Our intrepid reporter tackles the idyllic island of Sumba by bicycle.
If you’re a wild-eyed bounder of adventure and boast a pair of those absence-of-flesh-in-the-earlobe, wooden, hoopy, handicraft earring things, then Indonesia is surely a superb place in which to engage in a few high-adrenaline extreme sports. Scuba diving, surfing, parasailing, climbing, bungee jumping, kiteboarding and topless badminton can all be enjoyed across the archipelago by tattooed thrill-seekers. My own personal preference is for the perhaps somewhat more prosaic pastime of cycle touring.
As a proud MAMIL (middle-aged man in Lycra), I have terrorised Lion Air ground crews the length and breadth of the country into manhandling my wheels through check-in desks as they try to avert their gaze from my Lycra-clad manhandle. My tours have taken me around rural idylls all the way from Aceh to Timor and included a recent jaunt navigating the low hills of Sumba, which proved to be a thoroughly life-affirming experience and, even better, I didn’t contract malaria (I always research my tours meticulously beforehand, you understand, and this time around it was only a mere three days after completing my trans-Sumba ride that I found out that the island is, in fact, a high malaria risk).
In any case, my Wings Air flight touched down in the town of Tambolaka in the west of Sumba in the middle of a torrential storm, which didn’t seem to bode well for the days ahead. Incidentally, a subdivision of the much-hated Lion Air Wings may well be, however its turboprop flights around the country are terrific fun. While Lion itself could do with retiming all of its flights to be two hours later than currently scheduled, so that then they’ll actually all be on time, Wings offer a prompt service and, moreover, passengers are treated to some splendid views of the country’s islands, as these diminutive babies fly at about half the altitude of their jet-powered siblings. My favourite Wings route runs from Surabaya over spectacular views of East Java’s monstrous peaks before finally landing at Belimbingsari Airport in Banyuwangi, which boasts a terminal building slightly smaller than the average public lavatory.
Tambolaka’s airport is a decent size by contrast, although that ensured an unsettling amount of rubbernecking passengers and ground staff all having a good laugh at me as I peeled the plastic suitcase wrapping from my iron steed, pumped up my tyres, strapped on my panniers and waited 90 minutes for the torrential rain to subside. Luckily, this would prove to be the last precipitation that I would encounter over the next five days, as the tropical sun was to burst forth in all of its bule singeing glory the following morning.
George Bernard Shaw famously said that “There is no sincerer love than the love of food.” The culinary inspiration underlying this quotation has been lost in the mists of time, however, I’m personally pretty convinced that it wasn’t the fried rice breakfast served up down at Tambolaka’s Hotel Sinar. No matter though, as a decent stomach lining of stodge and orangutan raping palm oil was exactly what I needed to propel me up Sumba’s slopes to the busy town of Waikabubak. Thankfully, the Sumba landscape is punctuated by relatively low limestone hills, as opposed to the steep volcanic slopes that are found on the Indonesian islands lying further north.
Even better, once one travels outside of Java, Indonesia’s roads generally become far pleasanter places, and on less-developed islands such as Sumba, it’s often just you, the mellifluous sound of your drive-chain whirring round, a few masticating cows (careful, Simon) and the sheer magnificence of the RI countryside. Scuba diving? Meh.
I soon rolled into Waikabubak, which I would describe as a one-horse town if it weren’t for the thousands of equine dung cakes that had been ploughed into the main thoroughfare. It was time to check out a little local culture. Sumba is famed for its megalithic burials, traditional thatched clan houses and, perhaps most famously, for its Pasola festival, a ritualised battle during which groups of men from different tribal backgrounds ride bareback horses and lob hand-carved spears at each other. The Pasola is ostensibly a simulated battle, however, real blood is spilt as the spears puncture flesh, and this is believed to fertilise the soil ready for the next rice planting. It’s supposed to be an amazing spectacle and one guaranteed to get National Geographic presenters steaming up their Oakley shades. Alas, I didn’t get to witness this Southeast Asian Game of Thrones, although I don’t have a cast-iron constitution and the whole thing sounds quite upsetting if you ask me.
Waikabubak did offer some traditional thatched houses clustered around central courtyards though. Housing arranged around a different organising principle to that of the public highway really does evoke a bygone era, however, those ubiquitous signifiers of Indonesian modernity, the noodle packet and the television blaring out sinetron dramas, took the edge slightly off this window onto the country’s more bucolic, tribal past.
The next three days of riding across the fertile, sparsely populated plains of Sumba proved to be absolutely breathtaking, both in the sheer beauty of the island’s verdant, rolling hills and the incomparable shoddiness of its budget accommodation.
I consider myself one of the country’s greatest connoisseurs of the Rp.100,000-150,000 per night flophouse and am never happier than when I’m cloistered in a dingy room with only a two-watt light bulb, a shower that can trickle out one litre an hour and a mattress covered in stains of dubious provenance for a company.
The final swoop down off the hills into Sumba’s largest urban conurbation of Waingapu was truly majestic and offered a terrific panoramic sweep of coastline as I screamed down to sea level with my rambutans on fire.