In this particular case, I was contacted by an old windsurfing acquaintance for a three weeks stay in the middle of April. Since this month has slowly become one of my least favorite ones in Maui (representing the transition from the wave filled winter to the wind filled spring and reflecting the shift of my passion from windsurfing towards surfing), I combined business with pleasure and offered him to stay at my place and use my car. That meant I had to go somewhere!
Obviously, I couldn't choose the period based on the forecast, like I would have preferred to do (I even plan liver flushes on that, imagine a surf trip!), but I had to stick to his dates instead. In this case I was quite happy to blindly book a ticket to Bali from April 4 to 27 though.
As bad as a forecast for that region can be, there's always waves to ride over there, plus I have a quiver of boards stored at a friend's house and that makes for easy travelling. Inside that "imposed" period instead, I could choose to move around wherever and whenever I wanted, and so I did.
This was my nineth trip to Indonesia in the last seven years. Thanks to the wonderful archive/diary nature of blogs, here's the links to the reports of all of them (also accessible through the labels section): trip 1, 2, 3, 4 (the least documented, only some photos of an epic swell at this end of that post), 5, 6, 7 and 8.
On Voyage 9, it was finally time for me to visit a place that is (or should be) on every surfer's must-do-trip list: the Mentawais. As many of you probably know, they are a remote archipelago of islands offshore Sumatra.
Due to the their ideal position across the equator (which usually means very light winds) and exposure to the prevalent direction of the Indian Ocean swells (S to SW), the number of world class waves to be found in the area is impressive. The region is quite vast, remote and undeveloped and a very popular option to explore and surf a good number of spots is a boat trip.
As a consequence, there's more than 50 charters that operate in the area and most of them offer trips between 9-11 days for 10-12 surfers. Most of the prices range from $200 to $300 a day, with some exceptions of both cheaper boats (also knows as "ghetto boats",slow, noisy and often with one bathroom only) to super expensive luxury yachts like the Indies Trader 3 and similar.
I was in touch with a couple of the medium priced ones and got an interesting last minute offer from the Moon Palikir of $2750 for their April 6 to 18 trip. Even though it was tempting ($230/day for a really nice boat), here's the list of reasons why I decided to pass:
1) the first days of the trip (up until the 12th) had a very poor forecast, both in terms of marginal wave size and bad winds
2) I was afraid that the moderate (10-15 knots) w-nw winds forecasted for those days, not only would blow out most of the name spots, but would also make most of the trip a bit rough
3) I'm a very independent kind of person and I love to do my plans on my own and enjoy my solitary moments between surfs. That would have been challenging, if not impossible, on a boat: the amount of space is limited, you have to share cabins, I didn't know the rest of the guests and their surfing preferences, and so on
4) $230/day is still a hell lot of money for me, specially considering how much cheaper it would have been to just remain in Bali for example (where I can easily pull it off at $30/day with room, meals and bike).
The main advantage of a boat trip though, is that if the surf guide is good, you can possibly score good uncrowded waves. This is becoming more and more difficult nowadays, but it's still not impossible. That was confirmed by a Maui resident blog reader that I randomly met in one of the lineups. He recognized me and addressed me like this: "hey, no Italian windsurfers from Paia in the lineup please!".
To which I replied, after recognizing him and seeing a friendly teasing smile on his face:"well first of all, you can barely call me a windsurfer these days. Plus I'm not even Italian anymore (on the papers, at least). The only thing you got right is that I'm from Paia... but that's only because Kuau doesn't have its own zip code!"
He was in the middle of a boat trip and he also confirmed that point n.1 was absolutely correct while n.2 wasn't too big of a deal (for the roughness point of view at least... the westerly wind did ruin most of the waves, but more than that, the problem was the lack of swell).
So I chose to wait out those first six small days in Bali. Thanks to the local knowledge I developed in the previous trips, I actually managed to score some very fun sessions nonetheless, the last one of which even in the epic category at my favorite Uluwatu break: head high, as clean as it gets, five people and pretty consistent (not the one in the photo below).
I also utilized the time by shopping around to enrich my board quiver. Thanks to this lovely Bali surfboards buy and sell Facebook page, in fact, I scored an old Lost Whiplash 6.3 at $75 (!) that fit right in between my 6.6 stepup and 6.0 shortboard that I already have permanently stashed over there.
When the right time came, on April 11th I flew to Padang and started a two weeks Mentawai trip with the intention of hopping between surf camps. The planning of which was much more difficult that you can imagine, seen the relatively poor ferry connections between islands and the lack of information about them on the internet. One thing I knew: I wanted to surf Macaroni's.
Here's the Wave Finder description of it: if photos of this place don't cause saliva to drip from your lips, you need to see a shrink. Macca's, the most famous wave in the Mentawais, is the perfect left in the perfect setting. A typical take-off will be straight into a fine-lipped, feathering barrel that tempts you to stall and make the moment linger. The idea is to then come out of the tube onto an endless clean wall, with room to turn and throw spray. Sort of 2 experiences for the price of one. It gets horrendously busy for the above reasons, but worth it. 3-8 plus, 4-5 is often best, with middle tides. Low tide is pretty shallow. Sits in a protected bay thus requires sold swell to fire, preferably of the south-southwest variety. Experienced surfers, but intermediates will get waves on most days. An hour's cruise south can yield less crowded options.
That was my first stop and the only one that I actually had to book in advance. Unless you're really ready to rough it up and either stay at the Silabu village for cheap and walk an hour in the muddy slums to reach the spot, or camp in the jungle right in front of it, there's only two ways to surf what is often described as "the funnest wave on Earth". And that's by being on one of those boat trips that I just described above (and hoping that the captain will agree on taking you there) or by staying at the very expensive Macaroni's resort. Below is a night portrait of the pool area.
The cost of one night there is $390 AUD which translates into $300 US and that, despite three meals, a non stop boat service to the break (a 2 minutes commute across the bay) and a nice private a/c room, still constituted an excruciatingly high amount of money for me. The map below shows the resort location.
Btw, while still pondering if to pull the trigger or not, I randomly received a photo of some freshly oven cooked macaroni from my dad, who was completely unaware of the name of the spot and of my desire to surf it. He's just an Italian parent, that's what they do.. they send pictures of pasta to their kids, even - and specially - at age 86.
The book I was reading when that happened ("Lifting the veil of duality" by Andreas Moritz) that states that nothing is a coincidence, so I interpreted it as a signal from above and, despite my proverbial parsimony, went for it. I just didn't want to die without having surfed it, really.
Let me anticipate the two bottom line outcomes, before I dig into a more detailed description of them:
1) was the wave really up to its fame? Absolutely.
2) was it worth 300 bucks a night? Absolutely not.
As far as the first point goes, you can google tons of descriptions, reviews, photos and videos of Macca's, so I'm just gonna quickly point out a few reasons why I considered it, from the very first moment, an incredibly fun wave:
- even though it's definitely an advanced wave, it's not a particularly difficult one. I gave it a 6 out of 10 from that point of view. G-Land for me was a 9 for example and I can often rank the drop at Lanes on a overhead 15s+ swell a 7, just to give you a reference.
- it's one of the very few reef barrels that is not particularly dangerous. From that point of view, I gave it another 6, while Desert Point was a 10. Nonetheless and obviously, if you wipe out you can still get some serious cuts from the reef, especially at low tide. I got a few tattoos myself, but not too bad thanks to my shoes and a 1.5mm wetsuit top (in which I was often steaming hot, which I didn't mind)
- unless there's bad wind on it (and the first couple of days there was some), the quality of the wave is ridiculously and consistently high. The percentage of excellent waves coming in the lineup in the good glassy days was easily over 80%
- it works at all tides (no down time during the day like many other Indo spots), my favorite one being high.
So what the hell am I bitching about? Am I that hopelessly cheap?
Despite the claim on the resort's website that the rule they negotiated with the local tourism authorities is for maximum two charter boats at the time moored by the break, when I arrived the number of boats was actually four.
And even when two of them left (like in the photo above), the number of people in the lineup never-ever went under 15 (not even at lunch time) and, more often than not, was actually up in the thirties. And if that might seem not that bad, for an average surfer like me it unfortunately was, because:
- the take off area is quite confined. The wave is pretty mechanical and almost always breaks in the same spot, so those 15-30 surfers were all sitting elbow to elbow, which is the same reason why I almost never surf Pavillions at Hookipa, for example.
- the level in the water was ridiculously high and my chances of competing with such a pack were extremely slim.
The private webcam in the room and in the restaurant area was very convenient to check the conditions and the crowd. I counted 15 heads in this picture. It means it was at least 25.
Like at Honolua when is big, beautiful and crowded, my best sessions were when I sat at the very end of the lineup, waiting for the occasional guy that got shut down in the barrel. In that way, I could actually bank a decent wave count, but, even though the end of the wave was still very fun, I pretty much only watched the others riding the best and barreling first part of the wave.
As usual, I'm far from complaining, I'm just objectively reporting. I'm definitely very happy to have made the experience, but I'm not going back. Unless I become 10 times better and/or I win the lottery.
The resort experience per se was great. The guests were a nice mix of nationalities, skill levels and ages and that made for a nice atmosphere. The two photographers worked really hard to make sure they took videos of everyone at every time of the day. The 7pm projection before dinner was always a hoot. The loudness of the cheerings was proportional to the amount of Bintangs flowing down the throats. The fact that half of the guests were really good ripping surfers obviously helped the enjoyment of the show. At times, it was like watching a WSL contest, really. Fortunately I declared right away that I wasn't interested in buying their photo/video packages, so there wasn't much action of me. But they occasionally still managed to film a few waves of mine (like the one below) and that was a bit of a temporary buzz killer.
And after this torrent of words, let me try to let some photos speak, starting with this Gopro one showing absolute perfection.
My turn now.
Sunset shots came out allright.
The photos below are from a nice kid called Travis van Niekerk.
And here's the worse one with his recognizable surfing hat. Good thing that in surfing, how good you are has nothing to do with how much fun you have.
Here's some photos of the lagoon. Definitely not as crowded as the wave lineup.
There are some sea snakes, but this turned out to be the longest sea cucumber ever.
This concludes the report of part 1 of my 2017 Mentawai trip. Stay tuned for part 2.