Feral Searching in the Early Years of Indonesia

Craig Jarvis

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Updated 15d ago

Our captain was in the wrong job. We were sitting in our boat, our trip paid for, and he was too scared to go into the harbour. It was low tide, we had already seen giant waves booming off the headland, but we were not going to make landfall at this rate unless something drastic was done.

I grabbed my 7'0" and headed off the boat. I quickly paddled into the deserted harbour. Not a person to be seen, not a single floating boat, just a few wrecks. The port on Bawa back in the mid-'90s wasn't up to scratch. Unfortunately, neither was the welcoming committee.

I paddled around and clambered out of the water. There was still no one to be seen. The quietness was so strange after the constant jabber of everyone at Sorake Beach.

The crew! All that's left of this trip are a few old but incredibly nostalgic photographs.

The crew! All that's left of this trip are a few old but incredibly nostalgic photographs.

Eventually, I found a lady in a tiny losmen (kind of a cheap hotel). She saw me and waved. I went up to her and discussed the issue at hand, and she went off to find her husband, the somewhat cruelly named Imahappy. He was pretty cheerful, though, and at that stage, the only Indonesian I knew was how to say 'f*** off' and how to ask for a beer. So, we told Imahappy to go out with his boat and grab our luggage with sign language. The rest of the surfing crew paddled in on their own boards as well.

Imahappy gave us this giant flatbed wheelbarrow, and we wheeled off into the distance at pace. We had to make it to the beach at Bawa before the sun went down. At that stage, we were convinced that being out at night without creams, smoke and everything meant certain death by mosquitoes. So we hustled.

We made it and went straight to Losmen Jermin as the sun went down. It was the only losmen on the beach, a massive but straightforward roofed platform with enough space for 20 people to sleep. So we started lighting mosquito coils and creaming up, and smoking gudangs and doing whatever we could to keep nyamuk at bay.

The first night was a blur of rats and jungle sounds and booming surf.

When we awoke, it was an incredible sight of 12-foot bombs at Bawa. It was massive but perfect. This was why we had come. The wave had been blown up all over the world on a Rip Curl Search VHS video, just the year before, with Tom Curren surfing it on a 5'7" Fireball Fish. He was the most naturally talented surfer in the world, and he could probably surf Waimea on that same board. It kind of looked a bit like Waimea out front, come to think of it. None of us were Waimea kind of guys back then, and it was time to head over to Asu.

Imahappy was obliging enough to get us across to Asu in his tiny outrigger, even though it looked like it had no chance of making the crossing. Still, we loaded up, took a little basket of bread prepared by his always-smiling wife and launched on the most direct route between the two islands. Unfortunately, the outrigger was way undergunned for our needs. Still, we persevered, taking over an hour on a crossing that would take a few minutes on a boat with a decent motor. We were literally a few centimetres from taking water over the rail the whole way there, and his boat was so slow it felt like we were going backwards at times.

When we arrived, it was one of the most glorious sights of my surfing life. Solid sets, eight-foot and more, grinding down the reef, throwing thick barrels with few takers.

Before the Tsunami, Asu was incredible. Nowadays, it is different as that natural disaster caused the reef to change, to shift, and in some places, to emerge from the water. At the same time, Imahappy threw a line off the canoe and generally seemed relaxed with the situation.

It was all-time Asu, according to the Australian surf-camp owner I befriended in the water. It was a solid eight-foot, with a few bigger wash through sets, but the biggest, most perfect barrels across the inside section and these huge, open walls, perfect for carving. I had a heavily glassed 6'8" pintail, the most ideal board for these conditions.

My friend Mikey was a bodyboarder, and he took off on this giant set right over the inside section of the reef. I was paddling back out, and I watched the whole thing. He took off late and got stuck in the lip. He fell over the falls, still hanging onto his bodyboard, and after the longest freefall hit the trough. His bodyboard broke in half on impact. During the wipeout, he bounced into some Brazilian guy who was floundering in the impact zone. Mikey surfaced with a bodyboard creased in half and a grin on his face. The Brazilian started shouting for help as they both headed towards the Nuclear Zone in a massive sweep.

I remember chuckling, just kept on paddling up the reef, more intent on getting another bomb, not worrying about these two. They would both be fine.

The trip back was mellow because we were so surfed out. There was no food left and no beer. We sipped on tepid water, but there were no complaints. After docking and racing back to Camp Jermin, we had an hour or so before sunset. Time to crack a warm beer and reflect. We all had a toast to a firing day's surf and started drinking our warm Bintangs. The sun was setting, but we were prepared for everything. I had been in Indo for a few months now and felt that this could easily be a way of life forever.

Looking back now, over 25 years later, much of those days seem like a dream to me. However, a few memories stand out from all the places I have travelled to over the years, including many trips to Indo.

One was travelling between Tanabala and Tanahmasa Islands with a crew of strange dudes I had met in Nias, looking for surf in an area we knew nothing about. We had heard about a perfect left, but we found rights. We found waves, cooking waves, that fall part of the two main resorts now, but at the time, we didn't know what they were called. So, working off nautical maps, we plodded around, looking for waves, and beer from all the villages.

The other memory forever etched into my grey matter was that day, arriving at eight-foot Asu, at its most perfect, and jumping off Imahappy's boat and paddling over to the lineup. The waves were cracking.