On the way to Nias, Sumatra
I came to as the overhead bins were being ransacked by all of the passengers rushing to get off of the plane. I was so tired I hadn’t even felt the plane hit the runway. What should have been a quick trip to the airport and a 2-hour plane ride from Padang had somehow ballooned into an hour long drive in traffic, a 2 and a half hour wait at the airport, and another two-hour flight to the island. I still had a three more hours drive to get to my destination. Still, this wasn’t too bad for Indo. There are always delays here, the question is always just, “how long?”
Years before I had ever been to Indo, I had read an article by Lewis Samuels, a legendary surf journalist, about the endless perils and the sheer amount of waiting that one has to endure when exploring the further reaches of the Indonesian archipelago. Every time I was stuck in some dirty airport wondering why 10 planes had already departed for Jakarta and our tiny propeller plane had still not yet even begun to board 2 hours past our scheduled departure time, I would think of that article. At least we had a plane. Times had changed, the waiting had not.
I grabbed my things, walked straight out of the airport, negotiated a car and within 5 minutes was already on my way.
“The reason for my trip to Nias, was that I was chasing a swell. It was triple overhead+ on the biggest ones the previous time, this swell was forecast to be even bigger.”
The reason for my trip, was that I was chasing a swell. As luck would have it, right when my Visa was set to expire a swell was due to hit. There were two waves (no pun intended) of swell due. The first pulse was smaller, would last a couple of days, die down, and then a second, much bigger pulse would hit later in the week. I had already been on the island for a month, and we had only gotten one similar sized swell during that time – and the waves had been huge. It was triple overhead+ on the biggest ones the previous time, this swell was forecast to be even bigger.
I left the island a day before the first pulse hit, rushed to get my paperwork to Immigration, and then hopped on the first plane back to the island the next morning. The second pulse was due to hit the following day. You never really know what you’re going to get with a swell, or even when exactly it’s going to hit, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. I needed to be there that nights.
Swell came in due time
After about 8 hours total transit time I made it back. I nearly ran to the beach when I got out of the car so that I could check the swell. The waves were playful, but it definitely didn’t look big. Patience.
I grabbed dinner and was about to go to bed, exhausted, when I ran into a friend of mine who was staying in one of the other rooms in the Losmen. We shared a couple of Sampoernas (Indo cigarettes) and he told me there were rumors that a couple of pros had just gotten in this evening as well. One Hawaiian and one guy from Bali. Interesting. I hadn’t seen anyone else on the plane who looked like a surfer. With that little bit of information in the back of my head I passed out.
“As the wave would unload the reef would rumble and I could feel the ground shake from where I was standing about a hundred meters from the keyhole”
I woke up the next morning to the sound of thunder. I stumbled out of my room and was blasted by sunlight. When my eyes finally adjusted to the light I could see huge mountains of swell entering the bay, rolling through and unloading into perfectly peeling right handers with a wide open barrel big enough to fit a car through. As the wave would unload the reef would rumble and I could feel the ground shake from where I was standing about a hundred meters from the keyhole – I realized this was no thunder. The swell had arrived. Without any further need for encouragement I went back into my room, grabbed my camera gear and my fins, and made the swim out to the lineup.
The barrel was so big and deep that it was dark inside. Light couldn’t make it through the murky green water.
Normally, the water was a beautiful crystal blue color. On smaller days, the barrel was a beautiful aqua blue or sometimes a sapphire color, but today, there was so much swell that it had kicked up a bunch of sediment and the water was a murky, emerald green color. The tide was still high, and it seemed like the swell was still filling in, but on the sets, the wave would form, grow to an impossible size, and when it finally threw, the barrel was so big and deep that it was dark inside. Light couldn’t make it through the murky green water.
I had only ever seen footage of Nias this big once. It was a grainy video of half-crazed Hawaiian charger Jamie O’Brien pulling into some monsters on YouTube who knows how many years ago. What had struck me about the footage was just how dark it was inside the barrel. And here I was, seeing the beast heave and explode in front of me for the first time – with the very real possibility of taking one on the head.
Witnessing a real live surf movie with the likes of Mikala Jones and Marlon Gerber
After a while, when the wave started to grow larger and become more hollow with the tide, a few more surfers paddled out. I recognized one of them, Justin Bu’ulolo, as one of the better local surfers and photographers in the area but the other two weren’t immediately recognizable. However, as the unknown surfers paddled closer to where I was sitting in the channel, my memory flashed back to a time a few months prior when I was in Hawaii. The waves were massive then too, and I had seen one of the two surfers paddling back from an unknown outer reef wave. It was then that the name popped into my head – Mikala Jones – tube fiend and hunter of waves in the most remote parts of Indo. This guy was one of the reasons I had come to Indo to begin with. Stories of his discoveries of pristine, picture-perfect waves and clips of the same had occupied my daydreams for years.
When I realized the caliber of surfer I was in the water with, the other unknown surfer’s name also came to memory. Marlon Gerber, another Indo legend and another surfer whose clips I had spent countless hours watching on the internet. I remember one of the groms telling me that living in Nias was like witnessing a real live surf movie every day. He was right.
“What happened over the next few hours is almost indescribable.”
Over time the crowd thinned. The waves somehow got even bigger. Waves that didn’t even seem makeable were somehow ridden. I can count on my fingers the number of times I have ever witnessed a session like what went down that day. The footage from that swell ended up on Redbull’s surfing site but of course it doesn’t do it any justice. A lot of people paid the price of admission. Mikala himself, one of the world’s best tube riders, ended up smashing his face on the reef and had to end his trip early. I heard that he had a marble sized chunk of reef removed from his face a week later.
I actually ended up meeting Mikala and Marlon a couple of days after the big swell on the pretense that I had photos of them (which was true!). We chatted for a bit, and I was able to pass them the photos I took of them. It was a surreal moment. I had grown up watching the clips they had put out, and now I was giving them photos I had taken of them, in the place I had always dreamed of visiting, all because they had inspired me to come. The life of a surf photographer. I had come full circle.
“The waves just seemed too impossibly perfect, the backdrops were just too exotic, the stories were too crazy, and the surfers just seemed like they were on such another level.”
When I had first heard of Indo when I was a frothing grom it had always seemed like some sort of dreamland. The waves just seemed too impossibly perfect, the backdrops were just too exotic, the stories were too crazy, and the surfers just seemed like they were on such another level. The reality of it is, all of these things are true. Everything I had dreamed about I had seen with my own two eyes on my first trip to Nias. Thinking back on it all, it all just seems so surreal. But sometimes, the truth is often stranger than fiction.
Welcome to dreamland.
Welcome to Nias.