Somewhat amazingly, before this trip I had never ventured to the Mentawai Islands, the surfing Mecca that just about every surfer in the world, other than me, had ventured to in the last 20 years.
‘How is it here?’ I asked of the South African guy, Warren, not long after arriving at a land camp in the Playgrounds region with my girlfriend. ‘It’s to die for,’ came his excited reply, which in light of events that would unfold over the next few days, proved to be a prophetic thing to say.
Not only a prophet, Warren was a true “frother” and always seemed to be just that little bit ahead of himself. For example, just three days into the trip, Warren and I find ourselves on a boat in the channel next to six to eight foot flawless Nokandui. Most of the other guys in the boat realizing that this is a bit beyond their capabilities, decide to sit this one out, so it is only Warren, myself and one other Portuguese surfer that jumps overboard to join a somewhat skeleton crew of surfers.
Just 20 minutes into the session, I ask the Portuguese surfer, ‘Where’s Warren?’ ‘Oh he couldn’t wait for a set so went an insider, snapped his board in three, and then got washed in over the reef!’ ‘Wow, that’s unlucky,’ I think to myself because Warren now has to sit on and watch from the boat as a small crew spend the next few hours getting some of the barrels of their lives.
Just a few hours later, I’m once again in a boat with Warren as it pulls into the channel at pumping, but very low tide Ebay. A once again frothed out Warren immediately jumps overboard without taking any time to survey the conditions before sprint paddling towards a very crowded lineup.
‘So what do I do if I get caught inside on that end section?,’ I ask of my surf guide. ‘Should I try and paddle back out or go over the reef then back around?’ ‘That end section is totally dry,’ replies my guide. ‘So best to go in and around if you get washed up the reef on the end section.’
As the guide speaks, Warren drops into a smaller inside wave towards the end section but is dropped in on which forces him to straighten out before he falls off. With that, Warren now finds himself in just a few centimeters of water. What is worse is that the ocean is getting ready to deliver the set of the day and in the moments that follow I can do nothing but watch on in horror as Warren instead of paddling in over the reef, tries to paddle out as the reef drains totally dry to then unload a 6 foot wave on his South African head.
When Warren surfaces after being washed sideways across the reef and into deep water, he looks dazed and confused with his face now totally covered in blood. Immediately I jump overboard to help the Brazilian surfer who has already rushed to Warren’s aid.
‘How is it?’ Warren splutters with blood when I make my way up to him.
‘Well, you’re not going to die!’ are the best words I can come up with to try and console Warren. Yet in reality I wasn’t so sure that this was true because along with three coral filled holes in his face, Warren’s neck is severely cut and it appears that he may bleed out.
On the boat immediately after, as it slowly chugs towards the nearest village where our guide tells us someone can stitch Warren up, Warren doesn’t bleed out thankfully. This is because it appears that he has somehow missed his carotid artery.
When we finally make it to the little port on the main island of Siberut, two locals double Warren and I on the back of motorbikes to the nearest “hospital”, which in reality is a few dark rooms which are fortunately well supplied with anesthetic along with a rather competent local doctor who starts cleaning all the coral out of the cuts on Warren’s face and neck. With no electricity, I standby and shine an iPhone torch at Warren’s head for an hour or so as the doctor sows Warren’s mangled head and neck back together.
Unfortunately, there is no ferry out of Siberut the next day, so all that Warren can do is to spend that evening and the next day eating antibiotics and painkillers whilst doing his best to stay positive about not being able to surf.
The following evening, with the swell of the season starting to fill in, waves start washing into the front yard of the surf camp. The noise is such that I am having trouble sleeping and I am apprehensive about the thought of being confronted with 10 to 12ft Kandui the next morning. Then at about 1.30am I hear what I think is an explosion followed by screams from the local camp workers. So I wake my girlfriend up, who has slept through the commotion, and tell her that something is not right and I think we need to get out of our cabin.
As we run outside, the couple from the cabin next door also come running out in a panic screaming, ‘What’s going on? Is it a tsunami?!’
Thankfully,it isn’t a tsunami. Instead the source of the noise and screams is the adjacent grass hut that is on fire. In a flash the three Indonesian cooks who live in there have managed to scurry out to safety. Not so lucky though is an Aussie surfer from King Island, Jimmy, who realizing that his cabin is burning all around him gets up, grabs a few possessions and begins making for the front door. As he does so, he casts an eye to the Warren, who is knocked out on painkillers and still sleeping in the bed beside him as the cabin fills with smoke and flames.
‘Dude you have to get up!’ yells Jimmy in Warren’s face. ‘The cabin is on fire!’ In response, Warren springs to his feet, grabs a bag that contains a few possessions and along with Jimmy runs to the front door of the cabin that is burning all around to then burst through the flaming inferno and outside to safety.
In the hour that follows the cabin burns to the ground and talk turns to how the fire may have started. With no generator running it was clearly not an electrical fault and as the fire began on the roof, there is no way it could have been a cigarette. As a result, the camp owner is all but certain that the fire was deliberately lit – perhaps by a jealous nearby local, perhaps by someone from a rival camp on the island. Either way, the ramifications for this are entirely serious and whoever the arsonist was in burning down the cabin they have very nearly murdered five innocent people.
The next day despite the swell of a lifetime, no one in the camp, me included is keen on surfing. Not that we could anyway as the two camp boats were in use for other things: one to take Warren to the ferry that would take him back to Padang before a flight to Bali and decent medical care, whilst the second boat was being used to take the local cooks to the nearest village to get new clothes and other items that they had lost in the fire.
I haven’t heard from Warren since that trip but I think about him quite a lot. Each time I do, after witnessing his two near death experiences in as many days, I can’t help but think that he is perhaps the unluckiest person I know. But then again, as he is still around to tell his story, sometimes I think that Warren may just be the luckiest guy I know.