The staccato sound of heavy rain pounding the tin roof of our bungalow woke us shortly before dawn. The electricity was out as usual so there was nothing to do but wait for sunrise. At first light, we dashed to the surf camp’s lounge area for coffee. Cheerful laughter and song mixed with the stimulating smells from the kitchen and another delicious breakfast was on the way.
Paradise Surf Camp, in Krui, West Lampung, Sumatra, Indonesia, was quiet in February 2011. The high season, big waves and crowded lineups were months away. My nephew, Matt Morch, and I were here to capitalize on manageable waves and empty breaks.
Matt Morch, February, 2011
Indonesia ranks high on the list of surfing locations. The archipelago is the first stop for major swell generated in far away Antarctic storms. Coupled with a bottom configuration that rises from thousands of feet deep to reef/beach in a few kilometers and you have powerful wave energy. The result: pleasure and pain.
The smaller waves of low season were big enough to offer a drubbing, hammering me a few times. The beach break up the road dumped me face-first in the sand, following up with a laundromat style beating. And the reef out front almost tore me to bits when I tried to eek out one more turn. Needless to say, I never thought the wipeout with the highest risk of injury would be on land.
Unidentified surf break
I surf a waveski. You sit on the board and are connected by a seatbelt and foot straps that secure your feet to aid turning. Waveskis evolved from lifeguard rescue boards and are propelled by a short kayak paddle. From the bottom profile, it would be easy to mistake a waveski for a surfboard. But a side profile shows the extra volume that allows a rider to sit on top.
To reach the surf breaks scattered along the coast, motorcycles are equipped with board racks hanging off the left side. They are a common sight here. Within a 30-minute ride, dozens of breaks are accessible.
Widya, the owner of the camp, had two bikes waiting for us on arrival. Matt slipped his surfboard in, secured it with strands of inner tube and was ready to rock. My waveski did not fit. Fortunately, Uncle Yun jumped in, fabricating a solution to get us on the road.
For two weeks, we drove up and down the quiet two-lane road sampling a variety of breaks. The roads in South Sumatra, like most of Asia, are crazy. They are as much a meeting place for people, water buffalo, goats, soccer teams and other strange events as they are a transportation hub. And local rules apply with one constant: your thumb is always on the horn.
Gentle beeping indicates you are passing. More aggressive honking is for those slow to respond, and ‘frantic’ when things get tight. Neither of us were strangers to Asian roads and motorcycles, or riding on the left side, so it seemed normal.
On the morning of February 27, with full bellies and beating rain, we decided to wait out the downpour. We made slip-and-slide for the two camp kids on an old tarpaulin and slathered it with shampoo. Launching them through the suds generated infectious peels of laughter. The staff, sheltered under the roof, echoed the glee.
Paradise Surf Camp, Krui, West Lampung, Sumatra, Indonesia
When the rain let off, we hopped aboard the bikes visiting several nearby breaks. None was working well, so we found ourselves back in camp enjoying another yummy meal. After lunch, we hit the road again.
We came up behind four teens on two motorcycles who, as boys often do, were jack-assing around. Weaving back and forth, they sped up and slowed down. Matt was out front that day. When a safe passing opportunity came, he employed the aggressive horn mode to signal the boys. Alongside, they noticed his white skin and reached out to give him a friendly pat on the shoulder, calling "boo-lay, boo-lay".
This was not unusual from the super-friendly locals. Matt smiled and slipped past. They had crept right, and I was now alongside drifting into oncoming lane in ‘frantic’ horn mode. The boys, spotting another "boo-lay", tried to touch my shoulder and we edged dangerously close to the opposite side of the road.
I tried to keep those last inches of road open and pass, but they sped up, moving closer and squeezed me towards the edge. I throttled on to complete the pass, holding position to avoid going off the drop onto a narrow strip of wet grass bordered by a deep concrete irrigation ditch.
They slowed, the smiling passenger reached over … and … time … froze.
It was a nanosecond in real time that lasted forever. Their chromed and knurled handlebar extension touched the rail of my waveski. Before I could react to their change of speed, it had climbed the rail and their front tire hung in the air.
And then all hell broke lose.
My rack snapped and their front tire dropped to the road. It jerked and they low-sided, sliding across the road, in shirtsleeves and shorts. I heard the crash and sound of the bike grinding on the road and knew instinctively what happened.
The nose of my waveski shot up into the air and the paddle flapped about. I heard the tail end grinding against the rear tire. I was now off the road and on the narrow strip of grass, desperate to reel it in. The 2-foot deep, 3-foot wide, concrete ditch was inches away and the rear wheel was loose in the wet grass. A concrete wall marking a driveway approached fast. Applying the brakes was not an option.
Years of motorcycle riding experience kicked over to autopilot. I grabbed the throttle and squeezed every ounce of power from that little 125cc. Regaining traction, I eased off the wet grass on to the gravel strip. I struggled to free the board from the rear tire and avoid locking up the wheel. The paddle continued to flap about. Oncoming vehicles swerved and slowed. Horns honked.
After what seemed like forever – more likely a handful of seconds – I reeled it all in. Climbing onto the road, I pulled up a few feet from the concrete wall.
The boys who did not crash fled immediately. The two that had fallen gathered up their bike and took off. I gathered my equipment and sat down, trying to calm my heart rate. Matt was at my side. All he could say was “holy shit!” repeatedly as we collected our thoughts.
Matt recounted how he watched the episode unfold in slow motion. He heard the boys go down and turned to watch me wobble and head toward the concrete wall. His first thoughts were that I would either splatter against the wall or be crushed by oncoming traffic. He feared he was taking me home in bag.
Thanks to good fortune and ingrained riding skills, I was unscathed. My waveski also survived. It had a hole where the tire rubbed through and some minor abrasions on the tail - all very lucky considering "what could have been".
Damage from the rear tire
A guy across the road was having his car washed and watched the affair unfold. Fortunately, he spoke English and, even better, was a friend of Widya's at the surf camp. He called her and asked her to come quickly.
A crowd started to form, and we could hear anger rising in their voices. It became clear that a flashpoint could erupt. Matt suggested I grab my paddle in case we needed to defend ourselves. Yoppi came over from the car wash, stood beside us, calming the crowd.
Widya arrived in a few minutes and our buddy Dave was the first to jump out of the SUV. Dave is best described as a bad-ass mo-fo. A New Jersey construction worker/surfer covered in tattoos, with muscles ripping from every part of his body. Dressed only in surf shorts and his trademark workboots, his imposing image caused the crowd to back away.
With calm restored, Widya said we should go to a nearby house to see the injured boys. The passenger had a few minor scratches on his arm. The driver sported some good road rash on both forearms and a scratch on his forehead. They too were lucky. Their bike, positioned at the front door as though entered as evidence, had only a few scratches. I asked if they were ok and they both said yes.
The headman arrived. I shook his hand. He spoke no English. I looked directly into his eyes and calmly stated that I was not responsible. It was sad the boys were injured, but their driving behaviour caused the accident. In fact, they had endangered my life. He nodded as if understanding and Widya told us to return to the camp.
Widya and Uncle Yun engaged in several hours of discussion with the headman. I was absolved of fault - which was the case anyway. Dave sat in on the meeting. Later, he told us when the headman talked to the kids the driver cried and shrieked as though mortally wounded after sitting quietly for an hour.
We were assured the boys were at fault and the headman was going to reprimand them for fucking around with the "boo-lay". Nonetheless, they asked me to give the boys some money “for medicine”. The amount requested would have purchased the entire pharmacy. I told Widya there was no way in hell I was paying any money to anybody. They should be paying for my board repairs instead. In the end, we all agreed to conclude the matter.
The waveski was repaired by the Ding Doctor and we took the following day off. Matt procured a liter of local of contraband hooch (liquor is not legal in Muslim West Lampung) to celebrate life.
Next day, we were back on the bikes and back in the surf. Matt had the best rides of his holiday. Thrilled to be alive and unscathed, I chased waves like they were last I would ever see. Every ride brought a smile to my face and I laughed like a crazed lunatic every time I crashed – in water.
Checking the reef break from the observation tower