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Heading Towards Ground Zero - A Field Report from the Indies Trader II Wednesday 16 February 2005
Simeulue Island, Aceh province, Indonesia

Our team flew into Sinabang, the capital of Simeulue Island, on Sunday after a series of delayed flights and even one aborted takeoff as we were hurtling full speed down the tarmac at Medan Airport at 6.30am. There's nothing like flying SMAC Airlines for an early morning rush. It sure beats coffee to get your constitution fired up.

But we had a seasoned team of cool, calm and collected travelers - and all handled the ups, downs and sideways with ease. Surfers Tom Carroll, Kate Skarratt and Dave Rastovich, orthopaedic surgeon Dr Sohrab Gollogly, Reef Check marine biologist Dr Craig Shuman, plus a film crew from Fuel TV, Justin Krumb and Cyrus Sutton. Three Aussie surfers and all the rest American. We quickly bonded for our mission: To document the work of SurfAid International here at Simeulue, the closest island to the epicentre of the 26 December earthquake.

Tom once said the secret to his two world titles was being a world champion traveler, as well as the obvious surfing act. We were more amused than anything by the SMAC front wheel wobble on takeoff. And as we did a loop of the airport back to the apron, out came the small home toolbox, and the crew sorted the nose strut like you'd change a flat tyre on your car. They were obviously jacks of all trades and soon we were Singabang-bound, all with our own thoughts of what we were going to confront on this island just north of Nias that was smashed first by the earthquake, and then the tsunami. SurfAid field manager Jason Brown met us at Singabang Airport, along with fellow Australian Brian "Willy" Williams, who has a surf camp here. I'd heard a lot about Willy in the past few weeks - he was logistics and information man on the ground at Simeulue for a series of relief operations.

He stood back very quietly in the background in front of the terminal building. I told him he was famous and he offered a self-deprecating laugh of surprise - "Hey, not me." But Willy is one of many special humans in this operation who have offered what they can. In his case, the difference is he's a local and can get things happening. He's also a boat skipper and knows his way around. An invaluable part of the team.

A short drive and we were checking out the damage to Willy's two-storey house - a collapsed verandah that was being rebuilt and a holed speedboat parked on the front lawn. The tsunami had gone right through the ground floor of Willy's house and his boat did a few laps of the yard before the boys could tie it to a tree.

Exposed Reef
The reef on Simeulue island has risen one to two metres in the north, while it has dropped a metre in the south. The Indies Trader II and the Barrenjoey sit offshore of Jaya Baru beach, where huge boulders of coral were deposited by the tsunami.

Across the bay, Ugang Kakat, we could see other boats pushed up into the trees, with the mountains rising behind, and the telltale brown scarring of the landscape from the tsunami, as well as a landslide from the earthquake on a steep ridge. We tried to work out the size of the wave - maybe coconut tree high but the scale of the bay dwarfed the damage. And at this southern part of the island, the land had sunk, up to one metre. So the high tides now came up the front yards.

Legend of 1907 Earthquake Saves Lives
As Jason Brown explained in his briefing, Simeulue only lost seven lives on the island because it's only one kilometre at most to higher ground and people could run to safety. Due to a 1907 earthquake, the folklore had been handed down from generation to generation - when the ground starts shaking, head for the hills because a tsunami will follow. But many of the island's children were lost as they were going to school at the mainland capital of Banda Aceh, which was demolished by a 25-metre, yes twenty-five metre, wave as it took the full impact of the tsunami.

The Barrenjoey was moored in the bay and skipper Oliver Langley soon turned up in the "Torana", the yellow fibreglass tender, to take us onboard for lunch and a briefing from SurfAid's Jason Brown. SurfAid had been on the ground here for three weeks on board the Indies Trader II and the Santa Lucia and they've been delivering emergency food supplies and running medical clinics - immunizing against disease, educating the people about the correct usage of mosquito nets and proper hygiene. The Santa Lucia had just headed back to its hometown port of Padang, West Sumatra, and the plan was to meet up with the Indies Trader II and the SurfAid medical team the next day.

After lunch, we checked out a two-foot pointbreak to wash the travel grime away. Kate Skarratt was first in, and soon winding snaps down the point. We all either surfed or bodysurfed and it felt good to be in the ocean. That night we anchored back in the bay off Willy's place and he told us stories over a few Bintangs. "The Indonesian military closed the island to tourists a week ago, and only aid workers are allowed in," he said. We felt privileged. The purpose of our trip is for Fuel TV to produce a one-hour documentary which will show people the work of SurfAid here in the islands off Aceh and Sumatra, and also be used to stimulate more fundraising for ongoing medical relief work.

The following day, Monday, we headed 35 nautical miles north-west along the western coast of Simeulue to Ugang Usuy, where we would meet up with the Indies Trader II, skippered by former Queensland champion surfer, Tony "Doris" Eltherington.

Catching Up With Ollie Our skipper, Oliver Langley, had just done a three-day steam from Padang to meet us and it was good to catch up and have a yarn on the voyage. Our surgeon, Dr Sohrab Gollogly, had already done a month at Nias with Ollie and describes him as SurfAid's equivalent of man of the match, or MVP (Most Valuable Player). "We'd follow Ollie anywhere," Sohrab declared. The boat skippers are the backbone of this whole operation - they know the waters, they know how to access beaches through the shorebreak, and they're men of practicalities and pure commonsense. Salt of the earth, that's for sure.

The coast of Simeulue is different to the Mentawaiis to the south. It's more mountainous and varied, with numerous clove plantations in neat rows on the hillsides. Occasionally we saw a fresh landslide from the earthquake.

There was another salt on the blower as we approached a bay sheltering "The Two" - our mate Doris came out to meet us in the tinboat and hailed us on the radio. "Welcome Oliver and all. Good to see youse," he growled throatily in his slow, deliberate manner. "The crew is all in at a clinic at the village of Jaya Baru and they want you to meet them there as it's a short one and will finish about 2pm and there's not another one until tomorrow." "Roger that, Doris."

Doris ferried us all in the tinboat to the shoreline and we entered a small, new coral bay. Before the earthquake lifted the northern part of Simeulue, this had all been underwater. It had now lifted one to two metres. The shoreline was scoured, with coconut trees uprooted or stripped of all vegetation. We stepped ashore in awe - there was a huge mushroom coral head that had been thrown onto the beach like a marble and coral clumps were scattered everywhere.

Everyone went into their own world, trying to imagine what had happened - how could people survive this? It was a one-kilometre walk into the village and Doris told Dr Sohrab and I what he had been experiencing for the past few weeks. He was totally humbled. "We have bugger-all issues in our lives compared to what these people have just gone through," Doris said. "Houses, mosques, schools - either washed away or totally collapsed from the earthquake like they were decks of cards." We crossed the makeshift planks of what had been a solid wooden bridge. "Look at the land on this side of the track," he pointed out. "It's totally dropped away, maybe by five feet."

The Village
We soon came to an intersection in the village and the whole corner was gone - a mass of broken rubble of concrete and bricks. Makeshift huts had already been erected, exactly 50 days, seven weeks, after the Indian Ocean was turned upside down. New planks were stacked in a vacant lot.

Village Rubble
86 homes were destroyed in the village of Jaya Baru and the villagers are now constructing makeshift homes, mainly from wood.

Jaya Baru has 102 families, with a total population of 486 people. They lived in 86 houses but the earthquake made 46 of these uninhabitable. The tsunami came 300 metres onto their land but only destroyed one semi-permanent house and a copra storehouse.

After the earthquake, the whole village moved into two camps, both at the foot of Ganting mountain and made shelters out of tents, plastic and palm fronds. They were worried about aftershocks and tsunamis but in the past month they have gradually moved back to their original residential sites and are re-building mainly out of wood.

The villagers are farmers and grow mainly rice and sago for themselves, plus secondary crops of corn, cassava, cloves and copra. They also have about 40 head of buffalo which they sell in the main town of Sinabang when they're fully grown.

Three fishermen live in the village. Of 15 canoes before the tsunami, they now only have two. Most of the canoes were used to collect copra from the nearby island of Linggam.

We walked quietly through the village, acknowledging locals with "Selamat sian (good afternoon) and "Apa kabar? - (how are you?) Many answered: "Baik, baik (good, good)" while others stood silently with a vague expression.

Many were sitting on their porches, or inside the doorway of their hastily erected shacks, and most smiled broadly, nodding their heads, sometimes touching their hands to their hearts, a sign of respect. It was another three kilometres up the broad dirt road towards the clinic and we most have looked a sight as we sweated profusely in the tropical heat.

Some of the village men were on roofs, hammering nails and diligently trying to put their lives back together. The resilience of these people is extraordinary and their inner strength can be overwhelming. As Kate Skarratt put it: "They're teaching us about life." The ability to deal with adversity and move on.

We soon came across splits in the road caused by the earthquake. Some cracks were two feet across and four to five feet deep. One was 60 metres long, snaking each side of a bridge that was somehow still standing. We'd never seen anything like it. I was told the earthquake lasted for 15 minutes and no one could stand up during it. Tom Carroll started counting to 15 seconds: "Imagine if an earthquake went for 15 seconds - one, two, three ..." he pondered. "Fifteen minutes!!!?? You'd think the world was ending." And then the tsunami roared through.

Road Crack
The earthquake lasted for 15 minutes and severely damaged the land. Kate Skarratt walks past a crack in the road leading towards the SurfAid medical clinic.

We reached the clinic and Dr Ben Gordon and the SurfAid team had just finished vaccinating the children, 134 in all, and they distributed 105 family-sized mosquito nets that day, many off our boat. Now people with serious ailments were lining up in the small room as the villagers crowded around the doorways and open windows. "I'm the bouncer - crowd control," said Doris, as he sorted out the people who needed help most. Another advantage of the boat captains - they all speak fluent Indonesian. Doris ran a firm ship, even on shore, as he hunted down the patients around the village who looked like they needed immediate attention, and directed them to the waiting bench. The heat in the small room was stifling and Doris soon cleared the room of smokers and onlookers. All obeyed his croaky orders as he gently ushered them to the door. A hard man with a soft interior, "Like a coconut," as he puts it.

Abraham Isman Nagora
Dr Sohrab examined a 22-year-old man who Ben had treated the day before.

Abraham Isman Nagora
Dr Sohrab Gollogly (right) and Dr Ben Gordon perform emergency surgery on Abraham on the back deck of the Barrenjoey

Abraham Isman Nagora jabbed a fishhook into the fourth finger on his right hand and it was seriously infected. The tip was black - it was gangrenous through to the bone and it was spreading. Dr Sohrab explained through interpreter Kris Stokes that if the finger wasn't removed, he could lose his hand, and possibly, if not treated at all, his life.

The guy was fairly cheery when he first sat down, he seemed blasé about the state of his finger, but as Kris softly delivered this news in Indonesian, his face turned ashen. Abraham was just stunned and looked around the room blankly. He told Kris he needed time to think and then walked across the road to talk to some of the other villagers on a verandah. Kris followed and shared a cigarette with him, the Indonesian way of sharing space. She knew the consequences of him not having the operation but he had to make up his own mind. Abraham kept glancing across at the clinic room.

We left about an hour later, and as we were walking back to the boats, Kris and Abraham came by on the back of motorbikes. He had agreed to come out to the Barrenjoey, where Dr Sohrab would perform the operation, but he still hadn't agreed to losing his finger. He wanted the doc to do some exploratory surgery. It was a step forward as, at first, he was resisting.

Abraham hopped into the "Torana", the yellow boat, and boarded the 'Joey, accompanied by an elder of the village. Dr Sohrab and Kris again, patiently, explained the consequences of no operation. He expressed his fears: "I'd look funny with one finger missing." Sohrab explained that he had already lost the top of his finger, it was dead, and that he would only take the bad bit, which could mean only down to the first joint. He didn't say he may have to go to the second joint; it all depended how the bone looked.

Translator Kris Stokes comforts Abraham during the operation.

The older man said to Abraham: "If these medical experts recommend you have the operation, I think you should." And to everyone's relief, Abraham agreed.

After a 45-minute operation, performed by Dr Sohrab assisted by Dr Ben, Abraham was smiling broadly, and proudly showing everyone his souvenir - the top of his finger down to the first joint. He wanted to keep it to bury on the land. But he got a great laugh when Dr Sohrab and Captain Oliver said they wanted to keep it to use as bait for fishing.

As he left on yellow boat, Abraham stood up, held his bandaged arm high and gave us a wonderful smile of thanks. Dr Sohrab went and cracked a Bintang.

It was his second operation on the back deck of the Barrenjoey and he was happy his orthopaedic skills were being utilized.

TO BE CONTINUED: Yesterday we went to Ground Zero, 30 nautical miles further north at Alafan, which took the full brunt of the tsunami. It's one of the closest points to the earthquake epicentre. Using Tom Carroll as a measuring stick we determined the height of the tsunami. It was 30 feet and came from only 40 kilometres offshore, before smashing into the north-western corner of Simeulue, as well as reverberating around the Indian Ocean.

As a storm closes in, the Indies Trader II is leaving the field after being at Simeulue for three weeks conducting SurfAid clinics. Congratulations to all on board for an epic job. This means we won't have Internet access, but further stories will be filed as soon as possible.

If you can find a spare dollar, throw it towards SurfAid. They're doing a brilliant job and appreciate everyone's generosity and goodwill.

- Kirk Willcox