Lords and Saviours

From the Riptide magazine on-location issue (#194) in the Mentawai islands, Indonesia

Photo: Nick Bannehr

“It was pretty gnarly, that’s for sure,” says Ben Pike matter-of-factly, just metres from the spot where he was almost killed three years ago.

On Monday, October 25, 2010 a three-metre tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 7.7 earthquake off the western coast of Sumatra, swept through the Mentawais destroying entire villages and killing more than 400 people. Ben, co-owner of Kingfisher Resort, Sipora Island, was very nearly one of those casualties. “I was about 25-30 metres from it [the tsunami],” he recalls. “It picked me up and took me all the way back up to the hill there. I got wrapped up in this tent [and] with the suction of the plastic… it wrapped me in a ball. After a minute or whatever my body forced a breath out of the corner of my mouth. All the pressure from the wave just slammed me under and with my mouth open I just swallowed the tent.” Panicked and choking, he was forced to reach down his throat to pull the thing out. Ben finishes the story in his typical humble drawl, “But yeah, it worked out all right”. Earlier in the week he’d told me how four or five nights a week he’s tormented by tsunami nightmares.

Ben and his two business partners – including big-hearted Argentinian chef Frederico “Freddy” Flores – were left counting the cost of a destroyed surf resort, which was only five weeks away from opening its doors for business. “It put about eight months’ extra work on it and maybe 150-grand [Australian dollars] worth. All the floors lifted up and we had to go pick them up from back on the hill… the walls blew out, doors, windows, all the electrical damage, generators.”

More than that, they had to help pick up the pieces in a community that had gone through hell. “There were 23 deaths from the tsunami in the area… one of the workers lost his wife and three kids and when we heard about that we grabbed him and got him involved to help him out,” Ben says. “Four months before the tsunami there was the big earthquake in Padang [Sumatra] that killed a few thousand people. The lady who’s the boss in the kitchen – aside from Freddy – she lost her husband and we heard about that so we help them out, you know, try to do the right thing.” “We have a really good relationship with the locals,” Freddy agrees. “We’ll always try to look after them and their families. We have a really good team of workers and the people from around the villages respect us.”

Freddy – who was originally a bodyboarder until an elbow injury forced him to pick up a surfboard – began his journey to the Mentawais when he was 17, trading his native Argentina for the heaving peaks of Puerto Escondido, Mexico. “I was chasing waves,” he says. “I wanted to go somewhere different with barrels and a long summer. I ended up there for 10 years, then Spain for four years. I was working hard, saving money… now we’re here, the dream come true,” he laughs. Freddy had heard from a mutual friend of Ben’s that they were looking to build a surf resort in the Mentawais and he jumped at the opportunity to get involved. That was four years ago.

Ben was born in Torquay, Victoria, but fell in love with the Indonesian way of life during his first visit in 1998, and on subsequent visits to Sumatra and the Mentawais in 2001. “I used to travel around the world a lot with my wife… we sort of said let’s save a bit of coin and we’ll travel the world for three years before we have children,” he says. “The first stop was HTs and I’m still here now, fucken 12 years later,” he says with a grin. “You initially come here for the waves, then you meet the people and in the end you start to feel a part of the village. The cultural side of it is interesting, the local dialect, the magic – everything about it. You fall in love with it.”

With one of the region’s most consistent waves right on the resort’s doorstep – Ben says Lance’s Left breaks 300 days a year – and nearby set-ups providing “whatever you want”, you’d be forgiven for thinking Ben and Freddy’s days are filled with only marathon surfs and celebratory Bintangs. But it turns out building a complete surf resort and its furniture yourself, then running the joint, isn’t all beer and skittles. “It’s been a lot of hard work and sweat, you know?” says Freddy. “We went for walks to find big wood pieces [logs, fallen trees], we’d mark them and then pick it up later. Very slowly, one-by-one, we’d bring the pieces to the resort – chuck it on the shoulders, walk for 100 metres, [stop] and talk and let the Indos have a few ciggies, walk another 100 metres… Fucking heavy shit. [We built] pretty much everything except these chairs here. Sometimes you’ll miss some really good days of surfing, but you think about the big picture.”

For both fellas the resort really is a labour of love.  “It’s good the product came up all right and we can make surfers stoked,” Freddy says modestly. “We’re not making any money at the moment. Every time a group leaves and they’re walking away stoked and happy, this is what fills us up inside and gives us the energy to keep going… this is why we’re here. We could get in a guy to run the camp and we could be in Bali now partying or whatever, but we like to take care of our guests on a personal level and be involved 100 per cent.”

“Yeah, you give a better product, you know?” Ben concurs.

I ask both guys how long they reckon they’ll continue to live in the Mentawais, despite the simpler way of life and the constant threat of seismic activity, and it’s clear that they won’t be back “home” any time soon. “We just play it by ear,” Ben says. “At this stage we’re pretty happy here, things are working out and I’ve got a family.”

“Life in the Mentawais is pretty good – just really cruisy,” Freddy agrees. “It’s good to get away for three or four months a year in the rainy season though.”

“For a reality check,” Benny adds.

“No, not for a reality check,” Freddy says. “Just to chase some other waves. Fuck reality.” Benny laughs – “Nah I mean just so you don’t become complacent in paradise. It’s nice to go back home and see everyone. I’ve spent about five months in Oz in the past eight years. It’s weird going back… it’s full-on and everyone’s focused on shit that we’re not really interested in you know? The money side of it, yada yada yada.”

Sensing the interview’s coming to a close – Ben tells me they’re not used to this kind of attention, uncomfortable in the limelight – I motion to turn off my tape recorder. “I just wanted to say… apart from making it a really good trip for you guys we’ve made new friends you know?” Freddy says. “Awesome people, and for sure we’re gonna see you guys somewhere in the future – this is what fills up our heart you know, meeting good new people – it’s not all about the waves.”

“Everyone’s got a story to tell,” adds Benny.