Surfing Bali in the 1970s

Aerial image of The Bukit, Bali, Indo

Bali and the Bukit Peninsula near Uluwatu. Photo copyright: Jason Childs

Bali, 1978. A distant memory, more like a dream. In my mind a mystical blend of a stunningly beautiful island, my youth, an exotic culture, and the most awesome waves in the world in a haze of magic mushrooms. I was 20 and visiting my parents stationed in the Philippines, Subic Bay. My older brother Craig told me we had to go to Bali for the ultimate experience. Back then it was largely an unknown place to Americans, known only by a few surfing articles as the ultimate left tube, Uluwatu. I had no idea what I was in for. My brother went on ahead, first to Thailand, then Bali, and I followed several weeks later. Manila, Singapore, Jakarta, Denpasar. He met me at the airport on a motorcycle. The first things he said was “this place will blow your mind” — and it did.

It was magical. We traveled the narrow roads to Kuta Beach, dogging the Bemos. Kuta, then a small beach town with a few shops, restaurants and discos catering to the largely Aussie tourists with a few european and American tourists. I rented a Losmen at Wayan Kedith for 500 Rupiah a day (about US $1.25) and a motorcycle to get around with my surfboard. That’s all I needed. We surfed Kuta beach, Legian, Nusa Dua, and made the trek out to the temple at Uluwatu —  the SW tip of the island. End of the earth; a temple guarded by monkeys perched on a 300 foot cliff which ran straight down to a spectacular coral reef. Prior to our departure that day we had “blue meanie” omelettes in Kuta and our trip to Ulu was like a magical trip to Pepperland: bright colors, clear skies, but somehow amazingly funny — we couldn’t stop laughing. The temple, the monkeys, the trip down to the beach, snorkeling on the reef, are still crystal clear in my mind.

Bali 1978 Mosiac

Bali, 1978. Left to right. My brother Craig walking in Kuta Beach; in front of his Losmen; boys carrying my surfboard to Uluwatu; across a stream to Uluwatu.

Days later the winds were right and we made the trek out to the Uluwatu surf spot. Biked out with my board in my arm. Parked on the side of the road and walked through green fields and streams with board boys and soft drink girls. We had it to ourselves; not perfect but great fun. Climb down into the cave and out through the surf. Clean, warm, crystal-clear water, the jagged reef right just below the surface and an endless left break that peeled off down the coast.

At night we drank with the Aussies at La Barong in Kuta or Doggies Disco in Legian and tried to keep up (not a good idea). Later I would read by candlelight and pass out in my Losmen surrounded by mosquito coils and a pool of sweat. Wake up to a cacophony of birds, the noise of something trashing through the jungle, and fresh fruit and tea. During the day we surfed, walked the endless beaches, explored the island, and ate the local food, which was fantastic. Satay, curry, yogurt, granola with molasses, fresh fruit, smoothies — heaven. The Balinese people I have never forgotten: simple, open, honest, lovely, deeply religious and always trying to sell you something. I lived this way day in, day out for three weeks; a time that I have never forgotten. It was paradise in every sense of the word.

Time to leave. Even through I had a plane ticket I decided to take the long way back: a bus to Gilimanuk, a ferry to Banyuwangi, then 600 miles and two days on a train to Jarkata. Beautiful country but it was quite an ordeal. The “bathroom” was a hole in the floor (no fun with dysentery) and in several places there was a single track so we’d sit and wait, sometimes many hours in sweltering heat, for a train to come through from the other direction. Once I tried to get off and walk around but was quickly escorted back to the train by an armed guard. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. I can still smell the clove cigarettes from that trip; taste the jasmine tea; remember the endless green jungle flashing by; hear the sounds of the jungle. Here’s a video I made from my trip to Bali so many years go:

Movie I made from my visit to Bali in 1978.

Flash forward 22 years later, in 2000, I came back with my wife Susan to attend the International Coral Reef Symposium. I didn’t recognize the place and was instantly disappointed. What happened? Gone were the quiet streets; the open fields and jungle around Kuta, the long empty beaches at Nusa Dua. Instead were miles and miles of paved roads and one hotel after another as far as you could see. You could drive right up to Uluwatu and there were numerous hotels and bars perched on the cliff overlooking the break, stairs leading into the surf and crowds, big crowds. The Bali of my memory was gone forever, lost to the past.

Kuta-Beach-mosiac

Kuta Beach looking west: then and recently.

Kuta Beach mosiac2

Kuta Beach: then and now.

Nusa Dua mosiac

Nusa Dua looking SE: then and now.

ulu mosiac

Uluwatu: in 1981 and 2015. Photo credits: 1981: Silverbacksurfers.com. 2015: from Surfing Uluwatu by Adrian Fletcher on Vimeo.com.

I guess change was inevitable. In the classic 1972 surf film, Morning of the Earth, surfers visit Uluwatu and become one with nature, riding waves and living in spiritual harmony with the land. It is a significant film as it captures the energy and spirit of those times but also because it was the first film that showed the incredible waves at Uluwatu to the world. Not long after there was a series of articles and covers in Surfer and Surfing magazines featuring Bali and the trek to the island was on. Still, back then, it was a long journey and it wasn’t super popular. But that changed quickly. As surfers came to surf Bali they also discovered great waves in Java and Sumatra. And tourists quickly followed suite with people coming for the diving, the culture, and to tour the land. Tourist arrivals in Bali grew from 30,000 in 1969 to 700,000 in 1989. In 2012 Bali reported almost 3 million tourists. In retrospect I realize I was as much as part of this change as anyone. By traveling to Bali, telling my friends, showing my surf movies, I contributed to the massive change which has happened there. However, I feel very fortunate to have had those three weeks in 1978 — days I will never forget.

Bali featured in surf films and magazines in the 1970s

I often think of the local people from those times. What do they think about all the changes?  Are they happy? Did they benefit from all that change? I remember talking with a local on the beach in 1978 that was about my age and I asked him about traveling. He had never left the island, had no desire to. He wasn’t curious about Java or Hawaii or California. He was just happy where he was. At the time I had trouble understanding how he could feel that way. I understand him now.

 

 

 

  8 comments for “Surfing Bali in the 1970s

  1. MICHAEL PATTO
    May 14, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    amazingly i was their at the same time just down from the la barong at kuta suci just past joes surf shop i was fornunately lucky to work for an airline and visited over 40 times between 1977 1990 and then came back with family 2012 lost totally lost dont loose the memmorys hated those dogs on the dark walk back from doggys

    • October 2, 2016 at 2:15 pm

      Wow, 40 times. That’s fantastic. I’m sure you really saw the change over that time !

  2. Eric Da Kneelo
    September 29, 2016 at 7:46 pm

    Thanks for the memories I was there all August 1978 with 4 other Australians & had a great time. I was only one with a good 35mm camera & 400 telephoto lense Got some great shots & have shared many to others over the years..A shame about progress

    • October 2, 2016 at 2:13 pm

      Those were great days Eric. Glad you got to enjoy it back then

    • January 11, 2017 at 3:18 am

      Great article i was there young backpacker 74 trying to find out for yrs what happened to The Garden Restaurant use to stay there

  3. January 11, 2017 at 3:15 am

    Great article ,i was there 3mths 1975 so beautiful no electricity ect iv been trying for yrs now to find out what happened toThe Garden Restaurant seems to have dissapeared.iv thought about going back but think it would spoil my memories.thanks David Australia

  4. August 30, 2017 at 3:35 pm

    wow, love this recollection of Bali. Must have been so magical back then. If only it could be like that still.

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