It’s 1979 and William Finnegan (future Pulitzer prize winner for Barbarian Days) and Bryan di Salvatore land in Bali before roaming the Indo’ archipelago. After developing a theory for the life-cycle of a good wave, the duo adopt a rather cynical tone in their appraisal of Bali.
From the pages of Tracks October, 1979
Surf spots come and surf spots go, but surf spots never stay the same.
Think of a surf spot as a settlement. In the course of its evolution, it goes through four, and sometimes five stages, each of these stages differing in length and intensity and character according to the spot’s location. Any spot worth its saltwater is destined to follow this pattern: Unknown; Discovered; Peopled; and Urbanized. (Urbanized spots can decay and become slums when they reach a fifth state – Terminal Saturation.)
Unknown doesn’t interest us here. It belongs to the pep-talking editor of the yearly travel issue who, extolling the virtues of travel, and of escaping the daily grind of icky western civilization, points toward the sunset with one hand, as the other rests on the shoulder of his young readership, and says, “Go for it, son. And bring back transparencies.”
The Discovered stage is perhaps the single most exciting, gut-twisting, greening-with-envy sub-genre of the surf world, which has come down the line in years. Recall Cape St. Francis, Biarritz, Santosha, Uluwatu, Scorpion Bay. The names linger like the perfume of a beautiful and seductive woman.
Sun-visors off to those good scout adventurers who brave wild and woolly terrain, poisonous insects and reptiles, disease, drought, famine, rape, robbery, death. hominess and worse to enjoy a few days or weeks of isolated perfection, just a bit too far for most of the rest of us to get to. Their names and deeds are forever etched in the surf-consciousness of thousands.
The Peopled stage is a bit of a letdown, its nature a bit murkier, and certainly more sordid, than the previous one. What happens is that the discoverers go home. Yes, even adventurers do go home on occasion. Even heroes have friends. And adventurers, like all of us, perhaps MORE than the rest of us, like to toot their own conch shells. So those closest to them (lucky devils!) are eventually let in on the secret, but only because they too would have been along, for sure, man, except that they were “Getting the last semester at Tech out of the way:” “Getting married”; or getting their bread or head or IT together.
So, adventurer tells X, who is sworn to secrecy, but X tells Y, who isn’t that cool, but has a little money and a brother who works for Qantas and maybe can get good deals on tickets. Y tells his girlfriend, with whom things haven’t been going so well and oops, the girlfriend runs off to Mexico with the foxy goofyfoot from Queensland and mentions something about “this place south of Agua Fria…”
And the odd drip becomes a trickle. Bands of second- and third-handers trek to the new spot. Their trail may be a bit more clearly marked, but the insects, the heat, the distance, and the sharpness of the reef will be no less formidable. The natives, in fact, may be more restless, having become that much more aware, after the passage of the first group, of either I) something being taken from them, or 2) something they can take from the newcomers. (Here insert a collective whine – “Why can’t they just be coo/?”)
But the heaviest cross that these subsequent waves must bear is knowing that they are following, not leading. As sweet as the final reward may be, the knowledge of being an “also” results in a huffiness, an elitism that grows louder as it spreads wider. The later the appearance at a Discovery, the huffier and more insecure the arrivisie. In short, things get creepy, as they always do soon enough in the suburbs of the world.
The transformation of the Peopled stage into Urbanized is, of course, gradual, and even more of course is the fact that there is no – PING! – magic moment to signal this change. Ambience is in the third eye of the beholder.
Perhaps the best way to decide, though it doesn’t really matter in the end, is this: If the magazines are busy heralding a Discovery stage, one can be sure the spot is already Peopled, and there is a good chance it is well on its way to being Urbanized.
Bringing Huntington to Honolua
When there were once none, then a few, now there are many. This is not a cry of despair from golden ages lost though, because for every place Urbanized, there remain two dozen more to be discovered.
And as the Urbanization becomes complete, things become easier for the wandering surfer. Familiar products make their appearance; prices become less eratic: hints and short-cuts and better deals and scams are passed around; local industry takes notice of the visitors, and generally, what was once strange and unpredictable and even deadly has become familiar and steady and safe. And who (honestly now) wouldn’t rather shop in a mall than live off the land?
And the magazines will celebrate the Peopled stage – dangle that juicy two-pronged carrot of isolation and elitism in front of their readers’ eyes. Perhaps that is a bit cynical. I am too unversed in the economics of these things to suggest that the magazines deliberately prolong and romanticize a far-flung hunk of shore, while downplaying its less than wonderful changes.
I do know, however, that when they have absolutely no more dead seahorses to whip, the words appear to announce Terminal Saturation, long after the fact. This dirge is sung to the tune of ‘The Old North Shore (Baja Wilderness; Outer Island), She Ain’t What She Used To Be.”
But even Terminal Saturation has its good points. It throws a few bucks the way of old surfers who have a chance to write about the old days – “Jeez it was swell way back when” – that sort of thing.
Bali has not yet reached this last stage, but depending on the limits of one’s demographics and one’s attitude toward the joys of group surfing, it is well past Peopled, and not necessarily new to the realities of Urbanization.
Bali is thoroughly well known to everyone who has picked up at least two surf publications in the last five years, thanks to fourteen dozen variations of: I landed at the airport, got ripped off, but it was eight foot everyday and it’s really unreal and the people are beautiful and I was about to find God or get laid or stay there forever but I only had an excursion ticket and I really wanted a Big Mac articles written by semi-literate surf stars. (If good surf spots were as numerous as SLSCs we’d all have waves aplenty.)
Getting to Bali is not at all unlike getting to Hawaii. You’re just not on the plane as long. And hey gang, it does have its fine points.
The Fine Points
Bali sounds exotic to those you left behind. It is guaranteed over two-thirds Asian, and not entirely tacky, no more than, say, The Big Pineapple or Luna Park. It is where East meets West, and the result is – considerable. You can get a massage, eat spicy food that isn’t Mexican, see topless and bottomless Europeans of both sexes, observe poverty from a safe distance, see people of strange religious and racial persuasion (though not as well as on television), be taller than 95 percent of all the people you meet, get your passport stamped, go to the toilet the Asian way, and tell people you’re from Cronulla when you’re really from Parramatta.
Wayne Lynch in the background seated, enjoying the antics from a charismatic local. Photo: Hoole
Bali is safe. For the naturally timid, for those leaving home for the first time, or for those aging surfers burdened with wife and child, Bali is a cruise. And don’t believe those stories of stabbings.
Bali is cheap, especially if you don’t include your air fare into the scheme of things. If you spend more than five bucks a day on food and lodging, you are consuming conspicuously. But just in case you feel like gloating, remember, it was cheaper a year ago and there will be plenty of folks to let you know that.
Bali is inspiring. You can listen to the lies of surfers from all over the world.
Bali has the waves. The beach breaks are better than Bondi. Kuta Reef, a long arc of a wave that people swear is not unlike Ala Moana, is only a thousand yards offshore. Uluwatu, the fabled beast, still pumps. It is a slingshot wave where you can rub shoulders with the famous and the rude, where you can hire a board carrier and experience the dizzying thrill of colonialism. Ulu can be a great wave, though not nearly as often as people would have you believe. And finally, there are secret spots whose location is only found by asking at least any four surfers on the island.
Bali is possessed of a pleasant climate.
It is not the hottest place on earth. True, the place suffocates one, and is in general a windless, airless, smokey hell that leaves a constant film on the skin, a constant anxiety about air intake and a nearly unslakable thirst, but sleeping is possible on most nights. The mosquitoes are no worse than those of equatorial Africa, and the cuts on one’s feet don’t thrive and grow any better or quicker or more brilliantly than a common jungle flower.
Bali is a cross-cultural paradise.
It will warm the heart of any good liberal. You can watch the Australian and American girls spend all their time with young Balinese boys, and never give you a second glance. This phenomenom is known as “Hands Arms and Legs Across the Sea.”
Bali is educational.
It is a fine place to watch the pattern of a developing nation’s economy. Watch how well the board carriers have learned the value of a dollar as they surround you at Ulu, screaming and teeming in mercenary splendour. “Me know Rory,” “Me carry Lopez”, “Me know Gerry”, “Me carry.” And how charming they are in their constant extortionary demands throughout the trip to the waves.
Bali is an historic wonderland.
It is a re-enactment of the old days in Hawaii where you could almost count the number of multiple-surfer waves in a day, and in the evening you could recall the odd fist fight or shouting match, and discuss the decaying interface between visitor and visitor and between visitor and resident. Welcome to the early ’60s.
Bali is, finally, wonderful.
And growing. Each year the cassette shops play their tapes louder, and the people become more skilled at making you feel like a friend, rather than a fistful of dollars, and each year you can hear more and more inanities on everyone’s tongue – “The Balinese people really love the Rolling Stones.” And there will be more old hands to tell you how things used to be better.
So you’ve missed the dubious delights of surfing vacant waves. So you’ve missed the joy of a few faces showing up at a faraway place, faces attached to hands that hold a few goodies you were getting low on. So you’ve missed the self-righteousness and indignation and anger and resentment of watching groups become crowds. So it’s become so crowded that one grows numb to any new arrivals, and one finds it impossible to count, and one more doesn’t really matter anyway. So what? Of course there are always a few malcontents who will say that Bali is no good. A Lemming Airline trip, mate. There will always be misfits who will wander to the next island, looking for a better, less-peopled wave. Follow them if you must, be led astray by these ne’er do wells, these unsatisfied strivers who are powerless to experience the joys of safety in numbers, and the pleasure of seeing their own kind tumble out of the silver jets, lithe silhouettes before the blazing sunset, heavy with surfboards, in their hundreds.
Just remember though, before you go, that there’s no place like Bali. No place where you can go so far to be so close to home.
Read more of classic Tracks from the 70s – to 90s