Pulau Weh (Part 1): Where the Sea Meets the Sky

The fast ferry took us off the northern tip of Sumatra, cutting a smooth course through the waters between the mainland and Pulau (“island”) Weh. We haggled with pushy bechak drivers for a ride over to Freddie’s, a place recommended by Lonely Planet. Good quality roads took us through a hilly land ravaged by fecund nature, bursting green around us. Heavy grey skies flattened the light but we had to expect a wet climate. Weh, or Sabang as the locals call it, gets two monsoons a year, one from the west and one from the east. This produces not only abundant life on the land but also in the water, in what is known as the Sea Garden. The island is U-shaped with two peninsulas forming the northern extremity of Indonesia, jutting like horns into the Indian Ocean.

We spent the first two days of our short stay on the island on the eastern peninsula. An alley led off the coast road down steep concrete steps and opened onto a scene filled by coconut palms, thatched huts, varnished wooden decking and a coral-filled, flat-calm sea. Freddie’s. The main area was a split-level wooden building with tables and seating under large windows on the lower, sea-view side, and an open kitchen-cum-office on the higher side. Seated at a laptop amidst a huge array of cooking ingredients and utensils, was a slim white man with greying hair, who we presumed, and it turned out, to be Freddie. We were shown to a shack overlooking the water, with a large balcony and oversized bamboo-frame bed, with many luxuries, such as a water cooler, hot shower, safe, bedside lights, and fresh towels and sheets. At Rp265 a night we couldn’t refuse ourselves the luxury.

That night we dined on squid, spanish mackerel and greek salad, courtesy of Freddie’s kitchen, and fantasised about our own guesthouse in the sun. We crashed-out around 22:00 into a deep slumber, to the gentle growling of small waves breaking below us, sleeping in yet another paradise. We woke to a thin veil of cloud the same colour as the sea, making the flat water vanish into the sky, behind a foreground of motionless palm fronds. The view almost sucked the last of our cares into its vacuous calm.

Freddie's guesthouse, Sumur Tiga, Pulau Weh

Sea vanishing into sky from our balcony at Freddie’s

After three weeks of pathetic breakfasts, Freddie laid-on a buffet every morning, including some things for which we’d been yearning, like yoghurt and muesli to go with our fruit. Freddie consulted us on our plans and we took the opportunity to quiz him on his story as a guesthouse owner. We wanted to know how he’d realised a common travellers’ dream so well.

Freddie had been working for the UN in Papua when he was seconded to Banda Aceh to join the tsunami relief effort. During that time he weekended in Sabang (the locals’ common name for Weh, and the name of the island’s main town). He asked around for a beach long enough to take walks on, and was directed to Sumur Tiga, 5km east of Sabang town. It’s the largest beach on the island when the west is getting it’s monsoon season – roughly the second half of the year. From the sand Freddie saw a pair of concrete stairs descending the steep bank to the beach, with an empty gap between them. He decided that would be where he would build his dream home.

Freddie only ventured to build a house for his family. It was to have a couple of bedrooms upstairs and a split-level open kitchen and living area below. The site was on such a steep incline that he needed nine-metre pillars for the main supports. Straight, nine-metre coconut palm trunks are rare, requiring trees over 40 years-old. Finding them was hard enough, raising them was… he paused… an ordeal. It took three months, with no power tools, just block-and-tackle; with no shared language, just gesturing and sketches. He had no design, they just made changes as they went and eventually got to something acceptable.

It was only later that Freddie decided to add a handful of shacks on one side of the building and offer traveller accommodation, at the same time converting the lower half of the house for guests. As demand increased he opened some more shacks, then a conference venue and again more accommodation. When another NGO built their own conference building next door Freddie took on its management and converted his one into a second restaurant area. Freddie still gets work from the UN, occasionally disappearing for a month here and there, and working on his laptop remotely. It was hard to manage and it wasn’t all fun but he loved the lifestyle and was earning western money. He hadn’t planned anything when he started on the site seven years ago but it had, to our fresh eyes, worked out beautifully.

We hired a scooter and struck-out east along the road outside Freddie’s. Supposedly there was a Japanese war bunker about twenty minutes away, with some superior snorkelling in the waters under it. We never found a bunker, nor much marine life. But we found an empty beach with sand as black as a moonless night, and with the same blueish tinge and starry sparkles, made by the silver and gold minerals glistening within it. Exploring further on the bike, we bounced down farm tracks so broken, steep and cluttered I had to ride some sections alone with Maeve walking behind. Down one track, far from the road, we gave up our search and turned back just as a rain squall swept in and softened the already poor surface under us. I nearly dropped the bike a few times but we made it through. By the time we reached the road I was shaking and had a headache from concentrating.

Scooter on road, Pulau Weh, Indonesia

Our wheels, high up on a steep road into the harbour

But such is the tropical traveller’s life that stress is often found alongside bliss. Back at Freddie’s we laid out on the hammock over our balcony and, with my pen-knife, sliced open the melon and a mango from the fruit market in Banda. We made some coffee and looked out on the ocean, now luminous turquoise with the victorious return of the sun over the rain clouds. We dragged ourselves up, collected our snorkelling gear and waded out into the wavelets lapping the shore opposite our shack. The pale sand seabed was riddled with spherical, lumpy monoliths of coral. Swimming face-down above them, peering through water as clear as air, was like flying over the brains of the ocean. Psychedelic fish weaved amidst the corals in staggering abundance.

That evening we had signed-up to Freddie’s signature buffet dinner. We shared tables with nine other guests, from Scotland, Holland, Canada and France. Freddie stood before us wearing an apron and holding a clipboard at which he occasionally glanced as he introduced the feast. We started with a brimful bowl of tofu and vegetable soup, followed by second starter of mushroom quiche with watermelon, then we were left to raid the main course buffet. There may have been an Italian theme, it’s not clear, but the dishes laid out included beef lasagne, tofu salad, roasted peppers, linguine, cauliflower cheese, roasted pumpkin, and some other roasted vegetables. It was an absurdly rich array and we all had a portion of everything. I went back for seconds. Then Freddie brought out bread-and-butter pudding, just to guarantee a coronary incident. For perhaps the first time in my life, I excused myself from the table and collapsed, prone on the bed, aching with an engorged stomach.

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