Sumba is so big, we’ve split it up into areas, select one of the below for detailed accommodation and food listings in that area. Sights and general overviews for Sumba as a whole can be found via the icons above. Don’t know where to start? Read an overview of Sumba’s different areas.
Forgotten, lost, ignored. Perched near the bottom edge of the Indonesian archipelago, Sumba is the third island in the chain that stretches east of Bali and is just 700 kilometres from Australia. Sumba’s rich ancient culture and stunning landscapes will have you wondering why you’ve (till now!) never heard of it.
Wonky cigar-shaped Sumba is about twice as big as far more popular Bali but is home to only 15 percent of the population. Very, very few Western tourists make it here. Most of those who do are the cashed-up-crowd staying at Nihiwatu Resort or a seasonal handful of surfers.
Surfers have known for years that Sumba’s coastline is one of the most spectacular in Indonesia. Beaches feature silky white sand, blue ocean and often good waves and are guaranteed to convert even the most beach adverse. Coastal cliffs and limestone formations are dramatic. Of the 16 beaches we visited for research, we saw local tourists on only two and fishermen on three. The rest were empty. Snorkelling and diving is possible in a couple of areas, but the places we visited didn’t offer that much. Some beaches have crocodiles, so check with locals or it may be your last swim.
In the south, you will find tropical rainforest, including in two designated national parks, which boast an abundance of bird life including several endemic species. Very pretty waterfalls feature in the forest areas, and a few waterfalls near hydro power stations can be visited. Lakes are dotted along roads and tucked away in forests; some tidal lakes have sea connections, most notably the gobsmackingly stunning Weekuri Lagoon.
Aside from its natural attractions, Sumba’s unique ancient culture is worth the price of the ticket alone. Thirty to sixty percent (depending on whom you talk to) follow traditional Marapu beliefs, a form of animism based on ancestor worship. As Marapu is not an “official religion” in Indonesia, numbers are sketchy, and most are nominally (pork-eating) Christians.
The first evidence of something special going on here is the unusual tall, top-hat-roofed thatched clan houses you’ll see, often but not always on hilltops and surrounding large, often elaborately carved stone tombs. One of the few remaining living megalithic cultures in the world, everyday life is full of ritual, often at huge financial cost to already poverty-stricken families. Animal sacrifices are common.
The traditional festival of Pasola, a ritual horseback spear-throwing war, is the most famous and popular for tourists. However, many other festivals and ceremonies happen throughout the year, and as a tourist you are most often welcome. Masterful ikat and songket weaving are produced (and sold) in many traditional villages. Often a small pop-up market will surround the visiting tourist. As there is no written Sumbanese language, the colourful motifs and designs of ikats are a way of passing history and stories down through the generations. Ikat is very important to the local culture for ritual gifts and as funeral shrouds.
You will notice as you travel across Sumba that the names of places often incorporate the words wai, tana and watu, which in the local language mean respectively water, land and stone. The etymology in Sumbanese culture is greater than just the physical link— earth is the mother, and water comes from the father sky in the form of rain.
Ecologically, Sumba is east of the Wallace line, and was once famous for its sandalwood. What were probably once great sandalwood forests are now swathes of savannah. In the wet season, and shoulder season thereafter, the rolling hills are lush and green, as it was at the time of our visit in March 2016. In the dry season they become golden and parched. Sumba misses out on the volcanos found elsewhere in Indonesia, and is covered by low, rugged sandstone and limestone hills and mountains, the highest of which is Palindi Wanggameti at 1,225 metres.
Rice is farmed in low wetlands, and hill rice can also be found. Other crops include corn, sorghum, cashews, coffee and cloves. Potentially lucrative gold seams have been found in Sumba and mining companies have done exploratory work, meeting plenty of local protest. People we spoke to thought it was only a matter of time before the land is exploited. Other than ubiquitous dogs, goats, cows, buffalos, pigs and horses dotting the savannah, very few mammals are to be found, such as a few species of bats and shrews, and the occasional macaque.
The people of Sumba are defined by a kind of caste system. Your are either born royalty, a regular free person, or a slave. Yep, slaves. As a slave, you work for your king, who feeds and clothes you. You and your offspring are inherited by the kings’ descendants. Slaves marry slaves. We tried to ask about the slave system, but were told that often people will say that slaves are “their children”, and that slaves love their king so much they will do anything for them. We couldn’t find any slaves to confirm this. With the death of the king, along with buffalo and horses, slaves were also traditionally sacrificed to follow the king to the afterlife; we heard stories that this still happens — and is dismissed by the authorities as it falls under hukum adat or local law, but had no firsthand confirmation.
Airports at either end of the island connect to Bali and West Timor. It makes it convenient to fly into one end and out of the other when travelling overland. Sea ports make visiting by boat feasible for the slower-paced traveller.
Major roads are excellent, with no traffic. Minor roads vary from asphalted but narrow to punishing, almost impassable tracks, but this is changing. Several of the more difficult roads are up for the “hot mix” treatment soon, we were told. These are mostly roads leading to beaches and other “tourist attractions”, not so much the roads to where people live.
There is money in tourism, and Sumba is priming itself for the influx. Most coastal land has been sold and many areas have signs announcing the building of a forthcoming hotel. During our research we had offers to buy land almost every day.
Apart from one or two, hotels cater mostly to Indonesian businesspeople, government officials and a smattering of passing NGOs and are expensive for the standard. Rates are priced in the knowledge that someone else is paying so expect about double what you would assume for similar amenities in other parts of Indonesia (plus a bit, sometimes). Rates are nearly always higher for a couple than a single traveller.
Unless you’re paying top dollar, most offerings are not the cleanest we’ve encountered so bring your own sleep sheet and travel towel. A hot shower is a premium way above air-con, and much rarer. Along the southern coast, most accommodation is in simple homestays or beach huts, where prices are usually per person and include all meals, but we feel much is overpriced. Occasionally it’s possible to stay in a traditional village. This can be arranged with local guides, and can be a special experience. Bring a mosquito net.
The same higher pricing goes for private transport. We were told this is due to the unregulated buying up of petrol and reselling at prices up to four times the regular price at festival times. There is a network of public buses servicing major centres, but to get to more interesting sights you will need some form of private transport and perhaps a guide.
It’s possible to hire a motorbike, but apart from major roads, there are very few signs, road maps are almost non-existent, and phone signals don’t reach many areas. Road conditions in the wet season are not for the novice. We mostly used an ojek for research, and there were several sections of road where we just had to walk.
In western Sumba we were warned not to travel after dark. A number of areas are known for machete-wielding local bandits who create roadblocks using bamboo poles. Many areas are still very tribal, and even in daytime some drivers are nervous venturing into areas unless they have relatives there or can speak the local language, most notably the Kodi region in the southwest.
Major towns have restaurants and warungs, but outside of these areas, food options are limited. We struggled to find “Sumbanese” food during our research, except for the rather unappealing sacrificed animals boiled in salted water complete with hair or feathers offered at ceremonies. The one dish that we tried that appeared to be Sumbanese was a delicious tamarind-based fish soup; many versions are found all over Sumba. Hotels and homestays can usually feed you, but if you are planning a day trip to more remote areas, take snacks.
Local food served in homestays is commonly rice with fish and vegetables. Local restaurants again mostly cater to the business traveller and serve standard Indonesian fare, mostly Javanese influenced. Indonesian “fast food”, Padang, can be found in towns too. If you participate in a ceremony you will be served (and expected to eat) the aforementioned parts of sacrificed animals. You can however get away with eating just rice. Refreshingly there are no chain-store minimarts in Sumba (yet), but plenty of small local stores in towns sell snacks and sundries.
Sumba’s history, like the rest of Indonesia, is a tale of colonisation, first by the Majapahit dynasty based in Central Java, then the Portuguese and Dutch. Later during World War II, the Japanese used Sumba as a starting point for their invasion of northern Australia. A few relics from this period can be visited.
Sumba’s remoteness leaves it mostly out of the eye of Indonesia’s central government. Poverty, access to clean water, malnutrition, malaria and a slew of other health issues are among Sumba’s most pressing challenges. Economic opportunities in Sumba are limited, which sees many leaving to work in Bali or Malaysia, and in some cases returning with HIV. Schools can be hours from villages, and children can often be more useful at home. A number of local and international NGOs are working to alleviate these problems. Hopefully the anticipated increase in tourism will provide job opportunities and a boost to the local economy (rather than merely being syphoned back to line the pockets of Jakarta fat cats).
Our coverage Part of the Indonesian province of East Nusa Tenggara (NTT), which includes Flores and West Timor, Sumba is divided into four political regencies: East Sumba plus what was originally West Sumba but is now divided into Central, West and Southwest regencies. Each regency has several subdistricts. There is a distinct cultural divide between East and West Sumba; the west is definitely like the cliched Wild West, while the east feels, well, less wild.
Sumba has two major towns: Waingapu in the east, which is the larger and more developed with both an air and sea port, and Waikabubak in the west. Waikabubak has the largest concentration of easily accessible traditional villages. About 40 kilometres further west, the town of Waitabula (Tambokaka) is home to the other (more modern) airport and sea port. A major two-lane road connects all three towns dividing Sumba down the middle lengthways, passing through Lewa, where you can visit the Manupeu Tanah Daru National Park and Anakalang, home to some of Sumba’s largest megalithic tombs.
In the east, a road follows the coast from the traditional village of Wunga in the north, the oldest settlement in Sumba, passing Waingapu, to Melolo, with nearby villages famed for ikat. It then heads slightly inland and back to the coast to Baing, for the spectacular surf of Kalala.
East of Lewa, the central road forks south, eventually leading to one of the most dazzling beaches we’ve encountered, Tarimbang. We were told that the bays further west, only reachable by boat, are even more breathtaking. We didn’t have time to get that far on this trip.
The magnificent southern beach areas of Wanokaka and Lamboya, dotted with villages and several Pasola fields, can be reached from Waikabubak. The Kodi region with its amazing coastal landscape is home to fascinating villages, including Ratenggaro, which boasts the tallest roofs in Sumba. Kodi, also famed for Pasola, is best reached via Waitabula. The coastal road north of Waitabula leads to pretty beaches, with tourist friendly hotels.
ATMs are available in all larger and some smaller towns, but you won’t find any in the southern or northern coastal areas. Some ATMs only accept six-digit PINs. If you have a card with a four-digit PIN, adding two zeros seems to work. Change large bills before heading to villages. We didn’t find WiFi that worked anywhere, even when we were told it was available. Out of the towns are mostly dead zones for a phone signal. Telkomsel is the only network that has coverage anywhere in Sumba, and 3G signal for data coverage is intermittent. Ask a local the best spot for a signal. This may mean walking a few hundred metres or climbing a tree.
Basic hospitals are in major towns. Health clinics in smaller towns don’t always have a doctor, or even a nurse. For medical emergencies, Bali is a one-hour flight away. Make sure you have adequate travel insurance and carry a well stocked first-aid kit. Malaria and dengue are both prevalent in Sumba. Bring repellant, a mosquito net and discuss malaria prophylactics with your doctor. Don’t be paranoid, just aware.
Police stations are located in every subdistrict. In East Sumba we were warned about crime in West Sumba. In West Sumba we were warned about crime in West Sumba. Don’t travel between areas at night in West Sumba, however walking or travelling around towns is fine, even as a lone woman. We were warned about pickpockets at the Pasola ceremony and two tourists reportedly had their mobile phones stolen at the Pasola prior to the one we attended. Pasolas are a veiled excuse for tribal warfare. The one a few days before we arrived ended with tear gas. Don’t get too close!
In West Sumba we jumped on a public bus (with other passengers). At our destination, a fare of 600,000 rupiah, 30 times the actual 20,000 rupiah fare, was demanded. The other ‘passengers’ were friends with the driver. Local villagers helped us negotiate a lower (but still extortionate) fare. We feel this incident was more opportunistic than targeted. All other people we met were helpful, friendly and hospitable.
Temperatures around the coast in Sumba average around 30 degrees Celsius, but seem hotter. The central areas around Lewa, Tarimbang and, to some extent, Waikabubak, are a little cooler, and at night we were reaching for a blankie. November to April is rainy season, and the best time to visit is just after this, when those rolling hills are still lush and green. You’ll still get wet with the occasional downpour, and road travel may be more difficult.
You can get a good taste of Sumba in a week by visiting a few villages, beaches and waterfalls. A bit longer will give you time to relax at one of those lonely beaches, or hike through one of the national parks and perhaps attend a local ceremony.
Visiting villages can be like visiting churches in Europe— they become overwhelming. As fascinating as they are, don’t try to see them all. A guide will enhance the experience, even if you speak Indonesian. Out of towns a little Indonesian (or a phrasebook) can be very helpful. Sumba isn’t difficult to travel, but it definitely feels like a real adventure.
It’s possible to hire a motorbike, but apart from major roads, there are very few signs, road maps are almost non-existent (except for the excellent one produced by Sumba Information), and phone signals don’t reach many areas. Road conditions in the wet season are not for the novice. We mostly used an ojek for research, and there were several sections of road where we just had to walk.
If you're still figuring out how to get there, you need to read up on how to get to Sumba.
By Sally Arnold.
Last updated on 18th November, 2016.
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