Doldrums: Calm expectations with unpredictable results

WORDS BY ROB KIDNIE / PHOTOS BY ANNA KUZMINA

A wise man once said, “variety is the spice of life.” I think he also said, “a change is as good as a holiday.” A couple of mantras I try to live life by in order to not get bored and keep myself challenged. So it is with that in mind that whenever the travel bug bites (and it is quite often), it’s nice to go somewhere. Somewhere with new cultures, new smells and new fears to overcome. But most importantly, for a traveling wave kiter, new wind and wave combos. I’m not going to draw you a map to the exact location of this spot but if you’re keen enough you might be able to work it out from a few hints I’m going to give you. For now, lets just call it the Doldrums. 

I had heard about a wave kiting spot located in the Doldrums from a couple of my more adventurous friends, but a few things held me back from checking out this spot myself. One was that this spot is located very close to the equator or as sailors call it the Doldrums. This expression alludes to the maritime doldrums, a belt of calm and light winds north of the equator in which sailing ships were often becalmed. I had been on paddle surfing trips in this area in past and the place definitely lived up to its name on that surf trip; no wind for the couple of weeks I was there. But my friends swore to me that at this new spot, just a few hundred kilometres away from where I had surfed, they were able to ride 7 meter and 9 meter kites most days. Another reason I wasn’t frothing at the bit to hit this place was it had also been ravaged by a tsunami, devastating the area and killing thousands of people approximately ten years earlier. The spot was also known for the local governance ruling the locals by Sharia law; where couples are jailed for kissing before marriage, thieves get their hands cut off and homosexuals get stoned. I was later to learn that the Sharia law only came about after the tsunami because the locals thought that God was punishing them. Once I got my head around these stumbling blocks and got psyched up for an epic adventure, I had nothing to worry about. Well, not much anyway. 

Australia’s Rob Kidnie shaking out the duldrums with a strapless air.

Australia’s Rob Kidnie shaking out the duldrums with a strapless air.

My girlfriend Anna and I flew out of Australia with way too much gear. Checking in four kites and four boards, camera stuff, spearfishing gear and personal effects totalling about 90 kilograms was stressful. Once we arrived at our destination it was time to organise a taxi with all our gear to the spot and our accommodation for the next couple of weeks. A painless trip with one stop allowed us to sip fresh green coconuts and munch down a couple fried rices with a half-cooked fried egg on top. Once we arrived at our family-run guest house we were a little in shock as just coming from Australia you get used to a certain level of quality and cleanliness. After a couple days you normally get used to most of the locals ways. The owner showed us to the back of the property where he had recently built some new rooms. It had air-conditioning, no hot water, a clean working sit down toilet and a sort of new-ish bed. After some brief negotiations we bargained our way down to the equivalent of $20, previously $50. This was not high season and there were about half-a-dozen other empty hotels begging for customers. High season is Christmas time when this small coastal town is over run with European paddle surfers escaping the cold and searching for world class waves. This time of year is pretty empty with only a few adventurous wind junkies that are in the know. 

The guest house was only a ten-minute walk from the beach but we rented a motorbike to help lug our gear around and explore the local area. Once our wheels were sorted we headed to the beach to get a feel of the layout of this coastal community. On the way there we were greeted with two signs that reminded me of the concerns I hand before leaving the safety of the first world; the first being written in the local language warning of the risk of tsunamis and the direction to run should the occasion arrive. The second wake up call being written in English obliviously directed at the few tourists that somehow manage to end up in this part of the world, instructing the women to cover up and not wear bikinis. These signs had us a little cautious. But as soon as we saw the trees moving from at least a good 15 knots of breeze and the salty smell of the ocean, the local signage was put to the back of our minds. 

Kidnie tucks into one of many fun ones.

Kidnie tucks into one of many fun ones.

The beach set up was pretty cool with the wind coming from the left over a beginner-friendly lagoon that worked in all tides. Anna absolutely loved this time in the Doldrums and was able to practice riding on a surfboard without straps for the first time. With our travels I normally drag her along to some pretty sketchy places where it is difficult for her to ride. So she was super stoked. Things were off to a good start. Happy wife happy life, ha. Out the back of the lagoon about 300 meters from the beach, a couple of wave riding set ups were to be had. Not perfect sideshore, a bit more side-on but definitely ripable especially when the wind pushed to 20 knots or above. The white sand beach surrounding the lagoon was a simple shack/restaurant to chill after a kite session serving a few basic local dishes and beverages. No beers though, Sharia law remember, not that we are big drinkers anyway. This spot is where we spent 70 per cent of our time. But I was in search of something that would get the adrenalin pumping, something that might allow me to get a couple tubes if lucky.

Every morning of the first week, after a dawn paddle surf we set off on our rented scooters to see what we could find. What we discovered was that the wind was located in only a small area with the lagoon being the epicentre. This kite spot in the Doldrums area was located at the end of a big-ish valley. The valley being four or five kilometerss wide where it meets the sea. Going away from the sea, the valley tapered down to one kilometer or so in width, like a giant funnel. It must have been creating some sort of venturi, accelerating the light trade wind away from the beach towards the base of the funnel. 

In our exploration we were able to find a few other kite-able spots. Not so beginner-friendly which was kind of my goal so that Anna would be forced to shoot photos (don’t tell her though). She is kind of over standing in the tropical sun and carrying a camera and tripod up and down low tide reefs. But with the promise of spoiling her once we get back to civilisation with multiple hours in the massage and beauty salon it was game on; let the shooting begin. 

The spot we chose first was a beach break located in front of a big cliff. This spot we thought would be a good warm up. The waves broke at all tides over the sand bottom and wasn’t far from the lagoon. In the afternoon we would be getting more adventurous and hitting the outer reef at lower tide in search of some nuggetty barrels. One of the things about kiting in places like this is the locals kind of freak out with a white man pumping up and then flying around the ocean behind a big kite. But it was a weekday and it wasn’t too much of an issue. I was also concerned they might steal our kite pump, thus being an end to the kiting trip if I couldn’t pump our kites. The break was super fun, a little sketchy the closer you got to the cliff. We left on a good note with all the equipment intact and locals didn’t even steal our pump. I guess they didn’t want to risk getting their hands cut off. 

One of the others spots we found on the other side of the lagoon was also a beach break with a few rocks and big bits of concrete on the shoreline. It was quite a trippy place to kite because at one end where I pumped up was a strange café where local couples have romantic dinner dates. The beach was decorated with colourful furniture and bright-coloured fabric flapping in the breeze. The café was closed the days we kited there so we didn’t have any issues with the locals spinning out about the white man with his kite. Also, as a bit of a juxtaposition was a huge cement factory and port about a kilometre-and-a-half away at the other end of the beach. Not really what you expect to see in a tropical paradise. I guess they needed it though after rebuilding from the tsunami. We didn’t really get any luck at this spot. The wind wasn’t so strong here, maybe due to its location on the edge of the valley and venturi not really so much. The surf it self was tricky because there was a strong current that swept down the beach the same direction as the wind. So every time you got on a wave you really had to test out the drift qualities of the kite.

My favorite spot was the outer reef break I had been eyeing since riding in front of the cliff. It took me quite a few days to get the courage to get out there because this place was pretty unforgiving. If you happened to drop your kite in a wave you could pretty much guarantee you weren’t going to see that kite again in one piece. I got my best session out there on an afternoon at mid tide going low, with wind on the lighter side having me just powered on my 11 meter. On the days when the wind was stronger the wave just got messy. After tip-toeing across the reef to a depth where I could ride, I was able to ride a few waves to get the feel of it before the tide dropped too much. The mid tide was great for turns and getting my confidence up. But I had come here to get barrels if possible and as the tide dropped, lips started to come through. I took a few beatings that session, but kept the kite flying so everything worked out okay. Got a few nice cover ups and barrel visions as well, so was able to leave a happy boy. On the couple of days the wind was not really kite-able I was able to go spearfishing and bring back to the guest house a few nice local fish to share with staff. It was a great trip and I wish I wasn’t so paranoid and came to this place a few years earlier.