FOUR hundred kilometres east of Bali, and seemingly a century apart, the plane lands on Sumba, an island so unsung that most Indonesians would assume I'd head to larger, better known Sumbawa.
Sumba makes Bali seem like Manhattan. This high, undulating island of 11,150sqkm is home to about 500,000 people who, despite their veneer of missionary Christianity, remain animists and ancestor worshippers. Roughly halfway between Bali and Timor, the island is, according to Australian anthropologist Lawrence Blair, "a time capsule of our earliest beginnings". Within minutes of leaving the airport at Tambolaka in western Sumba, I notice men sporting ikat turbans and parang swords cantering along the road on tough little horses.
These ponies and their equally sturdy riders are the stars in Sumba's celebrated ritual, the Pasola, battles on horseback that take place each February and March.
In this dangerous war game, hundreds of horsemen thunder across a large field flinging wooden spears at each other. The national government still allows the jousts to take place but these days insists that the spears at least be blunt. Officials realise they have no chance of banning the tournament as Pasola is far more than a display of machismo and horsemanship. It is integral to the island's animist Marapu belief system. Despite the blunted spears, serious injuries are common and there are even occasional deaths. Rather than regretting these, the Sumbanese believe that blood spilled on the earth during Pasola will ensure a fruitful harvest and their survival.
As spectacular as Pasola is, I'm in pursuit of a different thrill. On a stretch of the southwestern Sumba coast so pristine and wild that it almost defies description, two Westerners, Claude and Petra Graves, have captured a slice of time. Their creation, Nihiwatu Resort, sits facing the Indian Ocean on a low bluff cupped by almost 200ha of virgin jungle-clad hills and grasslands, with 2.5km of empty beach sweeping west, away from Nihiwatu's beautiful stone bungalows. In front of the resort, the surf pounds across the reef.
Out in that surf is always a handful of Nihiwatu guests who have travelled halfway across the world to revel in a surfer's fantasy: perfect, uncrowded waves. Their fantasy is just part of the dream that became Nihiwatu, Sumba's only up-market resort. Former Bali dwellers Claude, a lanky surfer in his 50s, originally from New Jersey, and his German wife spent a decade making Nihiwatu a reality. To find the site for the resort they dreamed of, in 1988 they trekked for two weeks along Sumba's remote jungle coasts. Discovering this perfect location was just the beginning.
Full article: John Borthwick ventures to the Indonesian island of Sumba in search of the perfect wave