Indonesia in January and February is deep into the rainy season. Surely mad to go to the Tropics at this time? But I couldn’t resist the opportunity for an out of season adventure to Banda Aceh in Northern Sumatra. Banda Aceh was relatively unknown until the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004 that nearly destroyed the entire area. The wave at its highest point allegedly measured over 30 metres at the cement factory near Lhoknga beach.
The first thing that hits you when the plane door opens is that welcoming hot humidity. A tropical arm wide open hello. Having been to Bali a few times, I was preparing myself for the hustle and bustle of taxi drivers trying to get my custom. Thankfully this part of Indonesia is like another world compared to its more famous island to the east. It turned out to be a stress-free airport pickup from the accommodation I booked at Yudi’s Place in Lhoknga. In the glow of late afternoon, the 40-minute drive from the airport was a delight to the senses, the golden hour revealing magic on the lush mountain ranges surrounded by stunning paddy fields.
The following morning I awoke to the gentle sound of the Adhan call to prayer. This is a predominately Muslim area, and you can set your watch to the call to prayer before first light and a morning surf check. A short walk down the road brings you onto a lagoon fringed beach. Just outside the lagoon, there are three surf spots to choose from, all accessible by a short paddle out. The Left is a super fun point made up of a reef and sand bottom that is a great intermediate wave allowing you time to play with the wall before aiming to pull in on the shallower section on bigger days at low tide. The Peak is Lhoknga’s most famous wave, a full-on exhilarating barrel on both sides of the A-frame. This often packs more punch than the other two waves onto a shallow reef.
The Right is a far more mellow shortwave found at the end of the beach. The take-off can be steep on the bigger sets, but the wave then really mellows out and allows for a few turns before it heads to the deeper water of the channel. The people of Lhoknga are extremely friendly, helpful and very approachable. Everyone is stoked to see you, especially the kids, who always have a big smile and a wave as you pass, with some having a giggle as you say hello back. Yes, it rained occasionally, but for 19 days straight the waves were pumping. And if anything I welcomed a little bit of rain relief from the energy zapping harsh sun.
It was a constant battle between body and mind. As soon as the call to prayer alarm clock went off, the mind wanted to surf, however, the body moaned and groaned for the snooze button. The mind always won, but it was a battle that was pushed to its absolute limit. I’m unsure how much longer the body could hold out, but looking back it was a fantastic problem to have and as I sit here now writing this and my body now craves the pain to surf three times a day for over six hours a day in tropical waters, tripping out as the midday sun makes the water crystals so clear that you can see the reef and fish below your feet.
Add to this, the endless amounts of coconuts from the various beach huts giving you much needed rehydration and shade, the variety of amazing tasty foods such as gado-gado and nasi gorang, and you really realize that simplicity is bliss, and how much crap we eat back in the Western world! Beyond the food and waves, Banda Aceh has amazing beauty from its lush inland to its palm tree fringed beaches.
But for me, it’s the people. The 2004 Tsunami took an estimated 130,000 lives in the Aceh province, which was the largest death toll in any single area from that crippling natural disaster. It struck me that any local I spoke or waved to had more than likely lost friends or family members. However, the great thing about the resolve of humans is that life goes on. The locals have rebuilt the area and rebuilt themselves.
Many Acehnese have rebuilt near the ocean because this is where their livelihoods lie in terms of fishing and rice farming. But other families have moved to the hills where they feel safer and closer to where international donors established whole new mini-towns as the aid industry arrived in the region in full force. There is even a so-called Jacki Chan Hill, entirely funded by the movie star.
I decided to take one particular morning off surfing and have a little venture into town and visit the very impressive museum dedicated to the Tsunami. The museum is part exhibit and part learning experience. There is a whole floor dedicated to the science behind the Tsunami and the earthquake that caused it. The Tsunami may have brought a tragedy of unimaginable scale to the region, but it also ended what had been a long and draining civil war, with a peace agreement being signed just months after the natural disaster. It was a chance to start fresh in many ways, and the Acehnese have made the best of the opportunity.
The international response was so large that it made them realise that they are not such an isolated region. This gave them a reason to commit to peace. For anyone craving new waves and unchartered waters, Northern Sumatra and its islands have a serious draw. It will impress, excite and amaze you. It’s more than just the warm waters, sandy beaches, and palm trees. It’s a destination where you can immerse yourself in a new culture, creating endless stories and genuine adventures, even in the rainy season, when the surfing crowds are less.
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