Lying at the eastern end of a chain of beautiful Indonesian islands, Sumba remains a mystery to most. Full of history and alive with indigenous culture, Sumba island is also attracting attention for its unique wildlife and stunning natural beauty. With a land area of over 11,000km2, it is much larger than its more famous neighbour Bali and Lombok, yet it is largely untouched by the outside world. This island paradise remains a stunning mystery waiting to be explored by the more adventurous traveler.
While increasing tourist numbers can be a double-edged sword for islands like Sumba, a government initiative is underway to ensure it is developed responsibly. The aim is to develop the economy and power the island with clean energy, in order to lift local people out of poverty by making sure they benefit from the tourist dollars, while at the same time preserving local traditions and the island’s ecology.
This guide aims to help intrepid travelers explore the stunning white-sand beaches, untamed wilderness and fascinating tribal villages of Sumba, without spoiling its natural beauty and untouched charm. The way to do that is to be mindful of the people of Sumba and their culture, traditions and religious practices. To understand the delicate ecological balance of the island and to respect the natural environment. And to get excited about the potential growth of Sumba’s economy and the target to make it run on 100% renewable energy by 2025.
Only then can we truly enjoy the best Sumba has to offer while leaving a positive impact on its people, its economy and its natural majesty.
Sumba lies at the southeastern end of an archipelago known as the Lesser Sunda Islands, which also includes Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa, Flores and Timor, among others. Sumba itself is part of the smaller sub-group known as East Nusa Tenggara.
Although Sumba island is very close to Bali, less than an hour’s flight away, it has a different geological make-up to the volcanic islands to the north. It is thought to originate from the Australian tectonic plate and therefore is made up predominantly of limestone, rather than volcanic rock and has a unique mix of Australasian and Asian flora and fauna.
There is little record of life on Sumba before the colonial settlers arrived in the 1500s. Archaeological digs have revealed human skeletons and clay jugs from the Paleolithic period, 2800-3500 years ago, and ancient megaliths from the Melanesian and Austronesian people who inhabited the island remain.
Over the years, the local Marapu religion developed which has a system of beliefs surrounding life, birth and death, and rituals honouring ancestors and featuring deity worship. Marapu forms the basis of philosophical beliefs and cultural expression of Sumbanese people giving rise to the traditional places of worship (umaratu), distinctive architecture, decorative carvings, textiles, jewellery and weapons.
In 1522, the first Portuguese ships arrived and later, Dutch colonialists came to Sumba, realising the abundance of sandalwood on the island which they exported for large profits. The Sumbanese people remained and wars between clans were common. During WWII, the Japanese occupied the island but later fled as Australian troops amassed in northern Australia.
On 17th August 1950, Indonesia took control and Sumba became part of the province of Nusa Tenggara Timur. The government left the clan and family power structures in place, meaning the larger, wealthier families remained largely in control.
Since 2007, Sumba and the smaller islands surrounding it have been divided into four regencies: West Sumba, Southwest Sumba, Central Sumba and East Sumba.
Local Culture and Traditions
Being relatively untouched by the outside world, Sumba island has retained a wealth of fascinating local traditions that define its cultural identity. Examples of these can be found all over the island at traditional villages and burial sites, and during the festivals and celebrations that take place year-round.
Villages of traditional Sumbanese clan houses, built around ancestral tombs, can be found across the island. The pointed roofs distinguish Marapu buildings, which are made of wood with a stone or wooden base and a roof made from Alang grass. They are usually built on hills or mountainsides to be closer to ancestral spirits with the village enclosed by stone walls. Villages are usually arranged with the largest house in the middle. This is the ceremonial building used for rituals and rites for the whole village.
A traditional house has three levels, each of which has a symbolic meaning. The underworld below the house (uma dalu) is where the animals live. Above that is the human living space (baga), and in the rafters and the peaked roof is the spiritual world where the gods and ancestral spirits reside (labu baga). Only elders are allowed in this space, in which objects of spiritual significance are placed as offerings to the spirits and supplies are stored. According to Marapu beliefs, the levels of the house signify the harmonious relationship between man and God. The traditional house is not only a place to live and take shelter, it is also an important part of society and a place of ceremony.
The Sumbanese are famous for their handwoven Ikat textiles, an intricate technique involving dying threads multiple times and intricately weaving them to form complex patterns. Different patterns signify different clans from different regions.
An Ikat garment can be a traditional piece of clothing worn in everyday life but can also hold a lot of value and be worn during ceremonies. The body of a high-status person may also be wrapped in an Ikat cloth as part of the burial ritual.
Between February and March, a traditional rite takes place barely changed for thousands of years, in which spear-wielding horsemen charge at one another attempting to knock the other off his horse. The display is in aid of a successful harvest and draws excited crowds. Although these days it is more for the show, people still regularly get hurt during the ceremony as the spears used are the real thing.
Sumba island is home to thousands of megalithic sites, where large stones have been erected or placed on top of each other in a show of respect for the dead. The sites are of great interest to archaeologists and a major tourist attraction on the island.
One of the main attractions to Sumba is its outstanding natural beauty. The island is characterised by deciduous forests and undulating limestone hills and valleys, which hide a number of breathtaking waterfalls, a unique population of unique indigenous bird species as well as plenty of other exotic wildlife. Sumba island also boasts stunning coastlines, where perfect white beaches meet the crystal-clear azure ocean.
Sumba is home to more than 200 bird species, of which seven are endemic to the island and many more are found only in the region. Of the native species, there are three you are likely to see, the Sumba green pigeon, Sumba flycatcher and apricot-breasted sunbird, and four are considered vulnerable to extinction, the red-naped fruit-dove, Sumba buttonquail, Sumba hornbill and Sumba boobook owl.
Along with a number of mammals, the island is home to some saltwater crocodiles. The deciduous forests on Sumba have been designated an eco-region by the World Wildlife Fund for their distinctive mix of Asian and Australasian flora and fauna.
When to Visit
The best time to visit Sumba is during the early part of the dry season, from May to June, when the landscape is still very green. Between December and April, there is more rainfall, although the island has a largely dry northern Australian climate. The highest temperatures come during the late dry season from October and November.
The average temperature in the east is 27-36C while the west is two to three degrees cooler. At night, temperatures can drop to below 15C from June to August and nighttime temperatures, in general, are much cooler than in Bali or Lombok.
How to Get there
Wings and Lion Air fly daily return flights to Sumba’s Tambolaka and Umbu Mehang Kunda airports, from Bali’s two airports. You can also fly from Jakarta through Timor or take passage on a ship, ferry or private boat. Once on the island, there are local buses and private hotel transfers or you may prefer to explore the island on a rented car or motorcycle.
What to Do in Sumba ?
Here is a guide to some of the most popular attractions, natural, historical and cultural, in each regency.
West Sumba Regency
The West Sumba Regency is famous for its traditional architecture and well-preserved local culture, with many villages of high-roofed houses clustered on hilltops. Visit the traditional Sumbanese houses at Tebara Village, which has 38 traditional houses, where you can buy local Ikat textiles and other handcrafted goods and get a real experience of village life.
The coastline boasts unspoiled white beaches stretching for miles. Bawana beach is especially popular for incredible sunset views. Inland, rice fields sprawl out and up the mountains which are snaked by rivers and dotted with sprouting bamboo and coconut palms. On the south coast of the Regency, you will find Nihi Resort, a luxury five-star eco-resort which has won a number of awards and is pushing forward sustainable development on Sumba.
Lapopu waterfall is the highest waterfall in East Nusa Tenggara, located within the Manupeu Tanah Daru National Park area, and is particularly interesting as a stratified waterfall where the water tumbles down steps rather than falling straight down into a deep pool.
Southwest Sumba Regency
At the western tip of the island is the Southwest Sumba Regency where you’ll find the picturesque Watu Mandorak Cove, a white sandy beach hidden under a towering cliff. It is a two-hour drive from Tambolaka in the dry season, but virtually inaccessible during the rainy season.
Ratenggaro Beach is a surfers’ paradise with high, long waves and a traditional village. Another popular spot is Weekuri Lake, the high salt content of which allows you to float effortlessly in its crystal blue waters.
East Sumba Regency
Sumba’s larger and less-densely populated eastern province is dotted with several traditional villages, stunning beaches and dramatic waterfalls, as well as fascinating ancestral tombs. It offers a dramatic landscape of dry undulating savannah interspersed with cashew orchards, with wild horses roaming the limestone hills.
Walakiri beach located in Watumbaka Village on the northern coast is a popular stop-off while Tarimbang beach offers surfers two to three-metre waves between June and September. Puru Kambera Beach is a beautiful stretch of white sand boasting clear blue water and green savanna to explore nearby.
Heading inland, Tanggedu waterfall nestled in the green mountains 26 kilometres from the capital city of Waingapu, is well worth a visit. Waimarang is another waterfall that’s hard to get to but worth it for its natural beauty, while Laindamuki waterfall is more conveniently located in Tapil village near Pindu Hurani Beach.
Wairinding Hill, in the village of Pambotanjara, is a magical sunset point that reveals green savannahs in the rainy season that turn yellow during the wet season. Persawahan Mauliru features expansive rice fields with the perfect Instagram-worthy backdrop.
Sumba’s Exciting Future
Despite facing the global challenges of poverty and conservation in the face of increased interest from the outside, Sumba has a bright future. Rapid economic growth is predicted with a rise in tourism underpinned by a commitment to clean energy production. The Nihi Sumba resort has shown the way in terms of sustainable development, attracting wealthy tourists to its luxury accommodation and earning the title of Best Hotel in the World two years running.
Growth in Tourism
Land prices in Sumba remain low, especially compared to Bali and Lombok. But with increasing awareness and interest in the island, they are on the rise, increasing 100% year-on-year.
The growth is slow but steady, suggesting it will continue for many years.
This prediction is supported by infrastructure improvements in both road and air transport and plans for a new international airport. It is also boosted by various commitments to sustainable development and the success of Nihi Sumba, a landmark development on the island.
Sumba was one of the top three most searched terms for Indonesia on Google between January 2017 to July 2018, showing an increased interest in the island.
An Emerging Eco-Island
With the development of hydro-energy plants and solar and wind farms on the island, the Indonesian government has set a target for the island to be using 100% renewable energy by 2025.
The government sees Sumba as an opportunity to present a ‘green jewel’ to the world. It promises to be an example of sustainable development done properly, increasing tourism and promoting economic growth while taking care of the people, cultural significance, unique biodiversity and natural beauty of the island.
Several Resorts, like Lelewatu are paving the way for others to enter the market in Sumba. These types of resorts have seen phenomenal success, blending luxury accommodation and sustainable development, and some went as far as to be voted the Best Hotel in the World, by readers of Travel + Leisure magazine, two years running in 2016 and 2017 as well as appearing in numerous list of top luxury eco-resorts.
Located 150km from Tambolaka airport, these resorts have been described as ‘a deserted stretch of private, gold-sand beach backed by raw, tropical jungle’. It is the quintessential luxury island getaway and sets the standard for other resorts to follow.
Lelewatu with its luxury villas, wellness centre, world-class restaurants and range of adventure activities, have attracted wealthy tourists and celebrities for its exclusivity and luxury facilities. Despite nightly prices in the tens of thousands of dollars, occupancy remains at capacity, demonstrating the massive potential for similar developments.
An Island Paradise Full of Opportunity
With its outstanding natural beauty, abundance of rare wildlife, historical and cultural significance, and the growth in tourism boosted by the government’s commitment to making it an eco-island, Sumba represents a world of opportunity. An opportunity to explore the unique landscape, the culture and history of its inhabitants and also an opportunity for investment in the sustainable development of an island paradise.
30https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-981-287-988-2_19; http://en.sumbaiconicisland.org/the-story-of-renewable-energy-in-sumba/; http://www.biru.or.id/en/index.php/news/2011/02/21/56/sumba-iconic-island-for-renewable-energy.html
38 https://nihi.com; https://www.businessinsider.sg/chris-burch-nihi-best-hotel-in-the-world-2017-7/?r=US&IR=T
43 https://nihi.com/awards/; https://www.travelandleisure.com/hotels-resorts/worlds-best-nihi-sumba-indonesia; https://www.scmp.com/magazines/style/travel-food/article/2103980/best-hotel-world-now-nihi-sumba-built-fashion-mogul