The Land that Time Forgot
As the car crawls up the hill towards the crossroads the phone starts beeping… I read the text and understand the Captain’s back into town from Java for the weekend. I immediately make a sharp u-turn and head back down the hill. It’s a detour worth taking.
Finally outside the rusted gates, I spy that signature skull and cross-bones through the green foliage – it’s a welcomed sight. Stepping over some potholes I note the trades are blowing, but with an ankle still lame and the Captain back in town – surfing can always happen later. Suddenly there’s that unmistakable silhouette in the doorway. I approach and shake his coarse hand: “Howzit goin mate?”. It’s a familiar feeling.
As I grab a seat, it’s not long before some other misfits blow in – including Mr. Wade and Greg from across the street. Soon coffee’s brewing and stories are flowing about the life & crimes in that dark port in Merak. This is where the Captain’s vessel’s been parked these last months, a polluted hole smothered by soviet coal factories, pirates and endless beetle-nut politics. It’s not surprising the Captain fled to Bali for the weekend – those places can really hurt you.
After an hour of catch up it was time for a splash in the ocean. The others decided to decline, while the Captain grabbed a board and joined me in the truck. Next stop Uluwatu.
Later.. we’re sliding past some bamboo gates and lurking up the road to an abandoned hotel – Sulaban’s last real last surf-check spot. This rotting relic feels like Captain Kurtz’s lair at the end of the river. Another Bukit dream gone wrong… another monument to all the problems out here.
Carefully dodging broken glass and those wafts of stale urine, we find our way to the cliff’s edge. It’s mid-tide with a 3-4ft south-west swell running. There’s texture on the water and plenty of heads in the line up – I can’t see this really happening today. We finally surrender and continue with the Captain’s program of dropping in on the Barrenjoey family around the corner at Padang.
Before long we’re pulling into one the Bukit’s premier address, overlooking one of its most famous bays. Getting out of the car the Captain jokes with pak Made. There’s a few more chuckles as I follow the Captain through these incredibly lush grounds. This signature residence is undeniably impressive, one can only marvel at the quality – not to mention the glorious aspect. Turning another corner we’re finally greeted by John, Belinda and their kids. This is us.
To describe the Barrenjoey family, you’d be talking about a contemporary version of the ‘Swiss family Robinson’. These folk live onboard a 70ft steel ketch that runs surf charters along the west coast of Sumatra. These are people firmly in control of an envious life and are certainly no strangers to outer island adventure. But for now they’re spending a well-earned break in Bali, enjoying the hospitality of one of the Bukit’s premier digs.
Life is very beautiful in this little corner of the universe and its a pleasure to participate.
Gazing beyond the terraced gardens, I absorb the epic bird’s-eye view as swell lines run down the reef – it’s 2-3ft with just a few guys out – not bad. John and the Captain make the call and soon I’m following them down the cliff stairs and straight into the line up. My fitness still remains embarrassing after 10 months recovering from an ankle injury but every surf makes you stronger – and nothing is bad when you got waves, sunshine and good company.
Examining today’s vehicles it was a mixed affair. John was sporting a 9 ft red beast of a gun, me on the Mitchell Rae hybrid and the Captain on a bloody toothpick. After paddling across the reef like a penguin, I finally managed to catch two waves that didn’t section. John definitely got his fair share, while the Captain (as per usual) burgled most of the gold.
Returning to surfing (post rehab) has been challenging… but also rewarding. But the value today wasn’t the waves but rather the conversation between sets. It was particularly interesting to hear – first hand – the fine details about Brett Archibald’s Mentawai rescue. Listening to the unedited version from those who were involved beats any media report. But for me, the ultimate moment was the Captain’s recollection of surfing at ‘Impossibles’ back in the early’ish 70’s – back when nobody really surfed it. As the story goes, one particular afternoon Mr Harvey and himself encountered a solid wrapping swell folding into the bay, producing a barrage of flawless barrels the entire stretch of the reef: “..it was like Burleigh in reverse mate… so many bloody barrels…we surfed until our legs fell off..” Then after this historical session there was the arduous trek back along the whispered trail from Padang to Sulaban.. that hike through cow paddocks in the dark… and finally arriving to bemo cramped full of snarling mates – all waiting to go home. Things were different back then – no proper roads anywhere – just jagged dirt tracks – bush-bashing your way to new discoveries. You had to earn it. Almost impossible to visualize it now beneath the concrete and chaos – much has changed in the last 40 years.
Finally this day’s session came to a sharp close, John and the Captain began fading south, with my pulsing ankle not far behind. Back at the Chateau, it was quick dip in the pool and then back on the road to reality. As I finally exited through those volcanic gates – it was with a head full of big dreams… past.. present.. and future…