Life

Mentawai offers a taste
of Eden


Christina Schott, Contributor, Padang

This must be how it looks in paradise. A perfect white sand beach and a transparent turquoise sea. The shadows of palm trees offer a shelter from the sun while waiting for fallen coconuts. Further out, the waves break in perfect and constant curves. No signs of civilization, no trash, no artificial noise.

But we are not the first human beings in paradise: Somebody discovered it already. Suddenly a fit, tanned surfer with a slouching hat appears with his dog between the palm trees welcoming the arriving guests.

Christie Carter came from New Zealand in 1998 to realize his dream of living on one of the most beautiful islands he ever saw on his extensive travels so far. He was only 22 years old by the time he opened his Wavepark Lodge on tiny Mainuk island, the only land-based surf camp on the Mentawai islands.

To surfers, the ""Garden of Eden"" is not easy to find. The Mentawai islands is still a fairly untouched tourist area, a five-hour boat ride over the Mentawai Strait away from West Sumatra's capital of Padang. The official ferry is supposed to go twice a week, but more often than not it is canceled every second time.

The alternative is a ride on one of the local speedboats -- usually sampans with two motors to be chartered for Rp 3 million (US$333) for up to six people. Well, paradise has its price.

The Mentawai Islands is one of the newest hot spots for surfers from all over the world. Americans, Australians, New Zealanders and even South Africans -- whoever experienced the perfect and year-round waves around the area -- will not stop coming back to catch some of the best waves in the world.

As an example Gary Bergan, an Australian who has surfed in Hawaii, the Fiji Islands and Bali, together with his friends Glenn Rodier and Joe Metzl, have become addicted to the surf at Mentawai.

""Even if you're already totally exhausted, you have to go out again to ride another wave. Who knows when you will get this permanent quality again?"" he says.

It was only in the mid-1990s that the tourism industry started to develop its business around the remote islands. Most surfers book group tours on big foreign charter boats and hardly land their feet on the islands -- fearing Malaria and the hassles by the impoverished inhabitants. Maybe they do not know what they are missing: An impression of the unique Mentawai culture and nature.

Up to the end of the 19th century the Mentawais had been almost totally isolated for thousands of years, which explains the primitive culture of the Mentawai tribes surviving to today in its original form. In 1864, the islands were formally made a Dutch colony, but it was only in 1901 that there was a garrison placed there and the first permanent Christian mission was opened by the German August Lett, who was murdered eight years later by the locals.

Still, over half of the population currently claims to be Protestant, although Catholic and Muslim missionaries have followed, as well as several groups of immigrants from Sumatra.

The only way to the inner areas of the island's unique rain forests are via the rivers. Transport is one of the biggest problems here -- apart from the narrow streets in the main town on the coast -- everything depends on boats and their often exorbitant charter rates.

Despite all this, a trip up the river to the original villages in the rain forests is absolutely unforgettable.

To get an impression of the native Mentawai culture, one needs at least a five-day trekking tour.

Hiking up in the jungle is not possible without a local guide and it means traipsing through a lot of mud and insects. But as long as you get enough courage and proper equipment, you will get the chance to spend some days with the Mentawai people, experience their daily life, their traditions and animistic rituals. And maybe to find a totally new perspective on life.

The guests are invited to stay with villagers in their long houses, to go out on the sago harvest, to build canoes, hunt with poison arrows or to watch the ceremonies of the Sikerei (medicine man).

Most of the trekking tours in Siberut island are organized by agents in the tourist town Bukittinggi in the north of Padang -to the anger of local guides.

Anyone who comes alone to Siberut will easily find a guide. The best way is to ask the staff of the National Park for information. The guest house of the National Park in Maileppet is a much better option anyway than spending a night at the only guest house in the main town of Muarasiberut.

The Mentawai Islands still do not have regular electricity, no internet and only a few telephones. But nothing to stop the influence of modern civilization. The indigenous people are already used to the foreigners coming to the rain forest, leaving some memories and desires, such as T-shirts, water bottles, pencils or cigarettes. Some of them even speak a little bit of English.

The inhabitants of the developed villages on the coast see the big surf boats coming and going - asking themselves how they can be involved in the tourism business. The kids start collecting and mending broken surf boards and learning how to ride the waves, provoking the rage of their parents by not doing the daily chores.

At present there are hardly any offers to combine surfing and ethno-tourism on the Mentawais - but the first companies are on the way to get their piece of the new market. So far, you will find the best mix of relaxation and adventure by staying at the Wavepark Lodge. Here you can choose between surfing, fishing and snorkeling.

Or ask for a local guide to take you up to Siberut's rivers in a day you can at least visit a Mentawai family at a traditional house or see a shaman dancing. And just in case you only want to enjoy the beautiful scenery, take a rest at the large bungalow, which Carter built himself hidden behind the palm trees close to the beach and expect a replica of paradise.

Information

- Wavepark Lodge: www.wavepark.com, tel.: 0812-6607764

- Group tours: www.mentawai.com, www.surftravel.com.au, www.indiesexplorer.com

- National Park, Siberut, tel.: 0751-442309

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