Peter Chamberlain - Photography
Peter Chamberlain Photography

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Lost and Found.

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Lost and Found.

The Mentawai islands…

“Things go that way, but they also go the other way too” Ive had a roll-a-coaster of a year, the highest highs and the lowest of lows. Death of my brother, a few breakthroughs in my photography career, a break up, a trip to Siargao, a Vipassana meditation course followed by a surf trip to North Sumatra, And that took me up to the middle of February this year.

Ironically it was the surf trip where my camera was not the main focus that brought back the love of surf photography. Maybe it was because it was the first trip abroad for a good few years where making money wasn't the worry and it allowed me to shoot when I wanted and more importantly if I wanted. It was just over halfway into the 3 weeks away that I picked up the camera and water housing just to grab a few shots here and there. The trouble with being a surf photographer is that its hard to switch off, especially if your chosen hobby is surfing. I felt like I was back, not so much back to my old self but a newer better me was emerging from the trip and thats when I had my first indication of where the next destination would be... think Bilbo Baggins “I’m going on an adventure”...

Lets fast forward to Late April and over 24hrs and 3 flights after leaving London and I was in Padang, Indonesia. The airport turns into a chaotic mess of surfboards, Hawaiian shirts and flip flops whilst there owners search frantically in their luggage for passports and dollars for visa extensions. One thing you notice is that everyone is a Grom no matter the age at arrivals, why? Because Padang is the gateway to a location on most peoples bucket list... the paradise that is the Mentawai Islands.

Travelling as a surf photographer who also surfs (badly) is a ball ache. One hard case to go into the hold which contains my water housing with 3 ports for various lenses. A carry on camera bag that weighs around 18 kg, you are only allowed 7 kg so combat trousers come in handy and lastly one surf board in a bag which contains clothes, which is mainly board shorts and a few t-shits for such a tropical location.

The following morning I awoke at the crack of dawn in order to cross the road from my accomadation and catch the Mentawai fast boat. The boat takes roughly 3-4hrs from Padang to Sikabaluan where there is a 1hr stop over and then another 1.5hrs to Siberut. My stay for the month of May was with Mentawai Surf Camp and the crew met me here before the 1hr speed boat to the camp. At last I had made it, the journey was complete, time to put my feet up and... “Pete the surf’s pumping this afternoon, you ok to shoot in about an hour?” I kind of wanted to say Fuck no, but fuck yeah!! Fell out instead, why waste a moment of this dream?

The Mentawai’s are scattered about 80 miles off the coast of West Sumatra and was discovered as a surfing mecca a few decades ago. While the journey may take 2-3 days to complete it hasn’t stopped surfers from making the trek. Yes, the journey has become easier and more comfortable over the years but it still remains a remote and relatively expensive surfing location for the masses.

Mentawai surf camp is owned and run by Diego and Lora who live at the camp with there 3 children, Torik, Radzacky and Sasha. Back in 2009 they decided to set shop in the town of Pei Pei. It was back then when they started turning this little hut into a family gathering Uma (family house) for who would become their loyal employees and their guests. Walking down the road you will be able to interact with all sorts of Indonesian traders, Sikereis (local shamans), hundreds of little children running freely playing on the beaches, and surfing the beginner wave that brakes right in front of the Mentawai surf resort.

Diego originates from Colombia and is the life and soul of the camp. The head honcho deals with everything from bookings, day to day runnings, planning the next day and is always at the centre of the nightly entertainment. We laughed together for a month non stop. He pushed me with my surf photography in terms of in depth knowledge of the breaks. Called me a “twat” when I sank my drone (a hangover and a mix up between up/down left and right on the controls)

Diego is a skilled barrel rider, great spear-fishermen, great dad and an annoying person to play any game against as he always seems to have luck on his side, he would argue and say skill but I'm sticking with luck.
Lora is the genius behind the unbelievable food served each day. I honestly, hand on heart was treated to some of the best cuisine in my time at camp.

Lora is also the queen of patience, with three small children to look after and still manage to run a kitchen with staff to feed a hungry pack of surfers each day.

A typical morning in your island life will depend on the tide. The daily wave hunt will begin on one of the camps three speed boats, yeah thats right, speed boats to go check for waves, no trekking through the tropical heat on foot or stuffed into a packed jeep. Just lay back and enjoy the scenery whilst checking out the endless choices of breaks. The day in general then goes as follows... Get barrelled countless times. Out of this world lunch, rest, back on the boat for the second session, sunset, get back, shower and let your senses lead you to the main house where Lora with have a world class dinner waiting for you and then squeeze in a few cold Bintangs before bed.

The islands offer some of the best surf on the planet. Lefts, Rights, barrels, playful and the formidable plain scary . The waves vary in size from 2ft to 15ft. The wave making machine that is “The roaring forties” and the prevailing SE trade winds turn this place into a ground swell magnet. I could give you a list of them all but thats what the internet is for right?

From a photographers stand point the Mentawais puts on one hell of a show in terms of beauty. Think of the word tropical and the islands tick all the boxes. Water clarity that blows your mind, multi coloured coral teaming with reef fish and dense palm tree fringed jungle islands.
Shooting in water can be a challenge at times and thats mainly down to the tides. Currents keep you kicking consistently to keep position. Either pushing you back from the direction of the peak or sucking you towards it and then past it. Then there is the reef itself, razor sharp in places and to get the shot means venturing into shallow water where cracks in the reef become your friends as they give you some deeper water to escape the heavy turbulent water above you. A few times I lost and the waves won, pinning me down on the reef. This is nothing new to surfers but the difference for us photographers is that we are holding on to the tools of our trade for dear life.

Every month at Mentawai surf resort they have a resident pro surfer who gives advice, rips the hell out of everything and raises the stoke level a few bars higher. The month of May was the turn of Sean Pearson.

Sean was raised in Oceanside California and moved to Nicaragua with his father when he was 13 to start playgrounds surf camp.
Growing up in Oceanside allowed Sean to discover his love for surfing. Having a duel citizenship has allowed him to compete in a few international surf contests with team Nicaragua. However the contest scene is not really for him as he explains “I’m a free surfer at heart trying to make enough money to be wherever the best waves are”

Sean and I hit if off straight away, banter galore with me always trying to delay him jumping straight in before we dropped anchor at every spot, as I needed to scope it out so I could decide on what camera set up to use.
We both had something in common and that was that we knew we were living the dream at that moment in time
Towards the end of our trip I asked Sean what made him decide to come here...
“Well, I got a once in a lifetime opportunity to join the Mentawais surf camp for a month of surfing waves I've dreamt about since I learned to surf with my dad. At this moment in my life I Just want to be wherever the tube is... no matter what job or living situation I’m addicted to the tube and thats where i’ll be.”

The Mentawais will forever be in my memory and I will without doubt make the trek back to paradise but for now its time to contemplate life and its many choices. The Roller-Coaster of life has not yet let me off, as whilst away I lost a good friend which has made me question my life and what direction it will take me in. What I do know is that I love being a photographer and for now Im enjoying discovering its diverse avenues. As for life, be happy and do what makes YOU happy and not what others expect of you.