Dreaming or Reality?

Close to three days of tedious, but thrilling solo travel from airport to airport, port to port, island to island. The weather didn’t offer the most comforting arrival, for she decided to let the swells rise and the winds roar across the open ocean, whipping up bucketloads of water to soak everything within the age-old wooden boat I was travelling in. Passing jagged reefs and palm trees bent backwards in the strong winds, I could only imagine the island paradise it would be under blue skies and calm winds.

The Indonesian “captain” of the boat eyed off a narrow passage in the reef and began to steer the long wooden boat towards shore. I could just make out the thatched roof of the surf camp nestled at the foot of a dense jungle, my vision blurred by the constant onslaught of salt water burning my eyes. Six foot tall, muscular, tanned and covered in tats, he stood at the shore eagerly awaiting my arrival. With the engine cutting off just before reaching the broken coral shore, he rushed towards the boat and was waist deep in water, dragging the boat to finally touch the safety of land. “Sorry about the weather”, he said in a thick Argentinian accent with a big grin. “All part of the adventure isn’t it?” I replied letting out a burst of laughter.

Waking delirious from a deep sleep in the middle of the night, I noticed a myriad of light in the atmosphere and loud thunder out to sea. The full moon illuminated the sky, the golden paradiselight glistened off the ocean surface at the foot of my bed. I had been set up in a bamboo hut at the end of a coral bay, with the ocean lapping at the foot of the hut. Bolts of lightning broke unforgivingly into the ocean at the horizon line. I could feel a strong wind pick up and pass through the open window and realised the storm front was rapidly heading towards the island. I got up and literally “battened down the hatches” as there was no window to the hut simply a wooden hatch. The wind grew stronger by the minute and I felt as though the hut could lift right off its base and carry me into the dark jungle behind, never to be seen again.

The last dream I recall before waking that morning was so intensely vivid it felt so real as to transpire. I dreamt I was living in a timber shack on a tropical island, waking and opening the door to see absolutely perfect waves and an equally as dreamy man walking up the beach towards me with a hottropical paradise cup of coffee. It was then that I actually opened my eyes and woke up amazed at the dream I had just had. I was still delirious from travelling and for a moment I forgot where I was. I then realised I was in a timber hut and remembered the storm the night before and how I closed the timber hatch, therefore I was in lying in a darkened room. I rose to open the door to allow light in and I couldn’t believe my eyes. The moon was setting over the ocean, the surf was absolutely pumping, a perfect left-hander peeling off directly in front of the hut and a deep blue sky above. I cast my eyes up the coral bay and there he was walking up the beach with a cup of coffee “good morning beautiful”.

I’ve always been one to experience vivid dreams but I had never experienced a dream so intense as the first night I spent on this island. It was such a powerful merge of dream and reality, I had a hard time distinguishing which was which. In fact this was just the beginning of many twists on reality. I’m not sure what it came down to, but my only guess is that when you take yourself away from “society” and live so free on a remote island, indulging in the finest acts of freedom you begin to experience time at a heightened level. Kind of like being inside the barrel. Scientists still haven’t been able to explain the amazing phenomenon, where multiple surfers over the decades describe time standing still when they are deep in the heart of the barrel. Each day over the two months I spent at this island felt as though I was gifted with two days in one. Time was actually extended. I spent my days painting underneath the palm trees, surfing waves beyond perfection, diving and weaving throughout ribbed coral gardens, exploring dense jungles and racing by motorbike through remote villages.

island life freedomWhile it’s hard for the average person to ever experience this kind of feeling in their lifetime, due to work, financial and family commitments, if at some point you can escape “reality” for a couple of months to dive deep into your passions in a remote country, you will never forget in your lifetime the magic of those moments and how you cheated the ticking clock that so many of us abide by each and every day.

girl diving

Waves at the foot of Thailand?

Two months straight spent in the remote Mentawai Islands in Northern Indonesia is such an incredible amount of time to bask in waves beyond perfection. Time itself becomes an illusion and having no rules to be dictated by makes life taste so sweet. However I was certainly ready to escape back into the “real world” for a break and to re-appreciate life in the islands. Mum was flying over from Australia to spend three weeks with me throughout Malaysia and Bali.

I found myself mostly inland in Malaysia, exploring ancient cities far away from the world of surfing and learning surfing Malaysiaabout colourful cultures.

After researching a small island off the coast of Malaysia, I spontaneously booked mum and I some cheap flights and we were on our way. Hiring a car we drove around the island in a day, finding monkeys in forests, waterfalls and beautiful untouched beaches.

One morning I woke early and went to find a beach we could both enjoy for the day. Winding through the beach roads under jungle canopies, I found myself down the end of a sandy road, where the ocean opened up to a chain of lush islands and limestone cliffs in the distance.

As I got closer I saw some swell in the shore break. I couldn’t believe my eyes, I never knew waves to be in Malaysia but there was a good 2ft of swell!

Racing back to our unit, I told mum the exciting news as she woke with sleepy eyes. I said we had to go straight back to the beach I had discovered so I could try to find a surfboard of sorts.

Aren’t we meant to return the car and check out in a couple of hours?” she asked with concern. “It doesn’t matter they seem pretty cruisy around here, c’mon you have no idea how exciting this is!”, I replied as I pictured myself on the cover of Tracks Magazine surfing at the foot of Thailand with the green islands as a backdrop.

I started grabbing things I thought mum would need for a lovely day at the beach, sunblock, bathers, towel and placed them next to her in bed. “Pleaaase c’mon I’ll buy you lunch if we can go now”. Reluctantly she got out of bed rolling her eyes with a small grin.

We pulled up at the end of the road and I bolted off to try find a surfboard. “Wait I need you to put some sunscreen on my back”, mum asked. I turned around mid-run with my hair flying in the breeze, feeling like a puppy with its tongue hanging out of the car window at 100km speed, “Back soon!” I replied.

I had trouble containing my excitement as I raced from timber beach shack to timber beach shack eyeing off the stack of assorted tourists toys, wakeboards and blow up rafts, but no surfboards. I checked two timber shacks and at the last one I spotted a grommet’s shortboard under the pile of other boards.

By this stage my heart was racing out of my chest as I shuffled the board out of the pile. The only people on the surfing in Malaysiabeach at this stage were a few Muslim women bearing entirely black hijabs, their eyes the only part of skin revealed.

They stood in the sand with hands resting on hips and curious eyes glued at the site of this blonde girl running around with a surfboard.

I frantically tried to find the owner of the board and asked the first Malay guy I saw. “Selamat Pagi, I really, really want to go surfing on this board, do you know whose it is?”. I asked. “Pagi, uhh this is my brothers, he is not here yet, I can’t let you use it until I check with him is ok” He replied.

Oh please I know how to surf I won’t break it, here I have money”. I said as I pulled some Ringgit out of my pocket, some notes flying loose in the sand. “I want to check with him that it is ok first”, he responded. I kept pulling more notes out of my pocket until he couldn’t resist.

Handing the notes to him and thanking him profusely, I skipped off down the beach, waving to mum with a big grin as she sat on the beach awkwardly trying to lather sunscreen on her back. Shit I forgot.

Making a detour I ran up to her, “Can you believe it, I got a surfboard!”. I yelled excitedly. “That’s nice honey, can you please put some sunscreen on me, it’s baking hot already, I’m going to get so burnt”. I squirted out far too much sunscreen and loosely massaged the cream into her back, leaving a white coating over her skin, before grabbing the board and bolting into the ocean. “Won’t be long!” I yelled back to her.

Even after surfing two months of solid conditions, I think I was almost more excited to be surfing this tiny shore break in a country where I never knew waves existed.

“My first wave I was able to race far down the beach, straight past the woman in their black hijabs with the Malaysian flag flying high in the background. It was such a surreal feeling as the woman watched on although they had never seen a girl surfing before, and they probably hadn’t”

I surfed for half an hour before a parasailing boat turned up ready for a busy day entertaining tourists. The boat launched right next to where I was surfing and I had to be careful not to be caught up in the ropes. I shorebreak watched as they completed a full lap of the bay, perhaps about 5km long before returning to the same spot and picking up the next tourist.

As the boat launched it created a lot of wake and if I timed it with a set it added another half of a foot to the wave.

The young Malay guys that were the guides started to notice what I was up to and would laugh each time they launched out and high above my head into the sky.

One guy in particular would give me a shaka on each lap and yell out “yeaaah surfer girl!” with a huge grin. A couple of hours into the session mum started pacing up and down the beach and signalling for me to come in. Like a cheeky young grommet I held my finger up to tell her ‘one more wave!’.

Of course I could have spent all day out there but I may have had to take mum to hospital with third-degree burns from sitting in the hot Malaysian sun.

Wild Island Escape

They had been tracking the swell off the coast of Africa for two weeks. A slow moving, season defining system making its way across the Indian Ocean- our little island’s home wide open to accept its almighty power. Waking blurry eyed after a restless night sleep, the light was yet to show on the horizon to bring another day. Making my way to the hut barefooted, I gasp as I stub my toe heavily on a large chunk of coral. Limping off in pain I gaze across the green grass, the light from the porch revealing several hundred more chunks of coral far up the bank. I’ve not known the water to ever come up this high before. This wasn’t a good sign.

I pour myself a strong cup of coffee and sit quietly, hearing the roar of the ocean towards the darkened sea, the lull between sets softened by the usually loud sounds from the jungle behind me. “It’s not a good day to go”, the voice of the surf camp owner breaks across the room with concern. I respond “I can’t stay, I’m not putting my life in his hands, I just don’t feel safe here with him”.

I’m alone on a remote island densely covered in jungle. All outside guests of the surf camp had left two days prior, leaving just myself and two owners of paradise bikinis
the camp, one of which is my now estranged boyfriend. In a heartbeat he had dictated my own love for him as non-existent. His delusion and insecurity just wouldn’t cut through the truth of how strong my feelings were for him. I’ve seen too much of his aggression to negotiate any possible terms to stay. My time in this tropical paradise has felt like a dream but so quick it can turn into a living nightmare overnight.

My journey ahead (as I find out) requires navigating one of the biggest swells in years in a dugout canoe with outboard for close to three hours, before anxiously waiting twelve hours in a small fishing village for a public boat. This unforeseen wait only adds more time to my already twelve hour overnight boat ride, sleeping top to tail with hundreds of locals. From the mainland I wait six hours for a connecting flight, travel by car for two hours to the small airport where an hour by plane lands me in an international airport. From here I can catch a three hour flight to Bali where I plan to touch down at around 3am- two days from now. The fact I face this journey solo rules out any chance for emotions to break through as they are quickly overruled by hits of adrenaline.

Standing on the shore with a group of local Indonesian workers, my surfboards are firmly strapped in the wooden canoe and wrapped under a large torn tarp. I bear a flimsy poncho, well and truly not up for the task ahead. We wait for the sets to pass before we can escape out to sea, via the narrow reef passage before us. My eyes nervously scan over the dark eyes of the workers who wait in silence, looking equally as fearful as each other. It’s hard to gauge the size of the waves in the stormy conditions but it’s easily fifteen to twenty feet and building rapidly. The entire front section of the camp is flooded out, with coral strewn across every square inch of land. The darkened skies above threaten downpours. Further up the beach my old bamboo hut is starting to give way, as the tide gushes ferociously under its floor and over the embankment, filling the lagoon that lays behind it. With every set the water races up the beach smashing broken coral against my ankles and I’m constantly rushing behind a palm tree for protection. I push the thoughts out of my head that this was the very location the Boxing Day Tsunami tore through only years before.

Twenty minutes pass and there’s still no safe break between the relentless sets. We continue to patiently wait before I hear the voice of the camp owner “Ok go, go, go, go, ocean stormShannon get in, satu, dua, tiga, puush, satu dua, tiga puush”. I scamper into the boat, heart racing out of my chest and adrenaline filling every vein in my body. The group of workers use all of their strength to push the boat off the coral sand. Whitewash races over the edge of the boat instantly soaking everything within. The engine splutters as it attempts to start and we slowly begin to head out towards the rough sea. I glance back towards land with a heavy heart, as I see no sign of the man I thought I was in love with. I pull my hat down over my red ravaged eyes, not wanting to look at the site ahead. Each time we reach the peak of the ocean swell, I cling to the edges of the boat as we drop violently onto the flat water with a loud thud, almost shaking me out into the rough waters. Every few seconds it feels as though someone is holding a large bucket of water and releasing it onto the boat. My intense love for the ocean fades in this moment as fear washes over my body.

I’m relieved as we miraculously make it around the back of the lineup. I glance up and am speechless at the sight of open ocean swell. Scenes from the movie “The Perfect Storm” flash in front of me, I feel the boat climb a very steep section of swell for what feels like eternity in this moment, I continue to hide under my hat. “Uh oh”, I hear from the Indo guy, as he switches the engine off. I shut my eyes tightly and crawl below the broken piece of wood I’m sitting on and brace my knees. We decline down the opposite side of the swell and violently hit the flat surface, as gallons of water are thrown onto us once again. The entire boat gives way to the right side, forcing the edge to catch and sink beneath the surface where we come close to capsizing. The price we pay to ride waves of perfection.

The First Wave is Never Forgotten

I’m waiting out the front of the school gates with my backpack; whistling nervously with a guilty conscience playing on my mind. The day was to begin with my English class with Mrs Watson but I knew the night before I wasn’t going to be sitting at that wooden desk reading To Kill a Mockingbird. I remember finding one of those old “school excursion” forms.   There was a part where Mum or Dad had to sign, giving their consent for a day trip organised by school. I had torn the panel off and glued it creatively next to some article about an art class day trip to excuse me from school that day. Mum was too worn out and busy cooking the evening meal for us three kids to really take notice of what she was signing.

The surf bug had bitten me and there was no turning back. Here I was standing barefoot in my school uniform on a cold, rocky shore gazing at these perfect waves. Behind me the old rusted Commodore I had stepped into at the school gates, boards stacked on the roof, its occupants some much older guys I had recently met. One was laying on his back on the bonnet in his scraggly torn jeans, shirt off, smoking and playing air guitar to the tunes coming out of the rattly car speakers.  The others whipping each other’s backsides with towels before running off into the tussock giggling like little kids.

I had only just learnt to stand up on a surfboard a few weeks before, but my inflated teenage ego and the fact I had a huge crush on one of the guys, saw me paddling out behind him and his friends below the cliffs, not really comprehending the power behind these waves. I knew it was big but for some reason without really knowing them I trusted they would look after me. There were some strange looks from the rest of the surfers out there.  I don’t think I could paddle very well and I was very shaky when I tried to sit up straddling my board to rest. I had made it out the back of the line-up and sat quietly as I witnessed one of the guys take off on a monster wave, bigger than I had seen before. Fear was now well and truly battling with my ego. I was frozen on my board.

One of the guys, Hamish, who was sitting closest to me, had seen something on the horizon. “Shan this one’s yours go, go, paddle, paddle, dig deep!!”  Now it was a mix of overwhelming fear and adrenalin as I thought ‘Here’s my chance’. I paddled fast towards the shore briefly glancing back at this mountain like mound of water coming towards me.  The lip started to feather and I was in the right spot for take-off.  Grabbing the rails I swung my feet up from under me and stood up.  I had done it! I was up!  But I quickly realised things were about to go very wrong for me.

I had become caught up in the lip of the breaking wave and violently pitched forward until gravity took over.  I was falling down from the sky with my limbs helplessly scratching at the crisp morning air. It seemed to all happen in slow motion; the surreal separation of body from mind, the feeling of having no control over what was happening. The image will stay with me forever. Looking over my shoulder mid-air, I could see that deep dark cavern of the wave’s trough so far below me, the very spot I would be unwillingly forced into. I crashed and was sucked up into the face of the wave like being in Mother Nature’s vacuum cleaner. Once I’m taken up and around the curve of the wave I am then forcefully thrown underwater and my body taken up and around the wave for a second time. I hit the rocky bottom and struggle to hold my breath as my arms and legs are tugged in each direction with the swirling waters. It seems like a lifetime that I am held under but I finally surface and desperately gulp in the oxygen.  My vision is hazy, I’m seeing stars and for a moment I don’t know who I am. The stinging pain begins to set in from the cuts on my legs and ribs from hitting the reef. I turn to see my board washing up on the rocks. I make my way in limping up the rocks with my tail between my legs as blood begins to seep from my wounds.

Hamish caught up with me, apologising for pushing me into a wave far beyond my capabilities. He hadn’t quite comprehended the size of the wave he had told me to go, he says. I was lucky to come out alive. How silly and insignificant I felt in that moment. I never skipped school again but I knew this was a much more important life lesson than what I would have been taught in English class. The ocean was now my teacher.

Today, twelve years on I am absolutely engulfed in surfing and love challenging myself in bigger conditions. Currently living in Byron Bay I have recently returned to this very break in NZ.  Hamish, still my close friend, walking beside me with his hands interlaced behind his head, watching the waves roll in.  Laughing as we reminisce this day; my first real surf experience.

New Zealand surfing

Indonesian Boat Crossing

With no sign of any Westerner, she passed cautiously through the rotted wooden boat catching glimpses of dark faces peering through the shanty cabins intrigued by her blonde hair and tan skin. Given the spontaneity of the six-month journey she quickly realised that her basic Indonesian would not serve her in this situation.

There was a task she had been putting off for as long as she could bear but she was now desperately needing to locate some form of a toilet. The rear of the boat was dark and unexplored, a kerosene lamp clattered noisily against the wall, hung by a tattered rope giving just enough light to locate the only door she hadn’t attempted to enter, a door barely hanging upright on its hinges. An Indonesian man sat nearby, cigarette poised between his lips, his dark eyes staring her down, she passed with little care as she was at the point of bursting.

Sea sickness hadn’t bothered her until the sight of the apparent toilet, perhaps it was lucky to not be so well lit as she closed the rusty door, barely managing to fit in the small area, the rock of the sea causing her to slip and slide on the mouldy floor, the stench almost unbearable. She noticed a small coke bottle and plastic pipe letting water pass through the drilled hole in the wooden deck, barely keeping up to its intended task but assuring her she must have been in the right place.

She returned to her sleeping area, stomach now churning, once again finding her spot nestled between dozens of Indonesians on the floor. Chickens noisily contained in woven cages, cockroaches scrambling past avoiding the heavy footprint of restless children. Her iPod became her saviour, relieving the anxiety and reality of how far she had stepped out of her comfort zone, the lyrics of her favourite songs meaning more than ever before, each beat matching the beat of her heavy heart as she eventually drifted to sleep only to be woken by the violent sway of the boat in the treacherous swells. She lay quietly observing the movement of life around her.

She began to cultivate thoughts of the human condition, the basic need for survival and safety, food and water, love and equality. Later she would discover a boat travelling that night on the very same route had capsized in the rough seas killing seven locals. She had risked it all for the prospect of perfect waves.

She was two hours away from her destination, now travelling by a small dugout canoe navigating bays lined in palm trees and mesmerising crystal blue waters. It had taken almost three days of travel. The sight was absolutely spellbinding. A surfer standing tall in a perfectly groomed overhead barrel breaking along a pristine reef. An immense grin crept over her weary face and shivers lit up her spine, her previously held doubts of the journey vanished and she had finally reached the ultimate surfer’s dreamland.   Mentawai

Tahitian Heartbeats

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The air was surprisingly fresh as we rode our bicycles, boards under arm weaving through the lush gardens that surrounded our surf shack. Dawn is always a magical time of the day for surfers and today was no different. The dark of the sky was awakening to dreamy pastel colours, the wind barely a breath, the burning tropical sun yet to crawl its way up the volcanic mountaintops.

In the distance we hear a loud scraping of metal against road and spot a rusted out car coming our way, the noise is atrocious but as we pass we lose it laughing at the site. A topless Polynesian guy with his big stomach only just fitting against the steering wheel, he rests his monstrously proportioned arm on the open window, but is actually holding the entire car door up, on one hinge with his grip, casually cruising along with fresh baguettes on the dash as though he’s rolling in a Bentley.

We already feel like a part of the family as we stash our bikes at the boat shed on the edge of a turquoise blue ocean. The iron roof held down by chunks of coral, a dirty concrete floor and a broken timber window propped up by an empty vodka bottle. We tiptoe inside to see if anyone is awake, we hear a “wooo” from the one small bedroom and are greeted by three smiling faces.

They are always so stoked to see us. It’s the classic big momma Polynesian woman always laughing and making jokes in French that we don’t understand but laugh anyway. Dad is the hard worker, baring a toothless grin, he does what he can to bring food to the table. Their teenage daughter is nursing her young baby, they are all sharing a 3m x 3m room, three single beds and a cot lining the walls.

They would never let us go without signalling and yelling in French, asking us to take fresh papaya and bananas from their garden. They are clearly so incredibly poor, we try to give money for the fruit but I’ve never seen anyone refuse so passionately.

We head down the sandy road indulging in freshly picked bananas and I’m nervously gazing out to the reef break. The swells big. Usually I’m happy for the welcome challenge but I’ve heard of this waves’ personality and it put me a little on edge.

It seems you’ve got to earn your everything here, the break sits about a kilometre out to sea and the currents on the paddle out can force you back to shore if you rest for even a minute. I fear if anything was to go wrong out there.

I’m happy to make it to the edge of the reef with burning arms where we can finally rest as a rewarding current decides to run out to sea, rather than back to the now distant land.

A monster wave grows out of nowhere and it’s much more solid than I’m comfortable with, the sheer thickness of it almost outweighs its height.  Fear kicks in as the rewarding current now feels like I’m being escalated to my grave and there’s no way back. We’re in water deep enough to be safe but the current is rapidly pulling us around the back of the lineup to the thickest part of the wave.

The next wave starts to appear and this time a big Polynesian guy is paddling for it, he’s super deep and committed, digging his arms hard into the face of the wave. He briskly swings his feet under him & grabs rail to pull into the most perfect round barrel I’ve ever laid eyes on. He is a giant of at least 6’5 and built solid, but appears to be an ant fading down the face of the wave.

We see two other local guys out and approach each with handshakes and are welcomed to their wave. The respect is absolutely mind-boggling here and every surf is a step back in time.

There’s no resting in the lineup here, every minute or so we each paddle back from the current that continually swings out to sea. I display a forced air of confidence as one of the local guys explains to me that the current gets so strong some days that no one will surf it, even though the wave itself is perfect.

With a grin he smoothly comments that the only way to get back into shore is to catch a wave over the reef. He then turns his board around and glides into a bomb. My idea of being a spectator to this surf is crushed by words I would have rather not heard. I can’t even fathom the thought of paddling into one of these giants. The current suddenly feels stronger through my heightened fear, my arms are beginning to cramp from fighting against it. I’ve never felt so intimidated by the ocean as I have in this moment and am nearly reduced to tears.

I paddle towards the land hoping to catch a smaller one in, but in no time I’m scratching back out to the horizon to get under another bomb. I try again as my arms burn through exhaustion, making it quite far in this time. Another wave starts to form but there’s no way I can make it back out and under it, I can feel the water is shallow beneath me.

It was hard to tell where it was going to break, with so much current moving up the face, I charge towards the big wall of water and duck dive as deep as possible. I clear the turbulent tube of water but am clipped just before surfacing and sucked in and under, I hit the reef hard with my knee and hands. The water above feels like concrete rain pushing me deeper and deeper.

I finally surface standing on dry reef and am faced with another bomb wave. I’m in the most critical barrel section where not only one wall comes parallel to shore but a second wall forms from the south to meet together to form a wedge.

I gaze up to the skies as the lip breaks high above me. I make a split-second decision to turn around and hang on for life as I ride the whitewash in. Like a bus hitting me from behind I just manage to cling on to my board. Within no time, all is quiet. I’ve made it into the peace of the tranquil blue lagoon, breathless but safe. Tropical fish casually swim at my feet, a surreal scene in absolute opposition to what I just faced.

I have a strange feeling of invigoration back on land as I go about my day, a feeling of taking on something much larger than I, the humble pride that comes from being a surfer. The land and ocean expanse all seem to speak a different energy after a surf out here. I think back to the unspoken meaning behind the local guys making sure everyone greets with respect before touching any of those waves.

Perhaps there’s a mutual feeling at the core of our being, the waves representing the challenges in life, crossing the line, facing our fears and being brave enough to come back and take it all on again.