The Dangerous Holiday – Nick Carroll

23 Jul 2018 21 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

From where you'd rather not be. Ditching and diving as a perfect clean-up set rolls through a Mentawai Islands line-up.

From where you'd rather not be. Ditching and diving as a perfect clean-up set rolls through a Mentawai Islands line-up.

A Further Investigation of the Risks In Indonesian Surf Travel

Last month CW ran a piece about a friend of mine who’d suffered a nasty injury on an Indo surf trip.

My mate swiftly discovered that the resort where he was staying – well-known and well-patronised – had no first aid gear whatsoever. He had to rely on the skills of a paramedic who just happened to be staying at the camp. That and several hours in a boat heading back to hospital in Padang.

Since then we’ve spent some time talking with surf trip booking agents, resort owners and operators, ex-surf guides, first aid trainers, and a lot of surf trippers who’ve contacted us with their own stories – some a bit like my mate’s, some a fair bit worse.

To put it mildly, we’re a bit stunned. Just this short research arc came up with five Indo surf trip deaths in the past six years, two being surf guides who drowned on duty, and a very broad and rather magnificent collection of injuries and illnesses, including loss of eyes, near-disembowellings, severe head injuries, heart attacks, broken bones (compounded and otherwise), dislocations, crazy infections, and the classic dengue fevers and malarias.

And while the surf travel agencies and the more experienced operators have been working hard in recent years to alleviate risks of which they’re only too aware, they’re dealing with a range of issues, some of which seem semi out of their control.

Putting it simply: Not all the operators have an act; not all the customer base really understands where they’re going; and the local infrastructure’s going nowhere fast.

What happens when something goes wrong?

“We’re starting at a very low threshold of safety,” says Christie Carter.

Christie runs Wavepark, one of the most established resorts in the Playgrounds area of the Mentawai chain. With two decades of experience in the field, Christie has had a bit of time to think about the problem of guest safety.

When we begin our chat, he’s pretty succinct about this problem. “The primary issue is a lack of infrastructure,” he tells CW. “There’s no close medical help and there’s no helicopters – or there’s only one, which is used during elections to ferry ballot boxes in and out. It is not on call for medical emergencies.”

Then he just sighs. If only it were as simple as infrastructure. “There’s so many issues,” Christie says. “Very few resorts or boats are prepared for a real emergency. It’s not realistic to have doctors or nurses on hand, for sure. But it’s absolutely ridiculous the risks some operators take with their guests.”

He and a number of other well-known and reputable operators, both on land and in boats, have long since grown used to acting as a surrogate emergency backup for numerous smaller “cowboy” boats and camps, who run on luck and the good graces of their betters.

As Gavan Clark, a former paramedic and long-time surfer who now runs a first aid training program for Indo and Maldives surf guides, says: “The cowboys end up relying on the established operators to get them out of trouble when someone gets hurt.”

The tales coming off some of these cowboy boats are hair-raising, if not totally farcical. CW talked with one former charter crew member who worked with a skipper just three years ago who “was on the shabu (meth) and just lost it”.

According to the ex-crew guy, the skipper first tried to sell pills to the charter guests. Then, convinced that a nearby fishing boat was in fact a drug smuggler, he tried to persuade the guests to join him on an armed raid in order to steal their gear. In the end the local Indonesian crew was planning to cut his throat and throw him overboard.

“We had a first aid kit,” says the ex-crew guy, “but so what?”

Not every small operator is a lunatic, and Christie for one isn’t totally cynical about the issue. “It’s a steep learning curve up here,” he says. “You might not know how important safety is until something happens. The question really is: what do you do then? What does an operator do once they’ve had a bad incident? That’s when you see what kind of operation they’re running.”

Thinking beyond the dream trip

Most – not all – Indo surf trips start with an agent. World Surfaris and The Perfect Wave are two of the best known in the Aussie market. In the past few years, both have run increasingly tight ships on the question of guest safety. According to both TPW’s Jamie Gray and WS’s Josh Allen, operators who want to book customers through the agents have to pass serious checks on stuff like evacuation plans, guide training, proximity to local doctors, communications and rapid transport options.

Both have hired Gavan Clark and his team to coach their own resorts’ guides in lifeguard skills. And both insist on guests having adequate travel insurance in case a Medevac situation arises. “If they don’t have insurance, they don’t go, it’s as simple as that,” says Josh.

But both Jamie and Josh are also noticing a sweeping change in the customer base, as the experienced core surf travellers of a decade or two ago are replaced by enthusiastic, yet less experienced surfers.

Some of these changes are in line with what we all see around us in Aussie lineups: more older people, more families, and especially more girls and women. Says Josh: “There’s a lot better boards, there’s learn-to-surf and there’s coaching beyond that, and it’s opened up to women, which is seen as very much a growth market in surf tourism.”

There’s also a growing influx of European surfers, who’ve been to softer surf zones, like the Maldives, and want to take on a new challenge.

Many of these customers are far removed from the archetypal Indo traveller and have different expectations. The remoteness of some of the surf zones is a mystery to them. “I talked with one guy this morning who wanted to know how fast the Wi-Fi was,” says Josh.

Says Christie Carter: “People come out here assuming the infrastructure is similar to where they live in Australia or the US. They expect everything to be the same, but it’s not.”

Jamie Gray says he thinks the influx of new customers will eventually force improvements in safety net protection across the board: “With less skilled clients, even the small resorts are going to have to step it up,” he says. “Those changes might actually happen pretty fast.”

But in the meantime, these are surfers with almost no experience of reefs and long interval groundswells. And most still don’t ask much about the safety aspects, says Josh Allen. “It’s always the dream trip at the front of their minds, with not much thought about the possible repercussions… It might be more on their partners’ minds. They’ll be the ones waiting by the phone for news after there’s an accident.”

Zero investment in infrastructure

So what happens when an accident occurs? If it’s a simple cut, your boat captain or resort guy might clean it up and put in some stitches.

If it isn’t… well, that depends. Mostly it depends on how quickly your resort or boat captain can get you back to Padang on the Sumatran mainland and a hospital or an airport able to handle a Medevac jet bound for Singapore. Because in the numerous islands between the southern Mentawais and the Banyak chain north of Nias, you can count the number of medical facilities on the fingers of one hand.

While the local government exerts a tax of $100 per client on operators, there’s virtually no investment in infrastructure in these islands beyond the basics needed to keep people moving and businesses running. Education and medicine are way down the list. Jamie Gray is blunt on the subject. He says there’s no point relying on official assistance. “It may get better, but right now there’s no health system and there’s precious little education system.”

Some third parties are trying to make a difference. Surfing Doctors, an organisation of around 40 docs worldwide, have set up an infirmary at the renowned Grajagan surf camp in eastern Java – but it’s at the surfing docs’ expense.

Further north, at Lagundri Bay on Nias, Australian ophthalmology specialist Dr. Raf Ghabrial is helping drive the set-up of a not-for-profit medical clinic to service locals and travelling surfers alike (you can help by donating funds to friendsofnias.org).

This is all great stuff; Lagundri and Grajagan have seen some horrendous injuries and deaths over the years. But it’s far from the norm, and no rules, either within the travel industry or local governments, govern the supply of such training or expertise.

So you best hope your operator has a fast boat and a plan to use it. And if you have a heart attack, good luck.

NEXT: What can be done? What can YOU do before and during your next trip to cut down the risk?

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