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The Back Roads of Sumba

When they say the trip is the destination, they are talking about places like Sumba. Travel here is no piece of cake, but moving through this epic landscape, with all its challenges, is the definition of adventure. We set off on our motorbikes with little more than a vague Lonely Planet map and a couple of useless brochures, and ended up getting lost for two days in one of those fantastically rewarding misadventures we have grown to love.

Our trip started out a bit questionably as we dodged an endless line of overloaded trucks on the “main road” from Waikabubak towards Waitabula. Unable to enjoy the undulating tropical landscape due to the trucks, we improvised a detour across the forested back country to Pero. As is often the case, remote “roads” that appear on maps may not be there. Or there may be more of them than you anticipate. In this case, both scenarios proved to be true. Our road narrowed into slightly more than a paved, potholed path that wound its way through rainforest, past tiny farms and villages becoming a rural maze of forks and side roads. In other words, it was awesome!

We discovered isolated villages with an entirely different hut architecture. Was it a different tribe? Or just a different kind of hut? We happened upon a string of remote rural schools where throngs of excited children waved and screamed as we rolled past. At one point, when we stopped to rest our sore butts (those potholes take their toll), a young Indonesian English teacher came running out thrilled to find English speakers in the middle of nowhere.

With limited Indonesian (on both sides) and lots of sign language, we popped out of the maze near Bondokodi into a bustling tribal market. Men dressed in hand-woven ikat with swords at their side surrounded us to discover our story. We laughed and took photographs and began to elicit information on the best route to the only guesthouse in the Kodi region, the extortionately priced yet hospitable Homestay Stori. The mosquito infested home was friendly and fun with Indonesian development workers who were as out of place in Sumba as we were.

Up early the next day, we pushed south through the extraordinary Kodi region with its absurd, super-cool vertical hut villages. Exploring the region on your own is tough yet terrific. (Check out Thomas in the lead picture fording the large river south of Ratenggaro to get to Wainyapu.) But challenge rewards with destinations straight out of a fantasy novel. As always, adults in the villages were rather aloof, but the kids went nuts when we arrived.

The Lonely Planet map would have travelers believe there is a nice circular road that leads around western Sumba. Yeah right, maybe in 1950! Instead, we discovered a series of forks and ever deteriorating dirt roads which led past phenomenal villages, isolated stretches of rugged coast, massive jungle rivers, and stunning forests filled with topical beep-bop-boop sounds.

Lost for hours and struggling to find our path, Thomas suddenly announced that he was almost out of gas. I spent twenty minutes ranting and raving about not keeping an eye on his tank, which for some reason emptied much faster than mine. Eventually, I sobered and realized I was wasting precious time. We were in the middle of the forest and the road had narrowed to what looked like a dry riverbed. As if that weren’t bad enough, we had no idea which direction to drive in and the few other people we encountered seemed even less conversant in Indonesian than we were. In other words, we were having one of those authentic experiences that we “adventure travelers” wear like badges of honor.

We doubled back a few miles to a small hut enclave which – thank god – produced what looked like a beer bottle full of gasoline. (We love you hut enclave!) The amazing guy at the shop-hut drew a map on a piece of cardboard to help us navigate our way all the way back to Waikabubak. As absurd as the map above might look, it was our guide for the next four hours through the forest up onto an inland plateau featuring an an epic panorama of velvety emerald grasslands and a series of fairytale hill villages. We arrived in Waikabubak at the exact moment the sun was setting. Whew! Now that was one fun trip!

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Topics: Adventures, Hiking & Trekking, Indonesia, People | 3 Comments »

3 Responses to “The Back Roads of Sumba”

  • Bama Bama
    March 30th, 2012 at 1:51 am

    Getting lost like this sounds so much fun! I should do it sometimes I guess.

  • Tony Tony
    March 30th, 2012 at 2:43 pm

    Yes, we love to take off and just discover things on our own. We were asked on another post why we decided not to take a guide in Sumba. We just really love the sense of finding our way through things and experiencing the culture through our interactions with the people rather than having someone lead us through.

  • Bama Bama
    March 30th, 2012 at 9:25 pm

    And that is exactly the most exciting way for traveling! Most of the time I travel solo. Therefore finding the way to a specific place is always interesting (although I get lost sometimes). How much longer will you be traveling across Indonesia? It’s quite funny realizing that I’m Indonesian but it’s you guys who venture deep into remote corners of the country :) Keep up the spirit!

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