It’s a sunshiny morning in late April when we land in Tambolaka airport after a 55-minute charter flight east from Bali. We are in Sumba. On the map of Indonesia, to its northwest is Sumbawa, to its northeast is Flores, to its east is Timor, and to its south, across part of the Indian Ocean, is Australia. We jump in a car and head west, crossing a virgin jungle scattered with tribal villages. I have not seen a landscape this pristine in most of Southeast Asia. I also have not seen any other traveller along the way over a one-and-a-half-hour drive rather than the couple sharing our ride. The feeling is remote.
In many ways, Sumba is like a lost world. It’s twice the size of Bali, and yet has only one sixth of its population. It is a destination a little further from Asia’s usual beach holiday haunts, such as Thailand and The Maldives, where I deeply inhale the sense of place. In this aspect, it’s so far, far away from Bali with no relevant industry or tourism to speak of. It’s the most impoverished region in Indonesia, where malaria is still a concern, and as recently as the 1960s, headhunting was a common practice. But there is every reason to come here. This is an island where I get the spirit of Bali of 30 years ago that comes along with Sumba’s wilderness and ethnographic treasures.
Foreign presence in the archipelago started in around the 18th century, when Chinese and Arab traders began to come, bringing horses, exploring sandalwood, and taking away slaves. Horses are found all over Sumba— only later do I learn they are still an essential element of its culture. Then, the Dutch East Indies took over the “Sandalwood Island”, as they liked to call it, and relinquished control of Indonesia after World War II, with Sumba’s official independence being granted in 1962.
Colonial forces, on the other hand, have never taken control of headhunting islanders, which in a way has contributed to preserving Sumba’s unique personality that allows me to experience this precious sense of adventure. Sumba has always been isolated on the far end of the country, and, as a result, was turned into Indonesia’s wild, wild west.
It remains isolated today. I feel immensely privileged as I navigate across real jungle—a place that suggests Africa in chaotic Southeast Asia. The vast majority of its 600,000-strong population live like the old days: dispersed across villages and dependent on agriculture. Permissions to explore the territory are still negotiated with tribal kings and the few towns I come across are little more than trading posts or missionary settlements.
This story appears in the January 2019 issue of Indonesia Tatler. For the full story, grab the copy at your nearest newsstand, or subscribe here.