FROM THE MENTAWAIS
POSTCARD N○ 1
By Fraser Morton
I'm sitting on a white-sand, castaway-island beach, I'm daydreaming under the hypnotic spell of one of the best right-hand waves in the world - Hollow Tree's, also known as Lance’s Right.
Had I been here in 1991, I would be focused on the giant tree, insides carved out by the elements, shooting straight out of the sea, and the lone Aussie, a wave-chaser named Lance Knight, surfing the barreling beaut. While the tree has been lost to time and unrelenting swells, the names Lance’s Right and Hollow Tree’s have been forever since on the minds and lips of surfers from Bali to Brisbane, California to Cape Town.
I watch wave after perfect, sapphire-glass wave roll into the end of the bay before unloading on the water table known as The Office and breaking into shards of crystal whitewater on a shallow reef dubbed The Surgeon’s Table—which is as dangerous as it sounds.
And then, I’m on a board out there, as a colossal wave picks me up and propels me forward a mere half-meter above flesh-splitting coral. The whitewater sprinkles back into the sea and I ease out into the deeper bay, adrenaline flowing. I pump one hand in the air and use the other to wave my paddle aloft, shouting to the heavens, “I surfed Hollow Tree’s!” Laughter is the reply from the local kids in the break, and I know they think I’m an idiot. But I’m no surfer, so fannying about on a stand-up paddleboard in the froth of one of the best waves in the world is the closest I’ll ever come to fulfilling my Lance Knight dreams.
THERE IS A POSEIDON-LIKE CHARACTER HERE, though, who also has a backstory bound to this break. Cast your mind back two decades. There’s a sailboat on the horizon. Behind the wheel is captain Daniel, his wife Janine and a little long-haired boy named Teiki, or Teiki-eetai, in the French Polynesian dialect he was named. It means, “The Little Prince Who Went to Sea.”
They are a French sailing family, the Ballians. They are explorers, although they would never say that (“We just wanted a happy life,” Janine tells me when I meet her). Captivated by the first-rate wave and sheltered bay, they drop anchor and stay the night under the stars.
Teiki was only 12 years old, but he had circumnavigated the world twice, spoke five languages, could captain the family’s 22-meter yacht Scame, and surfed like a pro. He had a rascally charm that anchored his youth with a chain of friends in ports from Burma to Thailand and along the sweeping western spine of Indonesia. Southeast Asia was the family’s surf-charter turf, and the Mentawais, and Hollow Tree’s break, Teiki’s favorite playground.
Today, Teiki is 31, but he’s an old sea dog— and the new co-owner of Hollow Tree’s Resort, which reopened in March. With his deep connection to nature, he’s the perfect person to helm one of the only two resorts on south Sipora Island, a speck in the remote Mentawai Archipelago 150-kilometers off western Sumatra that took me an entire day to reach and is undefiled by mass tourism and poorly planned infrastructure. It is anyone’s idea of paradise. After drifting our way around Sipora, swimming over reefs teeming with life, and exploring bays by paddleboard and dense jungles on borrowed motorcycles, and after venturing deep into the heart of Siberut Island to meet machete-wielding shamans whose animism survives beyond the Indonesian government’s eye, I come away knowing more than ever before that when left unburdened nature is vibrant, vivid and unafraid.
LAST YEAR, TEIKI CAME TO SURF his beloved break and saw the resort boarded up, entangled in a barbed wire fence. So he called his friend Vincent, also a French surfer, in Bali, and together they morphed the place from a derelict cluster of beachfront huts into an 18-guest-maximum upscale surf resort humming with life and the scents of freshly baked guava pie drifting through the balmy air.
We are here for four days. The trip is way too short, stupidly so. Eszter, our photographer, wears a permanent goofy grin on her face the whole time. She’s nagging me to extend the visit. I learn that everyone who comes here suffers the same plight: “Just one more week. Please.”
Teiki lives at the resort with his Thai- German girlfriend, Sina, who looks like she was shaken from a coconut tree reserved for beautiful tropical damsels. Janine is at the resort, too, all 69 years of her exuding cool- mum vibes, and at dinnertime she entertains us with salty tales of a magnificent (“mog-niff- ee-cent”) life at sea. One evening we are all huddled round the banquet table, bellies full of garlic lobster coated with lemon mayonnaise, and finally that fresh sugar-coated guava pie, and I’m giggling because mum and son are having a heated but playful debate.
He insists that over the course of their lifetime, the Ballians have sailed 14 nautical miles short of the distance between the Earth and the moon.
“No, no, Teiki, dat is not true!”
“Haha, so close, mama,” Teiki replies showing her the calculator on his phone. “Adrift in space!”
My mind wanders as I look at the empty seat next to Janine. “He’s here, too, you know,” Teiki had told me earlier that day of his beloved dad, who had passed away only two weeks before, as we sat on the beach together. I thought he meant metaphorically and nodded silently until I realized he meant the ashes.
“We’re going to spread them out at sea,” he said. “I just don’t know when.” My heart aches for him, and I imagine being on the Ballians’ yacht with the whole family, learning all I can about seafaring, navigation and adventure from wise father Daniel.
Teiki, too, is an explorer and over the next few days, he and Sina lead us to secluded spots, dumbfounding us with tangerine sunsets over empty surf breaks. Sipora is a continual contrast to Bali, where a multi-million-dollar- a-year surf industry has boomed since the 1960s. Bali’s breaks became stepping-stones for waves in Nias and Lakey Peak in Sumbawa, G-Land off East Java and, eventually, here, the Mentawais, stirring more adventurous surfers who hear the call of lonely waves.
It's Sunday morning and I'm doing something unexpected: Dressed in a smart shirt and trousers sitting in a church at mass with Mentawai Catholics. We are in the village of Katiet, inland of the small peninsula that houses Hollow Tree’s, where life remains uncomplicated. Many villagers earn money harvesting copra coconut meat, which is sold for oil. There’s a volleyball net on a dusty patch that gets a lot of attention at dusk. Along the dirt track between here and Hollow Tree’s I count five churches, three in disrepair in the wake of the 2010 tsunami.
The majority of Katiet village is here at mass, and the men and women sit on opposite sides of the chapel. I’m in the last pew staring at the bald, bowed head of the elderly man in front of me, wondering how long he has believed in Jesus. Then I realize I know the answer: After Indonesia gained independence in 1945 and new laws were drafted to ensure all citizens embraced the new nation’s recognized religions—Islam, Christianity, Catholicism, Hinduism or Buddhism. Before this, people in these parts were mostly animist.
A little girl starts to sing. Her voice echoes around the high walls and fills the ears of the congregation who close their eyes and drink in her words—entrancing even me, though I can’t understand her Mentawai dialect.
As soon as her song ends, there’s a synchronized snap of lighters and every man is puffing away on clove cigarettes and chatting with his neighbor, turning the place into some kind of rowdy—but dry—bar scene. We spill out of the church with kids hanging from us, tugging at my hands, asking, “Where from?” and screaming, “Allo, allo!” merrily while inspecting my notebook, as a gaggle of girls demands Eszter take their photo. Their spiritual cups full, the residents of Katiet shelve the somber tone for another week.
There's no distinction between daily life and the divine on Siberut Island, the largest island in the Mentawais, where our beach bubble has been burst by the sharp end of the machete the half-naked tribesman is swinging next to me. He hacks down a sago palm tree, fishes out a massive worm, squeezes it dead and stuffs it into his mouth. His name is Kapik Sibajak, and he is a Sikerei medicine man of the indigenous Mentawai Tribe, and our host for the next few days.
The Sikerei are a special class of male forest shamans and healers. They practice animism, wear hibiscus flowers, ink themselves with magic tattoos and sharpen their teeth. They have resisted evangelism, modernization and government attempts to get them to both resettle and abandon their non-sanctioned beliefs. They have endured and, thanks in part to a trickle of tourism, now are largely left alone to live how they please in the jungle
Earlier that day we had traveled for two hours upriver with our guide and translator Yen, a relative of the tribespeople, from his home village Muara to our rendezvous with Kapik. He appeared from nowhere from behind a tree in dense jungle wearing only a loincloth, bow and arrow, machete clasped in hand. Kapik loves that machete. It never leaves his side. He’s 69 years old and a prankster. He danced around us as we arduously trudged through knee-deep mud, waded through rivers, tightrope-walked log bridges, and picked and fought our way through the jungle in a race against darkness. He would disappear only to emerge a moment later, bursting into song, shaking his hips and motioning seductively to Eszter. I liked him immediately.
Kapik is incredibly hard working, despite his age. Daily chores include tending his pigs and chickens that live under his longhouse, known as an uma, hacking down sago trees, fishing, and foraging. He smokes constantly. They have few pleasures here in the jungle and are heavily addicted to nicotine and sugar—gifts that you must come bearing in order to be granted shelter. Our host family— Kapik and his wife, Kapik Sikalabai, along with their middle-aged son Petrus Sekaliou, his wife and their two children, who came from their own home to meet us—is mischievous, loud, flirtatious and hard, but also affectionately hospitable. Kapik is a keen kisser. Both Eszter and I received frequent kisses on the cheek from him.
Over a dinner of plain rice and noodles, Yen intermediates our chat about life. I’m keen to learn everything I can, but also for them to know a little about us, too. Kapik’s four sons are all married and living nearby—but on the outskirts of the forest, where they eschew tattoos and now wear western clothes. I tell them I’m from Scotland and that we too have tribes, called clans, and tribalwear. He’s amused. I show them a photo of a Highlands cow I keep on my phone, and I think Kapik Sikalabai looks impressed. I ask Yen, “Have they ever seen a horse?” When they say no, I pull up a photo of horses I took in the caldera of Bromo Volcano. “Java horses,” I say.
Kapik Sikalabai asks Yen where it is, he tells her Indonesia, and she looks surprised.
Later that night Eszter and I duck outside the hut for some air and are sucked into a night sky alive with stars, which swallows the jungle, our small hut and both of us in a mesmerizing star-spangled indigo blanket. On the stoop of that shack far from home, amid the snorts and smells of pigs, we stare skyward in wonder until we both laugh out loud.
I shouldn’t be surprised when that dreamlike serenity is shattered at 3:37 a.m. We are asleep on the wood floor of Kapik’s uma when the screaming starts. It’s the pigs. In the pale moonlight that slices through the open-air hut I see the naked figure of Kapik carrying his machete and striding into the darkness. A second later there’s a sickening clang of metal, a dull thud and what sounds like splintering bone. I really hope it’s not the pigs.
I slip under the mosquito net, flick on my torch and head towards the light coming from the back of the hut. I hear laughter and another clang of a machete followed by a thud, more splinters and a nasty squelching sound. I see them now huddled around a flame torch, all six of the family. Kapik swings his machete and brings it down fiercely onto a log, which splits in two. He pries the glistening pieces apart with the tip of his machete. The logs are writhing and moving on the surface: worms. Hundreds of them. Long, thin, squirming worms ooze from the logs and everyone snatches them up and stuffs them into their mouths. Fat, tree-eating worms, they think, make for a sweet-tasting midnight snack. Kapik spots me, turns machete in- hand, laughs and shoves a worm in my direction. I hate it when this happens on travel assignments. It means I have to eat it. I can still feel the wriggling in my belly as I write this.
The Ballians have seen more remote places than I can fathom. They share a lust for salty nomadism akin to the first Austronesian travelers who ventured to the Mentawais from Taiwan 4,000 years ago. The sea is etched into their souls and taught them many traits: survival, self-reliance, freedom and an infectious appreciation of the ocean and nature.
On our final morning at Hollow Tree’s, I sit safely in a beach chair watching the silhouette of Teiki jumping off the crest of this perfect wave, which has traveled thousands of kilometers across the Indian Ocean to this secluded bay in an almighty display of beauty. In a few days, Teiki and Janine will cast Daniel’s ashes out to sea. I can’t think of a more poetic way for a son to immortalize his father’s memory than surfing with his spirit each day.
“I remember one time we took the yacht to zees mog-nif-eee-cent deserted islands and one guest was reading a book ze whole time,” Janine tells me. “And Daniel shouted at him, ‘What are you doing? Don’t read! Look at where you are!’”
And so I keep staring into that barreling beaut of a wave, until they have to drag me away to catch the boat home
The author stayed at Hollow Tree’s Resort (htsresort.com; from US$200 per person per night, low-season, inclusive of three meals a day, three beers a day, surf guide and shuttle for the wave, and private transfers from Padang). Co-owner Teiki Ballian can help arrange boats and guides if you want to venture among islands. The Hollow Tree’s website has a list of helpful travel information, but here are some essentials:
Transit through Padang on western Sumatra, which has flights from Kuala Lumpur and domestic Indonesian cities. From Singapore, take a ferry to Batam then a direct flight on Lion Air or Citylink to Padang. You’ll need to stay the night; Plan B hotel (planb-hotel.com; discounted rate through Hollow Tree’s Rp500,000 per night, season dependent) is a clean, inexpensive option. The 7 a.m. Mentawai Fast Ferry, which departs Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, arrives at Tua Pejat Harbour, Sipora, where you will be met by a Hollow Trees speedboat for the 11⁄2-hour coastal voyage to the resort.
Get ready for a journey. To visit the indigenous Mentawais people you will need multiple boats and cash. From Sipora Tua Pejat Harbour, meet your pre- arranged boat for the two- hour sea voyage to Siberut Island’s Malipet Harbour. Your guide will take you two hours upriver in a motorized canoe, then it’s an hour trek through the jungle to your homestay. The two-night tribal homestay described here cost Rp3.5 million, including guide fees and the mandatory tobacco and sugar gifts. The private fast fishing boat from Sipora to Siberut costs another Rp3.5 million; Teiki can help arrange it.
WHAT TO BRING
Anything you think you will need, as there are no shops on Sipora: Besides the obvious beach clothes and surf gear, bring waterproof booties for coral, your own snorkel mask and lots of sun cream.
Siberut: Trekking clothes, waterproof trousers and wellies (which you can buy at Muara), possibly a sleeping bag and definitely mosquito spray. Expect to be dirty for the entirety of your visit: there’s no running water, and the washroom is the river.