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Surfing in Papua New Guinea

September 18, 2014


On Papua New Guinea's far north coast, swell enthusiasts are riding a tourism wave via sustainable surfing. Ian Lloyd Neubauer borrows a board, paddles out and peers through the keyhole.

Published on Sep 18, 2014

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"No SURFBOARD, hey?" says Matt Lemmo, the 26-year-old California surfer with a bushy blonde beard and kind blue eyes who meets me at the airport at Vanimo, in north Papua New Guinea. "Normally we don't lend them out. But since you're our only guest, you can use one of mine. Follow me. The van's this way."

Papua New Guinea
Lido kids surf baby waves on hand-carved bodyboards called splinters.

Set on a peninsula edged by sugar-white beaches and backdropped by colossal jungle-clad mountains, Vanimo is an epic place to fly into. Not that you have a choice: With no roads connecting it to the country's other provinces, it's impossible to drive into except from Jayapura, capital of the restive Indonesian province of West Papua. This is the road we're taking west, along a palm-fringed coast that runs to the international border. At the 5-kilometer mark, we reach a fork in the road that leads to a compound with a wooden carving of a figurine riding a wave on the front gate. "We're here," Matt says. "Welcome to Paradise."

Paradise it may be, yet luxurious it is not. With four dorm-style stilt huts, a communal bathroom, intermittent generator-supplied power and a sand-bottomed dining room, the Vanimo Surf Lodge is spartan to the core. But it's the sea, not the amenities, that's the attraction here.

Vanimo Surf Lodge
Vanimo Surf Lodge

In truth, I can't really surf. I had a few lessons near my home on Sydney's Bondi Beach in preparation for the trip, but standing up on a Styrofoam longboard on the whitewash of North Bondi and riding a pointy fiberglass board on the 3-meter tubes for which these breaks are renowned are two very different things. This was an aquatic, athletic and anthropological quest borne of a mystery package.

Back in 2011, I'd received a DVD in the mail from a public relations firm in New York. It was a film called Splinters. Winner of Best Documentary at that year's London Surf Film Festival, it told the story of an intrepid Australian pilot who, in the early 1980's, landed his seaplane along Papua New Guinea's remote north coast, and spent the weekend near the village of Lido riding perfect, endless waves. Before departing, he gifted his surfboard to curious locals who'd been riding hand-carved wooden bodyboards (known as splinters) for generations but never fathomed standing up. They took to the sport like fish to water and soon everyone in Lido was carving up the waves.

Despite tackling serious issues like domestic violence, poverty and corruption, Splinters is an uplifting story that conveys the aspirational value of surfing in Lido, where the sport is not only a pillar of life but a means to prestige.

"Hi, Wally!" yells the gang of naked village kids that surrounds us in Lido. "Wally, hi!" Using the local salutation for white men, they have an obvious affection for my host. Lemmo first came to Lido in 2010 as a volunteer with Walu International, a U.S.-based NGO that tasked him with delivering sanitation solutions to the 1,500 residents of Lido. Eighteen months later he switched to the private sector and took on the role of general manager at the then-new Vanimo Surf Lodge, owned by a Papua New Guinean and a group of Australian investors, and operated under guidelines from the Surfing Association of Papua New Guinea. The association charges visiting surfers 20 kina (about US$8.50) per day, which it then passes on to landholders and stakeholder groups in Lido village. One main problem the association is tackling, says founder Andy Abel, a businessman based in capital Port Moresby, is rubbish on the reef and the beach. Acknowledging that education takes time, Abel is planning to use a percentage of the surf levies to help buy a tractor and trailer to comb the beachfront several times a week.

Papua New Guinea
"Hi, Wally!" the kids greet Matt Lemmo

Adds his neighbor Brigit Tonte: "Surfing makes people forget the bad things that happen and think positively about things. Now our girls are surfing, too. It shows they can be the same as men." The walk-and-talk comes to an end at a half-moon cove where dozens of naked children are surfing splinters on baby waves. The sounds of laughter and splashing water permeate through the air—hot, sultry and tainted with the perfume of burning coconut husks. It's like a scene out of Splinters come to life.

"The surf in PNG is nowhere as big as you get in places like Hawaii or Australia. But in those places you have to share the waves with hundreds of surfers," Lemmo says. Here, you will only ever share one of the eight gorgeous breaks in the area with a maximum of 20 total surfers daily. Here, you can often get an entire break to yourself. "What did I tell you? Paradise, hey?"

 

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