My family spent a magical holiday in Sumba last year, where we escaped reality on this mystical island of spirits and horses, barely changed by human habitation.
As the small plane dips down over the Indonesian ocean, we are relieved to look out of the windows and see land almost devoid of the scars of human habitation. Tambolaka, Sumba’s main, town is tiny, and we all clamber through to the little hall to find our bags which have been carried in from the flight.
A single fan lazily hums and soon we are out driving through the one main street which leads out and up into the wooded hills. There is a sense of time slowing down, and we pass waving children, young boys riding bareback on feisty ponies, and the odd motorbike returning laden from the market.
The magical week we spent on Bali 15 years previously did not prepare us for the traffic filled roads and endless signs of tourism that we experienced on this visit. It is a delight to escape to Sumba Island.
Retreating to Lombok past concrete skeletons, ready to be turned into mega hotels for the South East Asia burgeoning market with more direct flights set to arrive by the month, we all want the same thing - flee to Sumba!
Strange thatched points rise out of the trees, like witches hats dotting the hillsides - the steep roofs ascending, to let the spirits and smoke out to the heavens.
This is also one of the few places in the world where megalithic burials are still performed – and at the centre of the village, or beside most houses, are the enormous stone graves of clan ancestors covered in great slabs of rock up to 12 inches thick that weigh up to five tons.
Most islanders identify as Christian, though many still practice an ancient form of animism known as Marapu. Many family members are still traditionally entombed with their possessions - like ancient Egyptians.
Sumba’s beaches are not only beautiful, but they are also gloriously empty – with the odd fisherman throwing his nets by hand, standing thigh high in the crystal blue waters, often with a herd of lazy buffalo ambling gently by.
The island is made up of natural forested hills, and in the valleys, rice and maize fields glisten green in the sun. Along the road children wave excitedly from small villages surrounded by banana trees and coconut palms, with cows, goats, and dogs and chickens scratching in the dust.
On the wooden verandah platforms studded with the bleached buffalo horns, women sit at their wooden looms, weaving intricate ikat designs.
Here the islanders treasure their horses, and all young boys learn to ride bareback, participating in the famous races. The age old game of pasola is still played, with warriors on horseback fighting with spears!
There is so much to do while staying here, and being by this endless stretch of beach, famous for its incredible surfing waves, there is also paddle boarding on sea, or the Wanukaka River, snorkelling, jet skis, spear fishing for yellowfin or any amount of snappers and other delicious fish, eating what you catch. There is also scuba diving and private boat charters.
On land, take a day trek to the blue waterfall, or you can spend the morning walking through rice terraces and villages to the Nihi Oka valley. Arrive for a treehouse brunch, and then indulge in soothing spa treatments and relax in your own Robinson Crusoe space – you can even stay in the private overnight villa for the night.
Riding is a must – with the horses saddled and ready for a hack along the beach and across the pristine landscape, and to learn more about the culture, there are weaving and cooking classes and trips to villages and markets.
For children of all ages, there is so much to do and Nihi even has its own chocolate factory, where they can help turn the locally grown cacao beans into finger licking treats.
Apart from their excellent community work and the fantastic activities on offer, the accommodation itself is also a delight to stay in, and was even awarded the Best Hotel in the World in by Travel + Leisure’s readers in 2016. Nihi Sumba is private and exclusive, nestled on the edge of a stunning stretch of beach.
The fully-inclusive resort boasts everything you could need for a holiday either as a couple, with friends or with the family. There is a pool, private beach where guests can try various watersports, an equestrian centre, a glorious open-air spa where you listen to the waves crashing while you have your treatment, and much more besides.
There is a wide range of accommodation to choose from spread over the 567 acres of private land. The quirky Mamole Tree House has three conjoining villas built around the trunks of trees, raised from the ground in the jungle.
This is perfect for a larger family or groups of friends, and from the master bedroom you have a balcony that overlooks the ocean.
There are also various groups of villas spread over the estate, all with a different flavour, so you can choose the accommodation that would suit you the most. The villas have one or more bedrooms, or you can take the entire estate for a large group.
But the most amazing thing about this place is the vision they have had for Nihi Sumba from its inception. They have strived to create a sustainable resort that allows guests to enjoy the remote beauty of the island whilst putting the proceeds back to the local community, enabling them to preserve their culture and empowering them with healthcare, education, employment, and the basic needs of life that many didn’t have access to – clean water and good nutrition.
Committed to the island first and foremost, Nihi is trying to preserve the amazing and unique culture – and ensure all profits go to the community. Over 80 percent of funding for their charitable foundation, the Sumba Foundation, comes from Nihiwatu and its guests.
Most of the staff are villagers from the island who have been trained in hospitality, providing them with skills and employment, and the service is warm and attentive.
Over the last 15 years the Sumba Foundation has been providing health care, free of charge, to island villages. Initially they opened a malaria clinic in Hobawawi but have since expanded the health program to cover all areas of healthcare including common ailments, dental and eye care and minor surgery.
They now have built and run four clinics and have a malaria control program covering 30,000 people, with a goal to eradicate malaria on the island entirely.
Additionally they have provided additional training in pre-natal care, scanning and delivery methods to local midwives and provide portable ultrasound scanners so that expectant mothers can have antenatal screening and any health issues can be identified so that the mothers can receive extra care where necessary.
The Foundation has also provided water wells and stations for villagers, as access to clean water is a problem particularly in rural areas or for mountain villages. Over 65 water wells have been dug since 2001, with a network of 250 water stations providing water to over 27000 local people every day.
Clean water is also provided to 22 primary schools, as well as government clinics and the Foundation’s own clinics. This all means that now, with the daily need to walk for hours to collect drinkable water eliminated, children are free to attend school and women can use their time to earn an income for their families. The Foundation is now focussing on renovating and upgrading 21 existing water projects.
Malnutrition and anaemia due to a poor diet was affecting many children in Sumba when the nutrition programme began in 2008. The island communities do not have access to enough food and the foods that are available are low in proteins and micro-nutrients and do not provide enough calories.
The Foundation now provides vitamins and healthy school lunches to over 2600 students, in many cases they would not have lunch otherwise, so impacting their ability to learn. Where available the ingredients are bought from the local farmers.
In addition, in cases where severe malnutrition is seen in children under school age, they also provide a 6-month intervention Nutrition Programme which has benefitted to date 1017 infants.
During the programme the children are provided with additional nutritious food, whilst at the same time teaching the parents how to cook healthy meals for their family.
Nihi Sumba is a 50-minute flight from Bali to Sumba Island, followed by an hour-and-a-half drive to Nihi Sumba from the Bandar Udara Tambolaka airport.
If you are looking for the most sublime island experience, where you can choose as much adventure or relaxation as you want, and at the same time help to empower the local people, then Nihi Sumba is a complete delight to visit.
Please feel free to get in touch if you would like more information about this magical island.
Images are kindly supplied courtesy of Nihi Sumba Island and the Sumba Foundation