I had been putting off coming to Bali for years when I finally made my way through the arrivals terminal at Denpassar airport on a stiflingly humid evening in October. As we belted down the toll road away from the city I could already feel tiredness waring off and in its place, excitement, but also anxious apprehension. After all it wasn’t a lack of time that had kept me away during my young adult years but fear of disappointment. This was the revered home of so many of the world’s best waves, but what if the critics were right? Too crowded, too polluted, the magic’s gone, you’ve probably heard it all too. Maybe this is a place that belongs only in the magazines and tales of way back when told by drawling aussie veterans. With a longish stint in front of me I really hoped this wouldn’t prove to be the case.
Certainly any hopes of a tame introduction to island life were quickly dashed as we pulled up at Serangan Beach Park on the first day of the trip. For a few brief moments my heart rose at the scene of tranquillity that greeted us before plummeting as a dark blue wall emerged from the low morning light and broke in a wild explosion of white water that rumbled ominously across the reef.
The first time paddling out in Bali can be intimidating. You soon get the hang of it though.
It was just coming round to eight hours since we had stepped off the plane and already I was starting to wish I was somewhere else. It wasn’t that big, not massive but in the wake of a summer of consistently average surf back home I felt helplessly unprepared for the ferocity of conditions. What followed was fairly predictable as I sought the sanctity of thick shoulders and struggled to pick off inside waves whilst always keeping one eye fixed nervously on the horizon.
My timid approach proved disastrous and after about an hour spent mostly upside down underwater I was glad to be back on dry land, choosing molestation by an apparently tongue-less beach seller as the lesser of two evils in an enthusiastic business pitch dominated by vowels. Already jet-lagged my mind had been turned to noodle soup by the morning’s activities and as I sat, stubbornly ignoring the man who had given up his verbal assault and was now poking me gently on the nose with his selection of tiny knitted dolls I couldn’t help but feel that this was exactly the Bali I had been hoping to avoid. Back in the water the morning calm had been shattered by the arrival of one of my companions who had powered drunkenly into the line-up wreaking of Bintang and loudly confirming many long-standing stereotypes about what’s possible on a night out in Kuta with a few hundred thousand rupees and a bit of imagination.
With the first hurdle navigated unconvincingly, things began to get easier. Far from the cavernous amphitheatres and impassable crowds of Ulluwatu and Padang a map of peaking a-frames and grinding points was slowly being filled in around us. Bending, pot-hole strewn roads narrowed and became dusty beach bound tracks or long, rocky pathways shaded by thickly hanging banana leafs and sprawling palms. The scent of striking red hibiscus lingered with grand hotels and golf courses held just out of view.
I had left England expecting to become engrossed in an ongoing battle for a single shot at one of the regions well-known left handers but was instead relaxing onto my favoured forehand, taking my pick of sumptuously inviting breakers that folded across sun sparkled reefs with machine-like regularity.
Ullus was probably just as good, maybe even a little better on this day. Wouldn’t have had it to yourself though.
Had it not been for the epic conditions we had become accustomed to gorging ourselves on it would have been easy to spend time wondering where everyone was. Bali’s southern coastline is not the uncharted wilderness it once was and yet with a little thought and a short amble in the scorching heat we had first call on the kind of setups we believed could now only be found in the farthest reaches of the archipelago. Tide and daylight seemed the only obstacles as each day we continued to push to see just how far our luck would take us.
A little enthusiasm can yield big rewards, even in Bali
It was therefore with well-practiced faces of bemusement that we would listen as seasoned travellers declared with almost disbelieving sympathy that we were surfing in totally the wrong places and should book into somewhere along the Bukit Peninsular as soon as possible. How could we have been so foolish with the well-known breaks of Bingin and Dreamland so close! One befuddled American expat even went as far as to inform us, in a tone of voice usually reserved for addressing injured puppies, that we had come at completely the wrong time of year and should probably just return in a few months when things would be better. We would nod, scratch our heads and politely try to appear as pained as possible by this information before slipping away to search out more perfect setups that somehow seemed out of reach of the masses.
In many ways then perhaps the indo-legends have got it wrong. My experience at least is that you can actually find epic, empty conditions in Bali without too much effort. The potential here is almost infinite and the region that incorporates the island’s most well known spots in fact makes up a fraction of a coastline that hoovers up swell throughout the year.
Not a taker in sight.
That said it can be an intense holiday experience and there is no doubt abundant potential for a truly unfulfilling surf trip. The sheer size of the resorts and golf retreats here can leave jaws on the floor whilst many of the premier spots are often a write-off by 8am thanks to the sheer number of guys fighting for each and every wave.
There is also no escaping Bali’s garbage troubles. Over-friendly plastic bags are now far more common than inquisitive dugongs with sightings of floating rice pots on a par with those of stunning angelfish. Schemes such as Project Clean Uluwatu are definitely a step in the right direction but more needs to be done at a base level to tackle the alarming ignorance of environmental matters that many Balinese people unfortunately seem to have.
So yes it smells a bit funny in places and yes if you glance at the wrong person in a bar they will have signed you up for a month’s surf guiding including complimentary trip to the monkey sanctuary before you have time to finish your Bintang. But when mixed together with magical waves shared between friends such things compliment rather than take away from a trip, just as they would anywhere after all. Bali has changed and it is not without its troubles but before you hop on the next boat to Lombok and head east in search of wanderlust, stay a while, you might just be pleasantly surprised at what you find.
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