21 Days in the Mentawai Islands with Daniel Small
If you’re a surfer, chances are you have either been fortunate enough to enjoy the surfing Nirvana that is Indonesia, or it remains the number one destination on your travel wish list. For Australians, this is especially true, as the “Indo Trip’ has become a genuine rite of passage from grommethood to surfing adulthood.
I have personally been lucky enough to have travelled to the region almost semi-annually since the age of 16, with my first trip being back in 2000. My first trip came almost 30 years after the surfing community first discovered the beauty of the Indonesian coastline back in the early 1970’s. The love affair between bronzed Aussies and the magical land of lefts began when the now Iconic surf flick ‘Morning of the Earth’ beautifully displayed footage of surfers gracefully sliding down the crystal green faces of Uluwatu, a reef on the now infamous Bukit peninsula of Bali.
The movie triggered an immediate annual migration for Australians during the winter months, ditching their steamers for boardshorts, their local surf routine for a spirit of adventure and their trusted and rusted EH Holden for a plane ticket to the shores of Bali.
Before long, the lure of Indonesian perfection had the surfing fire burning bright inside many an adventurer, who one at a time began exploring the coast from Bali all the way north past the infamous Lagundri Bay (Nias) all the way up to Banda Ache. Now the exact history of surf discovery throughout Indonesia remains debated, and being a romantic I like the idea of it remaining fiction rather than fact.I am lucky enough to have on occasion been in the company of salty sea dog men with dark leather skin (An a serious aversion to sunscreen), who when the Bintang starts to flow begin loudly reminiscing of sessions at magical waves without names where they would run into the bushes as boats sailed past just to keep their discovery hidden just that bit longer. Some tell such stories with tones of anger at the current flux of commercialisation, some tell such stories while looking at the stars and smiling of sessions past, and others just want their experiences to be carried on in the stoke of the next generation of Australian surfers.
To enter a debate with one of these men on who can lay claim to discovery is pointless, mainly because it doesn’t matter, the waves have existed and will continue to exist whether we talk about them or not. Regardless of this uncertainty of the past, it is now globally accepted that the reefs of Indonesia provide the surfer with ultimate adventure, richer than any other region in the world with regards to wave number and quality.
Here are some quick facts:
– It’s an Island Archipelago of over 70 pristine islands that sits 10km off the Sumatran Coast hosting well over 100 waves, each on their day offering the ride of your life,
– History provides initial discovery of the Mentawais region surfs richness with Martin Daly, who ventured through the region in the late 1980’s,
– More than 65,000 surfers visit the region on average each surf season, with an estimated $20million AUD dollars generated each season,
– The region is one of the most tectonically active regions in the world – with waves regularly rising and falling as a result of earthquake activity,
– The region has had two severe earthquakes incidences in the last 15 years, one in 2004 where thousands lost their lives to the north in Banda Aceh and one in 2010 killing hundreds in the South Pagai Region
So to my story.
After back-to-back trips where injury sidelined me for the majority of the trip, I managed to convince my fiancé to allow me one final crack at surfing utopia. I promised it would be my last trip, for two reasons, one because it’s not cheap to explore the Mentawais, and secondly, and most importantly, it rules out any romantic overseas trip for the two of us, which she more than deserves – believe me my better half is a keeper so I am pushing it! To warrant these two points I had to make sure the logistics were perfect, the timing was ideal, and my travelling companions provided me the ultimate mix of personalities to bond with on my three-week adventure.
So first I had to determine the charter company to play host to a bunch of Central Coast/ Sydney lads through the Archipelago. I have travelled to the region a number of times, with different operators, but none impressed me more than the crew at Latitude Zero Surf Resort. Now there are a number of reasons for this, but the primary reason is that by Mentawai standards, the owners and boat captains and surf guides in the Latitude Zero family have more combined knowledge that any other charter business in operation.
The group consists of two majestic charter boats, the Mangalui and the Nomad, who operate in conjunction with the Latitude Zero land camp, a 5 star surf camp situated on its own island in the Telos Island chain. They are very different experiences, the boats and the land camp, so just to be sure my trip truly was sensational, I booked one of each.
Timing is critical when it comes to an Indonesian trip. Too early in the season and history shows significant swells can be more infrequent, too late in the season and winds can be temperamental and smack bang in the middle and the chances are you will be sharing the line-up with a hundred other paradise seeking surf frothers, many from countries that don’t seem to know how to share waves.
So after consult with a boat captain with over 30 years in the region under his belt – I booked late April/ early May – hoping for light winds, which opens up the entire Mentawai region for adventure. I locked in 7 days late April at the land camp, and then the first 2 weeks of May on the Mangalui.
Only thing remaining was to fill the remaining spots in my land camp and boat bookings. The Latitude Zero land camp takes two groups of between 8-10 at a time, and the Mangalui can sleep up to 10 passengers. So how do I choose the ideal companions for each trip? For the land camp I targeted my mates who would appreciate being able to mix 5 star accommodations and surfing; and for the boat passengers I targeted mates who were keen for a little more of an adventure and definitely no phone reception.
Both of the trips commence through Padang in Indonesia, which we connected to through Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia. Once we landed in Padang the Latitude Zero crew took over – our bags were collected and we were taken to our waiting charter plane to fly out to the Telo islands. Not being a massive fan of small planes, this part of the trip was not expected to be a highlight for me – I couldn’t have been more wrong. The ride was short and sweet – less than an hour and the view from the plane was nothing short of sensational. Low flying over sand islands filled with palm tress, each fringed by reef and many containing small communities of locals with handmade huts and churches. I look around and wish for a second my fiancé was here to look out the window with me –she would truly appreciate the beauty of this place, sometimes I enjoy nothing more than seeing how non-surfers relate to the arena that play hosts to our passions – the non-competitive sport of surfing truly is one of natures most splendid gifts.
We landed and were greeted by the staff of Latitude Zero, who quickly whipped us into one of the resort tender boats and headed for the resort. Although we all knew the land camp was luxury, we were not ready for the beauty and simplicity of the resort. We were greeted by smiling staff and coconut cocktails, and after a tour of the island we were each directed to our generous air conditioned individual rooms, each framed by giant wooden beams sourced from local timber mills and crafted down by hand. There was something soothing about sleeping under these beams every night, knowing they came from local islands, touched the hands of locals and that their use supported the village economy that was playing host to our wonderful adventure – almost like a local blessing and a far greater feeling than any stamp in a passport.
In designing and constructing the resort they truly have considered everything, and have provided every comfort imaginable for the perfection-seeking surfer.
For the next 7 days we would wake at 5.30am, enjoy a buffet breakfast, pack the speedboat with our surfboards and sunscreen and depart either north or south for a day of surfing. The speedboat would each day be packed with our lunch, removing the need to venture back to the resort for lunch, which is ideal given some of the regions most amazing waves are up to an hour away in the speed boat. Each day would end the same way, a speed boat ride home consuming Bintangs, iphone photo taking in preparation for the evening Instagram assault and of course jovial male bonding at its best (Yes the resort has internet meaning you’re away from home but still have the luxury of contact with the outside world, not something everyone is seeking, but something that is important to wives and families).
After 7 days of absolute luxury, 8 hours of surfing a day with only our group of 6 in the water, we boarded the same light plane bound for Padang, where myself and one other double trip passenger would board the mighty Mangalui. The other 4 members of our group were sadly heading home, however not before committing to return the following year for a longer 10 day trip.
After lunch and a relax, we headed for the port in Padang where the vehicle of our fortnight adventuring lay moored and awaiting. The remaining 8 lads, a mixed group of childhood mates from the Central Coast and new mates from Sydney’s Northern Beaches were already aboard and awaiting our arrival. The surf forecast was checked by the captain and it was confirmed, we were going to score……properly! The mood was electric and everyone was frothing. However the first thing that occurs on each Mangalui trip is the battle for the best beds on the boat, which cannot occur until the compulsory mast jumps had taken place and Bintangs had been consumed by all. Once completed, we were then ready to set sail. The weather can be temperamental in the region which doesn’t always make the overnight sail out to the Mentawais enjoyable, but on this occasion all the elements came together in the most magical fashion – the wind dropped, the clouds caught fire, the ocean became sheet glass and everything in sight became drenched in colours I had never seen. The photos did no justice of the beauty of the moment, but I was already getting excited about heading home and sharing the photos with the fiancé, but I knew I would fail at describing how special it was.
As we were fortunate enough to have a favourable wind and swell forecast we first ventured to the south of the Mentawais. Having been through the region 5 times before, I thought I had a solid grasp on what waves existed however I couldn’t have been more wrong. Within the first week we had surfed more waves that I had never heard of before than waves I had, and most notable was the fact these waves were as good as the premier waves that motivate most surfers to travel to the Mentawais in the first place.
This is were our choice of the Mangalui pays itself off, with rumours of sessions going down at the more well known waves with 6+ charter boats filling the line up with 50 + surfers, we enjoyed back to back days of total isolation from the surfing community. Our Captain is a modern day pirate, motivated by two things, scoring quality solo sessions for his crew and ensuring we are always 2 steps ahead of all the other charter boats in the region. After 4 trips with this particular captain I am yet to see him trundle off to bed without having met both of these goals. We all quickly accept that the waves we are surfing have no name, and that we may never surf or see them ever again.
One of the passengers sadly had a trip ending injury. The fittest and most battle worthy of all of us injured his leg. This turned his surf trip into a giant movie marathon with the occasional bodyboarding and camera session. It was heartbreaking to watch, but it is sadly a reality of trips to this region, people get hurt so having top-level travel insurance is a must! Nonetheless he stayed aboard and provided us with nightly entertainment (Given his ability to form a better relationship than the rest of us with the unlimited Bintang supply…..yes I said unlimited).
Now I mentioned before that we scored, but I don’t think you realise just how much we scored. Of the 14 days of surfing, we surfed 3 times a day everyday. We never surfed an onshore session, we never surfed a day under 4 foot and we never came in before our arms could paddle no more. Sharing stories with other charter boat passengers in the line-up revealed a very different story, crowded and crosshore days at the premier waves so people could tick a box. My advice people…….get out there and explore, get on a boat that has a Captain with a spirit of adventure, someone prepared to take a punt. It doesn’t matter if the wave you surf don’t have a sexy or fancy name or a rich history of being surfed in Taylor Steele surf movies. What matters is you leave your comfort zone, embrace a foreign land, respect the local community and its people playing host to you and enjoy every wave on its merits.
Before we knew it we were returning to port, with a level of satisfaction beyond anything I had ever had from a surf trip. Good Mates and good waves. If you’re planning or considering a trip – look no further than Latitude Zero. The Mentawais are not cheap, so if you do it, do it right the first time.
I finished the trip the standard way, buying duty free products to rush home and sweep my fiancé off her feet. Hopefully my next story is from a winery in a French country side, conveniently close to Hossegor in the summer of course!
Check out the highlight video below!
SurfStitch.com Mentawai Charter Boat booking tips.
- Understand who the captain of the Charter Boat is – make sure he has a number of years in the region under his belt. Last thing you want is being on a boat that plays follow the leader with the other boats,
- Make sure the cost of the charter boat is all-inclusive, nothing worse than getting stung at the end of the trip for excess Bintang consumption or having to buy photos of your group surfing off the crew,
- Make sure there is no limit to the number of km’s the charter boat can sail. You want to make sure the conditions dictate your adventure, not the margin goals of the business,
- Make sure the boat has a fast and comfortable tender. A tender is the speed boat attached to the charter boat that allows you to strategically target waves when conditions change – and they will – daily.
- Make sure you do your research on travel insurance – most important element is the medivac specifics. If something goes wrong, you want absolute peace of mind no cost will be spared in getting you out of their ASAP in the safest possible manner,
Now there are some things you need on every trip, he is a cheat sheet:
- Loads and loads of sunscreen and zinc – don’t be a hero and go for a tan day 1 – you will regret it,
- If you think you have enough leg ropes – buy an extra 2, nothing worse than having to borrow of a mate,
- The idea of a step up board is a bit of a myth I think – the Mentawais is no plan for a rhino chaser (Unless you get the swell of the year). Take something with a little extra length and thickness than the board you ride on your biggest day back home – you’re not going to Hawaii,
- It may sound overly metrosexual but take a good exfoliator, layer and layer of sunscreen isn’t good for the skin if you’re not taking it off each night,
- Insect spray – rarely used on the boats but gives peace of mind against malaria if you do see the odd mosquito,
- Take a light weather jacket, when it rains it rains cats and dogs – but only for a short while,
- A international adaptor for chargers – your boat might already have one but no harm in being sure,
- Boats will have their own medical kit, but take some extra straps and creams just to be sure,
- A small ding repair kit is a must – no one comes home without a little crack or ding,
Here is a little shopping list for you:
Get out there my friends.