a celestial ladder, they touched down on Sumba. Whatever the truth is, Sumba remains one of Indonesia’s most mysterious islands. Located in the Sabu Sea and largely isolated from the cultural forces that has affected the rest of the Indonesian identity, it is the perfect place to go for tourists out to experience traveling off the beaten track.
Lavish funerals, a wealth of ikat fabrics and the thrill of the annual ritual war fought on horseback called the pasola are just a few of the attractions that draw tourists to the Indonesian state of Sumba.
Agrarian animist cultures may also be experienced first-hand by visitors going around Sumba’s villages. These villages comprise huge clan houses set on fortified hills, centered round megalithic graves and topped by a totem made from a petrified tree.
The most important part of life for the Sumbanese is death, when the mortal soul makes the journey into the spirit world. Sumbanese funerals can be extremely impressive spectacles, particularly if the deceased is a person with prestige, inspiring several days’ worth of feasting, with the corpse wrapped in hundreds of exquisite ikat cloths.
Most Western visitors to Sumba may find it hard to go with the Sumbanese village life where traditions and taboos are still very powerful and may clash with the demands of modern tourism.
A visitor to a Sumbanese village must first take the time to share cirih pinang (betel nut) with both the kepala desa (village headman) and his hosts.
For the Sumbanese, the betel nut is a sign of peace and of unity; Sumbanese ritual culture sets great store by returning blood to the earth, and the bright-red gobs of saliva produced by chewing cirih represent this.
The eastern part of the island is rocky, dry and fairly mountainous; the west, on the other hand, is fertile and green, with rolling hills and a long rainy season.
Waingapu is well-known for producing the finest ikat in the whole of Indonesia. Stone tombs with bizarre carvings may be found a little further out at Rende and Melolo. Other villages right out on the east coast offer the chance to see quality weaving and traditional structures near some deserted beaches.
Tarimbang, on the south coast, is developing to be a hot spot for surfers with a few waterfalls inland for those who prefer communing with nature.
The main town in the west is Waikabubak, where characteristic houses with thatched roofs soar to an apex over 15m above the ground.
Acess to Sumba is either by ferry from Ende in Flores to Waingapu or by air to either Waingapu or Tambolaka. If you’re planning on flying out of Sumba, do it from Waingapu rather than Tambolaka, which is notorious for cancellations.