01 Jul Jezology Podcast – Season 1 | Episode 2
Indonesia – 2016
[Please click play to listen to the episode]
I’ve always felt the discomfort of waking up in the middle of the night most intensely in my eyes. They seem to be the most physical representation of my subconscious complaining about this un-natural occurrence. It’s 2:30am and my smartphone is buzzing relentlessly in my right ear, reminding me of our boat captain’s words a few hours earlier. “I’m not sure of this Northwest wind… We should leave early or the crossing might get messy”. Our young Hawaiian skipper was hardly the epitome of naval presentation with his impossibly blond hair spilling out around a sun-bleached cap and his old boardshorts ripped open just below his right butt-cheek, but I could tell that he had grown up in the ocean and would keep us safe floating around in the East Indian.
After a short drive through the southern villages of Simeulue Island, lost in sleepy oblivion, our overloaded minivan pulled into a dark muddy road at the port of Sinabang. I noted here that “port” was a pretty generous word as I carried my board and rucksack along the rickety, creaking jetty that led to our surf charter, trying not to upset the rotten wooden planks. And there she sat, our home for the next 4 days. The 45 ft aluminium twin engine island hopper had been acquired in Bali by our host surf camp and sailed all the way up to far north-western Sumatra to be used as strike and score surf boat. She looked solid, and in this land of uncertainty, I was pretty happy about that.
We pulled out of the harbour in the pitch black of a new moon, with little more than the low lights of the town’s fish farm pontoons and occasional blink of fishing boats on the horizon as our reference points. The lights on the marker buoys for the channel out to the open ocean had long since stopped working, but with a little intuitive experience from El Cap and one of the Indo crew stood on the bow with a flash light, we were soon out into the ocean currents.
The sky began to ease out of the clutches of darkness through a spectrum of blue to reveal Indian ocean in all directions. I had stolen an hour’s sleep on deck and awoke to the skipper skilfully surfing the hull of the ‘Mahi-Mahi’ down the faces of the ocean rollers which silently crept up on our stern. He was keeping a close eye on our tender boat tied by a long rope to the back of the Mahi-Mahi. The tender, one of many tsunami relief boats which had been donated to the Indo fishing community following the decimation in 2004, was cutting left and right as the heavy bow dug into the wake of our charter. Without the tender it would impossible to easily access the surf breaks of our island destination, so ensuring it didn’t sink on its maiden voyage was playing on his mind.
Shouts suddenly erupted from below deck. Sliding my way down the greasy ladder to the engine deck I turned to find our Indo chef lying, green as summer grass, on the floor of the cabin with a pan of eggs bubbling on the hob. It turned out that this was the inevitable lack of sea-legs that occurs when you bring the camp chef in last minute (who had never been out on water…) in place of the regular guy. Good job I make a mean peanut butter sandwich.
The Banyak islands slowly rose from the sea as a black line, gently melting into a rim of green, releasing the details of hazy wave spray around the western inlets. Eventually the peeling white caps of the breaking swell could be seen below dense green hills, rolling over the island extent. We were aiming for Bangkaru island, an uninhabited ecological paradise and turtle sanctuary, home only to a handful of rangers who camp on the jungle clad rock to ward off turtle egg poachers. The inviting untouched beauty of the island stood in contrast to the saltwater crocodiles that infested its waterways and deadly insects that hung from its greenery. “That spot is called Cobras”. My eyes were drawn into the distance by the captain’s nod. A heavy left hand point break had come into view beyond the leafy green walls of volcanic rock. “It’s called that because the headland is stuffed full of the things…”. The potential for tiger sharks patrolling the Indonesian reefs suddenly seemed a reasonable compromise.
We paused at Cobras to have a look at the wave, but the winds from the north were sweeping parallel along the face of the break, causing the heavy water to mutate into an inconsistent mess. Swell is one important variable, but the local winds at a surf break can make the difference between perfect peeling hollow tubes and messy rubbish. To the South of Cobras, around the headland lay Treasure Island, a right hand wave that peels along a jagged reef. The wave used to be much longer, but the tectonic release along the eastern pacific margin which caused the 2004 Asian tsunami uplifted the Indonesian side of the plate, causing many of the reefs around Simeulue to now sit unnaturally high in the water. In the case of Treasure Island, it decoupled the first part of the headland reef from the second, shortening the wave. Legend has it that the wave was one of the best in Indonesia prior to the earthquake.
We rounded the headland to find a vast horse-shoe bay, protected from the northerly winds and dotted with the characteristic white horses of multiple breaking waves around its perimeter. Treasure Island was directly in front of us. We anchored 200 metres off the reef, just in time to see a set of larger waves roll in and throw clean blue curtains into the white water of the reef shelf, peeling neatly towards us. Adrenaline of both the known and the unknown began to pump rhythmically from my chest. I knew the reward of bravery in moments like this and the exhilaration of success, but hollow waves breaking onto reef has always been on the limit of my ability as a surfer. I pulled on my neoprene vest and jumped into the tender. Fixing my gaze on the clean shoulders of water I began methodically analysing the break for take-off position, hazards, onshore markers and sections of the wave (and the reef) to avoid, my body on autopilot rubbing warm water surf wax in circular motions onto the epoxy shortboard balancing on my legs. The tender cut through the calm, blue amphitheatre out to the edge of the break. I paused for a moment, took a breath, slid my board over the rail and dove into the warm water. We had arrived.
Surfing reef is always a balancing act. The nature of reef growth means that it adapts over the long term to the water depth and local tide cycles. Close enough to the surface of the water to photosynthesize, but not too shallow to lay bare and burning in the tropical sun. This solid living mass provides a static platform which adds an element of consistency to the way wave swell breaks; which is in the interest of the surfer. Reef often takes on the geometry of a shelf in the near shore, which causes the incoming waves to abruptly bunch together, rise up and spill over, creating a high energy ride and hollow space for surfers to play with, again, in the surfer’s principle interest. Part of the compromise of surfing reef is that if the surfer makes a mistake, it could mean being washed over or landing directly on a jagged platform capable of tearing and slicing away at the feeble human limbs. In tropical countries especially, reef cuts can lead to serious infection, requiring even the smallest graze to be thoroughly cleaned at regular intervals. Due to its availability, the humble lime and its antiseptic juice is often used by surfers to disinfect reef cuts, but take it from me, squeezing citric acid into deep wounds requires a particularly strong affinity with masochism to endure on a regular basis. Hence the compromise of surfing reef and a moderate explanation of why I write about it with a pinch of trepidation.
The Indonesian sun punished my shoulders, reminding me of my Northern European heritage. The intricate and individual sun protection habits that every experienced surfer learns, evolves from trial and error. That first day in the Banyaks was a significant error, but in an attempt not to beat myself up too much I figured that the most important lesson we learn from falling down, is to pick ourselves back up… albeit with enough sun cream to drown a small mammal. Eventually the inferno dropped below the headland and streaks of blood-red and orange light began to litter the sky. That golden hour has always been my favourite time of day during my tropical travels. Almost as if the world is rewarding the onlooker for surviving the inhumane ravages of the day. A quiet respectful nod from Mother Nature and the maternal encouragement that is required to go through the whole ordeal again tomorrow.
We boarded the Mahi-Mahi as the light relinquished its grip on the day and found a quiet place on the boat to rest our tired shoulders and reflect whilst the captain pulled anchor to sail further into the quieter waters of the bay. Here we would sleep, protected from wind and swell, close enough to hear the intriguing bird-calls from the dense island canopy, but far enough to be bothered only by the most adventurous of mosquitoes. I came to rest on the open top deck of the charter, looking up, deep into the universe. I’ve always felt that gazing at the stars has an unrivalled power to revolutionize the way we live. The framing of our vast insignificance coupled with the realization of the enormous privilege of life leads to profound conversations with fellow voyeurs and indeed with ourselves. My eyelids drifted slowly to rest below a skyscape of wonder and possibility stimulated only by periodic shooting streaks of star dust. Perhaps one of the rarer moments, when the impending dream is only likely to disappoint.
I awoke to find the swell had picked up, sending double overhead set waves crashing into Treasure Island. A little further round the bay was another reef break called ‘Mini’s’. The waves would have to wrap around the bay, spreading the energy before they broke at Mini’s, making it a much more mellow affair. Still… not without its excitements. The reef was L shaped, meaning that the take-off would ratchet up into head-high barrels, peeling fast to the right, but would suddenly collapse into a mushy mound of water at the corner of the reef and break along the edge of the shelf until the energy was no longer sufficient to propel a gangly Englishman. I sat in the crystal clear blue water, looking out towards the oncoming lines of swell. I could see mounds of reef below my dangling feet and colourful blobs of fish, blurred by the refraction of the water, swimming peacefully and unaware. Way out in the bay I could see two shallow bows of moving water, being teased upwards by a stranded reef. This would be a set of waves, caused by subtle periodic increases in wave energy, larger than the rest, one of which I would hope to catch. Settling my chest onto the board I took three or four relaxed strokes towards the incoming set. Enough so the waves wouldn’t break on my head, but not too much that the waves would pass under me and I would miss my chance. With the waves approaching, I could see that my position was good, the peak of the ellipse heading straight towards me and the face slowly rising up out of the blue. Sitting up on my board and shifting my weight to the tail, my right hand stroking the water to pivot myself round into position. The wave, now 10 metres out and closing fast was starting to froth at the peak to my right, I could tell I wasn’t going to have a lot of time to play with… Arching my back, I stoked hard; once, twice, angling the nose of my board to the right as I felt the push of the wave at my feet. One more stoke as the back of my board rose steeply up and forward, the familiar surge in energy that fuels every surfer’s return to the beach. In one smooth movement my hips dropped forward and down and my feet connected with the waxy top. I let go of the board, rotating my left shoulder clockwise towards the unbroken face of the wave to make a smooth bottom turn. Everything goes quiet. The board balancing on the right rail, cutting into the blue face of water stretching out in front of me. How am I here? How is this perfect arc of energy letting me do this? Those fleeting seconds, feeding off third-hand solar energy, owning a perspective and an experience which is yours alone, never to be repeated and impossible to fully describe or explain, is for me, the surfing cherry.
I dropped my left shoulder down and felt the fins grip into the wave face. Pulling a left hand turn and straightening back up into the arching water to ensure I stayed as close to the break as possible. Down to my left something stole my attention. The mottled oranges and yellows of the reef had become increasingly clear. Rough circular pools of water were pulling into the toe of the wave, revealing shards of brown coral grinning up at me. The reef was being sucked dry! Don’t fall, don’t fall, don’t fall… My muscles tensed as my eyes searched for a way out of the wave, causing me to lose balance. My arms flailed and I instinctively crouched and leant forward, urging the wave in front of me to be kind. The board sped up under my feet and I was spat out onto the shoulder… I had made the reef shelf and I had avoided being maimed by living rock! I slowed quickly as the wave dissipated and flopped ungraciously into the water, coming to the surface on my back. I let out a breath and cracked a smile up at the blue sky as a surge of endorphins flooded my body. Should have stuck with golf.
I was aboard the Mahi-Mahi with a small, international group of surfers, a 3-man Indonesian boat crew, our Hawaiian captain and (to the envy of the two other – all male – surf charters that had turned up in the bay that afternoon) a vivacious and flirty Uruguayan masseuse. We would eat together when the sun went down, mostly delicious Indonesian curries with fish or chicken, made all the more impressive with the glorified camping stove that our chef was using. That evening however, we had spaghetti bolognaise, prepared Indo style with lashings of oil. Admittedly it was an interesting take on the Italian classic, but I’ve never been a fussy eater, so demolished it without too much fuss. A little while later I noticed our masseuse sitting on the bow with her limbs and head dangling limp overboard. “You ok…?” I asked as I shuffled my way along the side rail. “There is a brick of oil sitting in my stomach… I feel terrible” she replied. My motherly instincts took over and I fetched her a glass of water, but before too long it was apparent that rather more drastic measures were needed. “I want to throw up, but I can’t” she groaned. It transpired that this well-travelled, adventurous woman did not possess the skill of the self-induced purge. Given that I went to university in the UK during the brief reign of the ‘alco-pop’, making myself throw up had become one of the few ‘life-skills’ I had learnt during those hazy 3 years. I immediately felt rather useful. “Just stick your fingers down your throat, tickle those bumps at the back of your tongue and hold them there until you’re sick” I chirped. Under my guidance the masseuse popped her cherry, giving elaborate commentary between heaves and only pausing to ask if it was normal for it to come out of her nose. As chunks hit the water, something magical began to happen. Little sparks of bioluminescent algae began firing around the concoction of bile and low grade beef as it landed in the warm Indonesian bay. The dark water lit up as if a mirror to the night’s sky, with blinking stars and satellites… if you were to ignore the semi-digested pasta. I remember thinking, ‘this is one of those moments’ as I rubbed the masseuse’s back, encouraging the last dregs of oily meat. “The fish will eat well tonight” I reassured. “The fish will eat well”.
The following day we were back at Treasure Island along with the two other surf charters. Both had sailed up from the south, but with very different clientele. One was a beautiful luxury catamaran with 10 wealthy, polite Belgians on board. The group was from the same town near Bruges in the Flemish speaking north and they were on their 20thyear of their annual surf charter. The other boat, an adapted cargo ferry also had 10 guests on board, all Tasmanian farmers. At least two of them had mullets and they looked decidedly worse for wear after a week at sea. I guessed they had each drunk at least 4 times as many beers for the amount of successfully surfed waves, but each to their own. I would have minded less, but the delightful and varied jungle noises we had experienced on the first night had been all but replaced by Tazzy drinking songs wafting their way across the bay each night.
It struck me at one point that each boat was flushing their toilet waste directly out to sea and that, for a fair amount of the day, the charters were anchored pretty close to one another alongside Treasure Island. This severely affected my motivation to go for a nice swim at the end of the day – given that a casual estimate of 40 daily floaters between the three charters wouldn’t be too far amiss. It also meant that picking your moment to board the boat after a surf was a delicate affair, being that the flush pipe was right next to the boats ladder… One would prefer to avoid a simultaneous transaction. I had also considered fishing during my surfing breaks, due to the large yellow and white schools which ran alongside the Mahi-Mahi for most of the day. That is until the Captain advised that they were dubbed the ‘shitty fish’ because they would go into a feeding frenzy after every flush. “Fresh garlic on the grill isn’t going to improve that taste.” On the flip side, swimming became much more attractive again… Every cloud.
Eventually our time at Bangkaru island came to an end. The winds and currents were such that our crossing back to mainland Simeulue would be uncharacteristically rough, this was supposed to be the doldrums after all. The Mahi-Mahi lurched up on one wave to come thundering down on the brow of the next, sending shockwaves through the aluminium hull. It was enough to ensure a sea burial of my sunglasses, which decided to emancipate themselves from the top of my head and dive overboard. Thankfully for me, I did not have the same trouble with my lunch, although the same cannot be said for the everyone. Despite our crossing, there was time for one last surf on the southern tip of Simeulue. We pulled up to a mushy left hand break dubbed ‘Thailands’ which was peeling for a significant distance along the side of a reef shelf. Mushy in the respect of the way it was breaking. The waves would often crumble over rather than launch forward and barrel. Despite this, the set waves were significantly bigger than anything I had caught in my humble surfing career. The biggest wave of the session had to have been the biggest wall of water I have ever been up close and personal with. I was sitting off the right of the main breaking peak when a big dark lump appeared on the horizon. It was more menacing than anything I had seen that day and so I decided not to take a chance. I put my head down and sprint paddled diagonally away from the break zone towards the reef edge. The wall rose and rose but I had done enough. Out in front and to the left of me, the dark blue wave face began to tip over and tumble down the double decker bus sized void. I was picked up by the enormous shoulder of water only to see down to my left one of our Mahi-Mahi surfers caught head on to the breaking wave. This is what’s known as ‘taking one on the head’ and can be a pretty ragged ride. I sat up on my board as the offshore wind caught the spray from the breaking wave, raining down droplets onto the smooth, calm backside. Being so close to such power and getting away with it is nothing short of exhilarating, especially whilst watching a monster from behind, cleaning-up the entire group of surfers who had not played Devil’s advocate as readily as I.
During the session that followed I wrestled with some of the biggest waves I had ever surfed. Big friendly giants of water. Dream catchers and dream creators. Waves to sooth the soul and satisfy, at least for a little while the surfer’s desire to prod at our insecurities in Mother Nature’s most unpredictable arena. It was a worthy end to an adventure on the high seas and a fitting climax to a surf trip that I never imagined would inspire nearly 4000 words, but as Mark Twain once wrote, “Throw off the bow lines, sail away from the safe harbour, explore, dream, discover all about avoiding flushed surfer turds…”. At least, I’m sure that’s what Mark meant to say…