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, 2014Page : 1 2
"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."
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
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.
"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?"
The days melt into a vortex outside of time. From the moment I unpacked, I jumped into the water and proceeded to spend a week rarely out of it. Lemmo told me not to sweat my inexperience, and he was right. The largest waves manifest from November through to March, when ocean swells travel south across thousands of kilometers of unobstructed ocean before making landfall on Papua New Guinea's far north coast. This being May, the waves only average 1 to 2 meters—perfect conditions for a beginner like me.
On day one, it takes me about 15 minutes to paddle across a lagoon to the rear of a point break, where curved mirrors of water peel endlessly over a sand-covered coral reef. There are only two others surfers out on the water—one, a small boy, who flashes me a toothy grin before springing to his feet and riding a wave effortlessly back to shore. I try doing the same but am unable to find the sweetspot on the board, toppling into the water every time I try standing up.
But that doesn't discount from the pleasure of bobbing up and down on a gin-clear lagoon with 180-degree misty mountain views.
Every morning, I awake shortly after sunrise, paddle out to the reef and spend an hour or two working on my form. After breakfast, I lounge around on a hammock thumbing through old surfing magazines and talking philosophy with Anton, the lodge's septuagenarian caretaker. One day after lunch, his 10-year-old grandson, Thomas, offers to take me to visit Waromo Waterfall I kept hearing so much about. The route follows the banks of a gentle freshwater stream where we see villagers bathing, preparing food and washing their clothes. The river grows larger and louder as it ascends into the jungle, morphing into formidable whitewater rapids pockmarked with boulders and fallen logs. Ninety minutes after setting off, we reach a series of freshwater pools crowned by a waterfall that cascades over an oblong-shaped limestone bluff. With vines hanging from the canopy Thomas uses to swing from pool to pool and natural water slides etched into the rock, it's an aquatic center cut straight out of the garden of Eden.
A waterfall cut straight out of the Garden of Eden
The day before my departure, Lemmo drives me to the border, where passport holders can receive permission to visit the Indonesian market on the West Papuan side. But Westerners are a rare sight here and when we line up in the queue we attract the attention of Badan Intelijen Negara—the Indonesian intelligence agency waging a bloody war of attrition against West Papua's beleaguered independence movement. A Javanese man in plain clothes tails our every move while nonchalantly filming us with an antiquated Handycam, while another swoops by taking stills with his camera phone. The immigration officer bearing the all-powerful stamp eyeballs us suspiciously but nevertheless lets us through, warning us that photography is not permitted and that he'll be checking my camera on the way out. Yet when we return to the checkpoint a few hours later on, both he and the snap-happy intelligence operatives are nowhere to be seen.
Later that afternoon, as the sun begins to fade, I grab my borrowed surfboard for a final dalliance with the waves. My paddling speed has improved significantly over the past week, a fact I put to good use as the first wave begins to form in my rear. Maneuvering myself into position, I give it all I've got and feel a hollowing in my stomach as my board is propelled forward with gusto. I push my chest up, shoot to my feet in position and before I even know it, I'm riding a wave! I get wiped out two seconds later, yet can state with absolute certainty that I surfed in Papua New Guinea. I catch another wave and then another and another again, each time remaining a few seconds longer on my feet. I keep on at it well into dusk, surfing the tropical twilight like a bandit from hell.
On my final attempt I see the sun, a burning planet, setting in the keyhole of a barreling wave—a glorious moment in travel and time that I'll take with me to the grave as proof of a life lived to its fullest, amen.
Little boy, longboard
Air Niugini (airniugini.com.pg) operates international flights to Port Moresby from Hong Kong, Singapore and Sydney, and 90-minute hops from Port Moresby to Vanimo.
Vanimo Surf Lodge +61 411 823 500; vanimosurflodge.com; from A$130 per night for dorm-style accommodation including meals and airport transfers.
Waromo Waterfall The lodge offers guided walking tours into the jungle for about A$10 per person.
Offshore reef breaks Boat transfers to offshore breaks cost approximately A$60 to A$80, which goes directly to local boat owners.
Market in Indonesia Hail a minibus from Lido village traveling west to the border for A$20 to A$30. There, passport holders can obtain a free on-the-spot day-pass to cross into Indonesia.
Splinters, the award-winning documentary on surfing in Papua New Guinea, at splintersmovie.tumblr.com.