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The hypnotic lines of Uluwatu. Photo: Federico Vanno/@liquidbarrel

BALI DIARIES: ULUWATU AFTER THE STORM

The storm hits before we can catch a wave in.

Black clouds barrel across the sky like steam trains skipping a station. They were phantoms on a sunny horizon just moments ago.

“The sky is so dark,” a small bikini-clad woman stutters in an Indonesian accent. She is cowering, wide-eyed, on her longboard about 300 metres off the cliffs of Bali’s Bukit Peninsula.

We’re floating in dark water among a small huddle of surfers who, until moments ago, had been sharing two-to-three-foot, cruisy left-handers under saturating sunshine at Uluwatu. A crack of thunder pierces the sky and the lineup tightens. Now we’re discovering the special comradery that comes with being stuck in the middle of the ocean, thousands of miles from home, in a potentially dangerous weather event.

Uluwatu is a wild place even when the weather is clear. You hop in a taxi and careen around the cliffs to get there, park in a monkey-ridden jungle and trot down old temple steps to reach the water. The access point I’ve chosen is Suluban Beach – an iconic rocky cove made famous in the surfing film Morning of the Earth. Whitewash crashes into the cliffs and echoes around the cove but can be a deceptive indication of how big the waves actually are. On any given day you might paddle out into unseen overhead walls or – like today – playful, smaller lines.

Remember The Cave?

The concrete path to the beach has obviously upgraded since MOTE times, when jungle-bashing was the only way. Today, local women sell drinks and coconuts from eskies to thirsty surfers exiting the water. There’s even an enterprising group of photographers who shoot from the cliff all day and will airdrop their stills to you for AU$5 per shot (discounts if you buy more).

Speaking of enterprising; despite the pandemic, cafes that would impress Bondi influencers are cropping up everywhere along the Bukit Peninsula. Ours Bali is one such spot, where I demolish a creamy, crunchy salmon poke bowl I know I’ll be dreaming of for months afterwards. The venue also operates a spa next door and I’m so impressed by the food I talk myself into a massage there. I enter a dreamy second-floor oasis made of stones, timber and greenery, where my masseuse, Sri, proceeds to grind and poke my stiff shoulders and neck into submission. After an hour I am putty in this woman’s small but impressively strong hands.

It occurs to me that Uluwatu has really gentrified in recent years. I get talking about it to a friendly Australian expat in the surf – Nick – who catches my attention with the Tracks t-shirt he is wearing to block the intense Balinese sun. He is among the many digital nomads living in Bali, trading stocks and investments from a cheap-rent base.

“The pandemic obviously hurt a lot of local businesses, but there are others that have flourished while catering to surfers and the expat community,” he tells me, listing off a few recommendations for healthy bowls, vegan options, and coffee.

The Uluwatu dining experience has evolved in recent times.

“Selfishly, it’s been great for local surfers. There’s hardly anyone in the water and those that are here have a really friendly vibe. Locals won’t put up with any surf rage rubbish.”

It certainly feels that way today at Uluwatu. One tanned guy on a yellowing fibreglass calls me to go on a wave with him – “stay on, stay on!” – he yells, grinning. “Ladies first, always!”

Lineups look likely to stay quiet for a little while, too. Although Bali has reopened to tourists with no COVID-19 quarantine requirements, there are still plenty of hurdles to keep crowds at the gate. Double vax status and PCR testing, plus the risk of catching COVID and having to isolate in a foreign country will put a lot of people off. Hotels and airlines know this and are offering rock-bottom prices on sales (keep an eye out). In many ways, if you’re vaccinated and don’t mind the PCR nose tickles, this period of post-pandemic uncertainty is an ideal time to visit.

Kate enjoying a clean Ulus wall that looks incredibly enticing to east coast Australians who are still surfing in soupy, brown water.

Today, the waves are small but clean. Nothing to get incredibly excited about; but long rides reliable enough to draw grins from surfers turning off waves to haul themselves back out.

None of us predict the storm, though. It crashes into the coastline in much the same way I imagine the pandemic arrived in March 2020 – taking out the entire lineup with a random set wave, then churning up the previously glassy water with pelting rain.

Expats have enjoyed two years of uncrowded lineups, but well understand that Bali’s tourist economy needs to start humming again.

The locals curse and jump off their boards into the water – “too cold!” says my friend on the longboard, sheltering from the rain by dropping into the ocean. For me – a Sydneysider lucky enough to be one of the first tourists back in Bali – the rain is a refreshing contrast. I actually find Bali water far too hot when I’m paddling, so cool drops from the sky are a blessing.

The clouds hurry away as quickly as they arrive, leaving glassy lines in their wake. The waves resume the same period as before and the surfers begin our friendly jostling for position again.

We’ve all but forgotten the stormy turmoil of moments ago. For Bali’s sake, on a grander scale, I hope the rest of the world has too.

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