The Island of the Sand Bubbler
If there’s one word in surfing that epitomises our collective idea of perfection it’s: Mentawai. The mythic Indonesian island chain home to flawless reefs, glassy walls and a deep seated spot in surf lore. It’s a chain where the dream of surfing unspoilt, uncrowded, tropical perfection really came to life. Twenty years on since those early Martin Daly trips alerted the world to the motherlode how is the remote Mentawai chain strung west of Sumatra dealing with the modern world? Has the rise of the land camp turned it into a Kuta waiting to happen? Are the locals getting a look at the western dollars yet? We took a crew for a mission to see how the land lies.
Once upon a time the way to do the Ment’s was by charter boat. They were the only option. As overland travel, then as now, is extremely arduous bordering on dangerous. Heavy duty malaria was rife, inter-island transport was by dugout canoe prone to swamping and if you did machete your way through the dense jungle to find your slice of perfection there was nowhere to stay or purchase supplies. Heaven help if you hurt yourself and needed medical attention. Suffice to say if you made it to HTs etc under your own steam last century then you officially get a Surf Explorers Platinum Mad Dog Medal. The boats were the sensible option. Get a bunch of mates together and spend a few weeks searching the chain for barreling joy. This was good for the boat owners, generally western, and good for the government officials from the mainland who sold ‘permits’. Not so good for the islanders who might get to sell a carving or two to passing boat trade.
Last time I visited nine years ago this was the status quo. You trucked about on your vessel and whenever you scored empty surf you crossed your fingers no other boat, especially one of pros, turned up. Of course good captains knew where was best and often you’d have three boats at one spot with twenty pros squabbling for limited sets to get their clips and shots. There’s no more heart sinking feeling than being faced with perfect Macaronis, pre-surf camp, and having it to yourself and seeing the Indies Trader IV, with helicopter on the roof, steam over the horizon. Knowing full well that a corpo team were frothing inside and ready to surf and shoot and steamroll the hell over whatever your little Brit crew were hoping to achieve. Even worse if you were just there on a very expensive holiday. At the time land camps weren’t really a thing.
These days the Ments aren’t the pro cadres personal island chain. It’s not the default for video sections it once was. Mainly because it got done to absolute death and also because us normal folk have twigged that it’s achievable and the waves are mainly doable for the intermediate competent surfer. The pros have moved on to the deeper reaches of the outer islands for their clips and the Ments are now a public playground. Which is where we come in… I’ve never done it land camp style. Always been slightly suspicious of the idea so it was high time to see if a new kind of surf tourism was happening or whether it was still westerners running western operations while the locals looked on nonplussed like with the boats…
The guys at Fourth surfboards fancied a post-summer mission to cleanse off the foam dust and fired out an email to the team to see if anyone bit. Simple concept: Mentawais, staying at a rad little land camp in the wave rich Playgrounds end of the chain, go surf, shoot and have a blast. Harty and Luke weren’t expecting near as dammit the whole team, only Hazza Timson and Lowey had other plans, to say yes. Which is how the business end of Luke Hart, Ben Jones and Lee Bartlett ended up herding cats. With Tom Butler, Mitch Corbett, Corinne Evans, Emily Williams, Tassy Swallow, Adam Griffiths, Alan Stokes, Angus Scotney, Gearoid McDaid, Oli Adams, filmer Mr B and myself to somehow fit on obliging planes and boats.
Turns out the camp wasn’t even big enough. Luckily the guys at Matungou had been planning some new bungalows anyway so they got carpentering as we all decided which boardies and bikinis to take. Making the trip easier Buts and Bearman headed over early so that made the utterly apocalyptic luggage sitch a tad better.
Due date came and Emirates airlines effortlessly whisked our awkward cargo away with a smile and we were away. Now getting to Bali is easy. Maybe one stopover if you’re unlucky. Getting to the Mentawais is a bigger ask. We did Dubai/Kuala Lumpur. Night there. Then Air Asia to Padang. Air Asia is in essence the SE Asia version of Ryanair. Except they’re much nicer about boards. Again we got faultless service from a check in lady whose morning we ruined. Easy part done getting from the frankly grim city of Padang on Sumatra out to the island chain involves a boat. There’s a big ferry or smaller, faster boats. We had a small, fast vomit-comet. Those four hours were some of the worst of my travelling life. It was about as fun as having your nipples sanded off. Being on the edge of puking while bouncing around in a sweaty cabin for four hours was not an ideal end to what had been a breezy trip until that point. Still. You don’t get to the edges of the Earth easily. We’ll all look back on it as character building one day. It made a 36 hour bus ride in Chile with food poisoning seem like a fun idea.
Thankfully Matungou is an oasis of calm. Traditionally crafted wooden buildings nestled on the edge of a serene palm lined bay. It was a very welcome sight after two days travel. We were soon welcomed by Dr Ollie, a very affable gent from Lyme Regis, and Adri a local islander who have set up the camp in partnership with the main aim of doing it right. So all the staff are local. The food is traditional, the boats are local style, in essence big outrigger canoes built up a bit into whip fast speedboats. We were soon right at home in hammocks drinking coconut juice from freshly hacked coconuts. There’s nothing quite like the decompress of long haul travel into a stunning tropical location. All the stresses evaporate. We arrived at lunchtime and after a quick nasi goreng we were digging through bags to get on it as the evening session was on. Tom B and Bearman had been there a week already and were frothing that a certain left would be cooking… And it was.
From there on the next ten days were a blur of boats, surf checks, sessions, rice, chili, beaches, coconuts, Bintangs, laughs, snoozes, shaman and good times. Groundhog day in the nicest possible way: Up early with a weapon’s grade coffee or three in the half light of dawn. Talking story with the early risers like Oli and Stoker while marvelling at Mitch’s commitment to the dawn yoga session. All while knowing full well the grom bungalow of Angus, Gearoid, Tass and Emily wouldn’t surface until they could smell breakfast. Various crew would stumble through yawning until sunrise, breakfast and more coffee got us ready for the early sesh.
Figuring out where to go is key in the Mentawais and the land camps, at least those near Playgrounds and Siberut island, have a huge advantage over the charter boats. Speedboats mean being able to check heaps of spots fast. If it’s not on or it’s busy and there are other options you can just open up the outboards and blaze on. In a charter boat you’re stuck at walking speed crawling to another spot at snails pace; unless you’re towing a speedboat also. So once you know the swell size and wind you can shortlist the go to spots and get on it. Matungou has two boats so we often split up to not overcrowd anyone spot.
As for the crowds? Much has been made of the Ments being ‘over’ mainly by pros and photographers who’ve grown far to used to it being their personal studio. We had waves to ourselves and we surfed with other crew. At no point was it 140 dudes like at Uluwatu. Which was how many guys were there pretty much a year or so after it broke to the world in the seventies and have been ever since. The busiest any spot got was about twenty guys, which as long as everyone’s playing ball is fine. Of course some people don’t. Older crew and some more competitive cultures see the polite British trait of queuing and waiting one’s turn as a reason to paddle past and be a dick. These folk you can only explain that taking turns is the adult way of doing things. Or flick them the vees behind their backs.
Boat versus camps also means you are stuck in one zone at a camp. On a good boat you can roam from Thunders up to Maccas then HTs then Playgrounds. Camp wise you’re limited to one of those four zones. Pros and cons all round but with a strong wind blowing for weeks of this season being on a boat hasn’t been a barrel of laughs.
As crews go we couldn’t have asked for better. In no particular order:
Tom Butler: Big wave sensei who prowled the line-up on bigger days with a calm confidence. Anything under twenty foot is just fun to him now so his game in hairy barrels was on point. Nailed a crazy sequence the first afternoon when all I wanted to do was curl up in a hammock.
Adam Griffiths: First time I’ve seen a longboarder in the Ments and boy did Bearman kill it. Total grace, flow and otherworldly reading of waves mixed up with big turns and deep tubes. Plenty of toes on the nose time.
Alan Stokes: It’s been nine years since we hit the islands together and not much as changed. Still the eternal grommet frothing to surf and loving every minute. Cursed with some brutal luck in some of the left barrels that resolutely refused to barrel for him.
Emily Williams: Welsh grom with a big future, christened ‘Sheggings’ after her fair Welsh skin got a bit burnt and she surfed in leggings. Will never hear the end of it. One to watch in the future.
Mitch Corbett: Recovering from a broken back and cruising. Mitch is a proper Zen master now. Certain of his place in the world and how he wants to live as balanced as possibly in all ways. A pleasure to be around.
Corinne Evans: Newquay’s busiest girl surfer. Fingers in many pies promoting women’s surfing. Sunny, radiant, frothing with a smile that could kickstart the sun.
Gearoid McDaid: Ireland’s biggest hope for the big leagues since I’ve been documenting surfing. Actually said, after one too many rice/noodle concoctions, ‘Can’t we just have a big plate of potatoes?’ Funny thing was next day we did… Along with Angus were the comedy double act of the trip.
Tassy Swallow: I’ve known Tass since forever and it’s always a pleasure hanging out with St Ives finest. Had a good dig at some of the heavier spots and owns a mean hack.
Oli Adams: A man reborn. Since his operation back in the spring Oli is a new human. On a constant upward arc in his performance and wondering where it can take him. The difference between this and our snow trip earlier in the year, which was post-op, is huge.
Angus Scotney: Mangoose is a big unit. But an affable, laconic, wise-cracking, smart ass. In a good way. He’s like Jordy in that you wonder how such a big kid can surf so loose and fast.
We didn’t score all time Mentawais. But as you can see even fair to middling is still hellishly good fun. It’s been an odd season, the theory being El Nino related, as there’s been heaps of typhoons north of Indo so sucking in a constant south wind as opposed to the normal slack winds and glassy conditions. Lucky for us the lion’s share of waves near the camp were offshore in southerlies.
As to the Ments being over? Far from it. This is my third trip out there and it’s still as magical as it was before. In fact I think I liked it more this time. My suspicions about land camps, based on a very small sample admittedly, have been proved wrong. Working in partnership with the locals improving their lot in life and helping out where possible, especially in Dr Ollie’s case dishing out medical care to all and sundry, is how things should be. Matungou is doing it right. Building rooms and boats using traditional techniques, serving local food, hanging with the local crew and them benefitting directly from you being there is how it should be. Everyone wins. Ask anyone that was there it was a wonderful experience. To visit the edge of the world and not be in the bubble of a boat is the future.
AN ASIDE ON CRUSTACEANS
Sand bubbler crabs
In my mind the sand bubbler crab’s internal monologue goes like this: “I’m just going to make me some sand balls. Every one neat as a button. As I do I’m going to line them all up, evenly spaced, no stacking. I’m a craftsman. I take pride in my spit ball activities. Dawn until dusk I’m out there balling. Until the tide comes in. That’s when I like to kick back, get down my hole and reflect on a good days solid graft. Ball making is hard work. It’s good to know you’ve done some hard work for the day then you can unwind and party as only us Bubbler crabs know how. Only issue is every morning I go out there waiting to see my and my fellow crabs awesome ball skills and some idiots gone and wiped the beach clean. We’ve then got to start again. It’s ridiculous. Just one day I’d like to have my work stand the test of tide…”
Turns out they don’t make balls for shits and giggles or any weird crab art installation reasons. They’re actually eating. They eat organic residue from the sand and the balls are the clean result. So they’re actually recycling sand into clean sand balls. Nature is batshit crazy. They’re living proof.
It’s a strange life being a hermit crab. Another species of crustacean that is overly common in the Mentawais. Imagine spending the early part of your life vulnerable and naked. Then when you’re strong enough you have to fight for a second hand house. Which like all houses eventually becomes too small. Then you have to either be really lucky and find an empty house just laying around or you’ve got to fight someone bigger than you to steal their house. It’s a harsh world. They’re like crab Spartans. Pure warrior. Odd then that they like biscuits. Now I’m no crab authority but I’m pretty sure they don’t have biscuits in their diet normally. Biscuits and the sea not being the best bedfellows. Not only do the shell squatters lose their shit for sweet biscuity goodness they’ve got some weird ESP sense when biscuits are near.
We were shooting at Pitstops, the fun right with the rad jungle backdrop, from the beach and Harty had brought a party pack of baked treats to keep us going. He plonked it on the sand between us. Half an hour later there were at least 15 hermit crabs surrounding it. You could almost hear them chanting ‘biscuits! biscuits! give us crumb based goodness you meat bags or we’ll have your toes off!’ And boy do they love them. Drop a few broken shards and it’s like a full scale riot. They fight for chunks of a Bourbon like it’s the difference between life and death. Basically that big fight scene from 300 … but with crabs and biscuits.
BIG THANKS TO: Luke Hart, Ben Jones and Lee Bartlett at Fourth Surfboards (www.fourthsurfboards.com) for organising and shepherding the whole deal, Dr Ollie, Adri and the crew at Matungou (www.matungou.com) for an awesome stay and perfect experience and lastly Anthony ‘Mr B’ Butler (www.mrbproductions.co.uk) for swimming more than any human should and nailing the moving images for the associated film, that and being a pleasure to share a room with.