If you think Indo is all about Indian Ocean swells, think again. There's waves on the other side too! The far north-eastern region of the country has a few hidden gems of it's own. Without the rent-a-crowd Mentawaii mayhem. It's unlikely to be on the mass-market surf charter radar anytime soon thanks to being in the ass-end of nowhere, and needing just the right combination of swell direction and winds to light up like an explosion in a firecracker factory.
When all the stars align the mission is worthwhile...and mission we did. I hadn't realised how big Indo was, until we had to fly from one side of it to the other, which includes changing your watch by an hour. After a month and a half in the Telo's we up'd anchor and made the trek eastwards for our surf charter on the Ratu Motu around the Spice Islands.
Yowzer, what an epic boat. Even has a heli-deck. Which didn't have any choppers parked on it this trip, but was a great place to hang out for sun-downers, star-gazing, morning yoga....and sit-ups.....and frying eggs on hot days (took about 15 minutes, but it worked! Sunny-side up. Shoulda tried doing some bacon too.)
The Spice Islands, despite their relatively small size, were the largest producers of mace, nutmeg, cloves and pepper in the world back in the day. Food in Europe was as bland as eating cardboard back then - all they had was salt. So when word got out that there were these things called spice's that could make your chow yummier, the Portuguese, Dutch and English were there in a flash in about the 1600's to try to gain a monopoly over the highly lucrative trade.
At one stage the value of cloves by weight were worth more than gold. The fighting for control over these small islands became so hectic in the 17th and 18th centuries that the Dutch actually gave the island of Manhattan to the British in exchange for one of the tiny islands in NE Indo which gave them full control over the archipelago's nutmeg production. Guess that turned out to be a kak trade in retrospect!!
The small town we landed in was at one stage one of the most wealthy sultanates in all of Asia, yet all the evidence left today to show it's one-time wealth are a few beautiful mosques. The value of the spice trade finally dropped off once ou's worked out they could grow the tree's in their own countries.
The area is one of the most geologically complex and active regions in the world, thanks to its position at the meeting point of four geological plates and two continental blocks. This means lotsa islands. Which in a surfer's mind translates to lotsa wave potential.
Swells arrive from spin-offs of the big storm systems that rock the Pacific between November and March, or typhoons in the Phillipines; but mostly there's a constant supply of windswell from the easterly trades. Charts that don't look that exciting on your laptop screen can still throw up some really decent surf. Throw in the proliferation of slabby set-ups and it turns a 3ft @ 8 second swell into this....
I have a natural aversion to slabs (and lefts), but luckily there were a few fun points and reef passes that didn't entail checking whether your travel insurance policy included medivac. One of my favourites was a super fun right tucked inside a bay. It started off being sucky and shallow, but after racing the first section you hooked a 90 degree turn on the reef and it peeled off for another 100m. One of the longest waves I've ever surfed.
This part of Indo is all about volcano's, mountainous islands, jungle and only a few token palm tree's dotted about. Throw in some spectacular waterfalls that empty straight off the cliffs and into the sea and weird sea stacks all over the place and you have your very own National Geographic program.
The crazy landscape offers up some serious novelty waves as well. What's a novelty wave? Spectacular scenery coupled with something that might just be rideable. The definition of rideable being determined by how cool the shot is gonna look!
Like this lil sea cave the boys had a bash on. The take-ff spot was inside the cave, meaning a rogue set could result in you getting your pip smashed on the roof. And then just as you got onto it, it turned into a super shallow ledge, complete with a coupla obligatory boulders dotted about. Surfable? Not really. But definitely some novel shots.
A coupla days of funky winds and not much surf don't turn out to be such downers when there's plenty else to do. We took the opportunity to learn to dive, which was rad. The sea's so clear it's like being in an oversized swimming pool - just one filled with every fish you could ever imagine.
Cruising northwards we motored past a few set-ups that looked loaded with potential had there been surf. At one of the spots a lil island offshore from a local village had a small right and left peeling down either side. You know not too many boats pass this way when all the local lighties pour down to the beach to check you out....and anything that floats is soon out on the water and making it's way towards you.
One of the better known spots in the area is a heaving left which has been compared to a mini-Chopes. The first section just unloads on the reef, throwing out a square barrel - that you won't make it out of. Then it let's you in, opens up for another barrel section, and then reels off down the reef for ages. Heavy; a left; serious coral and rock garden on the inside.... I didn't even bother paddling out!
Coral isn't to be messed with in Indo. It's downright carnivorous. One of the guys fell at the left and managed to get a piece of staghorn coral embedded deep into his inside ankle. Despite being able to pull it out, and treating it with all the usual fixer-uppers (scrubbing, lime, hydrogen peroxide, chinese red, bactroban, you name it) he was man down for the rest of the trip. Swelled up like a balloon and he couldn't even weight-bear on it.
Not many people surf this part of Indo, but it hasn't stopped the local kids from becoming frothing surf groms....on their wooden planks. Crudely shaped boards, some even with a bit of rounding to the rails, and they're out there having an absolute blast in the shorey in front of the village. It's amazing how adept they are on their finless "boards" with some of the lighties being able to cruise down the line no problem.
Some interesting local variations means that clothing is optional (not sure how much fun it is to get splinters in the nether regions?), those that have "leashes" (ie bits of string tied round their ankles) pop em on the front foot, foot placements are super close together, with hip sway being used for direction control, and duckdives are done with the board side-on to the oncoming wave. And of course every wave is a family wave, full of screams, giggles and huge grins. Just how it should be.
Another coast, another island with a perfect left and right peeling off either end. Bunch of Aussie mates have built themselves a lil house there and weren't too chuffed to see a boatload of frothing surfers arrive. But more than enough waves for everyone.
Aussies are the original ferals, and no matter where you pitch up in the world thinking you're the first to discover a new spot there'll be a bloke in the jungle living under a tarp with his board. Respect.
It was then an overnight sail to Raja Ampat. Wow, what a mind-bendingly spectacular area. The Ratu's captain had sailed round the world 3 times and said that without question this was the most beautiful place he'd ever seen. No argument there.
It's said to have the highest marine biodiversity in the world, and the richest coral reef ecosystems, thanks to being located at the junction of the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Hundreds of small limestone islands jut skywards from the sapphire blue sea, and leave you gob-smacked by it's unspoilt beauty. Totally uninhabited, it's well and truly off the beaten path. Only the odd dive boat occasionally. We spent 2 days in paradise, I could have stayed forever. Words cannot describe how beautiful it was, and even photo's don't do it justice.
The climb up the area's highest peak is obligatory in order to fully appreciate the view. It was billed as a "hike" but quickly turned into a full-on climb. Plenty of handholds thanks to how the limestone had weathered into alternating sharp spikes and deep crevasses, and lotsa roots and branches to grab onto. Once things turned almost vertical, there was no turning back, and was happy to finally make it to the top. Although quickly began to contemplate the descent - remembering that going down is always harder than up!
Kakked off on the trip back down and was glued like a limpet to the rock wall. Managed to tear a hole in my boardies cos was sliding on my ass so much! Guess will have to cross Everest off the bucket list!
SUP's and kayaks were the best way to explore the archipelago. Spent many hours paddling through the winding waterways, watching out for turtles and manta rays whilst sussing out all the fish. The limestone cliffs were dotted with wild orchids, and perfect white sand beaches abounded.
Snorkeling was epic, although had to keep my nerves in check when I spotted a black-tipped reef shark cruising past. It's always been my reasoning for avoiding learning to dive - happy in my ignorance of what's swimming under me during my surf!
The guys were frothing to surf so went on a mission to check out some of the spots nearby. Had a bash at a heaving slab but after some proper thrashings and a bust board they decided to move on. Found another novelty wave in a narrow reef pass, as well as a sea-cliff cave they decided to race the tinnies through.
As with most male adventures adrenalin finally overcame common sense and they rolled one of the tinnies whilst making a run through a narrow pass. Luckily everyone escaped unscathed, although the camera equipment didn't survive the dunking. Rule #1 of taking your camera on a boat - always have it in a dry-bag!
As much as we would have loved to stay the trip was drawing to a close and we had to keep moving. We spent the last 2 days of the trip at another set of islands in the area that was home to a super consistent left that was dead-offshore in the prevailing winds. I tried to overcome my aversion to lefts and paddled out for a few.
We'd been on a major mission on the tinny a day before to scope out a really good lil right reef tube set-up "nearby" that one of the guides had found on a previous trip. Unfortunately the winds went wonky and we ended up bashing through the chop for an hour, only to discover it was crap when we got there. Moral of the story - never leave surf to look for surf. But that's how much I don't like lefts!
Many of you will have heard of the famous surf artist Drew Brophy (Merv's board has a copy of one of his designs). I immediately recognised his art on Mike's boards (above) and commented on how cool it was. Turns out he was Mike's cousin, and had just penned the design on his board in their back garden. Pretty flipping cool cuz to have. What I hadn't known was that he's also an accomplished surfer and absolutely charges big waves.
Erik, our surf guide, photographer and all round lekker guy, was doing some water photography so asked him to snap a few of me duck diving just for fun. Not such a good idea in retrospect cos I pull some seriously odd faces! Pretty cool though to see a sequence of yourself duckdiving to try work out how to do it better.
Our dive guide decided to swim around the impact zone to check things out as she's just starting to learn to surf and wanted to get a feel of the line-up. She ended up getting the best shot of the session!
Later she paddled out and hooked a screamer, the first time she'd ever stood up on a green faced wave - backhand nogal - and was so stoked she even managed 3 claims and multiple hoots en route before getting rumbled over the reef. Helps when you're learning to surf if you're a free-dive guru and can hold your breathe for 5 minutes! Not much to fear from hold-downs!!
Unfortunately all good things come to an end, and it was with heavy hearts we returned to port to catch our plane home. In typical Indo style the journey to the airport entailed loading everyone's boardbags on the roof of a small MPV....and then tying them all on with a single piece of ratty looking twine that they'd just found lying on the ground! Ignoring the very tenuous connection of our boards to the roof the driver then proceeded to embrace his Formula 1 aspirations and weaved in and out of traffic on all sides of the road, including pavements, at top speed.
After arriving at the airport in one piece (us and the boards), the final hurdle was to navigate the complexities of remote Indonesian regional airport check-in counters. We'd been warned to rather travel with 2 double boardbags instead of a huge 4 board coffin bag cos of Garuda's baggage restrictions. Boards fly free as long as they fit the specs (size and weight). Err on the wrong size of either of those and you're in for a long debate at the counter.
Check-in chick: Sorry sir, your board is too long, we cannot take it
Matt: No it's not.
Check-in chick: Yes it is
Matt (pointing to a boardbag that had been checked through before his): But it's shorter than that one and you've just checked it in!!
Check-in chick: Sorry Sir we cannot take your bag
Matt: But you flew it here without a problem:
Check-in chick: Sorry Sir we cannot take you bag.
After about 5 minutes of back and forth she finally caved in (thanks to Matt steadfastly refusing to budge).
And so our 2 month stay in Indo finally came to it's end. Great waves, great people, fun adventures, amazing places and broadened horizons. We'll be back for sure!
Thanks to Erik Soderqvist for all the kiff shots. All photo's taken by Erik unless otherwise credited.
If you're keen on an epic Indonesian adventure then drop the guys on the Ratu Motu or Tropicsurf a mail. You won't be disappointed.