Hairy, happy and away from home, Ben Chapman-Smith surfs on the edge of the world.

It wasn't what I'd imagined a tsunami shelter would look like.

We'd bush-whacked our way through the jungle until we found it. There was a wooden ladder leaning against a tree, leading to a small platform precariously balanced in the branches like a child's tree house, several metres off the ground. I couldn't help but think the "shelter" would be little more than a life raft if a tsunami did hit.

But we hadn't come to Awera Island for luxury accommodation; the lack of bells, whistles and fancy tsunami shelters was just part of the charm. We'd come to experience every surfer's dream: a remote, untouched tropical island surrounded by world-class waves. No sunbathing, selfies or snorkelling - just good, honest surfing.

We'd booked the trip months earlier. Facing a grim winter of cold waves and full-body wetsuits, our group of five balding young dads of average surfing ability decided to head for warmer waters. We settled on the Mentawai Islands, an idyllic chain of about 70 islands and islets sitting 150km off Sumatra's western coast.


Our journey from Auckland to Awera Island Surf Camp ( took more than two days. Lugging three surfboards and a few items of clothing each, we clocked 8500km by way of plane, train, taxi, bus, ferry, speedboat, and foot. An exhausting trip, yes - but when we finally set eyes on Awera, the airport queues and hours of waiting were worth it.

The island was a flush of green wrapped neatly in a crescent of white sand, with waves peeling mechanically over an outer reef. Apart from a few fingers of smoke spiralling from the jungle, the only sign of life was our surf camp tucked back among the coconut trees.

As we motored towards the beach, our stocky surf guide Pete announced that a big swell was due to hit in the coming days.

"You dudes are gonna score," he told us in his thick Californian accent. "I'll have you surfing so much you won't be able to lift your arms by the end of the trip."

Pete, who runs the camp with his wife Ine, stayed true to his promise. For 10 days, we surfed twice a day every day. Apart from familiarising ourselves with the tsunami escape route, we did little but ride waves. We'd wake to the smell of fresh Sumatran coffee and a table heavy with food, before heading by boat to wherever the surf was best. Then it was home for lunch, a nap under the mosquito net, and back out to surf until dusk.

Boasting perfectly shaped reefs, abundant swell and year-round warm water, the Mentawais are one of the world's most alluring surf destinations. There are countless resorts and swanky charter boats in the region, but we picked the Awera Island Surf Camp for its no-frills, no-nonsense approach. It promised big meals, comfortable accommodation and easy access to 15 incredible surf breaks.

"It's our goal at Awera to get you surfing these waves whenever possible alone, and with a maximum of eight guests, we offer an unmatched opportunity to surf these waves with the fewest possible people," the website read.

Awera Island can be circled by boat in less than half an hour and is home to only about 10 permanent human inhabitants. The surf camp's small team of staff, who typically speak little English but communicate through smiles, work tirelessly to keep guests relaxed and cared for.

Ben Chapman-Smith on a surfing trip with friends in Indonesia. Photo / Ben Chapman-Smith
Ben Chapman-Smith on a surfing trip with friends in Indonesia. Photo / Ben Chapman-Smith

Our evenings were spent reading, recounting the day's best waves, and drinking Bintang on the deck. There were no thoughts of switching on the television, and internet access was poor, so there was little choice but to unwind while listening to the mysterious sounds drifting from the jungle around us.

We surfed spots with names like Icelands, Scarecrows and Telescopes, levelling up to more difficult waves as our confidence increased. The only really dangerous spot was the aptly named Suicides, which breaks in shallow water over craggy coral reef. Pete told us he's seen a guy rip his ear open on the reef, and many others have gone home with lifelong scars. I got my own taste of Suicides' wrath when I wiped out, falling directly onto the sharp teeth below. Bleeding from leg cuts and sporting a deep ding in my favourite board, I paddled back to the boat defeated.

Having travelled to such a remote spot, we did have many sessions to ourselves. But we certainly weren't the only ones willing to trek to the edge of the world for the wave of a lifetime; sometimes we'd turn up at a surf break to find boats already anchored, and half a dozen people clustered in the water. I met Russians, Australians, Americans, Brits, Mauritians and Poles, to name a few. There may be hundreds of surf breaks in the region, but hundreds of surfers are hunting for that dream wave.

Surf after surf blurred into one long amazing ride, and we eventually left the island hairy, tanned and happy.

Awera Island might not have the most impressive tsunami shelter, but it has everything else a surfer could want.



Air New Zealand flies seasonally non-stop to Bali from Auckland with two return flights weekly. One-way Economy Class start from $623.