Getting the best out of the waves of West Papua takes patience, an offroad vehicle and a healthy dose of luck.
Story by Emiliano Cataldi/SurfEXPLORE; Photography by John Callahan/SurfEXPLORE
It’s hot and humid as hell, and I’m seeking shelter from the scorching midday sun under the thick canopy of the trees that line the shore. The weather has wild mood swings in this part of the world, and the overnight downpour has ceased and given way to a cloudless blue sky in a matter of minutes, changing the dynamic of the village altogether. It was roaring thunder, wild and grey and onshore, when we left our tin-roofed shack at dawn. Now it’s beautiful, and everyone seems to be making the most out of it. The kids have come out to play and there’s laughter all around. Not a worry in the whole world for them. Some are dressed, but most are naked, with frizzy hair bleached by a life spent in the sun and the ocean.
They expertly wrap balls of damp sand with rubber bands and throw them at a wooden plank that has a big nail stuck in one end. It’s a simple game that reflects the simplicity of all life here, life based on fishing, hanging out and going to church. When the sand ball hits the nail it disintegrates, leaving the tangled core of bands. Whoever manages to get more bands around the nail wins.
Besides the kids, the cats and dogs are out, and the rats and birds, crabs and ants. Everyone is out to play while the sun is out. And so are we. After a hectic week spent exploring the rugged coastline, we try to slow down to the pace of village life. With no books left to read, no internet and nowhere else to go, we turn again to the ocean inevitably, where in the mellow offshore breeze, perfect two-foot waves are breaking along the edge of the reef. Waiting for a turn of the tide, Hayato is spearfishing in the channel with a couple of kids in tow, while Phil is fishing off the rocks, also in the company of a couple of curly haired rascals. Beto doesn’t care about the high tide lump [the backwash from waves hitting the shore] or the fish: he grew up surfing the crowded beachbreaks of Rio de Janeiro, so he’s in heaven out there and he surfs pretty much all day everyday when he’s on a trip.
The wave is a grower. It starts as a ridge of whitewater off the dry reef, grows until it hits the inside bowl where it suddenly doubles in size, spits its guts out and fades into the deep channel. Beto takes off on ankle-high ripples and by the time he reaches the inside section the whole thing is over his shoulders. It’s so hypnotically beautiful that you cannot help but keep staring.
No wonder the kids love it.
They take turns riding the only four functioning boards left from an original batch of seven surfboards, donated by a local woman named Salomina and shipped all the way here from Bali. This is the newly founded Abasi Surfing Club’s quiver. Salomina’s involvement with the local community is remarkable. She is also working on a project to build a surf and dive eco-resort in the area, sourcing local materials and keeping the profits within the village by employing the surfers and their families. She already runs a number of profitable businesses and this is not meant to be one of them: all she’s trying to do is support her community by creating jobs for the villagers. It’s a welcome breath of fresh air in the surf tourism business. In an industry run almost exclusively by foreign investors in Indonesia, it’s good to see locals take the initiative and money staying in the community rather than ending up in some offshore account.
I spend many hours watching these kids surf, as I’m struck by their instinctual approach to riding waves that’s completely free from external influences. Despite having only one fin left, their favourite board seems to be a Neil Purchase thruster. Its wide nose helps them paddle into the waves early and luckily the lone fin is on the right side so it works just fine on these lefthanders. With the exception of a couple of the older guys who’ve been to Bali, these kids have only ever surfed among themselves and haven’t seen any surf film or magazine before. And, for pretty much all of them, this is the only wave they’ve ever surfed. Their surfing is as raw as it gets, solely based on instinct and improvisation, and reflects each kid’s personality more than anything else, so much so that no two of them surf alike, something virtually unheard of in most lineups nowadays.
I particularly enjoy watching Beni ride these waves. He’s a small kid with a big smile, natural talent and style to spare, who surfs with a compact stance and the knees nicely tucked in together. The high lines he draws are quite amazing for someone who’s been surfing for less than two years and hasn’t been exposed to outside surfing before. The slight adjustments he makes in his bottom turns and the subtle shifts in the weight make me think of a young Gerry Lopez. He’s definitely a natural, and must have inherited the surfing gene from his ancestors. The Papuans have been riding waves on wooden planks for centuries as a way for the young kids to get acquainted with the ocean and learn how to negotiate the treacherous reef passes on the way to and from fishing. But for Beni and his friends it’s first and foremost just a game. Play, they call it. I’d call it some of the purest and most graceful surfing I’ve ever witnessed.
The brands of snacks and drinks at the roadside stores; the unmistakable smell of clove cigarettes, or kretek; the bright red billboards advertising local telco Simpati; all these things say ‘Indonesia’ but the frizzy hair, strong features and dark skin of the locals here speak of a part of Indonesia with a very different past to that of most of the archipelago.
The original inhabitants of Niugini arrived on the island 40,000 years ago after the oldest human migration out of Africa. Despite having often been described as fearsome and primitive, the Papuans are kind and soft-spoken. I find this particularly interesting considering the radical challenges these people have had to endure in the last three centuries after thousands of years of near-complete isolation. First came European colonisation at the hands of the Dutch, Germans and Britons. The missionaries came in their wake, bringing ‘guns, germs and steel’ as anthropologist Jared Diamond puts it in his famous book of that name. Then the horror of the Second World War, when most Papuans hadn’t even heard of the countries involved, let alone knew what was being fought for.
The decades that followed saw fierce fighting for independence, eventually resulting in the eastern half of the island becoming Papua New Guinea and the western half being controversially annexed by Indonesia. The people of that western part of New Guinea have been fighting for self-determination since the late 1960s, and it is estimated that more than 450,000 indigenous Papuans have lost their life to the cause since then, including several leaders of the Free Papua Movement (OPM). Despite international pressure, the government has maintained a hard line on the issue and violent clashes between the Indonesian army and the OPM are not uncommon. Even flying the West Papua National Flag is illegal, and I feel I’m walking on thin ice every time I surf the board on which I have painted both flags: the Papuan one on the deck and the Indonesian one on the bottom.
There’s way too many natural resources here for the Indonesian government to let go of its Papuan provinces, and the region’s political instability has left the door wide open for international corporations to wander in and make a land grab of huge proportions; with most locals left scraping for the crumbs. That is why, even if on a much smaller scale, initiatives like Salomina’s are remarkable way beyond their actual budget.
Not everything is lost though! Jesus is always there to help when you need it, and need him they do, if the number of churches is any guide. I am not exaggerating when I say that better than one in ten buildings is a church. And because they’re usually the most structurally sound buildings around, more often than not they’re the only ones left standing after the natural disasters that periodically strike this region. Despite my sceptical inclination I have to admit that their masses are beautiful indeed and really bring the community together.
The single-lane coastal road that we have been using to explore the setups we’ve marked on the GPS is inexorably succumbing to the bush, and even with a mean Hilux truck rigged with oversized mud tires we have made slow progress, constantly being halted by giant potholes, fallen trees, collapsed bridges, multiple punctures or simply the end of the road itself. Though the area spans less than 150 kilometres, the state of disrepair of the roads makes driving it in one go impossible. Giving up is not an option though, and we make our own road where there isn’t one. And when that’s not possible, we start walking.
In the battle of Man versus Nature, Nature definitely wins around here and it doesn’t miss any chance to remind you. One day, Beto almost steps on a Death Adder, one of the most venomous snakes in the world, while hiking through the forest looking for a path to the beach. I’m following close by and I watch in horror as his left foot lands within 10 centimetres of the snake, which is camouflaged in the forest’s substrate, playing dead.
They say you make your own luck, and we are lucky again when we meet a Dutch gentleman who kindly lets us use his house, conveniently located halfway up the coast from Abasi, as a base for our explorations. It is a beautiful wooden home surrounded by waterfalls, with generous decks overlooking the bay, and offers much-needed respite from the road.
We persevere, driven by curiosity to see in person the points, bays, reefs and beaches we’ve been looking at online for months. We cross rickety bridges, ford rivers, drive along the beach, get lost, get bogged, watch, wait and try to learn as much as we can about this coast. And of course we surf. The peak in front of the swinging rope, the slabby rights, the shallow left, the Dutch reef, the pretty beachbreak, the right point with the inside bowl, a rivermouth going ballistic, the gap in the reef and the village left. The hard work is finding the waves, the fun part is getting to know them.
We take Olaf and his uncle Yafet wherever we go. They’re part of the Maryet clan, who first moved to Abasi from a nearby island in the late sixties and pretty much singlehandedly founded the village. Nowadays, the whole village is to some extent related to the Maryets. Olaf was the first kid to take up conventional surfing, standing up rather than riding prone on the wooden plank, and he has never looked back. He serves as an inspiration for the younger kids and, as the leader of the pack, is also the most willing to explore the waves of his homeland.
He points us to Pintu Angin, which in Indonesian means ‘the door of the wind’, a series of three peaks that break over a shallow reef. The potential of this wave is obvious on first sight, but so are its drawbacks, as the name suggests. It’s definitely a swell magnet: it never drops below head-high the whole time we’ve been here. But it is also a wind magnet. Even when it’s clean and glassy up and down the coast, that evil wind seems to blow right into the wave at Pintu Angin, day and night. We decide that we have to surf it with an offshore wind at least once before the end of the trip, whatever the cost, and for a week we check it every morning and evening hoping for the magic to happen.
The daily pilgrimage to the Pintu becomes a ritual. We pull up the dirt path, drive to the edge of the cliff and watch a couple of onshore sets. After pondering for a bit, we turn around and go surf somewhere else. But Olaf swears that it does get offshore sometimes, and that when it does it barrels. “Biiig tunnels!!!” he tells us.
And he is right! Phil and I borrow a motorbike early one morning and ride to the wave while everyone else is still asleep. We almost fall off the bike when we see the unmistakable offshore spray and waves breaking simultaneously on the three peaks. We burn back to the village to wake everyone up and give them the good news. When we reach the lineup it becomes obvious that it was worth the wait: the wind’s gate has finally opened up for us and multiple barrels spit as the Pacific Ocean swells detonate on the shallow reef. It’s definitely not a wave for the faint-of-heart. The rock bottom is as rugged as the land above it and we all leave some skin on the reef. It’s totally worth every scar!
This is one of those places: don’t go expecting to find the key in the door, because there is none. Only if you’re lucky and wait long enough will it open for you. Maybe. AA
SurfEXPLORE would like to thank Salomina Jenike Rumadas, Abasi Surfing Club and Charles Roring of the West Papua Ecotourism Network for their support.
When to go
November to April are the go-to months for empty lineups but this is also the wet season (expect frequent tropical squalls, especially in January and February). Being right on the equator the temperature is rarely below 20°C (68°F) and often above 30°C (86°F).
How to get there
Rendani Airport in Manokwari is served by Lion/Wings Air and Sriwijaya Air, with daily flights to and from Makassar, Sorong and Ambon. Public ferries are a cheaper alternative.
What to take
There are no surf shops in Manokwari so bring everything you need, including spares and a ding repair kit. Waves range from two to eight feet during the season so bring a small wave board (such as a Fish or a longboard) for between swells, and a step-up board for the swells themselves. You won’t need a wetsuit, but a long-sleeved rashguard or wetsuit top is a good idea to protect you from the equatorial sun.
Where to stay
The Abasi Surfing Club offers some (very) basic, homestay accommodation in the village of Abasi. Otherwise there are a number of hotels in Manokwari with prices starting at US$50/night.
Email SurfEXPLORE, email@example.com, or the Abasi Surfing Club, firstname.lastname@example.org. For general travel enquiries, contact Charles Roring, email@example.com.
Surf within your ability as the nearest hospital is many hours away. The reefs are quite sharp and shallow so a surf trip here is recommended only for experienced surfers.