I’d never thought of northern Sumatra as a place to pack big barrels. Nias, sure. Even the Mentawais from time to time. But not Aceh. Indonesia’s northernmost surf zone is for people who want to do turns on head-high waves—at least that’s the impression I’d gotten over the years from media snippets and surf camp websites.
As it turns out, that isn’t exactly true, especially when the swell starts nudging into the XL range. While there are indeed a ton of user-friendly waves in northern Sumatra—a-framing peaks, rippable beach breaks, and fun-but-not-life-threatening barrels—there also happen to be a handful of spots that can handle raw Indian Ocean juice. With Aura Surf Resort under relatively new management, and rumors of a couple solid right-hand reefs, a small group of us decided to pay the area a visit. What we found was eye-opening.
A couple of years ago, Joel Savage and Dylan Thompson showed up in northern Sumatra at the same time, both looking to buy Aura from its former owner and carve out their own little slices of paradise. The area is an interesting one—a far cry from the colorful and oftentimes hedonistic scene on Bali. The Aceh region is the most conservative part of Indonesia, where alcohol is illegal and Sharia law dominates village life. In other words, it isn’t a great place to go if you want to party or ogle bikinis on the beach. But for those looking for a mellow, idyllic lifestyle, a ton of waves that are still relatively off the grid, and a welcoming culture of warm, friendly locals, you could do a lot worse.
That’s exactly what we were looking for, and as it turns out, it’s what Joel and Dylan were looking for when they showed up a couple of years ago. The two found that they got along great, and, rather than fighting each other over Aura, they decided to partner up and take it over the resort together. With a crew of friendly local staff and a handful of the happiest surf guides in Indo, the new partners quickly turned their new home into the go-to resort in northern Sumatra. By the time we arrived, they had settled into a relaxed, tropical routine.
Two of their guides—James Thompson and Pierce Flynn—happen to be as gnarly in the water as they are mellow on land. While the boys spend most of their time running guests around the island looking for fun little nuggets, they aren’t afraid to put it on the line when things get heavy, and with our crew in town they got the green light to take things up a notch. I was traveling with hard-charging photographer Sarah Lee and Butch Van Artsdalen’s grandson Tyler Reid, who happens to ride the barrel as well as his grandfather did. Playful point breaks clearly weren’t on the agenda, so while the handful of other surfers in the area sought out protected reefs and protected bays that bent the biggest swell in recent memory into friendly peaks, we went looking for something a little different.
Over the course of a week, we checked out more than a dozen setups that pump under varying conditions, ranging from small to gargantuan. Some of them were newly discovered, others were staples of the area, and one XXL tow-slab in particular had never even been seen breaking. But perhaps even more impressive than the diversity of waves was the fact that we surfed alone virtually the whole time. Aside from a couple of shred sessions at the area’s most popular spot, the lineups we checked were typically empty—and only got emptier as the barrels got bigger.
I tend to avoid Indonesia as a rule, writing it off as being overhyped and ultra crowded. But as with most places, with the right people and a willingness to look a bit farther afield, it’s still possible to score perfect waves alone—at least on the swell of the century.