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The Drifter Journals

Puri Asu | The Crafted Life of Steve Levine

Life’s what you make it.

At least, that’s what 80s band Talk Talk would have us believe in their one and only smash hit.

Reality tends to waver somewhat from poetic prose and, as much as we would like it to be true, life is more often than not simply what unfolds in front of you while you’re too busy not noticing. Of course, maxims and mottos need foundation, and you’ll likely come across Steve Levine buried deep within the roots of this tried and tested mantra.

There are those who are born into a way of life. Some may have a silver spoon rectally inserted into their formative years, others may be born believing a bowl of plain rice is a gift from heaven, and the vast myriad spread thick and even in between these polarities accounts for the vast majority of this planet’s scurrying ants.

For Steve, the easy path was never an option. In fact, so much was conventionality utterly and unquestioningly unappealing that the rocky, craggy life path through thick undergrowth and fearsome predators was the easy, nay, only route to choose.

Growing up in California, Steve had dichotomy on his doorstep; “everything from palm trees to violence to mountains to mansions”, as he eloquently puts it.

“I grew up skateboarding with friends in Venice and Santa Monica, as well as surfing. We didn’t have decent, consistent waves, but my dad made a point of taking my older brother and I on a public fishing boat almost every Sunday. He didn’t fish but he would slip the deckhands a tip and tell them to look after us while he read his newspaper and had coffee.”

Like every stoked out Cali grommet, Steve lost himself between the pages of surf magazines, mindsurfing his way through high school and dreaming of escape. The fickle waves, colder water and inability to surf whenever he wanted only inspired him to pack his bags quicker and, by the age of 17, he was ready to bolt.

Steve takes up the story: “I saw pictures of Uluwatu in Surfing magazine and was determined to go there when I graduated high school. But I was 17; my parents wouldn’t let me go.
“I saved up some money and when I turned 18 I said, ‘I’m going’. They asked my older brother to go with me, but he refused to spend his savings on a surf trip, so my parents said they would buy his ticket if he went with me. Then of course I said it is only fair if they paid for my ticket as well! To my amazement they agreed, so now I had an extra $750.”

Even to this day, a little bit of cash can go a long way in Indo, and Steve planned to trickle his savings out as slowly as possible. When Steve arrived in 1993, Uluwatu was yet to be developed for tourists, a scattering of small warungs the only option for accommodation. Kuta wasn’t then what it is now, but was still a tourist hub and Steve and his brother pitched basecamp there. Exploring Kuta Reef, Padang Padang and, of course, Uluwatu, Steve got a taste for the waves of Indonesia, but he knew that so many more lay just beyond the horizon.

Boarding a boat with a handful of crazy Brazilians, Steve and his brother ventured into the blue. Lombok, Sumbawa, Desert Point, Supersucks - the Californians’ minds were blown wide open with the potential of breaks round the extensive Indonesian coastline. But just as the door of opportunity had opened, time was swinging it shut and their Indo experience was drawing to a close.

“The Brazilians told us they were going to G-Land, but we were going back to LA…

“Actually, my brother was going back to LA and I was heading to G-Land with an extra $750 to try and stretch my stay as long as possible… it’s now 27 years later,” he laughs.

$750, even back then and on a frugal budget, can only stretch so far, and Steve eventually did head home… but not without instilling an absolute addiction to Indonesia, its waves and the many adventures that might unfold.

On his third return, each time having ventured farther from beaten paths, he found himself in Nias. While Steve was carving his own path through the blank canvas of his future, that same path he was trekking through Indonesia had already been pioneered. He was gifted the fortune not of finding undiscovered destinations but of meeting those who had already discovered them and could lend advice and occasionally passage, and to do so at a time when opportunity was rich and commercial development was all but non-existent.

Nias was every surfer’s heaven; empty waves, warm oceans and few, if any, tourists. For Steve, it was just another stepping stone cast into the Indian Ocean by some giant, fateful hand. It was here that his path would once more join with other explorers.

“I met with some really wild-looking feral Aussies on Nias who told me about the islands of Asu and Bawa, how they had malaria and how ‘the mozzies bite right through ya jeans mate!’

“Mark Flint from Australia took us from Lagundri to Asu and Bawa for a day trip with his little speedboat in 1996. I saw the island, and I fell in love.”

Steve describes the Hinako Islands - a group of eight small islands scattered off the west coast of Nias - as the Hawaii of Indonesia. Snow-white sands reach down into a perfectly clear azure ocean abundant with life, and with swells rolling in across the Indian Ocean without interference. The exposed archipelago gains larger, more consistent swells than many other Indonesian destinations, which immediately piqued the young surfer’s interest.

Barely into his 20s, Steve realised that this was his place in the world, though no resort offered shelter, no hotel… in fact, very little of anything at all existed on the outlying Asu Island. Yet where some would see impossibility, Steve saw only potential and the building blocks with which to make whatever future, whatever life, he desired.

“I came back the next season with a small chainsaw to build a cabin. I hooked up with a local and did just that. We have come a long way since that cabin.”

The Nias mainland is only a short board trip away, so while Steve’s first sojourns to Asu may have been to quite literally carve a life out of the jungle, he was never so far from civilisation as to make a more permanent venture impossible. What was impossible was to earn a living while doing so, so some semblance of a business plan was needed.

In 1998, Steve was in Bali. Though various areas of Bali were booming more than a solid south swell at Racetracks, Uluwatu remained relatively under-developed and he saw opportunity for some surfer-dedicated accommodation. Puri Uluwatu was - as Steve notes with some significant pride - Uluwatu’s first air-conditioned venue. Eventually opening in 2001, this was a foundation from which he could build greater things, returning to Asu to develop a sister resort in one of Indonesia’s most remote regions.

Money was only ever his means to an end, and Puri Asu was the perfect way to balance necessity with desire. The crystalline ocean plunges to over 200 metres just offshore, providing exceptional fishing and diving, with numerous reefs offering waves through the majority of conditions. Establishing Puri Asu in 1999 - or Gansgta’s Paradise as it was named in its first iteration - was the ultimate means to an end:

“It was never about the money,” he reflects. “It has always been about surfing and fishing. I have avoided having to walk into an office for work for 80 percent of my life and managed to develop two functioning resorts with my partners in places I dreamed about as a kid. I am very happy.”

It would be easy for a westerner to step into an impoverished region, flaunt his money, plunder the community and steal the land and its potential from beneath the feet of those to whom it belongs. Lord knows, we’ve seen it happen around the world in endless ways and far too frequently. From the very beginning, this would never be Steve’s story. In fact, he has been diligent in his appreciation and support of local communities.

“Local staff, local supply, local government, local village,” he advises. “The only things that we have that aren’t local are the guests and the specialty tools.”

Of course, one might think. What else can he do but utilise local resources? But Steve wasn’t exploiting, or even simply using the workforce available to him, he was and continues to actively support local families in any way he can. With the nearest hospital several hours and a stretch of ocean away, necessity has demanded a certain amount of medical self-reliance. An extensive medical kit is always on hand to take care of many injuries and ailments from reef cuts to malaria. Even more significant injuries can be managed and stabilised onsite, well enough, at least, to make the transfer to an established hospital safe and achievable.

This is, of course, for guests’ safety, but such is the nature of this Indonesian outpost and Steve’s respect for it that he also regularly provides medical services to locals - Puri Asu serving as the island’s makeshift infirmary for locals:

“There is no clinic on Asu, we have an extensive medical kit and are basically the go-to for anything from skin rashes to trauma injuries and evacuations. We have a great relationship with residents and government and always do our best to help beyond what is expected.

“Covid has been difficult as a business obviously. We closed completely to guests March 2020 and only now are accepting a few here and there. We kept all of our senior staff on duty at full salary. There are no more tips, but salary has been paid in full and on time.” 

Despite Puri Asu now being fully established, offering a range of accommodations and facilities to international guests and having high-quality boats to whisk surfers away to the outer reef breaks, its location demands far more self-sufficiency than band aids and Betadine and Steve has developed an acute sense of organisation, planning and independence.

“For essential items, I have learned that If you have one, you have none; if you have two really you have one; if you have THREE then you can say you have a spare,” he suggests with a laugh.

“Everything rusts, rots and breaks at an exponential rate with the 90 percent humidity and salt air. I have learned to accept that logistics is an art and a science; calculating volume and consumption, weights and measures are the key to staying comfortable. Things break, be prepared. Self-reliance is essential for us.”

It would be nice to be utterly off-grid, from power and water to produce, but while fresh water is plentiful, the notion of farming on the sandy, coral-strewn landscape is unfeasible and Puri Asu imports its food from local producers on Nias. Power too is a challenging commodity to maintain. Until now, diesel hasn’t simply been the best or cheapest option, it has been the only option. That’s all about to change though. While the diesel system will remain as a backup, Puri Asu is gradually being converted to a solar system. Expensive and a challenge to import from far away, it has taken dedication and determination, but Steve is motivated by sustainability - both financial and environmental.

“It is expensive and all the equipment must come from far away, but we want it and will get it done.”

And this sense of responsibility reaches beyond his power source:

“Repurposing whatever can be reused is the mantra. Inevitably there is trash, the choices are to burn it, bury it, or send it to Nias where it will be thrown on the side of the road or beach. We are working with the West Nias government for solutions but at this point all we can do is keep Asu as clean as possible and dispose of the trash responsibly.”

Despite Steve’s best and most diligent efforts, the global rise and rise of plastic usage is gradually impacting even this remote outpost of surf adventure. The lack of both education and infrastructure is seeing plastic creep onto Asu’s pristine shores.

“I didn’t see floating plastic trash when fishing around the Hinakos until about 2010. At first it was little enough that I would stop the boat and grab whatever it was floating, [but] every year there is more. A day or two after big rain in Nias we see some trash in the current lines.” Perhaps those same currents will catch him too eventually, casting him across the ocean like the plastic how now gathers from the water. Perhaps a reinvention is needed, a rebuilding of life, made once more to be as he wishes. Or perhaps those many years were driving towards a single end, a destination found in Puri Asu.

From his teenage departure from Californian shores to his perennial struggle for sustainability on every level, Steve has made his life what it is. The consistent nagging to his parents and unwavering focus on a dream, the pursuit of waves he didn’t even know existed, the arduous challenge of first reaching Asu and then establishing himself with his own bare hands, creating two successful surf businesses and maintaining them throughout storms, swells, seasons and global pandemics…

No aspect of this life ever simply happened to Steve - life’s what he made it.

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