Right, last blog post we had a look at surf tripping around Barbados with its air-conditioned western comforts and distractions. This time, we’re going to the other end of the scale – South Sumatra, to see what life in the jungle without much else to do besides surfing and playing pool on a slightly wonky table is like…
You could go on a couple’s holiday to South Sumatra, but if one of you doesn’t surf, or even if they surf but don’t like fast breaking powerful waves, then one of you is going to get really bored. Yes there is much to enjoy in the verdant nature and blue Indian Ocean but when all the talk and all the action revolves around surfing, non-surfers will probably start to get quite agitated.
I went alone on this trip. Kate has her own surfboard but we both know that South Sumatra is not on her immediate hit list and that’s fair enough. Setting off, it reminded me of my first surf trips to places with names that I couldn’t pronounce, the unknown people, scenarios, food, smells, waves all waiting just ahead. International air travel is a very homogeneous affair, all airports feel (as they in fact are!) linked like outposts of some bland country that spans the planet. Nothing new to see here, but the adventure started when I got into the taxi at Bandar Lampung to begin the six hour drive down to Mandiri.
Within minutes the driver had us on a short-cut through the jungle; huts made of sticks were next to slightly more elaborate brick dwellings, kids faces peering out now and then, all surrounded by dense, dark tropical vegetation. As darkness fell, we stopped at a ‘traffic jam’ and the driver turned the engine off. The night was inky black, all I could see at first was the glow of cigarettes from other drivers, who had also gotten out of their vehicles. Everyone had turned their engines off. The jungle was making all sorts of noises, buzzing, shrieking, chirping, and I could just hear the soft voices of the truck drivers above it all as they presumably discussed how they were going to get things moving again.
Eventually a solution was found and with a bit of reversing and nudging into the dense foliage enough space was created to let a large lorry through. It was all done with a calm unhurried nature, almost in respect of the night time, and as if everyone knew each other. They couldn’t have though, we were all miles away from anywhere.
A few days later I had settled in at the Mandiri Beach Club. There were four other guests there (two of which were from Newquay – Animal team riders Alan Stokes and Celine Gehret no less!) plus the camp owners and very quickly us strangers became a little pack, everyone quickly figuring out what makes everyone else laugh and then doing it as often as possible, for silliness and running jokes are central to all great surf trips. It has to be, for the hours of waiting and throwing yourself hard into a hostile environment, whilst anti-malarial drugs are swirling around your system, thousands of miles away from home in a place where you don’t really know what’s going on could be a little unsettling otherwise.
A funny thing about going ferral on a wild surf trip where you don’t know what will happen next is that you tend to fall into a routine pretty quickly, maybe it’s another of the mind’s clever stabilising mechanisms. Up before the sun rises, grab a strong black coffee – there is no milk in South Sumatra – and then sit looking at the waves waiting for the next person to stumble into the dawn. Then you’re in for a surf. Then it’s breakfast, and all the little housekeeping jobs you can think of to keep yourself entertained until the wind switches offshore again, such as board repairs, treating your cuts, tidying your belongings, drinking water and eating fruits. The evening surf happens whether the conditions are good or not, as this is the surf where you earn your beer. The only beer you’ll find is Bintang, in fact it’s the only alcohol there is, and you will only find it in your surf camp. There are no bars or restaurants to go to, they don’t exist as you and I know them. So, the nightlife is like the morning but the darkness is trending towards you rather than away from you and coffee is replaced by beer. Seldom did I make it past three of either.
As long as there is good surf where you are, there is no need, or desire to explore and see what else the area has to offer, regardless of how beautiful or impressive it is, and South Sumatra is incredibly impressive. Krakatoa is literally just down the road, tigers and bears live in the jungle along with God knows what else. There are birds, insects, snakes, trees, plants all over the place but all that comes second to the surfing. When you do finally bundle a few of you together for a road trip along the coast, it’s to another wave as the one in front of you has finally blown out.
We made a few strike missions along the coast; it took about two hours to go thirty miles, the distance may have even been less. The road runs all the way around South Sumatra, meaning it’s one of the longest in the world, but in most places that I saw it it was about as wide as my kitchen and so riddled with potholes that cows were overtaking us at times. You very quickly learn to accept the slow progress, you’re not trying to beat anyone to the surf as there’s hardly anyone else going surfing out there. The journeys home from the surf were some of the best moments of the trip; we’d buy some warm beers from the only garage that sold them and sip them whilst going through one of our MP3 players connected to the car stereo, reflecting on the flawless blue walls of Indian Ocean that we’d just been racing around on.
Everyone broke surfboards, or cut themselves, or ran out of something, and you barely had to ask before someone was offering you what you needed to get it fixed. It’s strange and fascinating to think that these temporary little surf communes are coming together and disbanding all across the world at any moment. Once someone leaves to go home and someone new turns up, the group reforms again but with a slightly different accent; it takes about a day to adjust and then it’s like being surrounded by old friends again.
OK, here’s a video of my ‘highlights’ reel from surfing out there, footage shot by whoever was the most knackered from surfing too much or was injured, I think Tom and Tim respectively. Cheers!