“The lip of the wave detonates on one of the world’s most dangerous reefs with a sharp crack. Paddling over these things is like climbing small mountains”
Courage. You think – you hope – you have more of it than you do. But when you truly need it, it’s in limited supply. A small bottle of elixir distilled from the fumes of skill, experience and willingness to accept risk. Every sip is precious – you have to make it count.
On this Sunday, off a remote island in Indonesia, I’m 24 hours from anything we would call medical care and I’m surfing big waves that are right on the bleeding edge of my ability. No matter what I tell myself, my bottle of courage is close to running out.
To me, surfing is a necessity for sanity. The troubles of life can be overwhelming – this is a way to re-boot. Sun, water and fresh air. Clean, cleansing and physically draining, you’re immersed in the building blocks of all living things. No mobile phones, TV, traffic. No distractions. The incessant chatter of civilisation is blessedly on mute.
With a few exceptions, a surfing holiday is the only holiday I ever truly want. A short stack of surfboards, three pairs of shorts, two singlets, sun cream and a plane ticket. Nice and simple.
I’ve been doing these trips now with my closest mates for more than 15 years. This year we choose the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra, Indonesia, a place widely regarded as the wave mecca of the world. Of course, you don’t get the planet’s best waves without a price. Clumps of razor-sharp coral lurk beneath shallow breaks and thumping waves, eager to gouge a board or shred a limb. It’s not for beginners or those low on courage – or for those of us whose bodies are starting to stiffen and ache with age.
Getting older sneaks up on you. It’s a betrayal, really. Your once-loyal body turns against you. True, I didn’t help it much. A lifetime of contact sports, broken bones and multiple joint reconstructions. It’s been a blast, but quid pro quo . . . The payback is aches and pains that never used to be there. Reactions and movements that are now a beat – a shadow – behind where they used to be. I need to train differently now, smarter. I need to hear what my body is telling me and more importantly, listen.
If I don’t, aches become injuries.
My mates are in the same age group (I’m calling it upper-mid-thirties) and they’re battling the same physical mutiny. So for this trip, instead of a basic wooden shack on the beach with a fan, rice, raw chilli and a toothless Indonesian grin, we booked something different.
The place is called Ulau Manua and the emphasis is on not just getting you into the water each day, but making sure you can get out of bed the following day to do it all again.
Our trip will be physically brutal. Two surf sessions a day, which adds up to about eight hours in the water, for 12 days straight. That’s a lot of paddling, twisting and holding your breath. It’s also a lot of energy-sapping heat. The sun in these parts is relentless; the water temperature alone is 28°C. The Indian Ocean is a simmering pot.
At home in Sydney, every morning before I surf or train, I stretch to get things moving. Ulau Manua takes this to the next level. A Brazilian jiu-jitsu champ based at the camp uses a German program called “Five Konzept” stretching. Instead of attacking one muscle at a time, it’s a series of full-body stretches designed to wake up the body and protect the joints. We do it at 5:30 each morning, and afterwards at night. The other exercises are functional. Mini surfboards, Bosu balls, balance boards: it’s all designed to mimic the demands of surfing. We grumble, we sweat, we chase the night session with medicinal Bintangs. But we do as instructed.
By the time the swell arrives it’s one of the best and biggest of the season. We’ve been watching the charts and we’re ready – or so we think.
We get up in the dark to stretch. There’s less of the usual banter. We can hear the sound of waves pounding the outer reef, calling us in. We each take two boards, load them into the boat and head to the tip of the island that’s taking the brunt of the swell. Gingerly, we paddle into the line-up of surfers.
Up close it’s a thing of beauty and malevolence. Sets of waves are marching in at high speed; Neptune’s army rippling across the horizon and thundering ashore. Heaving barrels at close to triple overhead. The lip of the wave detonating on one of the world’s most dangerous reefs with a sharp crack, followed by the roar of the foam. Paddling up and over these things is like climbing small mountains. There are pro surfers charging the bomb sets. They’re taking off – clutching their boards in a vertical drop, slicing down the face of the wave – to be rewarded with stand-up barrels, hissing and spitting them safely out back to raucous cheers from the assembled boats.
I glance towards the shore where there’s also a growing band of wounded. Washed across the reef, pounded into submission, they have cuts that need stitches, broken boards and swathes of missing skin.
Out the back, with shouts of encouragement, we call each other into some of the smaller, in-between sets. They’re still double overhead and heavy, but I find enough courage to drop into four solid waves, each one a liquid freight train skimming over the living reef. It’s with a mixture of relief and elation that I finally paddle back to the boat.
Onboard the boat, we compare reef cuts and injuries. We all vow to charge harder next time, take the bigger sets, the deeper take-offs. We know the pressures, the stress, the decisions, the crush of life will rush back as soon as we leave the islands.
But not just yet.
Ulau Manua means “abode of the gods” in the local Mentawai dialect. It’s an apt title. This sumptuous surfing-specific resort is within walking distance of the beach and a mere 25-minute boat ride from most of the main reef breaks. The healthy food and physical maintenance on offer will ensure you maximise the waves. Eleven-day packages start at US$2220. Mention Men’s Health for a five per cent discount. (ulaumanua.com)
Qantas (qantas.com.au) flies direct to Jakarta. From there, it’s a connecting flight to Padang. From Padang, it’s two ferry trips to Mentawai. Difficult – but well worth it.