Posted on Leave a comment

Death By Mosquito

While much has been done in malaria research, it still kills hundreds of thousands of people. In 2017 there was an estimated 219 million cases of the disease, and 435 000 deaths from the mosquito borne illness.
Speak to any surfer or traveller who has survived a bout of the killer disease and you’ll quickly come to understand the dangers of the disease, the importance of knowledge regarding the disease, and the preventative methods and prophylactics utilised in fighting this killer.
Malaria is a parasite; a protozoa that resides in human blood cells after being transmitted by the female Anopheles mosquito. After a mosquito pierces into human skin, it salivates under the skin as a way of preparing for a facile blood feed. It is with that spit that the mosquito transmits the malaria virus into the human system. The malaria parasite (called sporozoites) enters the bloodstream and settles in the liver. At that time no symptoms appear, but the malaria parasite multiplies.

Following its stay in the liver, the parasite enters another phase of its life cycle, the merozotes, which circulate in the bloodstream, penetrating and destroying red blood cells and reproducing again. The majority of symptoms are caused by the massive release of merozoites into the bloodstream, the anaemia caused by the destruction of the red blood cells, and the problems caused by large amounts of free haemoglobin entering circulation after the red blood cells rupture. After you contract malaria it takes a minimum of six days, and up to several weeks, before symptoms appear. Symptoms are a little baffling.
It was 1997 and I was spending the night in Singapore’s Changi Airport – feral ravelling, no money left etc – when I started to feel a bit of a cold coming onboard. I was about a week out of G-Land where I had taken my medication religiously and protected myself from the mosquitoes with coils and cream and long-sleeved clothing. Before I knew it I started feeling really poorly and I was boarding for a long haul to Heathrow. I felt too nauseous to drink myself to sleep, and I had eaten my last sleeping pill a long time ago. But I had my CD Walkman (that long ago). I cranked the new Nine Inch Nails album, and before I knew it I needed to vomit in the plane.
The air hostess, sensing that I was going to seed pretty quickly, organised me a row at the back of the plane to sleep on. I lay there, cradling my stomach and moaning in agony and sweating under a thin little travel blanket.
It was about my sixth time in Indo. When I went the first time, many years ago, I took Lariam as the anti-malarial medication. Rough nights, but I never contracted the disease. Even after camping for sixteen days on an island in the Mentawais in the early 90’s, an area that is rife with the disease. The next time I was in malaria territory was in 1998 in Mozambique. I tried the combination of Daramal and Paludrine. On the second day of administration I experienced chronic side effects, like severe headaches, nausea, diarrhoea and fatigue. I stopped this medication when the toilet paper supply started getting really low.
This time I had gone back onto Lariam. For some reason, the nightmares weren’t nearly as prevalent as the last time.
As mentioned earlier, malaria attacks the blood cells and breaks them down. At the very least, malaria brings on a high temperature as the body tries to kill the invaders. At worst, malaria kills by prohibiting the supply of healthy, oxygen-rich blood to the organs. Malaria can cause collapsed lungs, or liver, kidney or heart failure. Worst of all, malaria can cause a loss of oxygen to the brain, which brings on terrible convulsions and death. The disease thrives in enervated or malnourished people; which makes it specifically lethal in Third World territories.
I had the classic flu-like symptoms. When I presented myself at Charing Cross hospital they immediately put me in bed and stuck a saline drip in one arm and a glucose drip in the other. They analysed my blood, urine and stool.
The malaria belt extends around the world from the equator to 40 degrees north latitude, 45 degrees south latitude, and up to 2500 metres elevation. Take a look at a map … that’s a whole lot of the world’s best surf spots. Surfers are most likely to contract the disease in virtually every tropical place they travel, with the exceptions of Hawaii, Tahiti and Fiji – they are malaria free. Other surf spots such as G-Land, Nias, Mentawais, Mozambique, Madagascar, the Philippines and even Puerto Escondido are heavy risk areas for malaria, and surfers travelling in these areas without knowledge and protection are taking their lives in their own hands.

The medication I was given back then was pyrimethamine-sulfadoxine (Fansidar) single dose, combined with a two-week dose of Quinine. The Quinine was a bit of a bummer. The side effects for me were quite debilitating. Quinine, obtained from the bark of the cinchona tree, is the earliest antimalarial drug, but is no longer used that much because of the frequently occurring side effects. I suffered nausea, headaches, loss of hearing and blurred vision, a group of symptoms known as cinchonism. I heard ringing in my ears, started hearing voices, thought I was finally going mad. Had to keep the radio on for 24 hours a day. Had severe insomnia. Got about four hours sleep a night, if I was lucky, but hey, I made it.
Next time prevention will be paramount. A mosquito net everywhere I go. Loads of mosquito coils to be burning all the time. Long sleeve cotton shirts and pants. Anti- mosquitos spray and something to rub on your body.. But I’m definitely going back to a malaria area in the near future, so I suppose that means I consider the mission worth it. So if you’re about to launch on that dream trip to Centro America just remember not to slack off with the anti- mosquitos protection. If you do slack off, at the least it could mean an early and uncomfortable end to your surf trip, at worst it could mean your life.

Posted on Leave a comment

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

Posted on Leave a comment

Jungle Fever

G-Land © Andrew Shields


Grajagan or G-land is one of the sickest waves in the world. It’s fairly remarkable for swell consistency and for offshore winds, but the rest of the variables are sometimes not as agreeable. Swell direction can be a problem, as can the tide. Crowds can be outrageous at times, and the obligatory selfish Brazilian pack sometimes arrive and can run rampant all over the wave and the camps. But sometimes you luck on and get it uncrowded and good, and it’s like no wave on earth.

We’re back in the jungle and it’s weird in here. As much as man tries to push it back, so the jungle forces its way forward. It’s a hopeless battle, like trying to stop a shifting sand dune. It’s relentless and remorseless and eventually you just know that nature is going to win. The jungle densely closes over the footpaths, trees fall over all the time, get caught up in branches and are left hanging.

Monkeys crash through the jungle and then sit and watch you patiently. They watch from their domain, their kingdom, as you nervously scan the ground in front of you for snakes and scorpions, keep your eyes open for jungle badgers.  Wild pig sightings are rare, as are those of the black puma. Mosquitoes are rampant, and malaria lurks. Rats gnaw at your losman all night, wanting to eat your soap. Sea-snakes, stonefish and dugongs await you in the water. In this part of the world, eastern Java, nature reigns supreme.

The wave has been re-discovered, and new sections have come to light in extreme tides and swell directions. In-between the well-known sections like Kongs, Moneytrees, Launch Pads and Speedies there’s now The Fang, The Ledge and Quiksilvers. Not forgetting Chickens and Twenty-Twenties. But still the coral remains ever present. Shallow and sharp, it beckons at every bottom turn, it smiles at you every time you slip behind the falling lip of a barrelling wave. It grabs for soft bare feet and clutches for office hands stroking in shallow water. A reef cut is bad news in the tropics. The infection that inevitably results can be treated and despite being cleaned, never seems to actually heal until you get out of the humidity. The jungle humidity hangs on you like a warm, wet blanket. Any body movement results in a break-out of sweat.

There are other dangers on land. Western dangers brought over with Boyum and Lopez and all the others who dreamed of a surfing monastery in the jungle all those years ago. A monastery dedicated to the appreciation of one of the finest waves in the world. These dangers are the foibles of being a human. The modern addictions. Civilised cravings, like beer, whiskey, cigarettes, painkillers and sleeping pills.

When the surf is flat the beer flows. Along with the beer comes the obligatory cigarettes, left over from ‘social smoking’ habits in the cities and nightclubs. Clove cigarettes, indigenous to this land, are smooth tasting and leave a sweet memory on the lips. They are artificially soft on the throat, which hides the carcinogens roaring through and sticking onto your clean lung tissue. The sun slips down early on the equator and it is pitch-black by six o’clock. So black that you can’t see your hand as you pee into the jungle. Sometimes you see a pair of unmoving, unblinking eyes staring back at you. Paranoia here is known as the jungle jitters, and invariably leads to the sleeping tablets, the doormen at the club of bad dreams.

The only thing that can keep you away from all of these civilised dangers is the surf. The physical and mental distraction of solid, grunting waves reeling down the point.
Our first days floated by on a wave of malaria medication. The waves were small, we were tired, jet-lagged and still finding our groove with the people and the environment. Time has little meaning on the edge of reality, and my watch had stopped working. Our heart rates slowed down and our bowel movements sped up. The jungle diet passes through you fairly quickly.

Along with all the exercise we were getting we actually started feeling good after a while, so we doused this feeling with beer. We played pool and we drank a few beers every night. We saw a couple of jungle creatures. Then the swell jumped to 12 foot overnight and went out of control. We watched, languidly, from the shade of a tiny tree on the water’s edge as the jungle exhaled heated offshore breath out to sea. Some guys tried to surf, but the wash was impossible. Mission not accomplished.

Two sleeping tablets later and it was miraculously morning again, and it was pumping! Six to eight-foot and round! A fierce rip left over from the previous days massive swell a constant reminder and irritation as we hooked into perfection. One real wave at Speed Reef is all you need to wash away the stink of the city, to cleanse your soul. Just one of these waves is a fair trade for the last six months spent stressing about someone else’s business.

It’s a serious wave, and your body reacts accordingly. Adrenal glands start squirting crazily, heart rates quicken and endorphins move around and hit receptors. Lucidity roughly pushes jungle sluggishness aside as giant sets loom on the bommie and threaten to break outside and wash everyone over the reef. One mammoth set catches us, and boards and safety concerns are flung aside as we swim deep! Breathless, with eyes popping, we regain our position in the lineup with just a little more care.

After the session the mood of the camp changes dramatically. There are excited faces. Some people are talking about the big set, or about someone’s sick backhand barrel. People are examining their boards; getting bigger boards ready just in case. We head straight for the bar.

For the rest of our nine days the waves pump. Ranging from four to eight feet, they never let up. We would wake up in the morning, go through the breakfast/ablution motions, and get ready for the late morning’s trade winds to kick in. They kick in everyday. It’s just a matter of when. We surf until we are chafed, sunburned, arms weak and sore from paddling. Still the waves pour through.

Our trip has been characterised by an afternoon low tide, so the late mornings are spent furiously getting as many waves as possible as the trades puff. As the tide drains out over the afternoon hours we chill and watch, sipping on our beers. Some guys surf through the low tides and the harsh afternoon glare of the dropping sun. It’s not as good but it’s so uncrowded. One of the best waves in the world and about five guys surfing it.

We’ve emptied the beer fridge every night, but we’ve surfed every day, so it’s a fair trade. The jungle has a mollifying spirit that envelops you and seems to make all these outrageous waves and occurrences seem normal and commonplace.

Our last day and the waves are still going off, and we’re back out there. We surf until we can’t surf anymore. Until we are sated. Until we know that we could go, if necessary, for a few weeks without another surf. Or so we believe.