I gently pulled the leech from my foot, a little bubble of blood erupted under the pressure, as the slimy bloodsucker was thrown back into the muddy swamp from which it came. A day before I was walking through this primordial forest, on the island of Siberut, off Sumartra in hiking boots, but they just didn’t work. The local Mentawai people use a network of slippery logs to raise themseves above the muddy rain forest floor, gripping this with the bare sole of your feet is a lot easier than it is with even the most tech hiking boots. That was eight years ago, a trip which changed many things in my head. Four of us got to live with the Mentawai people for a week, I mean eat, sleep, hunt, learn about the forest everything with these guys, all lead by Shamen, men who knew the forest better than we know our local town. They know every plant and what it was good for, every creature, in fact every living thing was at their fingertips of knowledge. Then I was filming, the resulting footage ended up on a magazine program for National Geographic, with me was American Photographer Brian Nevins, Editor of The Surfer’s Path Alex and surfer Ian Battrick. After that week we joined Jordan Heuer, hell charger and charter boat owner for the other side of the Mentawai experience, we got barreled for two weeks, it was all round the most epic experience of my surfing life. Now eight years on I wanted to go back, we had been offered a chance to camp out on some of Jordan’s land (he now is part owner of the Kandui resort and is building a second in front of Kandui left), it would be a last chance prior to the opening of his new resort and an opportunity to score one of the best left hand reefs on the planet and to see just how far the ultimate surfing playground had come in eight years, both from a surfing a social point of view.
A night in the Asian metropolis Kuala Lumpur cannot prepare you for the capital of Sumatra. As the plane circles overhead the vastness of the city, situated in what appears to be half a bowl, hemmed in on one side by mountains and the other ocean, is immense. It’s completely irregular too, years of expansion have occurred with little planning.
Ian turned as we walked through customs and casually remarked “this is where your ring piece starts twitching,” my heart sank, the little fucker had set me up with a bencong on request of the Wavelength team, but it was far from the truth. Ian had left Indo last summer after a series of strong earthquakes, most centered close to the Mentawai chain. A month after he left, Padang was almost flattened and as we drove to Spice, our overnight stay, the evidence is everywhere. I don’t mind admitting that seeing a city recently hit by a powerful quake scared the shit out of me. I know that the whole area is due for a monster quake and possible tsunami at any time and the Geography student in me is worried, this isn’t called the Edge of the Earth project for nothing but going from a volcano to an earthquake hotspot maybe isn’t as good in reality as it sounded in the safety of an office in inert Cornwall. The city has one hell of a history as well, since Dutch and British colonisation two major Tsunamis have washed through the city in just three hundred years as well as numerous major quakes. It seems to not bother the local population though, and the now massive city draws in people from miles as the capital of Sumatra continues to grow despite the threat. I asked one of the local guys in a little restaurant about the threat, he spoke amazing English for what appeared to be just a waiter, but he was disinterested in techtonic activity, just the news on the local footy team, Semen Padang. No they are not connected to a fertility project, in fact Semen in Indo is Cement and Semen Padang is the oldest cement works in Indo, hence it owns the local team. It takes a little while to stop chuckling at the huge signs for Semen all across town. The guy is a classic, he knows his football too, like he knows England can’t play anyway. He does get round to question eventually and seems to have a plan – “I live on the ground floor, my taxi is always fuelled ready to go and I know the route to high ground, it’s all you can do”. A sobering thought, but as he says life goes on, what can they do, move the whole city? It’s a fascinating city, a major trading post, a gateway to the rich coal fields inland, fishing port, coffee hub, the oldest university outside of Java in Indonesia, a big gold and silver business and for us surfers the gateway to the Mentawai and Telo and Banyak islands. I’m drawn to its streets and people good and bad like a moth to a flame, but always have a gnawing feeling to get the hell out as soon as possible.
I, like many of you look at Indonesia sometimes with some cynicism, it bears no resemblance to the waves I surf everyday, it has been force fed to us through the surf industry as shangri-la for years and quite frankly it can get pretty darned boring simply due to an overloading of imagery. But you cannot deny it one thing, Indo is the best place to go surfing on the whole planet. The archaepelago faces into some of the strongest storms on Earth. Swells are generated by violent low pressure systems beneath the horn of Africa from where they begin their solitary march north eastward. Across the vast doldrums they are groomed, their periods grow, sets stack up over deep water. Then as they approach the Indonesian coast thy meet a deep trench, their power is intensified and lines of perfect ground swell meet shallow perfectly formed reefs of coral, the light tropical winds caress and the resultant walls offer the greatest in surfing experiences for every ability, in bath like water under an almost eternal blue sky. It’s too good to be true and maybe that is why we dismiss Indo so easily but when you are sat in the channel staring into the reality of this perfection you realise how foolish you were not to come back, or go here for the first time, sooner.
In the channel off Kandui island I was experiencing this. The first set unloaded way up the reef with such ferocity that the sound was almost like that of a sonic boom. It then reeled, section after makeable section before zipping across a barely dry inside section, this is Kandui Left, NoKandui just The Left, call it what you like it is without a shadow of a doubt one of the best waves on the planet. One of the best waves if you’re up for the challenge, it’s death or glory stuff, on a perfect day it’s a perfectly tapering four foot barrel, get to your feet, set a line, get tubed, get spat out to the delight of everyone in view. Under a 20 second period six foot plus swell it is a cavernous freight train cartwheeling across a barely submerged reef, offering the tube of your life or a swift but painful tattooing session on the reef. Imagine Reilly’s or Bagpipe or Number Ten, now make it heavier, five times longer and instead of a nice smooth rock bottom, savage coral, now put two of these back to back with just a little bit of breathing space in between. Then slot another one on the end, except this one has about as much water on it as a wet cheese grater, and then you have Kandui Left. Either way it’s a challenge, it’s a formula one circuit of surfing, it’s one of those waves which you have to have a go at if you’re up to the challenge.
Ian and I sat in the channel with Robot, our dug out helmsman, Ronaldo lookalike and also Kandui charger. The sets are solid, Ian had spent six weeks surfing this place last summer, picking off one hell barrel which is there for everyone to see on YouTube. It doesn’t look like anything he’s seen out here before, he’s seen bigger sure, but this swell is thick with period and just a little bit mutant. Ian’s in, it’s shifty. Jordan, our host, turns up with the rest of the crew on their way to Bank Vaults, Jordan immediately bolts back in for one of his Resin 8s, the boards he calls his Ferraris for these conditions. The boys are joined by Mark Droig, Alex, JC and Phil Reed, who arrives late, but the ex pro Aussie Rules player, and only goofy footer is all over it. The session is heavy, Ian rides one wave at full tilt, watching the video later, he gets slotted on the outside section, drives through the middle before getting an impossibly long pit on the almost dry section only to be overtaken by the foamball, thus getting obliterated. Right on dark Phil gets the barrel of the evening, coming from behind a section, disappearing on the foamball then incredibly emerging, before getting two more barrels on the one wave.
Next morning and first light we’re out, as are the rest of the crew, the light is that perfect Indo light photgraphers dream about, the swell is still thick but the intensity has backed off slightly. The boys trade barrels for a couple of hours, boards get snapped, bodies tattooed on the reef before the wind just starts to get up. Stories are shared over omelettes back on land, we’d come for this wave and had been prepared to wait, yet we’d scored it in two days.
By lunchtime the wind had swung, it was so hot, hotter than I ever like being outside in, but Phil and Jordan were pumped. In the lineup Ian got slotted on the first, the swell was still solid but with the tide dropping it had a really evil kick to it. Phil got a hell wave getting slotted twice before being catapulted out of the inside section. Jordan likewise had to eject from a sick backhand tube prior to the whole end section going dry. Mark followed, folding a board, the Robot folded his, the conditions were all in place bar the tide. Ian was up next, the outside section was by far the most friendly and Ian pig dogged through an impossibly long tube, on exit he stood upright, assessing the situation, but you didn’t need to see the look on his face to know he was going to gun it. From the water it looked doable, but from land, Alex’s point of view, it was a full on slingshot into the gnarliest of sections. Ian got pumped, plain and simple. He came up a little dazed, coughing up blood. Sitting next to me in the lineup he contemplated the meaning of this, it hadn’t happened to him before, but it was just a case of a breather, then straight out and into another barrel.
Thunderclouds bubble and surge high into the atmosphere over Siberut. When you are sat in the middle of the dense jungle you hear a storm in the distance, you cannot see it, you just know its coming. The pigs, of which there are many, all come back to the Uma from the forest and settle underneath the wooden structure, a couple of feet below where everyone else in the extended family sleeps. Then it starts, like a high pressure hose from the heavens it blasts everything clean, from the little island offshore the nightly storms are just a huge firework display. Only once did we get the full pressure washer treatment and it was more than welcome.
Mentawai culture is changing and there is not a single thing you can put your finger on to explain everything. I came with a really polarised idea that I’d be able to draw a conclusion, say something like, logging has ruined these islands and they have been damaged beyond repair, naturally and socially. But the fact is you just cannot say something like that, the situation is just too complex. The village, which we had reached by dugout for two hours into the forest to live in, has changed. Eight years previously we had showed them a book with surfing in it, the kids and adults were amazed by the imagery, one tried to stop the rest of the village from looking at the book, didn’t want to corrupt them, let them know what was going on outside of their jungle universe. The truth is surfers are the least of these people’s worries really, pressure from all sides to change their hunter gatherer/ small time cultivator lives is coming from all sides. The Indonesian government wants nothing more than to see them housed in regular towns and villages, they come into contact now with the outside world.
I wasn’t sure about the curry, it looked good, those green leaves wrapping up the scrawny bits of chicken, laced with red hot chillis. Trouble is the overnight ferry is not the place to risk the shits, Indonesian ferry toilets are pretty much the closest thing to hell on earth. Hot holes, usually with crap all over the floors, God help anyone who has the shits on one. So I refrained, ordered a coffee susu and watched life go by in Tua Paget, a port on Sipura. My glass is greasy, but the coffee is strong and the condensed milk is sweet, it’s like double dropping, you get an intense hit of caffeine followed by an almost heart stopping hit of sugar, I love Indo for concoctions like this. It’s full on, like pretty much everything out here, the travelling is no different. We’re actually waiting for the best ferry in the islands, I’ve been on some rotten, rat infested holes in the past but the Ambu Ambu is more like a cruise ship in comparison, except those toilets. Ian loads up a little dugout canoe, he’s out of here in a different direction, a three hour boat ride to a little village down the coast. There he knows a family where he’ll stay for as long as his cash lasts, getting barreled, dodging malaria, he has seven boards for company and a book by Charles Bronson on solitary fitness; yes he is strange, but he is also getting more barrel time than the rest of us put together.
Tua Paget is old and new Indonesia colliding, on the little main street coconuts dry alongside modern looking pharmacies, commercial fishing boats are moored just off the beach, but still one man outriggers sail between them with a daily catch which gets sold just up the beach on little road side stalls. The smells from the street are all incapsulating, the stench of the cocunuts and the fresh fish mixed is nauseous but the neighbouring stall selling vegetables and spices takes the edge off it. Next door is a petrol station, don’t think pumps and overpriced sandwhiches though, think mineral water bottles filled with fuel, some shaded from the sun, others building up pressure in the full glare.
Little local restaurants show off their dishes in sweaty glass cases, all look amazing, but that ferry toilet puts me off. Instead we buy some local avacadoes and make simple sandwiches; tasty, not that adventurous but unlikely to have us dodging mines in a metal hellhole known as the ferry lav.
A couple of hours prior to the ferry leaving loading begins, everything that needs to get to Padang goes on this ferry, bananas, chickens, goats and of course people head towards the capital of Sumatra. The dock buzzes as departure time nears, food carts multiply and the smell of the chicken satay sticks fills the air, I refrain from one, the ferries toilets playing on my mind. As we pull out there is only one thing left to do and that’s pull on a Gadnag Garam. I don’t smoke, never have except in Indo and only Gadangs. What’s more except for one out of control week in Bali with bodyboarder Danny Wall and a crew of Plymouthians, I only ever have one a trip. It’s the taste of the clove cigarretes that get me first, then the sweet residue that gets left on your lips as you pull on one of these cancer sticks, then it’s the smell in the air around you. The sensation is heaven, until the sickening taste of tobacco and nicotine catch up, that’s why one’s enough, but it’s enough to leave my head rushing on the top deck of the ferry.