2008, not that long ago, Lombok
It was the classic bargain basement surf trip. Sharing a room for $25, no hot water, no internet, no nothin'. We had a Kijang to bump around in and a local guide making a few extra bucks riding shotgun for us when the waves were pumping. We went on the shittiest roads through ricefields to get to his favourite breaks, always firing. At the end of the session, we bought peeled pineapples cut into spirals for 50 cents and sat in the shade of a few palm fronds thrown over a lean-to. The villages were connected by dusty, potholed trails and carts were still being hauled by donkeys.
We did a few trips in between and noticed a few changes, not much, pretty well expected, can't complain. The Russians had moved into Grupuk, built a few gaudy villas, then pissed off back to Nusa Dua and left the locals to water the gardens, clean up the vodka empties, and patrol the fencelines.
The Euros were moving in, stretching and doing yoga on the beach, bargaining to buy a $3 sarong for $2 and taking surf lessons on soft-tops. A few cafe/restaurants were appearing, all advertising free wi-fi that never worked, but the food was cheap, and good and fresh. Bintang Besar was cold and service wasn't too bad as long as you weren't in a hurry.
Fast forward to 2019 and I'm standing outside where our humble Surfers Inn was but now it's a central part of the $3 Billion Mandalika project which will incorporate a World Superbikes circuit for 2021 with 10,000 available rooms. Well, you could've knocked me over with half a block of tropical Sex Wax. Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-development, but I'm struggling with the philosophical question of where I'm going to get my Ayam Chicken and Bintang Besar for 50,000 roops anymore. Will I be catching a shuttle to Ekas and boarding a fibreglass twin Johnson to those orange cliffs with fifty others for a two hour allocated shift? Is it all over, or is it just me? Is Lombok becoming Bali? I know waves still come in at Ulus, and Canggu, and Medewi, seafood is excellent and so's the beer, but is it still the same? What do the locals reckon, are they up for the changes? I visit for a few weeks every coupla years, so who gives a rats about my entitled opinion?
We all know the photo from Morning of the Earth with the backs of two surfers standing at Ulus in the early 70s watching a solid swell thunder onto the reef. They'd just walked through a couple of rice paddies, past smoking coconut husks outside thatched huts. Tamum Shud's 'Bali Waters' was playing in the palms. That was the dream right there. The image burned into a million surfers brains and made into that poster. It was the morning of the earth, who the fuck thought of that, was it Alby or G.Wayne ? Brilliant! Register that sucker as a business.
The forces of the universe
And the elements of space
Conjured up your being
Your size, your time, your shape
You were created
With all the beauty they could call
And earth, you surely are
The measure of them all
G. Wayne Thomas - Morning of the Earth.
Was this mellow surf flick the start of something even bigger? Was it 'The Morning of Infinite Planeloads of Surfers to Somewhere Like That' ?
Alby's 16mm pic and soundtrack with no dialogue resonated with just about everyone who saw it. The lyrics and music said it all. "They are songs of freedom and peace and waves," says Alby on his website. Well, fuck me, we all want that, I'll take any of the three, starting with waves.
And so, the migrations began. Even hoons like us from the bush were captivated. We could get a shitty job which paid well, then travel past volcanoes, lakes, through rainforests, peel back some lush dewy leaves and emerge on a virgin patch of thumping, peeling lefts and rights.
So, there we were, sitting in the civic hall in Cooma in 1973 with a hundred other Snowy kids, shitty speakers on the stage and shaky filmspool changes. The last reel of celluloid finished and we all walked out looking for surf. We didn't have car licences, boards or even a coastline, but at least we could do the clothing bit. A few days later with Miller shirts and some jumbo cords we headed for the nearest beach, 90 minutes away. We were saving up for the boards, fuck yeah. We were Steve Cooney and Rusty Miller at Ulus. That was us if they turned around.
Anyway, enough sepia, fast forward to 40 megapixel colour
Here I am on the asphalt of the main drag of Kuta Lombok and it looks like the Campbell Parade, Bondi. Five years ago they were filling up our Suzuki APV using two litre bottles and a funnel, pumped out from the bowser by hand. My hotel air-con didn't work, the toilet wouldn't flush, and only the deluxe room had hot water or a fridge. The coffee for sale was a beautiful sweet, strong, gritty, brew.
"French construction company Vinci is expected to build several supporting facilities ranging from hotels and shopping malls to a hospital and apartments to ensure Lombok is capable of handling a large influx of tourists. The street circuit venue will house 150,000 spectators for the MotoGP championship. The supporting facilities will be built on 131 hectares of land within the designated 1175-ha Mandalika resort," says the marketing material.
I thought I could see something coming when the near-abandoned airport at Praya was rebuilt and took over from Mataram. It's doubled in size in five years and the roads have gotten wider and wider. It's like watching your kid growing up: You want them to stay the same, when they were cute and cuddly and easy to manage. Now they're growing up, doing whatever they want.
Being a Muslim island it took Lombok a long time to kick off - I think there was a bit of hesitancy about investing there. Now they're playing catch up and it's in full power mode turned up to 11. The Indonesian Tourism Development Corporation has, in a masterly marketing strategy, renamed Lombok the 'The Invest Islands' and designated it a SEZ - a Special Economic Zone. There's going to be Cable Cars, Eco Electric Trains, a Mangrove Park, and Botanic Gardens. Minimum private investment US$50,000 and a return of 15%-20% (maybe).
So, what does this mean for surfing and for the locals?
I hope the locals get to cash in as well. I'd like to see Sonya's Snapper Restaurant just near bemo corner become so famous that influencers want to take selfies there. It'd be nice for Tina selling sarongs and T-shirts from her thatched hut on the roadside twelve hours a day, to crack the property market with some canny investments. Maybe Rudi, our guide from the Sassak village, who kindly invited us to share dinner with his family one night, can start guided surfaris with wealthy entitled tourists looking for a bit of a challenge before they head back to their city towers. He could buy his kids a better education, a car, maybe sign his kids up for holidays on the mainland, or overseas, who knows, dreams are free.
As for surfing, well the waves won't change, but the number of empties passing through will. And that's the ancient philosophical surfing paradox. We find it, build it, and then complain about it. Yeah, we've all got that break we know that takes two planes, a speedboat, and a bus to get to. Old mate got there first a few years back and set up a bungalow with a gennie and some mossie nets and called it an eco-lodge. The break was right there out the front, left and right, and it pumped all day with only four of us out. Now it's rooted, with surfboats parked there every day and dozens of hooting chargers hitting it.
Is Lombok becoming that? Come on, what should I expect, that locals be happy carting water to cook rice, sending their 5 and 6 year old kids out until midnight selling wrist bands for a buck? Having a crap on the beach cause there's no sewerage? If we are the advance party for capitalism, development, happy hour cocktails, hair braiding, is that such a bad thing? Buggered if I know...
Last time I was in Bali, there were plenty of locals who looked like they hadn't benefited a lot. Changing scooter tyres in a small tin shed on a busy road near the airport, doing laundry for a few bucks, selling a million different types of pots with ten other shops. Though life is definitely better for some. Fuck, I had to pay for parking at Echo Beach a few years after the restaurant was built and villas stood where the paddies were. Good to see the locals cashing in. There was so few houses there first time that we spent a night letting off ball-shooters and rockets we got in a backstreet, down a lane and up some stairs, in a small room, don't tell anyone, in Denpasar. That was fun.
Anyway, there's another song that goes, 'Whatever will be will be'. I'm glad we had it to ourselves for so long. It will keep rolling on I guess. The waves will always be there, that's the thing, they don't change and neither will the feeling of riding that one wave that made the whole trip. That's what you remember, that's what you look for, another 'Morning of the Earth' like the one I saw in the hall all those years ago.
So, I'll leave them to it, to 2021 and the Superbikes, to the Cable Cars and Eco Lodges.
We're off again next year, to a little spot a mate found, with just a gennie and some mossie nets.....