Mentawai Islands - Pay to Play
For the mature surfing family man, adventure is where you find it.
The modern Mentawai surf tourism business is reviled by many hard core travellers as the soft option, a pay-to-play entre to a world once reserved for hardy adventurers. But at my life stage, I am prepared to mount a case that it still presents plenty of adventure for the average western whitey looking for maximum bang for his buck on a two-week surf trip.
Yes, I know you once lived on a bag of rice, seaweed and unidentifiable crustaceans for months on end and returned to civilization with enough exotic diseases to kill a horse. And good on you for your bold, intrepid, trail-blazing spirit. The surf media expends thousands of words in homage to this restless, exploratory ethos.
For those of us somehow yoked to western capitalism, however, there are several impediments to emulating your fearless, pioneering deeds. For one, we are western whiteys, perhaps the softest, most fragile, least adaptable version of homo-sapiens yet to evolve. We like our creature comforts. When things don’t run on time, as will inevitably happen in Indonesia, we get edgy. Most of us are limited to four weeks annual leave from our indentured servitude. For those of us with families, that means at least half of that allocation needs to be spent with our nearest and dearest, shelling out silly amounts of money at theme parks or cramming into overflowing caravan parks in peak holiday season.
Assuming we have another two weeks, maximum, to devote to our own, selfish, wave riding pleasure, how are we to spend this? Awaiting unreliable local ferries and buses, risking disease and disaster far off the beaten track, struggling with foreign dialects and unknown coastlines in the faint hope we may stumble upon what little uncrowded perfection may still exist somewhere out there beyond the surf camps? Certainly, this is the worthy ideal that has inspired many great surf adventures, but it represents the tastes, preferences and capacities of a tiny percentage of the surfing population.
The rest of us wish for nothing more than to be transported to the best possible waves with the least possible people in the greatest degree of comfort and the lowest probability of mishap. If we need to throw a few grand at this simple goal once every year or two to maintain body and soul, so be it. Pathetic? Perhaps. Unadventurous? I’m prepared to argue not.
It is a condition common to most surfers I know of my particular vintage (less than 50, more than 40) that our thresholds to discomfort, danger and disease tend to diminish with age. We have families to think of, for starters. We have done the hard yards, slept in warungs, traipsed through malarial swamps, gone crazy on arak benders, backpacked or driven dodgy vans through Europe, South America or Africa. But we have become domesticated. We are ready for a little comfort. We don’t need to chase adventure to prove our heroism. Leave the safe harbour of your suburban home and adventure will find you.
Consider my own theoretically pampered passage to that most comfortable and opulent of surf resorts, Kandui Resort, in the Mentawai Islands. Traveling alone, I left the cosy confines of the family home on a dark and stormy Sunday, my children asleep like angels in their beds, flew from the Gold Coast overnight to Kuala Lumpur, spent 24 hours in the sterile confines of a budget hotel at the Low Cost Carrier Terminal, drank many beers with two friendly lads from Melbourne on their way to Laos, and flew the next morning to Padang, West Sumatra. There I rendezvoused with the rest of the guests also enroute to Kandui Resort, toured the bustling, earthquake-prone metropolis in search of sustenance while we awaited our flight (Flight!? To the Mentawais?! Yes, such extravagant indulgence exists). My new companions seemed a pleasant enough bunch – a rowdy, fun-loving gang from Sydney’s northern beaches, a pair of kneeboarding twins from Perth, a young English RAF helicopter pilot who has been serving in Afghanistan and several friendly Americans who seemed harmless enough.
We eventually boarded our scheduled 1 pm flight at close to 3 pm, having thoroughly exhausted the recreational diversions of Padang Airport. Half an hour into our flight, with the tiny airstrip of Rokot almost in sight, our pilot informed us we had to turn back due to an encroaching storm front. Thus, after an hour’s flying we found ourselves back where we started.
We were well taken care of at the luxurious Rocky Hotel, where the pretty local staff dutifully flirted with even the most wretched and lecherous western traveler. Here we retired to comfortable beds, clean sheets and hot showers high above the impoverished squalor of the masses. Outside, the good people of Padang cowered down under the brunt of a storm that flooded streets and sent the fresh fruit and vegetables of the local markets bobbing down gutters as vendors scrambled to salvage their sodden livelihoods. As we drove back to the airport the next morning and saw the scenes of suffering, a hardy people still able to smile as they fished cabbages from open drains, a slight delay to our surfing holiday suddenly seemed a trifle.
This time, our flight proceeded without incident and we began celebrating our imminent arrival at Kandui, but fate had one more trick for us yet. In heavy seas a latch in the fore deck of our water taxi broken open, allowing a torrent of sea-spray into the hull as we crashed through a wind-torn swell. We stopped while the local crew attempted to fix it and our mood of celebration gradually evaporated. Just as we were growing impatient with this latest delay, a larger modern charter boat pulled up and its well-muscled Australian skipper dived manfully overboard, swum to our boat, hauled himself on board and introduced himself as Tony. He quickly and reassuringly explained that we would be transferred to his boat for a swift and more comfortable passage to the resort and we should climb aboard while the crew transferred our luggage for us. He issued instructions to the crew in fluent Bahasa Indonesian and we were soon on our way again. This was a group of mainly married, and presumably heterosexual men, but several of our party felt moved to confide that they would happily turn to demonstrate their gratitude to the heroic Tony.
By days’ end we had surfed fun, over head rights at Bank Vaults, enjoyed icy cold Bintangs on the short boat trip back to the resort as the sunset put on a show, dined on pesto fettucine, barbecued chicken, vegetables and salad, with a caramel crumble and whipped cream for dessert and retired to our comfortable umas, or cottages – where air con, wi-fi and hot high pressure showers awaited. As we surveyed a dream swell forecast for the next 10 days, the minor hardships of the journey were quickly forgotten. And we’ll all return home, I’d wager, superior versions of ourselves - fitter, healthier, better fathers, husbands, workers, lovers.
So excuse me my forty-something indulgences, my low threshold for suffering and taste for comfort. The people who build and run places like this are the really adventurous ones, doing business in one of the most confounding countries on earth, putting up with the petty grievances of pampered whitey, and surfing more unfeasibly perfect waves than most of us will even look at in a lifetime. I’m happy to reward their adventurous spirit for a 10-day hit of what they’ve created, outsourcing my surf exploration to the experts.
What do you reckon? Is the modern surf resort a soft option for flabby pampered imperialists or a valuable community service for hard working surfers?
NB: Declaration of pecuniary interest: The good folks at Kandui Resort did do me a very good deal on the late uptake of a vacancy at their fine establishment. They would like it be known that the Kandui Resort, into its sixth season here, is in no way associated with a new enterprise, Kandui Villas, on the same island.
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