SurfAid Take Rasta & Courtney to Nias
This Friday 19th September the Coastalwatch x Surfing World Magazine crew are surfing in the SurfAid Cup. You can be part of this epic battle of the business's by helping us help some of the most vulnerable communities in the world. The mothers, newborns and families who experience poor sanitation, little or no medical treatment and malaria assistance who live in the surfing paradise locations that many of us fly in and out of. The more money we raise as a team the more direct impact and assistance we can give to these communities. Support us now and follow our #30waves4september on Instagram.
Story by Chris Binns for Surfing World Magazine
Our party rolls deep as we board our final domestic hop to Gunungsitoli, Nias. Current World Surf League number one Courtney Conlogue and reigning World Freesurf League™ champion David Rastovich have made it to Medan, the largest city in Indonesia you’ve never heard of, to join our band of multimedia folk and SurfAid staffers. Asian women’s champion Bonne Gea is originally from Nias, but lives in Bali these days to further her pro-surfing dreams, so she’s onboard too. After dozens of combined flights over the last 24-plus hours everyone is stinging to get to the ocean, but our boards don’t all make the plane and we’re forced to kill time waiting for them to come on the next flight.
During this delay a phone is passed around, playing the legendary ‘90s Coca-Cola commercial that took Nias from hidden treasure to primetime television star. Luke Egan, Kye Fitzgerald, Jodie Cooper and Stuart Bedford-Brown pull up to a remote village and with the help of some groovy hand signals ask the locals where the waves are in the thickest Australian accents you can imagine. After a couple of bottles of icy cold black gold the team head off to find surfing nirvana. “You can’t beat the feeling,” never seemed more apt.
We’re not in Nias to find paradise this time, and while we definitely are here to ride a wave or two the primary aim of our mission is to visit remote villages and witness the results of SurfAid’s work. At first focussed purely on the Mentawais, these days SurfAid operates in three more regions of Indonesia; Nias, Sumbawa, and Sumba. The organization’s focus has shifted over the years too. Whereas initially SurfAid ran the simplest of operations, handing out mosquito nets to prevent Malaria and introducing simple hygiene measures like washing hands to prevent dysentery, these days the programs are more collaborative, and offer longer lasting solutions through education and empowerment of the villagers.
Dave Rastovich is a familiar face in the SurfAid fabric. “We went to the Mentawais with Rasta after the tsunami in 2005,” says Jenkins, “so he’s been with us a long time. He’s a guy who gets it, who understands the need to give back. He thinks through the issues, he’s very eloquent, and very enthusiastic to actually meet people and work out what their issues are. He’s very engaged, and there aren’t too many like him. He’s got an old soul on him, has Dave.”
Rasta is an interesting study. The button-cute young girls at our homestay call him Jesus, with his long hair and scraggly goatee, and giggle giddily when he walks in the room. On first meeting you might be cautious as to how you should act in his presence – Can I eat meat? Swear? Take photos? – and there certainly are things Dave does that fit with your preconceived notions; he owns no phone, has a whale tattooed on one foot, dresses head-to-toe in Byron boho chic (sourced from Billabong’s women’s range). Then he turns around and swears, quotes Anchorman, downs a beer and farts, and you wonder just what exactly you were wondering about.
Rasta’s been in Indonesia for a couple of weeks, bouncing around all over the place. A few soulful days at Uluwatu with Gerry Lopez and Rob Machado led to an obligatory G-Land mission. There they ran into Peter McCabe and a bunch of Merewether’s finest, including Matt Hoy and Craig Anderson, who were at Grajagan on the piss, celebrating something that clearly needed celebrating. “How can you say no to those guys?” Dave laughs, as if the hangover still lingers.
Now Dave’s in Nias where his freesurfing idol Brendan Margieson won the only contest of his career back in 1996. “He did!” grins Rasta. “Funny story about that, the plane was coming in to land on the island and it hit some turbulence. All the gas masks fell from the roof and Margo jumped up screaming, “We’re all going to die, we’re all going to die!” He had a total Margo moment, freaking out, all funny and clumsy on solid ground, then turned around and won the comp. What a legend!”
After a couple of days of playful waves we leave Lagundri Bay for the jungle. Deep jungle. We jump in a convoy of cars and make for the highlands, and apart from one driver falling asleep at the wheel and almost taking three of us to an unexpected watery death, a few winding hours later we’re safely at the start of the goat trail to visit our first village. This is as close as cars can get, so we transfer to a fleet of beaten-up scooters for 20-minutes of bashing through mud and over rocks and sideslipping round corners. All I can think of for the duration is that if a pregnant mother goes into labour, this track stands between her and hospital. It’s a sobering thought.
We pull into a neat and tidy hamlet. There is an official welcome and everyone seems to be wearing their best clothes. The villagers sing and we sit and politely try to chew betel nut without gagging. We eat lunch and wander off to see a well being built, so that finally the village has a reliable water source. Back in the middle of town it is time for the monthly Posyandu, a community health care service run by the villagers, for the villagers. This one has only been in the SurfAid fold a few months, and clearly there is still a long way to go.
We’re here to witness a village that has struggled in the past now getting on with living a healthier life. None of this posing-with-shovels and handing out packages stuff, we’re just flies on the wall. Courtney and I can’t help ourselves and get stuck into a game of soccer with a pack of older kids. There are no rules, there are barely goals, but we run and pass and run some more. It’s hot as Hades and we’re dripping sweat but the kids’ smiles and tantrums and laughs are infectious, so we keep running and passing and running some more. When we can barely stand, Courtney gets the gang together for a team shot.
“We were killing it!” she beams. At one point I feared a world-title-run jeopardising broken ankle, but Courtney’s grin is even greater than usual. “I love it!”
Courtney initially got involved with SurfAid when she was just 14. “At first I was an ambassador, then in my junior year of high school I got more involved with their education programs, trying to spread awareness in schools about what exactly SurfAid does. I even ended up onstage at the Surfer Poll in 2009 with Rob Machado presenting Doctor Dave with the Agent Of Change award, so I was always keen to play a part. To finally get to come to Nias and see, smell and feel the changes in the communities, after always having talked about them, really means a lot to me.”
Courtney speaks so wisely and so widely that it’s a jolt when you remember she’s only 22. “I qualified for the tour the same year I graduated from high school,” she says. “I literally got the letter from the ASP and a few days later I was throwing my cap. It was an exciting moment, weighing up whether to follow surfing or go to college, but five years later the tour is working out. I applied for college, I actually did a little bit my first year on tour, but it all got a little hard. I decided it wasn’t the right time, and to focus on my world tour dreams. Maybe down the line though.”
We headed into another village, one that has been on the SurfAid program for a few years. The difference between here and yesterday’s community is obvious. Robust children bustle around the place, energy levels are high, and the song and dance we’re welcomed with raises the roof. There seem to be slightly fewer kids than yesterday, however, which I ask SurfAid’s Indonesian Director Anne Wuijts about. She explains that contrary to what you might assume, parents of healthy children have less of them. The extra attention and care they receive ensures their health continues to soar, and a virtuous cycle kicks in. Good stuff all around.
Rasta leaves town beaming. “We’re just so lucky to come out and visit these beautiful places and their wonderful people,” he says. “The SurfAid crew are amazing, doing incredible stuff for the benefit of others and they’re doing it really joyfully; kind of fun, and so sincere. To see the programs at work is great. Throw in good waves and it’s pretty much happy days.”
It turns out the job was far from done for Dave and Courtney, and the waves would be more than good. We were meant to fly out and go our separate ways after the village visits, but the Indian Ocean megaswell had been on everyone’s lips since we first touched down in Medan, and it was looking like Nias might be one of the standout spots in the archipelago when it arrived. Flights were rearranged, accommodation extended, and our convoy headed south to Lagundri Bay once more.
Rasta is a tiger running through a field. Fast. He always has these wild dreams when he eats fish, never more than once a month, and only if he knows that it came from a line not a net. Tonight we’re having fish, again, and Rasta is explaining his crazy dreams once more. “I was standing on a window ledge getting ready to jump and a woman burst into the room to try and stop me, but it was too late...” Suddenly the dream changes tack. “They always do,” he says, “they’re really not that interesting, dreams are never actually that exciting, but they mean something. I always have them when I’m going through big moments in life, when my father passed away, when I moved house, whenever I’ve had a change of direction.”
The surf had been firing that day, double-overhead green cylinders coiling into surfing’s most postcard perfect bay then vomiting their guts into the channel. Rasta, on location for Billabong and with the latest line of high summer trunks hand-delivered for him to wear in front of the cameras, was nowhere to be seen. He’d woken, seen the capacity crew clogging the lineup and wandered off to find a lonely slab a short hike up the road, a world away from the traffic.
Meanwhile, Courtney was storming sets at Nias. “I saw her get a sick one!” beams big wave baron Alex Gray, in town for the swell. “She got so barrelled, disappeared, then came out flexing! Most people raise their arms but she was straight flexing, screaming “Yaaaarrghh!” It was rad!”
Fresh off a big result in Fiji and despite broken ribs that are still taped up a month later, Courtney Conlogue is on a roll, and is a genuine threat at this year’s title. Not that she’ll admit it. “I’m so in the moment right now,” she says, switching seamlessly to post-heat interview mode, when I broach the topic. “I’m not looking at tomorrow. Obviously a world title would be amazing, and that’s everyone’s dream. If you’re on the world tour and you don’t want a title it’s like “why are you there?” But, I know we’re only halfway through the season and there is a lot of work to be done…”
On our final day the surf is huge. Ten-foot-plus and detonating. From our balcony we can see the bay sucking out to sea and watch the surge as swells collide, more a double-out than a double-up. Rasta is first in the water. “If you can’t join them, beat them!” he cackles, and with this season’s shorts on and beast mode activated he quickly reminds you that he is still, without any shadow of an argument, one of the best surfers in the world.
After snapping all of his other twinnies Dave is left with a bizarre 5’9” twin fin that he either calls The Yellow Cloud or The Brown Cloud, depending on how it’s been performing. “We were complaining that we didn’t have enough boards,” marvels Anthony Walsh, also posted up, “and he was on this thing I wouldn’t want to ride in fat two-foot waves and getting so shacked.”
Rasta, among a crowd of noted hellmen, is toying with the waves. Taking off deep on what looked like a nipper board, and flying over the foamball. “For some reason twin fins just work for me,” says Dave. “That turned out to be a really amazing board once I got the hang of it. I felt totally comfortable taking off, and the real trippy edge on the bottom just seems to lock it in to the face. You can shuffle up the board and trim in a totally different way, it’s almost like Shaun Thomson and those guys back in the day, riding really forward on their single fins. It turned out to be a fun board, and it’s the only one coming home intact.”
A dozen-or-so-years after coming into existence SurfAid is a highly regarded and driven organisation. They seem cashed up, well supported by Big Surf, and have fantastic merchandise. I play Devil’s Advocate and put it to Doctor Dave that some might be sceptical of SurfAid’s intentions, and see the venture as a lark just to go surfing. He bristles at the suggestion. “I’d love to talk to those people,” Jenkins says, “and ask them what they base that on, where their facts are? That’s very wrong, and quite insulting. I’ll admit we’ve been very successful with winning government grants, on the basis of our results in the field, but private funding has not been easy at all, and after the surf industry crash a lot of what we did get was pulled.”
“Perhaps we pay the price for being organized,” he continues, “but people should look at donating to a cause as a social investment. They need to ask themselves, as they should with any investment, what the return is going to be when the money leaves their wallet, where that money is going to go. That’s what’s important. We had a guy come along on a mission once and he dubbed it No SurfAid, because he didn’t get in the water! The World Congress of NGOs chose us, from over 49,000 NGOs, for their Humanitarian Award in 2007. The Australian and New Zealand governments have sent independent auditors and rated us at the top of our game, and these are people who do nothing but assess the cost-effectiveness of programs in the field. So I’d say to those people, who’s opinions do you want to trust?”
At journey’s end we’re left asking questions. Why is Nias so crowded from sun up to sun down? What happened to the ghost resort that lies fallow at one end of the bay? Why do the kids on the beach harass you like Kuta hawkers every waking hour, trying to sell you coconuts or demanding you give them stickers? And why should any human ever have to suffer The Offspring’s Smash album blasting out at full volume all day long, least of all when sitting in the lineup at one of the more picturesque tropical islands you could ever imagine?
There’s a bit of a vicious cycle at work here. How much of this have surfers brought on themselves, and what can we do to try and protect paradise from eating itself? Indonesia is a developing nation with a lust for a quick buck, but that lust or greed or whichever of the sins you want to call it threatens what is so special in the first place. It’s a bit rich of the western world to try and tell the locals how they should run their own show, but it would be a tragedy to see a beautiful bay like Lagundri turn into the next Dreamland on the back of someone chasing a quick buck with no care shown for the consequences.
Perhaps the answer lies in SurfAid’s model of showing a solution, putting the necessary infrastructure in place, then encouraging and enabling the landowners to act for themselves. It’s not patronising, it’s cost-effective, and if SurfAid’s ongoing successes are anything to go by, it damn well works. Lives come first and daylight second, but if one of the wonders of the surfing world can be protected along the way, well that would be a nice little bonus too.
ABOUT SURFAID: We’re at Lagundri with SurfAid, the non-government organisation that has given so much back to so many zones that could easily have been plundered and left for dead by surf tourists. Literally. Until Doctor Dave Jenkins came along on a boat trip in 1999 surfers knew all too well that the Indonesia had killer waves, yet had little clue the outer islands were a near-impossible environment to live long and prosperously in.
At the turn of the millennium Doctor Dave was in the Mentawai Islands, Lances Right to be precise, one of the marquee waves in surfing’s richest region, when he was brought an elderly lady in a wheelbarrow. The woman had pneumonia, easily cured with inexpensive antibiotics, but Jenkins was too late to intervene and she passed in the night. This was heart wrenching for the conscientious citizen; would prove life changing for the good doctor.
On further forays into the jungle of Sipora, Jenkins was shocked by the number of children’s graves in the villages. A local chief asked if he would mind seeing a few people who were sick, and a few turned out to be over a hundred. The majority were sick with easily curable and even more easily preventable conditions; malaria, diarrhoea and the like. “I left in a sombre mood,” Jenkins says in his fantastic TEDx Talk, “intoxicated by the beautiful surf in the morning, then jolted by the sobering reality of our hosts, just 100m from my luxury charter boat.
Doctor Dave felt he had little choice but to act on all he’d seen, and over the following months quit his job in Singapore, sold his house in New Zealand, and partnered with two mates who bought into his vision; Doctor Steve Hathaway, a public health specialist; and lawyer Phil Dreifuss. On January 26, 2000, Australia Day, SurfAid was born.
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