Solitude is swell

Michael Gordon discovers empty line-ups on an old blokes' surf tour of the Mentawai Islands.

The day begins with two distinct but comforting sounds: a whirr and a whiz. The whirr is the descending anchor chain, signalling our arrival at a new destination in the Mentawai Islands, off the west coast of Sumatra. The whiz is the grinding of coffee beans grown on a nearby jungle plantation.

I slip from my top bunk and climb the stairs of the Indies Trader II, exchange pleasantries with the crew and my fellow guests and survey another empty line-up: a reef break that pitches at the take-off, then peels off until the wave closes out on the shallow reef.

"This used to be a nothing wave," says Tony "Doris" Elthrington, our surf guide. Now, courtesy of last year's earthquake, it's something special.

"A fun wave," Doris calls it.

Three or four of us surf for a couple of hours in 1.2- to 1.5-metre waves. The sharp coral reef is visible at the take-off but the water is deep enough to ensure you don't hit it if you fall.

When Frank Peddie's leg rope breaks and his board is washed 150 metres toward the shore, Tim Everingham, a tube-riding bodyboarder who doubles as our chef, happily catches a wave in to retrieve it. Peddie is an academic from South Australia. He thought his surf trip of a lifetime was over on day one when he badly strained a calf muscle before his first surf. Now he is back in the water. At 62, he is the third most senior member of the Old Blokes Surf Tour.

Doris calls us the RSL - Returned Surfers League - and often begins a post-surf conversation, Bintang in one hand, fag in the other, with the familiar question in his raspy, playful monotone: "So, how's the holiday going, boys?"

At 53, I am the second-youngest of the group and Doris casually assumes the role of surf coach, geeing me up to surf the bigger, more threatening waves. One year younger is Steve Jones, a former pro who uses the boat trips to reconnect with the world that once dominated his life.

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Our leader is Doug "Claw" Warbrick, co-founder of Rip Curl, who encouraged seven friends to join him on this 14-day odyssey. Claw is to surfing what Kevin Sheedy is to Australian football: a man whose knowledge of his sport is exceeded only by his passion for it.

The most striking thing is he hasn't changed since those days when Rip Curl started making wetsuits in the old bakery at Torquay. He still has this habit of jumping up and down on the spot and rubbing his hands whenever he is excited, a daily event. Doris calls him a 66-year-old grommet.

There are few surf spots in the world that Claw has not explored and his knowledge of the Mentawais is intimate. The surf of the islands was discovered in the early 1990s and now hosts dozens of surf charters and an increasing number of camps.

Our adventure starts at Padang, the port city that is the capital of West Sumatra. After a rough night crossing, we emerge the next morning for a briefing from our skipper, Albert Taylor, a boat builder, fisherman and adventurer who fell in love with the islands of Indonesia on his first trip to Bali in 1980.

Then, to get us in the mood, someone slips the Hoole-McCoy classic Tubular Swells into the DVD player, ostensibly because Jones is in it. It turns out Jones has only a brief cameo. The real star is a very youthful Doris, whose shock of long, flaxen hair back in the early '70s explains his nickname.

Our first serious surf is at a place called Burger World, so called because it is one of the softer, thicker waves of the Mentawais. The conditions are excellent and it reminds me of Tea Tree at Noosa. Problem is, it also has Noosa-like crowds and Claw quickly announces our intention to seek some solitude.

For the next few days, the only other vessels we see belong to villagers who paddle out in dug-out canoes to remind us we are on their surf or offer carvings for sale (or both). Invariably, Doris knows them and, after some friendly physical contact and a joke, he cuts a private deal that involves a gift of food or drink.

After last year's earthquakes, Doris was among those from the surfing fraternity who spent a fortnight delivering aid to villages, mainly by setting up health clinics. He did the same thing after the tsunami that devastated Aceh in 2004. His worry is that many of the villagers who headed for the safety of the hills last year have still not returned to their homes by the ocean, a principal source of food.

Mostly, we ride smallish but perfectly formed right-handers that suit the natural-footed long-boarders in the group, especially John "Davo" Davidson, a retired school teacher who radiates unmitigated joy when he is standing on the nose of his board.

Then we arrive at Macaronis, a left-hander ranked in the top-five favourite waves of the world's top pros. We drop anchor at lunchtime to an empty line-up, with one-metre waves and a cross-shore wind. It doesn't look much but Claw's advice is emphatic: "Get out there!"

I venture out and quickly understand why this wave has such a reputation. After a steep take-off and hollow first section, Macas becomes an invitation to keep turning, from top to bottom until the coral comes into view.

After a nap, I go out again. As the wave size increases and the wind dies I experience a state of adrenalin-charged euphoria that is shared by my new mates. Back on the boat, Bill "Cannonball" Carr and Terry Wall, a Newcastle academic and Bells Beach pioneer, are so pumped we have a group hug before enjoying a Bintang and watching footage of our session on the television. Ah, the sheer indulgence of it all!

The next morning no fewer than seven boats are moored a short distance from the line-up and it is time to resume our search for new breaks to surf by ourselves. This is one big benefit of being on a boat: when a spot becomes crowded or the surf deteriorates, you can skedaddle. Another is that you are usually a safe distance from the mossies that pose a malaria hazard, especially around dusk, on shore.

Regularly, our trips between breaks are punctuated by excited calls from one of the four Indonesian crew members. "Fish on!" they shout, before inviting one of us to pull on a belt and haul in a giant wahoo or spanish mackerel that will be served, in various forms, over the coming days.

When we are not surfing, Taylor the skipper invites us to go fishing off the tinnie and John Warbrick, Claw's cousin, hauls in a trevally that weighs almost 20 kilograms.

A few years back, Taylor was involved in a search for coffee plants in the nearby Mandailing highlands that was as intense as his quest for undiscovered surf spots. With his Sumatran wife, Anita, and her father, Bapak, he was ultimately successfully. Now they have rehabilitated a jungle plantation that was developed by Dutch traders as long ago as the 1830s. The coffee is superb and available for purchase over the net.

When we are neither surfing nor fishing, it is satisfaction enough just to kick back on the deck and take in what Darryl Kerrigan would call the serenity of it all. As Claw puts it: "It's kinda good, this doing a whole lot of nothing."

Just how many breaks there are in the Mentawais is a matter of conjecture. Suffice to say it is in the dozens and the waves are as varied as they are many. In the morning you might be surfing a gentle, cruisy longboard wave. That afternoon, you might find yourself in the line-up of one of the planet's most gnarly tubes. In my case, the highlights are Macas and Lance's Left.

If there is a defining dynamic of the trip, it is that the adrenalin level rises and falls with all the uncertainty of the Dow Jones index, depending on the challenge served up by the ocean.

When it is over I am left to ponder some lingering questions. Just how long will this region qualify as surfing's new frontier? What will be the consequences for the traditional custodians of the islands, the Mentawai people?

Much will depend on the good sense, co-operation, conscience and persuasive capacities of those who skipper the charters and run the camps. If they are of the calibre of Taylor and Doris, one suspects Mentawai adventures will be enjoyed for some time to come.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

The cheapest fare to Singapore is $372 with Malaysia Airlines with an aircraft change in Kuala Lumpur. This is low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, not including tax. Tiger Airways and Air Asia fly from Singapore to Padang with fares from $20 one-way, not including tax.

Surfing there

There are waves all year but the charter season is from late February until mid-November, with many boat options available online. Most rates are in US dollars, so are more expensive now. Indies Trader 2 is at the top of the market, with a crew including an Australian skipper, surf guide and cook. The author booked through surfscene.com.au, which has an 11-day charter for $4720 a person ($5990 for 14 days), including transfers, all meals and drinks but not air fares.

See indiestrader.com and mandailingestate.com.au.

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