Sumba, Indonesia

Is Sumba the new Bali? Not if the locals can help it; for now, its offbeat ancient culture, sole resort and perfect wave are the preserve of a privileged few, writes Richard Cooke.
Julian Kingma

Sumba felt different from Bali before the plane even landed, though we’d only travelled an hour to the south-east. It had almost touched down when the flight attendants finally clocked the three freshly elected provincial mayors on board. They somehow hadn’t noticed the white dress uniforms with gold epaulettes. But once the black regimental hats came out, the delegation got an abbreviated version of VIP treatment – a minute of fussing, then sitting stiffly in full regalia in the first-class cabin for landing. Sumba felt more distinctive still on the tarmac: the heat drier, the landscape less lush, a loose greeting party holding some kind of gift that was impossible to make out.

But through the luggage halls, hung with incongruous chandeliers and tangy with kretek smoke, was the real reception. The road was lined with fading flags from the Indonesian Independence Day celebrations weeks before, tiers of coloured pennants. There were also a couple of hundred mayoral supporters lining the road and in the car park, leaning on idling motorbikes, packed into flat-bed trucks and minibuses. The men were hopped up on betel nut, resplendent in coloured woven ikat head-wraps and sashes, their belts slung with parang machetes in wooden scabbards.

Elsewhere, a greeting party in national dress is something laid on for tourists, but on Sumba there are not many tourists – rarely more than a few dozen at once on the island. It takes some time to recalibrate expectations, to plumb the full depth of the contrast.

A visitor can’t realise at first that the whoops greeting the politicians – “Wu! Wu!” – are used in a horseback jousting festival to attract sea worms; or that the parangs are sharp, not ceremonial, and not for a special occasion, but worn every day. Visitors’ eyes, used to finding the 7-Eleven and Vodafone store even in the middle of nowhere, take some time to adjust to fresh stone monuments and steepled, thatched-roof houses, a place where the only signs of outside influence are the FC Barcelona decals on minibuses, and the appearance of a new hotel – Nihiwatu.

That’s where I was heading. But first, the trucks rolled, parangs were unsheathed and an ungainly procession started down the highway. There had been the usual allegations of vote-rigging, and opposition hirelings were waiting en route. The election was contested. On Sumba, everything is contested.

There are reasons it has remained so untouched: ferocity, scarce resources, neglect. One of the largest islands of the Lesser Sunda chain, Sumba’s population is only around 650,000, and it has more in common with its eastern neighbour across the Savu Sea, East Timor, than with Bali. The hour drive from the airport to the coast reveals no sign of heavy industry other than a few warehouses belonging to Chinese traders. The centre of the second-largest town of Waikabubak is a market filled with fish, fruit and water buffalo.

Once the land turns rural on the outskirts of the city, there are teak forests that leave the ground rusty with curled red leaves, but are now too sparse to log. Arab traders stripped them of sandalwood centuries ago, leaving horses in their place. The Sumba ponies are still central enough to life here to draw all kinds of comparisons, from cowboys to Game of Thrones.

The warriors who rode these horses were feared enough to keep a Dutch conquest half-hearted and, since independence, the Indonesian government has been almost as distant, part of the reason this is one of the poorest places in South East Asia. The rule of the men in white uniforms doesn’t extend far, and the real administration is dictated by tradition. Here, fate is more likely decided by animist priests studying the entrails of a chicken than a bureaucrat in Jakarta.

Two things draw outsiders to Sumba: its surf and its culture. Nihiwatu (the name means “mortar stone” in a Bahasa dialect) is an effort to use one to preserve the other. This string of beachside villas was a 20-year passion project for one couple, Claude and Petra Graves, who sold it only recently. Claude is an American surfer and former Kenyan nightclub manager who dragged his German wife around so many flea-bitten surf resorts they decided they could start a better one themselves. It took a long time.

“Here in Sumba we spent two and a half weeks walking 80 miles along the coast, along every beach from Wanukaka to the airport area. Only Nihiwatu was exactly what we were looking for.”

When they first came here in 1988, there were even fewer signs of outside influence. The island was riven by a territorial dispute bordering on war; it ended “by request” of the Indonesian military. Claude stopped counting after he got malaria for the 36th time. They caught fish in the morning or didn’t eat. What kept the couple on the coast was the wave.

Some people call the break Nihiwatu, or “Occy’s left”, after the champion surfer Mark Occhilupo, but mostly it’s referred to just as “the wave”. Double overhead on an average day, it rolls into a channel then onto the high point of a big, arching reef. It’s changeable, heavy and has a reputation as one of the best stretches of left-hand surf in the world. Graves and others had watched what happened to Bali when it was “discovered”: the waterborne mess at Kuta, the hotel-on-hotel mega-development that has replaced birdsong with angle-grinders. They saw what happened to the Mentawais, where surfboats left behind bobbing beer cans but nothing of worth for the locals. There was a determination Nihiwatu would be different from both.

The villas are neither scrappy beach shacks nor luxury concrete tombs. They have all been built by local craftsmen, and have the same thatched, steepled roofs as houses in the villages. Some are close enough to the coast that you can part the mosquito nets in the morning, and check the break from bed. There are plunge pools and patios, outdoor showers set in bamboo enclaves.

A sand walkway flanked by a sea-turtle hatchery leads to a tiki-style bar set in a grove of pandanus trees. Beyond the horizon are buoys circled by mahi mahi, mackerel and wahoo. A game-fishing boat keeps Nihiwatu’s restaurant in fish of the day, and an organic garden provides the chilli for the sambal. The food is simple: a set menu filled with fish and Indonesian standards. It might feel cursory or repetitive to some, but in this locale it’s unpretentious, light and clean fuel for spending time in the water.

This afternoon, with a curtain of mist coming off the wave and catching the sunset, there are only two surfers on the wave. Even with room for 30 guests, and villas being built for more, the number of surfers in the water at one time is capped at 10, guests only. The land was traded with local chiefs, deals sealed with pig sacrifices, and only a fraction of it developed. Graves copped a lot of grief for making the wave his own, especially in the early days. There were rumours of fist-fights and leg ropes being cut, but the beach is always open to the real locals.

The combination of scarcity and quality means Nihiwatu is not a cheap place to stay or to surf, and the pegging out of the beach by the Graves as their own would look like hoarding if they hadn’t been so tenacious in spreading the dividends to the island.

The early years were very difficult, everything from the Asian financial crisis to an earthquake getting in the way. “There were a lot of roadblocks, but we persevered through them – it was really hard,” says Claude. “In the darkest years I started The Sumba Foundation to make good on promises I made to the community that we would find a way to help them out of poverty. That alone gave me a reason to be here.”

The resort has been run almost as a non-profit since, with guests encouraged to donate to The Sumba Foundation, aimed at alleviating poverty and eradicating malaria on the island by operating free health clinics and sinking wells in the nearby villages. “It strikes a chord that no other place does [this],” says hotelier James McBride, who bought the resort with investor Chris Burch in 2013. “People can come here to surf, but also to learn and have their children learn.”

Claude sold the resort reluctantly, but found sympático new owners in McBride and Burch; the latter had first heard about Nihiwatu on his honeymoon in Bali. “Claude selected Chris and I because he got what we were about. We have an aligned vision. There was no attempt to change the terms. The most important thing was to grow the Foundation.”

Most visitors come here more than once, often developing a relationship with the staff. They’re an unusual mixture of entrepreneurial and respectful, mainly surfers and their families, with a growing number of wandering yogis and hikers. Weeks before we arrived a swell pushed the waves to a heavy six metres, the biggest anyone could remember seeing at Sumba. These sets had already developed their own folklore, word-of-mouth growing them to nine metres before photographic evidence reined in the exaggeration. A couple of guests ventured out – “They were specks in a wall of water,” says resort surf guide Chad Bagwell.

At the fringe of dusk the wave isn’t as monstrous, but still sizeable enough that one of the few surfers, a teenager, needs a Zodiac to tow him out to the back. His family is from Aspen, where they run a ski shop; both parents are former World Cup skiers. Everyone at the bamboo beachside bar watches him brim over the peaks, and I ask his mother if spectating makes her nervous. “He’s smart enough to respect the ocean,” she says calmly, and not long afterwards he drops in to a murmur of cheers. On the foreshore, villagers are catching squid and octopus at low tide, some guests walk down to help them. There are kids with sticks and buckets, prising off whelks with crowbars.

The beach is also where the most famous event in Sumbanese culture – the fertility festival called Pasola – begins. We get a taste of it on the way out to nearby village Wanukaka, where on the road some kids are throwing stalks of bamboo at each other. This isn’t just horseplay, but a kind of junior edition of the local sport, the way kids elsewhere ape the moves of their favourite footballers. They’re playing not far from the “stadium” where the Pasola is conducted – a stretch of ground that looks a bit like a scrubby polo field. The dried grass floor is a burnt red, a visual echo of the blood shed there.

The Sumbanese land needs blood, constantly. It needs it in the form of buffalo and pig sacrifices that accompany everything from marriage to building a house. (Buffalo are expensive here. One with big horns is worth $2,000, a huge sum in a place where many people earn less than $100 a year. At funerals just a few decades ago, noble families would slaughter so many as offerings they would go bankrupt.) But to ensure a plentiful rice harvest, the land needs human blood. So the Pasola begins at the end of the wet season, a date determined by auguries and the mating habits of the sea worms. That’s where the beach comes in. When the worms wash up to do their romance in a writhing mass on the sand, the jousting can begin. While people are down there, they also pick up a whole lot of rocks. Those will come in handy later.

The Pasola follows a program, which goes something like this: worms, taunting, boxing, jousting, and riots. The taunting section can last a couple of days. Tribes from the mountains sledge their traditional rivals, the tribes from the coast, and expect the same in return. Then they box, with stones strapped to their hands with cloth. Then the jousting begins, horse riders at a full gallop hurling bamboo spears at each other. Those spears – the “sola” that give the festival its name – were metal-tipped before the spoilsports in the Indonesian government stepped in a few years ago. There seems to be a bit of bring-back-the-biff nostalgia for the days when the claret really flowed. The slack is picked up by everyone throwing stones at each other (the big skimming-style ones from the beach), then the military police might pop off a few rounds in the air to get everyone to calm down, and finally everyone goes home to party, ideally with a new partner in tow.

Marthen Kaka and John Gallow, who are driving us to Wanukaka, are both Pasola enthusiasts, although Gallow likes it more than Kaka. Gallow picked up seven stitches at this year’s Pasola when a rock sconed him in the back of the head, an outcome universally regarded as outstanding. This might seem chaotic, but there’s nothing senseless about Pasola’s violence. It’s all systematised, and outsiders don’t fall into its jurisdiction. A tourist or visitor being attacked is unheard of, the idea of a robbery nonsensical. I start to get a sense of how things work in Wanukaka, amid a throng of steepled houses with thatched roofs. Elsewhere, some of the newer models of this type of house use corrugated iron, weighted with a tyre in case of lightning strike, but in Wanukaka the only sign of modernity is some solar panels peeking out of the bristle.

Like a fort town, the village is set on a steepish hill, and at its apex is a huge stone altar. A local woman named Bari Wiku says it was dragged here from far away using only vine ropes. “It took five months to get here,” she says. Outside the longhouses are stacks of buffalo horn and pig tusks, sacrificial testimonies to the owner’s wealth. I’m offered some betel and take it. Everyone here eats it as a sign of maturity: the red spit is a reminder of always-welcome blood on the ground. “Usually we chew it when we’re walking,” says Kaka. “Or before food, or after food. Or with water. Or when we’re talking.” It seems there aren’t many situations that don’t call for betel. We sit and have a mouth-numbing chat about Wiku’s dowry: 27 buffaloes back in the day.

“Ah, you were very beautiful,” says Gallow.

The discussion moves to tourism. Kaka says the feeling on the island is split. “Around half the people are in favour of more, half want the same number or less. I was reading an article in an Indonesian magazine about how Bali was 60, 70 years ago. It has changed so much. Too noisy, too busy. We couldn’t take that here.”

Sitting chewing betel on the stoop of a longhouse with a burning hearth in the middle, looking out over an ancient stone graveyard littered with pigs tusks, Bali and business feel very far away.

That night back at the resort there’s a “jungle party”, a barbecue with Spanish mackerel that Bagwell speared at a place called Magic Mountain, which, confusingly, is off the coast and underwater. Guests have dressed in Tarzan and Jane mode, with woven frond hats provided by the hotel. As the night turns to partying and some bad dancing, the Sumbanese staff look on with a smile, bewildered by these bizarre customs. There’s something touching about the mutual weirdness – one culture takes its jousting cues from sea worms and advocates rioting for fun, the other face-paints and booty-drops after hunting on a mountain under the sea.

I wind up talking to Dr Claus Bogh, a malaria expert working for The Sumba Foundation. He’s been on Sumba a long time and speaks with a lasting affection for it. “Here people argue about the same things people do anywhere: land, women, honour. But here they are honest about it. It’s not like Java where ‘yes’ can mean ‘no’, depending on what kind of ‘yes’ it is. If they like you, they’ll really like you. If they don’t, you’ll know.”

Bogh plans to stay. Though he accidentally married two women here when buying some land, his connection goes beyond his work with the foundation. “This might sound strange,” he says, looking out into the dark towards the wave, “but Sumba is a place where everything makes sense.”

Related stories