“Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.” – Jack Kerouac
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain
“To awaken quite alone in a strange town is one of the pleasantest sensations in the world.” – Freya Stark
SEEK AND YE SHALL FIND
I am writing this from deep south-west Sumatra. A surf camp area that has been known for the better part of a decade but only recently has it become yet another surf hovel for the traveling masses. The wave out front is hollow from take off but then flattens out to and for the most part is a fun wave measured by Indo standards. Today the waves are running in the 6-10 foot range and while there are some fun waves at hand, the ultimate Indonesian surf experience has yet to materialize.
Sipping on a Bintang swinging in hammock, a few travels were busy talking stories of days and travels gone by. Every one gave up there most cherished “as good as it gets” memory. While some still concealed details of destinations found, I had no such hesitancy
Some years back I had been traveling Indo for over a month. My initial reason for travel was to become a deck hand on a private yacht that was to do surf charters up in the Mentawai islands. Once arriving on Bali I was discouraged to find that the plan had fallen through and so I quickly redirected and headed for the surf camp on Java know as Grajagan or Gland. I spent ten days at Joyos surf camp and while I did get some fun waves, the wave itself never really did its thing. It was more about direction then size as a few days the swell pumped but never really doing what it’s known for.
One evening forty or so surfers sat under the light of halogen lamps finishing off the nightly meal. All preoccupied and glued to the tv screen at the end of the room. The scene was one of now retired surf star Mark Occhilupo surfing some remote distant Indonesian point break alone. For a moment I pondered on the irony of the situation at hand. Here we were the bunch of traveling surfers all so far away from home, so remote our selves but yet our aim was still some how off the mark. Yes we felt we were adventurous but were we really. Holed up at a surf destination that on its heavy day could see more then 80 others out looking for the same thing, the question had to be asked just how adventurous were we.
Back in Bali I was just feeling human again. I had been bed ridden from for a week due to Bali belly and spent the time laying dormant in Ubud. On my feet again, I stood at a corner in Kuta chaos over looking the gross fallout of the surf industries forty year hangover. I was tired and ready to call the trip quits when magic happened. Out of the maze of faces one of familiarity came into focus. We had met up in Nias a season back and instantly sat to share time. Within fifteen minutes I had handed to me a few names scribbles over a piece of paper. Go and wait was what I was told.
The entire journey to my destination would take a total of fifteen hours. Two hours by plane and the remainder of the trip by chaotic road. A charred and baron landscape at times briefly exposed the strain on the faces of all its inhabitants only to swiftly render them into ghosts as all was consumed with in the red shroud of road dust.
By nine pm the taxi driver turned the last bend and stalled the van into a complete stop. For a moment the silence was calming and the headlights obscured by falling clouds of dirt created a perfect transition between where I had just come from and where I was at. As moments passed the dim yellow head lights illuminated my welcome committee of two knife wielding locals at work dismembering a large buffalo. My arrival being barley noticed except for Chief Metibulu who walked me to a near by hut, kicked away the dogs and rolled out a thatched mat. I was home and instantly was part of the farm.
The cool morning breeze carried with it a mix of burning clove cigarettes and wood. Peering out from my enclosure random chickens, goats, and a lone calf wondered aimlessly in around everything and everyone. This was a scene that had been recycled for generations on end with an exception of occasional wonderer who stopped in for a wave.
As the rays of day lifted the light to my surprise a small clan of surfers began staggering out into the open. Long faces and irritable tones filled the air and it was soon learned that this band had waited out three weeks for magic to happen. With no swell and living conditions on the poverty level, there day had come to move on from what all would consider a hell mission. They were going onto where the swell window was open and choices of waves were many. As the horn call from the bimo taxi rounded its last turn I flinched at the idea of going with. Bad food, malaria, and potential of ongoing flatness had me almost packing my bags, but then something inside told me to stay. I reasoned quickly that the swell for this place was over due and that its time had to be close.
The trot to the break itself was an adventure. An initial decent through jungle led to a stream bed that flowed through three thatched huts that in turn sat facing an open rice field. The maze of foot paths ended under towering thirty foot palm grove where the floor remained littered with cannon ball coconuts. From there it was a sharp drop through low lying beach shrubs that housed clouds of biting sand flies. Once clear of that menace it was a one kilometer white sand beach that stretched south-east, out to the distant lime stone head land.
It had been two days since the band of surfers had left for Sumbawa. I sat in the early morning breeze sipping on my tea and enjoying the moments with the chief. No words exchanged but I soaked up the gratitude of how lucky I was to just share the space with such an old culture. But even then I knew my days were numbered and I would be getting a move on soon if the waves were going to be a no show. Gathering a few belonging I grabbed my 7’2 and headed down the trail and towards the point not yet realizing what I was about to experience.
Usually when the swell is pumping and you’re within a close proximity of the ocean, it’s not only the sound of the breaking waves that let you know what’s up but it’s also the salty haze in the atmosphere. My run to the ocean had not given me any of these clues to expect there where any waves but once I broke through the last bit of brush I knew I was in for a different kind of day.
The beach break itself was hitting in at 10 – 12 foot and absolutely detonating on the sand bar. But it was not till I hit the edge of the reef that I realized what was really going on. Frozen for a time in complete observation mode, I peered up the reef system at an almost sea level view and watched as freight train left handers spat continuously down the line towards me. I was in awe and very unsettled all the same. My mind kept telling me that this is what it was all about. All the travel by road, boat, and air, all the bad food and musty old beds, all the waiting around in life, all this time and energy spent was all to be finally face to face with what I was standing and looking at. And yet I hesitated, frozen in disbelief as a lone surfer in the middle of nowhere, staring down the throat of a grinding left hand barreling wave.
Almost one hour went by and forty some waves with it. I was yelling out loud willing my self to move on the moment until finally I did. The paddle out was short as once you leave the water edge, the conveyer belt like current line brings you right out into the line up. The swell was pushing set intervals about every five to eight minutes and for the first half hour nothing to big was coming in. My first wave ended quickly and on the reef but once back to the surface, it was as if all the nerves had been slapped out of me. I paddled back out and knew mentally what the routine was to be. I called it the 1-2-3. Drop in off inside rail, pivot from outside rail and then back to the inside again. My next wave was a gem as where many over the next six hours. But there is always that one wave that sticks to the mind no matter how much time passes on.
I had just snuck out of healthy barrel before the end section shut down. I was on the paddle back out when it looked as if there was a set on the approach. The first wave was big but I was still to far down the reef to get a proper ride off of it. Paddling over the shoulder of the first wave I remember clearly my breath leaving my body. My initial response was no way. But then I lowered my head and closed my eyes and yelled to myself that it was mine and I was going. Turning around I began to paddle when I looked over my shoulder and realized the wave had snuck under me with more speed then I had anticipated. What resulted was an ultra late drop to a gradual turn off the bottom and onto moments of riding within a large big blue tube all the while staring out onto the green hills of Chief Metibulus village. A sudden deep vacuum exhaled me from within the vortex when I then trailed off into the channel.
When I got out of the water another white guy was standing at waters edge. He had a beer in hand and asked me if I wanted to come up for a visit. Once up on the bluff I was given the short tour of the bungalow set up. From afar the exterior of the place looked like any village along the coast. But once I stepped into the interior I know I deserved better then sleeping with the dogs. I was offered the pad for $40 a night and ended up staying for another three weeks. The special was floated due to the fact it was the first week of being open and I was the first and only guest for most of that time. I have always wanted to get back there and try and rekindle that very special feeling but that gate is closed due to the fact that the price tag now goes for $250 – $500 a night.
The ironic closing shot is one of me sitting with a Bintang beer high above the break with yet another empty set of waves rolling down the reef. I showed the hotel staff how to use the camera and yelled out at the moment I wanted him to press the button.
Later on as the sun began its fall into the direction from where the waves came and the evening was a glow with colors and sounds of wild nature, I was told this was the spot where in seasons past, Mark Occhiluppo was filmed surfing for his new movie. A feeling of deep satisfaction come over me knowing that I had made the grade. It was indeed a rare time and find but one that still fuels the adventurous self to still go out and find it.
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