The overland mission to Nias was one crazy experience. It’s hard to believe that it was 21-years-ago.
The only proof I have that I did the trip is the diary I kept for most of my early travels and a few grainy images. My first real adventure was to the island of Nias. It was a wild place back then. My flight, from Heathrow to Singapore Changi, was on October 3, 1996, and the biggest mission was transporting my three-board quiver on the tube.
Back then I didn't know the history of the place, except for washed-up memories from Surfer magazine and other such publications that left out much of the detail. For perspective, the first surfers to ever stumble upon waves at Nias were Australian surfers Kevin Lovett, Peter Troy and John Giesel in 1975.
That was 42-years-ago, and 21 years since I first went there. Back then, they were the only surfers, a local family built them a losman, and that was the start of the surfing village of Lagundri Bay.
It was a long flight from London to Singapore, then a quick jump from Singapore to Medan. I remember my first encounter with Indonesian soil and the Indonesian people like it was yesterday.
Diary note: Tuesday 8 October: ‘three to four-foot all day. Surfed myself into a coma. Had a few Bintangs and pissed my bed. Either from exhaustion, or simply marking my territory. I grabbed my backpack and my boardbag with my prized quiver in it and wrapped up with a rudimentary chain, put my head down and headed out of the Medan airport.
The hot air hit me at the same moment as a bunch of Indonesian men started shouting at me. I had never heard a word of Bahasa, I did not expect the humidity, and I had not done my homework on the behaviour of the people. My Lonely Planet book was an invaluable guide back then, but nothing can prepare you for a bunch of seemingly aggressive foreigners shouting all at once in a strange language.
All I wanted was a taxi, and all they wanted was to offer me a taxi, but the language and culture barrier was huge, especially after a year of dealing with a bunch of toffs in London. I sat down on my boardbag and feigned ignorance to hide my terror, lit a Marlboro with shaking hands, and waited for it to all quiet down.
Eventually a wizened, kind old Indonesian dude came and sat with me, and I offered him a cigarette. He offered me a lift in his taxi, to a friend who had a guesthouse. It was the first trace of engagement, and I took it, with appreciation. There were rats in the guesthouse, but the bed was clean, there was cold water, an icy shower, and I slept well.
The next day it was on the local bus for a ride across Sumatra to the west side port of Sibolga, commonly known at the time as the arsehole of the world.
It seemed back then that Sibolga had a problem with sewage. An open sewage system led to the sea, but the system fell short of reaching the water, or the water had receded or something, but there were, at times, up to 20 meters of sewage on dry ground, heating up in the tropical sun, waiting anxiously for the next spring high tide to wash it away.
Dogs crawled through these fields of shit, sniffing around confusedly, and street vendors cooked and sold food within sight and smell of the faeces. With the contempt of familiarity, no one seemed to notice or to mind.
I spent a day and a night and a day there in Sibolga, waiting for a ferry over to Nias, waiting for my ship to come in. I hung with a guy called Chilli. Turns out he was the local crook/entrepreneur.
I hung with a guy called Chilli. Turns out he was the local crook/entrepreneur He was good to me though, despite a bad rep. He opened up his house to me, and put on some Bollywood karate channel for me to stare at. I didn't eat. I drank a few bottles of boiled water and washed my hands often, terrified of what germs might be emanating from the fields just outside.
The stench was real, the food was unrecognisable, and the risk of a stomach problem was threatening. On the following evening Chilli charged me triple the ticket price and put me on the ferry. I guess he had to make a buck somewhere along the line.
I had no idea where I was going, except that it was on Nias, and I was heading for Lagundri. As luck would have it back then, the ferry ran across to Gunungsitoli, to the north of Nias, where I wanted to be at Telukdalam, in the south. I jumped in a taxi, in the pouring rain, and headed down south.
I remember it was raining, the road was bad with makeshift bridges made out of logs and planks, and we drove for about four hours, stopping along the way for water and some food.
We stopped at a roadside home, and I ate a plate of chicken in a little room, but the taxi driver refused to eat with me, calling it ‘jungle chicken’ which I think loosely translated to monkey. I’ll never know what I ate, but I couldn't find the drumstick.
The taxi driver refused to eat with me, calling it ‘jungle chicken’ which I think loosely translated to monkey. Then we arrived there, at Lagundri bay. I had been advised on where to stay, and accommodation at Nias was never going to be a problem with losmens littering the bay from around the top by the Indicator, all the way to the very inside of the bay. The waves were small; I found my losman, and fell asleep.
The next morning I officially woke up in paradise. The waves were six foot on the point, there were a few guys out, and the tropical water was obviously warm enough for boardshorts. I put my boardies on over my pale. London – whitened body and paddled out with my hair dry through the keyhole, before gently drifting over to the sweetest of takeoff spots. This was going to be good.
At six-foot Nias is perfect – if you’re pretty finely-tuned with the art of paddling hard, getting yourself over the ledge and pulling into the pit. I watched a multitude of surfers do just that a number of times, but working construction and guzzling lagers in overalls in working men’s pubs had done little for my timing, my surf fitness nor my bravado. It was all too much for me. I caught a shoulder at the end of the tube section, and belly-boarded in to recuperate.
The next morning was small, and flawless two-foot waves were reeling down Kiddies Corner. I was ecstatic. It was just what I needed to recalibrate the timing, to rekindle the fitness and to reignite the fire. I paddled out from the bottom, caught my first Indonesian waves, managed to ride down the line and do a little floater or two, and started to feel a bit like a surfer again.
Cover shot: Damian Davila.