The Drifter Journals
West of Papua
The anticipation of a journey is part of its appeal.
Pawing over maps, checking itineraries, carving out a niche in overfilled calendars and learning all you can about your destination, you’re breeding butterflies. That palpable excitement lifts your core - the elevated heart rate, the expanse of potential - culminating in a union of adrenaline, nervousness and nausea.
(all images: Kate Zacarian | @ktotheizzo)
All of this is the undercurrent of your weeks and months of preparation, and the closer the departure gets, the greater the sensation. When the journey lands at your feet, however, the deadline only days away, the thrill cascades upon you like an avalanche.
Drifter brother, Curtis Lowe, had been fascinated by the Spice Islands - now known as the Maluku Islands or the Molucca archipelago - for years. Tales of spice trade and the Dutch East India Company, dating back to the early 1600s, thrilled and inspired him; stories of piracy, adventure, new and exotic lands, and the wealth, corruption and unique local culture filled his mind.
“Part of my inspiration for wanting to go there was tales from friends,” Curtis shares. “But even longer ago than that were the writings of Giles Milton in Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, about the early spice trade, The Ring of Fire, by the Blair brothers, but also the biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, who basically co-wrote the story of evolution with Charles Darwin*. He has some really cool travel stories from that area. I’d always been fascinated by it.
“So when I found out that a buddy of mine was sailing a boat through that zone to look for new waves and go fishing there, I jumped in at the last minute, with one day’s notice. I bought flights that night and flew out the next day.”
Curtis was in good hands. His friend, an experienced seaman, was plenty familiar with the region and navigating the 17,500 islands that collectively create Indonesia. Added to this, joining Curtis onboard the traditional-style phinisi yacht was an all-girls surf crew, returning to the archipelago in search of empty waves and good swells.
“One of the girls had led a trip to the region before, and it was really cool having a strong feminine energy on the trip. They were all girls who surf really well, so it was pretty inspiring.”
It is to the west that most surfers’ attention is drawn. Bali, Java, the Mentawais - the vast majority of iconic waves are born of the Indian Ocean and tumble onto western shorelines.
With an Easterly projection, this destination was different. The Pacific is the harbinger of swells, its long-drift currents surging unfettered until they reach the upper coast of Papua New Guinea and are successively groomed from one island to the next. Where size may diminish, refinement makes for silken faces and perfect form.
“It gets the same swells that wrap all the way across the Pacific work their way into these islands and, with the right kind of bathymetry, even on the side of the island not exposed to the swell, the swell wraps in and forms these perfect waves.
“The surf isn’t very powerful, but it’s really clean and absolutely empty. Waves range from these wedgy double-up slabs to these long, right-hand pointbreaks that would be perfect for a mid-length or longboard.
“One of the spots that we found had the right kind of shape where it broke perfectly in the trades. It was straight out of Endless Summer: the locals were like, ‘yeah, it’s the same boring wave every day for months and months.’”
Despite taking a board, and joining the girls in the lineup on a few of the chest-high days, it was below the surface that Curtis found his place.
“The diving was the equivalent of double-overhead and offshore with nobody out; beautiful blue water and really good conditions. I was diving alone most of the time, so didn’t get into anything too crazy, but saw an amazing dugong and was so stoked on the diving.”
Far from the beaten tourist track, a place not mentioned in the guidebooks or featured on the postcards, this pocket of paradise holds much that is unique, when compared to the more populous centres of Indonesia. The architecture bares the mark of independent evolution, yet - on some of the islands at least - a hint of Dutch inspiration, reaching back many centuries to the days of spices and seafaring. A collection of Muslim and Christian beliefs, there remains a harmony that is quinteseentially Indonesian, and a cleanliness and simplicity that can only come of not being afflicted with the parasite of mass tourism and major western influence.
“Onshore, we visited these pristine, idyllic little villages,” Curtis recalls. “The locals were so welcoming, but they were all amazed that I didn’t know the other bule (foreigner) that they;d met - this guy named Nick. They kept asking me again and again; ‘how do you not know Nick? He looks just like you - he could be your brother!’
“As it turns out, on the last day, I did meet him, and he turned out to be a pretty phenomenal character.”
Nick had spent many years travelling through and living on the many islands of Indonesia, exploring new destinations, spending his time bouncing from the main, more developed islands to such remote locations as Curtis now found himself in. During a stint in Sulawesi, Nick - or Python Nick, as he was genially referred to - was handbuilding a boat with a friend. Deciding to get tattoos, the pair had ink to hand and were still in the process of deciding what to get, when Nick had the experience that would define him for life. While relocating a large python, the snake turned and bit its captor on the forearm. When most would freak out and rush to hospital, Nick instead decided the best decision would be to pour the tattoo ink onto the wound, branding it indelibly into his skin, where it remains to this day; the snake’s distinctive signature forever defining the man.
“Despite this crazy story, Nick was a really understated person,” says Curtis of his long-lost brother. “I’ve learned since then that he’s a phenomenal diver and surfer. He knows the zone really well, but was really tight-lipped about it, but in a really nice way.
“He said to me, totally respectfully, ‘hey man, this is one of the last magical places in the world that I know of - try not to ruin it’.”
With waterfalls tumbling from cliff faces straight into the ocean, whales and orcas regularly frequenting the region and tuna the size of small cars leaping from the waves in expansive shoals, it’s hard to conceive that you’re not dreaming.
The predominantly undeveloped islands offer numerous surf breaks that benefit from almost any swell direction, each having its perfect angle or wind direction. Beneath the surface, however, Curtis was continually stunned by the subaquatic scenery:
“I dived this one clear-blue channel with white sands on both sides. It looked man-made, but it was completely natural, and had probably the biggest coral forest I have ever seen - never touched by commercial fishing or anything.”
With the ocean so pristine and the waves so manicured and deserted, it seemed almost challenging to draw attention to the shore, but experiences on land were no less memorable. Staying a few days longer than originally planned, Curtis ventured to one island with the boat’s crew, to spend a couple of nights camping on the beach, on the edge of a coconut grove and overlooking an immaculate reef break.
At the heart of the grove stood a tea house, used by the local villagers for ceremony and community activities during certain times of the year. Fortunately for the visitors, this wasn’t one of those times and the locals invited their guests to use it as shelter.
“The locals who helped us bring our boat up onto the shore said we were more than welcome to use it. They were so hospitable and so nice.
“The few places I got out onto the land, there were coconuts everywhere, big mango trees full of mangoes, banana trees, cassava, durian trees...it was like this Eden, this huge bounty of fruit once you got out onto the land. The locals were loading us up with all this fruit to the point where we couldn’t take anymore because it will be a waste.”
Despite much of Curtis’ trip being akin to a journey back in time, before the rabid hand of man had devastated this exquisite ecosystem, the offending fingerprints were still evident, telltale signs of developed nations impinging upon this idyllic region. Some areas of reef bore the scars of dynamiting and dredging, aquaculture farms stood out like ugly blemishes upon the pristine horizon, and this stark contrast spoke volumes of the very real threat that faces these untouched pockets of paradise.
“Despite these things,” says Curtis, “you’ll meet locals paddling out in wooden canoes that they have hand-carved from a single tree to go fishing with a handcrafted wooden speargun and goggles with frames made of wood.
“We met fishermen who were flying handmade kites out of his fishing boat with a lure hanging off the tail of it. They’d caught a 50-kilo yellowfin tuna using these kites and were on their way to the market to sell it. My friend Julia bought it from him for way more than he would have sold it for, but still incredibly cheap for us, and it fed us for almost the entire trip.
“I shot a giant trevally at one of the spots - the place where we had been invited to use their tea house - and I gifted it to the locals. I’ve never seen people so happy about a fish, especially the older generations.
“These locals are all struggling against these massive operations that are coming into the area. There are no laws in place to protect them, and who knows what will happen or when.
"I think it’s really important, when you go places like this, that you are aware that you are an ambassador for everyone else from the outside world and you need to be on your most thoughtful and best behaviour.
“You can quickly change the dynamics in a small community like these, by doing the wrong thing,” reflects Curtis. “The wrong thing can be something like dehumanising yourself by giving people money - that’s not a human-to-human interaction. And sometimes when you do give gifts to someone in the community, you have potentially set an example that could ruin the interaction for everyone else. You need to do your research and find out who in that community actually needs some support.
“That’s part of my drive to keep living in Indonesia; to see these places before they’re gone and draw attention to the need to protect it.”
We always want to drift across the world to untouched, magical places, to discover new destinations that no other people have seen or surfed or explored. But we should never ignore our responsibility to protect them. In our own hands, we must be aware of our impact, to maintain sustainability and tread gently, giving respect to the land and its people. We can enter a foreign land with the best of intentions, distributing wealth, gifts, surfboards or other trappings of a western society. But where a place may need our support isn’t always what we perceive to be their shortcomings. It is not their differences to our own culture that we need to fulfil or ‘correct’, it is the equilibrium that we must recognise, those very differences being the unique treasure that, through history, we have so often stolen or destroyed.
These places are not ours to take or exploit - they are our responsibility to protect, in all that they are,
*Alfred Russel Wallace OM FRS was a British naturalist, explorer, geographer, anthropologist, biologist and illustrator. He is best known for independently conceiving the theory of evolution through natural selection; his paper on the subject was jointly published with some of Charles Darwin's writings in 1858. Wikipedia