11 February 2020
As with many of the best plans, the idea of venturing to the eastern Indonesian island of Sumba came about over a few beers with an old Australian bloke. “Yeah it’s a weird place ay… They sacrifice giant buffalo and fight each other on horses and shit. Nothing like the Indo you’ll have seen before. There’s no roads or anything either – but the waves pump and the beaches are deserted.”
Not long after this conversation we boarded a night ferry for this island less travelled. We stowed our bike, laden with surfboards and backpacks on the fumey bottom deck, crammed amongst banana lorries, water trucks and bags of live chickens. Climbing the ladder out from the belly of the boat, the sun long since set, we navigated our way through the hoards of people and up towards the open air. As our eyes became accustomed to the dimness, we were greeted by a sea of people. Nearly every inch of the floor was taken up by bodies, plastic mats, sarongs, boxes and bags. Groups of men sat smoking clove cigarettes, mingling with the smell of chicken and sambal. Babies screamed, kids rolled around on squashy rented mattresses and young mothers chatted quietly whilst setting up camp in their claimed corners. We found a rare slice of free deck and staked our camp, tucking into banana leaf packages of nasi ayam, whilst observing the beautifully organised chaos of Indonesian transport.
Traditional Sumbanese houses known as “uma mbatangu”
We spent the seven hour journey drifting in and out of sleep on a blessedly calm crossing. As midnight approached the rare cold also arrived and we pulled on the coats and leggings we’d left England in – huddling together under a sarong, backpacks for pillows. The stars of the open ocean sparkled above us and the children dropped off into the peaceful slumbers of babies who have travelled like this since birth, cuddled amongst their families.
“They believe the higher your rooftop, the closer you are to god, and many of these roofs are decorated with the horns and bones of sacrificed buffalo.“
Upon arriving in scorching Sumba we set off into a maze of ramshackle huts and narrow roads that make up the capital city. The dusty streets, markets and dense traffic quickly fades to rolling desert as you head west, before suddenly becoming lush and alive with greenery, occasionally spotted by warungs and pineapple stands. The stretch of road that runs between the north east and west of Sumba passes through ever changing scenery, weathers and cultures, and as we flew along on our little motorbike, we witnessed the religions change from Muslim to Christian, houses morph from concrete sheds to towering wooden traditional homes and the blazing sun forgive to torrential rain.
Exploring Sumba felt like wandering throughout a land left behind in time, with no intentions of catching up. Unlike her touristic sisters of Bali and Lombok, Sumba offered no western comforts or break from the local cuisine, language or rituals. We spent the entire trip eating nothing but fish and rice (mie goreng for breakfast, if we were lucky) and were quickly forced to get a grip on Bahasa Indonesian. However, if you’re happy to go without the banana pancakes, mango juices and air conditioning, you will be rewarded with empty beaches, incredibly curious locals and rolling, deserted waves. Our first stop took us to the south where we spent our days driving down the narrowest of jungle paths and feasting our eyes on the remote, ancient traditional villages, all of which are still inhabited. The towering roofs are unmistakably Sumbanese. They believe the higher your rooftop, the closer you are to god, and many of these roofs are decorated with the horns and bones of sacrificed buffalo.
The moment we left the main road we dropped onto unmaintained tracks, gigantic ruts and potholes claiming many motorbike tyres. The elderly smiled at the sight of foreigners, baring red, gaping mouths, stained by the betel nut that they constantly chew. We passed rice fields dotted with huge herds of enormous buffalo and boys rode by on beautiful horses, machetes hanging from their belts. Mopeds playing a constant, tinny ice cream jingle trundled down the tracks, supplying 5p lollies to the children in the isolated villages and rice farmers crouched amongst their crops, colourful clothes and straw hats picturesque against green and gold.
After a week of exploration, wave hunting, bare foot wandering with the local kids and getting to grips with the completely unbelievable culture of the island, we repacked our board bag and left the south coast in search of pumping waves and Rattengaro – a traditional village overlooking the wild west coast, said to have the highest rooftops in the whole of Sumba. Upon arrival, we weren’t disappointed by either.
The western coastal village of Pero is found at the end of miles and miles of predominantly straight, completely ruined road. Possibly due to something in the water, the pineapples we purchased and many of the buffalos we passed along the way shared the same pale pink colour, the people grew ever more curious of us and the busy morning markets en route were a manic array of stinking fish and beautifully woven Ikat, traditional sarongs hand woven on giant looms using naturally dyed threads. As we passed through the smallest of communities in the depths of Sumba we’d occasionally spot old women who looked easily 200 years old, teaching their young apprentices to weave on the deckings of their beautiful houses. As the road wound towards the shore, we spotted the sparkling turquoise water ahead. Itching to wash away the dust from the road, we were absolutely astounded at the sight that greeted us. A fast flowing, bright blue river wound it’s way through the valley, a rainbow of colourful wooden boats bobbing gently in the sanctuary created behind a sand bank that separated a lagoon from the rumbling ocean. Little boys, completely naked, and fully clothed Muslim girls threw themselves from the half collapsed pier into the river where a strong current sucked them below the surface and spat them out further down stream. The kids loved it when we dived in right alongside them, wanting to show us their dives and jumps and the games they’d invented with the insane under tow. With only distracted fishermen within sight and no parents around, it made us wonder how this level of freedom would be viewed if it were to happen in the UK. Along the coastline of Indonesia we noticed this freedom often amongst the young kids, able to play and swim without time restraints or watchful eyes, and we often speculated how the same level of faith just isn’t exercised in western countries
However, the treasure that lay at the end of our potholed rainbow was found at the mouth of the river in the form of completely deserted, crystal clear, huge, beautiful barrels. On the left, perfectly peeling waves rolled in uniform across the reef, each unbelievably hollow and heavy. As if the bay were mirrored, a stunning right hander also barrelled across the reef on the other side of the river mouth, less forgivingly shutting down onto the razor sharp rocks. Stripping down to our swimmers we fled across the cliff tops, our feet burning on the black rocks, very aware of conservative eyes judging my bare legs. In the late afternoon light we screamed in anticipation and excitement, giddy with the joy of seeking and scoring. The sea grew golden, our faces glowing. Many a stunning wave was scored, many a heavy lip to the head, it was an analogy for our trip; always taking the rough with the smooth, but constantly seeming to find the wonder in our wins and the laughter when things didn’t go quite as we planned.
The village of Rattengaro, famed for its incredible houses and position overlooking the pounding Indian Ocean, was an insight into Sumbanese culture that was unforgettable for many reasons. Upon entering, you felt a strange sensation of not only stepping back in time but also leaving the rest of Sumba on the other side of the walls. We were greeted by a young boy on horseback, a hoard of gorgeously feral kids and a lot of attention. The tribe here have taken tourism and their fame into their stride and sell beautiful handcrafted wooden heads, that sit inside bone and wooden containers, traditionally used for storing the lime that preserved their betel nut. Ikat sarongs hung from every house and intricately carved musical instruments were played and plucked absentmindedly by the older generation. Evening light streamed through the straw rooftops, piglets roamed in the long grass and families went about their normal routines as we soaked in their stunning culture
We truly felt we had discovered something special in Sumba, an island and culture so unlike the Indonesia we had seen before. The scenery and people have to be experienced to be believed and whilst the going wasn’t always easy, it was unmistakably worth it to follow a path less travelled with nothing more than a bike, two backpacks and a board bag.