Pacific Indonesia - Tales from Punanjar

Out on the fringes of Pacific Indonesia, The surfEXPLORE Group looks for new waves on distant islands

Flat tires are hardly good news. Especially when they happen within the first two hours of arrival on a remote island, and then you find out the spare tire is also flat and you're miles away from any help. In fact, it may very well be the perfect recipe for a disastrous beginning of the trip. Unless it happens right in front a pristine beach nested into a deep bay, the turquoise waters groomed by a gentle offshore breeze, with fun looking waves breaking in two corners of the bay, while another inviting peak unfolds on a reef right in the middle. John runs around for some photos, locals hang in the shade eating coconuts, kids play in the shore break, mellow vibes all around: all of a sudden the broken down car is a distant memory as the replacement tire arrives and we're out there in no time. We have barely set foot on the island and, unknown to us, the pace for the next three weeks has already been set.

Pacific Indonesia is thousands of kilometres from Java and a completely different culture and environment from Asian Indonesia

The tire gets fixed and once we hit the road again it becomes quite obvious how many good setups there are. We all have good feelings of things to come. Despite the swell not looking too solid on the forecast charts, only two to three feet with a relatively short period, a couple of spots are absolutely going off. One of them in particular, a random peak along an otherwise straight reef, is consistently unloading solid four-foot right hand barrels with hardly any break between sets. The tropical sun has set, so we watch a few more sets until it's too dark to see then we keep driving towards a village where we've been told we can find a place to spend the night.

Estuary behind the beach with local children playing with wooden canoes

The village is quiet at this time of the evening, with a few dogs roaming the streets and the houses lit by feeble candlelight. We set up home on the top floor of the local Christian pastor's house. The wooden house also has the pastor's wife, four kids, five dogs, two cats and a couple of pigs. The place is so mellow and everyone is so chilled that despite the high numbers, there are smiles all around. And it will stay this way for the days to come.

Friendly local people don't see too many visitors in this area, the scene of ferocious battles with the Japanese Imperial Army in WWII

As we are about to find out, the house is literally a stone's throw from three really good waves, with plenty more just across the bay. What an epic setup! Plus, with no cell phone signal, definitely no internet, no radio or television and only intermittent electricity, the place is as laid back as it could be. What a treat to be able to sit back, enjoy a cup of tea and a good book in between surfs with no electronic distractions from the outside world. Welcome to Punanjar.

Emiliano Cataldi and Phil Goodrich with morning waves in Pacific Indonesia


The next couple of days are spent trying to figure out the waves in the area; as in access, tides, swell and wind direction. Despite the fact that we've been researching this area for months now, with no other resource available other than your own instinct it's not until you paddle out and get face to face with a new wave that you know what is really happening. Is it rideable? Low tide or high tide? Is that a channel? Where’s the current? How shallow do you think it is? All these questions lead to the same answer: paddle out and you'll find out.

Phil Goodrich, evening wave at the big lefthander

As Phil and I soon find out, it could go either way. Late one afternoon there seem to have been a jump in the swell, so we decide to check the wave we were referring to as the  “hollow left”. When we first pull up we are greeted by a what looks like a five-foot set, spitting its guts out numerous times before ending its crazy run onto seemingly dry reef.

Looking back over the reef at low tide

Emiliano Cataldi, a more relaxing spot closer to the beach where the waves were perfect for big performance turns, not just surviving.

After a bit of rational hesitation, we decide to paddle out. We soon realise that is way heavier and bigger than it looks from the beach. The sets are six-foot plus and perfect but heavy as they come. I remember thinking “Someone call Shane Dorian or something because it's seriously heavy out here!!”. I catch one wave and somehow survive the ride before taking a solid set on the head on the paddle back out: the impact is so violent that the wave rips my board out my hands and the leash off my ankle. Not only do I fear that I've lost my board, but now I have to swim in over dry reef!
The last thing I see as I look towards the lineup is Phil sitting way outside, still waiting to ride his first wave, facing an eight-foot mutant that's breaking at least another thirty feet outside of him. We are both completely obliterated by this rogue set, get washed over the reef and served our first lesson out there. John is happy to see us on the beach and still alive. Well, at least we tried.

Huge ancient trees are common on the shoreline of the islands of Pacific Indonesia

Emiliano Cataldi, perfect morning light at the righthander on the edge of the forest


As the saying goes “when it rains it pours”, and I'm sure they must have coined it around these parts. The storm that has been brewing all afternoon has finally decided to unload right on top of us, and there is very little we can do to stay dry: the water seems to find its way through the tin roof and the inch-wide gaps in the wood plank walls of the house, through the cracks of the floor and into our beds. We're soaked, the car is soaked, and so are most of our belongings.
At times the roaring noise of the rain hitting the metal roof is so loud that it wakes us up in the middle of the night and makes it impossible even to hear each other. The rivers are spitting brown mud in the turquoise bays, sweeping away giant dead trees and poor little creatures that couldn't find shelter. For a whole night and day we can only watch it all unfold. I guess it's a small price to pay for visiting a place in the rainy season. After all they don't call it rainy season for nothing. Then, as soon as it all started, in the way of tropical weather, the fury suddenly stops and everything goes quiet again.

Brasileiro Alberto Lima Castro at the righthander, a fast and hollow wave

The sun hasn't risen yet when Phil wakes everyone up early the next morning. The man has been on a serious mission to get barrelled ever since he could walk and hasn't slowed down a bit. He's left the house when it was still dark to check the nearby righthander, and has ran all the way back after watching three sets unloading on the reef. When he gets back he has barely any breath left in him, and he wakes everyone up with a peremptory: "IT'S ON!! The right IS ON!!".
John, Beto and I get our act together in no time and we have the most memorable session, just the three of us trading barrels and smiles for four hours. Not a cloud in the sky, the sun shining, glassy conditions with a light offshore wind from the previous day of heavy rain, rainbows in every wave spray: true heaven on earth. I could spend hundred of words describing how perfect that wave is, but I'd rather borrow a quote from Phil that sums it up the best: "If Indicators and Lance’s Right had a baby, this would be it!!".

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing on the Pacific side of Indonesia


Between sets I'm often alone in the lineup, and I have a lot of time to think. There is not another noise around but that of the wind and the crushing waves, and except for Phil or Beto or the occasional fisherman cruising past in his canoe, I haven't seen or heard another human all morning. Or seen any sign of human activity.
The tranquility here is to die for, both on land and in the surf, even when it's breaking heavily on almost dry reef. As the days go by, I find myself more and more amazed by the friendly and welcoming attitude of the locals. One kid today walked up to me and without saying a word gave me half of his orange, then smiled and walked away.  How many times has this happened at home? 'Awesome' is the only word that truly makes justice to these people and their nature. They don't get anything back except for a smile and a quick chat pre or post surf, yet everyone is really warm to us.

So many waves to choose from in this area, we didn't surf this setup at all

To access most of the waves we have to park our car in someones front yard and walk through their house or property to get to the beach, yet no one makes a fuss about it. The opposite actually, everyone invites us in, we are welcome to use fresh water from their well to rinse off and take a few minutes to play with their kids or dogs. There are no "No Trespassing" or "Private Property" signs; yet don't be fooled, the concept of ownership exists out here too, it simply doesn't need to be enforced. Of course, we are careful to leave no rubbish anywhere on the property.
I can't help but reflect on the concept “back home” of worshipping ownership, exclusivity, localism, mine vs yours and so forth. By being so real and down to earth, the people here are teaching me everyday that less is more and that it's true that the less someone has the more they're willing to share.

Waiting for the evening offshore wind in a beach shelter

Locals here enjoy a level of freedom that most people I know back home can't even fathom: kids roam free from backyard to backyard to beach to road and back home again. They run with the pack of brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbours as soon as they can walk, down to the beach or to the river or climbing trees in their backyard, and within the pack everyone looks after each other. From the little two-year old that runs around half-naked following his sisters to the old fisherman who chills in his hammock enjoying the afternoon breeze, these people truly enjoy a lifestyle unparalleled freedom. This is what life is like in the Caribbean of Indonesia.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing one of many reef waves in this area of Pacific Indonesia


In our quest to explore the other side of the island one day we decide to look for the non- existent coastal road only to find ourselves about five hours later, stuck without fuel in a village in the middle of nowhere (literally). Enter Solomon, a forty-something year old local, whom in a matter of twenty minutes not only finds us five liters of “bensin”, the Bahasa term for gasoline, but also tells Beto about this track that leads to the beach. Even better, he swears to have seen waves there. Big waves, he swears, and not closeouts but peeling along the reef. When? In 2005.
Most importantly, Solomon passes the “Pink Elephant” test, a half-serious way to test someones reliability in which you ask them if them if they have indeed seen any Pink Elephants in the area. If they answer “yes”, then their credibility on everything else is immediately suspect. It is decided that Solomon is legit and one of us, meaning me, will jump on the only motorbike available in the village to check the beach and surf two hours travel down a rutted track.

Rinsing off in fresh water after a surf on the spectacular coastline of Pacific Indonesia

As much as we know, there could be another Desert Point awaiting out there. Despite being already 2:30 in the afternoon it's pretty much the only chance we have, as it is very unlikely that we'll back this way again, ever. And so it is that Solomon and I hop on the motorbike and start riding down a track so bumpy and rocky that we soon decide we'd rather walk it than try to ride a bike.
I follow Solomon for about an hour, checking every ten minutes on my GPS, and for the whole time we don't say a word. I struggle to keep up with his fast pace, and throughout the whole hike I try to stay motivated thinking of Desert Point waiting at the end of the path. Sweaty, dizzy and dehydrated, by the time I hear the sound of the waves I think I am hallucinating. This could be my own Desert Point, and I can't wait to tell the boys when I make it back.

Shades of Pacific Indonesia, a virtually untouched area of islands, beaches and coral reefs

Local village boy with his pet possum

And it almost is! Almost. When I catch a glimpse of the first wave breaking through the bush I swear it's a peeling left. But once Solomon and I get to beach, in plain sight of the bay it becomes clear that this is no Deserts. There are however, a couple of peeling lefthanders to the west and a little reef pass right in front of the path. Desert Point it is not but it is definitely worth the drive and the hike to quench our thirst to explore the unknown. I film a couple of set waves to show the crew before turning around. It's 4 pm when we start the hike back and we arrive at the village right on dark.


Despite having been on the island for almost two weeks now and having scored some really good waves, we feel we haven't quite figured out the place yet. For a start the wind on the island is absolutely unpredictable and follows patterns that defy any logic. We had many days where it was blowing in two different directions at two locations less than a mile apart and with identical exposure. As in one is perfectly offshore and the other is torn to pieces by an evil onshore. You walk back to the first one and it's still clean as a whistle. Similarly, you leave one side of the island where the wind is blowing hard onshore only to find out it's onshore on the other side as well. There are things you can explain and things you can't: the equatorial micro-climate winds on Punanjar definitely fall into the latter category.

In Pacific Indonesia, heavy rain showers can happen at any time

Phil Goodrich, surfing one of the many coral reef waves in Pacific Indonesia

About once a week we get a surf forecast in the form of a text message when we happen to make the trek to the main town where we can receive a cell phone signal, but it never reflects the reality of what we actually experience in the surf. Driving back from town one morning the surf looks as tame as we've ever seen it, glassy two to three feet on the swell magnets, so much so that we decide not rush it and enjoy a mellow Sunday morning. With nothing significant on the charts for the next three or four days, we decide to spend some quiet time back at the house before having a look around in the afternoon.

Fresh fish for sale in the market

Walking out on a wooden pier on the sheltered side of the island

When we leave our village after lunch there is hardly any surf out front, and a stiff sea breeze has kicked in decisively. Still keen for an afternoon wave we drive back to our swell magnet expecting a blown out surf, only to find out that it's six to eight feet and absolutely going off. As in big, pumping offshore blue barrels. It's every bit as good as any peak in Hawaii or the South Pacific at the same size, and equally as heavy. How is it possible?

Phil Goodrich, pulling into a hollow section over the coral reef

Emiliano Cataldi, lining up the sections on a rare offshore afternoon

When the wind turns offshore and the sun comes out, the waves of Pacific Indonesia can be spectacular

Again, we have no idea nor explanation, but we paddle out anyway. For the first ten or fifteen minutes we are more intent on dodging the clean up sets than catching waves, to the point that we don't even look towards shore to line up the peak with our landmarks for fear of not seeing one of those giant sets arrive. Then Phil slides into a good one, Beto pulls into a screamer and it's game on: we're not just surviving out here, we are actually surfing! This is what Phil and I have been dreaming for years, just the two of us out pushing each other in perfect surf. It's the kind of day that create bonds and forges lasting friendships.

Emiliano Cataldi and a clean turn at an afternoon low tide wave

On the way home we notice a bunch of local kids playing with wooden planks in the shore break while a really nice lefthander that we've checked dozens of times and has never turned on before, peels unmolested on the outside. This must be the day for surprises! We don't waste any time in joining them in the lineup and another memorable session goes down until it's too dark to see. The last thing I remember is the high five Phil and I exchange that night while lying on our slabs of foam on the wooden floor before passing out cold, completely surfed out.
Text © Emiliano Cataldi/surfEXPLOREImages © John Seaton Callahan/surfEXPLORE

Chunky and powerful, the waves of Pacific Indonesia can be world-class

Group of local surfers and their wooden boards, great fun to surf with for a few hours

When it finally shows some shape, the wave could be very good

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