If anybody mentions that they are going to Bali, the default reaction has to be envy. It doesn't matter whether the plan is to party out in Bali's well documented night club "Sky Garden", where tourists prefer to fuel their stay by the quantity of beers they down rather than the number of waves they can catch; or whether the aim is the 'Eat, Love, Pray' scenario, if you're going to Bali you're heading for paradise; white beaches, stunning scenery, breathtaking sunsets, and guilt free alcoholic beverages at 12 noon. For me and my friend Ciaran, however, Bali means surf. Perfect surf. Surf that it so perfect that when the wave unfurls ahead of you it offers more options than your brain can compute. Even a bad wave is better than your best wave back home and this couldn't be more true for us coming from Hong Kong where the waves don't pack too much of a punch.
This trip was my third trip to Bali, but the first that I would consider being a "surf" trip. The aim was to cram in so much surf that we'd need a holiday by the end of it! Amazing though Bali is, for the first week, we decided to head off in search of somewhere a little more off the beaten track, somewhere quieter that wouldn't offer much else if surfing wasn't your bag. For this, we jumped on a four hour public ferry heading for the island of Lombok. The ferry runs every hour, 24hours a day and costs just HK$25. For HK$500 you could opt for the high speed exclusive 1 hour ferry but when the public ferry throws in non stop Indonesian karaoke for free and provides plastic coated 4 foot benches for a good night's sleep, the choice is a no brainer!
We stayed at Kuta Beach, from where is was easy to access nearly all the surf spots and just busy enough to be called a village. We hired mopeds, hooked up our boards and headed off along roads and dirt tracks that hugged the coast, past farms and through fields to Grupuk, the island's main surf area. Grupuk has 3 breaks; Insides, Outsides and Don Dons. Don Dons was an A-Frame but the other two were perfect right handers and the whole bay boasted a consistent swell. Most notable for us was Insides where the waves were just super playful; not too big, nor too small but just enough to enjoy some great turns, carves and if you possessed the skill, airs.
However we weren't the only people who got the memo and Grupuk was really busy so it was a constant battle to grab a wave all to yourself!
Due to high winds Outsides was never working for us but we did get to try Don Dons. It was just smaller than Insides but the A-Frame made split the crowd so despite the numbers it seemed less busy. It was a fun wave but could have done with more size.
Back at Kuta Beach a fellow surfer joined us over a cold beer and started waxing lyrical about a magical wave called Maui that was almost free of line ups. Like in all good fairytales, however, he warned us of the surprise monster sets that occasionally crept up and cleaned everyone out and added that Maui broke over a shallow, very sharp reef. We had to go and investigate but it was with a degree of nervousness and in trepidation that we set out on our mopeds the next day.
We arrived at lunchtime, just as the tide was at its lowest and parts of the reef were sticking out, jagged and threatening. There were about 4 people in the water and the waves were much bigger than Grupuk. We thought it wise to wait until the tide started to come up, and cover some of the coral, but as the guys coming in were raving about it so much we threw caution to the wind and paddled out. For the first 10 minutes we were the only two in the water and it was amazing. The bay was fringed with dramatically carved hillsides, birds were circling above then diving into the crystal clear water to catch the fish squirming beneath, and of course there were perfect waves on tap. The first wave I caught was just a small one as I was a bit hesitant about reef below. As you glided across the smoothest, glassiest wave you could see the brilliant colours and patterns of the coral just feet below. Despite its beauty, you did not want to fall as it would quickly change from your best friend to your worst enemy tearing and ripping at your feet and limbs. However after just one wave my fears had completely disappeared so when the next bomb set came though, I was paddling furiously to get on it. The drop was the biggest I've ever experienced and the adrenaline was coursing though me. After a couple turns I kicked out of what I claimed at the time to be "The best wave I've ever caught!". The session went on perfect wave after perfect wave, till sundown when we called it a day; and what a day it was.
A week down and we already felt we had peaked having surfed the best waves of our lives. However, it was time to head back to Bali for the remainder of the trip and try to top Lombok. First on the list was Canggu, a beach break up the west coast of Bali, which hosted some medium size waves with a punch. It wasn't my best session of the trip but I saw others accomplish some great surfing and even a few unexpected barrels. We stayed till sunset and true to form in Bali, the sunset was sublime.
Next up was Balangan. Before the trip I'd had it on good authority that this was the longest, cleanest and most exhilarating fun wave around for someone like me to try. With a resume like that we had to go check it out. It was low tide again when we arrived, so the reef was only a few feet below and getting out to the line-up looked a challenge in itself. I sat at one of the bars eying up the wave for a while debating whether or not I wanted to go out, as at that point didn't look like "the longest, cleanest, most exhilarating fun wave in Bali," plus nobody in the bar was raving about it. But, I was there, and I wasn't going to waste a day sitting around and as Ciaran had already decided to brave it, I took up the gauntlet and paddled out. In true fashion, mother nature decided to turn the switch and give me what I had come all that way for. Thirty minutes into the session I caught my second wave. It was big, daunting, but I was in the perfect spot. Paddling as hard as I could I glided onto the face, set myself and searched down the wave to pick out my line. The wave was so faultless that all I wanted to do was stay on and ride it for as long as possible so that's exactly what I did. It must have taken me nearly the complete length of the beach as I kicked out over about a foot of reef. Ciaran, who because I'd been gone so long, thought I must have bailed and got thrown onto the reef, saw me paddling back, the furthest surfer away, with the biggest grin on my face. That wave just about made the trip, but it didn't stop there. Earlier from the bar I'd seen people tucking into, hollow, barrelling waves. Barrels are to surfers what neck deep powder is for skiers and gives you a feeling that can only be explained when you have experienced it for yourself. Two waves after the ride of my life I saw my chance for my first ever barrel. As I looked down the wave I saw the lip of the wave peeling in front of me. I took a high line, grabbed my rail to keep balanced and then it happened. I was inside the wave getting barrel vision for the first time ever. Sadly, about a second or so later the wave caught up with me and I took a real pummelling on the reef. But It didn't matter that I didn't make the wave, because it was the first wave I'd ever experienced on a surfboard inside a barrel and I can finally understand the addiction.
As much as we wanted to surf all day everyday, the body takes a real pounding and we needed a few hours off now and again, so on our down days we took the time to explore Bali and Lombok. Using the trusty scooter we set off with only a pretty vague plan of where we we heading. Lombok, a much less developed island made exploration a dream. Every road, path, beaten down track lead you to another spectacular part of the island. I found myself stopping every five minutes to take a photo until I realised we wouldn't get past the first village if I kept this up.
So, our last day in Bali was upon us and we had an all time favourite spot we wanted to revisit, Airport Reef. We had been there a few times already and discovered that in the morning the wind was non existent and the water perfectly smooth and clear. We fancied doing a sunrise session and being fairly close to our accommodation, it was easy enough to get there before six. The first hour of the session I spent with my camera and snapped a few shots that I'm personally very proud of, then ditching it for my board I quickly snagged a wave. By this point, the word "perfect" was becoming hackneyed but no less relevant. An hour longer and a few rides later, we were heading back to land in for the last time and I thought to myself, "nailed it".