After a chance encounter with a knowledgeable local and tired of battling the crowds in Bali, our author heads off to remote West Java. Check out Gareth Billimore’s entry into our Write to Surf competition, which has some great prizes up for grabs (see below for details).
A JOURNEY TO JAVA – by: Gareth Billimore
“Hey, Mel Gibsaaaan! Mel Gibsaaaan, come here I have DVD for you, tank vest – look West Coast Eagles, I got Sydney Swans and Bintang, special price just for you Mel Gibsaaan. Big specials for big man!” The street vendors in Bali can be overwhelming to say the least. Colour, noise, hustling, good deals and rips-offs going down at every turn. I navigated the chaos, standing out as a newbie, a virgin foreign surf traveller with eyes as wide as the deep blue Bali barrels I’d come to seek. Literally a head above most Balinese, the street vendors see and sense your vulnerability, smell your dollars and invade your space.
Although an ice-breaking greeting of endearment, my likening to Mel Gibson was more offensive than complimentary. After all, he’s about 80 in the shade and a shadow of his Mad Max self. The reality was a shadowy Westerner, greased by five years of self imposed exile in the land of the Arsenal, David Cameron and hooliganism. The Queen’s Mud Island had turned me pasty, antsy and as nasty as a washed-up, middle-aged stripper. More Mr Blobby than smartly dressed Bobby, London had consumed me as I consumed her; drinking, eating and working on the wrong side of the scale. The things that got me off had ceased to matter, the daily city grind that provided comfort started to own me. The ocean had become a faded squint in my rear view mirror, surfing itself confined to fond memories belonging to a stranger in a strange land.
As sure as the circus needs clowns, surfers need waves and who are we kidding, London falls a little short here. Sure, there are beaches within a three hour drive. Hell, there’s Hossegor and Mundaka a short, inexpensive plane ride away, yet the caveats these opportunities carry make the fine print of your life insurance look like a Janet and John reader. The ocean is my lifeblood and I was drowning in its absence.
And so it was after much soul searching and quick decisive action that I found myself in the familiar territory for many travelling surfers – Bali, the Indonesian surfing hub. For every known spot there was a semi-secret spot nearby, and after ten days of acclimatising and trying to make sense of the crowded line-ups of Uluwatu and Bingin, a sense of frustration and curiosity had begun to set in. The thought of fighting off another tribe of Brazzos and Hawaiians for one bomb at Bingin became about as attractive a prospect as spooning Barbra Streisand.
One evening I decided to take a detour back toward my hotel to avoid the Poppies Lane chaos, when a young Balinese man caught my attention and spoke directly to my heart: “Mel Gibson, Bali waves bagus (good) but G-Land…man, you see G-Land…” and he began to gesticulate like a man possessed, describing with his hands and arched back the thick, never-ending walls with wailing barrels as his face contorted in a combination of mysticism, fear and awe. “Mel Gibson, waves good now, you go – I arrange, you go tomorrow.”
And so I did. I went west, west to Java and it was nothing short of full throttle. If the wave at G-Land or the predators hidden in the thick jungle don’t kill you, then there’s every chance the trip there may do. Good grief. It’s a 12-hour epic, which includes two mini-bus rides so horrifying that it makes local South African taxis seem as tame as the pensioners puttering through the streets of Fish Hoek. The ferry crossing between Bali and Java was slightly more mellow, but didn’t last long as we were soon greeted by an angry, fogged-up ocean for the final stretch in an old rickity fishing boat.
The experience of arriving at a remote outpost of such mystique and beauty is something that stays with you forever. To me it seemed then and still now, to be the truest form of a pilgrimage one can make as a surfer. Every element of rawness is bordered by rich beauty, with your every sense prickling at the tales of the predators that lurk in the dark shadows as you watch perfect waves stand up and thunder across treacherous reef hundreds of meters wide, and millions of years old.
I’d already been afforded the luxury of an upgrade to B Class accommodation at one of the well known surf camps, my home for a week. More rustic and appealing a place is hard to imagine. I arrived to find my Kiwi friend, a seasoned visitor turned G-Land surf guide, balancing on a medicine ball with his nose buried in a surf magazine. “You only want to get it on the low,” were his first words to me. “I’m sponsored by MCD”, was his next line. News that MCD no longer exists clearly hadn’t reached New Zealand. All the same, I was happy to have some finely tuned G-Land knowledge at my disposal. This guy was full-on. At the first sign of daylight he’d have his camel pack strapped to his back, Oakley surf goggles strapped to his head and off he’d disappear into the line-up until night fall. He’d charge fearlessly, filling his boots with freight train barrels and long drawn-out frontside carves.
Then there was ‘Crusty’, the 50-plus year-old guy from Hobart, Tasmania, who’d arrived a month before me. After having spent three months on an oil rig, he returned home to what he claims was a moody wife. “I waited for her to go out and fetch me beers and when she did, I packed my pintail and caught a bus to the airport. Here I am on a three month visa.” He arrived with a single yellow Dahlberg 7’6’’ thruster and charged it carelessly through some of the frothiest, thickest, death-defying tubes I’ve ever seen. His wife must be a gem.
There was also a young Aussie ripper who seemed more interested in the only female staying at the camp, a Jessica Alba look-alike with whom he’d party late into the night, emerging only for the late afternoon golden hour sessions. The nightly campfire parties were led by the hoots and cheers of the drunken Hawaiians who’d taken to lacing the surfboard racks with lighter fluid before setting them on fire, sacrificing any halved surfboards in the flames. And of course, there were the monkeys, one of whom I found sitting on my bed, holding my iPod in one hand and toothpaste in the other. Completely unfussed and utterly dismissive of my intrusion, he cranked up the volume to Aha’s ‘Take On Me’, which I swear I didn’t know was on there.
Surfing all day in-between three buffet meals, endless beer-on-tap, pool tables, hammocks, monitor lizards the size of African crocodiles, all amidst the perfection of the mind bending waves in your front yard: That’s a sliver of what G-Land is all about. There’s waves and then there are waves. This wave is Mick Dundee’s ‘that’s not a knife, this is a knife’ kind of wave. This is perfection in a feral paradise. To have discovered the place and keep it secret and guard its wonder must have been too heavy a burden to endure. G-Land is brutal, consistent and perfect. There are so many facets to the wave, so many sections of reef, all so different, all so mesmerising; the ultimate doodle in your scrapbook of surf drawings brought to life.
It’s taking off at Speedies and within seconds going faster than you’ve ever been before. One pump of your legs as the wave rears up, her face darkening as she surrounds you and blocks every exit bar one. Another pump. There’s no pulling through the back or straightening out. No option but to go as hard as you’ve ever gone. Your board is screaming. The wave seems like it’s bottoming out and getting hollower, except there are no boils nor the bubbling, gurgling white water death rattle of a section of reef the wave can’t cope with. A shift in weight and the speed at which you’re travelling multiplies, the ever thickening, deeper green face of the wave holds you, nearly weightless, your body temporarily paralysed, arms frozen before you can even grab your rail. The terrifying realisation of the consequences of falling overwhelm every sense whilst in that instant, a flicker of sunlight on the snarling lip of the following section gives you a point of reference, something to aim for – your only chance of survival. Another shift in weight and you’re gunning for that diamond on the shoulder, adrenalin pumping, you become aware of your breathing. It’s getting closer. A surge of hope steels your legs. Every fibre of your being is on fire and in a split second you’re spat out on the other side of the beast, its fingers clawing ferociously at your back. In an instant, with all the speed in the world, you’re in the pocket of the wave as it gears down a fraction, allowing for the hook of all hooks. You swing off the bottom, turning hard through the sweetest of re-entry points, sending every pulse of adrenalin, fear and elation in a torrent of spray aimed at the blazing sun.
There were so many sessions inside that week. Two of the spots were jacking between six and eight foot-plus easy. With a slightly off kilter wind, it was sketchy to say the least, with more pulling back than pulling in going down. A French soldier paid the price for charging a Speedies double-up when he put his hands out to break his fall only to have the reef rip a hole up the inside of his left arm, dislocating his shoulder in the process. A week of countless waves left me exhausted. Surfed-out took on a new meaning as I spent the return trip to Bali in a coma. My closed eyes were hypnotised by the rolling images burnt to my cortex.
Sometimes your trusted instincts take you down the path you know. The one that appeals to your sense of safety and comfort. There’s a cliché that describes how life begins when we step outside of our comfort zones, or something to that effect. The detour to my hotel that evening in Bali and my chance ‘Mel Gibsaaan’ meeting led me on a pilgrimage I didn’t know was mine to make. It opened my mind to another world. That’s the beauty of surfing. Drive past your home break and an hour into the unknown. Ride that 5’6″ StarFlight swallowtail gathering dust in the rafters. Chase a swell on a whim. Paddle out on a treacherous day, swim around the reef on a flat day. That’s what surfing is all about.
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