Jungle treks to empty lineups and waves too isolated to get hurt on.
I was waiting out the front of the airport when Darren came staggering up. He waved a tired hello and put his board bag down… “So your plans for a quiet night didn’t quite work out?” I asked. He shook his head in resignation… “I’m looking forward to this Ments trip… I just want to surf every day and stay off the booze… Canggu’s been off tap these last few weeks… since they eased the social distancing rules it’s been one non-stop party”.
It had been a hectic week. We’d received news that the Ments was opening back up and immediately booked flights to line up with the now irregular Siberut ferry schedule. We were desperate to get there and take advantage of the most uncrowded season in decades. Unfortunately, we then learned that you needed a PCR swab test to enter the Mentawai island chain. The PCR tests were valid for 7 days, but all the labs were busy, and it was taking up to 5 days to get results. There had been a rushed visit to the hospital in Kuta, followed by a series of tense follow up phone calls. After some pleading and begging our results were delivered at 9pm on the night before our flight.
We dragged our gear through the virtually empty departure terminal and got checked in. There was an eerie vibe about the place. The airport in Bali is usually bustling with tourists. Some arriving full of expectant anticipation, others departing covered in sunburn and dealing with various stomach complaints. As we were walking towards our gate Darren suddenly stopped and pointed into an airport convenience store. There was a large red sign advertising half-price beer. It dawned on me as I stared in disbelief. They would have ordered enough to cater for the thousands of pisshead Australians that visit the island every year. Since none of them would be coming they were obviously trying to sell down some stock. Darren gave me a guilty look… “Let's just have one or two before we get on the plane, hopefully it will take the edge off”.
A short time later we were sipping ice-cold pilsners and telling surf trip stories. Darren had been to the Northern Mentawais in the early 2000s… “There were no camps there back then,” he declared solemnly… “Me and a mate stayed in a coconut farmer’s hut with a huge hole in the roof. One time it rained so hard it almost washed our gear away. There were perfect waves for days. A few years later I was pretty angry when I heard how busy it was getting. They should leave places like that empty for people willing to make the effort and work things out for themselves”. I asked what they did for food… “We took it all in with us,” Darren replied emphatically. He then looked a touch sheepish and continued… “We carried 40 kilos of rice in but then discovered that we couldn’t eat it. Turns out it was that imitation rice that they use to throw at weddings. We ended up having to wave down a fisherman and go back for more supplies”.
We finished the last of our cans just as they were calling our flight, then made a mad dash back to the airport convenience store. A short time later we were getting settled on the plane while casually concealing some extra cold ones. We managed to keep our beer-swilling secret during the flight, and the drinking continued in the airport hotel bar. I mentioned that I’d also been looking at doing a boat trip. He stared at me in something approaching disdain… “It’s a good thing you decided to go land based. Only soft types go on charter boats”. The evening reached a pivotal moment an hour later when we started hassling the barman about night-spots in Jakarta. “All closed from corona,” he said. We went to bed disappointed but it was probably for the best.
Our arrival in Padang was going smoothly until we had to use the new Indonesian eHac app. Some bright spark in the government had obviously decided that digitising people’s travel movements was a good idea. Unfortunately, the app had more bugs than the bathroom at my homestay back in Bali. My phone crashed constantly while we entered our details, but we were eventually on our way.
We were subjected to more eHac frustration at the port the next morning. I was expecting Darren to be fairly annoyed as we took our seats. Instead he was gazing around and grinning like an idiot. He turned to me and said… “We are the only surfers on the ferry”.
We arrived at our basic accommodation late in the day. The local guys running the place told us that most of the camps were shut and that there was only about 15 other surfers on the island. “What about charter boats?” Darren growled, “Have you seen any charter boats?” The locals looked at each other, then shook their heads.
I woke at dawn the next morning and wandered out onto the front deck. Darren was already out there. He stood alone staring out at the ocean. When I reached his side all he said was… “Beng Beng’s should be sheltered from this wind, we leave in 10 minutes”.
Soon we were following a winding path through long grass and tall coconut palms. Occasionally it led out onto dazzling strips of white sandy beach before snaking back into jungle foliage. Sometimes we were forced to wade through small running creeks and shallow swamps. After almost 30 mins of solid hiking we arrived in a small bay. I gazed out over sparkling blue water to see a perfect left hander peeling slowly on the other side of a narrow channel. Darren didn’t say a word, he just dropped his bag on the sand and was soon paddling through the shallows.
We spent the next two hours trading perfect waves. Long walls of smooth ocean rolled through constantly. The take offs were easy, and were followed by a series of predictable sections that stood up and asked to be hit. From time to time we noticed local people on the beach, but we didn’t see another surfer all morning.
The buzz from the waves was still with us during the slow hike back. In some spots, the forest reached right down to the blue of the sea. The natural beauty was at times breathtaking, and I had to admit, it felt pretty good walking in to find the waves. Maybe Darren was right? Maybe charter boats were for less adventurous surf travellers.
I met Darren again at dawn the next morning. The bump in the ocean out front made it clear that the wind had shifted overnight. Darren looked unfazed… “There will be waves on the other side of the island. We leave in 20 minutes, make sure you bring some water”.
We were soon scaling around a broad headland. In places the path had fallen away revealing a sharp drop down to water and rocks below. Descending from the cliff, we entered a small bay. There were a few guys surfing a wave called Pit Stops, but Darren barely paused to look, instead turning inland into the deep green of the islands interior. Trekking through the jungle was hard work; my board was continuously getting snagged on branches that blocked our path.
We wandered past a small village that smelled like stale fish left lying in the sun, and eventually, I could hear the sound of the ocean. We made our way through a clump of trees and emerged on the coast. A sandy beach stretched out ahead of us, and offshore the surf was roaring. I stared out at mountainous walls of white water. Beyond the breakers massive blue waves stood then pitched. It was cleaner than back at our camp, but it still looked out of control. It would be one of those sessions where you spent most of the time paddling to get under clean-up sets. Darren stood watching silently, while I said a quiet prayer. If he decided to paddle out, I would need to come up with a good excuse, or I would be forced to join him. Sanity prevailed. He declared that it was too big and that we should head back.
During the return hike, the sun rose high in the sky and I was soon starting to struggle. The heat and the mosquitoes were relentless as I trudged along with my board, wrestling it through leaves and branches. After stepping into some soft mud, I almost fell over, losing one of my shoes in the process.
Darren walked ahead but I could tell he was tired too. At about that moment, my mind wandered to the last boat trip I’d been on. After surfing great waves for several hours, our zodiac had been on hand to pick me up and ferry me back to the main vessel. I was soon lounging on some plush seating and enjoying the fruits of duty-free liquor. Out of a nearby window I could still watch my comrades surfing. While on the prow, one of the girlfriends onboard was doing yoga in a swimsuit that would have led to her arrest in some countries.
I stopped walking for a second so I could have a drink. The water was lukewarm and tasted like burnt plastic. I took a moment to reflect on my current situation. What the hell was I doing here? I should have gone on the charter boat.
If you enjoyed the writing above, you might also like a book I recently published…
Eyes To The Horizon
One man’s psychedelic journey into dating apps and perfect waves on foreign shores
Written by Ben Simon Smith
Available on Amazon, Apple Books, Google Play and with other good eBook retailers