Who really knows who the first surfer or surfers were to find and surf the Mentawais. History books say that it was Martin Daly, who took the boys out to a few other islands, and before that Lance Knight, who discovered Lances Right and Lances Left. The place was kept so secret for so long. Much of those early days has been lost in the mists of time. We do know that it was Martin's trip with Pottz, Tom Carroll and Ross Clark-Jones that got the story out. Apart from the few photos that emerged from that trip, there was also a shonky VHS video, hand-held with ancient technology that started doing the rounds. Not that it mattered. Before long Quiksilver released Surfers Of Fortune, and everyone who saw that movie and saw Kelly Slater getting ridiculously barreled at Lance's Right over and over again wanted a piece of it.
The waves that they surfed on the fateful trip weren't only around the Mentawais. They travelled further out, a few islands further south and west that had a few other waves. Big lefts. Fast rights. Exciting times. On the big left that they discovered, Martin said in a recent article on surfline.com that, "Potts had the most amazing drop. I now knew the difference between them and us mere mortals."
After Quiksilver ran their videos, the world found out about the Mentawais, and with a fair bit of missioning, it was even possible to go and stay with the local tribespeople and get a few of the best waves in the world at about 10cents a wave. It was a departure of sorts. People who had been going to Nias for years started looking further south, surfers who hang around Bali every year started staring at charts and trying to figure out what was going on up there. As the demand grew, so did the surf charter industry. While it was possible to feral it out, the islands were heavily laden with malaria, and there were no fresh supplies available anywhere. Food and water were often what was carried in on your back, and then fresh fish with the locals. It was rough on the islands. It was always stifling hot, and people died from malaria all the time. There were no cold beers around, and there were no showers. Sponsored surfers like cold beers and showers, and Frosted Flakes and cold milk.
The Morning Session.
The surf charter industry in the Mentawais snowballed. It soon turned into a flourishing business where brands paid very top dollars for charter boats, and these charters served as simple photo trips, with mags getting the images, and brands getting the coverage. This quickly evolved, and brands started taking entire ranges out to sea, to shoot surfers in exotic locations wearing next years' board shorts and vests. This carried on for years, with more boats coming into the scene. For boat owners it was a win-win situation, with skippers getting paid good money in western currency, living for next to nothing on Indonesian Rupiah, and still getting the chance to surf the best waves in the world with the best surfers in the world. These charters had very little to do with the tribespeople, as the charters never made landfall, and a disparity grew. The locals continued to live on their own poverty line, and they continued to die from malaria, without the knowledge of keeping the 'nyamuk' (mosquito) at bay. In 1999 surfer and doctor Dave Jenkins went for a trip to the Mentawais to find perfect waves and instead he found people dying from, as he put it, "treatable and preventable situations." The death rate from malaria, malnutrition and inadequate living standards changed Dr Jenkins life and what was necessary. He subsequently started the renowned Surf Aid to help the Mentawai people. The NGO has been going ever since and has been saving countless lives in the shadows of the jungle. Surfers simply cavort in the waves.
On the other side of the coin, a bodyboarder named Rick Cameron suddenly emerged on the scene and decided it upon himself to take over the tourism policies and systems of the island chain. Armed with his charter boat The Electric Lamb as well as a slew of less than trustworthy Indonesian tourism officials, Rick started putting bizarre laws into place to make it as difficult as possible to get to surf the Mentawais. You had to go through him and pay your way in. Rick's ownership of the breaks in the Mentawais didn't last long.. With Cameron trying to enforce rules, charter captains started pondering the same policies, and on top of that, there was the great tsunami of Boxing Day 2004.
Lunch Time For The Mentawais
In the Great Tsunami 250million people died, Banda Aceh was all but levelled, and it wasn't the end as it was followed up by the 2010 tsunami. This was more devastating to the Mentawais, with hundreds of people dead and many more seriously injured. Surfers who were in the area were generally extremely lucky, with the tidal wave only passing under their boats, and it was predominantly low, outlying areas that were affected. The Mentawais was starting to look like a very unfavourable place to go to for a quick surf trip. Some of the waves had changed.
Further afield, Asu had too much reef sitting out of the water after the Tsunamic shift, and Indicators was all but unrideable except on the highest of tides. The Machine, as well, became a memory of left-hand tubes. Still, when it had all settled, there was one element that soon came back into place: the waves in the Mentawais were still that good.
Nowadays, in the year 2015, a lot of people have surfed the Mentawais, from 4Bobs to John Candies, from Nokanduis to The Hole, from outer islands Enggano to Mega to the very, very outskirts and those secret spots. There is not that much left to discover in the area, with the best waves, it seems, open and free for all. Just imagine, however, what it must have been like to see HT's with a solid 4-foot groundswell and a fresh little offshore wind, and the most ridiculous barrels rifling through again and again and again with no one around. John McGroder found it overwhelming and dedicated his life, himself his wife and his two children on the Barrenjoey – to getting sessions at The Office, as he affectionately calls Lances Right. Or Ray Willcoxen and the perfection that is Rifles, or Christie Carter and Nokanduis. So perfect and mind-blowing are the waves, that no double Tsunami was going to keep the hordes away forever. No, they kept on coming back like the creatures in The Walking Dead, mindlessly shuffling back for more barrels to satisfy their basic needs, and the charter industry coughed, spluttered, and continued along its merry way.
The Afternoon Session In The Mentawais
Much like the three land camps at G-Land, so the camps started increasing all over the Mentawais. Some were in front of good waves, and some were in front of excellent waves. Others were built cheaply on the wrong side of the islands and visitor needed to route march to the waves, while others were built on tiny atolls in front of reasonably average waves. Some were developed in such remote places that even though the waves were excellent, no one made it out that far. The resorts at Rifles and Kanduis, for example, are of excellent quality with all the mod cons of the Internet, rim-flow pools and air conditioning everywhere. With this instant gratification, travellers found it less than necessary to travel to the outskirts. It didn't take long, however, for the land camps to start making some sort of ownership of the waves nearby, and new levels of confusion and problems started kicking in. There are the boat access rights at Macaronis, with only two boats allowed at a time and the Macaronis land camp working with the local tribe to ensure this rule. Not ideal if you're a charter boat with guests wanting to surf Maccas, but the land camp has their rights, and charter boats need to work within the system, book their berths in advance, and keep to the two boats maximum.
Right now, there is a simple system of taxes in place, with every surfer having to pay a government tax to enjoy paradise. On top of that, there are charter-specific taxes, in which charter owners and land camp owners ask for donations to locals, medical facilities and other charities that might be needed in their respective areas. More taxes are coming into place, with the government set to extract decent sized fees from all surfers and all boats. There is more to come.
The Sunset Session.
As in anywhere in the world, you can still have uncrowded sessions. If you go to Hawaii and you're not a local or a top surfer, you can forget about any set waves at Pipe or Rockies or V-Land, but you can still find space at Gas Chambers, Gums, Freddyland and Backyards. You just need to be appreciative of what you can get and accept that other people are ahead of you in the queue and they're going to be there for many years to come. In the Mentawais there might be some sort of stricter legislation coming, as mentioned, more taxes, but the point of the matter is that with more and more surfers worldwide, there will always be more surfers in the Mentawais. What was once a curtailing of too many operators has, besides all the worries, become a free for all, and the capacity of the area is quite close to breaking point. In a recent interview with Kelly Slater, who attended a crowded-as-Lowers session at one of the best waves in the Mentawai with 11 boats moored in the channel, tends to agree. "It's fucking crowded everywhere," said The King. "I'm not against 'private' breaks if they're in a faraway land and difficult to access and some guy figured it out and set up a camp or boat, but when the floodgates are opened, it's over."
In the Mentawais, it does seem that the floodgates are well and truly open. Martin Daly, one of the main reasons, if not THE reason for the opening up of the area, has already fled the scene, and has set up base in the Marshall Islands. There he has discovered many excellent waves, predominantly right-handers, and a place that should eventually take some of the flak off the crowded Indonesian scene. The Marshall Islands are most famous for Bikini Atoll. Between 1946 and 1958 the American army displaced the inhabitants from the island and launched 23 nuclear bombs on the atoll and nearby reefs. They might soon become famous for waves, of which Slater is a fairly frequent visitor. When it comes to chasing solitude, he's all for it. "We are all to blame, but the numbers have exponentially increased in recent years. I'm super flustered with it."
Is it the twilight for the Mentawais? No, not at all. It is just a correction that is coming, a slight adjustment in the mindset of people who are going to go there. The waves are still going to be excellent, some of the best barreling waves in the known surfing universe. There are just going to be less to go around. Way less. "Maybe we all need to practice transcendental meditation," reckons Slater, "and be happy for the person lucky enough to get a wave in the crowds."
And, believe it or not, there is still some room for discovery in the Mentawais. The area had been surfed for over a decade before Greenbush revealed herself. There was a recent, excellent discovery last year of a right that charter boats had been sailing past for years, unaware of this near-shore gem, and there are rumours of more endless lefts, peeling forever, at various remote islands and atolls. That part of the adventure, while not as heady as the early years, is still in existence.
Amongst the politics, the crowds, malaria, the tidal waves and the intricacies of Padang, there are still perfect reefs, with clean ocean swells breaking over them. If you get there, you might get the wave of your life or the flogging of your life. Both are good for the soul.
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