We were waiting out some strong northerlies in the Telos islands, but needed to get to Nias to extend our visas for the last time. The challenge was to find a weather window in which to make the 60 nautical miles. Weather predictions seem to be pretty useless in this area, and we were aiming to leave on a particular Saturday, giving us Sunday to make arrangements to get to Gunung Sitoli (the capital of Nias) on Monday. We woke up at 5:45am, made some tea and coffee and waited to see what dawn sky would reveal. It was horrible – big cumulonimbus clouds and isolated showers all around us, and a black ominous northern sky. The decision was easy – back to bed to wait for more suitable weather.
The following morning looked a little more hopeful. There were no obviously threatening clouds and the northern horizon looked mild. We headed off into a light north-wester, and had to motor until lunchtime. At around 2pm the wind turned more west and we could get the sails up. Unfortunately there was a strong south-setting current, so with engines and sails we only managed to do about 6 knots. We crossed the equator along the way – pretty much a non-event, apart from trying to capture the moment our chartplotter displayed “00° 00 000 N” on camera. It is quite amazing to think that we started our journey in Mooloolaba at 28 °S and have actually worked our way to the northern hemisphere!
A pod of dolphins joined us at the bow for about 20 minutes, which was wonderful – it’s been a while since we’ve had dolphins visiting us! We arrived in the lovely big Lagundri Bay just as the sun was setting. There was only one other boat anchored there, so we had loads of space and could pick the perfect spot amongst the floating squid platforms.
Marco headed off to Gunung Sitoli early the next morning. It’s a 3-hour journey by road, and he still had to get to shore, find someone to take him and act as sponsor, get to Immigration, fill in the endless forms and submit everything by midday. He managed to get everything done, but with lots of crazy Indonesian moments along the way. When they were about half an hour away from Gunung Sitoli, they could go no further. An old bridge across a river had been demolished and the new bridge was under construction. The expected delay was 3 hours. He obviously couldn’t wait that long, so walked across and found someone on the other side with a motorbike who was willing to take him the rest of the way (in the now pouring rain), plus organised a new sponsor. He managed to fill out the 12 forms (all in Indonesian – something I usually do, being the admin-person in the family), get a sponsor letter typed and printed at an internet café, find the required stamps for the forms, make the required payment at a bank, and get back to Immigration with the whole bundle of goodies by closing time! By this time his original driver and sponsor had made it to Gunung Sitoli, so he could at least get a ride back with them – but then had to find a fisherman to bring him back to the boat in the dark (as there are reefs and breakers everywhere along the shore, difficult for the boys and I to pick him up with no clear visibility). He was pretty exhausted when he got back – but in good spirits from a day of joking and laughing with all the guys who helped him along the way. He was really humbled at how willing strangers were to go out of their way to help, and just “make a plan”.
Our first couple of days in Nias were really rainy, almost the most incessant 3 days of rain we’ve had in Indo. The anchorage was surprisingly rolly too – even though we were tucked deep into the bay. The wind blew from a direction that positioned the boat side-on to the swells, and there was a continual sideways rocking that drove me a little crazy (and queasy). We eventually moved deeper into shallower water behind the reef, where the rolling was less noticeable.
We managed to get to shore and hired motorbikes on one of the drizzly days and explored the countryside. Nias is very mountainous and rocky, and there are many traditional villages perched up in the hills. One of the old traditions in Nias is lompat batu (stone jumping) – where young men jump over 2m tall stone monoliths (probably as a test of manhood or some sort of warrior training). We did spot some of these ancient stones in the village squares, but didn’t see anyone leaping over them. We stopped to chat with many friendly villagers who were quietly sitting at their windows watching the world go by.
The Lagundri bay has 3 main villages along it. Sorake is where the famous wave is, and is packed with homestays, losmens and restaurants. Most visitors to Lagundri stay in Sorake, and the locals are very used to tourists and their money. Given this, we were quite surprised at how rudimentary the accommodations were, and how unappealing the restaurant food was. The local food just down the road is delicious, but the special “tourist food” in Sorake is pretty unimaginative. There was a lot of activity in Sorake in preparation for the Nias Pro, one of the WQS events that was happening within a couple days. Truckloads of beach sand were being raked over fill to create a smooth white beach, and new roads and paths were being built. It was interesting to see how the reef had been raised by the 2004 tsunami that wreaked havoc in the bay. A huge area that was once underwater is now exposed, and the wave is hollower and gnarlier – especially on big swells.
The Lagundri village is a little further into the bay, and is predominantly Muslim (the other 2 being Christian). We spent a fair bit of time here as it provided one of the few spots where the dinghy could be landed safely. Hiliamaetaniha (yip, try saying that) village is on the eastern side of the bay, and is where Marco’s driver and sponsor lived.
We were quite surprised at the rivalry between the 3 villages. Various people we met urged us to buy fuel from their village. We were anchored near Lagundri village, but Marco was told in the water that he should contribute money to Sorake because he was surfing Sorake’s wave.
So onto the wave – the guys had a great time surfing, with a decent swell most days. Unfortunately localism is rife, with the Indonesians paddling round or dropping into any wave they choose. The boys had more luck on the inside, especially on big days – whilst Marco handled the pros and rude locals on the outside.
We did eventually buy fuel from the homestay owner in Lagundri (as a “payment” for keeping an eye on our dinghy when we were ashore). Unfortunately, when our load of jerry cans returned many of them were half full! There was a lot of debate and huffing and puffing, but eventually the guy agreed to measure out the diesel and petrol and charge us for the actual litres measured. He didn’t trust the 20L mark on our jerry cans. So there we sat, patiently measuring out 78L of diesel and 72L of petrol (which had been sold as 120L of each!) in 1 litre measures. To this cost, the guy added a random “transport” cost, then wanted a higher price per litre of diesel (“premium” diesel, apparently) – and instead of refunding us the final difference, sped off to fill one more jerry can. Only in Indonesia does the guy desperate for your business make you feel like you’re doing him in when he tries to rip you off! Obviously the guys we knew from Hiliamaetaniha tut-tutted and shook their heads when they heard – typical Lagundri villagers.
We all decided to make the trip up to Gunung Sitoli to fetch our passports. I was keen for an outing and to see a bit more of Nias. We would also be fetching Paul, who was coming to spend some time cruising with us, and we wanted to stock up on food. The countryside is beautiful, with lots of farmland in between high mountains. It must have been rice and corn-harvesting time, as huge tarpaulins full of rice and bright orange corn were spread out in the sun to dry. Brightly coloured washing was flapping from every house. Although there were clouds around, the locals obviously knew that it wouldn’t rain. I figured that this would probably be a better weather predictor than our sophisticated satellite prediction models – set sail when the grain and washing are out!
We collected our passports in minutes, and then found an amazing Padang-style restaurant where we ate copious amounts of delicious food. Paul met us at the restaurant, and it was great catching up with him and filling him in on our travels since he left the boat in Kupang.
We ran out of time to buy food, so went to Teluk Dalam the following day. The driver must have taken us to little places owned by his friends and family, and I scraped together some rations from the rather measly produce. Eventually I complained that I needed more – surely there must be a market? He mumbled something about it being small, and then reluctantly drove us to an amazing market full of fresh produce! Finally armed with food and fuel, we were ready to set sail again.
Our next stop was the Hinako Islands off the west coast of Nias – Bawa and Asu in particular. Bawa was Marco’s favourite wave in Indonesia when he was here 25 years ago. It had apparently been affected by the tsunami, and he was keen to see the set-up after all these years. We anchored there just before lunch, and Marco and Paul went off for a surf. The wave is still powerful but has been broken into different sections, and has definitely lost some of its glory. The reef has raised up to 2.5m in places, and gnarly brown sections stick out along the shore.
We headed off to the tiny island of Asu in the afternoon, where the anchorage is more protected. There is a lovely small resort run by Mama Sylvie and her family right on the beach, and we had a homecooked candlelit dinner on the beach that night. She knew the lady that Marco stayed with all those years ago, and they had lots to chat about. Asu was also lifted by the tsunami, and she told how they suddenly had all this extra beachfront! The guys surfed the next morning, and we then headed to Afulu on the north-western coast of Nias.
Afulu is a lovely place to anchor – we entered the narrow channel and then found ourselves in a large sand-bottomed lagoon, totally protected from wind and swell. There were 2 other cruising boats already at anchor, and we got to know the people on board over the next couple of days there. Todd and Lati from “Gone Surfin’” have been sailing this area for over a decade and were super-helpful with information, advice and anchorage co-ordinates. We also met the first mate from the Maverick boat – a South African named Andrew, and we shared many laughs and stories together.
The Afulu headland is cut by a little inlet which can be SUP’d at high tide. I really enjoyed paddling here at sunset with the colours reflected in the clear waters, the calm lagoon behind me, the roaring waves ahead and jungle around me. Todd also told us about a jungle path that led to the long white sandy beach nearby, and we spent a couple of days swimming in the crystal clear water, relaxing in the shade amongst the bushy shrubs and then charging through the jungle to avoid the mozzies on our way back.
Marco and I took the dinghy up the river to the village of Afulu one afternoon. He had spent a couple of weeks in this village 25 years ago, and was keen to see if he’d recognise it. The river wound through the thick vegetation and reflected the jungle with such clarity that it was hard to make out where reality ended and reflection started. It was totally wild and felt like we had gone back in time and would stumble upon a long-lost Amazonian tribe. We tied up to rudimentary jetties and found a path to the village. Todd had told us about Darus who has a restaurant, and we tracked him down and sat chatting to him whilst his wife whipped up some bungkus (takeaways) for us. Darus listened to Marco’s reminiscing, and was convinced that he and Greg had stayed in the house he now owns, just round the back of the restaurant. It has since fallen into disrepair, but Marco did remember a double storey and the badminton court nearby. Darus then went off and came back beaming – he’d looked in the “visitors book” and found the names “Marco Valentini” and “Greg Clow” written in the book in 1995!
The swell was pretty small whilst we were at Afulu, but increased slightly before we left. The boys loved surfing the wave at the entrance to the lagoon, and would paddle there most mornings for a couple hours’ surf. The main Afulu wave is on the southern end of the long beach we’d walked to, and the guys enjoyed a couple of sessions there towards the end of our stay. The tsunami made its mark here too, and a sharp treacherous reef is exposed along the shore, making the wave risky to ride to the end. Somehow Marco lost his wetsuit pants on one wave and ended up with a scratched bottom – in the shape of the Monster Energy drink logo! That’s what you get for not keeping your pants on!
After a lovely week in Afulu we had to get going. Lahewa is a biggish town on the north of Nias, with another perfect anchorage in a mangrove lagoon – and was a good place to stock up on fruit and veges. Todd and Lati were also keen to head north and we motored/sailed in convoy. We arrived in time to do the necessary shopping, and found a good range of vegetables but sadly little fruit (except bananas). That would have to do and see us through our time in the Banyaks until reaching Sumatera.
Nias provided me with lots of time to relax, read and paint. I’d been working on a painting since arriving in the Mentawais, and finally finished it in Afulu. I also became a little obsessed with clouds and couldn’t stop noticing the interesting forms and patterns in the sky. I think my next painting will have to be a cloudscape …