Swell frontier

On a surfing safari in the remote province of West Papua, Michael Gordon joins villagers on uncharted breaks.

They take fright when they see us and we soon discover why. There are half a dozen children bobbing up and down in the line-up, a couple of hundred metres from their village. The waves are small and hollow, breaking fast over the coral reef, so we throw a couple of longboards in the tinnie and head towards them. The children split.

It is Tony ''Doris'' Eltherington who lures them back, waving his arms, grinning and holding up one of the boards. But it's Paul Neilsen who gets them hooting. Wearing a bright-red rashie and surfing on one of those soft malibus that are ideal for learners (also bright red), he strokes into a wave and surfs it for 70 metres or more, all the way to the beach.

After the excited screams subside, we are joined by 10 or so of the kids in the line-up, all of them naked and all with wooden bodyboards they handcrafted themselves. Soon enough, they tell us they have never seen stand-up surfers before. Ever. Yet they surf their own break, their own way, every day, irrespective of the conditions.

Doris was a pro surfer in the 1970s. The nickname came from the mane of long, blond hair he had back in the day. He's been exploring the waves of Indonesia ever since he stopped competing but describes our session with the hard-core kids of West Papua as one of the best surfing days of his life. ''Those children discovered the spirit of surfing,'' he says, ''and they did it naturally, all on their own.

''Their boards had everything you could imagine: keel-fin bottoms, concave decks, the whole spectrum of surfboard history going back to the Duke [Kahanamoku], all unbeknown to them. They had no boardies, no gear but they've really got the stoke of surfing. They've got what it's all about.''

The encounter comes towards the end of a blissful boat odyssey that spans 1000 kilometres in two weeks, during which we do not see another white man.

It begins at Sorong in the west, directly north of Darwin, and ends in Biak in the east. We have two main aims - to find breaks that have never been surfed and to witness the splendour of the world's richest coral reef ecosystems - and both pursuits are punctuated by kayaking, memorable seafood meals and encounters with friendly villagers unaccustomed to visitors.

I've been on a surfing boat trip in the Mentawai islands off Sumatra and that was a lifetime highlight - but this is something else again. This is a group of seasoned surfers with their partners on the Indies Trader IV, the most upmarket charter boat in Indonesia, exploring one of surfing's - and tourism's - last frontiers.

Aside from having eight airconditioned, double-berth staterooms with en suite bathrooms, the boat has a helipad and every toy an ocean-lover could imagine: two tinnies, a launch, stand-up paddle boards, bodyboards, surfboards, scuba gear, jet-skis, fishing rods and more.


Our host is Alan Green, or ''Greeny'', who founded the global surf company Quiksilver in 1970, made a fortune and now spends much of his spare time indulging his passions for surfing, exploring, skiing and horse racing. He still rides a short board but can't abide crowds.

''In the old days I think they called you a pagan if you worshipped nature but that's what I'm about,'' he says. ''It's a subtle type of enjoyment and, at my age [63], it really suits me. You take everything in: the nuances, the small changes, the surprises.''

Although he had been on plenty of surf boat trips in the 1980s and '90s, it wasn't until 2001 that he turned to discovery and the bigger picture. In three consecutive years he hired a boat for four months and decided Indonesia was his favourite destination.

''Open an atlas on a table and run your eye along the equator, which is where you get the most benign weather,'' he says. ''Indonesia is just a kaleidoscope of blue and green and brown. It's all islands and that's what really appeals to me. It's so alive.''

In 2004, Greeny bought the Indies Trader IV, the flagship of a fleet operated by surf-charter pioneer Martin Daly. Since then, Greeny has spent about six weeks a year on the boat; the rest of the time it is available to charter trips like ours.

When I ask what sort of market he is pitching at, the reply is immediate. ''Us,'' he says, which is shorthand for well-off baby boomers with an adventurous streak and a love of the beach.

Also on board are others who helped shape the early direction of the sport and the surf industry. Among them are Neilsen, who won the world's richest event in Hawaii in 1972; Rod Brooks, who dominated the Victorian competitive scene before forging a reputation as a contest director; John Law, a place-getter at the Bells Easter contest who joined Greeny at Quiksilver; and Rip Curl's first accountant, Butch Barr.

Back in the '70s, Neilsen was dubbed ''Smelly'' because he had a nose for finding the best waves (and the best parties). These days his surfing antenna is still finely tuned, as is his ability to catch fish.

The adventure begins when we gather in Makassar after flying from Bali. Over a game of cards before the flight to Sorong, Greeny announces that there are two rules for the trip: there is to be no pissing off the side of the boat and the blokes are expected to wear a collared shirt to dinner.

Our first destination is Raja Ampat, the most biologically diverse area known to science and one of the largest marine national parks in the world. Greeny calls it ''the prettiest place I've ever seen'' and we soon discover why. The area comprises about 1500 islands and is home to 1309 fish species and 537 kinds of coral. It is also a sanctuary for turtles.

Several diving operations have sprung up in Sorong in recent years but the area remains largely unexplored and its appeal is much broader than just diving. We stay in the area for five days, kayaking, snorkelling, swimming and finding solitude on the white sand. In that time, we do not see another human being.

We have to arrive at Biak in time to catch our flights home; otherwise there is no itinerary.

''On these trips, we don't know where we're going,'' the co-skipper, Erik Soderqvist, says. ''You wake up in the morning and decide, 'Let's go there and see what we find.' You think we can't be that lucky to just always find something but every island has something - like a secret crack or crevice that opens into a bay, or good diving, or good caves and a good wave. Indonesia is really special like that. There's always something around the corner.''

The chef, Chris Abrahams, applies the same spontaneous approach to the menu, responding to the catch of the day (once we depart the no-fishing zone of the Raja Ampat marine park) by serving sashimi when we catch a huge wahoo, lightly tempura-battered trevally or barbecued mangrove jack and Spanish mackerel.

''To catch it, prepare it and get it on the table within a few hours is unreal,'' he says. ''It doesn't get any better, or any healthier, than that.''

When the swell begins to rise on the third day, we take one of the tinnies to a break Soderqvist discovered on his first trip to West Papua last year and watch as Doris strokes into the first wave and finds the barrel twice.

Soderqvist has skippered charters in Indonesia for seven years and keeps a log of potential surf spots. Some finds are so special he refuses to commit them to paper, just to ensure they remain secret.

Last year he saw potential for a left-hander at one remote stretch a couple of days after leaving Raja Ampat and made a mental note. This year we realise that potential, with some on the boat comparing it favourably to one of the Mentawai's better breaks, named Lance's Left. We call it Smelly's, because Neilsen is the first to catch a wave.

Our first, and only, brush with danger comes a couple of days earlier. Soderqvist takes us to an overhead, hollow, right-breaking wave that would challenge a very good surfer. Three of us wait in the tinnie to see how Neilsen and Doris handle it before jumping in but they head back towards us at speed after Neilsen paddles for his first wave.

At first, he thinks the reef is super shallow on the takeoff. Then he realises a five-metre shark is cruising directly beneath him. Doris sees it at the same time and both react in the same way. ''My isotopes are off the Richter scale!'' Neilsen says when he is back in the tinnie.

There are other surfing highlights, especially towards the end of the trip, but the distances that need to be travelled, the inconsistency of the surf, the challenge of securing permits (reduced in our case because the boat is Indonesian-flagged) and the remoteness (especially if something goes wrong) should militate against West Papua following the path of the Mentawais and becoming crowded any time soon.

You need to have other motives besides catching waves, such as exploring inland rivers, chilling out on deserted beaches, sipping pre- or post-dinner drinks (and sometimes both) on the top deck under the Milky Way and soaking up the culture of the welcoming West Papuans.

''We don't offend people when we come into their terrain,'' Greeny says of the regular interactions with the original owners and custodians of these islands. ''We don't big note. We don't show off. We just want to be there and enjoy it.''

Often, our arrival at a new anchorage is met by a delegation and an invitation to visit their village. Invariably, a tour concludes at the local school. The West Papuans are a proud, friendly and resilient people and several of the villages we visit are models of sustainable living.

Some visitors to the boat offer bananas, shells, carvings or live crayfish for trade. Others simply sit in their dugout canoes and observe us, as if they're watching a television program on the Discovery Channel.

Doris's highlight is the session with the board riders. Mine is running an impromptu surf school, pushing kids with beaming faces, no bathers and names such as Solomon into waves on the red malibu. Their natural ability and affinity with the ocean is striking, as is their willingness to ensure everyone has a go - and the vicarious pleasure felt by all when someone stands up for the first time.

Greeny is not a man given to overblown rhetoric but he reflects the mindset of all of us when he sums up what he likes most about the journey. ''I just love to watch it all evolve,'' he says. ''That's what's really satisfying. There's not many nights when I go to bed grumpy.''

Michael Gordon travelled courtesy of Indies Trader IV.


Getting there

Garuda Indonesia has a fare to Makassar (Ujung Padang) and back from Biak for about $1275 low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney including tax. This involves flying to Jakarta (7hr), then Makassar (2hr 20min). Merapati Airlines flies daily to Sorong from Makassar for about 747,000 rupiah ($83) one way including tax. Australians obtain a $US25 ($24.80) visa on arrival for 30 days.

Touring there

Indies Trader IV is available for exclusive charter for groups of up to 22 for $US13,000 a night. All food and beverages, excluding premium wines, use of equipment and airport transfers included. Phone (03) 5261 0304 (Tuesday-Thursday) or see indiestradercharters.com. Transit overnight in Makassar at the Imperial Aryaduta Hotel Makassar, with rooms from $184 including breakfast. Take malaria medication and bring reef shoes or booties for walking on coral reefs.