I had been travelling and surfing in Indonesia for many years but hadn’t yet made it to the Mentawais. The web clips of Lances right and Kandui’s were obviously hard to ignore. But the talk of the crowds along with the cost had continued to put me off. At one stage I did look at spending twelve nights on a slick charter boat. I also thought about a two week ritzy resort package. Then I realised I could spend three months hanging around Lakey Peak for about the same price. Sure, my living arrangements would be somewhat more modest. The sheets and pillow case would probably smell a little stale. I would be dining on Nasi Goreng rather than an exotic fusion whipped up by a resident chef. But considering the lengths of stay on offer, I had been more than willing to live with all of that.
Late last year I somehow found myself lured back to the dour confines of Western civilisation. In a moment of madness I committed to an extended period back in the office. I told myself I needed the money. But as the long days turned to weeks then months. As the politics of the workplace became increasingly poisonous. I found myself in desperate need of a light at the end of the tunnel. Something that would help me to endure the lasting misery of 9 to 5. It was during those dark days that I first experienced strange dreams of perfect Mentawai barrels. I would wake to fleeting visions of flawless white sandy beaches and coconut palms swaying in a light offshore breeze. I am not religious but considered the experience a message from the divine. There could be no more excuses. I would soon make the pilgrimage to Padang, North Sumatra then travel on wards to the Mentawai islands beyond.
I struggled through the remaining term of my contract. I ignored the suck hole that is modern consumerism existing only on toasted cheese sandwiches and generous pourings of cask wine. My surf trip savings account grew fat much like my office worker colleagues. I counted down the days to freedom with joy swelling in my heart. As I was leaving I shook hands with my team lead. We genuinely hated each other but this was a moment we could both enjoy. I skipped to the train station. This would be my last rush hour ride to the depressing grey streets of outer suburbia. I surveyed my gloomy fellow workers as I made to exit the carriage. I considered wishing them all good luck. Then I realised it probably wouldn’t help much.
A few weeks later I found myself disembarking into the humidity at Padang airport. I went with a land camp for this trip and had locked in a discount rate for an extended stay. I figured this would give me the best chance of really scoring perfect waves. The fast ferry landed me on Sipora which is located towards the centre of the island chain. I would go on to surf waves around this region for the next three weeks. This is what I discovered…..
The Mentawais can be really crowded – The predominant wind direction seemed to be a Southerly. When it was blowing and the swell was smallish there were only a few options for waves. We would show up and anchor in the channel along with a litany of other watercraft. Small tinnies from other camps were secured alongside hulking charter boats. The numbers in the water often bordered on the ridiculous. The vibe was always competitive and at times was out right resentful. Finding waves was an exercise in hustle and patience. Sometimes I would wait in the boat and try to time my run. Once or twice I managed a short period where the frenzy wasn’t quite so intense. But it never lasted. Others clearly had the same idea. As soon as numbers dropped or conditions improved, fresh arms would appear in the lineup.
The situation was always going to cause frustration. If I had paid thousands of dollars for a charter boat and was surfing average waves with sixty people I too would be frustrated. Still, from what I observed, a base level of line up etiquette was largely adhered to. There were a few cases where new groups of surfers entered the water and started a paddle battle for the inside. On these occasions existing surfers observed the bad behaviour, then immediately joined in. Anarchy followed, then arguments, then threats of violence. Human nature is lovely, isn’t it ?
The Mentawais can be perfect and empty – If the winds were light or offshore (East-ish) and there was swell, the whole place lights up. The well known breaks would still have a small crowd. But what you soon realise is that there are many other waves. Your surf guide becomes all important at this point. If they do their job you will be returning at dusk, grinning through an exhausted daze of sunstroke. Conditions such as these seemed to come around fairly often but would sometimes only last a few hours. Stay alert and take it easy on the Bintangs. You can get staggering daytime drunk just as easily back home.
The Mentawais are truly beautiful – I’m sure they said the same thing about other parts of Indonesia many years ago. Then came single use plastics. Somehow the endless flow of rubbish has not made it to the Mentawais just yet. The environment remains pristine. There are indeed flawless white sand beaches lined with swaying coconut palms. The reefs are covered with live coral (bring Betadine) and schools of brightly colored fish swim in lazy circles. If you happen to be staying on land be aware that the mosquitoes are jungle strength. They will bite you through your repellent and your clothing.
The Mentawais can get big – I was advised to take a few variations of my standard shorty and a semi step up. And to be fair this quiver would have covered me for most days of my trip. However there are big wave spots in the region and conditions can get very solid. I was hopelessly under gunned during the best session of my stay. I paddled around the inside on my trusty 6’4 only managing to scrape into a few medium sized ones. I spent the rest of the time dodging sets, getting cleaned up and watching guys with much bigger boards stroke into perfect gaping barrels.
I would return to the Mentawais – Yes, despite the crowds I would go back. But I’m not sold on the shorter term stays. Regardless of whether you go for the charter boat or resort option. Eleven days is a slim window, even in the peak season. You will probably get a swell but if the winds don’t cooperate you’re screwed. Keep in mind that I made some lifestyle choices in recent years that mean I am mostly impoverished. You may still be living the uncomfortable dream that is contemporary first world capitalism. In which case burning five grand to board a shiny charter boat may not be an issue. The waves and the winds could come together. If not you can always retire to air conditioned opulence and suckle at the teat of duty free liquor.