It’s no secret that Bali has a magnetic allure.
Visitors return again and again, ex-pats find it impossible to leave and the island’s captivating magic proves itself as addictive as the perfect waves that break on its shores.
For most, visits or residencies spanning the last decade have seen significant change. Where rice paddies have vanished, hotels have emerged, tourists have proliferated and trash, thankfully, seems to have plateaued and is slowly, gradually diminishing.
Though expansion on an island that attributes up to 80 percent of its income to tourism is inevitable, Bali retains so much of its unfettered charm where other places see their day, burn out and lose appeal.
For the last four decades, Dave Andrews has been witnessing this transformation first hand, skipping the Pacific first from California and more recently from his current home on Kauai, to indulge his addiction to Bali and the islands of Indonesia.
“At age 20, I sold my car, quit my job and bought a one-way ticket to Bali because I heard I could live for a dollar a day,” Dave recollects of his first-ever visit. “And it was true - it was all true.”
That was in 1976, only five years after Uluwatu and the Balinese coastline had entered the consciousness of international surfers through Albie Falzon’s seminal classic, Morning of the Earth.
To those familiar with contemporary Bali, the island back then was unrecognisable. Kuta was little more than a couple of warungs and a handful of losmens, westerners were as common then as an empty wave is now, and visitors had to travel via Jakarta, with Bali yet to develop its own international airport.
For four months, Dave enjoyed this isolated paradise almost completely alone, but for the few locals, Balinese kids eager to earn a few rupiah carrying his board and a friend, whose uncle had turned the pioneering duo onto the idea of Bali as one of the world’s great surf destinations.
“My friend, John Barber, had an uncle [iconic ‘60s Malibu surfer, Bob ‘Pork Chops’ Barron] and he had been to Bali,” Dave recalls from his home on Kauai. “He was the one who told us that there were topless women and we coould live for a dollar a day. We were young kids, so we thought ‘that sounds good - let’s go!’ I had $1,200 to my name and we were off - no credit cards, no cell phones…”
Travel of any kind, let alone surf travel, was a completely different experience back then. Today, we have removable fins, sturdy board bags accommodating an entire quiver, easy transportation to and from airports and innumerable accessories and resources to make surf travel as easy as dialling ÜberEats. For Dave, it was all about self-sufficiency and preparation.
“What I packed was classic; we didn’t have board bags yet, so my mom knitted me up a board sock; I packed a Coleman stove with camping fuel, because I had no idea what I was going to; a tent; a big leather jacket; I had three leashes - the type that were made of surgical rubber tubing with a piece of rope at one end - that all broke in my first week at Uluwatu; I threw in some board shorts and we were off. I knew nothing, had hardly any money, and it was a great experience!”
Just as Dave was ill-prepared for Bali, so Bali was ill-prepared for him - or tourists of any kind. Dave recalls just two established streets on the whole island - Jalan Kuta and Poppy’s Lane - the rest were unsealed, dusty roads at best, with rough, uneven cattle trails making up most of the pathways and tracks to the coast.
“The first place I stayed was for $1.25 a night at a place in Kuta called Made’s. There was nothing there - just a couple of juice stands and a couple of restaurants and a single dirt path that led down to the beach. There were only two hotels on the entire island: one in Kuta and the other in Sanur. That was it. The only surf breaks were Kuta Beach, Legian, and we’d take the public transport out to Uluwatu, and we’d also surf Kuta Reef. Nobody even knew about the outer islands, the Mentawais, nothing - not even Padang Padang. That was the beginning of it all.
“We’d hire a motorbike for ten bucks a week or take the public transport, but eventually we went and lived in the cave at Uluwatu. You had to hike in, there was just the little bamboo ladder and my friend John and I were the only two surfers there. We lived in that cave for two weeks. It’s incredible to go back now, walk down into the cave and think that that little corner over there was my bedroom for 14 days.
“One day Gerry Lopez and Peter McCabe turned up and showed us how bad we were! Other than that, we saw five or six surfers in the whole time we were there.”
Cheap living, endless empty waves and four months with nothing to do but surf - the idea alone is enough to send a modern-day surfer loco. Spending under $700 his entire time away, Dave returned home to California with enough cash to buy a beaten up jalopy and restart his life back in the real world. But Bali had taken hold.
Like some blissful, beneficial parasite, the memories of those idyllic four months percolated continually in Dave’s mind and soul. He regaled friends with tales of his experiences, he mind-surfed the empty, tropical, crystalline waves over and over again and he knew he had to return.
“I was just a young, broke surfer at that time, so it took me seven years to save up the money to go again.”
Change is inevitable, but for Bali it has been more impactful, more damaging in some ways and certainly more all-consuming than almost anywhere else on the planet. Dave’s 1976 exploration must have been incredible and, were it to Australia’s Gold Coast, the hallowed shores of Waikiki or even the perfect point at Malibu, perhaps the change - the heartbreak - would be too much to bare.
Yet Dave has returned 24 times more to Bali, and is in no hurry to relinquish those visits.
“I can’t wait until they reopen so I can get back - I’m still striving for the same thing I always have since I was a young man.”
Each trip back uncovered a new corner of Indonesia to Dave. First, Bali, but soon after, Nusa Lembongan, Lombok, Nias and Desert Point would follow. The destinations changed little, though as time progressed and Bali’s tourism industry and infrastructure boomed - along with its traffic, crowds and trash - the journeys in between became more, not less, challenging.
“There are still so many discoveries and wonderful things that can happen, even though it’s crazy and crowded. We met some people who said, ‘we don’t like it - it reminds us of Mexico’. I thought, ‘oh God - you have no history, you don’t understand’. It’s a slice of paradise, but you have to be willing to overlook the bad stuff. My analogy is that Point A and Point B are amazing, but going between the two is a nightmare!”
Dave married his wife only a couple of years after his first trip to Bali. Since then, and despite only being a surfer herself in the last decade, she journeyed with him, by his side through almost every single one of his wave-oriented adventures.
“The first couple of times we went, we would sit on my surfboard and ride my motorcycle from Kuta all the way along the beach to Canggu. There was only one warung there called Chew & Spew, but all the rest was just rice fields; no hotels, not restaurants, nothing.”
Sailing to Nusa Lembongan, they stayed for 25 cents a night with a local named Tarzan; pioneering trips to Garajagan saw him bringing his own cooks, chickens and food; overnight stops in prehistoric fishing villages with fruit bats, jungle cats, snakes and monkeys; seven-day bus trips through central Java to Nias... but the change was omnipresent:
“I went back two years later [to Garajagan] and it had totally changed - it was like the people had pushed the wildlife back into the jungle. It was like the wildness had almost totally gone. On our first trip to G-Land, there wasn’t even a bathroom there - we had to go out on the reef!”
Back then, everything was remote and untouched, from the distant outer islands all the way back to the now-bustling clifftops of Uluwatu. But while the Island of the Gods may have shed its skin, adorned itself with the chaos and melee of modern culture and commercialism and been plagued by a rash of western visitors, beneath the surface it remains the same.
A certain iconic surf film states: “The change wasn’t in the beach or the rocks or the waves. It was in the people.” For Bali - and this is what provides its magnetic allure - the opposite is true. The beach has become engulfed by a tide of garbage, the rocks have had hotels erected upon them, the waves have become almost as crowded as the shoreline, but the people are unwaveringly welcoming, humble and warm.
It would be simple to discard Bali from your destinations of choice. On its surface, there are many things to dislike and discourage. But once you connect with the spirit of the island, the changes are almost inconsequential.
“There’s a lot of opinions on that, isn’t there?” says Dave. “For me personally, because my heart and soul and roots are there, I love that place and I love the people. I have wonderful experiences and I feel at home there every time I go.
“For about ten years, we travelled all over with my family; we went to Costa Rica, New Guinea, travelling through Mexico… then we went back to Bali one year and I realised, ‘this is it - this is what I like.’ All the other things were good, but they weren’t Bali. My heart belongs in Bali.”
One of the more challenging aspects of Bali is also its saving grace: the traffic. When we are in the heart of Kuta during Christmas holidays and a million shuffling tourists seem to be clogging every inch of space, with traffic at a standstill and the migraine-inducing buzz unrelenting, traffic is a nightmare. The flipside of this is that almost every single tourist isn’t willing to spend three hours in a car to reach the further outposts of Bali’s surf-peppered coastline or more pristine locations.
Medewi still holds this attraction. Two and a half hours on a good day from Denpasar, Medewi is far beyond the usual attractions of Seminyak and Canggu and offers little in terms of night life or creature comforts. Still simple, it retains some of the attraction Dave discovered there in the mid-80s.
“I was in Kuta and met some Aussie guy. I said, ‘let’s drive up the coast. I’ve got a driver and I’ve seen this bump in the coast - I want to check it out’. So we drive all the way to this place called Medewi, we turned in and there was a little fishing village there - no hotel, no nothing. We looked out and there was this perfect, empty left-hander peeling down the point for forever. We stayed four of five nights in this little fishing village and just surfed our brains out.
“We went back a couple of years later and the Medewi Beach Cottages were having the grand opening on the day we turned up! They snipped the ribbon and we checked in - the first guests ever to stay at the Medewi Beach Cottages - and we’ve been VIPs there ever since.”
It is small discoveries such as this that keep Bali fresh to many returning surfers and travellers. Even the more developed areas can take on a whole new hue given a fresh set of circumstances with which to discover them.
“It’s interesting for me, because I pioneered as a surfer there, then I pioneered as a stand-up paddler there, and now I’ve pioneered again with foiling. So I’ve pioneered it three times.
“We just went again right before the pandemic and I tried something I’d never done before. I’d been to Sanur, but I never went there on a surfing adventure. So in February we went there for two weeks and I heard about this point that is supposedly God’s gift to foiling. I went there to check it out and, sure enough, it was.”
It is invariably our experiences in a place that form the foundation of our impressions. With its warm climate, warm waves and warm hospitality, this trifecta of appeal ties the noose of a lifelong addiction and unwavering infatuation for many. The Balinese people with their quick smiles, bottomless well of kindness and faultless memories, imbibe us with a sense of familiarity, of kinship and belonging that can last a lifetime.
“I took my 18-year-old daughter once on a trip to the Uluwatu Temple. We pulled up at the temple, some guy opens our car door and he says to me, ‘welcome Mr David’. I’m looking at this old guy and he says, ‘you don’t remember me do you? I am Made - I used to carry your board’. It gave me chills to the bone - the Balinese people never forget. And so many people at Uluwatu remembered me from those early days. My daughter asked, ‘how do all these people remember you?’ I said, ‘I don’t know - they just never forget!’”
For Dave, Bali may well have had its halcyon days. The discovery of untouched, or at least, undocumented breaks may well now be forever out of reach, but he will never stop returning and never stop loving the place he pioneered all those years ago. In fact, it is because of his early memories that he continues to return.
“At about age 20 - which was my first trip to Bali - we all discover the grail. Then we get married, buy a house, have children and spend the rest of our lives trying to get back to age 20. That has been so accurate for me, and I’m still trying to get back to how things were when I was a 20-year-old kid.”
Stand-up paddling and foiling have afforded Dave the opportunities to rediscover breaks at which he may have caught a hundred waves before. Kuta Reef, for example, is far from a secret spot, but just two years ago - over forty years after he had first surfed it - he found new stoke and new excitement from the all-too-familiar break:
“I was staying right in front of Kuta Reef. When I went there as a kid, we’d walk out of the jungle, right where the Kartika Plaza now stands, paddle out and there was nobody there. Two years ago we were staying there and it was six or eight foot - it was a pretty big day, but I just had my 6’2” foil board. I paddled out to the corner where it was only about two foot. I picked up the wave, which was a left, but I hung a right and foiled this thing all the way across the reef for about a half a mile.
“It was a great experience for me - I’m pioneering these places for myself but in a totally different way. So I’m finding happiness in flying.”
We said it before and we’ll say it again: change is inevitable. What keeps a place precious, what keeps its spirit alive, isn’t stopping the indefatigable tide of progress - that futile struggle leads only to heartbreak. No, what keeps it alive is how we roll with that change. Sometimes, that means accepting the high rises, looking beyond the traffic jams and ignoring the hyper-commercialised aspects of tourism. Other times, it means inspiring change for the positive, supporting beach cleans, refusing plastic and encouraging other tourists to travel responsibly and be accountable for their actions.
If we can accept these changes, look to the positives in every scenario and find the specks of gold in the quagmire, these magical places - especially Bali - will remain inspiring, exciting and a little slice of paradise for time eternal...
“I’m looking at a retirement visa once this whole scenario clears up so I can spend four months there and eight months here on the North Shore of Kauai. Bali is a part of me - it’s a part of my soul - It would be a wonderful finale to my life.”