Sumba is a land of contrasts. The east of the island is made up of arid grasslands and limestone plateaux, while the west is fertile and green, with rolling hills and a long rainy season. Waingapu, the capital, is well known for producing the finest ikat fabric in Indonesia. A little further out at Rende and Melolo sit stone tombs with bizarre carvings, and in other villages on the east coast you’ll find quality weaving, traditional structures and deserted beaches. The main town in the west is Waikabubak, where characteristic houses with thatched roofs soar to an apex over 15m above the ground.
Access to Sumba is either by ferry from Ende in Flores to Waingapu or from Sape in Sumbawa to Waikelo, or by air to either Waingapu or Waikabubak. Most people choose to fly out of Waingapu rather than Waikabubak, which has a very chequered record for reliability and cancellations.
It may be the largest port and town on Sumba, but Waingapu is far from a modern metropolis. Goats wander along the main road, horses are stabled in front porches, and locals still walk around barefoot, with ikat tied around their heads and waists. The older half of the hourglass-shaped town is centred around the port, the newer part around the market. It’s only a fifteen-minute walk between the two, but every passing ojek will assume you need a lift. The bay to the west of town has a harbour at the extreme point of either shore; all ferries dock at the western harbour, requiring an eight-kilometre journey around the bay to town. The eastern harbour in the old town is now just used for fishing boats, and can be picturesque, especially at sunset.
Prailu is the most visited of the local ikat-weaving villages, and is an easy walk from the hotels near the market. After signing in at the large, traditional house, you can inspect weavings that weren’t good enough to be bought by the traders. The ikat blankets of east Sumba are ablaze with symbolic dragons, animals, gods and head-hunting images. The cloth worn by men is called the hinggi, and is made from two identical panels sewn together into a symmetrical blanket. These are the most popular souvenirs, as they make great wall hangings. Small blankets of medium quality usually retail for under $50, but will mainly use only chemical dye. For larger, high-quality pieces, you can pay anything from $100 to $1000. A tight weave, clean precise motifs and sharp edges between different colours are all signs of a good piece. Dealers in the towns will often give you better prices and more choice than those in the villages.
In the extreme west of Sumba lies the increasingly popular Kodi district. Its centre is the village of Bandokodi, well known for the towering roofs that top its traditional houses. It is also one of the main Pasola venues in west Sumba. With your own transport, you can explore the area from Waikabubak, or you can stay in Pero. There are direct buses from Waikabubak to Bandokodi, but they can be hard to find; it’s easy enough to take a bus to Waitabula in the north and then connect to a Kodi service, which should take you all the way to Pero – check the price with a local, as drivers will optimistically ask for many times the real price. Direct buses back to Waikabubak leave Pero around 6am – you should be able to connect back to Waingapu the same day if necessary.
The only place to stay in Kodi is Pero, a seaside village with a solitary losmen. The village is not constructed in traditional Sumbanese style, but has a quiet charm. Numerous kampung with teetering high roofs and mossy stone tombs dot the surrounding countryside, some only a short walk away. The Homestay Story offers basic rooms, which can get stuffy at night. There are a lot of mosquitoes and no nets are provided, so come prepared. The main surfers’ beach, a desolate long stretch where high waves crash onto the steeply sloping sand, is to the right, but the currents and undertow are ferocious. There’s a more sheltered beach to the left over the river, with a vantage point above for local crowds to gather and gawp as you swim.
By far the best-known and most dazzling festival in Nusa Tenggara, the Pasola is one of those rare spectacles that actually surpasses all expectations. It takes place in Kodi and Lamboya in February and in Wanokaka and Gaura in March; most hotels can give you a rough idea of the date. This brilliant pageant of several hundred colourfully attired, spear-wielding horsemen in a frenetic and lethal pitched battle is truly unforgettable. It occurs within the first two moons of the year, and is set off by the mass appearance of a type of sea worm which, for two days a year, turns the shores into a maelstrom of luminous red, yellow and blue. The event is a rite to balance the upper sphere of the heavens and the lower sphere of the seas. The Pasola places the men of each village into two teams in direct opposition; the spilling of their blood placates the spirits and restores balance between the two spheres. The proceedings begin several weeks before the main event, with villagers hurling abuse and insults at their neighbours in order to get their blood up. The actual fighting takes place on special Pasola fields where the battle has been fought for centuries.
Surrounded by lush green meadows and forested hills, tiny Waikabubak encloses several kampung with slanting thatched roofs and megalithic stone graves, where life proceeds according to the laws of the spirits. Kampung Tarung, on a hilltop just west of the main street, has some excellent megalithic graves and is regarded as one of the most significant spiritual centres on the island. The ratu (king) of Tarung is responsible for the annual wula padu ceremony, which lasts for a month at the beginning of the Merapu New Year in November. The ceremony commemorates the visiting spirits of important ancestors, who are honoured with animal sacrifices and entertained by singing and dancing. Kampung Praijiang is a fine five-tiered village on a hilltop surrounded by rice paddies, several kilometres east of town. You can catch a bemo to the bottom of the hill. Waikabubak enjoys an extended rainy season lasting well into May, with daily downpours and chilly nights. Most things you need in Waikabubak are either on the main street of Jalan Sudirman, which becomes Jalan Bhayangkara, or not far from it. Ikat traders come from all over the island to Waikabubak’s daily market.
One of the main reasons to visit Sumba is to experience the extraordinary agrarian animist cultures in the villages. These villages, or kampung, comprise huge clan houses set on fortified hills, centred around megalithic graves and topped by a totem made from a petrified tree, from which villagers would hang the heads of conquered enemies. The national government insisted that all totems be removed back in the 1970s, and though some do remain, many have disappeared.
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, inspiring several days’ worth of slaughter and feasting, the corpse wrapped in hundreds of exquisite ikat cloths.
Ostensibly, visiting the villages often involves nothing more than hiring a motorbike, but the difficulty for Western visitors to Sumba is that traditions and taboos in Sumbanese village life are still very powerful and sit ill at ease with the demands of modern tourism. A visitor to a Sumbanese village should first take the time to share sirih pinang (betel nut) with both the kepala desa (village headman) and his hosts. Bringing betel nut is seen as a peace offering (enemies would rarely turn up brandishing gifts), while its use is a sign of unity; Sumbanese ritual culture sets great store by returning blood to the earth, and the bright-red gobs of saliva produced by chewing sirih represent this. (The central purpose of the Pasola festivals is similarly to return blood to the soil). Many villages that are on the regular trail for tourists have supplanted the tradition of sharing betel with a simple request for money, but if you come with gifts (betel nuts, cigarettes, or anything else that can be shared) you’ll be far more welcome.