an a-temporal trip to the roots of the stoke!
Text and photos by Stéphane Robin
Now days, as ecological boards become trendy, Melanesian surfers continue to build their own wooden boards according to tradition. We propose to rediscover this unexpected encounter made by Stéphane Robin, during a long journey to the Salomon Islands, in 2004-2005.
Surfers have been more or less all over the world, everywhere, even to the Salomon Islands. Periodically visited by a few Australians, they have never experienced the success of Indonesia. Not consistent enough, too many flies, crocodiles, and political instability : an almost natural protection against the too curious. Yet all you need is a cyclone to draw itself up in the Coral Sea to have a multitude of breaks called into action. It didn’t take much more to inspire me to see what effect that the South Pacific would have on me.
0° under the equator
Crushing heat, total calm. No cyclones, just tropical rainfall. The red earth sticks to your feet. I find spots but no waves. After ten days, I start to lose patience. Instead of surfing, I sulk under the ventilators of the Internet café on the corner. Why the hell did I come here ? The swell predictions are bad. I should’ve gone to Fiji like everyone else. I am sweating large drops. It seems like the predicted swell seems to die down right before hitting the archipelago. Outside the port of Gizo, the reef only offers a tiny wave. The other spots on the island are no better. I must find a solution. I inspect the islands located to the North. I forget the cyclonic swells and bet on the Pacific wind swell. On the map, the tip of Choiseul Island seems to be correctly oriented. I learn from a medical intern expat from Gizo that one of his colleagues surfed there from time to time. The place is very wild and full of mosquitoes. I am a bit doubtful, but it’s my best bet. Seeing that this young doctor had to go there himself, I chose to accompany him. A plane is schedule for the next day but the time is still to be determined. The small national company only has one plane to do all their rotations. We decide to go ahead and test our luck. Up at dawn, we descend onto the landing strip, packed with survival materials. The hours pass. It gets hotter and hotter. We search the horizon until eleven o’clock before deciding to go back to the guesthouse, “ No plane today. ” The next day we try again. Luckily this time a plane lands. But the luggage compartment of the small Twin Otter is full. The copilot suggests I cut the nose of my board to make it fit. I refuse. The plane leaves without me. That’s real bad luck.
The American sailor
Two weeks already with no surfing. After all this time without meeting any surfers, I feel like I am the only surfer in the area. Good sign ? Bad sign ? Hard to say. One morning, while I was heading along port Gizo, a bearded guy stops me and asks what the waves are like. The medical intern had spoken to him of me. This sailor, of American origin, crosses the Pacific on his sailboat and has already logged four months of navigation in the Salomon Islands. Not much luckier than myself. But he heard of a quasi-secret spot with local surfers. He says the reef is perfectly drawn and that the swell is more consistent than elsewhere. The only little problem is the distance and the fact that it is impossible to sail to during this season. Without taking into account the fact that the waters are infested with sea crocodiles. That must be the reason why I didn’t flag it during my first recon. To get there, you have to connect with several flights, a nearly impossible feat with two surfboards. So there I am again at the small national airline trying to negotiate a ticket to the capital.
Far away province
Two day later, I am in Honiara :a stifling city where the natives walk barefoot and spit on the ground. After a night and a couple of hours of waiting at the airport, I witness the takeoff of the empty plane to test the motor. It’s OK, they tell us we can embark. Here, there are no X-ray machines, or metal detectors. You weigh the passenger with his luggage and that’s it. The flight over the Western Province only confirms what I have lived up until now :it’s totally flat.
After an hour and a half flight and a touchdown in the middle of the bush. I finally see my final destination :a bright green island with a little lake and a mountain just behind. On the approach, you can distinguish a light straight line detaching itself from the tropical forest. It’s the landing strip indicated on my map. It’s a bit bumpy but no worries. We land under the noise of the propellers. A handful of locals emerge from the jungle. Here there are no airports, no buildings, no telephone, no vending machines, nothing. Only a few crates of local goods wait to be shipped back to the capital. Here I am, at the end of the world. Although a bit surprised to see a white-man disembark all alone with his boards, the locals are rather welcoming. Local kids offer to carry my luggage into their village, a half-hour walk through the forest.
Robin(son) Crusoe Island
I am not the first surfer to pass through here :the island is an inevitable portal for anyone who wants to reach the area. Some Australian surfers came here in the 90’s. Two brothers opened up a small surf camp, but their story went sour, and they had to quickly leave the area before the beginning of the civil war. They sold their motorboat to the locals for almost nothing. The man who was hosting me for the night actually salvaged one of their motors. After some conversation, I finally understand that there had been some issues between a local and the Aussies, and that they hadn’t seen any surfers since. A godsend ? The island on which I have just arrived doesn’t have surfable waves. I need to find a way of exploring the other reefs without ruining myself. By land it is impossible. There’s no path, no road, no car, only a few villages with the primeval forest behind. The inhabitants are fishers but they don’t venture out too far. They more or less fear the inhabitants of the other islands. Those are difficult conditions to obtain clear information.
The next day, after a quick tour of this magnificent island – which would have been perfect for Robinson Crusoe – I embark on a small pirogue, which I had chartered to get to the large neighboring island. 5kg of rice, some coconuts, and some small homemade bread rolls have been added to my pack. While navigating along the uneven coast, I notice the same landscape observed by the sailors who discovered these islands more than 400 years ago. Nothing has changed. The natives still fish aboard wooden pirogues. Mysterious caves run deep into the depths of the forest. Upon approaching the first large village, I notice the crest of a wave that is breaking in front of a small isle. I ask the pirogues driver to stop. The long swell breaks over a hundred meters, and there is absolutely no one. I have waited for this for so long! I look through my bag for some wax ; I take out my board and jump in the water. The sensation of being alone at the line-up is quite strange. I wonder if this wave already has a name.
The American sailor was right. There are local surfers on this island, but I didn’t see them to begin with. When our pirogue touched-down in a small bay, not far from Star Harbor, quickly a load of people were on the beach. The news spread like a wild fire through the village. Tens of children pressed one against the other not daring to approach. Behind them, white smoke floated above the wooden houses built directly on the ground. I ask myself if I will really be able to live here. But as long as there are people, everything remains possible. One person told me that they are almost wild but their friendliness quickly makes one forget their destitution. They bring me to the house of a certain Liston, the village’s grocer that could most probably help me. On my way there, I notice from time to time a couple of locally made surfboards. They are a bit everywhere :on roofs of houses, against the trees… I have never seen anything like it. No skegs, 50/50 rails, and these sorts of channels along the whole board. Even the tail was in the shape of a spatula! So this was what the American sailor had told me about. The locals did surf just on boards made of palm tree wood!
Liston’s house was a bit apart, next to the river. When I arrive, there are only women and children. I nearly do not need to talk. Someone goes to tell him. It’s a smiling man that comes up, loaded with a sack of full of copra. We talk a bit in broken English. He then prepares a room for me in his house that is also a boutique. The comfort is rudimentary but functional. Where else in the world can you arrive out of the blue without knowing the person and be welcomed like this ? At a two-minute walk, under a tree, they show me a PVC hose that brings water from the heights of the island. It’s drinkable and is also used for showering. Houses are scattered under the coconut trees. A kid walks with a chicken in his arms. Another, three years of age, walks with a machete bigger than he is.
Once settled in, I leaved to search for a motorboat to be able to circulate between the different spots. Liston tells me he knows where to find one. Quite astounding because I only saw pirogues without motors, carved directly from tree trunks. He accompanies me to the other side of the village, where a big guy owns several motors. The man is a mechanic. He smokes a lot. For the most part, the motors were in pieces but one or two of them must work. 15HPs, maybe 25, they don’t quite remember. The tightening screws are broken, but we should be able to fixate it onto one of the glass fiber pirogues that float at the edge of the lagoon. Negotiations will be a must because the owner is another man. We sit down in the shade. The mechanic offers me bethel nuts. We wait for I don’t quite know what, or whom. We wait, that is all. Others, younger, join us. Everyone laughs softly. The mechanic remembers the surfers who passed by here before. He points to the wave right in front of their house, but today it is so small. He constantly spits on the ground these long streams of red. The bethel nuts pass from hand to hand, together with a small bag of dried coral powder that he applies to his teeth. We agree on a price. I will come back tomorrow.
As I was going back to Liston’s, I notice quite a few people in the water, at the entrance of the village. This afternoon, the sea is agitated. Kids of all ages try to catch the waves, standing, laying down, or sitting in their pirogues. It’s almost feverish. They are twenty of them, maybe thirty. It goes everywhere. Some fall immediately after the take-off, while others follow the waves for several tens of meters. For lack of anything better, I decide to join them. In the water, the atmosphere is surreal :everybody is laughing, screaming, singing. Their good mood is surprising. Here the concept of right of way doesn’t exist. Everyone takes his chance at the same time. The older ones test themselves with bottom turns, but without skegs it doesn’t always work. When I arrive amongst them, they all stop paddling. They make me understand that the next wave is for me. All of a sudden a kid shouts “ nice one ” and the others bring up the chorus “ Nice one, nice one! ” A wave grows on the reef. It starts curling. This one is mine. I go out there in total silence. The coral sculptures fly by underneath in the shallow waters. I place a first turn, then a second, sharper, before taking up speed for the final kick-out. I barely had time to get back up onto my board when an interminable ovation started. The kids were totally over-excited, they shout, hitting the water. All these shouts give me goosebumps. And it didn’t look like it was going stop! They throw themselves onto the waves trying to imitate my moves! The boards fly ; it’s total euphoria. Surfing here is still at its primal stage. Joy prevails over performance. The style of the eldest reminds me of longboard photos from the 50’s. Only here they surf with 6-foot long boards.
When I get out of the water, I inspect one of these boards a bit closer. I am surprised by its weight. The wood is soaked in water ; I wonder how they manage to float on it. The kids see my interest and bring me others. They are of all sizes and generally pointy. They are made of branches from a palm tree, tied together. When asked who makes the boards, they introduce me to an older boy. He isn’t really a shaper – here everybody makes his boards as he can – but he seems to have more experience than the others. I was offered to follow a small group who were heading out into the forest, armed with long machetes. We stop in a clearing. Quickly they locate large palm trees. The forest is like an open sky store. You only need to know what type of plant you want to find everything you need.
The palm tree branches that are cut have a supple texture, close to foam. Once the branches have been adjusted, they find harder pieces of wood to pierce the former, to hold them together. Shaping by eye. He cut a remarkably symmetrical outline. The rails are made round, the nose and tail are slimmed down. All this in less than thirty minutes! Here they are with a new, totally biodegradable, board! Not very solid but it’s enough to do a couple of runs. My astonishment continues to grow when the young shaper guides me into a house of his village. An old single-fin is hanging on the wall like a magical relic. He passes his hands on the rails, almost automatically, as if to memorize it once more. His gaze is elsewhere. Half laminated and filled with holes, the board was left here by a missionary several decades ago. The man left a long time ago, but the board stayed back, like an heirloom that the kids have taken to, with a troubling symbiosis. It’s as if surfing is simply an ancestral practice that has never left them.