Isolated beaches with no one in sight. Dreamy barrels curving onto a perfectly shaped volcanic reef. Amazing food for the price of next to nothing. And now Jack McLeod is being precariously lifted onto a wooden tuk-tuk boat with his left arm painfully protruding from its socket, muscles throbbing in pain.
This is not the ideal situation to find yourself in when the mainland is a 30-minute boat ride away and you’ve already been told that the hospital on this remote Indonesian island is not to be trusted.
But how did I end up in this situation on my first-ever Indonesian trip at the ripe age of 22? Well, the answer has something to do with the fact that Dunedin winters are cold, brutal and, while there are waves, the systems that provide them also bring massive southern fronts full of sub-zero temperatures and all sorts of misery. After taking three full winters of this, with no relief, something had to change.
We had joked about going to Indo occasionally throughout last year, but with limited funds and Covid restrictions were still making international travel tricky. So, it would always be just a joke. That was until the beginning of this year when I discovered a few friends had bought tickets to Indo. Shortly after learning that I had an enlightening conversation with Ollie Charlesworth on the beach in which he told me he’d bought one-way tickets and that I should “just huck it, bro”. And so I finally bought myself a one-way ticket from the cold depths of Dunedin to the warm embrace of Indonesia.
The next step was to get a crew together to go … somewhere. While me and Ollie knew that even as Indonesian first-timers, we didn’t want to stay in Bali for the whole trip, we had no idea where in the vast expanse of the islands we should go.
This is where Kelly Haven comes in. With him and his two older brothers being seasoned veterans in the art of Indonesian exploration, he was the man to turn to. And as it just so happened he was looking to escape to the islands around the same time as us. A few Instagram messages later he popped the question: “You boys wanna come to Simeulue?”.
Simeulue? Where on earth is that, I thought. Turns out it’s a small island located off the top of Northern Sumatra, literally at the other end of Indonesia compared to Bali. With next to no Western infrastructure, planes that only operate two times a week and the promise of relatively uncrowded waves, it sounded like a proper adventure. How could we say no?
With next to no Western infrastructure, planes that only operate two times a week and the promise of relatively uncrowded waves, it sounded like a proper adventure. How could we say no?
With the task of finding a location outside of Bali complete, the only thing left to do was to convince Jack McLeod to come along for the ride. For the past several months we had been consistently filming together. We had managed to bag some decent footage and I didn’t want to let the momentum die. That, plus the fact Jacko himself is more than accustomed to boosting through the Indonesian islands.
For the next few months, we dropped hints that he should join us to which we were met with the response of “Yeah, man, definitely keen. I’ll buy tickets soon” only for him to do exactly nothing. Rinse and repeat until it’s just a month until we leave and I’ve almost given up hope that Jacko will be joining us when I suddenly received a message saying: “Tickets are locked in, only paid $500 for them, lol.”
For context, when I had bought my tickets to Indonesia I had paid around $1,100 to go from Dunedin to Denpasar. A pretty penny for a lowly University student such as myself. It was much the same for everyone else who had bought tickets months before with everyone having to fork out at least a grand for the luxury of international travel. So to have Jacko wait until a month before we leave and for him to then get tickets for half the price was quite the power move. Jacko, you lucky bastard.
We were then joined by Jasper, a Californian friend of a friend, who was looking to explore Indonesia as well.
With the last member of our crew sorted the date of departure rolled around quickly.
Before I knew it I was staring at a dimly lit room filled with a small double bed and a mattress hastily laid out on the floor. Without thinking I laid down on the bed for a moment and the next thing I knew it was the next morning. Hardly surprising seeing as I had been travelling for more than 24 hours from Dunedin to our accommodation in Balangan, Bali.
That first morning and entire day in Bali will be entrenched in my memories for a while. After being woken up by Jacko and our mate Angus, who had both arrived the day before, I groggily hopped on the back of Jacko’s scooter as we drove to Balangan Beach to grab breakfast.
The morning light shone through the bare trees and almost all was still besides the occasional scooter as we whizzed through the back roads, eventually reaching the beach and walking along the course sand. I’d never seen a reef before so to witness the rough sand slowly fade into the moss-covered reef that lay just below the water’s surface was certainly something to behold.
We found a beachfront Warung and as we sipped on our murky Bali coffees and ate breakfast I watched countless planes come flying across the ocean eventually touching down in Denpasar across the water from us. It was equal parts beautiful and eye-opening to realise how naturally stunning this place was but to also see the amount of international travel that occurs in the area.
It was equal parts beautiful and eye-opening to realise how naturally stunning this place was but to also see the amount of international travel that occurs in the area.
First mission: sorting a bunch of admin, including getting cash out. Getting a Wise card is an absolute lifesaver for international travel with good conversion rates and is relatively straightforward to use.
We eventually found ourselves walking down the stairs to Uluwatu for our first session of the trip. The waves were an unremarkable 1-2ft. Seated in one of the clifftop Warungs, I lived what had been a very specific dream. With my camera set up to film the boys, I sipped quietly on a few big bottle Bintangs, smoked Indonesian cigarettes, and watched the sun set behind the horizon in a blaze of red and orange brilliance.
Seated in one of the clifftop Warungs, I lived what had been a very specific dream. With my camera set up to film the boys, I sipped quietly on a few big bottle Bintangs, smoked Indonesian cigarettes, and watched the sun set behind the horizon in a blaze of red and orange brilliance.
Over the next few days, we drove around the bottom of Bali finding new spots and attempting to avoid the crowds as there was not much swell, meaning anywhere with somewhat decent waves would normally be insanely crowded.
One session at Ynang Ynang beach was particularly hectic with Ollie and Jacko being dropped in on more times than I could count. It was absolute chaos and definitely put a damper on the day with Ollie remarking, “I’m pretty sure I just had a year’s worth of drop-ins happen in one session”.
By the end of our first week in Indonesia, we were well over surfing 1-2ft waves with hundreds of people out and couldn’t wait to get out of Bali and into some real waves. On our second to last night, we decided to let off some steam and visit Hatch, one of the many nightclubs around the Uluwatu area. After many beers were consumed and people met, we were on our way home and stopped off at a local mini-mart to grab some food. While the others and I went inside Ollie and Jasper waited on the side of the road with Ollie looking at his phone for directions.
In the time it took for me the go inside the store and then come straight back out as I didn’t want anything, some local on a bike boosted around the corner, saw Ollie with his phone out and snatched it all in the blink of an eye. In all honestly, in a situation like that, all you can do is laugh. The stolen phone was on its last legs and Ollie had brought a backup phone. You kind of had to admire the skill it took for someone to be able to make a snap-second decision and grab the phone that quickly.
Fast forward two days and countless hours of travel later we were in our airport hotel in Medan, the largest city in North Sumatra. We had linked up with Kelly who had flown straight from Auckland … quite the long haul. The next morning, we woke up around 5am to make sure our boards were first in line to get on to the plane to Simeulue as we’d heard countless stories of surfers being stranded for days without any boards as there were only two flights a week in and out of the island.
Luckily after a bit of back and forth at check-in, it looked like our boards would be making it on the plane, but you could never be sure. Before we knew it we were all aboard the mostly empty bi-plane and flying off the western coast of Sumatra with the island of Nias to our left and Simeulue slowly starting to appear from beneath the clouds to our right … and with countless islands scattered in between.
Before we knew it we were all aboard the mostly empty bi-plane and flying off the western coast of Sumatra with the island of Nias to our left and Simeulue slowly starting to appear from beneath the clouds to our right … and with countless islands scattered in between.
This stretch of ocean is the area where a boat carrying five Australian surfers and three Indonesians went down in August. A subsequent massive manhunt ensued with all but one of them, a young Indonesian boy, being found alive and well. Quite an incredible and sad story by all accounts.
As soon as we landed the difference in climate was immediate, while the general temperature was more or less the same as in Bali, the humidity was off the charts. It felt like you could eat the air it was that thick. Once fully disembarked and with all boards accounted for we were picked up by Ranu, our surf camp’s owner, and driven to the site we’d be calling home for the next three weeks.
Those first few hours spent in Simeulue were nothing short of spectacular. Ranu’s surf camp was parked almost directly in front of what is arguably the island’s best wave. A barreling right-hand point with enough room for a turn or two after you get spat out of a tube. We hadn’t even unpacked before we were all out there with me filming in the water. It was as if a switch had been flicked inside Jacko and Ollie’s brain and they proceeded to do some of the best surfing I’ve ever seen them do in four years of filming them. It was like something out of a dream.
It was as if a switch had been flicked inside Jacko and Ollie’s brain and they proceeded to do some of the best surfing I’ve ever seen them do in four years of filming them. It was like something out of a dream.
For the next few days, Kelly showed us the various surf spots around the island from fun little slabs to consistent beachies and everything in between. We had an almost constant run of swell which kept us occupied.
After nearly a week we decided to go to one of the island’s crown jewels, a Cloudbreak-esque right that broke off an island, which was a 30-minute boat ride from the surf camp.
Fueled on adrenaline from the promise of ledging righthanders we hopped onto the boat and waited anxiously as we got closer and closer to the island and its wave. As we drew closer we could see the spray of sets detonating up the reef. However, in the same spot were several other boats from neighbouring surf camps, meaning we’d have surfers of different levels to compete with for waves.
The next hour was spent with the boys paddling up and down the reef with me swimming on the inside filming while we tried to find waves under the crowd. Suddenly, the swell started to pulse with the sets starting to progress into the 4ft range … with me stuck right on the inside. I had been wearing a snorkel mask around my neck so that I could shoot underwater as well as to see where the reef was before diving underneath sets. However, I didn’t have time to put it on and had to dive under one threatening 4ft wave. To make sure I didn’t swim face-first into the reef I opened up my eyes underwater and immediately had my contact lenses ripped out of my eyes by the force of the wave.
Suddenly, the swell started to pulse with the sets starting to progress into the 4ft range … with me stuck right on the inside.
As anyone who wears contact lenses will know, this isn’t an ideal situation, especially when out in the water but there was nothing I could do so I simply had to roll without, albeit with compromised vision. About 10 minutes later the set of the day started to roll in. You could see the water was beginning to suck off the reef just right. Jacko had just caught a wave earlier and was nearly back in the lineup when easily the best wave of the session jacked up in front of him.
Late and on the inside Jacko swung around and scratched into the thing as it began to ledge onto the reef, shaping up to be an absolute drainer. As soon as he got to his feet Jacko immediately started to airdrop with it looking like he’d lined it up perfectly. Riding his fresh 6’2 Indo driver, and with the added length, as he stuck the drop the nose of the board buried itself into the wave face, sending Jacko head over heels into the churning vortex of the wave.
… as he stuck the drop the nose of the board buried itself into the wave face, sending Jacko head over heels into the churning vortex of the wave.
Of course, this all happened in the space of about two seconds and once the wave had passed over me I started waiting for Jacko to pop up in the whitewash, knowing that it would have been a heavy wipeout … even for him. After a good wee while he eventually popped up looking red in the face and slapped the water in what I thought was frustration, as I couldn’t see clearly due to my lack of vision.
I started waiting for Jacko to pop up in the whitewash, knowing that it would have been a heavy wipeout … even for him.
It looked like everything was fine until I saw Ollie frantically paddling over to where Jacko was on the inside. I knew something wasn’t right. Once we reached Jacko it quickly became apparent what the problem was. Jacko’s left shoulder was hanging out the front of its socket, muscles straining under the pain. Our first priority was to get ourselves out of the impact zone as another set was about to roll-in. We managed to just scrape over it and were joined by Jasper and Kelly as well as some helpful hands from the lineup.
Jacko’s left shoulder was hanging out the front of its socket, muscles straining under the pain.
The next priority was to get Jacko onto our boat, which was a good 600 metres away in the channel, but luckily after much yelling and waving we were able to get their attention. We somehow managed to maneuver Jacko up and onto the boat and while we waited for the others to follow suit Jacko coached me as I attempted to maneuver his shoulder back into place, albeit unsuccessfully. Once everyone was on board, we began the gruelling 30-minute boat ride back to the mainland with Jacko hunched over in pain, muscles still pulsating in agony.
Eventually, we landed and were greeted by Ranu who drove us back to the surf camp while on the phone calling around for someone he called the “medicine man”. He had warned us the local hospital was “no good”. Finally, we got back to the surf camp and helped Jacko out of the car, setting up a makeshift hospital bed out of stacked mattresses so that he could lie down flat and have his arm extended to relieve the intense pain.
The Medicine Man
After some waiting the medicine man, a local masseuse, arrived and began working his magic on Jacko’s shoulder. He started by first massaging and relaxing the muscles around the shoulder and, once that had been completed, he then proceeded to shake and contort Jacko’s left arm until after about three tries, and two and a bit hours of being out, his shoulder finally popped back into place.
He then proceeded to shake and contort Jacko’s left arm until after about three tries, and two and a bit hours of being out, his shoulder finally popped back into place.
The relief on Jacko’s face was almost immediate. Gone were the intense expressions of holding in the pain and instead a big grin stretched across his face. “She’s all good boys,” he said walking around with his arm now in a makeshift sling. However, in the back of our minds, we knew that the likelihood of Jacko being back in the water soon was unlikely in this situation. We thought his trip was more or less over … and we still had two more weeks left in Simeulue, let alone in Indonesia. While I’d managed to bag some pretty good clips of Jacko so far we definitely didn’t have enough for a full part in the film we were working on.
Over the next couple of days, the medicine man came back to the camp several times to massage Jacko’s shoulder in the hopes that it would speed up his recovery time. Part of this process involved him applying an intense-smelling green paste that cleared your nostrils from the other side of the room. This continued for about five days when suddenly Jacko said that he wanted to try his shoulder out in the surf. A bit taken aback we strapped his shoulder up and paddled out. Within 30 minutes he was back to surfing almost normally, albeit taking it easy when paddling. But he was still pulling into tubes and getting critical on the end section of the waves. It was amazing to watch someone who, just five days before, looked like their entire Indonesian trip would be over, bounce back to surfing that well.
The remaining two weeks of our trip were spent boosting around the island, managing to get ourselves into some pretty fun waves. Nothing mind-blowing, but still we had some pretty solid sessions.
One day was spent parked up at a beach break eating mushrooms and surfing. As the morning went on several children from the nearby village came to say hello and before we knew it we were surrounded by 10 or so local groms who were climbing all over me, frothing on my camera equipment. Jacko and another surfer from a nearby surf camp took some of the grommies out and started pushing them into waves. It was one of the most beautiful and surreal experiences I’ve had. It was one of the highlights of the trip.
Medan By Train
Eventually, it was time to leave Simeulue and fly back to Bali. Originally it was just me and Jacko leaving as Ollie, Jasper and Kelly still had another week-and-a-half booked, but a few days before we left, Jasper’s board managed to smash him in the face, splitting his lip open and dislodging one of his front teeth, something that would require surgery in the nearby megacity of Kuala Lumpur. That meant he joined me and Jacko. We said our goodbyes and after another scenic plane ride back to North Sumatra we were back in Medan by early afternoon.
Myself and Jacko’s flight back to Bali wasn’t until 1pm the following day so we decided to take the opportunity to explore the rather expansive city of Medan via train. I won’t go into details except to say that the locals we met while out drinking were legendary and that we didn’t get back to our hotel until the wee hours of the morning.
I won’t go into details except to say that the locals we met while out drinking were legendary and that we didn’t get back to our hotel until the wee hours of the morning.
Needless to say, the next morning was a bit of a shit-show with myself and Jacko rather hungover, trying to fully pack our bags and make it through security, which we eventually did after much needless admin. Turns out airlines don’t like it when you lie about the number of boards in your bag.
The next 24 hours were filled with various stopovers and plane flights and, after a slight hiccup with our accommodation check-in, we were back in Bali.
Not a whole lot happened in that last week of my trip. We partied for about five days straight – we felt like we deserved it after being tucked away in Simeulue. We surfed some fun waves with Bingin being my personal favourite, and caught up with some old friends. Before I knew it, it was time for me to pack my bags and hop on a plane back to the cold landscape of Dunedin.
We partied for about five days straight – we felt like we deserved it after being tucked away in Simeulue.
It had been the trip of a lifetime, especially for someone who had never travelled to this part of the world before. I was certainly thrown in the deep end but came out of it all the more appreciative. The locals, the waves and the scenery of Indonesia are incredible and it is a place that I will most certainly come back to as soon as possible.
Terima kasih banyak, Indonesia.