KATIET, Indonesia —
In 1991, an Australian named Lance Knight came upon a perfect wave. Brushed by gentle offshore winds and gleaming in the afternoon sunshine, the hollow wall of water broke over a shallow coral reef now known to surfers as the “surgeon’s table” for the amount of flesh it has consumed. It was the stuff of teenage daydreams, shaped as if it had been ripped straight from a notebook drawing. As far as anybody knows, no one had ridden it before.
Like the surf across many of the 17,000 islands that make up Indonesia, the conditions on this remote beach were world-class. But unlike Bali, Java and Nias, Sipura Island was virtually unknown to foreigners.
Located 90 miles off the coast of West Sumatra, Sipura is part of the Mentawai Islands Regency, a small chain that has achieved mythical status in the surfing community for its abundance of tropical perfection — and the complicated travel logistics required to reach it. As the Mentawais became a surfing destination, the wave Knight discovered became “Lance’s Right,” just one example of the scores of pristine swells tracking east to west out of the Indian Ocean.
I will never forget my first sight of the Mentawais. It looks impossible. There is no wave zone on the planet like it.
When I first came here 24 years ago, there were no land-based surf camps or resorts, just a handful of yachts and boats plying the waters around the four main islands. Unless you were on a luxury boat, it was far from a pampered experience. But creature comforts are unimportant when flawless waves are unwinding in front of your tent.
In 1999, travelers hired local fishermen and boat captains to take them to the islands and set up camp, or stayed with local families in their homes for a few dollars a day. Simple wooden homes with no air conditioning, no running water and limited electricity or camping were your lodging choices. Malaria was a serious concern, and in some areas remains so.
I rode aboard the San Souci with an Australian crew and a group of surfers from Santa Barbara, Calif. After the overnight ferry crossing from Padang, the capital of West Sumatra, we arrived in an area known as “Playgrounds.” From every vantage point of the boat there were beautiful waves breaking and no one around. I spent the next 12 days surfing places with names like Telescopes, Macaronis, Ebay, 4 Bobs, Bank Vaults and of course, Lance’s Right (and Lance’s Left).
We were riding uncrowded, overhead and hollow reef waves every day. It seemed unreal: Stunning sunsets, transparent water, fresh fish pulled in from the Indian Ocean. It was every surfing dream rolled up into one trip. I knew I would be back.
I returned to the Mentawais in 2005 and again in 2006, venturing farther north and surfing waves in the Telo, Hinako and Banyak chains. I was decompressing from covering war and conflict in the Middle East, and I wanted to unplug far away from civilization. It was still paradise, but some of the waves had changed.
As some reefs lift and others submerge, waves improve or vanish altogether. In 2004 the islands were rocked by the Boxing Day earthquake and tsunami. The Sunda and Australian tectonic plates collide here, which is what formed the Mentawais. In March 2005 over a thousand people died in the Nias-Simelue earthquake.
I did not return to the Mentawais until 2023. The changes to the islands were obvious.
The 12-hour overnight boat trip across the channel from Padang had been replaced with the “Mentawai Fast” ferry, crossing in a leisurely three hours. “Captain Phillips,” a film where Tom Hanks’s ship gets taken over by modern-day pirates, played on televisions in the air-conditioned main cabin.
Resort reps welcomed me upon arrival and loaded my boards and bags onto a brand-new speedboat with the Kingfisher Resort logo splashed on its side. An hour later we had rounded the wave-lashed southern end of Sipura and negotiated the keyhole in the coral reef. Four air-conditioned bungalows with WiFi and en suite hot showers overlooked perfect waves winding down the reef out front.
In 2005 this was raw undeveloped land. Now it is a low-key resort, but with all the trimmings: pool bar, ocean-view dining room, private boats to take you to various surf breaks and a white sand beach lined with coconut palms.
Locals say the rush was on by 2015. Surf resorts and camps began appearing near all the premier breaks, and now there are over 50 charter boats ferrying frothing surfers who come from around the world. According to Statistics Indonesia, the number of international tourists to visit the Mentawais steadily grew from 4,120 in 2011 to 6,569 in 2015 to 12,325 in 2018.
In 2016, the local government implemented a surf tax, charging 1,000,000 rupiah (less than $70 today) for 15 days. Surfers wear wristbands to show they’ve paid. There are supposedly boat patrols to check, but I never saw them.
For tourists, the Mentawais — or “Ments” — have been reachable only by boat, but that will soon change. An airport expansion on Sipura is expected to be completed this year, and a 1,500-meter runway will allow passenger jets to land. The growing tourism economy stands to benefit, but with it comes more foreign investment. Locals will compete for business with interests from mainland Indonesia and Singapore.
Surf tourism has already supplanted the traditional economy of coconuts, lumber and clove harvesting. The turn to a service economy has been rapid for the Mentawai people. What happens to them — and to the myth of a surfing Shangri-La — when the island goes mainstream?
Indonesia’s marquee surf spots became the darlings of the global surf media throughout the 1980s and ’90s. The idyllic image of an unspoiled paradise promised an alternative to the aquatic traffic jams many surfers faced at home. Traveling surfers began branching out to the archipelago’s lesser-known islands in a quest to find uncrowded perfection.
That included Australian surfer Chris “Scuzz” Scurrah, the founder and owner of the charter boat business Sumatran Surfariis, and South African Jaco Steyn, the owner of the Kingfisher Resort on Sipura Island. Nasrallah Hosein, better known as Anas, is the chief boat captain at Kingfisher. His father, Pak Hosein, hosted Lance Knight at his beachfront home in 1991. Anas is part of the first generation of Mentawai that have embraced surfing as a sport and as their livelihood.
I interviewed Scuzz, Steyn and Anas to ask how they viewed changes in the Mentawais. Their responses have been edited for clarity and length.
“I just wanted to come to Sumatra. I wasn’t interested in Bali. I was here for seven years before I ever went to Bali. It’s a huge island with volcanoes, tigers and orangutans, goes across the equator. It was very romantic and wild and “Jungle Book.”
“I grew up north of Cape Town. I got my degree and was working in an office job, a hedge fund. In South Africa you are stuck in an office job if you want to do well for yourself, we don’t have the luxury to quit the job and go on a three-month holiday. I couldn’t see myself sitting in an office doing the 9 to 5.”
“It was quite a hardcore destination early on. There wasn’t a camp scene. A lot of the older Aussies were there and they kept everyone in check. There was no search and rescue or anyone that was going to help us, so we were all working together. … Looking back on it we were lucky there weren’t more serious injuries. You’re so far out.”
“It was a conscious decision to go to the Mentawais. I went there to look for land. Heard there was a guy at Kingfisher that wanted to sell out. I bought in in 2015 with three bungalows.
I should have realized just how good I had it on my first trip to the Mentawais in 1999. The only locals that were “surfing” were using old pieces of wood as bodyboards in the shorebreak. Many of today’s most popular waves hadn’t even been surfed, or at least made public.
“First time I tried [to surf], [it was] a little bit hard, but we liked it. We start learning, every friend. We use boards from guests and after the guests are leaving they give it to a local.”
“It wasn’t business. No one was there to make money. They were there to get waves. … Used to be the only place we could get internet was in the post office. It was an old dial-up. We didn’t have phones. We were just stoked on the beauty of it and the surf.”
In Mentawai villages like Katiet, on Sipura Island, the communities are very tight. Outsiders, even people from across the channel on Sumatra, must go through the proper protocol to assimilate. That often means marrying into the village. I witnessed one wedding with guests spilling out the sides of a church founded by Lutheran missionaries in the early 20th century.
“Learning the language, Bahasa Indonesian, is so important. The staff is all locally employed and didn’t speak English. It is so different from doing business in the Western world. After three years we started expanding again, built the fourth bungalow, bought better boats and built the pool bar.”
“It is important to marry into the village, there are so many generations living in the village. You just can’t show up from Padang and be accepted into the village. You have to marry into it. To live and make a house there you have to marry into the village.”
Still, foreigners are not just looking at the Mentawais as a business opportunity but as a place to live. They are building luxury homes with million-dollar views. The price of land is soaring. Locals, now with access to internet, are finding it easier to sell their land.
But Barnabas, a local who is the owner of the economical Arthur Homestay near the world-famous wave Telescopes, wants to invest rather than cash in. For example, he’s added a speed boat to access the waves, a must in the Mentawai chain.
“I heard that now, many locals are buying the land near the airport. Locals understand now about the price. Their eyes are open. There is opportunity.
“I have two daughters and two boys. The first thing I want for my children is go to a good quality university. And then open businesses in Mentawai, because Mentawai is a good opportunity.”
“Many people asking to buy [our land]. They ask, ‘How much?’ We don’t want to sell. The resort, they ask. First one here, and the second, the resort.”
“I can’t remember when it really started to focus on the land. People wanted their own boat. People didn’t think about land. I remember being offered my first piece of land and it was 10,000 rupiah — so a dollar a square meter. It would probably go for 300,000 to 400,000 a square meter now.”
During the covid-19 pandemic, Indonesia locked down. Charter boats were dry-docked or taken to other locations, and land camps were shuttered. Steyn and his wife lived through the pandemic at their resort, which was closed for the duration of Indonesia’s lockdown. During my last trip, the couple were on their way home to South Africa to have a baby.
Many smaller resorts did not survive the shutdown. Now the resorts are expanding their offerings beyond surfing: yoga, snorkeling, picnics on tropical islets and romantic honeymoons. Scuzz went back to his native Australia to earn enough money to build another charter boat. More and more customers were lining up.
Just before the pandemic, mobile phone service arrived in the Mentawais. It changed everything.
“Everyone now has phones. Before, you had to buy a piece of land by knowing people who knew people in the Mentawais. Now with the internet you can buy land without having ever been there.”
“I closed my business, no guests during covid. I asked my staff to stay at home. [Now] people are coming back to Mentawai. Families stay in my homestay from Europe, South America, Brazilians, sometimes Australia. Many people come, not only surfing guests. Enjoy the beach, traditional food. Near Katiet, they can see turtles. … I have to cancel some of my reservations because I am full.”
“There has a been a big shift three years ago to move to couples and families. We are gearing toward that, the chef is making vegetarian options. That wouldn’t have happened a few years ago.”
“It has helped. [Tourists] come here and go shopping, buy souvenirs, they can help the locals.”
The economy of the Mentawais has completely shifted to tourism. Locals are excited about the economic opportunities for their families. Foreigners, once primarily investors, are now looking at the islands as a place to live the tropical dream.
“Before, it took 10 hours, one night, to get here from Padang. Now people will come not only for surfing. No canceled ferry because of weather.”
“Once the airport is up, the island is going to expand. The Indonesian government is pushing hard to make it a tourist destination. We are getting a lot of help for infrastructure, with the surf tax, pushing to make it a holiday destination. … There will be more strike missions: When there is a good swell, guys will fly in.”