As surfers, we often stray from the trusted path in search of the perfect wave. That’s exactly what Durban local, David Terblanche, and his crew did when they went looking for waves in North Sumatra. ‘Feral Missions In North Sumatra’ is David’s entry into ‘Write to Surf‘ – our surf journo competition with some epic prizes up for grabs (see below for details).
FERAL MISSIONS IN NORTH SUMATRA – by: David Terblanche
All photos by David Terblanche unless otherwise credited.
The earthy scent of equatorial rain-forest enveloped us as the roar of the tropical storm calmed to a light patter. The sun peeked out, glimmering off the leaves revealing layer upon layer of textured jungle as far as the eye could see. Surfed out, we sat on deck nursing smuggled Bintang Beers, the gentle off-shore blowing through our hair as perfect three foot barrels unloaded on a shallow reef in front of us. The same reef we were surfing less than an hour before, our crew taking back-to-back tubes to our hearts’ content. Happy banter filled the air as the last of the Bintangs disappeared. No luxury boat charters for us Saffas travelling on the Rand; we took a feral gamble to get here on a local Indonesian fishing boat, but it paid off. Dinner may have been just chillies and two minute noodles but it was a small price to pay for the trip of a lifetime.
Two weeks earlier, we had left Durban following in Zigzag’s footsteps, looking for perfect waves in North Sumatra. After seven days of navigating palm forests and dead coral foot paths to find un-crowded waves, we wanted to explore further.
A small island chain to the south was our goal. Stories of legendary waves, no people and more perfect barrels had piqued our interest. Information was sparse and we had just missed the weekly ferry to the nearest mainland port. A Sumatran travel agent asked us “why would you want to go there? It’s just jungle; there is nowhere to stay.” And this jungle, it turned out, runs into mangrove swamps with of course, salt water crocodiles. Sharks are one thing, but the threat of crocs made us nervous. But the call of adventure was stronger than our fear.
Looking for a boat to take us to this place of legend we found ourselves at a small coffee shop in the bustling port town. Kids gathered to examine the strange blonde-haired, blue-eyed visitors, a distraction from their street-side games and the short-tailed feral cats begging for fish scraps. We were stared at and examined, but free of the begging or pushy selling that’s often evident anywhere frequented by western travellers and their Dollars.
The local kids found ways to entertain themselves.
The lack of expectation was refreshing; the ubiquitous Indonesian greeting of “Hello Mister” and the occasional Shaka hand signals the only evidence of previous travelling surfers in a location largely untouched by tourism. We settled into the dock-side coffee shop filled with fishermen biding their time with chess and dominoes before a rough evening on the chokka squid boats; the scent of clove cigarettes rich in the air. Subtitled American action movies played on the TV in the background as we ordered some Kopi Susu Kental – a strong hand-filtered Sumatran coffee with a layer of condensed milk so thick it looks like a Top-Deck chocolate bar. It’s delicious and made us feel at home amongst the locals, whose rotting teeth are evidence of the popularity of this drink.
Christian samples the Kopi Susu Kental.
Trying out our very broken Indonesian, we found a boat owner willing to sail us south on our adventure. The rate was good, but an inspection revealed a barely sea-worthy wooden fishing boat, streaked with rust and dappled layers of peeling paint. Tetanus-riddled poles poked jaggedly from the deck completing the miserable sight.
We surveyed the claustrophobic cabin, reeking of fish and diesel fumes, as local kids inspected us from the outside through the small portholes. The cabin contained a captain’s chair, a small kitchen, two short benches, a cramped looking three-man crew and no sleeping quarters. A tattered Indonesian flag topped the un-named boat.
Some local kids peep through the porthole and give us a final inspection before departure.
The Junk Heap Explorer in all its glory.
Less than 36 hours later, against our much better judgement, we set sail on the newly christened Junk Heap Explorer. Of course we hadn’t found anything better, and we’d had a crash-course in ‘Indonesian time-management’. A missing captain led to a 13 hour delay, a night in a dodgy dockside Losman room, and a 5:00am wake up call with surround sound from the nearby Mosques’ calls to prayer, all leading to a severe sense of humour failure.
But nevertheless, we were on our way in excellent weather and the promise of new waves kept the mood chipper as we rigged our tarpaulin up into a make-shift shelter on the front of the boat.
The going was slow on our barnacle-encrusted Junk Heap Explorer and we realised the 6 hour trip estimate was quickly turning into 12 hours, and a night time arrival. As the sun set the deck-hand climbed the roof and tied a small lamp to the flag pole. It was at this point we realised the boat had neither lights nor GPS navigation, so sailing would be by starlight and compass with no visible moon to assist. A sinker on the end of a fishing line and a powerful flashlight served to measure the depth of the often shallow reefs. Fuelled by paranoia, and with images of Brett Archibald drifting alone at sea fresh in our minds, we rigged some emergency gear. A cell-phone and a flashlight in a water-proof pouch tied to a surfboard, plus a survival pack of water and food just in case we had to abandon our now somewhat terrifying Junk Heap Explorer.
Things didn’t get better as the deck-hand brought us dinner. A big bowl of rice accompanied by some chilli sauce and a cheap bottle of sticky soy sauce – no protein, no veg, and only three spoons between the four of us to eat it with. Some biltong and duty free Scotch helped us overlook the meagre dinner, but we quickly realised that over the next few days we were about to learn first-hand what life is like for a poor Indonesian fisherman.
It may be hard to navigate as the sun sets, but it sure is spectacular.
It was dark. The only visible light was the glow of a line of squid boats way in the distance. The absence of a moon or any other light pollution meant we were treated to a breath-taking array of stars. Sleeping on deck under the thick blanket of the Milky Way, we took in the spectacle, a star-scape rivalled only by that seen during an expedition deep into the Namibian desert. Phosphorescent plankton splashed blue off the nose of the boat. Then, just to remind us of why we were on this floating pile of junk, the dolphins arrived. Disneyesque, a thick trail of phosphorescence picked up their every movement as they whirled and dove below us, letting us see their otherwise invisible movements and rapid direction changes. A once-in-a-lifetime experience, we knew, as we drifted into dreams of the uncharted waves ahead.
We woke at sunrise in the lee of a small island, nestled in a cove surrounded by forested cliffs. Raring to go, we woke the crew and pulled up anchor as the engine sputtered to life in a spray of sparks. Turning the corner of the next island we encountered every surfer’s ultimate fantasy: an unridden 3-4 foot barrel peeling off a jungle-lined point break, with no-one else out. We wolfed down our breakfast of the previous night’s rice accompanied by an energy bar, and scrambled into the water. We didn’t have to try hard to put the stories of salt-water crocs out of our minds; we were free.
Cooking waves, well worth the effort.
Four of us shared the perfect shallow reef break as a passing rain squall delivered the rich smells of the overgrown rain-forest to the line-up. The wave was perfect, but tricky. Paddling for the shoulder meant you missed the ride, so you had to take off deep in the barrelling section of the wave to be rewarded. It was a tough choice between racing the section to find a smackable lip, or stalling to pull into the barrel. I can’t describe the feeling of making it out of a crystal clear barrel to see your mate pull into the tube on the next wave, and then the next. Barrel, barrel, barrel in quick succession; this was what we came here for and we had scored.
We anchored our boat just off the break and chilled there the next few days, riding the shallow reef when we wanted, then resting on board, reading our books and listening to tunes on a small portable speaker. Surfed out in the evenings, we washed down meals of rice and two minute noodles with some precious Bintangs while insane blue and orange sunsets reflected in pink hues off the glassy waves. If utter contentment could be captured in words, this would be it. Oh yes, we had scored alright.
Perfect, but heavier than it looks with a 20 second swell period running.
The return trip was mellower. Having surfed all we wanted, we relaxed on deck as the Junk Heap Explorer glided effortlessly across the sheet-glass ocean, the weather perfect for sailing. Chilled tunes flowed over us as the dolphins put on a show of flips and spins, and we processed what we had just experienced as we watched our islands receding in the distance. Completely satisfied with life, I wanted for nothing more than what I had right in front of me. Of course, this was when the engine cut out.
The silence seemed aggressive as we registered we were floating aimlessly on a seldom travelled maritime route in the middle of the Indian Ocean, with no radio, no cell signal and a rapidly dwindling supply of water. Half an hour of struggling with a sputtering starter motor yielded no results. We wondered when it would be acceptable to panic as we realised our precarious situation.
Just going with the flow…
We were rescued by a jimmied cable tied to our Captain Odin’s foot. It controlled the throttle, allowing the engine to roar to life in a cascade of sparks. We were on our way again, albeit in the makeshift manner so familiar to the third world.
The night time approach to port was hairy. Lights from the chokka boats distorted the horizon and made it tricky to distinguish land from sea. Dark outcrops of rock loomed as we navigated our way by sight between shallow coral reefs and tiny exposed islands, making sure to steer clear of the larger vessels as we were pretty much invisible. Through luck or skill or a combination of both, we made it.
Negotiations break down with boat owner, Mr Macha, prior to departure.
Our boat was sketchy, and was a major gamble in hindsight. The dodgy owner Mr Macha had lied outright to us about everything just to make sure he got the business: the food quality (only starch for four days), the safety and navigation equipment (or lack thereof), the sleeping arrangements and the sailing times all combined for what could have been a disaster. He had put our lives in danger, but we had the immense luck of good weather in our night time sails, otherwise navigating blind may have left this story untold – adrift with only ourselves as witnesses.
We gave our sleeping mats and a tip to the crew, realising that this was how they lived every day – just scraping by with their lives in the hands of unscrupulous boat owners – yet somehow they still seemed happy. As for us; we made it back alive, armed with stories of barrels and memories of a feral adventure we won’t ever forget.
* The views expressed in ‘Write to Surf’ entries are not necessarily those of Zigzag.
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