surfEXPLORE Indonesia - West Papua

There is a whole different Indonesia coastline, mostly unknown and unsurfed, of hundreds of islands on the Pacific side of Indonesia.

Most surfers know Indonesia as one of, if not the single best surfing country in the world and they are generally talking about the waves on the Indian Ocean side of the country.

Mud spatter, the whine of a large chainsaw, local boats and Sago Palm pudding, all common in the province of West Papua

From April to October, from Simeulue island in north Sumatra to Timor in the southeast, Indian Ocean Indonesia has hundreds of high-quality surfing locations receiving swell after swell from the southern Indian Ocean and hosting thousands of overseas surfing visitors per year.

Morning waves with the normal empty lineup and offshore wind for Phil Goodrich in West Papua.

There is a whole different Indonesia coastline, mostly unknown and unsurfed, of hundreds of islands on the Pacific side of Indonesia, over 6 000 kilometers to the east of Jakarta with the opposite swell season of November to March.

Making plans on arrival - The surfEXPLORE Group is known for their pre-trip research and attention to detail.

Eastern Indonesia has been called the “Forgotten Side of Indonesia” as despite large cities like Ambon, Manado and Jayapura, it receives far less government attention and funding than areas closer to Jakarta, the capital in Java.

Local boys in West Papua, the rascals always misbehave and get scoldings from their mothers.

In addition to the tyranny of distance from the center of power in Jakarta, many Indonesians maintain this attention and funding gap is also linked to the fact that eastern Indonesia has millions of practicing Christians, while the government is almost all Muslims from Java and other islands nearby.

Master tuberider Phil Goodrich finding the barrel in West Papua.

In addition to a lack of attention and funding for eastern Indonesia for basic infrastructure like regional airports, functional roads and bridges, eastern Indonesia has a profound lack of foreign or domestic visitors of any type, from surfing-specific travelers to the kind of general Western tourist that swarms Bali in their millions in normal non-pandemic conditions.

Hayato Maki, carving a turn at a remote beachbreak in West Papua Province of Indonesia.

Considering Indonesia has over 18 000 islands, the number of foreign visitors who travel to the islands east of Bali is tiny, less than 5 percent of total visitors and the further east you go, the fewer visitors there are.
Many Indonesians have never visited anywhere in the eastern portions of their own country.

Phil Goodrich, morning surfing in West Papua Province of Indonesia.

The coastline of West Papua has many ancient trees, hundreds of years old.

One aspect of a potential visit to West Papua, for surfing or any other reason, that has to be taken in consideration and that is not relevant to the rest of eastern Indonesia, only the Indonesian half of the island of New Guinea, is the volatile political situation.

Finding the rhythm, evening music with Phil Goodrich on guitar.

While the rest of Indonesia became independent from the Netherlands in 1949, the provinces of Papua and West Papua are more recent additions. In 1962 a controversial referendum was held in what was then Netherlands New Guinea, with the results allegedly being overwhelmingly in favour of the area becoming part of Indonesia.

Hayato Maki from Japan, surfing in the Pacific ocean in West Papua.

Following the signing of the New York Agreement between the Netherlands and Indonesia, the area was made part of Indonesia as the province of Irian Jaya in 1963, which was then divided into Papua and West Papua in 1999.

Phil Goodrich, surfing at a wild and remote beachbreak in a wild and remote area of West Papua.

The results of this referendum have been widely questioned and refuted by the various groups seeking independence for Indonesian Papua, but the policy that has caused the most trouble in the area has been “transmigrasi”, or transmigration.

West Papua has a small but friendly group of local surfers, who welcome polite and well-behaved visitors to share their waves.

This policy was initially implemented during the Dutch colonial period in the early 1900's to bring Indonesians from other overcrowded islands like Java and Madura to Papua, to provide labor for plantation agriculture like growing rice and other cash crops.

Emiliano and Alberto, roadside stop at a cafe run by transmigrasi Indonesians from Java.

Transmigasi was suspended in 2015 by the government of President Joko Widodo, but decades of government-assisted internal migration has left indigenous, mostly Christian Papuans outnumbered in many areas of their ancestral lands by ethnic Malay, mostly Muslim people from other parts of Indonesia.

Alberto Lima Castro, setting up for the barrel section over the reef in West Papua.

This situation is widely resented and has led to episodes of vicious violence between indigenous Papuans and the ethnic Malay migrants on many occasions.

Emiliano Cataldi, enjoying the smooth surface conditions after a strong thunderstorm in West Papua.

When the roads are bad in West Papua, they are very bad - impossible. We didn't risk it and took a long detour around this area.

Never mind that the transmigrasi people are citizens of Indonesia and have the legal right to reside wherever they wish within the borders of the nation of Indonesia, indigenous Papuans see transmigrasi as an government-funded effort to out-populate them with Malay Muslims and displace them from their ancestral lands.

Phil Goodrich, morning surfing in the Pacific Ocean in West Papua.

Papuan independence advocates vow to abolish the transmigrasi policy for good and deport all the Malay Muslims back to Java, Madura and other islands should they eventually succeed in their quest for independence.

Local girls in their traditional costumes and body paint for a festival in Manokwari, the capital of West Papua.

Local surfer in West Papua, post-sunset speed blur image.

The political unrest has led to the requirement of a Surat Jalan to visit anywhere in the province, a kind of permit from the police that confirms you; the foreign visitor is not a journalist, ethnographer or political troublemaker. Largely a formality for surfing visitors, the Surat Jalan is easy to get, if you have no political agenda for visiting West Papua.

While ocean swell in Pacific Indonesia is generally shorter period than the Indian Ocean side of the country, it has plenty of Pacific power.

The Surat Jalan is one of those things, like travel insurance, that you don’t need and are never asked to produce once you have taken the time and made the effort to get it - but if you don’t have the Surat Jalan, it is certain you will be asked by the police or a group of soldiers to produce the paper on demand and can receive a jail sentence if you don’t have one within 24 hours of your arrival in the province.

Alberto Lima Castro, morning waves in West Papua Province of Indonesia.

Foreigners are easy to spot anywhere in the province of West Papua, there are not many of them and they stand out in a group of indigenous Papuans or transmigrasi Malay people, so it is worth your time to get a Surat Jalan as soon as you hit the ground in West Papua.

Emiliano Cataldi, surfing morning offshore wind in the Pacific Ocean in West Papua.

Once the formalities are taken care of, then it is time to surf. While it is possible to stay in an aircon business hotel in the capital city of Manokwari and drive to surf on most days, most surfing visitors choose to stay out of the city and on the side of the peninsula facing the Pacific Ocean.

Fruit and flowers are both very common in West Papua, there are plants growing everywhere in the tropical climate.

Wave season in West Papua is from October to March, with highly consistent swell from the northeast and seasonal monsoon wind from the northwest. While swell is generally between 1 to 3 meters (2 to 8 feet), with occasional flat periods, the wind can be decidedly variable, so it is a good idea to stay somewhere on the coast where a wind switch can be quickly advantaged, as a microclimate offshore wind can appear and disappear within an hour or two and is impossible to forecast.

Hayato Maki, surfing in the Pacific Ocean in West Papua.

While few local people bother to drive very far out of town for any reason, anyone that does; like visiting surfers looking for waves, soon learns two things: Petrol is very expensive and frequently hard to get outside of town and the roads in this area are some of the worst in all of Indonesia.

Morning waves in West Papua Province, Indonesia.

No wonder boats are much preferred for any kind of longer-distance travel, the roads are so inadequate and poorly maintained that a journey of four or five hours by boat might take several days by vehicle, if it is possible at all.

Phil Goodrich, finding the barrel section over the shallow coral reef in West Papua.

The main difference between the waves on the Indian Ocean side of Indonesia and the Pacific side is the Pacific side has more rivermouths and beachbreaks while the Indian Ocean side has a vast majority of coral reef waves.

Emiliano Cataldi, making friends with a pet hornbill. Unfortunately, West Papua is a center of the illegal exotic wildlife trade, with birds especially being hunted and exported for pets.

One of the better beachbreaks in the area of Manokwari, the capital city is at Pantai Amban, a short drive from Manokwari on decent roads. A black sand beachbreak and the site of a recent Asian Surf Cooperative (ASC) contest, there are many ever-changing sandbars at Amban and the tropical microclimate can produce an offshore wind for a few hours, especially after a strong thunderstorm and in the early morning hours.

Pantai Amban is one of the better beachbreaks in the West Papua area, with many sandbar peaks.

While the roads may be terrible and petrol expensive, limiting how far visiting surfers can travel from the capital of Manokwari, visiting surfers in the October to March wave season should find plenty of spots to share with the group of stoked and friendly local surfers in the area and nothing like the crowds of Bali and other popular surfing areas on the Indian Ocean side of Indonesia.

Not only rights in West Papua, but plenty of left-handers also. Alberto Lima Castro and Hayato Maki walking over the reef.

Text and Images © John Seaton Callahan / surfEXPLORE®

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