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Surfing in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia; Photograph by Max Lowe

Learning to Surf in Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands

Head to the Southeast Asian archipelago for a secluded spot to ride the waves.

I am a terrible surfer. Let that be stated now. Dropping into my first perfectly forming left-hand roller at Beng Beng’s, a popular surf break in Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands, I was about as terrified out of my wits as I have been in any situation. After crashing into the white wash after a mere several seconds of glory standing up, the fear of falling subsided and the paradise that encompassed me came back into view. Beneath my feet, parrot and clown fish danced in and out of the vibrant reef and around me the Mentawai’s, one of the worlds last remotely preserved surfing destinations, scintillated my perspective.

Traveling in Southeast Asia today, it is hard to believe that a mere hundred years ago much of this tropical paradise was still very much uncharted ground for anyone but the most wayward travelers. Present day, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam are all hotbeds of packaged and peddled tourism. Foreign culture has overtaken much of what stood before in places like Bali, where ex-pats have set up camp in search of a little piece of paradise to call their own. Not to say that these places are not still amazing in their own sense, but finding a place away from the hustle and bustle of Twinkie tourism, where the culture has been built around the ocean, and wave riding remains as the pure essence of living takes some local knowledge. I nosed out this removed pocket of dogmatism in the Mentawai Islands.

I found myself sitting, playing cards, with a carefree lot of rebels aboard an antiquated and packed ferry slipping through the night on our 12-hour sail to the islands out of Padang, Sumatra. As the 5 a.m. prayer of the Muslim world blasted over the loud speakers of the ship, I left my small bunk and joined the first officer on the railing. Together we watched sunrise usher in our first day in the Mentawai Archipeligo.

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Swimming in the Mentawai Islands, Indonesia; Photograph by Max Lowe

Our guide, Diego Angel, n expatriated Colombian and local surf guru who owns Mentawai Surf Camp, met us at the ferry port that was little more than a dock at the mouth of a dirt road, which wound off into the jungle. We would reach our destination on the northern end of the largest island in the Mentawai, Siberut, by speedboat. Pristine, white sand beaches rimmed with palm trees bound every shred of land within sight and without sign of inhabitation beyond the occasional fisherman in a dugout canoe. With the main island running out beyond sight and bits of land no larger than a city block speckled across the horizon, we disembarked at the Mentawai Surf Camp, our home for the next 8 days.

The Mentawai Islands are home to some of the most untouched and secluded surf breaks in the world. The power of storms fuming off the southern Indian Ocean is turned and loudened by the prevailing southeast trade winds and driven directly into this grip off islets of the southern coast of Sumatra. From the month of April through November, the Indian Ocean acts as a smash-mouth groundswell machine. The result is perfectly forming and utterly consistent waves across the span of the Mentawai.

We had arrived toward the end of high season for swell and surf seeking travelers, but as Diego said, “The waves don’t know about high and low season around here. Sometimes they come large and sometimes they come small, but they always come.” Diego recognized the Mentawai as his embodiment of Eden, and in 2007, found another connection to these far-flung islands in his wife, Lora, who he met at a surfing competition and married several months later. Lora, then head of tourism working under the governor of the islands, helped Diego acquire a small piece of land near the one dirt road town of Pei Pei to bring his dreams of starting a surf camp to fruition.

Now his four-year-old son Joaquin, lovingly referred to as “monkey,” accompanies Diego to the surf breaks Joaquin has learned to love and know like his own. The young boy—whose face is constantly painted with an ear-to-ear grin as he gleefully leaps from the top of our long boat following Dad into the fray with his pint-size surfboard all the while chiding me with “don’t be scared white boy!”—is an island soul, true and true. The Mentawai Surf Camp, which exists as a simple yet homey cloister of island style bungalows, nestled amidst the tidal push of the mangroves, with a path leading directly from the deck into the lapping surf, and filled with his wonderful family, Diego has manifested his own paradise and I must say that it fits the bill.

Like any other unique place of wonder and majesty, I am sure the Mentawai will become more and more populous with those seeking that which exists outside the circles of trend. Diego laments that several large, resort-style hotels have begun construction on Siberut, right off of some of the best surf breaks, souring them to the taste of the locals. But as he adds final touches to a new building on the grounds of Mentawai Surf Camp, which will be a new home for his family on the top floor and a large beach bar and restaurant on the floor level, he admits that change is inevitable. From my point of view, I think we are lucky to live in the age where there are still places of seclusion beyond the reach and grip of civilization, as there will be fewer and fewer in generations to come. If the impetus and ability to go and see what the world has to offer, I strongly suggest that you do so.