Bali’s Surfing History by Bill Dalton


Australian journalist, author and publisher Phil Jarratt has been writing about Bali’s surf culture ever since he first walked onto the hot sands of Kuta Beach more than 40 years ago. Few people are better qualified to chronicle this arcane subject. A former editor of Tracks and Australian Surfers Journal, and an associate editor of Surfer, Jarratt is regarded as one of the foremost authorities on the evolution of surfing in Asia.

Recently, with a tinge of thoughtful melancholy in his voice, the tanned white-haired veteran sat on the terrace of my home in Tabanan and recounted for an hour the very beginnings of surfing on Bali – the first pre-war surfer Bob Koke, the discovery of the island by Australian and American surfers in the early 1970s, the past and present lives of dashing and heroic surfing legends who died tragically or mysteriously and of the storied overland hippie trail that ended in Bali.

Today Bali is considered a mecca for warm water surfing and is a well-established surf destination on the world’s professional circuit. Surfers who have experienced perfect waves all over the world claim that Bali surf’s power, speed and consistency is comparable to almost anywhere. The island gets the full force of Southern Ocean swells travelling thousands of miles to break over shallow coral reefs. Trade winds blow away from the land, giving shape and consistency to year round swells, drawing thousands of Australians, Californians, Japanese and Brazilians each year to test themselves on the island’s famous tubular waves.

One of the fortunate few who experienced Bali’s early surfing scene, Phil Jarratt is an award-winning author of 30 books, including more than a dozen on surfing. Reliving this lost time in the new 2nd edition of his book Bali Heaven and Hell, Jarratt goes behind the smiling face of Bali presented to generations of tourists. The book is an idiosyncratic mixture of historical scholarship, Australian surfing stories, the surf exploration, colonization and culture of Kuta, the Bukit and Grajagan of East Java, the evolution of the tourism industry and a social/cultural retelling of the age of the island’s discovery by the West as told through many voices and perspectives.

Surfers were among the very first Western visitors to Bali in the early years of Suharto’s New Order government. What a strange and driven mission this writer has chosen for himself. In an enthusiastic Kerouac-esque steam of consciousness, like playing jazz trumpet or riding a wave, Jarratt recreates the atmosphere and authentic feel of Bali in those early Barbarian days of surfing, “the craziness of the tiny airport terminal, waiting forever for our surfboards, the pandemonium outside as porters and bemo drivers hustled for our buck. I loved it immediately.”

This was a halcyon time when Kuta was one of the three K’s – Katmandu, Kabul and Kuta – and the summer of love was only getting started. Surrounded by fields and streams, in the fishing village everything cost less than a dollar, bemo were the main mode of transport, bicycles were still in widespread use, huge American cars lurched down bumpy dirt roads, Zamrud Airline’s DC 3s ruled the budget skies, traveling to Java was an horrendous bus and train journey and drug overdoses spelled the end of drug deals gone wrong.

In the early 1970s, the empty road between Kuta and Legian took you through palm plantations. The dirt track Jl. Pantai Kuta that led straight to the sea was lined with the ramshackle shacks. Made’s Warung was just a shack, and the network of sandy lanes sprouted just a dozen losmen where at night the only lights were from kerosene lamps flickering in the windows. Not a single piece of plastic trash could be found on the beach and the ocean was perfectly clear. Venturing into the surf – beginning first around 1972 – a new breed of hip young Balinese surfers evolved. Their fluid movements, control, robust natures and easy-going lifestyle made them skillful and ardent surfers. As the surf industry took hold, it gave rise to enterprising Balinese lifeguards, guides and surfing entrepreneurs. Surf shops opened, Balinese-style surf wear brands were introduced to compete with the global brands like Quicksilver and Billabong.

It’s fascinating how pristine and innocent this time was, known only among the surfer cognoscenti. Bali’s first surf club, the Bali Surfing Club, was established in 1979. The first professional surf competition, the Om Bali Pro, was held in 1980. But what really accelerated the popularity of Bali as a surfing destination was the release of the greatest Australian surf film ever made, Morning of the Earth in 1972, revealing surf’s new frontier – the discovery by a few loners of Uluwatu’s demanding breaks at the end of a long arid dirt road, a time when monkeys not people watched from surrounding cliffs.

After that landmark film, the floodgates opened with the influx of 20,000 tourists by 1973, about 1000 of them surfers. The release of BBC’s film Balinese Surfer in 1976 only fed into the mythology and quickened the pace of arrivals. Kuta and environs became the lair of shady con artists, layabout heirs to fortunes, pseudo-surfer-fetishists, spiritual seekers, rock stars, itinerant yachtsmen, rag, silver and bead traders, dope dealers, career criminals, fugitives reinventing themselves and other infamous characters including naked skinny long-haired hippies who ingested mushrooms and smoked Sumatran weed on the beach and bought fake student IDs to buy discounted airline tickets.

In the course of Phil Jarratt’s research, he has interviewed hundreds of fellow Australians, many of them pioneering surfers. Reliving his Bali past, and learning so much that he didn’t know as a young surfer, has given him more pleasure than any of his other surfing books: Salts and Suits, Kelly Slater: For the Love, Hottest 100 Surf legends, Surfing Australia: A Complete History of Surfboard Riding in Australia, and That Summer at Boomerang. A 3-time recipient of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame Media Award, Jarratt, now 64 years old, will always be a surfer at heart. He lives between Noosa, Bali and Hawaii or wherever the surf’s up.

Bali’s First Surfer

Louise and Bob Koke, as recounted in their book Our Hotel in Bali, written in 1942, pioneered the concept of the Bali resort. In 1936, fed up with a cheating husband, Louise Garrett met and quickly had an affair with Bob Koke, a handsome young tennis pro. Together they ran away to the Far East via Yokohama and Shanghai before arriving in Bali where they established a hotel in a coconut grove on Kuta Beach. The compound of thatched-roof bungalows fanned out from a central lounge and dining area, with all rooms facing the sea. The Kokes opened their Kuta Beach Hotel in March 1937. It was an immediate success.

As a surfer himself, Bob Koke recognized immediately the wave-riding potential of Kuta Beach and sent for his heavy solid redwood surfing plank from Hawaii. He worked with his staff to carve out a few wooden boards in the Hawaiian alaia-style, sensibly figuring that guests could ride the shorter, lighter and more maneuverable boards in either standing or prone positions with very little tuition. When his own board arrived, Koke tried to show his young Balinese employees how it could be ridden on Kuta’s breaks. Though he couldn’t get his boys up and riding on the big board, they soon became proficient enough on the shorter boards to guide guests through the thrill of a flying down a line of surf.

The Kokes had all kinds of takers for their surfing lessons, including one elderly British aristocratic dowager who almost drowned, and several young men who, after a few cocktails, confused ambition with ability and had to be hauled staggering out of the shore break. In December 1941, Japanese bombers attacked Hawaii’s Pearl Harbor, war broke out all over the Pacific and Bali’s incipient tourism industry shut down virtually overnight. That New Year’s Eve, the Kokes drove their Chevrolet to the Java ferry and fled Bali to the relative safety of Java, leaving the island’s swells to fall along an empty shoreline for a generation.

The Surfing Frontier

Overcrowding in the world’s better-known breaks inevitably led to a period of surf exploration through the far-flung islands of Indonesia, which had become known for the world’s richest source of intense, perfect waves. Grajagan’s incredible surf is an integral part of Bali’s surf lore, offering rare insights into the paranoia and obsessive secrecy of the surfer-scammers of the 1970s. At the time, surfing on Bali was pure adventure when fewer than a dozen rode the giant waves of Uluwatu on a regular basis. None of them had ventured any further along the Bukit Peninsula cliffs, where in later years another half-dozen world-class surf breaks would be discovered.

One of the early riders was Bob Laverty for whom the ultimate challenge was getting off the beaten path, finding those isolated barrels. The black sheep heir to the Thriftimart fortune, Laverty and others among the Kuta crew feared that Uluwatu would soon be overrun? and decided to explore the possibilities of another break only seen from the air.

Most sources agree that it was Laverty, the unassuming Californian remittance man, who first noticed the long crescent of reef that tapered along the edge of the Plengkung Forest Reserve at the southeastern tip of East Java while on a flight from Jakarta in late 1971. He knew that those tell tale trails of white water along the reef indicated jaw-dropping surfing potential. Laverty later rode his motorcycle back to the peninsula and walked 20 km up the beach to confirm his discovery of a new surfing paradise.

The Kuta crew launched a land and sea mission a few weeks later, becoming the first to surf the now-famous break, sleeping on the sand and never venturing into the tiger-infested jungle. The first surf camps opened in Grajagan (G-Land, as it became known) in 1977 and the rest is history, but Bob Laverty was not around to see it. Soon after the first G-Land mission in 1972, the epileptic took off on a giant wave at Uluwatu. His friends later found his limp body floating in the surf, still attached to his surfboard by a bungee cord.

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Phil Jarratt will appear with American writer William Finnegan in a session called “Writing Waves” at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival on October 30th. The two will also appear at a festival fringe event at Deus Ex Machina, Canggu, on November 5th.

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