The Indian Ocean Journals – Part 2: The Mentawai Islands

posted by / News / November 18, 2005


Unloading the taxi in preperation for a 15 hour ferry ride
Feral in the Mentawai’sTwo things I know:
1 – Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good
2 – It pays to be in the right place at the right time.

What I didn’t tell you in Part I of my Indian Ocean Travel Journal was the major bonehead move I made on Day 6: I lost my passport and Indonesian VISA. Besides the ${{{200}}} it cost to replace everything, this was a major stressor during the first part of my trip.

On the morning I was scheduled to be at the U.S. Embassy in Bali to order my replacement passport, on a whim I stopped by my old hotel on Poppies Lane II. I was hoping — no, praying — someone had turned it in to the front desk. By chance, I had left the hotel’s business card in my passport. It was a longer shot than a steroid-induced Jose Canseco home run. But like I said, sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good and lady luck was on my side this day. Turns out a local college kid had returned it to the hotel staff.

Later that day by chance and coincidence, I was given a hand drawn map how to surf the Mentawai Islands at a fraction of the cost of a charter boat. You know what I’m going to tell you next: Right place, right time.

With the map and details given to me by “UK Mike” and a backpack with minimal clothes, Damien and I boarded a flight from Bali to Padang. Once in Padang we eventually found the right ferry, at the right harbor, on the correct day to take us to the Mentawai’s. We learned very quickly when asking a local Indonesian for information to ask three different people in order to come to a “range” of what the possible answer could be. Time seemed to move in slow motion and many of the locals were never in a rush to get anywhere or do anything.

After arriving at the main town of the first island, we hired a small boat to take us to deeper into the island chain. Our boat was loaded with our gear and several boxes of food and bottled water. For the next two weeks we would live on a diet of fish, coconuts, rice, noodles, eggs, water and tea. Our final destination was a local fisherman’s home located on an island nearby several breaks. Considering the remoteness of our location, I would be lying if I didn’t say the safety factor was always in the back of my head. We heard a recent story of a surfer who broke his femur at Macaroni’s and had his leg hand-held for 4+ hrs on the speed boat back to Padang. If something serious had happened to us, we wouldn’t have the luxury of any safety net and were many hours away from the nearest hospital.


Hope you like fish for dinner. If you don’t, you’re gonna be hungry
Our first day of surf greeted us with a 7 ft. screaming right hander all to ourselves. A few charter boat surfers joined in after an hour. It was fun to share the experience with them. The next day was slightly smaller and the nuances of this wave were becoming clearer to me. About a week later this spot was the biggest we saw it and throwing board-snapping lips on every wave. Damien saw two guys break their boards within minutes of paddling out.

Overall, the waves were never smaller than 4 ft., no bigger than 8ft, and semi-glassy at worst but the swell direction never truly lit up every spot. We’d surf with a maximum of ten surfers, three of whom were young local kids who sat on the inside. One day I surfed a long, slightly mushy left hander at 4-6 ft. for 2 hours completely alone, with two charter boats within eyesight. It wasn’t the best day of the trip but it was certainly the most stress free session. We would surf this spot consistently around 6 ft. for countless hours on end, day after day, usually having our pick of any wave we wanted.

Another day, I worked on my backhand snaps in fun waves in the 5-6 ft. range along with two Maui surfers and Damien. A hollow left on another island only worked one day and by the time we got to it, the tide was wrong. Even though the tidal swings were small, they made a big difference in the conditions. When the tide or winds weren’t right for surfing, boredom set in very quickly. There was little to do and it forced you to dial back the brainwaves. The days and nights bled into each other and it seemed like the movie Groundhog Day sometimes except it was in picture-perfect postcard paradise.


Greetings from the Mentawais – Glad you’re not here
The boat charters were quite helpful to us and we’d often visit them to get swell and tide information, or to hitch a ride to the North or South. It was a skipper who told us about the Bali bombings a day after they happened. I had eaten dinner at Jimbaran Bay just two weeks before, and I took some time to myself to think about everything. Funny thing life is.

The charter boats offered a level of comfort that was over the moon: flat screen TVs, DVD player, A/C, cold beer and sodas, good meals, fishing gear, fast dingy boats, hot showers, not to mention the knowledge of the skipper and surf guide. There were days when we missed good surf because we didn’t know what spots to surf based on the conditions. Since our host didn’t speak much English and I was still learning their language (thanks to my handy ‘Indo Surf & Lingo’ book), the only way to see if a spot was working was to go and check it out in person. We’d try to ask them where to surf and they’d say “Go Check?” All of this could test or break your patience if you let it. This was clearly where a boat charter paid off. We shared waves with the surfers from the charter boats quite a bit and they were always surprised when we told them we were living on the island.

Given the number of resorts under construction or planned, it’ll be interesting to see what the dynamics of tourism in the Mentawai’s will be in a few years. Our accommodations were very basic with no electricity and no running water. Despite taking malaria medicine and hanging mozzie nets around our bed mats, we still applied a solid layer of repellant before going to sleep every night. Each night I would sweat for an hour before falling asleep only to be woken around 3am by strong thunderstorms. The rain was a blessing as it would mean we had fresh water to brew tea, wash our clothes and dishes, and take a shower.

After nearly two weeks, our food, water, and money started running low. We were also weary from the monotony, nightly bad storms, and bare-bones diet. It was time to reassess our game plan. Either we would re-stock up on everything, or we’d go somewhere new. We took a boat back through a mangrove swamp and waited a few days for the Padang ferry to come. More waiting. But this is the reality of living in the Mentawai’s. With all the downtime I was able to really reflect on the woman in my life who means so much to me. She was doing her own waiting of a different kind on the other side of the world.


The begining of a long trip back to civilization
The ferry ride was 16 hours and we slept in a rudimentary cabin with rats crawling in the walls of the boat. All of the Indonesians I met on board wanted to know everything about America. They were especially interested in the few pictures from back home I had with me. These people were among the most friendly and helpful I’ve ever met in all my travels, despite the fact that they live in a poor country with rampant corruption.

While the conditions I lived in weren’t plush, the zen-like zone I got from surfing every day, living a basic life, and escaping the rat race made me promise myself that I’d return here one day soon. Once in Padang Damien and I made the call to fly back to Bali and go to G-Land. Considering it was the end of the season we gambled that the crowds would be minimal and so far on this trip all my gambles had paid off. After all, sometimes it is better to be lucky than good and it always pays to be in the right place at the right time.

Stay tuned as our correspondent checks in from his final destinations;
G-Land and the secret left

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