By: Kristofer Bech
Indonesia has a reputation as one of the world’s premier surfing destinations. The variety of breaks on offer caters to surfers of all levels, from beginners all the way up to professionals – and everyone in between. The abundance of surfing locations can vary from easily accessible, to extremely remote, with new waves perhaps yet still to be discovered – yes…dare to dream I say!
To tell the story of surfing in Indonesia, we must first take a trip back in time to a sleepy seaside fishing village named Kuta, in the year 1936. This was the time and the place to which the introduction of surfing to Indonesia can be traced.
The story starts when a soon-to-be-married American couple, Bob Koke and Louise Garret eloped from California to the exotic far East. Having already ventured through China via Japan and onto Singapore, they were coaxed further to Bali on a mere whim due to a glowing recommendation from a friend.
It was here in Bali that they fell in love all over again – with the unassuming fishing village of Kuta that is! It was here in Kuta that the first seeds would be sown of what would later famously become the epicentre of Indonesia’s burgeoning surf travel and tourism industry.
Having only just arrived, Bob and Louise readily settled in. They obtained a plot of land under the shade of the beachside coconut palms that had propagated for as far as the eye could see, and quickly got to work about manifesting their dream – to build The Kuta Beach Hotel!
Having previously learnt to surf while working on a film set in Hawaii, Bob Koke had immediately recognised the potential for surfing the consistent swells that he had observed rolling in over the gentle Kuta sandbanks on a daily occurrence. With his 9ft redwood surfboard still frustratingly stranded in transit on a merchant ship somewhere between here, and there in the South Pacific, Bob set about taking matters into his own hands.
Shrewdly, he tasked the locals with handcrafting some substitute boards from the native timbers that they could utilise in the interim. Given that the Balinese are known to be exceptionally gifted craftsmen, it was of no surprise that soon enough Bob and his Balinese crew had a new collection of Hawaiian-inspired surfboards to play in the surf with.
By 1937, all plans had come to fruition, with The Kuta Beach Hotel open for business, Bob, Louise, their staff and guests were all seen regularly surfing the consistent Kuta lines wrapping into the peaceful bay. They all made the most of the idyllic lifestyle, having fun in the sun in this little patch of paradise!
In what was an unfortunate turn of circumstances though, the fairytale would be prematurely cut short, ending abruptly due to the outbreak of the war in the Pacific. Bob and Louise much to their lament were forced to reluctantly flee Bali on the New Year’s Eve of 1941, ahead of the advancing Japanese Imperial army – regrettably leaving the breakers of the Kuta Beach line-up empty once more.
By the time the war had come to an end, The Kuta Beach Hotel amounted to nothing more than a bombed-out pile of rubble – the site was eventually rebuilt again many years later by the Hardrock Hotel!
Following this early dalliance with destiny, surfing and Bali became long-lost friends for the best part of the next 30 years, strangers for more than a generation.
Fast forwarding to the 1960s, Bali was now a well-established destination on the overland tourist route known as the hippy trail, famously known as one of the three K’s – Kuta, Kabul and Kathmandu!
It was in the late 1960s and early 70s as Kuta was attracting all manner of counterculture types, that surfing in Bali was rediscovered and reintroduced. The surfers that had passed by this way recognised the rideable waves lapping up on the shores of this unspoilt paradise, and word quickly got around – Indeed, some of them never left!
On February 25, 1972, the release of the iconic surf film ‘The Morning of the Earth’ would prove to be the tipping point for the expansion of surfing into Indonesia, Some would even go as far as to say, that the day of the release of that film was the moment that would irrevocably change the course of Bali’s history.
Those first majestic scenes of the first wave ever ridden at Uluwatu in 1971 by Australian surfer Stephen Cooney, who was just 15 years old at the time, captured the imagination of the hearts and minds of all those surfing inclined. Pulling into the perfectly peeling sizeable waves, carving and racing down the line with the style, the surfing world stood up and took notice of the perfection and possibilities of these exotic ‘new’ high-performance waves.
The Uluwatu scene from ‘The Morning of the Earth’ could be regarded as the defining moment that would arouse the eyes of the surfing world from their collective slumber, awakening them to the enormous wave-riding potential yet to be discovered in Bali, and across Indonesia’s archipelago – something that Bob and Louise Koke had also recognised within their own little patch of paradise half a lifetime before!
By the time 1972 came to a close, although still a well-kept secret – the jewel in the crown, G-Land had also been found!
The story goes, that in a serendipitous moment, on a plane flight from Jakarta to Bali re-routed to avoid a storm, surfer Bob Laverty had spied perfect long waves wrapping around a mysterious reef, whilst wistfully gazing out of the aircraft window from high up in the air. From the moment that the plane touched down on the tarmac at Ngurah Rai a short time later, Bob Laverty immediately swung into action recruiting fellow surfer Bill Boyum for the planned overland expedition from Bali to East Java to investigate the hypothesized location – to confirm or deny, whether or not his eyes were playing tricks on him.
The pilgrimage to G-land, subject to myth and legend, would take Bob and Bill into the remoteness of the jungle surrounding Grajagan Bay. Battling through trial and tribulation they would eventually discover and surf that epic wave for three straight days until their water supply ran out, at which point they heroically returned triumphant to Bali.
Without a doubt, 1972 had been a defining year for the re-birth of surf in Indonesia – and yet again this time it was another man named Bob that had played a pivotal role!
The combination of those movie scenes captured from atop the sacred Uluwatu cliffs, together with the rumours and almost mythical tales of the existence of G-land, a place shrouded in the depths of the jungle where there was talk of witchcraft and tiger tracks, only served to add a further layer of mystique to an already seemingly magical island paradise.
Soon enough it was realised that the whole Bukit Peninsula of Bali was a treasure trove of waves, with the same swells that wrapped into the cliffs of Uluwatu, simply continuing further down the line into the inlets and reefs of places now well-known as Padang-Padang, Bingin and Dreamland.
From the 1970s onwards the surf scene in Indonesia continued its rapid expansion.
With Bali and Jakarta now serving as the most practical staging points, surfers began to search farther, wider and harder in search of remote unchartered territory – whether overland, by the sea or by air.
World-class waves were being whispered about from the Pulau Rote in the east to Sumatra in the west and everywhere else in between. Indonesia is made up of more than 17000 islands surrounded by long period swells and the deep blue sea, so the possibilities seemed almost endless – it was truly mind-boggling.
It was no surprise then that soon enough we were hearing about the perfect surfing reefs from far off Nias to nearby Lombok, stories of Island hopping from Sumba to Sumbawa, and then boarding boats back west to new discoveries in the remote tranquil beauty of the Mentawai’s.
But for all this searching far and wide, it is almost perplexing to think that high-performance waves such as Canggu and Keramas, located just a stone’s throw from Kuta managed to stay a very well-kept secret – remaining relatively unknown as few as just 15 years ago!
Now thinking back on all of this rapid change and development, to where it all began, the coconut palm plantations may have given way to noisy nights and traffic lights – but it’s rather fitting that most of the tourists are still catching their first wave on that same humble stretch of Kuta Beach!
Now…I wonder what would Bob Koke think of all this?