Tsunami '77

 Laurie McGinness picture
Laurie McGinness (blindboy)
Swellnet Dispatch

padang-padang-tube-mick-curley.jpgOn 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.

 

My Story:

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.

Murray's story:

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!

Later.

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

Comments

Craig's picture
Craig's picture
Craig Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 10:29am

Gee, Murray was lucky the cave didn't fill up and drown him. Great account, thanks for sharing.

mundies's picture
mundies's picture
mundies Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 10:32am

Ripping yarn. Thanks guys. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger - and gives you great material for later reminiscences..

mundies's picture
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mundies Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 10:37am

BTW never experienced a tsunami but had a 6.4 earthquake about a month ago that shook me and my girls up in Chile (just researched then what strength it was and there has been FIVE quakes since then in the region all about 4.5...). Had a couple of 7's in Chile and also NZ a few years ago. It really brings home that we are specks of dust in a big universe, if you are unlucky and in the wrong place at the wrong time its all over before you can blink.

indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming's picture
indo-dreaming Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 3:14pm

Great read.

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 3:19pm

When did they start being called tsunami in the Western world? Far back as I can remember they were always (incorrectly) called tidal waves. Seems about 10-15 years ago the Japanese word stuck.

lindo's picture
lindo's picture
lindo Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 6:56pm

Ripping yarn alright. Those really are the shaky isles, as more recent earthquakes and tsunamis have tragically shown. Around the same time as Blindboy and Murray's story there was a 5.7 quake near Singaraja - in June 76 from memory - that demolished some villages in N Bali, with significant death toll. We were on Lembongan with Adi and Wayan Suwenda at the time, staying under a coconut hut - sail storage shed on the beach in from shipwrecks. My good friend Brandy was very sick with Bali Belly and lying prone in the shade of the sails, under the influence of some local 'medication', when the quake struck, shaking everything. Adi's then Aussie girlfriend (later wife) Robyn was a big girl and Brandy, in his delirium, thought she'd decided to shake the shelter for some reason, and kept yelling for her to stop! Fortunately it wasn't that strong where we were, but I remember the pandanus tree hedge (if that's what it was) at the top of the beach shaking, and the sand running down the steepest part of the beach. It was low tide and there wasn't a tsunami, at least not where we were.

lindo's picture
lindo's picture
lindo Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 7:08pm

And speaking of caves, back in those days we used to stay in the cave just in from the S point at Balungan for several days when the swell was right for it - just above high tide line - luckily no tsunamis came in while we were there. One night we heard all this rustling in the bushes, but didn't think too much about it other than maybe a monkey was prowling around. The next day we were surfing and Moorey from Newcastle was up on the cliff filming when he saw some Balos bolt out of those bushes, grab our gear and take off. He had the presence of mind to give chase, calling 'polici' as he went, and they dropped all but 1 of the bags they'd snatched. The one they got away with had what was left of our food in it, which they were welcome to. In those days there was nothing in the area, and the nearest village was several km back towards the main Bukit road, which is presumably where the maling came from. We didn't begrudge them our food in any case, but it was impressive that they'd hidden there during the night and waited into the heat of the day, when we were surfing on the high tide, to make their move.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 7:16pm

Food? On the bukit, tiny baking powder biscuits or nasi campur with chilli as the main component was the choice. The first had no nutritional value and I could never manage more than half a bowl of the nasi. I lost 8-10kg over three months on that trip!

lindo's picture
lindo's picture
lindo Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 7:54pm

Some crew returned from those long early missions - 3 month stays were the go back then, as you noted, if you had the time, which a lot of us did - looking like they'd just got out of Belsen or Auschwitz. And in our case, at 17-19, our parents were shocked by the sight of these wild-eyed, skin-and-bones maniacs getting off the plane. As to the Balungan food heist, from vague memory, we'd already eaten all the nasi, and were left with those sickly sweet bread rolls - already stale when we bought them, pineapple jam and dutch lady or happy cow cheese triangles - none of which were particularly appetizing, and what remained of the fruit - papaya and bananas mostly.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Wednesday, 24 Sep 2014 at 7:59pm

Definitely lindo. I also picked up a dwarf tape worm from the sun dried fish on Lembongan which didn't help. It was a full on lifestyle walk walk walk, surf surf surf, walk walk walk, we were too stuffed to eat enough to catch up by the time we got back to Kuta.

salt's picture
salt's picture
salt Thursday, 25 Sep 2014 at 6:51am

Yeah great piece BB, good read.

zsurfnut's picture
zsurfnut's picture
zsurfnut Friday, 26 Sep 2014 at 4:34pm

You trail blazers deserved every uncrowded wave you got I reckon.
When my mate was trying to talk me into going there in '77 it was a case of
"dwarf tape worm " or "hot girlfriend"
... I married the girlfriend 31 years ago and shes still hot, plus I got an OK surf at Bells this morning with the crowd.
Great read tho , more of these stories please Swellnet

pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf Friday, 26 Sep 2014 at 11:12pm

I can't believe I've just read about the same exact experience I had at Padang Padang in August '77. I was surfing it with 3 others , we got out on the beach on the Ulus side , watched some other guys (probably Bourton and friends) fight against a radical out going tide, then got swamped by a single freak wave which washed right up into the bush at the back of the beach. I remember the ground shaking, so was out of the water while the whole thing unfolded. I've related that story quite a few times over the years to crew, but was starting to wonder if I'd embellished it too much, but Blindboys and Murray Bourtons descriptions are spot on. I too did a 3 mth stint that year, my first, with 2 mates Michael & Geoff. We had a shortcut to Padang from the bemo drop zone, but usually wanted to check Ulus first ,then head over to Padang if the swell was solid . I have a photo of the Ulus hillside with 2 newly built warung, but there was nothing there at the beginning of our trip.

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Saturday, 27 Sep 2014 at 7:40pm

pappa you must have just missed us on the beach!

caml's picture
caml's picture
caml Saturday, 27 Sep 2014 at 7:49pm

! ! !

caml's picture
caml's picture
caml Sunday, 28 Sep 2014 at 9:07am

No wonder most indonesians are wary of the sea

pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf Sunday, 28 Sep 2014 at 10:08pm

Yes Blindboy, may have missed you some how on the beach, but we must have crossed paths. I (we) were staying at CEMPAKA also, just a medium size losmen /compound in a coconut grove about 300 m from the beach in those days. I actually stayed there again in 82 & 89, went looking for it in 03 for ol time sake, and couldn't find it for days, things had changed so much. Did you see MP at Ulus? he surfed all around me for a frantic 30 mins while I just sat there in the lineup feeling very inadequate. Not many around in them days eh, I'm 57 now, was 19 then!

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Monday, 29 Sep 2014 at 9:32am

Ha that's so cool pappa, you didn't miss me on the beach you were with me! I was at Cempaka that whole trip. So the differences in our stories are just the tricks time plays with our memories. I actually stayed at Cempaka 3, which by my estimate was still on the same site, a few years ago.

Rabbits68's picture
Rabbits68's picture
Rabbits68 Monday, 29 Sep 2014 at 12:46am

Awesome story by all that were there on that day. Can only wonder what that day & those days must of been like. Thanks for sharing......

pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf Monday, 29 Sep 2014 at 12:03pm

Well I imagine not too many are interested in the rantings of some old(er) guy reminiscing about the 70's, but joining the dots like this after nearly 40 yrs is amazing. Rereading your story, I would say I was in the water with you and Murray, Didn't know you because we were staying at a different Cempaka (maybe #1).You exited the lineup 1st then watched from above, we exited next cos the tide was getting way to low, and watched from the top of the beach on some rocky ground, I remember clearly wondering why the tide had gotten sooo low ,so quickly, and why the last few in the water were persisting, when the Tsunami hit out of nowhere. It wasn't a particularly big wave, it just kept coming up the beach right past us into the bush. We would have called it a day, gone back to town, not knowing about Murray Bourton's struggle on the other side of the headland. In fact it's the 1st I've heard of it myself. We were living in a parrallel universe , and what an awsome one it WAS!!! Hey BB I met a guy on Lembongan that year, super skinny, dark hair, kneeboarder i think (no disrespect to you) just back from a mission to a secret spot called (wait for it) Nias. Gave me detailed directions on how to get there, but I stupidly went to Sri Lanka instead. Ring any bells?

blindboy's picture
blindboy's picture
blindboy Monday, 29 Sep 2014 at 12:13pm

Hmm pappa I would be pretty sure there was only one Cempaka in those days. It was out in the coconut fields. You had to walk down Poppies Lane then follow the path around to the right until it ran out. I am a natural footer and was surfing a clear Hot Buttered, probably a 6'10" that day. I remember a couple of younger guys at the losmen who I used to share a bemo with most days so I still think there is a chance we were together.

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo Monday, 29 Sep 2014 at 12:44pm

Kneeboarder.....named Neil ?

Nias was first surfed by WAXER in 1972.

GONAD_MAN's picture
GONAD_MAN's picture
GONAD_MAN Monday, 29 Sep 2014 at 12:57pm

Was his last name Down, and did he have a brother called Bob?

pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf's picture
pappa smurf Wednesday, 1 Oct 2014 at 10:07pm

Ha, yeah I think his name was Neily.... Neily Goddup ! BB sure sounds like we stayed and surfed together, esp if there was only one Cempaka. I was on a HB 6'8" with the stickers lined up in an 'S' shape. Left that one in Nias in 1980 when I finally got there .