Caretaking in the Telo Islands With Jacque 'Wobby' Botha
I was just a little tacker when I saw 'The Omega Man' on tele, and this 1971 post-apocalyptic action film starring Charlton Heston – the last man alive after a global pandemic, gunning down albino mutant zombies who’d try to invade his compound every night, etc – both thrilled and terrified the absolute shit out of me. It wasn’t so much the zombies that were unnerving, it was the fact the world had just…stopped. The emptiness.
COVID turned a few Indo surf guides into Omega Men (and Women) – crew who stuck their hands up twenty months ago to caretake hibernation-mode surf camps and resorts, to ensure they weren’t reclaimed by the jungle or colonized by the local fauna. It was a big decision to make in a hurry: scamper back home to family on the last available flights, or stick around for who-knew-how-long as the world shut down? but the payoff – empty lineups for months on end – was hefty.
With the prospect of travel becoming commonplace again, I asked a mate in the Telos, Saffir guide Jacque 'Wobby'* Botha, 27, to reflect on the experience.
*Nickname origin: ‘Jacque’ > ‘Shark’ > ‘Wobbegong’ > ‘Wobby’
2019 had been a busy year, I’d taken off in November to see my family in South Africa, then did California and Hawaii. I was heading back to the Telos in January 2020 just as all the news about Covid was starting to pick up.
We had some early season guests here but everything was starting to get crazy. The owners said ‘we can get you guys home now if you want, or you can stay out here’. Me and (fellow guides) Dingo, Billy, and Terri got together and talked about it, and thought, well, if this thing gets to be really bad, these islands might be a good place to hang. So we stayed.
In the beginning it was weird and tough. Nobody knew what was what, so we locked down everything straightaway. I was based here (at one lodge) with Billy, while Dingo, and Terri were at the other lodge, a few islands apart. On weekends we’d meet up and be in the one place. Billy kind of jumped ship and went to the other lodge just because it was easier to surf the Left. But I couldn't leave, so there was six to seven months last year where I was by myself during the week, knocking around this empty resort. It was interesting times. It was strange, just everything coming to a standstill.
But there was the surf. I would say all up, I've probably had 600 sessions either solo or with no more than three of us out.
By June I decided ‘I can’t just sit here’, so I applied to study for an online diploma through the international hotel school. I've been studying full-time while I've been here. It’s been keeping me busy and sane, having deadlines and having to smash exams and all that.
For the first two months, I was living in the staff house, and then thought, 'fuck man, these villas aren’t being used', so I secured a guest villa and made it my home.
I changed a couple of things at the resort itself. Before, everything would run only if there was power, so I set up some tanks up on the hill that were gravity fed, so there always hot running water. I’d go spearfishing every other day out the front: octopus, nice trevally.
The generator would run from six o'clock in the afternoon till about ten o’clock at night. So hot, man. For the first four to five months last year you’d wake up at two or three in the morning, chuck an Aqua gallon over your head and then hope to fall back asleep. This year I ran a small generator to run fans, charge the phones, it’s felt like luxury.
When it was obvious that the Telos were locked down and there’d be no business, we had to cut all the local staff, send ‘em home, but I retained five crew, one from each department, to keep the place maintained. My Bahasa Indonesia is pretty much a hundred percent now - we’ve hung out together a lot! Spending time with the crew it’s been wild to get to know and understand the culture on a level that I wouldn’t if I was busy guiding. It’s wild. Demons, witchdoctors, witchcraft spells, and ghosts are super powerful elements in the belief system. Every other week one of the crew would be totally rattled for a couple of days after being grabbed by a ghost in their sleep. They’d shiver like it was two degrees, just thinking about it. It’s all about Karma.
The structure around relationships and marriage is even gnarlier. If they have a girlfriend, they can’t leave her. And in order to marry, they need to save up a minimum of like 12,000 Aussie dollars, which they need to give to the family in order to secure their missus. And only then can they marry. And only after that can they have sex. The price fluctuates on the gal herself. If she can speak English, if she's handy, if she can cook, the price goes up.
In the beginning I had to explain to the locals about this thing called Coronavirus. They were like, “No, it’s a Bulé’s disease. It’s only for the white people.” And then they were saying the only way the disease could come in was if the northerlies blew hard enough, it'd blow the disease in from the mainland. They didn’t believe it could transmit through the Indonesian people. Christians thought they were immune too.
We got vaccinated in Telo, through the army. Sinovac. Probably about 70% of the population have been vaccinated, but just like everywhere, there’s people who didn't think they needed it. The Moderna vaccine’s come through as well, about four months ago.
When travel was permitted within Telos and Nias, I went up to Nias five times. it used to be eight hours on the slow wooden boat, but luckily the fast ferry was running. Fifteen bucks and you’re in Nias within an hour. So, if there was a solid south, south west swell, around a certain degree mark, I was there. For most of the time there was only a fixed crew of people who’d locked themselves in Nias. A tight-knit crew of 10, 15 people. A few coming and going from the Mentawais. Whenever it got to six foot, there were never more than four or five people in the water.
All those Nias trips were strike missions but the most recent one this year – I went there to meet my girlfriend Kim coming back from Europe – coincided with a perfect six-to-eight foot swell. No wind, four guys in the water, one or two locals, we were all pushing each other. Probably the best session I've ever had in my life.
As far as surfing in the Telos, we only had a limited petrol budget, so between swells you’d surf out the front, or places you could access easily in the little cargo boat: but at least once every ten days there’d be a swell and we’d have the fuel to get out and about. There wasn’t a break in the Telos we didn’t score with no-one out. Surfed three new spots too.
Every month or so, all the guides across the Telos, the guys from Luke’s place - Sooly and Ben - the Lat Zero boys, we’d get together for a BBQ. It’s made us a tight-knit community, even more so than before, which might be a silver lining to the last two years. When the guests return, we’ll have an even better rapport, all the resorts co-operate with each other, kind of like the old days. Hopefully the charter boats that come up here will act in this spirit too.
It’s been an incredibly weird time. There’s been moments when it’s been pretty tough, but I’ve been super fortunate: my girlfriend lives in Bali and we’ve been able to connect with each other a few times; I’ve got my study – got final exams mid-December; I really got to know the Telo way of life; and had an absolutely phenomenal surfing experience which I’ll look back on for the rest of my life. I can’t wait to catch up with the guests who come out year after year, and most of all I’m ready to see my family again.
// WOBBY (as spoken to GRA MURDOCH)