Getting there is half the fun, right.
by Ben Simons
It was mid year back in 2002. The days were getting steadily shorter. The mornings becoming both fresh and frigid. Booties were a must for the dawny surfs along the coastline at home. Winter was settling in. My uneasy relationship with the cold continued. The extra size and push in the swell would always be appreciated. The ice cream headaches while in the water and the frozen numbness afterwards was less welcome.
But there was an upside to the howling wind and the bleak arctic conditions. The very same storms would be sending swell north to Indonesia. After an amazing boat trip to Scar reef the previous year there were plans to return. Myself and long time surf buddy Des had been making preparations. In our case travel readiness was more of an art than a science. Some gear tossed into a board bag along with a few loose items of clothing was about as far as it went. This all happened some time back. Prior to the surf travel industry becoming the well oiled machine that it is today. We had some vague maps scrawled on a loose sheet of paper. We knew there was a large low pressure system grinding slowly across the Southern Indian Ocean. We had enough to make a start.
The flight to Bali followed a familiar pattern. The friendly Garuda Indonesia flight attendants served our first round of Bintangs with a generous smile. The chat between Des and myself remained light and relaxed. More Bintangs were requested. Our discussion became more animated. Occasional coarse language was used. More Bintangs were requested. The Garuda staff complied but served them with an air of disapproval. Des discovered some attractive women sitting two rows back. He obstructed the aisle while trying to talk to them and was asked repeatedly to take his seat. More Bintangs were requested. We were told firmly that no further alcohol would be served. Surrounding passengers appeared somewhat relieved. We felt persecuted. A mood of sullen outrage settled in. Des protested loudly that the liquor ban was Un-Australian. Luckily the flight soon began its descent into Denpasar.
We stepped off the plane into the shock of heat and humidity. A dull headache was soon thudding at my temples. Drinking during the flight was probably not the best idea. The organised chaos of Indonesian immigration was a challenge, along with the less organised chaos of the airport arrival pickup area. We eventually found our driver and local friend Ketut. He greeted us with a beaming smile. The board bags were quickly loaded and we were on our way. The first stop was the nearest IndoMart for more beers. The friendly cashier was happy to serve us despite our good natured inebriation. Our previous run in with the Garuda fun police was quickly forgotten.
We checked into our modest accommodation on Poppies 1 and dumped our bags. Our information regarding the journey ahead was fairly limited. Multiple ferry crossings would be required. We would also need to travel across Lombok then head south to Jelenga Bay when we arrived on Sumbawa. It was urgent that we plan and organise each leg of the trip so we could understand what was ahead of us. We decided to grab some more beers then discuss it further.
Sometime later I was sitting unsteadily on a bar stool. The evening had not gone to plan. We managed to visit a travel agent and had organised 5am pickup for the morning ferry. Aside from that we remained hopelessly unprepared. I sighed deeply and conceded switching from the Bintangs to the Jungle Juice had been a bad idea. I suggested going back to the hotel for some sleep. Des looked typically unconcerned and made some vague mention of heading back when we finished our drinks. I returned from the toilet a few minutes later to find him holding court at the bar. He appeared to have made several life long friends during my short trip to the gents. There was a fresh round of jam jars lined up. I took a quiet moment and conceded that “leaving when we finished our drinks” can mean different things to different people. With a certain level of resignation I joined the crowd at the bar.
I have little recollection of returning to the hotel but was awakened in the early hours by movement in our room. I paused briefly. The Balinese moonlight was shining through the trees outside and onto the window sill. The moon beams were pale silver and lovely to look upon. I turned my head to examine the source of the commotion. Across the room Des was in the process of turning his mattress. His staggering hairy nakedness was a confronting sight so early in the morning. With some trepidation I asked what the hell he was doing. His response was a slurred “I think I’ve pissed the bed”. I sighed quietly, turned away and continued to gaze at the soft Balinese moonlight.
The alarm squawked to life soon after. There was a scrambled rush to gather our thoughts and quickly pack bags. We stumbled out onto the streets of Kuta and set out towards the taxi pick up. The rich aromas of dog turd and blocked drains seemed to linger around every corner. I had vomited twice before we were a hundred metres down the road.
We loaded the taxi and settled into our seats with only crippling hangovers for company. Ten minutes out we were pulled over by local law enforcement. An officer approached the car. He was wearing the closest fitting police uniform I think I had ever seen. What is it about Indonesian police and the tight kits ? Allegedly we were not wearing seatbelts. I checked the back seat. There appeared to be none available. We protested our innocence but officer tight pants was having none of it. A few tense minutes passed punctuated by claim and counterclaim. Eventually we agreed to pay an “on the spot fine”. The funds were handed over and nonchalantly pocketed by our now friendly and diligent keeper of the peace. We resumed our journey and after some further driving arrived at the ferry terminal.
We waited with the car while the driver organised our tickets to Lombok. Des went to buy more bottled water. We were both still suffering from parched throats and pounding heads. Our driver returned and before we had time to protest a group of locals had shouldered our board bags. We trailed behind while they carried them onto the waiting ferry. I offered a tip once everything was loaded. Our smiling luggage porters quickly became more business like. Apparently our tip was insufficient. Being hungover did nothing for our haggling skills. No doubt the porters were soon dining on the finest Nasi Goreng available. The voyage to Lombok took five hours. We spent much of the journey sleeping off the previous evening.
The ferry arrived just after lunch. We required transport across Lombok to catch another ferry to Sumbawa. We had only a poorly drawn map and the names of some port locations. Neither of us could speak the local language. Our grasp of english was also questionable depending on how much we had been drinking. There were a number of middle aged Indonesian men offering transport once we disembarked. They were casting speculative glances at our boardbags. The prices quoted seemed astronomical. Their collective mood darkened when we mentioned this. We requested transport to the nearest town to find other options. Then were told shortly that no transport was available there. What seemed like a more reasonable price was eventually proposed. We accepted graciously keen to be on our way. Five minutes later we drove through the port town. I couldn’t help but notice several available taxis standing at the ready.
The ride across Lombok was fairly standard. Our driver was going as fast as possible while smoking and drinking tea. We suggested he slow down. He complied and drove responsibly for the best part of five minutes. Overtaking was mainly attempted on blind corners. Families on motorbikes whizzed by. Often transporting livestock or large bags of agricultural products. There were some questioning glances at the board bags strapped to the roof. Otherwise the people of Lombok went about their business.
We arrived at the ferry terminal later that evening. Our driver suddenly became concerned for our welfare. “There are no buses running late at night” he lamented. “There are no hotels near the port in Sumbawa” he warned. We were immediately suspicious. Previous statements of this nature had proved incorrect. Also, having made it this far, our status as veteran surf travellers had been confirmed. We chatted briefly and decided to press on to Sumbawa. We were on a roll. There was swell coming, we had to get to Scar Reef.
The ferry from Lombok to Sumbawa took a few hours. We met some Dutch travellers during the voyage. They were scientists on their way to study the local flora. They also appeared concerned that we had no transport or accommodation organised. One of them warned that the local population could be hostile to foreign tourists. Apparently there had been recent uprisings against Western owned mining interests on the island. I quietly assured him that we were veteran surf travellers and had the situation firmly in hand.
The ferry docked on Sumbawa. It was almost 2am and we had been on the road for over twenty hours. As we walked off the ferry we were immediately struck by the lack of infrastructure. It was like stepping back in time. The ferry traffic quickly departed and we were left clutching our backpacks and weighed down by our board bags. There were two street vendors with their carts and a group of local people. They all stood there staring at us.
There was a concrete building nearby. We sat in the dirt with our backs to the wall. The local people continued to stare in our direction. Some time passed. More locals turned up on motorbikes. They stopped and also glared in our direction. An uneasy tension hung in the air. I recalled the warnings from the Dutch travellers and was starting to get worried. I imagined an angry mob marching down the street carrying pitchforks and banners with anti western slogans. I had travelled with Des a lot over the years. He had a natural ability to stay calm in difficult situations. I assured myself that he would have a handle on our current predicament. I glanced over, he looked more scared than I was.
We had an urgent discussion. Jelenga bay was a few hours down the coast and we knew there were buses going in that direction. But clearly none would be coming past until morning. We would need to sit in the dirt until then. Des stated that someone needed to stay awake to keep an eye on the unfolding situation, I agreed.
Eventually one of the local people approached us. He was wearing a discolored parachute jacket backwards and was grinning like a lunatic. Many of his teeth were missing and there was a strange fervor dancing behind his eyes. I realised later that he was probably just trying to be friendly. But in that moment his demeanor brought on the beginnings of panic. There was a halting conversation, much of it probably misunderstood. Mr Parachute jacket then disappeared for a few minutes, returning with someone who could speak english. Our new contact had a less alarming appearance. We showed him the map and where we needed to go. He told us to wait. He returned with the local police officer who didn’t look particularly trustworthy. It was made clear that he could drive us to Jelenga bay. The proposed a price seemed way to high. Desperate to avoid a night in the dirt, we accepted immediately.
Our gear was loaded and we strapped the boards to the top of the police truck. Several of the locals hanging around decided to come along for the ride. This was concerning. I still harboured suspicions of being kidnapped. Once we were underway it appeared they were content to poke fun at us in the local dialect. An hour into the journey and some of them had fallen asleep. Neither Des or myself were getting any shut eye. This bizarre twist of events meant we now had a police escort. But I don’t think either of us felt any safer.
It was still dark when we arrived at Jelenga bay. There was rickety fence with an old surfboard stuck to it. I was exhausted and relieved to see the end of the journey. We knocked. Finally someone stuck their head out, they stared in shock, then hurriedly slammed the gate. We got their side of the story later. Apparently they saw two tired hungover western surfers leaning against a police truck, so assumed it was a drug bust in progress. Our police escort had to get on the loudspeaker to convince them to let us in.
We got a few hours sleep before dragging ourselves out of bed to check the surf. Scar reef breaks a fair way offshore but it looked pretty sizey. The sets seemed to grow bigger as we paddled out. The swell was coming in raw and was sectioning heavily as it slammed into the reef. I thought I was still in the channel and ended up getting cleaned up by a wide set. My leash snapped during the hold down. Paddling back to shore seemed like the obvious option. Des made a more realistic attempt at braving the challenging conditions. He ended up breaking his board and had to swim in.
The swell settled over the course of a few days. The trades would kick in during the afternoon. Perfectly groomed walls of salt water lurched and reeled down the reef. The headland in the background provided a spectacular backdrop. There were moments when it all just looked so dreamy. Except for the end section, that was a place of betadine laced nightmares.
We eased into life in our surf camp surroundings. The accommodation was basic but there was cold Bintang and hammocks. We had everything we needed. Our camp was a meeting place for locals who also enjoyed a drink. Late nights were spent sitting around a small fire, an acoustic guitar strumming lightly in the background. There was friendly conversation in between group sing alongs. I recall inhaling deeply from the communal spliff then turning my gaze upwards. Entire galaxies were spinning over head. The milky way was awash with a shimmering sparkle.
Early one evening a gentleman from a nearby village arrived bearing plastic bottles of Arak (extremely potent local spirit). We sat in a circle doing shots and chasing it with Cola. The sing alongs began earlier than usual on that particular eve. Later a raucous chant went up and echoed into the night…..”Banana Massage…Banana Massage…Banana Massage”. We piled into a minivan and headed for the nearest town. I fell asleep during the journey. Not sure what ended up happening with the other guys.
Eventually it was time to make our way back to Bali. We were sad to be leaving but Des had snapped all his boards. And I had some reef cuts that were in need of medical attention. The guys running the camp organised our transport back for about $60. Our total expenditure on the way over had been several times that. It would be fair to say we paid our share of tourist tax.