Day 12 |
May 23, 2014

Sumba Island    

By Malcolm Turner, Naturalist
Co-ordinates: 09 22.95 S 119 13.15 E
Weather: Sunny morning light rain in afternoon
Air Temperature: 31ºC
Pressure: 1010 hPa
Wind: 15-20 knot E

A swell that produced a nice left handed surf break was negotiated by our Zodiac drivers as we entered the quieter water of the tiny Pero Harbour of Sumba Island. Locals moved several anchor lines of the beautifully carved and painted outrigger canoes so we had space to bring the Zodiacs to a concrete step landing.

Amid a crowd of curious onlookers (they may get one ship a year here) we boarded a fleet of colourful buses for the half hour journey up into the hills. We passed through mixed agricultural land with many houses. Some were traditional thatch and others were various combinations of traditional and modern including tin roofs with woven bamboo walls, and thatched roofs on rough coral brick walls. The most incongruous sight was a satellite dish and solar panel on a thatch house. As we climbed, the houses all became traditional and we reached our destination, the village of Wainyapu.The first thing that struck us was the impressive tall peaked thatched roof structures on the large communal houses. But before we entered the village we had to be ritually challenged by a sword wielding elder as to our purpose. Once that was clear, a guest representing us received a welcome gift and we were escorted to a shady clearing. Betel nut was presented and explained. For the first time I heard the three ingredients of betel nut chewing explained in a biological way: the green pepper plant sticks represent a man's organ and the betel nut represents the women's 'part'; the powered lime represents sperm and the resulting red saliva which is spat out represents the blood produced during a birth.

Several dances followed with the graceful movements of colourful women and the active actions of a warrior waving a spear and shield. Of course, as a bird person, my favourite was the dance by two women representing eagles circling and closing in on cloth 'chicken'. Finally one 'caught' the chicken and we all cheered and clapped -which was not the correct response! We were meant to be on the chicken side.

We scattered about Wainyapu, 'chatting' with friendly locals who spoke little or no English or Bahasa. The houses were very large with four central hardwood tree trunks supporting the structure. The frame and floor was bamboo and coconut tree and the thatch was grass, edged with coconut fronds. One resident told me the extended family of each ancestral house gathered to replace the bamboo and thatch every ten years, and the poles last a hundred years. Beneath the floor were animal pens.

The other feature of the village, and in fact the whole island, was the large square family crypts. These were made of huge slabs of coral rock manually dragged up from the coast. The heavy lid was raised each time a newly dead family member was placed inside. Ancestral spirits are alive and well on this island.

The Pasola was the next highlight. About 80 warriors, mounted on the small but tough Sumba ponies, charged across a field and threw spears at each other. Each year a Pasola is held here and the warriors use blunt hardwood spears and try to knock each other from the horses. The more blood spilt, the more fertile the soil becomes, and the better the harvest. Warriors are sometimes blinded or killed. Today's demonstration used softer palm spears but they still looked like they hurt when the struck. We were not invited to give this a go.

It was time to return to our colourful buses and meander our way back done the hills and across the island. The narrow roads were shared with motorbikes and school children and occasional oncoming trucks, but everyone was remarkably aware and patient on the roads, and we arrived via a rain storm at Waikelo Harbour. But this was an expedition and the adventure was not over yet. We had to embark through a surf which was definitely a 'wet landing' -especially for us Expedition staff holding the boat.

Back on board it was time for guests to relax, watch flying fish and pack. The evening showing of Ray's great film of the voyage brought back the memories that started in Broome, in what seemed like an age ago.

It was a nice way to wrap up a diverse and wonderful cruise.