THE ROAD TO BILOU
By Reggae Elliss
For many of us, when we’re on a surf trip to an island resort or on a boat charter, the idea of owning and operating the resort or skippering the boat is appealing. A simple life of surfing, fishing and swimming in azure tropical waters and watching sunsets under palm trees sounds pretty good.
Of course, the reality of running a resort or charter boat is very different. Just the logistics of catering is hard enough, but there’s also the reality of dealing with guests, meeting their expectations, running staff, unpredictable weather and the isolation from family of friends.
But, when that all gets to you, the waves are there to soothe your worried mind.
For most people, the dream remains just a dream. But thankfully there are some people who are brave and adventurous enough to step outside society’s norm, break away from family or peer expectations and go for it. People like South African couple Gideon and Chantal Malherbe, owners (and builders) of the Bilou Beach Villas on Awera Island in the Mentawais.
While sailing around the Mentawais in their 39-foot boat Reef Knot, the Malherbes found the site in 2014 and began building in 2015. The resort was finished at the end of 2016, opening for the 2017 season.
“We built the boutique resort exactly how we would have liked things to be from a surfer/family/small group point of view,” says Chantal. “It’s a different formula but I can honestly say our guests have absolutely loved it.”
They now live at the resort with their two sons, Josh, aged 13 and Indie, aged 10. It sounds and looks like an idyllic existence and as they enter their second season the family is loving it. Still, like all stories, the road to where they are now took a lot of turns and their story is an interesting one.
For Chantal, Gideon and their boys, Josh, aged 13 and Indie, aged 10, the Bilou Beach Villas are the latest stage of an adventurous life that started for Gideon and Chantal in 1998 when they spent a year building a boat in Sulawesi. The boat was named the Indies Explorer, an apt name as they spent 18 months exploring Indonesian waters and running surf charters for a number of years.
When their children were born they spent a few years back in South Africa before deciding to buy another boat and head to the Pacific. This is a big call with a four-year-old and another kid only three months old, but it was their sense of adventure overcame any reservations. That voyage lasted two years, before another stint in South Africa where the boys started their education. However, it wasn’t long before the need to head off again took hold, and they bought another boat and headed to back to Indonesia, finally swapping boat life for a more permanent family home at the resort.
It sounds and looks like an idyllic existence and as they enter their second season the family is loving it. Still, like all stories, the road to where they are now took a lot of turns and as you’ll see in this interview with Chantal, their story is an interesting one.
You and Gideon grew up in Cape Town. What was that like – were you both surfers?
Gideon went to an Afrikaans school in Cape Town. Gideon would hitchhike or catch the train to Muizemburg and Glen Beach in his teens to go surfing. I went to a all girls’ school. There were basically no girls surfing in Cape Town, the water was a cold 9°C and the waves heavy. However, I loved the ocean, my father was a racing yachtsman and my sister and I grew up racing dinghies (Optimsit, lasers etc). I was a tennis player, at 18 with my SA ranking I was recruited to the USA on a sports scholarship but had to live away from the ocean. I nearly died. I had never been away from the ocean. My mother was in love with Clifton and Camps Bay beaches in Cape Town. That’s where you would find us as kids every day of the week in summer. My tennis started as beach bats on the beach.
You both have ‘Career-Oriented” degrees – law and finance. In 1998 you threw that in and went to Sulawesi to build a boat. What lead to that decision?
Gideon finished his articles at a law firm and practised for a bit. But he had the surf-exploration fever. He headed to the Philippines and then the Mentawai (on a fishing boat in ’94-’95). He went back and forth between stints as a law locum and long extended surf trips. I met him through friends in South Africa in 1998. At the time he was frustrated with getting around Indo on buses, taxis and ferries. He wanted his own mode of transport, so he put an ad in Zigzag, another surf mag and a travel magazine. The ad said something like, “Have you got the balls…. build an exploration boat and explore Indo to the Chagos? Investors $12500: build a boat and cruise for two years. Then sink or sell.” We ended up with one New Zealander, and five South Africans, including the two of us.
You named the boat the Indies Explorer, and that is exactly what you did. Did you have any particular area of Indonesia you wanted to check out?
We checked out southwest Java and then headed to Sumatra. We were one of the first boats to go in and out of all the bays in South Sumatra and probably one of the first few to check out Simuelue extensively. After a year and a half of exploration, the news started getting out that we were surfing some unnamed waves. American photographer John Callahan put a five-week trip together with Jamie O’Brien and Aamion Goodwin etc. We helped out Timmy Turner and his crew from "near starvation and infection 🙃". They were camping at Panaitan. They joined us too.
You were up there for six years doing surf charters and during that time your two sons were born. Did you and Gideon head back to SA for the births both times? How long did you stay?
Yes, we returned to South Africa in 2004 and lived in Hermanus, about an hour from Cape Town until early 2008. We had a hard time getting back to “normal life” and were thinking about another boat. In February 2008 we bought the SY Shimmi in Miami and planned a voyage across the Pacific (Indie was 4 months and Josh 3yrs) . The goal was to check out the land and the surf on the Pacific side of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and the Pacific Islands. We anchored at Teahupoo for nearly 6 weeks. The reef passes around there were remarkable and probably the highlight of our crossing . We finally finished in Brisbane two years later. Indie was 2yrs and Josh 5yrs.
Wow, a two-year adventure. That is a big call, selling up in South Africa and buying an ocean-going catamaran. What was that like with two really young kids?
For the kids – they cruised. They loved always having the stable floating home as opposed to travelling with the ever-changing hotel/rental house etc. However, for us it was different. Gideon joked about becoming a de-motivation speaker on “Why not to sell up and sail”. It’s NOT living the dream! But we knew that 10 times over from the Indies Explorer days and we still did it. It was crazy hardcore. Our longest passage was 27 days from the Galapagos to the Marquesas and on a yacht, you are never relaxed. Always fixing stuff, always on your toes. We had lots of rough weather across the Pacific, days of rough seas. We left Bora Bora for Fiji and the sea was so bad, Gideon eased off, so the yacht didn’t feel like it wasn’t going to smash itself to pieces. Then we checked the charts. Turns out we were off course and heading to Samoa. Well, Samoa it is then.
After that voyage you went back to South Africa in 2010 and stayed for five years. The boys started school and you guys settled into normal life. What were you doing there?
When we went back to South Africa Josh was five and Indie two-and-a-half and Josh started school. Gideon went into building one to two high-end spec homes a year and then selling them. I started a surf travel company called All Aboard Travel. Luckily, we met a few surfer couples and we all had kids all the same age. We did a lot of surf trips together to J Bay, Indo, the Transkei and Mozambique.
How hard was it to adjust back to normal life when you went back to SA? Had it changed much in the years you were gone?
It hadn’t changed a lot. But after growing up in Cape Town and sort of knowing the whole rhythm of the city and always bumping into people you know, living in Hermanus was difficult for us.
Then you end up selling up again, buying a boat and heading back to Indo. Why? The lure of the islands or did you feel a need to get out of SA?
No, we never felt the need to run away from SA. It is an unbelievable country and will always be home. But the lure of the islands, the surf, the quality life – that’s a whole another thing. But it came at a time when I was burnt out. My travel company was doing well, but with work it was supposed to be a half day thing. It became a 24/7 thing with phone calls in the middle of the night. We’d have clients in remote locations and there’d be an injured surfer. Evacuation required. We were involved in the Brett Archibald rescue. It had been a tough couple months and I wasn’t happy with the amount of quality time I had with my sons. So I gave my 50% share of All Abroad Travel to my partner.
Gideon had just sold a spec house. I was trying to get tired children to do homework at the end of the day (this has got to be the biggest error of mankind...homework). My dad was spending the week with us. I made a joke and told them to browse the net and find us a bloody yacht by the morning. Gideon and my dad were up until 1am and in the morning, they had options to present it… another sell up and sail.
The kids were young – how did that go down with family and friends? Did people have a hard time understanding your move?
Family have always been extremely supportive and they’ve all joined us along the way. My dad passed away recently, but he did multiple Indies Explorer trips with us, did two months on the Shimmi and six weeks on Reef Knot. Some of our best mates joined us too.
What about the boys. How did they feel about leaving home, friends etc. and heading off into the jungle with mum and dad?
The boys were kind of used to it. We had done the two years across the Pacific and during the four years we were back in South Africa we were taking a term off each year at school, home schooling and doing the three-month Indo / Mozambique thing. Fortunately, my sons are ocean addicts.
By this time, they had surfer mates in places like J-Bay, Seals, Transkei, Mozambique, Indo. Unfortunately, we now live in a different time with the Internet and exposure to inappropriate things, social media, X-box and bullying. Kind of made it easier to justify what we were doing,
You ended up buying land near Telescopes – what made you choose that spot?
Close proximity to Tua Pejat village to access the fast ferry and fresh supplies. High speed internet coverage from the Telkomsel tower. There is a beautiful calm beach to land the boats, so it is easy to come and go which is super important. Then there are the waves, the largest variety of waves in close proximity to us. Plus, it is very family friendly – making it easy for us all to live here as well as our guests that come and go.
It must have been hard building the resort from scratch. Were there many times when you thought, “What am I doing here?”
Yes! Honestly, we used to look at each other and think, “Why, oh why are we putting ourselves through this again?” We basically spend every last cent on some crazy idea – and then act all confident in front of your kids. I don’t think we believed it would work until our first guest arrived.
What we’re you trying to achieve with the resort?
We built the place with everything in mind that we needed as a travelling surfing family. Private villa with kitchen that is fully stocked on arrival and a private boat and driver for each villa. A super chilled beach bar for set dinners in the evenings. Small Bilou deli with all the imported items you can’t get in the village. The whole thing works on the honesty system. Mark off your deli items, beer etc. and pay up at the end.
We are surfers and we don’t want to crowd out the surf. We have quite a bit of land but only four villas. The exclusivity and feeling like the whole place is yours is paramount to what we sell. Sometimes we are fully booked with only four surfers on the island. Our design was inspired by traditional building methods using local craftsman. We are the only Solar Resort in the Mentawais.
You obviously home school the boys. How hard is that? Do you have a specific long-distance curriculum to follow?
We use all printed set curriculum books. The books are well laid out and the kids can get on with their work quite easily. They call me if they need help with something difficult. They do a lot of extra reading outside of the curriculum. We’ve brought books on Art History, all the classics like Tom Sawyer, Catcher in the Rye, etc. They each have their own Kindles. All that is important is that kids love reading and keep up with their maths and science.
A lot of people talk about chasing the dream, doing what you’ve done, but few end up doing it. How hard was it for you two to just go and do it?
It’s hard. You keep having to start over and re-invent yourself. I think we’ve gone to scratch with money three times, which isn’t good when you have kids. But when we are in the act of the chase we both feel like we home. It’s been a long hard road to get here. There is no short cut. But finally, we have something that can work long-term and suites us all. We are Home!
I can imagine some of the guests must have a bit of envy when they’re about to leave and head back to work, cities, noise, traffic, pollution, etc.
Kids who come to Bilou must think your boys have the best life in the world?
Yes. The kids get told all the time… You’re so lucky. Indie and Josh have their own classic come backs about “living the dream.”
Do ever think they may be missing out on something?
The kids can speak for themselves. They both have a great quirky sense of humour. We’ve just been in South Africa for three months and all got our fixes.
But we do have a lot of families at the resort and the kids waste no time and all slot in straight away. By the end of the first day my youngest has taken the mom and the younger kid and driver/guide to a mellow wave. And my oldest has taken the dad and older kid in another boat with one of our other guides/drivers to some barrelling four-foot wave. We’re lucky, most of our guests seem to be awesome parents with awesome kids. And we have repeat guests this year. It’s about quality not quantity.