Surfing Simeulue | Searching for Empty Waves in a Remote Corner of Indonesia
"It's like Bali was 30 years ago," we were told...
Words & photography by Matt Carr
I drifted in and out of a fitful jet-lagged purgatory slumber, dreams of empty green barrels jamming with Indonesian screams and extreme turbulence.
This being my fourth flight in 48 hours, I was raring to arrive in Simeulue, a remote island of the Indonesian archipelago, adrift in the Indian Ocean 150km off the Aceh province of Sumatra. It was a relief to be jolted from the halls of sleep as the plane touched down. We were here at last!
A glance out of the tiny Wings Air craft revealed a confusingly familiar and much-bigger-than-anticipated airport, and it dawned on me we were not “there" after all. The pilot had U-turned in the storm and we were back at Medan on the mainland, where we’d taken off.
Not an ideal start to be sure, but the flight the following morning went without a hitch. Many Indonesian islands come with the promise – with varying degrees of truth – of being “like Bali was 30 years ago", that is to say before the hordes of white-dreadlocked Australians, wanton development and horrifyingly crowded lineups arrived. If Bali in the 70s was its birthplace, The Indonesian Dream™ – of perfect, uncrowded emerald waves, and deserted, palm-fringed beaches on unspoilt islands – had since moved to the Mentawai islands, in the 90s.
"It dawned on me we were not “there" after all. The pilot had U-turned in the storm and we were back at Medan on the mainland, where we’d taken off…"
Now they too are overrun with land camps and boat charters. I had come to Simeulue with my girlfriend and two mates, in the hope that a version of this dream was still alive and well, sustained – we hoped – by its difficulty of access (which our inbound episode confirmed) and Sharia law (no booze, no bikinis and so forth).
The epicentre of the 9.3-magnitude Boxing Day earthquake in 2004 was only 40km from the northern tip of the island and Simeulue was the first land struck by the resulting tsunami. This might have been the event that thrust the island of Simeulue, with its population of 82,000, into the global spotlight, for tragic reasons. But while the coastlines of Aceh on the Sumatran mainland and many other Indian Ocean regions were left devastated by the tsunami – 170,000 Indonesians perished in Aceh alone – Simeulue escaped, miraculously, with only seven souls lost to the tragedy.
Following a tsunami of comparable violence in 1907, the islanders had passed down the knowledge that if the sea should suddenly retreat following an earthquake, the cry of “semong!" (local dialect for tsunami) would go up, and everybody would make for the hills.
"Following a tsunami in 1907, the islanders had passed down that if the sea should suddenly retreat after an earthquake, everybody should make for the hills."
On our arrival at Casarina – a wonderful homestay-cum-surf camp in the village of Nancala on the island’s west coast, our host Rina reassured us that there hadn’t been an earthquake “for ages", by which we then learned she meant the last one was six months ago.
Volatile plate tectonics are simply a fact of life in Simeulue and, perversely, that very volatility has borne fruit for Simeulue, in the form of its most consistent wave. The 2004 quake moved the furniture around on the sea bed, creating “Jackals" a.k.a. “The Peak", an ultra-consistent A-frame reef break in the middle of an exceedingly picturesque but previously unsurfed stretch of beach.
"'Dylans' was a fickle but bewitchingly-perfect-when-on right-hander that offered wrapping, metronomic barrels."
Casarina occupied prime beachfront real estate directly in front of The Peak, and we surfed it every day for a fortnight. Never smaller than head-high, the ultra-consistent wave nonetheless had a different complexion on any given day, depending on the subtleties of swell size, period and direction. As a rule, the lefts were faster and hollower, yielding a barrel or two on take-off or through the inside section, whereas the right offered up a whackable wall.
Located in the doldrums, the daily weather pattern made for windless morning and evening sessions, and a light onshore midday breeze, punctuated by the occasional short-lived tropical squall. The glassy morning and evening sessions saw a light crowd of 5–10 at The Peak, and an empty line-up in between.
We explored the coastline further north, finding a handful of empty waves of varying quality, the best of which was a stunning beach that was home to some fun sand-bottomed peaks. On the southern tip of the island, we weaved through a maze of tiny coral islands in a local fisherman’s outrigger canoe to “Thailands", where we surfed a long and shifty lefthander that rumbled down a jagged stretch of reef in the otherwise-deserted bay.
“Dylans" was a fickle but bewitchingly-perfect-when-on righthander that offered wrapping, metronomic barrels when the swell size and direction was just right. There are only 20 or so local surfers in Simeulue and many of them could be found threading their way through the round tubes at Dylans when it was on. In one particularly memorable session, we were treated to a veritable barrel-riding clinic by a preternaturally talented 14-year-old local kid named Rambo.
On an oft-repaired, yellowing old board he would take off 10 yards deeper than anyone else, glide over the heaving ledge, stall with a wild grin on his face, pull in and stand tall as he flew through the tube and be spat out five seconds later, hooting like a maniac.
With the vast majority of Simeulue’s population Muslim, each village around the island featured a mosque as its centre-piece. Their ornate roofs made up a kaleidoscopic patchwork of colour as we explored the island. The call to prayer at dusk signalled the end of the day’s surfing, as the sun slipped into the Indian Ocean.
"We were treated to a veritable barrel-riding clinic by a preternaturally talented 14-year-old local kid named Rambo."
As seems to be the case everywhere on earth, the boys were mad about football. Despite there being very little mobile phone signal on large parts of the island, and wifi available only in Sinabang (Simeulue’s “capital"), the Premier League was a big deal.
At least half of the footballers in Simeulue seemed to be Liverpool fans, making the island perhaps the world’s unlikeliest Scouse stronghold and causing me to wonder whether football rather than Christianity or Islam is in fact the world’s premier religion. Girls would mostly play volleyball, while tiny children would fly kites hundreds of feet in the sky with their fathers.
Simeulue teemed with wildlife. Water buffalo, chickens and goats roamed free across the island. Steaming buffalo dung on the road represented a real navigational hazard when on scooters. One day we set off inland, on a hike up a creek through the rainforest, climbing waterfalls and traversing rapids on slippery fallen trees. Our path was crossed by wild boar, troops of long-tailed macaques unique to Simeulue and giant centipedes.
Fishermen deployed a variety of techniques at river mouths and in the open ocean from brightly-painted boats, while women patrolled the reefs at low tide gathering seaweed. We set out to explore the uninhabited nearby island of Pulau Mincau, only to encounter a weather-beaten old man emerging from the jungle wielding a machete. Luckily, he had eyes only for coconuts.
"Not five-star surf-resort luxury, certainly, but wasn’t that the point?"
Daily we reaped the reward of this bounty. Our host Rina was a well-travelled cook who had spent time all over Asia. Speaking five languages – Bahasa Indonesian, English, Mandarin, Thai and Hindustani – her cooking was a vibrant cacophony of flavours from across the region.
Our day would begin with a breakfast of champions at dawn – I rapidly established that her banana pancakes were the best in the world. For our day’s adventures, she prepared sumptuous packed lunches. For dinner, she would return from the market with fresh Mahi Mahi, Wahoo or Tuna for the BBQ. The intoxicating smell and taste of Buffalo Rendang was greeted with the most relish of all after a long day in the water – simple fare but exquisitely executed.
In respect of local custom tradition, my girlfriend Tash was required to cover up on the beach or out and about. Which would’ve spelled disaster for her tanning aspirations, were it not for the grassy garden at Casarina, where she could sunbathe in a bikini to her heart’s content.
Our rooms – in traditional Sumatran wooden cabins – were clean and simple, featuring a comfy bed, fan, traditional Indonesian (squat) toilet and bucket shower. Not five-star surf-resort luxury, certainly, but wasn’t that the point? We ate like kings, slept soundly every night and felt like guests in Rina’s home rather than package-holiday surf tourists.
As our time in Simeulue drew to a close, we reflected that we had got what we came for, and much more. Its remote location, tricky access and lack of a real A-List wave – like G-Land or nearby Nias’ Lagundri Bay – has kept the influx of travelling surfers to a trickle.
We found a warm and friendly people living simply on a wonderful island. Sure enough, as we arrived at the tiny airport on our final day we learned that, due to technical issues, the plane would not depart until the following morning. Dismay turned to delight as I realised that if we were quick, there was time to catch the evening session at Dylans for a bonus session to sign off.
Do it yourself:
From Kuala Lumpur, Singapore or Jakarta, fly to Medan on the Sumatran mainland with one of the Indonesian low-cost airlines (Lion Air, Batik Air etc). From Medan, Wings Air operates daily (ish!) flights to Simeulue.
Casarina offers accommodation including 3 meals per day for 45USD per day. Rina can organise scooters or 4x4 hire on request.
Guides & Expeditions:
We hooked up with local English-speaking surf guide Ilan who can help with all logistics around the island – boat charters, jungle hiking, board hire should you need, surf photos and more. Reach him on Facebook.