Better than Sex?

Come on, admit it. At some time or another you’ve used that phrase to describe that perfect wave you surfed, where you pulled into a deep barrel and you actually made it out. You had to tell somebody, but you couldn’t find the words to explain the feeling to a non-surfer, so you said it: “It was better than sex!” And then your friend looked at you with pity and an expression on his face that said, “You poor klutz, one day you will learn how to make love properly.” Because people who don’t surf will never understand how good it feels, no matter how hard they try.
But it’s true isn’t it? Sometimes surfing feels better than the four-legged frolic. (A note to virgins: sex is great and remains a wonderful, wholesome, god-given pastime. I don’t want to put you off having sex one day, don’t get me wrong.) It is just that sometimes surfing does in fact trump the horizontal hustle.
Picture this: You have saved yourself for that special person you still have to meet. You don’t know who it will be, but when you meet them, it will be clear that the two of you were made for each other and then one day, when you are both ready and the moment is right, with only the full moon looking on, with Celine Dion crooning in the background and just the right amount of pink bubbly to relax the two of you, you will give yourselves to each other and share the most wonderful, blissful experience. Except that you might think to yourself afterwards, while trying to banish the accompanying feelings of guilt from your mind, “That searing cutback I managed in July 2013, when I hit the whitewater so hard that the spray went higher than the cliffs and I came around and thumped the crap out of the oncoming section, that felt better than this.” Don’t feel bad. It can happen. Surfing is like that, it’s a spoiler. It can make almost anything else feel ordinary.
Of course it is all a matter of degree. Sometimes there is bad sex. Like on those occasions when your partner is not really that into it. Yawning, glancing at her watch or making a shopping list are all good indications that this time is not going to rank as one of your most awesome performances as a Casanova. And of course booze, that other cause of countless crap bonks, can result in impaired judgment and poor selection of partner, with disastrous effects on the libido once you sober up. In cases like these, almost any ride beats sex hands down.
Now good sex, that is hard to beat. You really have to catch a bomb, back-door the section, pull in and stay deep for so long that you start feeling you can’t hold out any longer and then get shot out in a gush of spray, ready for a cutback and then repeat the performance. And we all know that doesn’t happen very often.
Except if you are a top pro. The top performers have amazing, earth shattering tube-rides frequently, because they are that good and because they go on trips to places where the waves are exceptional. The rest of us stay at home, have mediocre surf sessions and thus have great sex, comparatively. I imagine that somebody like Slater must worry a lot while he is lying in bed exhausted, deep in post-coital reflection. He probably wonders why he is so useless in the sack: “Geez, I’ve been away for two weeks, we had a wonderful, passionate reunion and I gave it my all, but it still didn’t feel better than that last ride at Mundaka…” Hey, it’s not you, Slats, it’s the wave’s fault. If you weren’t such a good surfer, you would have felt much more fulfilled on the home front.
But wait, you say. You have to compare the best wave you ever had with the best time you ever had when you parked your Plymouth in the garage of love. And here it is hard to be honest. Do you really want to tell your wife she was beaten by a lukewarm lump of water that lurched over a reef somewhere in the Mentawais one morning? That wave you will never forget?
No way. You’re going to tell her that of course nothing in the world measures up to the moments you two have shared. And anyway, how can you compare surfing with taking old One-eye to the optometrist? It’s like comparing apples with pears.
Nah, surfing isn’t really better than sex. Cross my heart.

Passing Time on a Tropical Island



Somewhere on a remote island in the vicinity of Nias a crazy Belgian opened a bar and strung up a few hammocks to sleep in. Occasionally a few surfers would brave the swarms of malarial mosquitoes and stay in his camp, drink his beer and surf themselves silly on the incredible waves at Asu. This Belgian did not surf or dive or fish. Nobody knows why he ended up on his island in the middle of nowhere. Of course there are the stories about drug smuggling, running from Interpol and more, but we never found out who he really was and why he chose to stay on Asu. I can’t remember his name any more. Something like Vincent. He was gregarious and interesting to talk to, but he had strong opinions about most things and eventually he always fell out with whomever it was that he was talking to. He wasn’t very diplomatic. It must get lonely on this island during the off-season, especially if you piss off the few visitors who do come by. I wonder whether he is still there …

After our ship had been anchored off the island for a some days and we had ridden the lefthanders that wind their way along it’s razor-like reef, we started to settle into the laid back pattern of slow time on Asu. The swell had moved on again and normally we would have sailed for the next group of islands, but we decided to stay a while. Islands have a way of drawing you into their interiors, like spiders do with flies. To pass the time we lounged under the palms, snorkeled the reefs and drank the beer at Vincent’s. We had long since lost track of time. One afternoon a few of us were on the beach, tossing a Frisbee around, when someone asked what the time was. Francois squinted into the sun, thought for a while and as he carelessly flicked the Frisbee back he replied, “July …”

His laconic answer summed up our priorities pretty well. We knew that there were many people in grey suits around the world who were desperately watching the clock, working against deadlines and worrying about time and money, but it was a different world from ours. Where we were, money could buy you a beer or two, but little else. The ocean encompassed our world and waves were our currency. We avoided talking about work and of going back to our previous lives. The subject would have been distasteful; we just weren’t interested in the kind of places where things like shoes, underwear and shampoo were considered necessary. But we all knew that our eventual return to the real world was unavoidable. In the meantime, we drank a toast there on the beach, to all those people to whom it mattered that it was Monday.


The Trans-Sumatran Highway Part Two

Travelling through Indonesia's mountainous interior

Travelling through Indonesia’s mountainous interior

With some apprehension after my previous journey, I went in search of a good bus to take me down the escarpment to the coastal city of Padang in Sumatra.
Breakfast was a large ripe papaya that I still had left over from a visit to the market two days before and then it was time to carry my bags around the block to the bus station.
Compared to my previous bus ride on the Trans Sumatran Highway, this looked like it was going to be a piece of cake. The coach was not overloaded and everyone had his or her own assigned place. I got a window seat and I settled in to take in the scenery as the driver pulled out of the bus station at exactly the right time. I was impressed. We moved slowly with the morning traffic until we came to the outskirts of Bukittinggi. In the distance, Mount Marapi was looming over the paddy fields, its summit enveloped in cloud as usual. Just when I expected the bus to start moving faster, we slowed down and turned off onto a gravel road leading up the mountain slopes. Soon it became a narrow track and we started bouncing over bumps and through potholes until we arrived at a little house where a woman collected some cash from the driver. I suppose he used part of the morning’s fare to pay for something. Now that his personal affairs had been taken care of, I looked forward to the journey to Padang. But the bus did not turn back to the coast road. First we carried on up the muddy track to another house where a bag of carrots and some onions were handed to the driver. Next stop was at what looked suspiciously like a Muslim shebeen, where some boxes with bottles were loaded onto the seat next to the driver. After some inventive manoeuvring on the steep slope, with spinning wheels and lots of blue smoke, the coach was turned around and we headed back to the main route, stopping along the way to pick up some more groceries and a few plastic dolls. An hour after our departure time we were at last on our way again, the bus thoroughly covered in mud. It was around this time that I started feeling the effects of the papaya.
My digestive system made it clear to me that it was not happy with my choice of breakfast and that it was going to expel it shortly. Some nasty cramps started to take hold of my lower abdomen. Thankfully, I was on board a luxury coach and it had a toilet. I squeezed past the two other passengers in my row and hurried to the front of the bus, asking the driver’s permission to use the loo (he had the key to the door). He wasn’t happy to oblige, indicating that I would make a mess, ignorant Westerner that I was. But I knew that there was no way I could hold out until we reached Padang and I suppose he saw it in my eyes, because he gave me the key reluctantly.
Toilet cubicles on a bus are always cramped, but this being Indonesia, there had to be adequate washing facilities and so a large plastic container (almost a meter in diameter and filled to the brim with water) was placed in the only space available: right in front of the toilet where your legs normally go. If you wanted to sit down, you had to squeeze in next to the bucket, contort yourself to close the door behind your back and then climb over the sloshing water to get onto the seat, sitting with your legs in the air, as if you are at the gynaecologist. This is most undignified, especially when you have to do it all at very high speed because of the urgency of the situation. I made it just in time and as the relief of not having to clench for all I was worth came over me, I let my legs drop down ever so slightly. Just then the bus turned a corner and the water in the bucket splashed upwards, soaking my trousers completely. I sat there on the loo, leaning back with my legs in the air, dripping water everywhere and I wondered how far we still had to go and whether I could just stay in that cubicle until we arrived. The thought of squeezing past everybody with wet trousers was just too much for me. But there was no choice; someone was already knocking on the door. Now that the driver had allowed me in, everybody wanted to go.
The walk down the centre isle of the bus was awkward, to put it mildly. As I have said before, Indonesians are the most curious people that I have met and they all craned their necks to see exactly what was wrong with me, inspecting me critically and then having a general discussion about the state of my wet trousers and the possible causes. I sat down on my velvet seat without making eye contact with anybody and I watched the water soaking slowly into the plush cushioning. Not for long though. The papaya had not finished with me yet and soon I was squeezing past my fellow passengers again, on my way to the front of the bus, my ears blood red and my stomach contracting with an urgency that made me push to the front of the queue at the loo without even considering the outraged looks that I was getting. This time I didn’t have to dip my legs to wet my trousers. The bus had started its descent of the mountain slopes and we were going through some tight switchbacks. The driver was not slowing down; he had a new coach and he was pushing it as fast as it could go around those bends, leaning on the hooter every time he neared one. As I sat on the loo, the water splashed onto my lap, over my shirt and ran down my legs. I emerged even wetter than before. The lady in the seat next to me looked at me as if to ask whether I was all right, but luckily she spoke no English and I just gave her a stupid smile and stared out of the window without noticing the scenery.
A few more visits to the toilet later we arrived in Padang. I never got off a bus so fast!

This is another extract from Island Explorer.

Sailing across the Mentawai Strait

Consciousness came to me slowly and painfully. My head was hurting; I was nauseous as hell; my mouth tasted like snake spit and my back was killing me.
Daylight was just starting to filter through the closed shutters as I squinted through swollen eyelids to see what was going on around me. I was in the stern of the ship. There were two slim blondes, one on either side of me, each wearing only a bikini. I looked at them and felt better straight away. Richard was sprawled on the floor a short distance away, covered by a sarong. The shallow movements of his chest as he breathed were the only indication that he was alive. There were wet towels, magazines and various pieces of clothing scattered about the cabin and the four of us were lying in a mixture of water, food and vomit. I was, as Gerhard later put it, curled up in full survival position when he came into the cabin. He rummaged through the chaos and eventually retrieved his binoculars from underneath me. This cured my backache, but I kept my eyes shut tightly until he went away. I was still too miserable to contemplate facing the world. We must have had a hell of a party: no drink had ever made me feel this terrible before. By comparison, my worst hangover seemed like a spot of mild indigestion.
Slowly the events of the previous evening started to filter through to my throbbing brain, aided by some clues from my surroundings. There were no empty beer bottles or wine glasses lying around and no streamers draped over the furniture. This had not been one helluva New Year’s Eve party; in fact, it was April and even though we were on board the most romantic looking ship in Padang, Richard and I had not been seducing the lovely ladies by candle light on the high seas. We had just experienced our first night on the Indian Ocean and it had not been fun at all. I turned over and retched.
I became gradually more disappointed as I recalled how I came to share a berth for a night with two sparsely dressed girls. Shortly after our departure from Padang, the Indian Ocean had welcomed us with a concentrated little storm. Out here they call these mini cyclones “Sumatran black eyes”. You see the dark fist of clouds coming at you from the horizon and before you know it, it hits you hard, very hard. Rain pours down like it can only do in the tropics and the wind howls, first from one direction and minutes later from the opposite. These pocket-sized storms have given many an unsuspecting ship a severe battering and must have sunk quite a few over the years. To escape the weather, Gerhard decided to head for open water, away from the squall and from dangerous reefs. Often the storm passes quickly and it is over as suddenly as it had started – the sky clears, the winds die and all is peaceful again. But not that time.
We left the protection of the islands and found ourselves in an angry ocean with daylight fading fast. The water’s surface had been churned into powerful waves, which were coming at the ship from various angles. Rain and sea spray soaked the ship and water started dripping into the cabins. In the galley crockery and cutlery slid around noisily in the cupboards. We were being lifted up and slammed down repeatedly by the waves. The ship rolled from side to side like a pig in mud and you had to really hang on to stay upright. We greenhorns weren’t handling this very well. Soon almost all the new arrivals on board were seasick; we became a useless, apathetic bunch. The wind howled and the sea crashed onto the deck. The straining ship creaked and the struggling engine roared, creating an unearthly noise – the sound of doom. Through the murk in front of the wheelhouse I could make out Francois’ outline, as he struggled around the deck, trying to save clothes and other items of value from being washed overboard. From where I was crouched down, I watched the bow of the ship gradually rise into the air as we struggled up an approaching wave and then suddenly dip towards the ocean floor again, as we lurched down into the trough between the swells. After every second or third wave another one would hit us side-on and everything that wasn’t tied down would be flung into the air. The process repeated itself relentlessly, as if we had been abandoned on a funfair ride in hell. With each sickening downward dip, my stomach tore upwards into my chest. Acidic fluid collected in my gills and the most unbearable nausea took hold of me. Each movement of the ship sapped my energy and made me feel even worse than before.
Everybody who’s been to sea knows the cliché about getting properly seasick for the first time: At first you feel so bad that you worry you might die; later on you worry that you might not. It’s true. The only thing for me to do was to seek shelter and eventually I struggled into the cabin, where some of the others were already huddled together. Up at the helm Gerhard and Gavin were somehow managing to prevent the ship from sinking, keeping the bow facing more or less into the wind. I hunkered down as the ship floundered into the night, my stomach heaving uncontrollably until I passed out.

Wave pools: A new era in surfing, or a new kind of surfer?

I wonder whether I would still be surfing at all if we had perfect waves to ride every day. I think I would have become bored with it all ages ago. 

What keeps me interested is the scarcity of really good waves here in Cape Town. 

I surf every day that I can, rain or shine, big waves or small and I can’t seem to get enough of it. But that is because I never quite get everything right when I ride a wave. Maybe I could have hit the lip harder; I would have made that tube if I had only dropped my shoulder a fraction more; I should have paddled harder for that last wave. The problem though, is that I can’t go back and ride the same wave again to correct my mistakes. The next wave will be very different to the one before it, even at spots that have “perfect” surf. 

Many things are appealing because they are difficult to attain. Their inaccessibility make them sought after and valuable, like diamonds, limited edition sports cars, beautiful women… or good waves. 

Surfing is fun even when the swell is weak or when the shape of the walls we ride is below par, but those conditions merely keep us going until the next good swell. What makes us come back for more on cold, rainy days, when the onshore is howling and when we’d rather be doing something else is that we want to be ready when that magic wave comes along one day. We live for the feeling of bliss that only a wave can produce, that incredible sensation that we can’t describe, so fleeting, but so absolutely mesmerizing and compelling that we have no choice but to return for more as soon as our tired bodies allow us to paddle out again. And then we try to catch another magic wave. Unfortunately this does not happen very often, even to the best of us. The better you get, the higher your expectations – the goal posts have merely been moved. 

But a strange thing happens to me when I get to surf good J-Bay for a few days on end. After a while, I become demotivated. Even though there are still brilliant rides out there with my name on them, I just don’t feel like paddling out as badly as before. Those never ending walls for carving and speeding barrels that repeat themselves ceaselessly are so plentiful that they have lost some of their appeal. I’ve consumed my quota. As the petrol attendants say, I’m full up. It will take a week or so of flatness to restore the desire for stoke. 

Enter the wave pool, the newest hype in the surfing world. I assume that if the machine settings are kept the same, that the waves would all be identical to each other. That means that you can go back again and again to work on your technique, timing and so forth. You could get really good. But wouldn’t it become boring?

I know that skate and snowboarders have half pipes that never change and that there are thousands of adherents to those sports who don’t seem to get bored. (No pun intended!) I suppose that you can vary your trajectory down the slope to change your ride completely, but somehow it all seems to get a little stale after a few repetitions.

Will wave pools change the kind of person who surfs? Will we get more perfectionists emerging from wave pools? People who don’t like the ever changing sea, with all it’s imperfections? Will wave pools train up surfers who are technically proficient, but unable to handle rough ocean conditions? Or, will we simply see more Slaters and less Wilbur Kookmeyers? 

Over the last two or three decades surfing has changed from a frowned upon counter culture lifestyle to a clean, acceptable sport. The Hippies have had to move their rusted Kombi’s and camper vans away to accommodate the flashy cars of high flying overachievers who now also surf. The whole sport has become much more regulated. I no longer feel very comfortable surfing at certain beaches that are now policed by life guards and municipal employees. A different kind of surfer goes there: the kind of guy who feels reassured by the safety officials and who prefers to shower off afterwards in a sterile changing room without getting sand on his feet. The dude who likes to show off his flashy new clothes while sipping cappuccino’s at the trendy beach cafe after the session. 

Will we now see another shift towards super athletes who surf perfectly? I have visions of ranks of sleekly toned surfers emerging from the wave pool factories and marching down the beach in step, paddling out in unison and taking turns to methodically rip each wave from the backline to the beach. 

I’m sure that this newest innovation in surfing will increase performance levels: the sport will become accessible to many more people and that alone will bring more talent to the sport. Add the opportunity to practice in perfect conditions whenever you want and you have a recipe for success. 

But will it still be fun?


Man overboard in the Mentawais!

When I heard that Brett Archibald had fallen over board in the middle of the night off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia and that he had already been missing for more than a day, I thought that my fellow countryman was a goner for sure.

The chances of being found when you are adrift at sea are small, even when your shipmates are aware that you have gone over board and are actively searching the immediate area where the accident happened.  Spotting a bobbing head amongst the waves during the daytime in the vastness of the ocean is extremely unlikely. At night this will be impossible.

When I sailed in the same area some years ago, one of the first things our captain taught us about life at sea was that if anybody ever fell overboard, the first person who saw the incident should never take their eyes off the victim. Lose sight of him and you might never see him again. Even if people do keep track of the swimmer, turning a large vessel around takes time and getting back to the original spot where it happened is very difficult without a GPS mark. Specific techniques have been developed for this situation, but it remains a very dicey prospect. As I mentioned in my book about my own surfing adventure in the Mentawais, many captains never even attempted a rescue in the bygone days of sailing ships. Turning a large ship around with only the wind to propel you is a huge task and by the time you managed it, the ship would have drifted far away from its original position. Sailors often purposely never learned to swim in those days, so that they would die a quick death if they ever fell from the rigging or slipped on deck.

Archibald was also thinking along these lines. The Cape Times reported that the fifty year old man tried to swallow water in order to drown himself when he realised that he had been abandoned, but his sense of self-preservation would not let him go through with it. His ship mates only realised that he was gone several hours after he had fallen over board and he was left treading water with nothing to cling to for buoyancy in the darkness and in very rough seas. Imagine passing out on deck from seasickness and waking up in the water as your ship sails away from you. This must be everybody who goes to sea’s worst nightmare.

Against all odds, the South African surfer survived.

That he managed to cope with this kind of psychological trauma in addition to the extreme physical strain he was subjected to says a lot about him as a person. He sounds like the kind of guy you want to have next to you when an earthquake or a tsunami hits.

Eventually Archibald was picked up after 28 hours in the water, dehydrated, sunburnt and with holes in his face from being pecked by seagulls. After all of this, he now says that he wants to carry on with his surfing holiday. To pass up on the waves this place has would be just too hard to bear. Now, that’s a true surfer!

How to get to Padang Padang from Denpassar airport

This piece is aimed at surfers who have been to Bali, but the casual tourist might like it too.

Fight your way out of the terminal past the porters, touts and taxi drivers. Don’t give them a second glance; they will latch onto you faster than a Sumatran leech and suck you dry before you’ve even made it to the ATM. Don’t worry too much about trampling the odd package tourist, just get out of that terminal and things will improve rapidly.

Once you’ve drawn enough cash, drag your board bag out of the parking area, while still ignoring the clamouring taxi drivers. Continue walking along the road until your bags start weighing you down. The further you walk, the cheaper the fare will be when you eventually hail a cab. Keep going, you’re a sportsman after all!

When the time is right, nod at one of the hovering taxis and it will screech to a halt. Now you have to negotiate a price to the Bukit. Remember, taxi drivers are not like ordinary, friendly Balinese citizens, these rapacious parasites will sell their mothers as sex slaves at the right price. Don’t let them take all your hard earned cash.

Be firm, try to smile, but don’t bare your teeth, you don’t want to piss your driver off. Remember, you’ve just completed a twenty-plus hour plane ride, with stopovers in some pretty unholy places; you probably look like hell. Your eyes are blood-shot, your hair is matted from sleeping with your head wedged between seats and your face is hanging down to your knees from the jet lag. You smell like lemongrass hand towels mixed with bottled-up farts and old sweat and your breath reeks of chicken-or-beef and stale beer.

Take it from me, young man, your appearance will make people nervous. But this can be to your advantage; it may give you the upper hand when it comes to negotiating the fare with the taxi driver, although only up to a point. Remember what your mother told you: too much of a good thing can be dangerous. So don’t overdo it. Try not to foam at the mouth, keep your hands in your pockets and don’t lean in too close. Who knows what a nervous taxi driver will do? You don’t want him to speed off with your surfboards hanging halfway out the passenger door. Stay calm, keep your cool and get the good price.

Now climb in behind him (remember, the surfboards are lying on the front seat that’s been folded down), fasten your seatbelt (forget the plane and its constant seatbelt warnings, you definitely want to buckle up here), grip the seat in front of you firmly with both hands, choose your deity (there are thousands in Bali, this is a Hindu island) and pray. Pray long and hard and be sincere. It’s never a good idea to get on the wrong side of a god like Ganesh, who has the head of an elephant, four arms and carries a broken-off tusk as a dagger.

Under no circumstances should you get involved in a discussion with the driver about how he is handling his vehicle on the road. Don’t do it! Just concentrate on not soiling your seat or vomiting down the back of his neck. This will only make him turn around to see what you are getting up to while still screeching headlong into the traffic on the wrong side of the road. Luckily for you, Balinese road users are very forgiving. They always let the idiot that has overtaken on the blind rise back into the lane just before that oncoming truck mows him down. He will really have to behave like an arse to enrage them. So relax. The out of body/ near-death experience technique of hovering just above the seat and observing events in a detached and far-off kind of way always works for me.

Keep an eye on the landmarks, though. You’ll be coming back to Kuta soon enough, so you want to know the way. Like flies to flypaper, surfers are drawn to Kuta. Even though it will cost you entire surf sessions and countless barrels, you will be pulled towards Kuta like a lemming to a cliff. Every few days the fleshpots of Bali’s deepest tourist trap with all its Australian girls, Bintangs and Benchongs will lure you in. You will not be able to resist for very long. And when you wake up the next morning in that god-awful cheap room you got for the night, hung over or not, alone or not, you will regret the whole experience and swear to yourself never again. But before long you’ll be back.

However, I digress. Keep an eye out for the landmarks. Don’t be alarmed when the driver skips the first traffic light, they all do. Just make sure he turns right. If he carries on straight, he’s taking the long way round. At the T-junction opposite Wank Internet Cafe he should turn left. Carry on past the signs for “knalpot” (silencer workshops). When you get to the Ladies Room Boutique, you’ve gone too far. The Kak Wok Warung on your right might look interesting, but try to resist the urge to stop and see what is in the wok. You want to reach your destination as soon as possible. Stay focused.

Don’t panic if you see lots of tanker trucks on the road with “semen” written on their sides. Bali does not suffer from an infertility crisis and you won’t be abducted to a local stud farm and be forced to donate yours every six hours by big hairy guys holding up tattered copies of Hustler to help you along. Semen means cement in Indonesian and there is a lot of construction happening on the Bukit. The developers are trying their best to turn the place into another Costa Del Sol, so hurry along to see it before you’re too late.

By this time you’ve passed the Jimbaran turnoff. You want to come here one evening to feast on the best seafood in Southern Bali. The night market is something to behold, but leave the Chinese girls alone. They are pretty and very petite, but their relatives are always close. Have you heard of the Triads? They are not to be messed with at any cost. Knee caps are good to have. Hold on to yours.

Soon the turnoff to Balangan will be on your right. The chilled out beach and mellow waves are a welcome escape for those who got too cocky at one of the shallower reefs and then paid for it in blood, or for those who just want to get away from the ravening crowd at Uluwatu for a while.

When you see the signs for “Full Blooded Aussie Burgers and Cold Piss”, you know you’ve almost arrived. This is the favourite hangout for our cousins from the land of Bruce and Sheila, so brush up on your Aussie rules football. Try not to mention the rugby, you want to make friends with them, remember. As much as you might like to deny it, us South Africans are pretty much just like the boys from down under, so just get on with them. Anyway, you’re the only Saffa in a sea of Oz.

Now Padang Padang, Bali’s own Pipeline, is approaching fast and beyond it, the legendary Uluwatu. Can you smell it yet? The scent of clove cigarettes and incense from roadside shrines mingle with the sea air, a prelude to the offerings that happen daily at the reef-temples of the Bukit. Thousands of surfers come to worship there every year, to sacrifice themselves to the demons and gods of the deep. Like faithful sheep they wait in the line-ups for a chance to take off on a big one, to be flayed on the reef and to be dragged along the coral, so that they might be given a chance of getting that once-in-a-lifetime barrel, if the gods so wish.

When you get to the bridge where a little stream runs into the sea, climb out of your taxi, grab hold of the railing and congratulate yourself. You’ve made it! Now look towards the ocean. This is what you have come for: translucent water framed by chalky-white cliffs and emerald green foliage, white coral beaches full of tanned bodies, bright bikinis and low slung board shorts. And the waves! Perfect tubes, ruler-like walls, line after line stretching from Padang Padang through Impossibles, all the way to Bingin. Some of the best waves you’ll ever surf. Waves that you will remember for the rest of your life. And waves that will make you eat your pride raw.

Can you see it yet? Can you smell it? Can you feel it? This is the Bukit. Welcome to Padang Padang.

Drinks Like a Sand Dune

He drinks like a sand dune.

In the early evening, when we arrive in the restaurant after our surf session he is already at the bar, soaking up glass after glass of booze. By the time we retire to the little thatch huts between the trees for the night, he is still there, leaning heavily on the counter in front of him, eyeing us blearily.

When we get back in the morning following the first surf of the day, we find him in the same place, knocking back tooth-loosening cups of coffee just to get straight before he heads off to bed. Caffeine hardly touches him; he’s done so many hard drugs, his body is indifferent to most stimulants. And it shows in every line on his face. He is about forty-five, but he looks seventy.

He used to be a very good surfer; the best guy in the water on almost any given day, no matter where he surfed. He could have been a real contender on the world tour during the eighties and nineties, but he never quite got there. He did well in some contests, but failed in too many other events on the tour. He said that he was a free-surfer at heart, that the desire to win was not strong enough in him. “Winning isn’t everything.” But lets be honest, he was lazy. He lacked the drive and the work ethic to beat the rest of the field, especially when the waves were poor. So he faded back into obscurity after a few years of notoriety and fame. The pretty girls were no longer that interested and neither were the sponsors. He gradually retreated to the comfort and consolation that booze and drugs offered and from that point on his life unraveled quickly. On a good night, when his head is clear he’ll tell you stories about it all, cautionary tales.

Tonight he is in a pensive mood, thinking back on the years when he stayed under those palm trees along the point, long before the hotel had been built here.

“Those were the days, mate.” He looks out towards the point break where translucent green waves break along a row of black rocks and yellow sand. There is a wistful expression in his eyes and for a second or two they light up with the memories of those years when he was truly alive.

“We used to sleep in hammocks that we strung up between the trees and when it rained we all had to huddle under the tarp that we used as a cooking shelter. There were never more than ten of us here and not everyone surfed. Six guys in the water were considered a crowd.”

Then his countenance changes again and he retreats back into that familiar, negative mindset.

“Now look at it: fifty clueless kooks on a good day. And you wonder why I no longer surf!”

But we both know he can’t surf because his body has packed up. The drugs have shriveled his nerve endings and fried his neurons. His muscles have atrophied, his lungs can no longer expand and his heart only flutters. The hotel has become his home now; the owner puts him up for free. (His bar tab makes up for the missed rent.) Apparently the two of them go way back, to the times when they used to camp under the palms. His friend had built the hotel and things progressed from there. But now they are acquaintances only. The friendship has faded, like all his other relationships. Nobody can put up with the mood swings, the anger and the unpredictability. One ex-girlfriend still sends money, a kind of alimony born out of pity and guilt and he hates her for it.

I try to lighten the conversation by asking him about the surf. Will there be waves tomorrow? But he no longer knows the ocean. He has forgotten the rhythms and the cycles of nature. For him the world is constant and predictable: tomorrow he will wake up in a haze and when he eventually makes it out of his room, he will find his way to the bar, where he will drink and watch as the tourists and the surfers come and go. A good looking girl might attract his attention, but he won’t really be interested, he has no chance of catching her eye and anyway, his body has long ago lost any impetus to respond to the opposite sex. He will drink until dawn and then he will go to bed.

The next day will be the same. He will continue to drink like a sand dune.

Eating out in Sumatra


It was breakfast time and I was sticking to the principle of trying to experience the local culture as realistically as possible.

Padang is one of Sumatra’s largest cities and it is the jump-off point for most surfers who travel to that magical chain of islands nearby called the Mentawais. I was killing time in the port, waiting to board a ship.

Across the street was a little eatery filled with old Indonesian men. This was a no-frills establishment catering for the locals and there was no English on the menus. The recently opened McDonalds and KFC joints were popular with many visiting surfers, but I avoided them. Why even bother to leave home if you’re only going to eat American fast food, sleep in rooms decorated with Western posters and never mix with the locals? So I walked into the warung with my phrasebook handy and greeted the owner / waiter in Bahasa Indonesia. Although greeting people in their own language (or, in this case, a language that is at least local to Indonesia) is great for breaking the ice and creating goodwill, the trouble is, of course, that people then assume that you can actually speak the language. The owner returned my greeting enthusiastically and then carried on talking, no doubt enquiring about my stay in Padang, my health, my family and so forth. All I could do was to look back at him blankly and shrug my shoulders apologetically. I sat down at a plastic table, grabbed a menu and stared at it for a while. And then I stared at it some more. It was impossible to make any sense of it at all. At one stage I wondered whether I was holding the thing the right way up! There were some basic Indonesian phrases that I knew and I could ask for the prices of items in a shop, but deciphering a local menu not meant for tourists was not one of my strengths. How I wished for one of those Chinese menus with pictures of the dishes! All the patrons at the warung watched me with great interest, but it was clear that none of them spoke a word of English. The owner waited expectantly. To buy time, I tried another Indonesian phrase that by that time I knew well and used often – “I don’t speak Indonesian very well”. My audience found this most amusing and had a good laugh. With a sheepish grin, I hid behind my menu and tried to think of something to order.

I decided that a boiled egg would be a fairly safe and easy option to explain. I proceeded to act out putting a pot of water on a stove and boiling it, with an egg inside. My audience loved the part where I imitated the chicken laying an egg and they asked for an encore. After much waving of arms and many puzzled facial expressions from the warung owner and all the curious customers, we came to an understanding. I also ordered a cup of tea because that was something I can do with confidence. While I was waiting for my food, I kept myself busy by paging through my phrasebook. As is often the case, some of the other customers came to sit with me and started reading the phrases in the book. They found it hilarious! Soon everyone was taking a turn to read a sentence out loud, to uproarious laughter and applause. I still don’t know whether it was the novelty of reading a foreigner’s book or the actual meaning of the phrases that was so funny. It did make me wonder about what I was really saying to people when I used the book!

Quite soon, my food arrived. I waited to see what the kitchen had produced with some trepidation and the result was rather interesting. With a flourish my host put down a cup of tea with a raw egg floating inside it. I was a little taken aback, to say the least. But still, it could have been curry balls, or worse, and I didn’t want to disappoint my host. So I stirred my egg into the tea and had a taste. It wasn’t bad at all. Although I have never thought of making this kind of breakfast for myself since then, it is actually quite a practical, nutritious and time saving meal. Later on I noticed that it was quite common in Sumatra to have a raw egg in coffee instead of adding milk.

I finished my tea and left the warung, to the disappointment of the regulars. That evening they would have a story to tell the wife!

The Hungry Reef

We were sailing through the Mentawais on the Island Explorer, an ironwood ketch on it’s maiden voyage through that magical Indonesian archipelago that hangs from the equator.
On board was a bunch of surfers in search of adventure, exhilaration and of course, waves. Hardly any of us had any experience of navigation, hoisting sails or of steering a ship, but we were young, full of energy and we were (over) confident. We had already made it through a storm or two, those concentrated little cyclones known amongst the old hands as Sumatran Black Eyes and we thought that we knew what we were doing. After two weeks on the Selat Mentawai we had fallen into an easy rhythm of surfing, snorkelling and island hopping, using the ship as our mobile home. We ate what we could catch or spear in the sea, complemented by what vegetables we could buy from the local people and sometimes some coconuts and bananas that we picked on some of the islets.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived at one of the most beautiful bays a surfer could imagine: The Playgrounds. With half a dozen breaks to choose from and the most incredible white sandy beaches you can imagine, we were in heaven. It was April 2000 and there were no land camps or resorts around. And no other yachts and no local settlements that we were aware of. The charter season had yet to start and we had the whole place to ourselves. Everything seemed so ideal. This was easy.
After downing some lukewarm Bintangs that evening, I went to sleep serenely, secure in the knowledge that tomorrow there would be waves.
That night at Playgrounds we had another tropical downpour. From my bunk I listened to the rain pounding on the deck and I drifted in and out of sleep until at some stage I became aware of a different sound overhead. Together with the rain, there was the sound of running feet, then shouting. I got up to see what was happening and when I came on deck, it was chaos. Amidst the pouring rain and the wind, everyone was running around, pulling on ropes, hauling the anchor and in the wheelhouse Gavin was starting up the engine. The little motorboat that was used to ferry passengers and equipment to and from the ship, called the tender, was submerged alongside the Explorer. It had been moored next to the ship right where the run-off water from the deck went into the sea and so it had quickly been filled with rainwater and had sunk. At the same time the wind had swung around, blowing us in the direction of a shallow reef. By the time the guy on watch had realised what was going on, we were very close to the reef, approaching it fast. To make matters worse, the submerged tender was acting as a sea anchor, preventing us from manoeuvring effectively. At the helm, Gavin was trying to put some distance between the ship and the shallows, but to no avail. He kept dead quiet, his features rigid, his face drained of all colour, wet with rain and perspiration. The alarm on the depth sounder was beeping away, the decreasing depth flashing on the screen: 8m, 6m, 4m … I peered through the rain into the darkness in the direction that we were drifting, but there was nothing to see, the danger was lying under the water. In my mind I saw the jagged edges of the reef reaching out for the hull of our ship – the huge jaws of an eagerly waiting sea monster. The beeping of the depth sounder now turned into a continuous screech, like a heart monitor on a dying patient. At that moment Gavin revved the engine as high as it would go and with an almighty roar the Island Explorer surged away from the reef, pulling the tender out of the water like a water skier behind a ski-boat. You could probably have heard us cheering all the way to Padang as the ship steered for deeper water. Gerhard stepped back from the side wide-eyed. Everybody stood around dumbfounded; the whole episode had lasted only a few minutes. Slowly we sat down in the rain, talking in low voices, marvelling at our narrow escape. This had been close, far too close. Gavin didn’t stop the engine. He just kept going way out to sea, away from danger, away from any reefs!
The next morning we woke up to clear skies and calm, clear water in a different bay. The previous night’s happenings felt distant, like a bad dream, until we looked into Gerhard and Gavin’s faces and saw the dark rings under their eyes.