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by Ed Temperley on Thursday 14th June, 2012 375593 Views
9 of 29
THREE foreshortened days flying east, incoherent blocks of light and dark punctuated by shuffling queues into progressively decrepit aircraft brought us to the boat. The Sama Sama, a beautiful ironwood construction resting gently at anchor amidst a smattering of nappies, ready and waiting to take us out into the Spice Islands.
Our port of embarkation for this trip around a collection of dramatic volcanoes known as the Maluku Islands in Pacific Indonesia was Ternate. This little known city has several times been a centre of global importance. As a capital of the spice trade in the 18th Century Ternate controlled most of the global clove industry plus much of the nutmeg and mace. For more than 100 years the Dutch and English went at it tooth and nail around these islands attempting to wrest control of a trade once so lucrative, cloves, by weight, were worth more than gold.
A second time this town would grace the world map was in 1858 when a little-known scientist, Alfred Wallace, was presented in London as co-author of the theory of natural selection following his treaty on survival of the fittest, (written just up the hill from the harbour) and posted to Charles Darwin who'd been wrestling with his own theory of natural selection for 16 years. This missing puzzle piece shocked Darwin into publishing a hurried joint paper, one in which the coherent concept (the survival of the fittest) was Wallace's. History has largely forgotten this and Darwin being the fitter and stronger had by the end of his life appropriated the entire theory for himself.
Most recently these islands were largely depopulated as they became the frontline between the Japanese and the Allies during WWII.
And then there was us, eight guys, most topping 30, well creased and in truth lacking much to commend us other than the fact a couple of us had been here before seven years previously and vaguely knew the way. Our intention was to hopefully discover our own gold in the shape of a few new waves, to perform a second recce on some already known spots and assess the viability of the islands as an off season destination. © 2013 Ed Temperley
Indonesia is traditionally an April to October destination where you can surf with just 200 of your closest pals at the well known spots. Off season spots are becoming more popular but what about the other side? The Pacific, the world's largest ocean basin, producer between November and March of vast storm systems?
Surprisingly destinations like the Maluku Islands (which pick up the first throws of these giant Pacific systems) can and do get good swell. We're not talking Mavericks here but we are talking about dozens of islands with great swell orientation and endless possibilities. Surfing population (excluding the keen local kids on planks) are a few hardy souls who have managed to island hop using local ferries to a few more well known spots. The remainder are boat only access and you had better bring everything you need.
These volcanic islands are regularly rocked by earthquakes at the rate of about one a week and extremely active volcanoes dot the horizon regularly so check travel warnings before departure.
A trip to the hospital is often more than 24 hours sailing away and there's no mobile phone signal, it's sat phone only and don't expect a helicopter rescue as there aren't any. One mantra repeated endlessly to us by the exceptionally welcoming residents of the region was that they desperately needed greater medical facilities and any extra income generated by passing surfers would be a boon for the community. So if a few more people island hop after reading this article then all well and good, you'll be made most welcome. Sustainable tourism has the potential to provide a welcome boost to the islands' economy as a whole. © 2013 Dan Haylock
North East Indonesia is in many ways the Caribbean of the Pacific. A huge potential open ocean exposure to swell is of limited benefit when globally storm systems tend to run west to east in the mid latitudes.
Whilst the rest of Indo is in prime position for this propagation from the Southern Hemisphere, the Maluku region doesn't benefit in the same way from the Northern Pacific's ability to generate sizable swell. However it's not all bad news. Consistent easterly trades mean the East coast sees an unending succession of small windswell (and often accompanying wind) but the bulk of the action is from its position on the very edge of the window for storm system originating in the Philippine Sea. We're talking, often as not, numbers in the 3-6ft@9seconds range, in themselves lacklustre. But couple their consistency with relatively benign local winds and deep water surrounding shallow coral and the result, if not classic Indo, is regularly comparable with the better spots in the Caribbean.
For the very best of the action the whole region sits within the fetch for Typhoon systems which deliver intermittent swells in the season both sizable and powerful, completely swamping the exposed spots and bringing to life a host of sheltered options many we'd imagine yet to be discovered. © 2013 magicseaweed
Going nowhere fast
The start of the trip proves inauspicious, we arrive early and our prize is a day on the boat in Ternate. A broken alternator means no battery and our salvation proves elusive, he is an itinerant mechanic who might or might not show up before noon. The first spot is five hours away and if we don't leave by 12 we don't surf.
Clearly destined for a more salubrious harbour the Sama Sama is a marvel of craftsmanship with chisel and ironwood, drawing less than 2m of water, her low keel stabilised by two external daggerboards which double-up as steering should the main system fail. Built on the beach at Sulawesi and slipped into the sea on wooden rollers the Sama Sama chugged up from its usual haunt in the Mentawai to the Maluku Islands. A decade old this boat looks barely used, the dark wood glistens with a deep slow grown richness and due to rising wood prices it is valued at twice its purchase cost and will still be rolling and creaking around Indo in 20 years. Drinking 60 gallons of fuel a day compared to 300 for your average Maldives air-con gin palace makes it a relatively eco choice. Admittedly as eco as it gets flying as far as you can around the world to surf a few waves.
But for now we're marooned, becalmed, over-tired and at the mercy of a mechanic who is either apparently praying or refusing to come out in the rain. The noon deadline passes before the water-phobic mechanic appears. There's nothing to be done and a solution is to charge the batteries off a separate generator as we move. This might be a little noisy but at least we can finally head off. Night falls with the plan of leaving at midnight to arrive at dawn. © 2013 Dan Haylock
The following morning the sea is heavy and regular, by 4am the cast assemble on deck as dawn cracks the sky, too excited to sleep. Destination an unnamed right the captain found on his single previous trip.
An hour later the fringing white water is spotted. Initial disappointment at what appears to a flat line breaking against a dark cliff is tempered by closer inspection. Lying at the foot of an active volcano belching a column of smoke is situated a picturesque bay overlooked by a huddle of tin shacks and rising above them on a bright green hillock a church and a school connected by a 45 degree slash of a path.
Between us and them sits a horseshoe shaped reef, along which roll spokes of top to bottom fun. Hoots hollers and grins accompany rushed mouthfuls of muesli and a slug of coffee. Surfers detonate into the water whilst the unfortunate fools who didn't wax their boards last night frantically scrape and look. The first waves are overhead, perfect rights, no barrels but long punchy wall and bash sections. Two hours later the crew return for second breakfast: a lavish affair of cold meat, cheese, various onions, salad etc. Ben doesn't eat the salami style meat upon being informed it is Bali dog meat by Bruce. This being an obvious lie, only rendered amusing by its effectiveness. Back to the water everyone heads and by the time the morning sun crests the thick jungle ridge at 10am we've been surfing for hours. It's taken about five days to get here and suddenly it seems worth every second. © 2013 Ollie LP
Sadly the best sets came early and after a few more hours surfing with friendly village kids who are bodyboarding on planks and having taken a tour of the village the offer of a 'boombastic party' in our honour is refused in favour of heading north to a secret pass. This wave was discovered on a previous trip and hidden up our guide's sleeve until the planning of this trip. This whole trip we will be heading north, the pinnacle of the trip being the exposed break of Serenade, still 25 hours sailing away.
The people of Maluku are notionally either Christian or Muslim but seem to believe God is DJ and without exception every village we passed had a remarkably large sound system as if they expected 1000 gurning pill heads to drop by at any moment. © 2013 Ben P
We arrive at our next wave, this one we knew a little about, Paniki Point, and discover a remarkable cascade roaring 100s of feet out of the jungle canopy straight into a lagoon carved from the soft limestone, the bottom lined in a soft spongy carpet of neon coral complete with a resident pod of dolphins playing in the bay.
The wave itself, the point, is not a normal wave at all, it's an essay in refraction, a 200m right squeezed between two islands which turns a 90 degree kink halfway down and continues to wrap around the island. Situated adjacent to this stunning waterfall it's not something you see every day. If David Attenborough came roaring out of the trees astride a brontosaurus you wouldn't bat an eyelid in this primeval landscape. © 2013 Right, Ollie LP. Below, Dan Haylock
After a day and a bit surfing small waves at the pass we steam towards an island many hours north, a Google Maps find. An outer atoll sitting just off the main island offering protection to a small town. We were to find this a lot, new waves are often situated in front of habitation. The necessity of a reef to protect the village from storms but also allowing access via a pass or kink form the basic building blocks of your typical reef break. Refraction and then an escape route.
Sadly Ditty Island whilst picturesque and offering a passable representation of Dr Evil's lair or that of a Bond villain with two rock turrets supporting a central beach encased in flawless reef only a foot of right and left perfection peeled down each flank. Some wanted to stay and fish, others forever, but the inquisitive Sama Sama pushed on.
The next wave, also known, was Sidewalk. The crew as ever pack the deck on approach to a wave. It's getting late and you surf now or wait till tomorrow. Oohs turn to ahhs as from an easy takeoff the wave turns its guts out on an exposed reef. The outside peak looks ok before turning into a turquoise and white closeout. A wave not of mellow SoCal rights but instant death. Time to change the description in the book. Yep who'd surfed it before just shrugged as is his way, must be the swell direction he says. This is also a recurring issue, waves deemed unsurfable cannot be allowed a change of tide, wind or direction, we don't have the time to wait days at each possibility. In the onshore breeze we turn injury down in favour of using the remaining light to scope out a safe harbour. Conversation turns to tomorrow, a building swell and northerly winds. © 2013 Ed Temperley
The following morning we scout the western side of an island, the NW swell isn't hitting it properly and numerous perfect setups are passed by mournfully as distant reeling coconut fringed glass points turn out to be fool's gold.
Enthusiasm rises to fever pitch as we approach the island's northern tip, there breaks a right, a round eye which we are eyeball to eyeball with until we break off the staring competition with the realisation it was an illusion and there rolls in crushing disappointment, we haven't surfed known or unknown for 24 hours and the atmosphere of 8 denied frothers compounds matters. What about the eastern flank? Nothing says captain Joachim. We retire to bunks and shade, not much is said, not much to say. © 2013 Dan Haylock
Rather than head over to the chain's most northerly island, Morotai, we do seem to be heading south down eastern flank of Roa. Captain Joachim has seen something interesting. He does after all have bigger binoculars than everyone else but even so we were amazed to round a round, dry and sectiony left and be presented with a regularly rolling section of whitewater. Closer inspection revealed a long left and a sucky right, the village is a Christian cluster of shacks and it is high tide.
We surfed it until the late afternoon, as the tide dropped it became a definite left only and we were joined by village kids who were surfing on crude convex planks with a slight nose roughly hewn by axe. They didn't have a name for the wave so we called it Nachos after the shape of the reef and Captain Joachim's girlfriend who'd just opened Bali's first nacho factory. © 2013 Dan Haylock
We head around the corner for a safer anchorage and bingo stumble upon new wave number two for the day, a shallow right-hander over a table flat reef with a decent potential.
Over the traditional evening feast whipped up by Wayan, chef and stove acrobat in the pitching sea we argue about the final break's names. Finally agreeing to call it Louise's because it's Bruce's better half's birthday and he texts her on the sat phone. The following day Bruce realises he sent the message two days early... © 2013 Ben Pascoe
The following morning we find another right on the SW flank of Morotai, before creeping gingerly into the lee of a beach-lined point further north. From the back it's a foot and from the front not much better. Optimism remains high, we'll be at Serenade our most northern point come the afternoon and on the way we spot several 'almosts' but we're so close to the mother lode pausing seems to not fit the agenda. Ben P is repeating a mantra of if it spits then not giving it a go is rude which he apparently learnt from a friend. © 2013 Dan Haylock
No trumpets blow when we hit Serenade the pinacle of our trip, it's just another stretch of thick green forested shore, but no village this time, just a sliver of black sand comforting the impenetrable forest beyond.
A wave arrives, stands-up and throws, a second section follows on and the mind drifts to comparisons. This is a bit like Tahiti or Samoa, grey barrels refracting and gliding around a shallow horseshoe reef. This wave is nothing short of a revelation, the first unsurfable section starts off as a perfect Chopes like tube that pinches shut every time, encouraging the mind and creating a perfect entry ramp to slide into the wave from deep behind the main peak. The deeper you sit the easier it is. This wave rewards commitment whilst swatting anyone sitting too far inside with wider sets which swing around and drive you in and across the reef and rock garden. © 2013 Ben P
Up until this point we'd surfed friendly waves, lineups several notches less hollow and grunty than their Indian Ocean cousins to the south of Indonesia. Serenade however doesn't need much swell to pack a punch and was a welcome relief for those in the crew more used to a little oomph. © 2013 Ed Temperley
After the sometimes unmakable first section Serenade would lineup into 60-80 metres of wall and barrel sections. © 2013 Dan Haylock
It was about an hour and half walk from here to the nearest village and this was the only spot at which we met a couple of feral surfers who made that walk every morning. © 2013 Dan Haylock
Every day started to drop into a pattern, wake up surf the right, head off to Serenade and surf our guts out before heading off to explore the surrounding reefs and islands.
This was another Google Maps bust; since the satellite had passed over and the photos spread on the internet they'd gone and parked a ship on the peak. © 2013 Ben Pascoe
Bruce dropping his wallet on the inside at Serenade © 2013 Ed Temperley
White water on the horizon would bring everyone rushing forward. © 2013 Ben Pascoe
Only to find that someone had got there first. There's an undoubted arrogance at attempting to claim a discovery in a populated place, rather a new spot is a known landscape viewed through the prism of a new paradigm. © 2013 Dan Haylock
Boat living with good friends and fun waves may not be as true to the feral surfer experience as sleeping in malaria ridden swamps and eating only rice. It's definitely lazier and probably in some ways less rewarding but to us old folk yoked to family and responsibilities it's our kind of adventure. © 2013 Dan Haylock
Wayan the ever smiling chef would whip up: breakfast, second breakfast, lunch, some kind of tea/cake/stodge and then a delicious dinner. He was a fricking legend as were all the crew aboard the Sama Sama. © 2013 Ben Pascoe
The islands here are frequented by traveling yachtsmen and when a kid gets in a tree and puts a bucket on his head you wonder if it's the first time he's been photographed. © 2013 Ed Temperley
What was amazing was the progressively more sophisticated board design of the local surfers the further north we travelled. Starting off down south with just planks of wood with a precariously placed nail to hang on to, as we headed up towards more regularly surfed areas they developed increasingly sophisticated round noses and rocker. © 2013 Ollie LP
Bruce's atavistic board clinic
Counter-intuitively, it seemed the locally built boards became more sophisticated, the further we got from the regional capital. Our first locals at Bombastic Village rode splintered wrecks with nails in them, while the kids of Rau had started with nice flat slabs of jati (teak) or merawan (hopea) or even merbau (which has more names than any wood on the planet). This was then shaped, alaia style so at least the noses were round and then many of the boards were painted a nice spring green. But here, in my hands was an altogether different beast.
When I asked the shy owner what variety of tropical hardwood it was, the answer was lost in translation, but if ironwood is allowed, then this was leadwood! It must have weighed close on 20kg, despite measuring in under 6ft and having rather depleted, almost sabre-toothed twin fins. These were crookedly affixed, in true utilitarian style, by handfuls of badly galvanized nails and soggy blocks filled the holes where previous thruster set-ups had come and gone. Apparently an Aussie guy, feralling in the village helped with the design, but you could see he and all the villagers were proud of his missing-link prototype. The fact that he could even catch and stand-up on this board was testament to a skill level that would surely thrive with modern equipment.
The board symbolized much about this village that was surviving in the primitive, subsistence world of their ancestors, yet yearning for the government promised transport links, internet connection and mobile signal so that the phones they all carried were more than just a camera and fashion accessory. © 2013 Anthony Colas
Serenade would always draw us back and was one of those magic spots which did so much with the limited swell on offer.
Getting a forecast out here is an issue. Bored of text messages not arriving I take action and ring a drunk msw employee at midnight and spend $15 of the $50 satellite phone credit to discover the swell will be dropping for the rest of the trip. It doesn't make me very popular. © 2013 Ed Temperley
At this size there was plenty of fun to be had and the daily minmum surfing requirement was at least 5 hours and more than 20 waves. Bruce tried to double that most days. © 2013 Dan Haylock
Even on the tiny swell Serenade offers up head high glassy walls to say goodbye and more sponger shacks than Pascoe can cope with. We surf until sunset and captain draws up the anchor threatening to leave us out there if we don't get a wriggle on. © 2013 Ed Temperley
Knowing the swell forecast wasn't calling for much energy to propagate south down through the islands we hung around in the north until almost the last possible moment before commencing our two day sail back down to Ternate. Bintangs in hand we watch the sun set and the boat become surrounded by large phosphorescent creatures as is the routine every night followed by exhaustion patrolling the deck. Incredibly we've still not seen a mosquito and we slip anchor at 3am. The journey home starts here.
As a destination is Maluku a place we'd come to again? The answer is unequivocally yes between the months of November and March. At the risk of sounding trite we'd recommend it for those who enjoy the journey as much as the destination and we warn that it's not the Mentawai Islands so don't expect 10 second barrels around every corner. However from what we've seen and from more recent trips endless possibilities remain to be discovered.
If you fancy it we'd reccommend going here. © 2013 Dan Haylock
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