Season on the Bukit- Part 3
The third in an open-ended series by Danny Carney as he lives in Bali, spending his weekends atop the limestone cliffs of Uluwatu trading stories with locals and travellers alike.
The morning had started with too many coffees and too much chatter. For the first time since I came back to Indo since May I was with friends. Not my landlord, or Wayan and Ayu who sit outside their failing warungs near my office, not Dandy and Ketut who I quiz between surfs. Old friends, our lives a series of cliquey jokes and tall stories and silences not filled with a desperate search for something to say. These kind of friendships have been sorely missed over the years spent lurking around in Indonesia.
My best mate was in town on his way back to Tasmania and we sat there on the cliffs wondering how long we would keep this caper up. We're both sentimental Tasmanians who bang on about the island and belonging a little too much. But we're always on the run somewhere else. New places, for him: India, Slovenia, Turkey, Mexico, Greece. I'm always on the way 'back to Indo', something that has become so common that it’s almost a slur levelled in my direction when the weather cools down or life gets difficult.
A bit older now though, with few assets and the most average of family names to fall back on, the once rare admissions of vulnerability have started to bookend many of our conversations. We were staring out at a big expansive sea trying to imagine what we’d make of the next 30 years; would we settle down into the foothills of a Tasmanian mountain or keep chasing windmills in warmer climes? I doubt I was the first surfer to wonder such things while scanning the horizon at Ulus.
Amidst all this laughter and pondering, I was trying to read the 6-8 foot swell and the way it was taking shape with the slowly dropping tide. Occasionally a larger one would break at the Bombie, and a wider one would arrive at Outside Corner. I knew better than to rush out to sea at the limits of my experience. This is especially true when I'm running high on conversation and caffeine. I had never quite understood why Gerry Lopez discourages talking in the line-up, but now I realise it's because he surfs bigger waves than I do. I snuck off into the empty cave to calm my thoughts.
The tide was still high enough to be lapping over those big jagged boulders in the cave. At times the sea was roaring, and I struggled to imagine myself – or anyone really - paddling through the cave on a truly big swell. A week earlier I’d been told a horror story of a surfer being wedged under the overhangs, having to turn himself over and push off the roof with his feet to avoid scalping himself on jagged limestone. As I sank into the sand I wondered; how many people have walked out through these caves out into the sea? How many came back through it a changed person? How many never came back through it at all?
Between the sets, the hollow clapping of waves against the cliff evaporated, hissing away into silence. Like when a roaring gale disappears or in the foamy aftermath of a large wave, a sudden moment of silence makes me keenly aware of the madness that had just fled and I find it quite calming. I felt there was something else going on in that cave, something that my frame of reference can only explain by praising the unspeakable majesty of natural spaces. I’m only just beginning to understand how my Balinese friends on the cliff understand and connect with it.
Entering the line-up from the cave while the tide is still high is a calculated leap of faith. From my position in waist deep water I couldn't make sense of the waves out there on the horizon. It seemed to be breaking 200m out to sea, a hazy white shape of a broken wave and the refraction of a tropical sun. The rush of water was strong and having crept past the point of no return I gave in to it. I hoped its pull wouldn't give up until I was safely in deep water.
It was a thorough working, though much like all my recent encounters, I questioned whether it was all that bad. In all these tales of being caught inside on a shallow reef that have been shared here recently, did this measure up? Or am I in for a very rude awakening when my luck finally runs out? In some ways it's enjoyable. After all the build-up, the week of anticipation, the two hour drive, the hour on the cliff mind surfing, you're finally there with a six foot wave closing in on you in four foot of water. Few things bring me so suddenly down to earth than this. When I was finally in the safety I deep water I realized I'd been washed several hundred metres down the cliff. That’s exciting enough, isn't it?
That day the sets were the biggest I'd ever seen. Big perfect walls that filled me a desirous energy that was only reined in by the occasional wave that went top-to-bottom, throwing barrels beyond my imagination, spitting and buckling down the reef and lighting up with offshore spray tens of metres into the air.
Right up the top of the point sat a surfer on an 8 foot board, four inches thick, in Gath helmet and a spring suit, and the way he calmly paddled and bottom turned into the biggest waves was inspiring to watch. In fact in between catching my own waves, watching ordinary middle aged men sink their arms to their armpits and pull themself into these waves was worth it in itself.
A few months ago in preparing to uproot my life again I had decided to take a 7'4" instead of a 6'2". I felt silly at the time, imagining going through a whole season without ever building up the courage to actually use it. And so I was surprised by how calm and comfortable I felt, even when the biggest sets came in. A few hours later a solid eight foot wave caught me off guard. I duck dived half-heartedly, knowing that the outcome was immovable. My board was ripped from my hands in an instant and I tried to turn the experience into a learning experience.
Cartwheeling and rolling in a clenched fist of water I counted out the seconds: four, five, six.... And at the seventh second the tension on my leg rope suddenly vanished. My head now above the surface I could see my board fifty metres inside. A hard-charging Australian made a valiant effort to dash in and grab it, but with more waves in the set I called him away and the board disappeared atop an avalanche of white water heading towards the cliffs.
A couple hundred metres out to sea on a big day at Uluwatu without a board. How did I end up here? I floated there for a moment, evaluating my options. Right out the back the sea was largely still and in the calm between sets surrounded by capable surfers on big boards, I felt grateful for the opportunity. Have I been faking it up until now? Or do I actually enjoy this? Swimming back to the cliffs through a heaving sea ought to give me a good enough idea.
Turns out it was the latter. Even as the sweep took hold of me and the cliffs raced past. Even as I swam through the shallow inside section and my limbs bounced and scraped across limestone and coral. Even in that last moment when I was utterly exhausted and the rush of water off the reef threatened to pull me off the shelf to which I was holding and back out to sea. The whole experience made me feel alive in the most rewarding of ways. Back now in the routine of a working life in Ubud, that sinking feeling as the water drains away and a rising wall peaks up higher and higher in front of you seems sadly distant.
After a few weekends in a row of 6 foot plus surf, I have been starting to appreciate how the shape of my surfing life has changed. Over the years I have had peak moments. A golden morning in Aceh and my first barrels, surfing alone on a left until my face burned and swelled to the point my eye almost closed over. Days at home in Tasmania trading waves on a left hand point with Whishy, big flowing arcs and spirited jogs back to the tip of the point through the casuarinas and tea trees completely flabbergasted by our good luck. An oily slick afternoon with my surfing mate Max on a small beachie, where very wave was a magically transparent wall of blues and greens. Not a noteworthy surfing life from the outside, but a thoroughly enjoyable and memorable one to me.
And now this. Through increments of fear, the limits of my surfing imagination have been stretched ever outwards. Each session, I find myself in the line-up with surfers I would never (and still don't) have considered contemporaries, having conversations about the intricacies of waves that not long ago I would never have dared to catch. After pulling off a long and roping wave that towered high over my shoulder, I feel like the points on the map are shifting. I’m sure I will still get out the 9’6” and head for the waist high points when they are on, but I’m already dreaming of an 8’ gun and weeks on Tassie’s West Coast.
I remember in winter last year sulking behind the wheel of my car as one foot sloppy waves rolled towards the beach. Having just read about Finnegan’s exploits in Hawaii, Nias, Madeira and Ocean Beach I had starting asking myself if the best surfing years of my life behind me. Seems all I needed was a bigger board and the creeping sense of lost time, because now I can’t help but think the best years are yet to come.