Harrison Roach and Tai Graham head off to Nias in search of unicorns, and to ride perfect waves in an idyllic setting . . . Photos: Anthony Dodds
Lagundri Bay casts a powerful spell.
Full of mystique, it’s that perfect right-hander with palm trees in the background. A mellow almond eye that turns into a grinding cave as soon it’s six feet.
Travelling to, and surfing, Lagundri Bay has always been the dream. Whether it’s the VHS memories of Jack Mccoy’s Storm Riders, or the more recent exploits of J.O.B and Makua Rothman, the wave beckons like no other.
As a regular footer, it is the kind of place that could produce the wave of a lifetime. I have no idea why it took me so long, but what finally set my belated voyage in motion was a story I read by Kevin Lovett:
“I had picked off a smaller one on the inside, and was paddling back out, when I saw John drop into a six-to- seven-foot wall that just stood up and pitched straight over him. Not a drop of water out of place. The moment crystallized. I was spellbound. As he cruised by, I stared in amazement at the ecstatic look on his face; water droplets hanging in his beard, totally immersed in the experience.”
Custodians of the Point tells the story of Lovett and his friend John Geisel’s experience throughout their life-changing expedition in 1975. It was this trip that led to the ultimate discovery of Lagundri Bay, Nias. The Surfers Journal published the story in spring, 1998. The fact that I came across it 15 years later is a testament to the impact it has had on its readers. Just as Larry Yates’ Forgotten Island of Santosha inspired Lovett, Custodians of the Point inspired me.
My seven-day escapade was booked at the very last minute. I’d been hanging about Bali working on a new film called I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night when I received a call about a swell forecast. With the call came the news that Lagundri would be “off the hook” all week. Tai Graham was on the other end of the line. Having spent much of his life weaving through Indonesian water pipes – ‘Buddha’ is an easy man to trust.
Just a few hours after his call we were packing our board bags. Skip the next day of Indonesian island hopping and we’re unpacking the bags in one of Lagundri’s many losmens.
Tai had packed a quiver he could trust – three Channel Islands boards, a 6’8 Allan Byrne (RIP) channel bottom and a smaller quad that Chris Garret had shaped for him. My boards were a little different.
The point is a perfect wave and therefore a perfect place to test ride new equipment. Rich Pavel has been working away in the shaping bay at The Temple of Enthusiasm and I’m the lucky guy who gets to surf his boards. I had a 6’1 channel bottom single fin and a 7’0 seventies style single fin. And two 6’8 quads – one was a channel bottom and one had a spiral “V”.
The first day was all pleasure. Tai and I relished in the five-foot surf that the point is so well known for. It created a buzz of excitement on every balcony scattered along the point. Everything was perfect, just as Tai had prophesised.
We began to fantasise about the ideal Nias wave. The Unicorn, as Tai calls it, is on our minds every time we surf. It’s the wave we’re always dreaming of. Sighting and catching the Unicorn at Lagundri seemed possible, if not probable. The forecast was right, the pre-swell bumps showed promise and the winds were offshore.
The crack of thunder under clear night skies meant the swell had arrived for real. Eight-foot sets smashed into the reef and had us eager for daybreak. It was the morning of the fourth day. Only a surfer knows the feeling. Tai’s hunt for the Unicorn was on. He sat out the back with eyes fixed on the horizon. Dreaming of the chance, imagining what he would do.
The rest of us were content to take a shot at the plethora of perfection on offer. Even after more pits than you could poke a stick at, Tai seemed as though he hadn’t caught the elusive Unicorn. I couldn’t quite understand it. Each time I pulled off what seemed like an amazing wave, he took off on an even better one. He seemed to be dropping from deeper and driving for longer.
“Yeah … it was an okay one,” he’d say.
“Yeah right … it was mental!” I’d reply.
Later that day the swell reached its peak. That was when the horizon began to sink and Tai finally saw it. At least he thought he saw it. The point has a way of putting you on your back foot when it ventures into the eight-foot range. He swung around and started paddling before the bomb reared and he had to do a U-turn. A spanner in the works and back out he went. He checked his position and swung in the direction of the channel. Tai was deep. He wanted to be. He wasn’t interested in making it easy for himself. High risk makes for high reward. We took a deep breath as he disappeared over the ledge, air dropping into the biggest wave of the day.
Once the spray off the back had settled and the wave rolled into deeper water, I realised what had happened. Tai’s board was tomb-stoning in the exact spot of the wave’s initial explosion.
He went down …
His response was not quite devastation but he was certainly irritated.
It wasn’t until the week after the trip that we realised Tai had actually caught the ideal Nias wave. Only our mates’ photographic and cinematic proof made him realise his dream had come true. The wave in question was an absolute smoker! I couldn’t believe he hadn’t told me about it. It was his Unicorn. Some kind of surfer’s syndrome prevented him from comprehending it at the time.
Maybe if the wave was random, a diamond in the rough, so to speak, he could have paddled in a happy man. But while there was a chance of something better, his immediate reaction was to get back on the search. Surfers are always after more when there’s more on offer.
Kevin Lovett and John Geisel did it in a different era. They did it when no one else was around. It must have been surreal. We didn’t experience what it was like to discover the wave, but we can certainly imagine just how amazing it must have been. And more importantly, we’ve had the chance to surf the iconic wave at its best.
In dedication to the two men who discovered Lagundri Bay and in respect to John Geisel, who died nine months after their adventure from the malaria he contracted there, I finish with one of the most heartening sections of Custodians of the Point. This is why we’ll always be out in search of our dreams. This is what makes us who we are:
“One of the amazing aspects of the surfing experience is the view of life looking out from inside a breaking wave. These unique, intense, timeless moments help shape consciousness and are carried with you forever. We came in, saturated by the experience. After something to eat and rest, we surfed again. The sets were relentless. The wave shape was of the highest quality with every wave tubing in its entirety.”