Bali is the largest tourist destination in Indonesia and is renowned for its art, sculpture, traditional dance, painting and music. It is the hub to get to Sumba and the other Lesser Sunda islands as it has an international airport – Ngurah Rai International Airport in Denpasar.
Lombok is sometimes referred to as ‘an unspoiled Bali’, with beautiful beaches, enchanting waterfalls, the large looming volcano of Mount Rinjani and relatively few tourists. Its largest city is Mataram and it is surrounded by a number of smaller islands locally called Gili. It shares some cultural heritage with Bali.
Known for its great waves and sandy beaches, it is famous for its surfing spots. Compared to Bali and Lombok, it is not easily accessible but like many tropical island, it offers incredible views.
The most famous tourist attraction in Flores is Kelimutu, a volcano containing three coloured lakes. It is one of the few places, aside from Komodo Island, where the Komodo dragon can be found in the wild (it is part of Komodo National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site).
The island was first documented by Pigafetta, a travelling companion to famed Portuguese explorer Megellan in 1522, when the first ships of the Portuguese arrived on the isolated and tribal shores of Sumba.
They recorded proud natives clad in fine woven Ikats, their bodies adorned with beautiful ornaments, and wrote of the traditional villages perched on green hills and valleys swarming with sculptured stone megalithic tombs.
At that time the air was filled with the sweet-smelling aroma of sandalwood forests that covered the island and remained centuries later a highly sought after commodity earning its name as ‘Sandalwood Island’ with the Dutch colonisation in 1756.
The Sumbanese also bartered their sturdy horses for gold, silver and Chinese ceramics that were, and still are, highly regarded as precious items by the islanders.
Sumba was known amongst foreign traders as being an island of fierce warriors where headhunting expeditions were common. It was due to these incessant raids that the villages were built on hilltops and heavily fortified by stone walls.
The dry season was the period of the headhunting expeditions as well as the wars between rival clans and villages. In East Sumba, heads were used as tokens of territorial conquest in battles between nobles. In West Sumba, headhunting rites were often acts of revenge between equals. In both parts of the island the heads were considered trophies that would be displayed on “skull trees” in the villages. It was believed that the trophies brought home would stimulate prosperity and fertility of the village and the fields.
Since Indonesian Independence in 1945, Sumba has been part of Nusa Tenggara Timor, the “Southeastern Islands,” with its administrative capital in Kupang on the Island of Timor. Although the government has recently improved the cross-island road as well as ferry and airport access to the island, outside of the local administrative capitals of Waingapu and Waikabubak life has changed little.
Sumba is part of the Lesser Sunda Islands and its geography spans 11,000 square kilometres, making it twice the size of Bali, with only 650,000 inhabitants (approximately one sixth of Bali) where the majority of the population still follow the ways of their ancestors.
The terrain on Sumba is quite different to its neighbouring islands; undulating hills replace the typical volcanic terrain in Indonesia with many areas in the North and East of the island resembling dry savannahs, whilst central highlands are covered in native Alang Alang grass and the mountains in the South extend down into lush tropical vegetation.
The World Wildlife Fund categorised Sumba as a deciduous forest eco region due to its special flora and fauna. However, only 7% of the island’s forest remains protected and preserved. Laiwangi Wanggameti National Park and Manupeu Tanah Daru National Park were designated in 1988 to protect the nature.
Due to the isolated location of the island, the language, religion and traditional lifestyle of the Sumbanese culture has been preserved.
Traditional dress is still observed in day to day life; men wear a short sarong (Hinggi) around their hips with belt and sword and a band or turban of woven Ikat with motifs and women wear long sarongs and headbands with different motifs.
Traditional villages and settlements are commonplace with traditional houses constructed over three storeys in a wooden structure, high pointed roofs made from native Alang Alang grass and sides of plaited bamboo. The construction of a house is accompanied by rituals and is believed to be a social and ceremonial unit.
Throughout the year the island is the site of many fascinating rituals; the most spectacular of them all are the Pasola ceremonies that take place during the months of February and March at select locations along the west coast.