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Beach Grit

Travel: “Sumatra, it was fucked!”

Kristopher McDonlad

by Kristopher McDonlad

When bad gets worse!

(Ed. note: You may, or may not remember Kristopher McDonald from his fantastic rendezvous with a grand piano some 10 months ago. Absolutely wonderful if you have not read.)

Ahhhh at what stage of booking a holiday do you pull back?

All the warnings were there.

I went anyway.

About 5 years ago and in a blossoming relationship my girl and I decided we were ready to travel, but to where? Sumatra baby. Being a fairly frequent visitor and her not yet being very well travelled it was an easy convince, with the added bonus of stopping in Bali on the way home to shop and relax. I’d found a pretty good deal on a land camp in the Banyak Islands. Off season rates and it all looked quite comfortable, the website layout was incredibly enticing and deceitfully produced by their employed surf guide Brandon. Fishing and snorkelling were apparently abundant as were ping pong and day drinking should there be no waves. There would be all of the transfers organised and after arriving to Medan from Melbourne it should be a piece of piss. I’d always gone in blind previously and winged it. It wasn’t like we were missioning to Nias.

How I wish we went to Nias…

The first hurdle was that our potential surf guide and the owner were at war. A middle man investor based in Australia reluctantly alluded to me that there was a dispute over Brandon getting his wages, who in turn made off with our deposits (made in full) that he had us send to his account. Well played, but we were made to feel like the bad guys and getting them honour our payment was like pulling teeth.

Next up was the forecast, I know it was off season but this was looking very bad. Oh well, pristine beaches and a getaway to the middle of nowhere still sounds good.

Then, one week before we embarked on the included domestic flight operated by Nusantara Buana Air which ran the Medan to Aceh route crashed into the mountains tragically killing all 18 on board. Well…at least we weren’t on it. Road trip…

Sticking to the plan and we are still on.

I was concerned for Jane. Booking group stuff solo has become fun, you get idiots, drunks, teetotallers, legends and everyone in between, once I ended up on a boat trip with Garth McGregor which was hell a good time, another one I unknowingly got on the Prince of Poppies boat with a mate and Todd was nothing but fully professional and a lovely guy. But having Jane along I was hoping for gentlemen, loose gentlemen but gentlemen nonetheless and I was not let down by the boys from Newcastle. Great attitudes to life and a tight bunch, which unbeknownst to me would come in very handy.

When we met the boys before the road trip down they had been drinking all day in the hotel lounge and were very jovial, we hit the road and firstly when doing the old dual minivan racing routine one of the boys were hanging out the window during a regulatory dangerous overtake with a healthy stream of vomit running down the door. All with a smile and a thumbs up. It took way longer than the domestic flight would have but it was slightly less dangerous. We stopped for a toilet break in the dawn and Jane pushed a door open to a local dude smoking a joint on the shitter.

Getting to the port and trying to spot our assigned fast speedboat to the island we are surrounded by creepier than usual port creeps, we are informed that the fast boat is out of action and we are to take the slow boat to the Banyaks, I can roll with the punches in Indo but when you get your stupid hopes up with promised shit it gets annoying. We meet the owner head honcho Dean. He seems like a fucking dick. He is indeed a fucking dick.

Eight long hours later we turn into the “Bay of Plenty”, consisting of an inconsistent left, a shit burger left and a good right on its day. Spotting the lodge there are whispers of, “Is that fucking it?” Yep, that was fucking it. It was very shack chic, more out of necessity than styling and not to turn my nose up at it but the photos painted it in a very different light, the pristine 200m beach had been sunken due to the Boxing Day tsunami related tectonic shifts and left roots shrubbery all the way to the water line, it had also rendered the formerly fun inner left the shit burger it now is. We got settled, sank a few of the MANY pre ordered beers that we had stipulated that we would require and crashed.

The next few days were fine, a couple of shit burger lefts and one morning getting some fun ones at Gunters, which oddly enough was not on the forecast but produced from a quickly developing tropical low off Sri Lanka. Dean was evidently troppo, spending too much time slugging it out around the equator, he’d done this and that, a full lunch box legend annoying cunt. Despite there being nearby waves outside of the bay he wouldn’t take us there and the two fibreglass, radio, life jacket,flare and EPERB equipped dinghies as seen on the website were merely for display, we got taken around in the typical leaking Indo outrigger. The touted fishing and snorkelling gear was nonexistent and or fucked. The food was fucked, shown menu pictures were of Mahi Mahi and fresh fruits, we got dodgy sausages. Every damn night. I wasn’t complaining, we had beer, were having ping pong championships, getting the local workers drunk and all of us bitching about the ever beer guzzling Dean. One day a potential investor plied him and me with expensive scotch inspiring Dean to stir up the boys very early in the morning in their separate dorm and piss all over their floor.

Then things took a turn for the worse, news just in was that we were running low on beer, nothing to do with our host having morning beers and continuing on David Boon style all the way to meet the Queen every day, no, it was because how was he to know that we were big drinkers and how much to order? When on a trip and the announcement goes up that beers are low in supply then everyone dives in to get their fill. We ran out. And the solution was….interesting.

“No worries”, says Dean. “There is an island a bit aways that makes Arak, take the boat and load up.” Before we leave we are asked if we have phones, yes we do but there is zero coverage anywhere, so in actual fact we don’t. We are still given an emergency number, we reiterate that there is no coverage and will not be taking phones. I pack four litres of water but most foolishly only a few cigarettes. We venture off in the leaky Indo outrigger, looking longingly at the gracious fibreglass vessels we were leaving behind. The hour long trip over is boring and uneventful, the village is nice and we haggle over Arak and get ripped off, they know we are here out of desperation, why else would we be here? Two of the Newcastle boys were keen spear fisherman and had brought all their gear in excitement of a big fishing hole en route home, also was a big boring cave we just had to see. The boys spearfished and nothing was found so we left……

Now, one part of the journey was a deep water run and we gunned it a large distance from one group of islands to the next, precisely in the middle of this vast distance the outboard died. Not a good die, but a very bad die, plenty of fuel and after a bit of fiddling it was suggested to rip the cord and try to start it up. Our deckhand ripped the cord clean out. There was a dire lack of oil. The motor was seized. The deckhand asked for a phone. Silence. The silence was deafening.

My first thought was had Jane not been there was to leave everyone and swim it. I would have died. Everyone would have died. The second thought was to see where we were drifting. Evidently, straight to Antarctica. It rained. Hard. The boat continued to leak. The area we were in which was very quiet in boat activity was dormant beyond belief, it was the one time in the year in which a Muslim holiday and a Christian holiday fell together. Nothing. The Newcastle boys head down and silent. In a crowded boat, it was very lonely.
Jane calmly suggested we had to do “something”. What “something” was in a pile of confusion. Indeed “something” was to be done. I am not a leader, an alpha male, a great thinker or a big tough guy.

Neither was anyone else apparently.

I had an idea and it was time to step up and put everyone to task.

We were sitting on wooden slats for seats, we were going to use these cunty splintery things for paddles, there were three, Scotty being the fourth paddler would use an esky lid, an actual lid off an esky not a boogie board. I sent the spear fisherman overboard, they were to kick with their flippers and push, not to mention lighten the load of the boat. I instructed our guide to chain smoke nervously and he did not disappoint. Jane continued to bail out water as she had from the beginning of the trip. We all had a job and I told everyone to keep their head down and do it. No looking for progress just get in rhythm and try to feel movement. After ten minutes Jane saw it first by way of the distant tiny islands and the backdrop of the larger ones. “Oh my god, keep it up guys we are actually moving.” It wasn’t much progress but it was better than nothing. Jane would instruct us on the direction and I in turn would rally the guys into order. I was fit, had gotten that way for the trip and these were big guys but not very athletic so it was hard to coordinate, I decided we needed to go at the slowest guys pace, focus on him and push like a P.E. teacher. This went on and on. The rain went on and on.

We saw an island with a stretch of beach come in to view and it lifted everyone. Total progress was happening. It had been two hours of paddling this giant thing and splinters in blisters were starting to happen. From a very big prospect of being lost in the Indian Ocean to almost getting to land we were pretty fucking happy.

We got to the sandy strip, tied the boat to some sunken logs and the first guy up on the beach exclaimed, “this place is a fucking shit hole”. It was. A few metres of sand and then a rank swamp in the whole middle of the rancid place. The tectonic fall had everything dead and dying with salinity, everything was wet. There was no shade from the sun or the elements. It was fucked. I knew a fire would raise spirits, but how?

I had to go to extremes, setting up a fire place of damp logs just if I could get a spark to take off was the first part. Next I spotted a coconut shell with a hole in it which I jammed a heap of kindling, then the piece de resistance’ was boat fuel I sent the guide to retrieve. I lit it up and was ecstatic to lose my eyebrows and lashes with that petrol bomb. We had fire. And it took!

The whole seemingly beautiful island was strewn with garbage. Dave wore the abandoned foam from a bike helmet to amuse us. Light bulbs, thongs and discarded fishing gear was the most common and it was instructed that should anyone hear a boat that they should throw all plastics on to create black smoke. I smoked, it was getting late and let me tell you this, when you are marooned and supplies are low, namely water. Shit gets weird very quickly. The boys offered us water. They had about 500mls between five of them. We had four litres between two and said we were fine thank you and vowed to not let them in on our stash.

Jane and I were trudging through the swamp which had real life quicksand going on. It was extra fucked. We were all trudging at some stage, you’d sink and grab onto a rotten branch for help and it would snap, then if it got serious you would have to army crawl out. I set another fire with the same method on the most southerly point and left Mick to sit with it with plastic at the ready, I set the guide up with another to man on the north point to have most bases covered. I asked him if he had any cigarettes, he only had two which in western code is to have none to spare. He absolutely insisted we have one each. It was getting dark. Very dark. Mosquitoes. Malaria. Cold.

The whirring of an engine brought hope but none of us were getting their hopes up until we heard it slow. It was around my southern fire. It did slow. It stopped! Dean had sent out his Indonesian wife and an old man Pal from camp to search for us. Weak cunt. Friska was in disbelief, “we thought we lose you to ocean and we not know what to tell embassy!”

Old mate Pal who never uttered one single word all trip lit up, speaking absolutely no Bahasa but something even more primal than anything from Nias I’d even ever heard. Friska translated, “oh my god, get off island, five metre crocodile live there, he eat octopus fisherman last week!”

We instructed them on where our boat was, untied it from the debris of a dying island and onto the much admired fibreglass saviour. We were leaving in blackness but Pal would guide us home somehow.

Now arriving home should have been a happy thing but the first sight we saw upon walking in?
Dean slurping on a fucking can of beer.

The boys simmered on their Arak, I had about three, it was quite unpalatable, then after a belly full Brent ripped absolute shit into Dean, denouncing his whole operation and ethics. I stayed quiet. We were stuck here for two days until we could reschedule a reprieve from a passing fishing boat., cutting our stay short by four days. To our dismay Dean and joined us on the journey back to mainland Sumatra. As I had not openly told Dean how I felt he buddied up to me. I have had bad things happen to me at the hands of fixers and I was keeping my enemies close.

The previously dreary and draining road trip there was heaven on the return, then staying a night in and then cruising around Medan was fun as always but I got to share it this time, fun times don’t exist unless shared.

Topped it off by staying in Bali for some shopping and relaxation to earn some love back with our most main guy ever Grumpy, who most Aussies reading this will know exclaimed to Jane, “Why you still with this guy, he is bloody fucking dickhead hahaha, why he take you there?”