If it wasn’t for surfing, where would Bali be today? Well, evidently, it would be in exactly the same place as it is now, but our question refers not so much to its geographical location as its cultural, social and financial status. Because while Balinese tourism today is sophisticated and largely centred around high-class hotels, restaurants and various activities and attractions, it was originally born of people coming here to do one thing and one thing only: surf.
The story of surfing in Bali begins in 1936 when a young American photographer by the name of Bob Koke arrived in Bali with his future wife, Louise Garret. The pair opened the Kuta Beach Hotel, a bare-bones establishment on Kuta beach (where else?) Koke was a surfer and brought a longboard with him. He is renowned as the first surfer in Bali, the first of millions. The Kokes left Bali in 1942 to escape the Japanese invasion and
it wasn’t until 30 or so years later that the rest of the world really cottoned on to the surfing possibilities here.
The 1960s saw a steady trickle of surfers arriving to explore the island and this trickle grew to a steady stream in the 1970s, its reputation enhanced by the patronage of famous surfers such as Gerry Lopez and also the filming of surfing documentaries such as Morning of the Earth. Kuta beach, with its ideal beginner waves and beach breaks, became the epicentre of Bali tourism, littered with budget hotels and streetside warungs – there were no five-star hotels, world-class restaurants or luxury spas. It was a place for people to come on the cheap and indulge their passion for catching waves.
Much has changed since then as tourism on the island has evolved at a rate it struggles to keep up with. But while Bali will never regain its initial basic charm, one thing will remain the same. The waves. No matter how many hotels are built, no matter how many restaurants, bars and shops appear, the sea will remain the same. Every wave different and yet everyone the same for time immemorial.
But while the waves themselves belong exclusively to nature, surfing has also come a long way from the days when Bob Koke had the ocean to himself on an old wooden longboard. Its popularity led to the tourism explosion here, but also led to the creation of a cottage industry, one which would come in very handy as Essential Bali decided to play its infinitesimally small part in Balinese surfing history by taking to the waves for the first time. Where in issue one I was challenged to try yoga, this time I was invited to embarrass myself all over again by rocking up to surf school and showing the world how not to do it.
And so to a very different Monday morning at the office, the office on this occasion being Legian Beach and the Ripcurl School of Surf. As anyone who read issue one of Essential Bali will know I’m 39 years old and the editorial team seems to revel in trying to teach this old dog new tricks, so how would this one go? There was only one way to find out.
The Beach Surfer Level 1 course consists of three lessons; each lesson is two hours if you do it as part of a group or one hour with private tuition. I opted for the latter. The equipment on offer is impressive – the school provides rash vests, helmets, sunblock, lockers and even boardshorts if you don’t have any of your own. You’re also insured up to $1,000,000.
More importantly they provide instructors and boards so once I’d signed my life away and got changed it was time to embark on my voyage of surfing discovery. I was introduced to my teacher for the first two lessons, Bola. It might sound like a dream job to be a surf instructor, and no- one’s intimating they have a particularly rubbish time, but I reckon if I was really good at something then watching someone being absolutely terrible at it for hours a day might get a bit boring after a while. But that wasn’t my issue.
My next introduction was to the board itself. I wish I could say I got really attached to this board but if I was that attached to it I wouldn’t have found myself parting company from it so often. The longboards used for teaching beginners have a soft topside, or deck, which is less painful if
it hits you and is also a bit easier to grip. A single fin on the underside aids balance and we quickly ran through the anatomy of the board. The names weren’t hard to remember – the front is the nose, the rear the tail and the sides are called rails. Lines demarcate the centre line and also roughly where your head should be positioned when lying on the board. Then there’s the leash, which attaches your ankle to the board. Simple.
Before we got to the fun stuff it was time for some safety lessons that included how to walk with a board so you don’t a) hit someone or b) fall over your own feet like a dufus. These safety lessons are even more important when you discuss what to do with the board in the water. Lose control of the board on land and you’re likely to drop it on your foot at worst. Lose control of it in the water and bad things can happen to you or other people. Tips on how to walk your board into the water with waves trying to smash it into your face are quite handy.
But while safety is evidently important and I accordingly listened intently and took it all in, it’s not very exciting. It’s like having to do a double science lesson before you get to go out and do PE. Or reading the instructions on a new toy before you get to play with it.
Thankfully it wasn’t long till we moved onto the fun stuff.
Bola showed me how to paddle lying on the board, although that would be of little import on day one. Then came the key part. Standing up. This entails a charmingly named position called ‘chicken wings’ whereby you place your arms close to your midriff with your elbows in the air and your hands flat on the board. Lifting your face, neck and upper body up and looking forward it’s then a quick jump to bring your feet to where your hands are. The jump should leave you standing sideways with your feet on the centreline for balance. Then it’s simply a case of leaning forward for speed, leaning backwards to slow down and crouching down for balance. What could be simpler?
Having been shown by the master it was my turn and I can tell you now that I nailed it. A few goes and I was jumping to my feet like a cat, hauling my 39-year-old body to
a standing position as if I had been surfing every day of my life. OK, I’m exaggerating. I was doing nothing of the sort. But on solid ground you’re not exactly pushing your physical limits so I found it easy enough.
The problem with surfing though is that, as with so many adventure sports, what you do on dry land has about as much relevance to what you’re about to do in a real situation as making a slice of toast has to cooking a gourmet meal with one hand tied behind your back. Standing up on dry land is quite easy, I’ve been doing it most of my life (and unless you’ve been indulging in too much of the local arak you too should find it second nature.) Doing it while various elements of nature are doing their damnedest to knock you off your feet while you’re standing on a board in the middle of the ocean however… well that’s a rather different narrative indeed.
All of which I was perfectly aware of and quite prepared for. Except you can’t really prepare yourself for that kind of thing.
Anyone who has seen the waves on this part of the beach will know that they tend to break and smash down creating a lot of white water and it was this turmoil that was going to provide the platform for my first attempts at surfing. Standing in the sea with the waves approaching I was reminded of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where a wall of white water chases Indy and his cohorts through the tunnel system. But I wasn’t in a position to run away.
We went out a few yards, turned the board round to face the shore and I hopped on. As Bola held the board from behind he gauged the wave and gave me a push, at which point, remembering all I had learned on shore, I jumped agilely to my feet, got my balance, extended to a standing position and rode the wave to the shore.
And if you believe that you’ll believe anything. Of course what really happened was that I did actually manage to get to my feet but only momentarily before wiping out as expected. But if at first you don’t succeed and all that… There really is nothing for it but to just keep heading out there and trying again. And falling off and trying again. The hardest part is that at first you’re never really sure what exactly it is that you’re doing wrong. You’re far too busy worrying about what the wave is doing and jumping to your feet on a non- stable platform isn’t easy even when you’re not concentrating on something else.
And then, and then… it happened. I was standing and managed to stay that way for more than a millisecond. Kelly Slater eat your heart out.
After many attempts, some more successful than others, and having swallowed the better part of the Indian Ocean, we called a break in proceedings. What I said about it not being a glamorous job is reinforced by the fact that much of the instructors’ time is spent pushing the board out to sea for the student thus ensuring they don’t get tired all the time (and ensuring there’s less danger of the board smashing someone else in the face). As we took a drink of water that didn’t have any salt in it, Bola reinforced some of the lessons and then we chatted about his home break and different boards. Oh to have been born here and learned this when I was young.
Then it was back in the water for my second lesson (which sadist had booked me in for consecutive lessons I never found out) and this time with more success. The successful runs began to outnumber the unsuccessful ones. At one point I got up three times on the bounce only to have to abort as my board carved an inexorable course towards someone else’s (not always my fault I should add). I was still having my fair share of complete failures as well, but progress was being made.
And then time was called on my second hour and we wound down with some more theory lessons on wind, tide, rips and more. It was time for a shower and to peruse the photos that had been taken – some of which made me look vaguely competent.
I had the afternoon and night off but when I awoke the following morning my ageing bones knew they’d been busy doing something they weren’t used to the previous day. Nevertheless I was anxious to find out what a new dawn and new lesson would bring and it’s fair to say the ‘learning curve’ that gives this feature its name was about to steepen dramatically.
Reporting back to Ripcurl HQ I met Tito, my instructor for the third and final lesson. His was a no-nonsense approach. After a quick warm up he appraised the boards and the beach, shrugged his shoulders and said “Let’s just get out there and do this.” ‘This’ was not the close inshore white water surfing of yesterday, but more like the real deal. We were paddling out to sea “to pick up a big wave.” I didn’t in all honesty think my efforts of the previous day had remotely qualified me for that, but in for a penny, in for 20,000 Rupiah.
Now I am here to tell you this. If you’ve ever looked at surfers and thought that the glory part looks amazing but all that hard work to paddle out to the waves looks like, well, hard work, you’re dead right. To get over the incoming wave you have to lift the nose. If it breaks just in front of you, then you have to do an eskimo roll so the wave washes over you as you’re underneath your capsized board. All this I gathered as I tried to battle my way beyond where the waves were breaking. Writing it is a lot easier than doing it.
Eventually we made it out to a less tumultuous part of the ocean and sat on our boards. Of everything we did I found this annoyingly hard as I always seemed to be on the edge of losing my balance. A further part of my crash course involved turning the board to face the shore rather than the oncoming waves. If yesterday had been a nice introduction where my instructor had taken a lot of the burden, this was a more stark reality of what was required and it took some time and various calamities before we got to the stage where I was ready to actually catch a wave.
And there was the sinking feeling that considering I was still an absolute amateur, all of that hard work would likely be wasted as soon as I tried to stand up – an art I had far from mastered yesterday. Still, Tito spotted a wave and told me to start paddling, slowly at first and then harder. And then a miracle happened. As the wave caught my board I heard the cry of stand up and I jumped to my feet, established
my balance and rode that beautiful wave all the way into the shore. And this time I’m serious. I really did. I don’t how or why I managed to do it, but I did. And it was beautiful. I was surfing. And for the interminably few seconds I stood on that board being propelled to shore by the power of the waves I got it. OK it wasn’t exactly Bells Beach and I hadn’t suddenly been transformed into a real surfer. But it was my wave, I caught it and it felt amazing.
There’s wonderful quote from an Australian singer-songwriter called Xavier Rudd who says “To surf, you’re riding a pulse of energy from Mother Nature… You might be the only person in the history of the universe that connects with that particular pulse of energy.” Riding that single wave as though I vaguely knew what I was doing, that resonated.
In truth that was as good as it got for the day. The rest of the lesson consisted of fighting against the waves that had for a fleeting moment given me so much pleasure. But I had my moment banked safely. And whether I ever catch another wave again, and I really hope I do, I will always have that one, the one that no-one else will ever have and that, surely, is what surfing is all about.