We had fallen into a comfortable routine during our stay in the Northern Mentawai’s. Up at dawn to check the wind and the swell. Work out a surf plan over banana pancakes for breakfast. Head out on foot or find a boat to search for waves. Return completely surfed out, and eat a generous helping of Nasi Goreng for lunch. Toss and turn under a rusty fan while trying to sleep during the heat of the day. Stagger out to check the wind in the early afternoon. Surf through to early evening, before returning for a Mie Goreng dinner. Try to hold the mosquitoes at bay while getting ready for bed. Then finally collapsing back into our stale sheets for a fitful night’s sleep under the mossy net.

Everything was going smoothly, except for the toilet arrangement. The camp bathroom had a western setup with a bucket flush. There was nothing particularly smooth about that situation. But like all good surf travellers, we adapted. My friend Darren persevered with the bucket, often swearing in frustration as it failed to flush everything down. I simply took my toilet breaks back to nature. Preferring to take a short pause during a slow leisurely paddle out through the channel.

The swell had been a fun head high for the first few days, but the longer-term forecast appeared more serious. There was heavy ground swell approaching. It promised to light up some of the more well-known reef breaks in the area.

Ebay was only a short walk from our camp, and I decided to give it a go just as the new swell was filling in. Watching jagged fingers of reef drain as I paddled out didn’t do anything for my confidence. Neither did the thickness to the sets, or the fact that they shifted constantly up and down the reef. I soon began to understand the spread of the small crowd on the island. Everyone had been surfing Pitstops and Beng Beng’s, it was quickly becoming clear why.

There were only about 5 people out, but over the next hour, 3 leashes snapped and a board was buckled. One guy tried to chase his surf craft up onto the reef and received a proper scraping for his efforts. I waited patiently, before becoming impatient, and attempting a desperate paddle for a ledging left hander. The weight of the ocean building behind me and the volume of water being dragged off the reef should have been clear warning signs. I attempted a half-hearted bail through the back as it shut down ahead of me and was soon doing fast flips underwater. Getting rinsed through the inside section while more set waves detonated on my head was equally scary. I sat in the channel afterwards and tried to compose myself. Paddling in and watching from the safety of the shoreline seemed like a good option. But I forced myself to persevere, and eventually picked off the right one. The barrel had a fierce raw edge to it, and the feeling of relief when I snuck out into daylight was almost overwhelming.

The next morning, we were motoring around the island on our way south. The plan was to head to Playgrounds; an area well known for its many and varied wave setups. We decided to check Kandui on the way. As we pulled up, a truly massive set rolled through. It barrelled then spat all the way to the channel. The waves had an ominous beauty to them, and put a tight knot of fear into the pit of your stomach. There were a few guys towing, but two braver souls sat closer to the inside and were paddling. You could feel the tension in the boat as more mountainous sets rolled through. There was some talk of paddling out, but I don’t think anyone was really serious. We were soon motoring onward to check Baby Kanduis.

Conditions were far more user friendly around the corner. Head high plus sets were reeling down the reef fanned by light offshores, and there was not another surfer in sight. We spent the next hour racing down the line, trying to outrun endless spinning barrels. I don’t think anyone managed to make the channel, but it was more fun than you could possibly imagine. The session finished with another creased surfboard and a break for lunch.

We spent the afternoon trading fun walls at 4 Bobs. The wind was light cross-shore to begin with, but it soon began to drop. As another silky-smooth set rolled through, I had to pinch myself. There was only a few of us out. In the distance, perfect glassy peaks rolled through at A Frames with no one on them. Over to our right, occasional empty waves rolled through at Rifles. I mentioned how lucky we were to one of the other guys. He nodded, then said that Playgrounds would normally be full of charter boats, and every break would have a crowd on it.

2020 – the year of Mentawai magic for the fortunate few. Photo: @kanduiresort

Next morning, there was still plenty of swell in the water as we motored south again. This time we were headed for Hideaways. The lineup was empty again. We sat in the boat and watched as heavy lines of ground swell wrapped in and unloaded over the jagged shallow reef. I could feel that familiar knot of fear forming in my stomach, and judging by the nervous silence coming from those around me, I wasn’t the only one. Slowly, we gathered our boards and cautiously began paddling towards the takeoff. More sets rolled through. And if anything, they were more intimidating close up. Some of the waves were as thick as they were high. They lurched out of deep water and exploded with the kind of power that caused you to seriously question your own ability.

We paddled around in circles, sometimes attempting a last-minute take off before usually pulling back. When everything came together someone managed to make the drop and found a few moments of glory inside a cavernous barrel. But this didn’t happen often. We mostly resorted to chasing medium size ones over the reef and were inevitably caught inside. Desperate efforts were made to stay off the coral, with only varying degrees of success. Slowly, one by one, we returned to the boat; reef cuts bleeding; boards damaged; heads bowed in defeat.

The swell dropped over a few days. One morning I rose earlier than everyone else, and did a dawn hike through the jungle down to Beng Beng’s. The sun was just beginning to rise over the island greenery as I paddled out. Perfect shoulder-high lines reeled down the reef, as monkeys called from the trees back on land. The waves had a flawless oily shape to them. The kind of conditions that remind you that surfing is so much easier when the waves are completely smooth and the sections are entirely predictable. A small boat eventually arrived. The surfers dropped slowly into the water and paddled over with hesitant shy grins. Someone apologised for wrecking my solo session. I just smiled and replied that I was pretty much surfed out, then I caught the next one back to shore.

I hiked back to the accommodation feeling blessed. I was probably still smiling when I walked past one of the other surf camps. Someone approached me looking alarmed. Staring back the way I had come, they said… “Did you see the snake?”. Feeling the colour draining from my face, I replied “What snake?”…. “There was a large cobra laying across the path earlier this morning, you must have walked right passed it”.

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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