West Sumatra, and the Mentawai Islands

Words by Will Forster & images by Will Forster

Although the journey for me began at the Surf Simply office in Costa Rica 17,000 km and 23 hours before, this narrative starts in Padang, West Sumatra. Head Coach Jessie and I connected in Kuala Lumpur’s airport after circling the earth in opposite directions, along with guests and friends Pete and Di from England. Language barriers tested the unequivocally patient cabin crew, delivering us with a few new words, and a smooth flight to Padang. With no delays but tired eyes, our journey ended at the beginning – ‘Welcome to Indonesia’, the sign read.

An uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean.
A 5000 Rupiah note with a Tanah Datar woman weaving a songket fabric.
50 feet above the jungle edged runway.
    Padang Our group increased with Montauk local Eddie on the earlier flight to Padang. Eddie began his trip a month earlier in Bali so was relaxed among the chaos of tourists and taxi drivers. All surfboards and visas accounted for, we made our way through central Padang to the hotel. To compare the road system and its users to anywhere else in the world would paint an incomplete picture. Imagine dropping a bag of marbles from height; each marble sent at light speed in every possible direction; swap the marbles for scooters, and you have every road junction in Padang. We approached the hotel desk, appearing dishevelled and thirsty, they immediately rewarded us with a Bintang; Indonesia’s national beer, our room keys and permission to sink into slumber. Being the trip photographer, it seemed appropriate to explore Padang on foot, with our blonde haired, green eyed Head Coach; Jessie Carnes. We (just Jessie actually) were immediately mobbed by inquisitive kids who led us through their neighbourhood to a religious celebration just a few blocks from the hotel entrance.
Jessie getting some welcomed attention during the Eid al-Adha festival.
The Eid al-Adha is an annual festival celebrating the end of Hajj. Muslim communities pray and sacrifice animals as a sign of devotion to Allah. Did I mention Jessie was a vegetarian? It would be easy to focus on the animal sacrifices, but we experienced something that had a far greater emotional effect on us; humility. Offers of food and friendship flooded in. Wide eyed and wide smiled locals running to hold Jessie’s hand or pose for my camera. My advice from this is take nothing for granted, and always say hello. With a ferry ride out to the Mentawai Islands looming, we said goodbye to Padang, but our time there certainly lit a flame that warmed our hearts, but it was time to watch the bustle fade into the horizon. Ferrying to the Mentawai Islands They tell me the boat ride between Padang and the Mentawai Islands was pleasant. However I was blighted by seasickness and so forgive me for not elaborating – my memory only offers up views of which should not be shared. Land appeared after three hours through tears and a glimmer of hope. As we got closer, a bright golden light caught our attention, a lighthouse perhaps? Nope. It was the sun bleached blonde hair of trip organiser and Surf Simply Coach Asher King – showing what two weeks in Indonesia to dial in the local waves can do to an individual.
Asher King on our arrival day.
A key hole in the reef allowed the ferry to meet a dugout jukung boat for transfer to the island. We piled in, our first experience of how a narrow hull can tip and roll throwing its occupants into a frenzied panic – ‘we’re gone, we’re over’, cries guest Di. We later developed a fine tuned counter balance dance, especially when Surf Simply coaching co-ordinator, and BFG Harry Knight climbed aboard. Settling into Island life came easy to us all. We met at the main rancho for Nasi Goreng; the traditional Indonesian fried rice dish, a Bintang and a briefing from Mentawai Surf Retreat manager Brent. He ran through house keeping and logistics; did you know coconuts kill more people than sharks? And it turns out that Nyang Nyang Island has a lot of coconut trees. I googled repatriation costs, and told my mother I love her.
This is not a joke.
The Retreat Our cabinas looked over a right hander. Through the palms from each terrace you could check whether the surf was either amazing or all time; its quality rarely dropped below either. If we stayed on this wave all week, nobody would complain. But thats not why we had travelled so far and somewhere so remote. Wading out to surf between fallen palms, over a reef teeming with fish – we would soon find out this is nothing unique within the Mentawai islands.
Meet the Guides Wade and Neil. The only thing these two had in common was their humble personas. Two gentlemen, both kind and considered. Wade had been working as a guide through the Mentawais for some time. Growing up in Australia Wade was a hard earned shredder who liked to take off deep, with little more than dry reef beneath his self-shaped 5 foot something fish. Both guides had a knowledge of the reefs second only to an islander, and each morning they would use the wind and wave conditions at the break out front to determine which spot we would head to; after each morning plan was announced resort manager Brent would announce ‘the Oracle has spoken!’ to the embarrassment of Wade and Neil.
Wade and his self shaped sled.
Neil at light speed.
More than just a surf trip Outside of surfing, Neil took us to a neighbouring island that had a small community, centred around a school. Children from near by areas would get dropped off by boat, or stay with host families to gain an elementary education. The island had built a side industry showing interested surfers a bit of island life, and a chance to interact with the beautiful hearts of the Mentawai people.
Schools out for the day.
High fives and high spirits.
Saying goodbye at our beached boat.
To talk only of the surf would give you an inaccurate impression of what we experience on this trip, and giving too much away in terms of surf locations undermines the efforts of guides like Neil and Wade who have worked hard to understand the areas surf. So instead, using an ‘if you recognise it then you already know it’ kind of attitude, please enjoy some of the images we produced during this trip, and they might remind you that a group of normal surfers without stickers on their boards, can have that trip of a lifetime in Indonesia.
Special thanks go to those involved in the trip, you made it worth writing about: Asher, Harry, Jessie, Pete, Di, Rob, Eddie, Gary, Alejandro, Wade, Neil and Brent.

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