Wednesday, November 08, 2006

When I turned fifty my present to myself, and perhaps to my family (ie: they got rid of me for a couple of weeks) was a surfing trip to the islands off northern Sumatra.

I kidded myself that I would partly finance this with a spot of travel journalism, and on my return promptly penned this little story for the travel section of The Age, the main Melbourne broadsheet. It was accepted, but unhappily the section in which it was to be included was canned shortly before it was to be published.

Now that I control my own publishing destiny, here 'tis. If you recognize the young man it features, please share it with me. I'd love to know more of his story.


“Micko, when we’re 50 we’ve gotta come out of a big barrel”
So said one of my surfing buddies in a Kombi in France way back in 1978. It seemed a lifetime away then. The thought of a geriatric fifty year-old even getting out in the water was to us, at twenty-three, bordering on science fiction. Still, it was something to aim for and as the years flew by, the barriers to achieving dreams such as this came, and were happily embraced. Marriage, two beautiful boys and a feisty but understanding wife who allowed me my passion for the sea.

What was once surfing all weekend became 3 hours on a Saturday or Sunday morning. I grew immune to the 3-hour round trip for three hours in the water. Seasons were irrelevant, but the round trip remained. I stayed fit by running, or staring at the bottom of a swimming pool, the black line drifting by, 40 minutes a day, 3 days a week.

Suddenly, I was nearing fifty.

The dream started looking like it might come true, but to make sure, I needed to go somewhere where there were consistent, big (so I didn’t have to stoop) barrels. A barrel is the hollow formed by a breaking wave. Otherwise known as the tube, it holds a special place in all surfer’s hearts. There are quite a few spots where these “ big barrels” might be found.

Bali was an obvious choice, but it lacked the uncharted territory feel that surfing in France had all those years ago. Hawaii has the size, and places like Tahiti’s Teeahupoo certainly have the goods when the search is for sheer, mind-numbing power, but I wanted to come back alive.

Indonesia, however, is still, and probably will always remain, the home of the world’s best surfing, if perfect waves are the measure of such things. In the northwest, off the Sumatran coast, lie the Mentawais, an island chain home to some of the world’s great waves, and nearby the island of Nias, and it’s legendary wave at Lagundri.
I put out the word to a few of my friends, all a little younger but all sharing the same passion. To get to these places, the preferred access is the ‘boat trip’, a chartered vessel island hopping perfect wave after perfect wave.

Some friends dropped out, citing fear of sea sickness, timing or lack of funds, but we finally assembled our seven, and courtesy of Chris Scurrah and Sumatran Surfariis, we departed the old Sumatran Dutch Colonial port of Padang, aboard the Southern Cross.

Chris, or Scuzz as he puzzlingly prefers to be called, had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the waters and reefs of the island chain. He decided we needed to head north, bypassing the Mentawais (too many boats) and heading to a less well-known group of islands for our first taste of surf. This was the beginning of surfing perfect or near perfect waves, 7 hours a day for 13 days. Aches and pains appeared. Others we’d had for years disappeared. That desk in front of you causes more grief to the body than any coral reef I’ve been dragged across.

We began naming breaks after prominent Indonesian politicians. We loved Megawatis, we survived Bam Bams and at General Wiranto’s, we lost a bit of skin. Every night we looked at the video of the day’s action, and I slipped momentarily into a deep depression. Surely I don’t surf THAT bad. It’s amazing the difference between sensory and visual feedback if you don’t have a constant point of reference. Then, I reverted to, well... not too bad, for fifty.
It made it that much easier.

The highlight of the trip? Strangely, it had little to do with the surf.

One of the best waves we surfed was near a village on a small island. Surfers call the break Rockstars, a wave comparable, some say, to the more famous waves in the Mentawais. It named itself when the first surfers to surf there were greeted like rockstars when they came ashore. The villagers had never seen surfing, but had heard of it, and were overjoyed to have a good surfing spot in their village.

A young American, named Tim, from San Diego, visited one day in August 2002 . He returned again the next day and by then the villagers would have come to know him, and greeted him with the same warmth and friendliness they greeted us.

Tim’s surf that day ended abruptly when he was stabbed in the femoral artery by a fin of his board.

Tim bled to death in the village as his friends and the villagers frantically tried to help.
I visited the village in early September 2004. As we entered the village from the ocean we encountered a near completed memorial. The top half was shrouded in sackcloth, screening it before it’s official unveiling. We were aware of the story of Tim, and asked if we could see it. The villagers agreed, and the kids crowded about, saying it’s for “Mr Tim, Mr Tim”.

On one side of the memorial is a clipping from the Los Angeles Times, telling of Tim’s death. On the other side is a picture above the initials, TM. Tim looks full of life, holding aloft a mackerel he’s just caught. Flanking the picture are two children’s ceramic pieces that had been sent to the village by Tim’s family. One was a child’s handprint. The other had a tiny surfer inscribed in the blue glazed clay, and the name Michael.

When I saw this I had to walk away.

I laughed with the kids, had tea with the locals and had to pass on a plate of sate dog. When I left, a couple of hours later, I looked back at the village and the memorial, thinking of the American family who will never forget a lost son and brother. And of the little village on an island off the coast of Sumatra, where there will always be a place for a young man named Tim.


Patch said...

Thanks for sharing, I recently visited a make shift memorial for a couple surfers at Pipeline that didn't make it. Even though I never met the two surfers, I felt that somehow I knew them, maybe it was our passion for wave riding and the fact that one of the surfers was a family man that brought familiarity.


pushingtide said...


More talkin' story!

NiegĂ  said...

Beautiful story and sad story. A pity i was never to be printed. Just discovered your blog recently and i'm starting to read it from the oldest posts until now. Nice.