Around the world, and around the clock, surfers are riding the waves. For some it’s a relaxing hobby, a way to connect with nature and disconnect from technology. For others it’s a drug so addictive they devote their lives to hunting the perfect wave, the perfect high. Big waves, small waves, fat waves, messy waves, reef breaks, beach breaks, lefts, rights, barrels and tubes; the winds and tides work mysteriously together to create an aquatic playground for the world’s adrenalin junkies.
Until now, and despite the Australian component of my upbringing, learning to surf has remained an elusive dream, with timing and circumstance never quite working in my favour. Consequently, I’m two years behind Ben who already has some impressive moves (he’ll deny this in typical modesty, but I’ve witnessed it). In Indonesia the surf is world-class. In other words: bloody terrifying. The epic waves are for big-timers, and if you’re inexperienced you’ll be out of your depth, metaphorically and literally. Broken boards and broken limbs are commonplace. Given this, you might consider it an insane place to learn, but challenge and opportunity lured me in with their sweet vice grip.
Our search for a learner’s wave was frustrating, with lacerating coral and dangerous currents often standing in the way. A West Lombok beach eventually delivered the mellow waves we sought and with tremendous patience Ben coaxed the surfer out of his English-Aussie girl. Exhilaration shot through my veins, and being taught by someone so close made it all the more special.
I soon learnt that dedicated board riders spend hours, days – even weeks – patiently waiting for the right conditions. When the water goes flat it comes down to this: watching the ocean, eating banana pancakes, checking swell forecasts, moaning about money wasted on board hire and, in my case, whimpering about the physically punishing effects of such a hobby. I also learnt that surfers are generally only capable of conversing about one subject – you guessed it. It’s a common joke that there’s nothing more boring than an accountant talking shop (no offence meant to any accountants reading; many of us mathematically challenged idiots would be lost without you) but I beg to differ, because talking about surfing to the exclusion of all other topics can be equally dull.
Our quest for surf perfection next lead us to South Lombok, a magical and empty land untouched by commercial development. Impossibly green rolling hills stretch across a vast and remote landscape, densely covered in trees and thick grass, dotted with cattle. The landscape is visually reminiscent of England or Scotland, except these hills and knolls tumble down into tropical bays of palm-fringed white sand, vivid turquoise waters and – crucially for us – flawless waves. Whether you’re a pro or novice, happy days await you in those waters. Learners are promised first-day-success from bored locals who offer lessons and it’s common to hear foreigners exclaiming in thick accents “Yesterday I had never seen a surf board in my life and today I can ride one!”
In a bid to join them in their elation, I signed up. A gruff man with poor manners took me 45 minutes west on his bike to a dazzling cove where the beach was peppered with cows, children and the colourful buzz of daily life. A few shacks lined the sand serving street food from make-shift kitchens while old men sat around spitting. Whilst I could happily have indulged in a morning of cultural observation, I was there to surf – but evidently my teacher had missed that memo. It’s no exaggeration to say that he spent the majority of my lesson eating, smoking and waving knives at screaming children. When he wasn’t being a total disappointment he dutifully pushed me onto waves, but he taught me zilch; no praise, no criticism and no tips on technique Time after time I emerged from the white foam, hastily re-arranged my bikini under the watchful eyes of school boys gawping from the shallows, and turned around expecting encouragement. But he wasn’t watching; he simply didn’t care. Feeling financially cheated, after three hours I pulled the plug.
Finding an alternative teacher was labour intensive. Every contender seemed unlikeable or untrustworthy, and I’d all but given up when along came Yo-Yo, a skinny 19 year old with a charming grasp of the English language. Physically he resembled a whippet, so slender and light, and in comparison I felt like the water buffalo that roamed the surrounding hills. But through Yo-Yo I discovered the buzz that all surfers speak of. The drill was this: negotiate a price to secure his time, hire a boat in the village to access the ocean breaks, surf for three hours then collapse into the wooden longboat, burnt, dehydrated, exhausted, but on top of the world.
Surfers are famously territorial, but out on the water with Yo-Yo at my side I was part of the club. It goes without saying my paddling technique was appalling and I spent most of my time floundering in the fury of the white water, but I also improved. Sometimes the waves towered overhead and I felt inadequate in comparison to the big boys, but Yo-Yo gave me guidance and I felt safe. His friends would joke with me and whoop with delight at each wave I caught. Ben and I developed a routine: mornings were for surfing, afternoons for recovering. A week passed very quickly in this way. We began to recognise faces and learn names. It felt like a community.
At sunrise on Valentine’s Day we rose at 5am and joined this community for one last session. The water was like a sheet of glass as our boat motored through the bay. Wisps of cloud caught the rising sun, and the fins of our surfboards silhouetted against a backdrop of pink and orange. The air was completely still and for a long time we surfed alone, in peace, until the sun climbed higher and others came for their share of the fun. After my final ride I retreated to the boat. My kidneys ached from the previous day when a rogue wave had driven the point of Ben’s board hard into my lower back, and I was physically broken from head-to-toe, but I felt so alive.
With the cruel clock of our 60 day visas ticking by, it was time to move on. As the boat took us back to the village I surveyed the seascape around me and felt a huge sense of achievement. Surfing is a testing sport, demanding and often brutal, and I had faced everything the Indonesian surf churned up, not only surviving the experience, but delighting in it too.