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The Island

The Island

Apr 2015

By Will Bendix, pics Alan Van Gysen

The nasal groan of the cessna’s twin propellers buzzes us onto the runway at Kuala Namu International Airport and soon we’re floating over roads and rivers, dense coconut plantations and minarets that poke into the sky like ornate needles. Then there’s only thick green jungle punctured by rusty volcanic peaks. Finally a sea of turquoise opens up below us and disappears into the horizon.

Sean Holmes and his wife Jeannie have their heads pressed to the window upfront. We bank right and little blobs of land appear then disappear beneath the wing of the Cessna. It’s rumoured that an old matriarch with ties to the mafia started this airline of twin prop workhorses. She was a lobster farmer who used to live on the island we find ourselves heading towards.

When business started booming, the boss-lady needed a more reliable way of getting her wares to market. So she enlisted a fleet of second hand Cessnas and effectively opened the island up to outsiders. Previously the only transport was an erratic ferry that could take up to two days, or wouldn’t arrive at all. Nobody sees the boss anymore. It’s said she just sits in her office in the capital all day, tattooed from head to toe, chain-smoking ciggies while counting all her money.

There’s an audible shift in the drone of the engines as the plane starts to descend. Whitewash licks the reefs below and soon everyone’s head is pressed to the window.

“YOU’RE NOT GONNA BE DOING ANY BUNNY HOPS OUT THERE,” Frankie says as he picks his way over the rocks. “But hell, it feels good to get some barrels.”

50 metres behind him a lump of swell hiccups over the ledge and detonates in a haze of spit. This is, after all, what we’ve come for. The Indonesian dream. Barrels, warm water and swaying palms. Frankie can’t really recall the first time he came to Indo. It’s all smudged into one long, luminous memory when he used to trawl the archipelago with Tom Curren and an ensemble of legendary surfers, looking for virgin waves as part of The Search. But this is different. This island does not belong to the flat teardrops that make up the Mentawai chain or the Banyaks. It is a thousand miles away from the dry eastern expanse of Nusa Tenggara. The island is a land unto itself. Massive clouds swell from its mountainous centre, heated by the significant landmass that creates its own unique weather pattern. The winds shift on a whim, bringing with them a dark vortex of cloud or sunshine so intense it feels like your insides are broiling. The waves are different too. More Hawaii than the Mentawais. Thick chunks of reef broken by beachbreaks and rivermouths. A different kind of perfection.

It’s Koby’s first trip abroad, their first trip together, and it’s hard to tell who is more excited - father or son. “It’s good for the lightie to feel some island power,” Frankie says as he swigs his water. “And for him to surf with someone like Holmesy. He’s always been one of my favourite surfers.” 

A few minutes later Sean drops into a hopeless suck-out, his rail barely connecting as he hits the trough. It looks like the lip’s going to square him in the head but he miraculously squeaks under it and the wave shuts down. Or so we think. A few seconds elapse and he shoots out onto the shoulder, relaxed, standing tall. 

The slab is just one of a dozen waves littered across the island. Others, we’re told, are still being discovered with each new season. A serviceable road runs around the perimeter of coastline, making discovery relatively easy. The trick is wetting your finger, weighing up all the variables and knowing where to go. 

As we drive and explore, Frankie talks. He talks about surfing and fishing and trips gone by. He talks about how cayenne pepper is good for you - just half a teaspoon in the morning and you’re hundreds. He loves to cook and carries a fiery bottle of red curry powder around with him wherever he goes. He catches fish for a living and shapes boards for a bit of extra coin. He talks about rocker dimensions and the best way to braai a couta (wrapped in foil and marinated in chutney, marmite and coke). He still lives in Warner Beach, where he was ‘discovered’ decades ago and thrust into the limelight as Curren’s protégé. He loves South Africa but hates the crime. He’s still married to his high school sweetheart Lisa. He has a daughter now too. His life revolves around his family and the sea. Frankie is 41 and many days have gone by since he first started searching. Many, and none at all.

THE KAK-KAK-KAK OF THE OUTBOARD MOTOR IS DEAFENING and Koby has his hands clamped firmly around his ears to try block out the sound. The nose of our small fishing skiff is aimed at an islet in the distance, one of many that lie sprinkled just offshore. Towering plumes of cloud erupt along the horizon. The heat is building steadily but the soft sea breeze keeps us cool. There are no roads to the wave we’re chasing. It’s said to be the best - and heaviest – in the area. I had asked a travelling Australian if he knew why it was called Teabags before we left.  

“Y’know mate,” he said, pointing a finger offshore “When you eat it out there, it’s worse than someone dropping their balls on your head. You get properly fucken’ teabagged!”

The swell is an awkward size when we arrive - not quite big enough to break in deeper water allowing for a roll in, but instead it focusses all the energy onto the inside. It’s a cruel, perfect wave. A thin sheet of water covers the live reef. If you don’t make the take-off, you find yourself washed up on a dry coral ledge that runs the length of the point. There’s nowhere to hide as the sets detonate on top of you.

We’re told how a famous Aussie pro scooped the cover of a big international magazine here on a recent visit. After getting the shot in the bag, he paddled further up the reef to where an even shallower, faster section beckons. Shortly thereafter he was taken to the airport in an ambulance and flown back home.

Sean and Frankie give it a sniff, paddling up the point, but return empty handed. “You could try up there,” says Sean. “But you’re just asking for trouble.” They settle for the main section, Sean waiting patiently for the sets, Frankie locked behind the curtain or carving big arcs in the powerful bowl.

Koby is tentative at first, but his courage builds wave by wave. Soon he is connecting double barrels as his fins barely clear the coral heads. Say what you want about nature versus nurture, but the similarity in style he shares with his father is uncanny. The same relaxed centre of gravity. The exact same dropped knee and compressed bottom turn. His calm under pressure belies his 13 years of age. Sean will later say that while subbing a wave Koby was taking off on, he was getting ready to turn around and “go pick pieces of the lightie off the reef”. But Koby returns to the skiff in one piece, his eyes bulging with excitement, his world altered forever. The only person smiling more than him is his old man.

We pull anchor and motor to another small island in the distance. The leeward beach is flanked by a solitary outcrop of rock, sprouting jungle like a wild green afro. We jump off and swim to shore, rolling up the beach in the shorebreak. 

“Gilligan’s Island!” Frankie shouts, summing up the postcard we find ourselves washed up on.

Sean disappears around the corner and quickly trots back. “There’s a wave there,” he says, and swims back to the skiff for his board.  

It doesn’t make sense. The swell is coming from the same direction as the landmass in the distance, yet there is a turquoise A-frame bouncing off the other side of the outcrop. It’s like God’s private wavepool. Sean and Koby frolic in the wedges, sliding in next to the rock, throwing down one big turn or pulling in before the wave runs dry. Frankie rolls around in the shorebreak, filming on his GoPro, hooting as his son takes off and he in turn gets smashed into the sand by the lip.  

When everyone finally scrambles back onto the boat, hair caked with sand, eyes bloodshot, Frankie turns around and says, “Ja, we’ll look back on this and won’t believe we were here.” 

THE RAIN DOESN’T FALL ON THE ISLAND. It gushes from holes in the sky, like someone is emptying a giant, endless bucket. We sip coffee and watch the water as it cascades around us.

“Ous think you go to the islands and it’s offshore and perfect every day,” Frankie chuckles. “But sometimes it’s jut.”

He launches into a story from years ago.

“The one time I was in Hawaii though, it was cooking for weeks on end! First day we’re there getting barrelled, barrelled, and then I pull in and my board hits me in the groin. Tickets. 30 stitches. 20 on the outside, 10 on the inside, thanks for coming. I got back from the hospital and Jason Ribbink  arrived. The next morning he goes for a surf and I’m parking on the couch. You know with injuries like that, the pain only kicks in later and I’m on the couch in pain cuzzie, goofed on painkillers, watching TV. The next thing the news comes on and the presenter, he tunes,” at this Frankie switches effortlessly into a nasal American accent. “He tunes 'Jason Ribbink from South Africa almost died on the North Shore today when his board scalped him at Backdoor' Hawaii national news, bru! Jason had just walked out the door a couple of hours ago. I thought I was still asleep, dreaming. Same thing happened, his board hit the backwash in the barrel but it ended up taking half his head off. When Jason got out the water the Hawaiian guys reckoned this ou was going to fall in the sand and peg right there in front of them. Half his pineapple was hanging open. They stitched him back up but that was it for both of us, first day over, thanks for coming.” 

The stories continue to flow from Frankie as the rain falls. He talks about Europe and Oz and Indo, about the days of hustling on the ‘QS when all the South Africans used to sleep on the beach or in the bushes - “Hotel Le Grasse”, as they would tell the French customs officials. He talks about his first trip overseas with Mike Roscoe for a pro junior event in Sydney when they were 16 and how they were supposed to be gone for a few weeks and ended up staying for five months, working as “garbos”, collecting trash to make enough money to get to Kirra. He remembers how they ended up sleeping in a shredded tent during a cyclone and had their boards stolen, but then their luck changed and they were taken in and ended up staying in an apartment above the point for weeks on end, fridge full, surfing the best waves of their life. He talks about Kirra – the old Kirra, the real Kirra, the best wave there ever was - and Burleigh and Supertubos and Supers, about Coxos and Macaronis and the South Coast. He talks about getting buzzed by sharks and contracting malaria and even typhoid - not from some tropical backwater, but from dodgy Makro boerewors. He talks about his friends and connections and the people who colour his memories, about the waves he’s surfed and the waves he still wants to surf. A life made up of stories from the road and the sea.

THE SWIRLING WIND CONTINUES TO PUSH US around the island each day. We drive, flanked by ocean on one side and houses on the other. Families live and work in the doorways, on rolled out mats and in concrete rooms visible from the road. Most of the houses are less than 10 years old, built after the Boxing Day tsunami that levelled villages across the island. Only one person died, however, in the aftermath. It’s reported he suffered from a heart attack while heading for higher ground. Local folklore tells of a devastating tsunami in 1907 in which thousands of the islanders perished. They had rushed to the beach to collect fish after seeing the water recede, exposing the flapping bounty. They did not know the water would return. The story of the semong has since been passed down from generation to generation. Everyone on the island knows that if the ocean inhales, it will exhale again.

We find evidence of these seismic shifts in the waves we surf. At one particular beach the entire shelf has been thrust up from deep below the surface. Petrified coral heads bake in the sun and break off like crystal in your hand. Not long after the Boxing Day tsunami, an 8.7 magnitude quake struck directly off the southern end of the island. Geologists estimate that the island rose at least six feet on the western coast, while on the east coast the land was submerged, seawater flooding fields and settlements. The island had been tipped like a saucer. Some of the waves we surf are less than a decade old. There are vague stories of other waves before the quake. A surf camp was perched in front of the best one, but after the earthquake it was gone. The devastated owner packed up and left shortly afterwards. While we are there, a volcano erupts on the mainland and smolders for days. Villages are evacuated and tense hours pass as the earth rumbles and shifts deep below us.

THERE’S WAVES DAD, THERE’S WAVES!” Koby grabs his board and is bouncing around on the porch. The wind has dropped off as it does most afternoons and the peak out front is producing smooth lefts and rights. He jogs down to the channel, dodging the water buffalo on the beach. It’s local custom that when one of the animals gives birth, the owner gets to keep the first calf, but the second belongs to the community. Large herds of these water buffalo roam the island, belonging to everyone and no one. 

From the water the jungle is drenched in the warm glow of late afternoon light, making it look deceptively inviting. But deeper inside it’s writhing with leeches and animals and insects bigger than a human hand that crawl into your hut at night. The jungles are revered but mostly left alone. 

Frankie leans into a left and effortlessly glides off the bottom before cracking his board under the lip. The move is standard but his positioning is so unique, only a few surfers in the world could capably draw those lines.

Much later, thousands of kilometres away back home, I’ll ask Frankie if he has any regrets. There are surfers with lesser talent but more marketing savvy who have capitalised on having style or being a personality. They’ve built their careers off it. Made good money out of it. There are others who have used their sway to get big jobs inside the industry, or those who have just left surfing altogether to pursue more lucrative ventures.

Frankie thinks about it then smiles. 

“Nah, I’ve had a good life,” he says. “I can’t complain. The only thing I would’ve liked to have done is a couple more contests, to give it a proper crack, but we didn’t really have the backup then. We could’ve made it with a little more help. But I’ve had the best days of my life freesurfing, surfing good waves. My sponsors have always been good to me. And I’ve learnt a lot from travelling, from guys like Curren. I have good memories. Now I want to see if I can break into surfboard designing. I love it, I love shaping. And Koby’s going to do well. He’s got a really good style and he tries hard. It’s nice to see your lightie ripping. I think he’s got a good future ahead of him, that’s the main thing. I’m really stoked about that.”

Back on the island that night, after the sun has dipped below the horizon and the insects come out and fill the darkness, we get word that the volcano has erupted again. The last time it happened the sky was filled with ash and all flights were cancelled for a week. The earth is constantly changing, moving, but on the island, for now, time stands still. A silence falls over everyone before Koby Oberholzer asks his dad, hopefully, “Does this mean we don’t have to go home yet?”

Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine