Trussed up in several millimetres of rubber, battling cold onshore winds for mushy one foot waves, it’s no wonder that we West Aussies’ dreams turn north to the balmy waters of Bali. In our fantasies, we’re stroking manfully into solid overhead barrels while photographers tread water in the channel, and half naked girls cheer and frolic on the distant beach.
The reality isn’t all that different, I guess, but there are things that sneak into reality that don’t quite make it into the fantasy. These include a powerfully hot and dangerous tropical sun, horridly sharp reefs, whimsical tides and swells, and of course crowds. Billions of boogie boarders who think lying on their guts is the height of skill. Jillions of smiling, incompetent Japanese who can’t turn and don’t understand “oi!”. Legions of leechlike longboarders who can take off on a swell before it even thinks about becoming a wave. And of course an army of able surfers who don’t mind dropping in and snaking you, and who think it’s clever to try and do a reo on your head.
The fact is, it sometimes seems impossible to surf without crowds in Bali, and much of that has to do with the tide.You have to wait until it’s come up enough and before it goes down too far to get it right, and at many breaks the window of opportunity for excellence is depressingly small. Not only that, everyone else knows when that window opens too. Because the first thing we all do when we arrive is troop down to Tubes and get a free tide chart.
And yet, if you think clearly, plan carefully and above all read the signs, you can surf alone in Bali. I know – I‘ve done it. Several months back, at the beginning of the ’04 season, I managed to surf Kuta Reef with just one other Aussie, and have a brilliant session.
I’d noticed that even when the swell was very small, it was coming up a bit after the tide peaked each afternoon. So on a day when it really didn’t look worth it, I went out there right on high tide, and found one lone surfer already there. We sat and yakked in the blazing afternoon sun – we were both wearing hats thank Christ – and nothing much happened for twenty minutes. And then like magic, waves started appearing. First waist-, then chest-, then head-high. A little fat to begin with, but getting steeper, growing sections and getting better with every set.
Me and the anonymous Aussie paddled and surfed our guts out for forty minutes, copping superb 200 metre rides reeling down the full length of the reef for a while there. And then it was over. Shut off like a tap. But we were both totally stoked and sat there waiting for the local boat guy to come and pick us up.
On this last trip, though, deep at the business end of the season, I knew there was no way my business partner and I would get the Reef by ourselves, and I was right. The traffic was just as heavy and confused as it is on Jalan Legian every morning at 9.00am. But the early season experience had taught me one thing – to take a punt.
We arrived from Singapore late on a Saturday afternoon to find that the surf had been average for a week, and the crowds well above average. Sunday morning we surfed Kuta Reef on the correct side of the tide with twenty-five assorted blow-ins like ourselves. That day we were lucky that when the waves were at their best, the majority of surfers out there were reasonably incompetent, so we didn’t have too much trouble getting our share. But within an hour, the dickheads almost all went in, and a crowd of chargers took their place. Time to exit stage right.
That afternoon, sitting on the porch of our bungalow, sipping the obligatory Bintang, we consulted the “bible” – ‘Indo Surf and Lingo’. Finding a place to surf without the close attention of thirty or more like-minded individuals was going to take some work.
Poring over the book, we found a paragraph or two about a spot where I’d surfed earlier in the year, which I loved, and decided to have a look there next day. I can’t reveal the name of this place, because next time I go there I don’t want to share it with a score of baliwaves.com readers, sorry.
Anyway, we duly rang Ketut, my regular driver, and got him to pick us up at nine the next morning. By the time we got to the spot, the tradewinds were making a bit of a mess of it (this is the strongest hint you’ll get to its location.) Next stop Canggu, where the tradewinds were also doing a fine impression of our own sea breeze, tearing the three foot faces up a bit. We figured the swell wouldn’t be getting through down at Kuta, even if the breeze would be much kinder, and besides, there was no-one else out, so we paddled out. In the hour we were out there we got some ok waves, and it seemed to pick up for a while. But it wasn’t what we’d come to Bali for. Later, over a jaffle and bottle of water, the bloke that ran the warung told us it had been much better in the morning – and crowded. Back to the bungalow and the Bintangs.
Next day we punted on the secret spot again, a bit earlier, and hit the jackpot. Three to four foot, or head high plus, and glass. The left hander looked better than the right, so we headed out there for some sweetly steep drops, followed by fairly short but wack-able walls. As the tide filled in, the drops got steeper and the walls got shorter, but we could see the right starting to work. So we paddled over there, and scored three to five foot of sheer bowling perfection. Gloriously alone.
Over the rest of the week we surfed Spot X several times, ranging from three to six foot plus. At size, you can’t surf the left, and the right is a savage beast that wraps like a mini-Teahupoo. For a couple of old bastards like us on our backhands, it was a solid test of courage, and one which my mate Troy passed much more bravely than I did. But I took a couple of hellish poundings and I’m still here. And there’s one wave, a growling, howling, hollow mother that covered up but didn’t catch me – a stand-up backhand tube – that I will never forget. There were plenty of other, smaller waves too, that reignited my love affair with the heavyfooted backhand bottom turn and gave me renewed confidence in my backhand cutty. And equally memorable were the times we spent lying in the shade having not one but three of the local Balinese ladies each massage us to a veritable pulp after an extended session. We were the only customers they’d seen for ages, and we felt it only right to support the local economy, so we stopped for a massage, bought a beer and paid them to carry our boards every day we went there, and came away with the inevitable sarong or three.
All in all, the week we spent there was proof that Bali is still paradise on earth. If you’re adventurous, persistent, friendly and generous, the gods that deal out the good and bad magic will ensure you get your share of the good. And you’ll come home grinning from ear to ear.