Getting to Lagundri Bay, Nias, is anything but easy and undoubtedly the reason why its visitors tend to be made up of a committed surf core. The journey is, however, an adventure in itself and the resulting waves are well worth the effort.
We paid our $25 US dollars entry into Indonesia and were quickly spat out into the leftover heat from another stuffy day in Medan. A throng of men immediately surrounded us and my travel companions, familiar to Indonesian ways, quickly made firm utterances of tidak (no/not). I took an instant dislike to the word but quickly learned its value. We had taken a connecting flight from Kuala Lumpur to Medan, the capital city of Sumatra, Indonesia with the plan to make it down to the south west coast and hop over to the island of Pulau Nias.
Refusing to pay the inflated rates suggested by the airport taxis, we loaded up our backpacks and surfboards and headed on foot towards the town, touts in tow. Following a few hours of haggling, we secured a taxi for the nine hour journey down to Sibolga. Within minutes we had picked up extra passengers who travelled freely on our fare, something I found to be commonplace in Indonesia.
The roads through Sumatra are well travelled but ill maintained. Our journey took us through the night, cutting across the Sumatran peninsula and winding heights of the Barisan Mountains. In between snatches of sleep, I glanced out of the window to see sheer drops that came uncomfortably close when we swerved over to allow other vehicles to pass. Closing my eyes seemed a better option.
Sibolga and its ferry terminal came into view at daybreak. Nowhere have I read a favourable review of the town and with its drab appearance and the rain that accompanied our arrival it was easy to understand foreigners’ dissatisfaction with the place. The people we met, however, were helpful and made no demands for money. We were in time to catch the fast ferry and as we set off for Gnung Sitoli, the main town on Pulau Nias, we were treated to a display of a dolphin playing in the bay. The crossing wasn’t rough, but the five hours spent sealed inside a box of a boat will never enter my list of favourite journeys, particularly since the little old lady sitting next to me quietly puked and spat onto the floor by my feet. Whilst the safety video blasted out an orchestral score, I wrestled with my own belly and once again sought solace behind closed eyes.
We arrived at Nias and Han, a surfer from our destination of Sorake Beach, steered us through the crowds and shared a taxi ride down to the well-known surf break that is Lagundri Bay. The three hour journey down to Lagundri was accompanied by a cacophony of car horns, regular stop offs to pay out bribes and an array of visuals that would set the tone for the remainder of the trip. A small boy ran down the road gripping a machete whilst uniformed school kids practised line drills on the road and pigs ran around aimlessly. A mother and daughter washed in the river near yet another house that bore a cross and grave mound by its doorstep. There was also plenty of evidence of post-tsunami impact and recovery efforts: huge crevices in the road, collapsed bridges, and derelict and severely battered houses. Flags for the Red Cross and Surf Aid were dotted along the journey south although the aid agencies themselves had all but left the island for places in more dire need. Nias was mending, slowly putting itself back together.
Sorake Beach offers up a hybrid of the tropical dream, the realities of poor Indonesian living and the tsunami aftermath. It is richer than many areas of the island due to the constant trickle of surfers who have experienced some of the magic since it first became popular in the 1970s, but since the tsunamis that hit Nias in 2004 and then again early 2005, tourism has struggled. The second tsunami and its aftershocks devastated areas of the island’s infrastructure and claimed the lives of many. As a result, accommodation in Sorake Beach is generally first floor as fear of further shocks and flooding has stopped locals rebuilding ground floor levels. Until the tourists start to return it also doesn’t make financial sense as many rooms remain empty. The real desperation for paying visitors is evident. In broken English our neighbour losman told me how he mourned the simple life, that the switch from land work to tourism had done nothing but suck him dry of life whilst the debts stacked up. I had seen the problems myself. The previous day a Japanese tourist had left, complaining of the constant sales pitches brought straight to his balcony. Following his departure, men turned up to smash down the external stairs until no evidence of its existence remained. Afterwards, the losman played solo chess, sipped on some arrack and waited for the next potential visitor.
Money is an uncomfortable focus and although Han tried to protect us from any charlatans, it was impossible to avoid the entrepreneurial spirit of the locals. Fruit, fish, books, – it was all touted via a shout up to the balcony. A young local boy, having done his morning at school, would stand on the beach and sell freshly cooked donuts to tired surfers as they took a break from their second session of the day, offering credit to those with no money to hand or will to refuse. Marshall, the bookseller, quickly learnt the name of one of our group members. “Hey Hugo, you want to buy a book?” he would call up on a daily basis. On day one we also received the first of many masseur visits. ‘Mr Massage’ – a withered, slip of an old man – was a persistent fella. He took my hand and carefully worked each finger as a taste of his ability. “Tidak” I said, laughing and pulling my hand away before he slapped me with a verbal invoice. Days later, finally giving in to his perseverance, he delivered a surprisingly accurate and muscle relaxing, post surf massage to a friend whilst I considered the cause of the stumpy finger of the woman who massaged me.
Surfwise, Lagundri offers a couple of options. The River Mouth, the beginners’ wave on the inside of the bay, wasn’t really doing its thing when we were there in August. Having rented a stitched together minimal I walked for ten minutes past other losmen and tsunami battered buildings to the sandy area of the river mouth where I attempted to catch tiny waves but was quickly dumped onto the beach. Han told us that since the tsunami of 2005 it wasn’t quite so consistent, but assured me that at times it still worked.
The main wave – referred to as Nias or Lagundri Right or The Point – is a dream of a wave that allows for a dry hair paddle out and produces four foot plus surf on a regular basis. The line-up can be competitive, although gentlemen’s hour at daybreak offers the mellowest experience with a courteous queuing system not yet affected by tempers and egos that rise as the day heats up. Although often labelled as heavy, the uplift of the reef has actually resulted in waves starting to form on a smaller swell and the consistency of the wave has also improved. It is, however, still not a wave for minimals or rented cut and shunt board as I found out when the hire board snapped under the weight of an apologetic friend. Rental had cost pennies but repair costs were excessive and even the bartered down price was hefty by Indonesian terms. It was soon available to lease out again as a slightly shorter minimal, albeit completely inappropriate for Lagundri waves!
Indicators, to the right of the other spots, is a wave reserved for the experienced, kamikaze surfer. In a month I saw only a couple of surfer tourists and skilled local, Anton Dachi, brave Indicators’ steep drop and hollow barrels, pulling off expertly before the wave closed out over shallow reef.
Lagundri is visually impressive with palm trees lining the backdrop of the hostile yet striking reef and distant horizon. Surfers carve up the waves from day break to last light. The sun sets quickly and as the final pinkish sky gets enveloped by the true darkness of night time, local teenagers get out their guitars and sing Western pop songs whilst surfers sit with friends and raise a Bintang to the surf gods for providing yet another perfect day.