North Of All Insanity
SURFING WORLD MAGAZINE | ISSUE 366
North Of All Insanity
Story by Jock Serong
Images by Jon Frank
The earth spins counter-clockwise, orbiting the sun at 66,000 miles per hour. Flares in the solar furnace create disturbances in the atmosphere over the southern ocean; bursts of heated air, banging and rumbling around cells of cooler air. The disruptions in the flow of air over the cold ocean create swells, spreading outwards like ripples from a stone thrown in a pond. As the concentric ripples travel further from their source, they grow further apart and become more refined, their curvature lessening as the diameter of the circles increases… circular waves of energy on the curved surface of a sphere hurtling through space and rotating around its own axis. To the northeast, they find open space in the Indian Ocean, journeying uninterrupted for thousands of miles, untouched by any obstruction, barely even by friction, until they find land.
Hovering over those majestic lines, there are metal flecks in the fathomless sky; satellites reporting the progress of the great swells. Their signals, bouncing to the ground in Sydney, Melbourne and the Gold Coast among a thousand other listening points, are read and interpreted by serious-looking humans in glasses, repeating the signals in a new language to each other and to their congregation, the world’s surfers. It’ll be on at The Right. Wait, the period’s increasing – it’ll be the Womb. No, North Point. Jakes. Gnaraloo...the estimates race their way up the west coast of Australia, outracing the swell lines themselves. Ego and subjectivity start to override the satellites. Attention turns to the islands further north: to Sumba, Bali and Java. The speculation is literally ahead of the curve, the swell yet to bend its way west to the Mentawais, but already anticipation has run its hungry eyes over Lance’s Left and HTs. As the swell reaches these coastlines, predictions are both fulfilled and debunked. It fires here: it fizzes there. For those who pegged their reputations to their calls, there’s always refuge in saying the direction was wrong: it’s too west, too south, the period’s too long.
In one remote corner of the giant Indonesian archipelago, almost exactly on the Equator, three men sit around a table. They’re Australians, surfers. Each has a device in hand: a tablet, a phone, a laptop. They’re watching the obsessing from afar: both subject to it and indifferent about it. The earth might be spinning at its fastest at the Equator, but paradoxically, life moves very slowly.
Senior among them is Adam Melling: at thirty years old, he bears a passing resemblance to Nathan Buckley, but with the addition of flared blond whiskers that make him look like a Confederate rifleman. A naturalfooter from Lennox (that is, a beast in righthand barrels), he’s currently sitting at a career-high 21st on the world rankings, having jumped six places with a ninth at Fiji, stopped only by rampant Owen Wright. But he’s a million miles from such numbers right now, a cold Bintang clutched in one fist. Taciturn, all squints and sly grins.
Across the table is Harry Bryant: tall and rangy, nineteen years old and (while it’s also irrelevant around this table) currently navigating the transition from juniors to QS. He’s a goofyfooter and a prankster: he once chopped his white-blonde hair into a hideous bowl cut, rocking the thing with such flair that grommets across the nation were showing their hairdressers his Instagram feed. He feigns horror at his companions’ grosser antics by screwing up his nose, but in truth he laughs harder than anyone. He’s from Noosa, and has never been this far north in Indo. This is his first trip with Melling, but he’s well acquainted with the other guy at the table.
The other guy is Mitch Parkinson: saddled with the heritage of his very famous cousin, he is nonetheless his own man. When the Cooly Kids grew into surfing’s elder statesmen, a new generation of royalty emerged beneath them on the Goldy, and this guy is the clown prince among them. Naturally gregarious and bursting with manic energy, he’s a jumping, twitching, hooting reminder of all the reasons why surfing’s fun. He lives life in caps lock. He and Bryant are like siblings: punching, squawking and inventing sadistic gags – if they were in the same classroom, you’d have to separate them.
The table is in a hut on the island of Sipika: part of the Telos 101 resort, a newcomer to the small community of boats and camps that service these islands. Geckos chirp in the rafters, an occasional bat swoops through the room, and the gentle sound of a lapping shorebreak drifts in from the bay where the boats are moored. There are holes in the lawn below, where stubborn hermit crabs make new homes each night among the foot traffic. Out the back side of the camp, a deeper rumbling has begun: the first lines of the promised swell are pounding the open reefs. The conversation under the ceiling fans has turned in earnest to tomorrow’s surf. Other big names have attached themselves to headline waves: Luke Hynd’s posted a shot of a mad heaving right with the taunting caption “I’ll be here.” Ty Graham says it’ll hit Nias Sunday morning. We’re gone Tuesday – the window is getting smaller for things to get bigger.
People are blatantly lying about their intended destinations. The big names – the photographers, cameramen and surfers who make names for themselves out of this stuff, don’t want anyone to know where they are until the material’s in the can. Maybe not even then. But equally, they want to know where everyone else is. In another hut nearby, Jon Frank’s worrying. People are calling it the biggest swell forecast ever for the region, but it’s already midweek and up until now, he’s hardly shot a frame. To get the images that do justice to this swell, he’s got to get the location right. He’s been here before (he filmed the Fitty Fitty trip with Joel and Mick) and he knows there’s one righthander that can deliver: “Depth Charges” can produce twelve second stand-up barrels… but it rarely breaks.
Frank’s not fooled by the satellites and the rumours: he’s shot through the years when you had to guess at swells. He can imagine a digital pandemic in which all the analysis comes to a shuddering halt and we have to go back to the old ways: sitting around talking and drinking and waking up wondering. You can’t drink up a swell when the graphs tell you the very hour of its arrival: what you do instead is co-ordinate your drinking so that you’re as fresh as possible when it hits: this of course is the inverse of the old ways, in which people paddled out in near-death conditions with a screaming hangover because they’d successfully drunk it up.
It’s not like the days have been wasted. There have been waves, hip-size, unthreatening ramps set against beautiful backdrops. The powerful boats from Telos 101 have been put to good use, trolling lures, snorkelling the reefs and even wakeboarding. The onboard esky’s been functioning like a bar with the world’s best views on such days, the scenery constantly changing, the entertainment only a rope’s length away as someone tries to jump the wake. Mitch goes so hard at this game that he later comes down with heatstroke; ascribing it to “a surf, ten beers and wakeboarding without any water”. Fun, but everyone knows it ain’t the main game.
Everything, everywhere in Indo is booked out. Boats in the Ments are full. Skis at Nias are unobtainable. For the resort’s main man Scott, this will be the biggest swell he’s seen here, a chance to find out how all the reefs behave at maximum capacity. Bombies in the middle of otherwise tranquil lee-side bays. Outside reefs behind known ones. Passes that look like junk at three foot but could be majestic at ten foot. The coconut wireless is humming. As of tonight, the waiting’s over.
The swell – Day One
Dawn on this island is hazy, slow and vague. Mountains of cumulus over the higher land, streaks and swathes of thinner cloud elsewhere. Monkeys crash between fronds, high in the coconut palms. The little reefs out the front are now lit up with tiny breaks, indicative of bigger things further out.
On the way out in the boat, two fishermen stand shoulder-deep, working a net. Swell is not their concern. Eating is. “Soja” is the Indo go-to guy on the boat. He never says much, like all Indo boat guys, but moves in perfect co-ordination with the vessel. He never crowds anyone’s personal space, never loses his balance. Doesn’t appear to eat, drink or even urinate. He has a gift for rendering himself invisible, but watching him this morning, his demeanour has changed: he’s alert as a watchdog studying a new sound. He’s a hell of an asset for Telos 101, among the most knowledgeable guides going round. Like an omen, a huge bird struggles skyward over the smooth water with a writhing snake in its talons, as the boat curls round the back of a small island to finally reveal the reef at Depth Charges. An incredibly perfect set-up, it’s a top-to-bottom right-hand barrel, wrapping down the side of a parabolic reef. Elation rises and falls: it’s still only two or three foot and not quite doing it, but the potential is enough to send the grommets howling.
We give it time by motoring to the southern tip of the island group; to a set-up of two lefts known as Monkeys (on the inside) and Slayers (outside). Slayers gouges thick and fast on a shallow shelf, out in the open in a wide bay – but again, it’s not quite doing it yet. Monkeys is stranger: a smaller, barrelling left, set close against a thick, jungle-wrapped cliff. The take-off is right in front of a large rock with cycads and palms growing out of it, like the jungle from a villain’s lair or a scene from Planet of the Apes. Deep into the trip and with the clock running on an elusive swell, Harry finally finds the first barrel of the trip. So far from anything and anyone, a weird thing happens in this weird setting.
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Out of the heat haze, a tiny traditional Indo canoe appears around a point, containing a wiry brown Indonesian man, crosslegged and perfectly balanced... and a Frenchman with a kneeboard. They put-putted a tiny diesel motor for five hours across open ocean to reach these reefs, and have been camping out in the jungle overnight. All they appear to have on board with them is a small tin teapot. They seem oblivious to the searing heat, and the Frenchman proves pretty adept at finding little drop-knee barrels on the Monkeys reef.
We’re worried they’ll have to cross the open ocean again as the swell peaks, but he says they plan to wait out the swell in the jungle. It’s hard to imagine this experience from his perspective: choosing to endure the precarious voyage to find his solitary paradise, only to be met by a high-powered speedboat, two photographers, three pro surfers and sundry hangers-on. He’s taken it well; he’s a gracious and happy man. Melling says he can remember surfing at HTs years ago and encountering the same guy, once again in a canoe with a local. Exploration isn’t dead - and nor, it seems, is graciousness.
After spending the long voyage back to camp drinking cold beer (while somewhere under the palms, the Gallic explorer sipped his tea), the wi-fi returns Mitch, Harry and Melling to the glare of the real world. Indications are that the great swell both is and isn’t what it was cracked up to be. The Right only got to eight foot according to one report, but that’s instantly showered with scorn. By nightfall, others are saying it was twenty foot. Some say The Womb didn’t fire. Some say it did. Too west, too south, who knows. But Kalbarri’s double overhead, according to local reports, and Lance’s Left is too. A yachtsman’s been rescued from “towering waves” according to the mainstream press, off WA’s mid-north coast. “Towering waves” has no direct equivalent in surf lexicon, but safe to say the guy was in serious bother.
The three surfers are back at the table under the fans, taking the evidence whichever way they want to hear it. Dingo and Koa Smith at Kandui, Rasta and Anthony Walsh at Nias. Taj at North Point, Mark Mathews at the Right. Sheldon Simkuss at HTs.
By morning, the decision to go to a quiet place amid all this hysteria should finally pay off.
The Swell – Day Two
At dawn they’re moored off a wave called Coronas (sometimes Rangas), directly across the channel from our resort base at Sipika. It’s a tricky beast – sucking, bouncing, a square barrel full of steps and turbulence. A snapped board tied to a detergent bottle marks the mooring, tight against the end-section of the wave.
There’s a village in front of Coronas, a communications tower pointing a red and white steel lattice into the sky (though apparently no-one’s bothered connecting it). Steep hills behind the village cast shadows over the houses, and the wave, most of the time. There’s a conspicuous church in there, evidence of long-ago missionary zeal. Did they get medicine with their bibles? The heaving shorebreak makes landing impossible. Just the rooster calls, the kids and fishermen and pigs and chickens on the beach.
Mitch is first out of boat, straight into a bomb barrel with hands behind his back. How does the kid feel so at home? Because there’s a rock directly in front of the takeoff. No wonder he’s grinning – it’s behind-the-rock Snapper with no-one out. When Harry joins him, his backhand is effortless, again the product of his home – in his case the righthand points of Noosa. He’s a study in whip and stretch, so much time to spare. Even on the late drops: the spitting, snarling barrel just can’t shake him off a rail. Mitch, by contrast is all fun and manic energy. Neither of them ever claims a barrel; they act like it just doesn’t matter (though later, both can pick every wave from every other one when reviewing footage). If you were this good you’d hope to be this cool.
Finally, Harry’s last wave clips him and he snaps a board: the start of a sequence of board carnage that nearly leaves him with no oversize luggage on the way home.Meanwhile, a Brazzo bodyboarder has paddled out, lurking quietly in the lineup for a while before picking off a set wave, working his way through the barrel and getting spat out down in the wash. What follows is as unexpected as a Frenchman in a canoe. He goes nuts. Not just happy. Bonkers. The wave was unexceptional in the context of what Mitch and Harry have been doing, but for him it’s a major personal triumph (and let’s face it, the worth of any barrel is in the subjective eye of the barrellee). He’s gone completely berserk: screaming, thanking the heavens, giving shakas and taking fives from the boats and several passing canoes. The hills echo with his delirium for a solid five minutes. Within another five, he’s hit up the three photographers to see if anyone’s got the shot - no-one has, which deflates him only momentarily. Two hours later, when he’s finally finished his surf, the guy’s still weeping and addressing celestial friends. Some people claim barrels and they just look like giant throbbing knobs. But it’s hard not to enjoy this guy and his total, all-eclipsing ecstasy.
Melling, meanwhile has been dominating the largest sets of the day, even as boatloads of other surfers come and go. Such is his athletic ability that he finds savage top-turns where others are hovering for a barrel. He bottom-turns and snaps extravagantly where others cling crab-like to the face. But Coronas nails him in the end: drilled in a big barrel, he somersaults down the line and his board somehow detaches itself, flowing in the wash like river rapids down the beach, following the edge of the shelf. Anticipating the board’s final release, Soja swims in the opposite direction and scoops it in the channel where hundreds of tonnes of water, driven by the energy of this rare swell, finally unburden themselves.
By 9am the heat is already at a ferocious crescendo. It’s towels-over-heads, shades and hats blindness, people moving around the boat to stay shaded as it spins slowly at the mooring. The bigger set waves swirl the heavy air as they pass under the boat, setting the hanging towels fluttering. It’s the only relief. Except, of course, for the relief of moving.
The swell’s big enough now for Depth Charges. Such is the rarity of this wave that plenty of operators in the area have never put anyone in the water there. “It’s dangerous,” one of them admits bluntly.
On arrival, the wave’s incredibly long and perfect. No sign of a section, not even a bump. Melling, Harry and Mitch are straight out there, not that there’s any rush. There’s no sign of any competition with other boats here.
What follows is four hours of exceptional surfing in waves that are literally unbelievable.
Mitch gets the first one, after thrashing his way up the line to the takeoff like someone’s about to snatch it from him. Melling follows with a two-barrel wave, Harry with a ten-second disappearance. Perspectives of this wave are radically different depending on the viewer’s position relative to it – from the moored boat looking into the barrel’s eye it seems, not easy, but makeable. Swimming amongst it gives a better idea of the speed and power involved, and from land the true speed of the lip is revealed: this wave is long and near-impossible to out-pace. Underwater, it’s a gorgeous field of plate corals lined with parallel crevasses that point in the direction of the prevailing swell. The bright coral fishes rise and fall as the swells draw powerfully through their world.
Melling somehow finds another double-barrel wave – emerging from the first for a quick bottom turn and re-set, then back under at high speed, standing tall and cruising it. The wave rewards him with a punch in the ear that nearly takes him down. He just paddles back and follows up with a barrel that measures somewhere between ten and twelve heartbeats: flawless, as perfect as a breaking wave can ever be.
Mitch returns to the boat momentarily, frothing like a madman. A change of boards, cold water. He’s babbling: things like “That wave is f$%&en off tap! Aargh!!” He’s nearly as excited as the Brazilian. With Harry and Melling taking a break, Mitch finds himself alone. Taking another epic barrel and realising on the paddle back that he’s the only person in the water, his voice bounces off the island: “HOLY F$%K!! THERE’S NO-ONE OUT HERE!!” Before long, Melling’s back in the boat, warpainted with heavy tiger stripes, a deep gash over his left hip. He’s offhand about it, checking the scrapes quickly. To wind up so thoroughly tagged, he must’ve bounced several times: as well as the hip he’s cut both elbows, his back, a heel and somehow, an armpit. In a week’s time all of those are going to be rubbing away under a steamer at J-Bay.
The jungle on the island behind DCs emits a high-pitched, constant whistle sound, unwavering, like a jet turbine but right at the upper edge of audibility. There’s one gigantic tree in the centre of the island – a regal crown over the spikes of the palms. I imagine that inside that crown there’d be a kingdom under the canopy, communities of monkeys or bats or something…birds and colourful insects.
Harry, again, is so fluid, so unhurried and uncomplicated. Almost never an error. Certainly never any panic, any jerking about. If there is a slight misjudgement, which is rare, it’s corrected so fast. The coral waits hungrily, but never gets its feed of Harry’s hide. And DC’s spins it magic hour after hour, the fluid physics bound to a barrier reef around an atoll. The shape means the margin between the deep water channel and the dry edge of the reef is narrow, and the rideable part of the wave is only a few metres. But that pocket of physical possibility is itself travelling at high speed and must be held onto.
As the heat of the day reaches its peak, the light slowly turns silver. Even the birds look tired. They just sort of flap…flap…flap… as though they’re not sure they can be fucked flying at all. In the evening and at dawn there’s plenty of avian life darting about, but in the daytime it’s just these lethargic bags of bone and feather, drifting vaguely around. Not feeding, not mating or doing aerobatics to impress anyone. Just hanging in the air like wet washing, the body language plainly declaring “Why the fuck am I bothering with this?”
Harry snaps another board. For guy with near-perfect technique he sure is destructive.
The Swell – Day three
By now there’s surge around the moored boats on the beach, logs rolling in the water. The glorious green lawn in front of the Telos 101 huts is the only still thing in a restless world. Little coral-head peaks are now appearing in the previously tranquil bay.
On the open-ocean crossing, long, rolling lines of swell. But despite what appears to be a jolt of energy through this sleepy idyll, early Coronas is unimpressive. Like anywhere in the islands, it’s a complex mix of tide, swell direction, burrowing crabs and floating coconuts that governs the waves. Maybe it’ll go mental in five minutes and I’ll wonder why I ever doubted.
And once again, DCs delivers. Mitch the Irrepressible is off the boat first, having barely hesitated long enough to select a board – he genuinely appears to have grabbed the first one he saw. His conversational sequence once the boat stops is something like OH MY GOD. OH MY GOD.
F$%^&G LOOK AT THAT THING! (splash). Harry and Melling are more purposeful, more selective. Harry’s board on death row today will be a 6’2” roundtail quad.
Now we’re seeing what the so-called swell of the decade brings to the best wave in the Telos. Not epic size, not the death-or-glory blue apartment-block faces we’d seen from Kandui, but instead, the most perfect six-foot righthander some of us will ever clap eyes upon. A cylindrical barrel from takeoff to kickout. Empty.
Mitch is unhinged. He threads a deep barrel past the watching jungle, reaching the end section with colossal speed and launching into one of the most extraordinary dismounts ever: straight-up reverse somersaults, firmly attached to the board. He gets through one and a half in perfect rotation before ploughing in head-first, raising a roar from our boat and the one tied up beside us. If he’d landed that thing it would’ve gone around the world, from this remote anchorage to everywhere, in a matter of minutes. We’re sitting all alone in a crowded stadium.
There are, according to Melling, two kinds of waves on coral: bouncers and drowners. Neither kind can get its grubby fingers on Mitch: dropping late and deep, freefalling into a tiny landing square, then chopping a rail in to set up the tube. If he has to, he’ll squeeze in a pump or two to get him free of the foamball, but on the entire trip I don’t think he’s dropped a single takeoff.
The surfing ends on sunset with Harry breaking yet another board, a chance for beers and tunes as Scotty powers the boat home: a half-hour gem. Overexcited and sapped by the swell, Harry mistakenly helps himself to a ginger beer, then a completely improbable tonic water, thinking he’s plucked Binnie tins from the esky both times. Easy mistake to make in a dark esky and a state of high stoke. The look of disgust when his mouth registers tonic is magnificent.
The highlight tunes on this voyage relate to the only element we’re missing on this boat: women. Evil Woman (ELO), and American Woman (Kravitz). For a moment or two we just bounce in the darkened boat in the shallows and refuse to get off and stagger into camp. The shallows at night are so white, so reflective that they resemble a swimming pool illuminated underwater.
After the Swell
There’s about 20,000 people living in these islands, though they’re hard to spot behind the thick walls of jungle. Mostly they’re visible when they’re fishing. Historically these people have had more to do with Nias, to the north, than with the Mentawais to the south, or indeed with the Sumatran mainland. It’s said that runaway slaves from Nias sought refuge here.
The crew working for the resorts and the boats are of course Indonesians of all kinds. I watch eleven Indos unloading a new generator off a boat onto a homemade raft (barrels and planks) then down timber ramps onto the beach and up the same ramps, hurriedly shuffled into place, across the beach and into camp. The sheer mass of the thing (let alone the fact that it has to be kept clear of the salt water at all costs) is intimidating. In all, it takes them an hour in the heat of early afternoon.
I think of offering to help before realising I would be (a) useless and (b) linguistically challenged. One guy with an injured foot works his way through the whole operation with the foot in a plastic bag. A couple of the lads are smoking throughout, yelling at each other in Bhasa. There’s laughter and celebration when they finally get it up the slope of the beach. It’s some sort of lesson, or antidote. A retort to our privileged obsessing. Our way isn’t the only way. It’s not even the common way. The joy is in the effort.
We motor out to sea past the lifting crew, and surf immaculate lefts without a name off the tip of a small island, bright sapphire blue in the sun. Harry’s overjoyed to get back onto his forehand; a quality powerful wave sucking strongly onto the edge of a shelf. It all goes transparent as you plunge into the drop, falling tide revealing new coral heads with each successive set. Melling on his backhand is a sight to behold - one that isn’t done justice by watching faraway webcasts of WSL heats on a computer. He scores a few chances on this wave to unload massive backhand top-turns: absolutely smashes them, high and critical, with consequences below.
It’s been clear throughout the day that there’s a blowout on the piss looming.
It starts off with us drinking tins on the roof of the boat as Melling and Harry finish off the session at the left and the sun disappears cinematically over the southern end of Sipika behind us. Then, once around the long table, the clear difference is in the nature of the drinking – Binnies, then red wine, then the ominous glow of duty-free spirits. It’s the last night of the trip and it’s Jonny Frank’s birthday as of midnight, and Harry’s antics are nearly as good as his backhand. He shows us photos he’s taken of:
1. His reflection in a toilet roll holder, distorted by the steel plate (bizarre); and
2. Him and a mate, cross-dressed, tandem surfing in the Noosa Festival of Surfing (actually quite skilful).
The height of injustice in a life like Harry’s is being put on warning by the WSL for doing a post-heat interview in which he referred to the conditions as “shitty”. He was completely baffled – re-telling it to us he’s still baffled – he meant nothing by it other than the waves weren’t much good. He can’t understand how “shitty” isn’t just an ordinary figure of speech. I mean, don’t you reckon? Guys?
As the night of drinking wears on, Harry decides Mitch needs a haircut. The most atrocious haircut ever. Mitch can’t back down, so he’s encouraging him to go harder on it. “No, hack the fringe! HACK THAT F$%&^R!”
And in the hot, bright morning, Mitch staggers into the kitchen, looking ridiculous with a kind of radical mullet, complaining of a hangover and memory loss. He waves away the healthy breakfast that’s been laid out. The swell’s dying again and there’s no great eagerness to surf. We may have completely wrung out the sponge.
Telos 101 have delivered on the swell’s great promise. Crammed into a light plane on the way back to Padang, we’re reviewing the footage in the viewfinder of the camera when something flashes across the screen in front of a deeply-barrelled Mitch. “Whoa, take that back a second,” says someone. And there it is: a big chrome fish, a long tom appearing in the wave face in front of Mitch. As he surfs past the camera and the shot’s framed outwards, the fish suddenly leaps out of the water and flies through the air between surfer and camera, frantically kicking its tail in slo-mo. You can almost see the whites of its little eyes. It’s a freaky moment, but somehow a metaphor for all that these islands have delivered. Amidst long periods of slow-motion languor, now and then something brilliant flashes into view, shines with transient lustre, and disappears again into the ocean. And for all the obsessing about epic swells, it really comes down to those fragments of perfection, available to any who care to look.
List of insects
- Red-orange dragonflies
- Flies – small, plain black house ones
- Almost no mozzies
- Yellow and black butterflies
- Huge chocolate butterflies
- Wasps – big heavy bumblebee-looking things. They hang around the pale green flowers in the crowns of the palm trees.
- Tiny red-brown ants that eat everything compostable March flies
- One-inch brown grasshoppers.
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