Paul Clark’s Dream Life and the Indigenous People of Mentawai

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Ever wondered what it would be like to set up a dream life amongst the world’s most perfect waves? Is it all tubes and mangoes? Want some inspiration? An interview with Paul Clark sets the tone.

Plus stream the brand new documentary film ‘As World Divide’ here (https://www.iefprograms.org/wafsac) for only $10, and you’ll not only watch a great indie flick, but will be supporting the last traditional villages of Mentawai AND be going in the running to win a free trip to Pitstop Hill.

Name: Paul Clark

Age: 37

Origin: I grew up in West Oz. But I was born in Malaysia and lived in lots of different places while I was young, as the old man was an air-force pilot so we moved around with his work.

Stance: Natural.

Favourite wave? Bankvaults, and one or two others that thankfully don’t really have names attached to them.

Photo by Matty Hannon

What gets you stoked out in the water these days?

Three things come to mind.

  1. Perfect, empty waves. No surprises there eh! Remember that session when our mates came to visit us at the Hill? That fickle spot that we scored to ourselves? Trading stand-up barrels, front lit, green water, purple sky, long, fast waves. Looking out of a flawless barrel and seeing your oldest mates paddling over the shoulder and sharing that experience. It doesn’t get better, and I’m confident it’ll never get old.
  2. Riding different equipment. I’ve been really spoilt with plenty of years of really good quality waves that now unless it’s really perfect, I get more stoked about riding different equipment… single fins, keel twins, bodysurfing hand-planes, even longboards. A big part of that is my surfing injuries catching up to me, but it’s becoming more and more enjoyable just to feel out the Mentawai waves in a different way.
  3. Seeing others get stoked on a session. This is a great thing about being a surf-guide. It’s not always easy, but figuring out what type of surfer you are looking after, drawing on your experience and getting them into just the right kind of surf for them. Seeing people push themselves a bit and score a session they won’t forget, if not the wave of their life. It can literally feel as good as getting a nice one yourself.
Photo by Matty Hannon

Who has impressed you most surfing-wise over the years in Mentawai?

Not surprisingly the best rides you see are either by travelling pros, or just as often by guys that live and work in the area and know the breaks really well. But I’m often really impressed by the every day surfer. It’s the guys that have grown up around surfing, they are from surf towns likes Newcastle, Margaret River, The Goldy, Cronulla and plenty of others (most of our guests are Australian). They’ve been into it since they were groms, they’re often part of the local board riders club, and they show up with pretty refined quivers from their local shapers. They might be tradesman, they might be business guys, they might be 25 or 50, but around their jobs and families, surfing is all they like to do. All those cold early mornings surfing junky waves before work, and then when you let these life-time surfers loose on long walls in boardies, the results are often pretty bloody impressive. Good, solid styles, the ability to quickly read a new line-up, and coincidentally it’s really rare to find these kinds of guys talking it up.

Photo by Matty Hannon

How old were you when you decided to build Pitstops?

I had a lot to learn and couldn’t really prepare myself for the scale of the under-taking. A decade later and I think I’m only just starting to catch up.

Photo by Matty Hannon

Can you define the moment where you thought ‘I’m going to spend the next chunk of my life out here running a business?’  What was that catalyst?

Not so much when I decided to set-up here, but I can definitely remember when the Mentawai got under my skin. I was camping out with some local guys, during the off season in what was at that time a bit of an in-between area of the islands. The waves were playful and I was buying boat fuel for a couple of local groms and we were having a ball surfing together. We didn’t have communication or any way to forecast but we woke up one day to see the ocean out front of the camp had a lot more energy. All of a sudden my surfing buddies had work to do! Not far from where we were staying was a left that really sucked in the swell. It broke a fair way out from the beach but I could see it was solid, and flawless. Obviously a bit apprehensive, being faced with waves like that, on my own in the middle of nowhere, but I’d been surfing every day for months, had my proven step-up board, and decided I was going to get amongst it. I surfed grinding 6 to 8 foot lefts for 3 days straight, completely by myself. I’d see a set coming, try to figure out which wave to go, and then paddle back out whilst watching a couple more perfect waves bowl through to the channel untouched. I’ve had similar sessions a few times since, but I’d just got really lucky that time. I remember just talking to myself and wishing some of my mates from our surf-starved home town were out there to trade off with.

Photo by Matty Hannon

Not that much later, a couple of the local boys that I’d been hanging with asked me if I’d like to go into business with them. I didn’t end up setting up Pitstop Hill in that area, or with those guys, but the idea spun off from there.

Photo by Matty Hannon

It’s been 10 years now, what are the main highlights for you?

Memory banks full of days spent surfing great waves. We were even the first people to surf a couple of the spots so returning to those, knowing they’d be empty, and then getting to know how they worked in different swell directions, tides etc. I’m so stoked to have had that experience, and to have been able to share it.

You’re never going to click with everyone, but we’ve had the pleasure of hosting so many great people, getting insights into the types of lives people live, and making life-time friends with people who first came as guests. That has definitely been a highlight. It’s now got to the stage where when we visit Australia or California or even Japan, almost anywhere we go we’ve got cool people to visit, and we constantly bump into people who have stayed with us.

Photo by Matty Hannon

Another highlight for me has been with our local staff. Seeing young shy girls from the village turn into confident, funny women, and amazing chefs. Or cocky local groms turn into capable boat drivers or mechanics or bartenders. Being in a position to help our Mentawai and Sumatran staff to get ahead in life, to buy ‘em a patch of land and allow them to work it off, or to be able to help out their families when they’ve hit a rough patch. To take them on trips at the end off season and give them first-time experiences like flying in a plane. I’m really proud of that and I’m really proud of them.

What about the toughest times?  Did you ever wish that you’d hadn’t invested out there?  

Yeah there have been plenty of down-sides too. Had plenty of times where I liked the idea of a 9-5 back in the ‘real world’. I’ve been ripped off to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars, by people I’ve trusted. Learnt some tough lessons there. Come under some pretty extreme threats by other western business people that as a young bloke kept me awake at night.

Photo by Matty Hannon

Got so stressed with the effort and frustrations and seemingly vanishing money associated with starting up the camp that my health suffered and I’d come down with whatever tropical fever the jungle felt like dishing up. Doing business in the islands you constantly find yourself in situations where you are trying to make decisions, the results of which will have a real impact on not just your business but your family, and you can’t get your hands on half the details you need to do a good job of the decision. I’ve often felt like I bit off more than I could chew, I’ve often decided it wasn’t worth it, and often wished for an easier existence. But fortunately I’m not feeling that way just at the moment.

What would you say to a younger frothing surfer who’s discovered their own veritable paradise with a wave out front and has ideas of starting a surf camp or resort?

It would be a bit rich of me to say anything other than that he or she should go for it. But a lot of the desirable areas for surf travel are well underway with development these days. So don’t just do what has been done, don’t just set up across from an existing operation, find some way to do it your way, a different location, a different business model, whatever. And do it in front of a wave, if you can, it’s much better to stay somewhere were you can just paddle out and catch a few waves on dusk, or beat the boats in the mornings, or just notice that the swell is picking up or changing direction.

Photo by Matty Hannon

Keep it small. Would you want to stay somewhere that hosts 20 or 30 surfers? You’re not getting on a tour bus to go and see the Great Wall of China or the Eiffel Tower. It’s surfing. How can you really cater to what your future guests will be looking for if you have 20 of them? If you are just looking to make money then go ahead and go large scale, but that would want to be all you’re after, as you won’t have time for anything else anyway.

When you start talking to people about your plans of starting a surf camp in the middle of nowhere, some people (those that really care about you, and also those that are just jealous) will tell you that its a risky proposition and that you’ll probably get taken to the cleaners. Listen to them. They aren’t wrong. You don’t want to be too head-strong or overly confident because you’ll stuff it up. And on the other side of the coin, some people will be keen to chip in or invest in your venture. That’s going to seem really attractive in some ways, but keep in mind that the more people involved, the harder its going to be to make decisions, and the more opportunity there is for disagreements and conflict. I’m stoked that I just entered into Pitstop Hill with a local friend, started basic, and improved it as we went along.

And respect the locals, it’s their home. Not just paying lip-service to it, but open up to them and show them that you are there for the right seasons, and hopefully you won’t hit as many hurdles.

Photo by Matty Hannon
Photo by Matty Hannon

Do you think Mentawai has reached saturation point?

I’d say yes. Looking at the current season for example, I think everyone that has come and stayed with us has still left stoked. If you want to get your fill of high quality waves, I still reckon that the Mentawais are the best place to come for a surf trip. Not to mention the beautiful islands, and the incredible local culture. But with the number of surfers that come to the region now, you need decent to great conditions to fire up the huge number of breaks, to have an epic time surfing. The truth is that if you get unlucky with conditions for a few days, and it’s just a handful of the reliable breaks that are working, there are going to be too many people on them for it to be an overly memorable session. So even though its an incredibly consistent place for waves, you now need a bit of luck to make sure there are lots of breaks working when you come here. And now, more than ever, proper surf-guides are vital to keep travelling surfers ahead of the game. This is unfortunately the case for lots of other surf destinations, many of which have long ago passed saturation point. I guess that’s the state of surfing in 2017.

Does the Indonesian corruption make it harder or easier to run a business over there?

The biggest issue with the corruption is that it’s the major factor stopping the Mentawai and broader Indonesia from being developed sustainably. Would you believe that a few years ago three consecutive tourism government chiefs in the islands ended up in jail for corruption? Tourism is obviously relatively new to the Mentawais, and the under-developed, postcard islands with flawless waves are a huge opportunity for the government to implement a plan for sustainable development. There are lots of other examples around the world, both positive and negative ones, of tourism areas that have been either well or poorly managed. It sounds like the diving mecca of Raja Empat is the shining example of sustainable development within Indonesia. The government could say right, these islands can accommodate this many boats and this many land operators and reassess that every say five years. To gain a permit each operator has to tick a number of tough boxes in terms of environmental impact, maximum number of guests, minimum number of local staff, inputs into the local community etc. But even if they did that, if applicants can get around that by making timely ‘donations’ to the right people, no matter how good of a road map you’ve got, it doesn’t stand a chance. Because of that corruption. And that is sad.

Photo by Matty Hannon

If you aren’t willing to utilise the corrupt environment, it definitely makes business harder. We compete against operators that haven’t bothered to get the correct licences, that don’t pay the same taxes that we do, haven’t jumped through the same hoops as us yet then can exist and run year after year and obviously charge less. Corruption isn’t limited to governments, licensing, permits etc, you deal with it at lots of business levels. The porters are a prime example.  Being out in the islands, all of your stuff, whether it is food supplies, building materials, luggage etc has to go through multiple sets of hands and this is generally through organisations of porters who use their monopoly, rubbery laws, and often some pretty aggressive tactics to allow them to charge whatever they like. And we’re yet to find a way around it. While the materials and supplies might initially cost a lot less than in the first world, by the time you get past the logistics and then the associated corruption, the prices of things end up a lot more similar than you might think.

What happened to the moorings you tried to set up?

This was a great concept and I’ll be upfront and say that it was actually members of another resort that had the idea and got it going. We just got on board with it. Essentially we built, installed and maintained boat moorings at the most popular breaks in our area such that surf boats could just tie up and not have to drop anchor and damage the reefs. And as an added benefit it was quicker, easier and safer than anchoring. From memory it was Pitstop Hill, Wavepark and Kandui Resort that contributed to what was called the Mentawai Mooring Movement, and it lasted a few years. And pretty much every boat that came by would use the moorings. Sure we want to protect the reefs so it’s nice for our guests to snorkel and surf over but more than that the local community relies on those reefs, and fishing on them for their survival.

Sadly it was the actions of a couple of sections of the local community that saw the end of the moorings. People would regularly steal the surface floats which (whilst lessened by having other secondary floats a couple of metres below the surface) meant that the moorings were often lost and needed constant maintenance. And also the rule was that you could have a maximum of two boats at a time on each mooring, so that they didn’t drag. When those that were maintaining the system asked operators of 3rd or 4th boats to untie they were met with pretty unfriendly reactions from some of the more head-strong boat drivers from the local communities, whose home ironically was what we were trying to protect. In the end it became so stressful, and so much work for those that were driving the program that they had to let it go.

Megan and yourself have just had a baby, young Riley, has this changed your outlook or trajectory?  Could you envisage raising him in Mentawai?

Yeah mate! Like most new parents we don’t really know what we are in for, but you bring up your children in your home, and the Mentawai is definitely our home. So we are going to try. We are just going to take it one step at a time, and of course down the track certain stages, be it schooling or whatever, might change our trajectory to an extent but we’ll cross those bridges a bit later. It’s such a healthy lifestyle and you are surrounded by nature and that’s what we want for Riley. I asked a mate of mine how his son was going and he said that by all accounts his boy had had a good week, but given he only sees him briefly each morning and evening, he’d have to wait to the weekend to spend more time with him. So I’m stoked that because of the nature of our set-up in the islands I’ll get to spend a lot of time with my son. Obviously it’s not all positive, you can’t just duck down the road to a decent doctor if an issue comes up, but we’ll just do our best and see if we can make it work. His playground, his front yard, will be a perfect swimming hole with one of the world’s funnest waves peeling into it, so I reckon Riley just might end up a surfer.

You’ve been a part of our friend Rob Henry’s journey and have supported the Suku Mentawai program to empower the shamans of traditional Mentawai – why do you feel this is an important cause to be a part of?

To be honest with you, even if I didn’t feel as strongly about trying to protect the Mentawai culture… if any close friend had put as much effort and time and passion into any cause as Rob has with Suku Mentawai, the Indigenous Education Foundation, and the documentary film As World’s Divide… I’d be wanting to help in any way I could! Since coming out to work for us in late 2008, and subsequently moving into the Mentawai jungle, Rob has worked seemingly tirelessly, for no personal reward, to protect the culture and knowledge that allows the indigenous Mentawai people to live traditionally in the jungle.

Essentially between the jungle communities, and us, are the generally coastal villages of displaced Mentawai from where most of our staff have come. Those that get work in the resorts are the lucky ones and when we on occasion accompany them back to their villages, it’s amazing to see how much healthier and bright-eyed they are than the majority of people from their home village. By all accounts, and through Rob’s research, the reason for this is that the people that live in these designated coastal communities, while they might be ‘educated’ in maths or even English, there just aren’t enough opportunities and work for them. So a lot of them survive on pretty poor diets and often seem to have very little motivation to improve their situation. Whereas, in contrast, the traditional jungle communities have a belief system and traditional knowledge base, passed down by the Sikerei (shaman) that ensures them a healthy and happy existence in the jungle, even in the absence of jobs in our sense of the word. So it seems that if that knowledge and that pride can be taught to the Mentawai outside of the traditional jungle communities, they would have a lot more tools to lead a healthier, more fulfilling life. And besides, the idea of a very unique and very old culture fading out of existence (where all we need to do is support people like Rob and his team to try to avoid that happening), … that idea should be upsetting to anyone.

A’an one of your boat drivers, is a savvy young Mentawaian who surfs really well and has a western girlfriend, but also just had the traditional Dudukat chest-piece tattoo completed – do you see many of the Mentawai youth revering traditional culture?  Is it possible to thrive in a globalised world while simultaneously maintaining cultural heritage?

A’an is a good example. He’s a lot like any 20 year old surfer in any part of the world. Going surfing is always at the forefront of his mind, he hangs in surf gear, and gets up to mischief like any grommet, but instead of hunting up and down the coast in an old surf wagon, he steers a big black longboat between some of the best surf breaks in the world! I probably see a lot more of Mentawai youth embracing western culture, phones, Facebook etc than I do see them taking pride in their traditional culture, but there are some examples, like drumming and hunting that remain popular with the younger guys. I was stoked when A’an decided he was going to get the traditional chest-piece and hopefully some of the younger crew that are bound to look up to him also feel that it can be cool to keep in touch with your roots. The pull in the other direction is pretty strong, so here’s hoping.

 

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