When I worked in Indonesia some years ago some of my time was spent operating survey instruments onboard a helicopter. My best memories from that time are from flights we did in the more remote areas. We saw some fascinating scenery and flew by these small remote villages where people always came out waving to us. Well, not everyone was waving, we also saw people taking cover, not knowing what to expect. Luckily for them we were quite harmless, just surveying their land.

Pulau Sawu, East Nusa Tenggara. A village with traditional houses built by timber and leafs from palm trees. A group of curiously waving people can be seen in the lower center of the image. This is from southern Sawu (from helicopter) (Bjorn Grotting)
Pulau Sawu, East Nusa Tenggara. A village with traditional houses built by timber and leafs from palm trees. A group of curiously waving people can be seen in the lower center of the image. This is from southern Sawu (from helicopter, photo Bjorn Grotting)

One of these remote places was the island of Sawu west of Timor in the province of East Nusa Tenggara. Flying by these, for us, primitive buildings or huts with apparently happy people cheering at us makes me wonder how diverse human life still is on this small planet, even in the 21st century.

Well, enough of that, the rest is some facts about Sawu;

Sawu (also known as Savu, Sabu, Sawoe, Havu, Hawu, Hawoe) is a small island, approx. 461 sq. km, located southwest of Timor and southeast of Sumba. Population about 60.000. Sawu is isolated from other islands by a deep ocean. This island is like Sumba less influenced by modern lifestyle, and is known for a culture where old traditions like offerings, dance and other rituals still can be seen. Their old animistic beliefs are known as “jingitui”, and survived the first Portuguese missionaries who came here before year 1600 AD, later followed by Dutch missionaries.

Pulau Sawu, East Nusa Tenggara. Small huts on the southern coast of Sawu (from helicopter). Savu is an island which is situated midway between Sumba and Roti, west of Timor, in Indonesia's eastern province. (Bjorn Grotting)
Pulau Sawu, East Nusa Tenggara. Small huts on the southern coast of Sawu (from helicopter). Savu is an island which is situated midway between Sumba and Roti, west of Timor, in Indonesia’s eastern province. (From helicopter, photo Bjorn Grotting)

The island is split in five traditional domains, the largest is Seba on the northwest coast. The society is divided in clans named after their male founders. The Sawunese are in addition also divided in half, the “noble” and “common” halves, which are determined by their mother’s lineage. The “noble” halves are called “hubi ae” (greater flower stalk) and “hubi iki” (lesser flower stalk).

Sawu was a temporary stopover for the famous explorer Captain Cook. Supposedly he and his crew enjoyed the place so much that they stayed several days longer than originally planned, probably because of an abundance of alcoholic drinks from the flower of the “Lontar” palm. This palm means a lot for the natives on the island, besides alcohol it can give a nutritious liquid that also can be made into sugar. The timber from the palm is used to build boats and their traditional homes, the palm leafs can be used as roof or to cover the dead before a funeral.

Pulau Sawu, East Nusa Tenggara. The dry and hot winds from Australia makes the landscape look torrid, for long periods of the year there is no rain here (from helicopter). (Bjorn Grotting)
Pulau Sawu, East Nusa Tenggara. The dry and hot winds from Australia makes the landscape look torrid, for long periods of the year there is no rain here (from helicopter, photo Bjorn Grotting)

A large part of the year Sawu is dry, this far east in Nusa Tenggara the dry and hot winds blowing from the Australian continent have a major impact. There is not much agriculture here, only small patches around the houses. The island has a lot of unspoiled landscape with beautiful beaches, crystal clear water and a very hospitable people. Sawu is also like other islands in Nusa Tenggara known for it’s “ikat”, woven textiles that can take weeks to produce.

From Kupang on West Timor there are boats leaving for Sawu about two times a week, from here they continue to Waingapu on Sumba before returning via Sawu again. There are a few facilities for travelers on the island.
 

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Bjørn Grøtting

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Photographer based in Norway. See a collection of my best photos in the portfolio. Licensing of images is done through Photoshelter or alamy.
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