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A Death In The Family – HT’s 1996

James Donaldson surfing

Sometimes things go wrong in paradise that are totally out of your control.

It was my second feral trip over to the Mentawais within a month. After figuring out the public ferry system, the route to HT’s, the people to use to hire a boat and the place to stay in the village, our first trip had been insane. Six weeks of perfect HT’s barrels with no one around. Being of no fixed abode at the time (1996), I had no reason to rush anywhere, and Indonesia was the only place that my savings had any value. It was time to head back to Hussein and hang out again at the perfection that was Hollow Trees.

The second time around the public ferry was a daytime run, which had both positives and negatives, as opposed to the somewhat harrowing first night time public ferry escapade. This time we could hang out on deck, move freely around the ferry, and do some people watching of the locals and visitors on the boat.

It soon became clear that there were local people on the ferry, returning home, and there were non-locals, with unknown reasons for traveling to the Mentawais back in 1996. They dressed differently, with the non-local crew wearing garish flower shirts from the markets of Padang. There were no business opportunities, and there was no reason for them to be traveling on the ferries, unless they had an eye on our western gear. We decided to watch our valuables closely.

At one stage we alighted onto a little island that had a small port. All of our gear was offloaded and we were told to wait for the next ferry. It felt in the high 30’s, and it was a cloudless day. Our boards started going soft in the sun, so we walked with them down to the water’s edge to cool them off. In the distance we could see a perfect right reeling around the edge of an atoll. We decided not to paddle.

We reached HT’s that afternoon, and headed to the village and to Hussein, the village elder who had so graciously hosted a few friends and I a few weeks earlier. He welcomed me back with open arms, and showed us the same rooms in his hut on the beach.

It was late in the season now, and there was no swell. When a glimmer of swell hope arrived, it would be dashed by the seasonal onshore winds, arriving late morning. It was humid, it rained a lot, and there were no waves. Despite being a fairly jovial and stoked bunch, we did start wearing on each other. We had very little food with us, and Hussein and his family seemed to hardly eat.

We sent a boat to the village and asked him to bring us back a pile of beers and some Ardath cigarettes, hoping that some fun times on land would possibly accelerate the arrival of swell. It never happened.


The village back in 1996 was always deathly quiet. The people would retreat into their little houses if they saw you coming. They seemed nervous, as well as shy. The young girls would go off in the morning to find copra husks, and they would smile shyly at you as they walked past in their bare feet, with bamboo cages on their backs to store the husks. The family mamas were the least shy, and would stay around their entrances to their huts as the swept the dust away, and would greet you with the normal ‘apar kabar’ greeting and a smile.

After a few days off, we finally had some swell and we all hit it. It was still small and running along the shelf, but there were barrels to be had, as they are every single time HT’s ever breaks. It’s a perfect wave and some of the rides out there are surreal, and you feel you just need to glide, to skim across the water to the channel without so much as a single turn. There were times that I would ride a wave and when asked what it was like on return to the lineup, I would not be able to remember a thing.

We were considering leaving the island and heading down to Bali for some parties and civilization, when our host Hussein came in one day and through my vague understanding of Indonesia, told us that there was a girl in the village who had malaria. ‘”Nyamuk,” was the word for mosquito, and back in the 90’s scores of Mentawaiian people died from their bites. It was for this very reason that Dr Dave Jenkins founded SurfAid in the Mentawais in 1999, three years later.

This girl was young, and she was pregnant, and she was going to die soon. We were visibly horrified, and offered Hussein our entire supply of Larium, to save the girl’s life. To my knowledge at the time, you could take three doses at once, and despite some quite radical side-affects, have a chance at eradicating the disease in the system. He thanked us, and consulted with a village group. They decided that she couldn’t have it due to the fact that she was pregnant. We were aghast.

The side effects of Larium during pregnancy were at that stage deemed ok, surmountable, but this was a human life, and he firmly said that she could not take the medicine. He seemed sure of himself, but did seem to be staring at us for way too long a time.

It was at that moment that I, for one, felt the jolting reality of a clash of knowledge over fear, of medicine over tradition, of the fear of meddling. They did not understand malaria medicine in any way. We did not understand Mentawaiian culture in any way.

It was a horrific, frustrating time, knowing what we knew about malaria and medicine, but there was nothing we could do. The house we were staying in became cold, as if an evil spirit had come to visit, and a storm outside was brewing.

Jeremy Bishop surfing

Slowly, during the night, the longboats started arriving, right outside our hut. Rows of people, with traditional headgear would pile out and head for the house where the dying girl lay, two houses down from us. One of our crew asked permission to go into the house and take photographs. The request was somberly denied. More people arrived, and there were lanterns, there were burning torches, and we could hear the people crunching outside our room as they walked on by.

At about midnight a massive squall hit the village, with banshee winds and heavy rainfall. We could hear things flying around outside, and bashing against the walls of our hut, being carried through the air by the vicious winds. It was as black as hell outside, and we lay on our beds, wide-awake, and staring, waiting for the night to pass.

The next morning was still. The longboats and the visitors had all gone. The girl had passed away during the night, and they had taken her body with them. There was no sign of any damage outside from the squall. It was sunny and still, with small waves on the reef.

The mood had changed however. Suddenly the Mentawais was no longer a little playground for a few carefree surfers to hang out, drink a few beers, and lay around waiting for the next swell to arrive. It was a place where someone had died when she could quite possibly have been saved, and it was a place where everything seemed to have shifted a few levels of weirdness, where the value of life seemed to have lurched away from it’s lofty position above all else.

This island had overnight become a place where shamans with strange hats could arrive at the dead of night and take away the still warm body of a young and pregnant dead girl. If you though too long about it, it became more and more horrific.

Our host seemed a great man, and it seemed he sensed our uneasiness. He understood that maybe we had been unwittingly included in something that was not our place to be involved in, and I think he felt partially responsible. He had tried his best to make our trip comfortable, but it had gone a huge step away from this direction.

He facilitated a boat. His son accompanied us to the ticket seller in the next village, and we were gone, leaving our western boardies, sunglasses, t-shirts and dollars as our thanks.

James Donaldson on crest of wave

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