On the morning of August 19th 1977 the Sumba Earthquake shook the southern section of the Sunda Trench sending reverberations across the Lesser Sunda Islands of Indonesia. Shortly afterward it sent a tsunami that impacted the southern shores of Indonesia. At the time it made landfall, blindboy and Murray Bourton were surfing Padang Padang.
In the mid-seventies tsunamis lacked their current high profile. Surfers who had been to Hawaii had heard the sirens being tested and might have had some vague awareness that it was a signal to head to higher ground but few, if any, were aware of the risks in Bali and the rest of Indonesia. With the Australian plate drifting north at what, by tectonic standards, can be described as break neck pace, and the consequent subduction along the southern edge of the archipelago, the potential for tsunamis was, and remains, high.
So that day, August 19 1977, began for me, as so many others had that season, with the bumpy ride up the bukit lodged on the hard wooden seats in the back of a bemo. Then the long walk from the road down the thorn hedged lanes to Uluwatu. We knew the swell was solid having completed the morning ritual of the walk from Cempaka through the coconut fields to check the surf.
We were met at the road by the usual gang of children and adolescents. As always they crowded around looking to sell drinks or carry our boards, but when they saw who it was most just wandered away. We had our regulars. Made, the 14 year old drink girl who I would see from time to time until we had both become grandparents and Nyoman, then about 12, who carried my board and who would later take up transmigrasi and disappear to Sulawesi.
If the Balinese were a cultured people, it seemed then that the poorest amongst them, the dirt poor subsistence farmers and fishermen of the bukit, were the most cultured of all. If not in the highest accomplishment of their traditional arts, then in the ancient and noble arts of friendship and hospitality. They were as close to us as family. I look back now at their poverty and the demands of their existence and marvel that some of those kids playing naked in the sand in front of the cave at Uluwatu, are now influential people in their community and wealthier than most of the surfers whose boards they so keenly carried for whatever pittance we paid them.
The single, straw thatched warung above the cave, at Ulu was empty. The surf too was deserted and while it was quite surfable in the rising, slightly unsettled morning swell, there was clearly a better option down through the fields for which it had been named, Padang Padang. The rising tide promised much so we decided to take the short cut along the beach and paddle out from there, rather than make the longer trek to the cove with the shade of the boat sheds.
The line up at Padang was empty when we started but as we dropped down on to the sand a group of surfers appeared. It was Murray Bourton and his crew. We had surfed together many times over the previous weeks and it was a good sign. If they had paddled out it had to be good. I can't remember how long we surfed. Maybe a couple of hours. In truth it wasn't the best day of the season, but six foot plus Padang with half a dozen out was always fun and if the barrels were slightly warped and the swell less than perfectly curved as it swept down from Uluwatu, it hardly seemed to matter.
I remember clearly the moment it began. Drifting in the line up between sets I looked up at the kids on the cliff and wondered what had got into them as they jumped about and waved their arms. I scanned the horizon looking for an exceptionally large set but there was nothing. For all our close relationship with them the cultural gap was still significant and there was much we didn't understand about their religion and social structure. In the circumstances then, that they would suddenly behave strangely on the cliff top did not seem unusual.
There was a bit of a lull, then a larger set that went a bit wider. Murray caught one and we were left sitting out by the point. It happened quickly so that it seemed one minute we were waiting quietly and the next we were standing on dry reef at the take off spot. Slightly disoriented we walked back to where we had left our clothes on the beach. It was only then we heard about the earthquake. I don't think my vocabulary then extended to "gempa" so it was probably a mime from the always extroverted Nyoman that finally communicated to us the cause of their strange behaviour. There had been an earthquake. A big earthquake, much stronger than anything they had experienced before.
My reactions were a bit slow. Geology had never really been my thing but I had done enough for some dimly remembered lecture to make its way to the surface; earthquake plus tide goes out equals tsunami. I looked around, the tide had withdrawn a long way. There was no way of knowing exactly what was heading our way, but there was something and standing at sea level at the base of a cliff suddenly seemed like exactly the wrong place to be. We took off up the track as quickly as we could and paused at the top to look back. The tide was still out and there was no sign of Murray or the others.
The temptation was to stay and watch, but in truth I was unsure of our safety even at that height. Dimly remembered details of Gunung Krakatau and the tsunami that had hit Bandar Lampung played on my mind. We kept going. I considered trying to reach Murray's crew to warn them of the danger but it seemed unwise. Our group, with surfers and kids, was 8 strong. To head down to the cove was to risk the safety of the entire group. We continued our escape. Murray was not so lucky.
We noticed the board carriers behaving strangely on the cliff and not long after, I pinged my 7 footer when I went down inside an 8 footer. After unhooking myself from what was left of my surfboard I thought it best to swim to the beach so I bee lined it for terra firma only to find I was just going sideways in that mother of all rips that scours along the bukit on big swells. Plan B was immediately formed so I swam back out to sea and in doing so got caught in another rip running in the opposite direction taking me right back to the point. When I got there I was surprised to see a shit load of the reef exposed and the back half of my board high and dry at the foot of the cliff. At this point it made sense to body surf a small one on to the reef and salvage at least my fin (single fin era) since it was the only valuable thing left.
Up against the cliff face bashing and kicking to free the fin (fixed fin days) I was suddenly faced with an out-of-nowhere huge set which marched around the corner and cleaned out the line-up, but to my astonishment it just kept coming turning a lowish tide into a massive high tide in 20 seconds. This had me being rasped along the jagged base of the limestone cliff until I was washed into a dark deep cave littered with freaked out bats shrieking in panic as this huge volume of water smashed into their sleepy little hollow. When I finally got myself high and dry at the back of the cave, lathered in blood, I watched as tons of water dredging back out of the cave rolling some giant rocks out the mouth. I sat there for another 10 minutes trying to figure out what had happened and to be sure another gush wasn’t coming my way.
Once back out the mouth of the cave and on the dry reef I realised there was no one to be seen. Apparently everyone had been sucked a half a mile out to sea and had eventually made their way back to the beach (after all they still had their boards) on the Ulus side of Padang so I was on my own. I still had no idea I had been hit by a tsunami and could not be sure another set may rumble in and have its way with me again, so I decided to scale the cliff. In my mind high and dry was the only safe option.
Meanwhile at the top of the cliff my board carriers having witnessed the spectacle had written off their day's wage because they had given me up for dead. The massive violent movement of water was had been a life and death struggle even for those on their boards let alone a lone swimmer. Coming from the shipwreck coast in Western Victoria I had scaled a few cliffs in my time so 20 minutes later I appeared at the top of the cliff looking like I had done a few rounds with a Bengali tiger but to the board carriers I was the walking dead! Once they realised indeed I was alive and was pleading for a goddam Garum, their smiles reappeared and I think to this very day it was primarily because they knew that payday was back on the agenda and it was only going to cost them a cigarette!
It was a minor miracle not only that Murray and the rest of his crew survived but that there were no fatalities or injuries around the Padang and Uluwatu area. Other parts of Bali, as well as Lombok, Sumba and Sumbawa, were less fortunate with an estimated 200 killed. The cause was a 6.5 earthquake west of Sumba. We all met later that night at Poppies, exchanged stories and drank a few beers to the Great Sumba Earthquake of 1977. //BLINDBOY and MURRAY BOURTON