Four stocky horses thunder down Nihiwatu Beach, sand flying as their jockeys ride bareback and low, egging them on to a finishing line decorated with fuchsia bougainvillea and palm leaves.
They’re racing so guests at the resort of Nihiwatu get a feel for the local culture on Sumba, a sparsely populated island just an hour’s flight southeast from far-betterknown Bali. The people of Sumba mostly practise an animist indigenous religion, and the culture is megalithic, with large stone tombstones built right next to towering traditionalhomes decorated with buffalo horns. Horses, originally brought to the island by foreign sandalwood traders centuries ago, have become an integral part of Sumba life. “Children ride as soon as they can walk,” says Dato Daku, a 41-year-old horseman and Nihiwatu employee. An annual event, called the Pasola, sees spear-armed men ride horses in a war-like ritual; and a man will be buried with his favourite horse right beside him.
“In Sumba, we still really need the horse,” says Dato, a father of six and a Pasola rider since age 15. “We really need the horse to help bring back the harvest to the village – rice or corn or tapioca.” Dato sports a missing tooth, and various serious-looking scars – but they’re all from Sumbanese boxing, an apparently equally risky sport. Though he’s retired from the boxing, Dato still rides in the Pasola, staying at the back these days “I’m a little bit scared about someone being clever enough to throw the spear at me. From 50 metres away they can hit somebody. I still go – but I’m careful.” The guests watching the horse race at Nihiwatu sip mint juleps. They wear festive hats decorated with flowers and place bets on the horses – with proceeds going to the Sumba Foundation, set up by the original owner of Nihiwatu, American Claude Graves.
Horses, brought to the island by foreign sandalwood traders
centuries ago, have become part of Sumba life.
Graves camped on Nihiwatu Beach for a decade to win the trust of the local tribes who eventually sold him custody of their land. The resort offers luxury accommodation – think a modern tribal look, with alang-alang thatched roofs, private plunge pools, oversized wood furniture and finishings of hand-sliced coconut. There’s a world-class surf break limited to ten surfers and staff will accommodate just about any guest whim. The resort also works closely with the 2001-established Foundation to help make a difference in the lives of the Sumbanese. Since inception it has supplied clean water to more than 20,000 people, across 205 villages. I head out to see the latest water project, about an hour’s drive from the resort along a rough road that can only be traversed by a 4WD, passing barely any other traffic. Spending US$14,000 of donor money has meant 800 families now have much easier access to clean water. Outside one house, Paulina Podolobo has a seven-month-old child perched on her hip, her four-year-old twins playing nearby.
Two taps that spurt with clean water are a few metres away; before they were installed three weeks ago, Paulina walked two kilometres to the nearest water source, twice a day. “Now, it’s easier here,” the 26-year-old smiles, adding that she spends the extra two hours she now has to herself each day in the kitchen working on an income generation project. Nearly three-quarters of Nihiwatu’s guests are return visitors. Australian surfer and engineer
Peter Gemell is one of them; he and his wife Annie have been coming here for six years. They’ve contributed towards training nurses,helped purchase a microscope used to diagnose malaria, and Peter now works on water projects, including the one I just visited.
“I think it’s the contrast (between the resort and how people live elsewhere on Sumba) that triggers everyone into thinking they’d like to do something potentially to help,” he says. “The more often you stay here, the more engaged you become…You become involved in it because you can see that it makes such a difference.” The latest water project simply involved connecting an existing pipe system put in by the government years ago to a gravity feed. “It was an obvious solution,” he says. “Taking care of matters such as hygiene, health and education means there will hopefully be gradual generational change,” Peter says, adding that he hopes the Nihiwatu model will be replicated by other developers bound to arrive on Sumba’s stunning beaches soon. “It’s so serene. It’s surreal,” says long-time hotelier and the relatively new managing partner at Nihiwatu, South African James McBride, of the bucolic setting.
We’re going on an early morning walk to Rua Beach, 7km from Nihiwatu, through hushed villages and classic rural scenery. With the financial backing of Chris Burch, the American retail entrepreneur, James is aiming to steer Nihiwatu onto a new course, attracting guests beyond the surfing community. We stop for a break at a house where a barefoot man shimmies up a palm to pluck us some coconuts, with much discussion among the villagers over which ones he should select. Then we are off again, a boy bareback on his horse appearing in golden shafts of sunlight on the road in front of us; around the next corner a herd of water buffaloes jostle for position as they move past us. The view of Rua Beach as it comes into view is jaw-dropping.
It’s Africa in Asia…It’s the intensity of the sea. It’s the ruggedness of the
beach. It’s the Sumbanese.
Are we looking at the next Bali? “I guess the easy answer to that is I hope not,” James says, noting that the rapid development there has made some parts of the island challenging to live in. “Part of Chris’s and my ambition in Sumba is to protect it, to land bank as much as we can. Certainly we’d like to give it the global appeal that Bali has, but calibrated to be a little bit more gentle.” What attracts him and others to Sumba? “It’s Africa in Asia… It’s the intensity of the sea. It’s the ruggedness of the beach. It’s the Sumbanese. It’s the huts; the chickens. Maybe the betelnut, and the harshness.”
One of James’s hopes is to bring polo to Sumba, both to test the mettle of the island’s excellent horsemen off the Pasola field and for guests to enjoy as well. “Playing polo on Nihiwatu beach or on the Pasola field would be a beautiful spectacle, and an amazing thing to do,” he says. “Hopefully it will be tied in somehow with the work of the Foundation,” he adds. I’ve been mountain-biking the hills and when I cruise into the resort, horseman Dato happens to be there. I dismount and a sombre Dato looks at the bike, shaking his head. “So you’ve been riding that?” he asks. “I’ve been trying to learn. But it’s difficult. A horse is so much better.”
5 Senses – Scent
Follow your nose to the offerings at Nihiwatu’s restaurant by the beach with your feet in the sand or at a private dinner in a special treehouse set up at nearby Nihioka Beach, where the grill is set up in the crook of a tree trunk – and the iced drinks are cooled nearby in another. Add in the head-clearing scent of salty, pure sea air, and you’ll be chilled out and relaxed in no time.
5 Senses – Sound
You’re never far from animals on Sumba. Listen to the pounding of horses’ hooves galloping along Nihiwatu Beach as their jockeys race for a prize of glory. You’ll hear startling bird calls as you go for an early morning or dusk walk, the cries of roosters in villages and the bleating of curious goats. The click-clack of water buffaloes on asphalted roads will reach your ears before you round a corner to come face to face with a friendly herd making a crossing.
5 Senses – Taste
Once you’ve tried one young coconut you’ve tried them all, right? Think again. At Nihiwatu, you can attend a coconut tasting session, where you’ll sample five different coconuts grown on different ‘terroirs’ or land areas. See how the sweetness and flavour of the coconuts subtly change depending on how far the coconut tree grows from the ocean, and other factors. Once you’ve chosen your favourite flavour, you’ll be able to drink coconuts from a particular patch
of Sumba land for the rest of your stay.