Lockdown in the Mentawais: A Tale of Perseverance and Sheer Luck

Magicseaweed

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Updated 13d ago

It's no secret the Mentawais has been pumping. Some of the best surf ever seen has been rifling into everyone's favourite archipelago – and the fact barely anyone's there makes it sweeter for the handful of remaining surfers who are.

During lockdown, dozens of glorious surf spots are inhabited by just a few of your fellow surfers, who are currently experiencing the high point of their surfing lives. Here, Nick Carroll asks “All Day Ray” Wilcoxen, Kandui Resort manager, to explain some of what it’s been like to try to run a surf camp in lockdown — and what it’s like to be on hand for the best surf in history.

Forecast: Mentawais

How are you guys managing this season? Are people coming to your resort? Maybe ex-pats coming from Bali or Jakarta etc? Or have you locked down for 2020?
We have been open the entire time so far and hope to stay open. We’re operating at a loss to say the least, but we really made an effort to keep our staff employed. We’re the biggest employer in the area and with the shutdown, almost no one around here is working, so we felt responsible to keep the local economy going a bit.

Thank god for our favourite Polish surfer, Tomek Niewiadomski, who stayed with us throughout the lockdown and offset some of our losses. Still, we’ve been bleeding red ink profusely for about four months now. We were really hoping to get some guests from Bali when travel to the Mentawais opened in late June, but we’ve only managed to get a couple of people. Shocking to me actually. It’s once-in-a-lifetime stuff going on out here right now and not many people seem to be interested.

What are the restrictions in the Mentawai, as they stand? Have they changed recently?
The Mentawais opened its doors a few weeks ago to anyone lucky enough to be in Indonesia right now. All that is required is a PCR/swab test to get out here and a Rapid Test to fly back to Bali. Apparently, the government has set a date on which the emergency tourist visas they allowed during the lockdown will expire, August 13, so the door is closing for anyone in Bali with a tourist visa to get out here unless the government changes the expiry date.

It’s looking like Indonesia will in all likelihood start to offer tourists visas again sometime in September, but to which countries they will be offered is unknown.

Anthony Fillingham surfing on his own.

Anthony Fillingham surfing on his own.

How have communications been with the regional and national Indonesian authorities?
Communications have been great. We’ve been in constant contact with the head Mentawaiian government official (Bupati) and the top local official (Camat) throughout this whole ordeal. I’m very happy to say that I thought the Mentawaiian government handled things very well in some uncertain and unprecedented times.

Tough decisions had to be made, opinions were across the board, and I thought the Mentawaiian government made the right decisions at the right time. So far, the Mentawais have had very few cases and no deaths while trying to keep the economy going as best as possible under the circumstances.

What’s happened to bookings from people who were (and are) unable to travel following national lockdowns etc? How were they handled: refunds, re-bookings, credits?
We have a very loyal base of guests who come to Kandui year after year. We’re allowing every guest to push their trip forward at no cost and most of all of them have rescheduled their trips into 2021. It’s been such a tough situation all around, for our guests and us as well, and most understood how hard this has been for us.

We are not rich by any stretch of the imagination and this caught us at a very bad time. Our guests have been incredible and very understanding. Many continue to put money down for trips next year and one even paid in full for several people in 2022 because he knew we are hurting for money. Thanks Al Ramadan!

Anyone in the camp got sick from COVID? Any testing going on?
So far so good out here. We have been very careful. Our island is very remote and isolated and we cut ourselves off completely during the lockdown. The few times we had crew come to the island, and even though there were no cases of COVID in our area, they were still quarantined until we knew things were safe. Our island is very remote and isolated and we cut ourselves off completely during the lockdown

Now that we are getting a couple of guests from Bali, no one is allowed to leave the island until 14 days have passed since a new guest has arrived. Even though new guests have to be tested before entering the Mentawais, we want to be overly cautious that no one brings the virus to the resort and then it gets leaked out to the Mentawais.

How might you make next season extra safe re: COVID, to reassure customers?
Like I say, we are just about as remote and isolated as remote and isolated gets, and we are downright crazy about the way we minimise and monitor people going to and from the island. Guests have to be tested before coming to the resort as well so, although no one can ever completely eliminate the chance of the virus, we probably have about as safe a place as possible.

What’s your own personal ranking of this season so far, surf-wise? Tell us as much as you can about how’s it’s been to surf your part of the chain with such diminished numbers. Ecstasy? Guilt? All time memories?
It will probably come as no surprise to anyone for me to say that it’s been incredible! The last four months have been fun but overall pretty average compared to other seasons, but that all changed this week with one of the best and most powerful swells we’ve ever seen.

It feels like the floodgates opened since we have just one lay day and two more massive swells back to back and the long-range forecast looks crazy big again!

Seeing no one in this area for months though has been the craziest experience of our lives. I started coming to the Mentawais in 2001 and it was already busy at times even then. I often wondered what it would have been like to be here in the early 90’s. Well, now I know. It’s just wonderful to pull up to empty waves day after day. It doesn’t even matter if the waves are average or not, it’s freaking empty.

Now the season is really cooking and, believe it or not, there are less people out here now than during the lockdown. That is just crazy to me and there seems to be no end in sight. Very unfortunate for us financially, but these memories will last forever. No guilt, brother! We have paid our dues out here and then some, trust me on that one. This is a reward of perseverance and just getting fricking lucky.

All footage and pics courtesy of St John Visual.