Escape / July 2018

Exploring Cultural Wealth and Natural Beauty

By Eko Prasetyo

As far as the eye can see, Sumba Island in East Nusa Tenggara consists of breathtaking natural beauty and a local people whose unique culture and traditions further enrich the landscape.

But despite lucrative growth in tourism, most of Sumba's indigenous people, especially those living on the southwest part of the island, still lack the basic skills to properly benefit from the incoming flow of visitors.

GlobeAsia explored the island in May, at the start of the annual dry season when, according to local residents, the tropical heat, in combination with a scarcity of water, is more likely to cause deaths among the island's wildlife populations.

Must-See Destinations

Sumba offers four types of natural attractions: beaches, waterfalls, savannah and hilltops.

Bawana Beach, a hidden gem on the western side of the island, hosts the island's most recognizable icon: a rock wall with a giant hole in it, located on a stretch of soft sand. It takes more than 90 minutes by car from Tambolaka to reach this destination, and it is best to visit in the late afternoon to witness the magnificent sunsets.

Near the beach is Ratenggaro, a typical village consisting of traditional wooden houses with unusually high roofs. Residents believe the roofs enable them to reach the gods, while also serving as status symbols. Thus, the higher the roof, the higher the owner's status, with the highest belonging to the royal family. Here one can also find woven fabrics typical to Sumbanese culture.

These traditional villages are spread across the island and locals are accustomed to living alongside their deceased relatives, with ancestors buried in monolithic tombs that make Stonehenge look like domino pieces.

Mandorak, a small beach near a private property belonging to a Frenchman, is a pristine location where travelers can enjoy sunbathing during low tide, as it becomes too risky during high tide.

Weekuri Lagoon is another attraction, where visitors can enjoy the unusual experience of swimming in a lagoon that directly borders the sea. There is nothing to fear as the waters are calm and relatively shallow, allowing visitors to take a refreshing dip in the lagoon. There is also a spot from where one can jump into the water below, but be careful of marine creatures, such as fire corals, beneath the surface.

The eastern part of Sumba also offers a wide range of attractions, such as Wairinding Hills, the most photogenic place in the area, frequented by bloggers, photographers and those taking pre-wedding photos. It is also a perfect place for those who are into stargazing, as the clear skies and lack of artificial lighting make the stars highly visible at night.

Walakiri Beach in Waingapu, the largest town on the island, also offers spectacular scenery, with people flocking to the area at sunset to see a magical display of dancing trees provided by the vast array of mangrove trees during low tide. Here you can experience the golden hours of sunset, when the sky turns orange and red as the sun sets over the horizon.

Tanggedu Waterfall is another hidden gem, although it can be difficult to reach for those unprepared to do some hiking. It will take 45 minutes to reach the waterfall from the parking area, but travelers are spoiled with views of the hilly landscape and savannah while passing some traditional houses along the way.

Hence, travelers arriving in Sumba should be prepared to experience long hours on the road to reach the various outdoor adventures, which often still require hiking along narrow and hilly paths to reach secluded beaches and waterfalls. Added to these attractions are cultural events, such as pasola – spear-fighting competitions on horseback.

Most of the island's main roads are already surfaced with asphalt or concrete, but some destinations require a certain degree of driving finesse to conquer the rocky, bumpy roads. While a visit to Sumba means limited access to modern amenities such as electricity, cellular coverage and internet access, travelers get to experience the island's extraordinary landscapes and local traditions.

Infrastructure and Traditional Values

Although Sumba is commonly perceived as consisting of two distinct regions: west and east, the island actually has four districts. Daily flights are only available at two airports on the island, so travelers may want to plan their trips to include a transit in Bali. Victors often opt for overland trips across the vast savannah and hilly terrain to reach the other side of the island over several days, or even weeks, while exploring every interesting spot.

Upon their arrival at Tambolaka Airport, visitors face the stark absence of modern infrastructure and a vast wilderness surrounding the small town of Tambolaka in Southwest Sumba, which is reason enough for travelers to adjust their expectations.

However, it is different on the eastern side of the island, where construction sites can be seen in the area surrounding Waingapu. Only small propeller aircraft, operated by regional airlines Nam Air and Wings Air, land at nearby Umbu Mehang Kunda Airport.

Ilham, a travel planner and tour guide focusing on eastern Indonesia, guided us as we explored some of the magnificent natural and cultural attractions on the island. He said most locals in the western part of Sumba still wear traditional clothing, although some wearing more modern attire can occasionally be seen. As part of the local tradition, men in Southwest Sumba still carry machetes, or parang, usually attached to their trousers or sarongs.

The islanders practice the Marapu religion, which involves the worship of a combination of ancestors, natural spirits and an omnipresent god whose name may never be spoken.

However, there is a somewhat awkward acceptance of incoming tourists, with local residents tending to gather around groups of visitors to offer various goods such as souvenirs, handicrafts and fresh coconuts, or services such as assistance in navigating the various paths, or opportunities to take photos with horses, at prices starting from around $3.

As simple as it might be, this has proven to annoy some visitors, and as word of mouth spread, many tourists, especially foreigners, started to avoid these parts of Sumba. In short, these residents are killing off their own source of income by being too blunt about demanding cash in return for their aid.

Nevertheless, this was not our experience on the eastern part of the island, where people seemed to have been educated to better cater to incoming tourists and travelers. "It is totally different here in the east, as they seem to be more relaxed and friendly to accept visitors," Ilham told us when we arrived in Waingapu.

What More Can Be Done?

The trip was overwhelming, as the beauty of this part of eastern Indonesia contrasts sharply with the living conditions of its residents, most of whom are poor, depending on tourism and scarce resources to survive.

But the government has a real opportunity to develop the region into one of the most notable destinations for both foreign and domestic tourists.

Ery Radixa, a local businessman and member of the royal family in the area, said what had struck him most when he decided to permanently return to his hometown a few years ago, is that livelihoods in the eastern part of the island are far better than in the western part.

"It is possible for the government, or the private sector, to invest more in this region, as it is still lacking progress in terms of adding more tourism value and improving people's livelihoods," said Ery whose father, Umbu Mehang Kunda, was honored in the naming of the local airport.

"Business opportunities here are still wide open, as we are facing growth in the tourism sector," he added.

However, despite the presence of Nihi Sumba Island, a luxury surfing resort chosen by readers of Travel+Leisure magazine as the world's best hotel for 2016 and 2017, insufficient transportation infrastructure remains one of the main issues for the government to address if it wants to attract more tourists to the area.

Sumba's unique cultural experiences and breathtaking views are to die for, and the best the government can do to support tourism is to improve the transportation infrastructure and electricity supply. However, great care must be taken not to sacrifice the island's natural beauty in the process, as is currently happening with the development of a natural gas power plant near Puru Kambera in East Sumba, just 30 minutes from Waingapu.

"It was a difficult decision for the local government I guess, since we need the electricity. But on the other hand, it slightly disrupts the natural beauty of Puru Kambera," Ery said.

Besides that, the government should also improve education, especially in Sumba's secluded traditional communities, to allow them to adjust to the increasing influx of tourists, who may soon start to arrive in their thousands.