The Greener Grasses of Indonesia

Photographer John Respondek spends six weeks scouring the outer reaches.

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Chippa Wilson, South Sumatra.


Taj Burrow, Lance’s Right.


Craig Anderson, Nias.

Over the past few years, I’ve started to wonder whether or not Indonesia is worth all the trouble anymore. The travel time is exhausting. The crowds are overflowing. And the whole enterprise costs a pretty penny. With all the places in the world that offer great waves to photograph, I’ve thought on more than a few occasions that it might be better to spend my time and energy somewhere else. 

My first voyage to Indonesia was in 2000. That trip provided the footage for the film Seven Days, Seven Slaves—which became a classic for a generation of Australians, mostly because the waves were so good. In the following years, I made regular trips back to various different areas in the archipelago for their unwavering ability to produce perfect waves and ideal shooting conditions. Spoiled, no doubt. But do anything enough—traveling, partying, surfing—and it can start to lose its luster. It’s easy to become desensitized to even the best waves on the planet if you score them so many times. The grass is always greener. 

Last season, I spent six weeks in Indonesia. Three distinct trips, three distinct regions, three distinct groups of surfers. By the end of that stint, watching one of the most stylish and tuned-in tube hounds in the world stroke into a bottoming-out cavern at an unnamed reef break with no one else around, I felt reaffirmed and reassured that there is no country on earth better suited to surfing—or capturing it. 

Chicken Feet And Shakedowns

South Sumatra is old-school Indonesia. Small villages sit tucked away in the jungle. Goats, cows, and chickens roam the beaches. Coconut-shell fires burn at sunset to keep the mosquitos in check and the bad spirits away, so we’re told. It’s a far cry from the hustle and bustle of Bali. And it’s the cultural opposite of a boat trip, where the only locals you see are on the drive from the airport to the docks. For the last few years, Chippa Wilson and I have made this our annual escape, a vacation away from our—well—other vacations. Each year we invite a few different friends along, and no one ever turns down the offer. 

That’s how Chippa and I find ourselves seated across from Dion Agius, Jay Davies, and Mitch Coleborn as an Indonesian waitress brings out goat livers, chicken feet, and fish heads for dinner at the local restaurant. Dion stares down at his meal with his lips sewn shut while Jay pokes at the eyeballs staring back at him from his plate. Birds flap in through the door and stray dogs run under our chairs. It’s slow pickings, at first. But there aren’t many other options, and we’re here for ten days. Eventually, we all dig in. And not one of us gets sick. 

There’s a solid beachbreak just in front of the camp, but we’re here to find something with a little more punch. So, each morning we pile into the car and buzz up and down the coast. Our driver, a thin Indonesian man with an immaculately slicked-back haircut, rips us up and down the slippery jungle roads at 100 miles per hour. While searching for a righthand slab, we are rear-ended by a motorbike. The rider makes a phone call and, suddenly, a large group of motorbikes come rumbling down the road. The guy who hit us is, apparently, a mafioso in a nearby village. And his gang isn’t happy. They take our driver by the throat, put him on the back of a bike, and tear off down a small track. We stand there, stunned. There is nowhere to go and nothing to do but wait. An hour later, our driver comes walking back out of the jungle. His hair is disheveled, but he doesn’t say a word. He hops in the driver’s seat, cranks up the car, and peels down through the dirt towards the beach like nothing happened. 

There’s hardly any other surfers around. We spend the afternoons cruising in camp or surfing the wave out front. Some of the crew will often split off to find other waves. Near the end of our stay, Chippa and I enjoy the score of the

trip by ourselves. Dion has a busted foot and stays back at the camp. Mitch heads way up Sumatra’s coast for a WQS event. And Jay chooses to surf a right that, he says later, doesn’t really work. I swim inside as Chippa stands in keg after keg, without another car on the beach or soul in the water. He’s more than happy to have hours of perfect waves all to himself. But I find myself screaming, watching more waves than Chippa could ever catch come marching through, flawless and completely empty.

Spinning In Packs

Think of the Mentawais, and you’ll picture some of the best waves in the world conveniently packed together in one tiny geographic area. But there are other factors to consider. Namely, the crowds. The Mentawais are every surfer’s dream. Guys are paying top dollar for a week-long trip to get the waves of their lives. But the venue’s overbooked. Sometimes, it gets a little aggressive.

At Lance’s Right, someone from another boat asks Dane Reynolds, “Do you take cameras with you everywhere you go?” 

Dane replies, “I do here.” 

Everywhere we go, there’s at least one person ready to tell us to fuck off. But everyone in that island chain is either on a private surf charter or at a private camp, and there’s even regulated capacity numbers at certain spots. It’s not like it’s some heavily guarded secret. And you can’t just rock on up. The whole reason to come to the Ments is to film and take photos. Even the non-pros have photographers on their boats.

We set our sights on avoiding the hassle. Everyone on our boat has been to the Mentawais enough times to know not just what we are looking for, but what the crowds will be thinking. For instance, if there’s a certain swell direction and wind, we know the other boats will be at Hollow Trees. So we go to Roxies instead. The crowd is usually looking for clean, glassy conditions. But our crew often wants waves that are onshore or cross-shore. That makes it easy to find spots that no one else gives a second look. 

The search gets monotonous at times, waiting for the captain and crew to move us from one place to another. We all start to go a little mad, and with a rowdy crew of swillers like this—Dane, Taj Burrow, Wade Goodall, Mitch Coleborn, Andrew Doheny, and Harry Bryant—it’s only a matter of time before things get wild. At night, fireworks explode on the bow and anything not bolted down gets thrown overboard. The charter company sends us a bill when we get back to shore: deck chairs, a vacuum cleaner, and a glass dish set head up a list of items sunk in the Indian Ocean.

But that same energy spills over to the water. Late nights don’t mean late mornings. The surfers push each other hard, and the waves are ready-made for high-performance surfing. It’s warm, pumping, and everyone is here to surf. The way the reefs are set up, the guys watch each other while paddling back out. The progress is visible from surfer to surfer, from one wave in a set to the next. At Macaronis, Wade and Dane battle with backside finners. Wade does one, then Dane does one a little higher and a little faster. And so on. The speed they carry down the line and the power with which they push themselves through the lip on turns increases every time they stand up. It’s why we come to the Mentawais.

Not Your Nias

Craig Anderson, Dion Agius, Oscar Langburne, Dylan Graves, Jake Kelley, and Micky Clarke offer a quiet reprieve from the revellers on the last boat. All business, focused on making a movie. Dion, still hurt from Sumatra, works at building scenes and sets with cellophane. He films balloons flapping in the wind on a 16mm camera. For the rest, downtime is meditative. Eat. Sleep. Tell a story or two on the deck. Repeat. Craig suffers a few moments of unbearable boredom, pacing back and forth with his eyes on the horizon. Oscar, 16 years old, keeps his head buried in school books. There’s a quiet tension in our search for waves.

This is Nias. But not the famous right at Lagundri Bay. We don’t even go near that place. Each day is spent miles off the coast, moving between uninhabited atolls and empty reef passes. Through binoculars, we watch for spit coming off the backs of distant waves. Even a fleeting mist warrants a closer look in the dinghy. Most prove to be mirages or untenable dares. But a rare few deliver, with no one but us to enjoy them. We stumble across several perfect waves without names. True exploration. It’s a sensation that’s hard to capture on most boat trips. 

During our week at sea, we find about half a dozen legit waves. But there are two that deliver real rewards. The first is a right that requires a knifing takeoff and then a hitch-free line to outrun it. Heavy, fast, and over in seconds. It looks like The Box’s tropical twin. We surf it in onshore winds, but the wave pulls so hard off the reef that it smoothes the surface into glass. The second wave is a left that wedges, then stands up and runs to the channel. A mixture of Pipeline and Greenbush, with the lighting and color to match. The crew buzzes, trying to figure out waves they’ve never surfed before. 

In between surfs, we talk and wonder what different winds, tides, and swells would look like at each of the waves. Or if the swell was a bit bigger. Surely they can handle up to eight foot. Especially the left. But we only scratch the surface of how good these waves might get. We get close, though.

It’s at the left, late in the afternoon on one of the last days of the charter. Over the course of an hour, the waves get better and more consistent. Two swells from slightly different directions peak up together and hit the reef at a slightly different angle than the rest. It just looks distinct as it comes in. It looks better. Craig takes off behind the peak and comes up under it. The sun lights him up just as the lip throws over. Then the wave runs. I swim down to let it pass. As I surface, I look back and see Craig kick out over the shoulder and paddle back to the boat.

Craig Anderson.