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How Surf Tourism Dumped on Bali and Indonesia

In 1980, Bali hosted its first international pro surfing contest, the Om Bali Pro, at Uluwatu on the Bukit Peninsula. The competition, sponsored by surfer Stephen Palmer’s clothing brand at the time, was a huge success.

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Surf photographer Zak Noyle published shocking images of Indonesian champion Dede Suryana surfing through waves of rubbish south of Java.

And yet Palmer – who surfed Bali in the 1970s when there was “bush all the way between Legian and Kuta” – confessed to a niggling regret in the book Bali: Heaven and Hell.

“After the success of the first one, they built a road into the break (at Uluwatu). I used to love walking in along the track – this narrow goat track with cactus either side, and stiles you had to climb over. I always regretted that we inadvertently caused that.”

Conundrum for surf exploration
This anecdote neatly encapsulates the conundrum of surf exploration, which almost invariably leads to surf tourism. At the 2015 Ubud Writers and Readers Festival, Jarratt and a panel of surfers/writers discussed the impact – both positive and negative – that surf exploration has had on the Third World.

While an important driver of the economy in Bali, Java, Sumatra and parts of the eastern archipelago, it has also led to unwanted cultural change and environmental degradation.

“It’s a subject that all of us surfers and surf explorers, particularly those who wrote about their adventures, feel somewhat ambivalent about – what part we played in the disintegration of the community,” Jarratt says.

Peter Reeves’ description of Lagundri Bay in Nias, Sumatra in the early 1980s is evocative. It was a surfer’s dream, he writes in the Surfer’s Journal, a time when you had to do boat trips to the mainland just to get food and surfers would sit through flat spells, chewing betel nut with the locals and teaching each other their language and culture.

“I miss those days,” Reeves reminisced in 1997. “By the late 80s, the magic was gone. Lagundri had turned into an eroded, polluted, hygiene nightmare and the Stone Age warriors we first met in 1980 had, well and truly, turned into Basil Fawlty hoteliers. Today, you can fly in on a package tour, complete with swimming pool, cable TV, room service and outer island tours … Surfing has certainly boosted the Lagundri Bay economy, but I feel it has come at a huge cost.”

Pollution ‘worst I’ve ever seen’
On April 22, 2012, American surfing champion Kelly Slater tweeted: “If Bali doesn’t #Dosomething serious about this pollution it’ll be impossible to surf here in a few years. Worst I’ve ever seen”.

The following year surf photographer Zak Noyle published shocking images of Indonesian champion Dede Suryana surfing through waves of rubbish south of Java.

In the early days of surf exploration, surfers managed to keep breaks a closely guarded secret. This was partly selfish, says Patrick Burgess, who has been surfing in Indonesia since the late ’70s, and partly a protective desire to stop communities being eaten up by the insatiable commercial machine.

But the launch of classic surf film Morning of the Earth in 1972, with its depiction of the mythical wave at Uluwatu, opened the floodgates of surf tourism in Bali. Surfers from all over the world came to experience the new mecca.

Strong responsibility to give back
“There is now a different ethic of sharing information,” Burgess says. The Australian barrister lives in Canggu, 10 kilometres north of Kuta. It was once an idyll for artists and surfers , with views of paddy fields and a big, challenging wave.

In the last three years Burgess has seen 300 new restaurants pop up within three kilometres of his house, development he says has been largely driven by access to surf.

“How do you connect a sense of social responsibility and caring for the local environment and culture with that speed of development?”

Many of the surf discoverers feel a strong responsibility to “give back” to Indonesia. Burgess is the co-founder of Asia Justice and Rights (AJAR), which trains legal aid lawyers to defend the rights of local communities.

Lagundi
La Gundi in Nias in 1981 when it was still described as a “surfer’s dream”. Photo: Dick Hoole

Claude Graves, one of the pioneers of surfing in Bali, has raised more than $US6 million for the Sumba Foundation, an aid organisation he co-founded to help the people of West Sumba rise out of poverty. Graves is a man who learnt from history’s mistakes, although his method regarded as controversial in some quarters.

Development brings new approaches
Ninety per cent of rubbish is recycled before it goes to landfill and the remaining organic material turned into compost, which is then sold. Palmer is frustrated the model has not been adopted more widely. “It is an absolutely fantastic system waiting to be copied around the country and other developing nations.”

In 2012, CNN named Uluwatu the equal third top surf beach in the world. More than 500 people visit every day.

In the last 40 years, hotels and warungs (restaurants) mushroomed across the cliff face but few had their own septic tanks. Sewage and oil and organic waste from food was thrown directly into the ocean or dumped in a ravine near a cave entrance. The only access to the beach is through this cave.

“When the sewage was heavy it would be overflowing across the path you had to walk to the beach,” says Tim Russo, the owner of Uluwatu Surf Villas. “If it was a particularly busy day, the next morning the cave would stink like shit.”

Russo moved to Bali in 1999, when there was already some development on the Bukit, but nothing like there is now. In 2011, he and Palmer were among the co-founders of Project Clean Uluwatu, which has created a liquid waste processing plant for the refuse from warungs.

“Fifteen kitchens and various bathrooms didn’t have correct sewage treatments,” Russo says.

Now the treated water from the plant will be used in coral gravel gardens. The project members are waiting for Bali’s rainy season to fully kick in before they transfer the plants to the gardens. “That pretty much completes four years of work to create a full circle system.”

Nothing remains secret in the surfing world
Kevin Lovett, who discovered the Lagundri Bay surf break in 1975, says experience has taught that nothing remains secret for too long in the surfing world.

“A proactive approach would be to apply the lessons learned so that what remains off the beaten track could be more responsibly managed with a vision for the future that recognises the natural and social values of the place itself.”

In 2013, surfer and photographer Jason Childs stumbled upon one of the most unique surfing cultures in the world. On remote Morotai, one of Indonesia’s northernmost islands, the locals were originally taught to surf by a US soldier stationed there during World War II. Isolated from the rest of the world, the children developed their own method of riding waves using a crude wooden plank ripped off a boat or cut from a tree.

“I’d never seen anything like it in the 20 years I’d been in Indonesia,” Childs says. “It takes enormous skill to ride (the wooden boards). It’s dangerous – some of them have nails in them and most kids are riding in the nude.”

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This piece was published at theage.com.au / Author: Jewel Topsfield

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