The Drifter Journals
From Zulus to Ulus | The Kaleidoscopic Life of Mel Pretorius
Interview by Thomas Alexander
The echoes of our past reverberate through our lives, shaping and moulding us, dictating our perspectives, defining our choices.
The dry and dusty heartland of South Africa is almost as contrasting to the wave-soaked beaches of Bali as any two places could be. Yet for Mel Pretorius, a tenuous thread weaves through the two, a thread that has been intertwined with her journeys across the world; from Australia to India, Mexico to Indonesia.
Growing up on the plains of South Africa, Mel’s early years were spent over six hours from the nearest salt water. Her father, a flight instructor, flew tourists over the veldt, teaching them to fly and sharing with them the landscapes and fauna of the African interior. But on holidays, it would always be to the coast that the family ventured. Mel fondly recalls days shared with her dad on these coastal vacations. She would stare for hours at images of him beneath the waves freediving and spearfishing, continually inspired to one day pursue this subaquatic freedom for herself. Even from this early age, with her salt-water sojourns so fleeting and infrequent, she was captivated.
“I grew up in the bush in South Africa, probably six hours to the closest beach. My dad would take me flying, even allowing me sometimes to take the controls once airborne, so I think, watching my dad doing something that was pretty out there when you’re little, instilled in me this ‘you can do whatever you want’ attitude and maybe a desire for freedom and things that make me feel alive.
“He followed his passions with no reserve, and that definitely inspired me to do the same for myself.”
“We would go on holiday to the beach,” Mel reflects. “I was obsessed with the ocean even then. I would just sit by the ocean for hours and just watch it, completely mesmerised. But it wasn’t really a part of my life back then.”
At the age of 12, and with a rising volatility in South Africa, the young family made the decision to move to Australia. Inland Caboolture in South East Queensland may not have been the perfect Aussie coastal town from which surfers’ dreams are born, but the one-hour commute to the shore provided Mel the accessibility to the ocean for which she had yearned.
“When I was about 15, I realised I just had to learn how to surf. I found this dodgy old paddle-pop stick with flames down the side for $50 at a garage sale. I had to take a bus and then a train to get to the beach and just got smoked for about a year. I’d go out in the ocean and just lie on my belly with no idea what I was doing, but I loved it, I loved just being in the ocean and in the water. It was blissful.”
Mel would beg for lifts from her dad, ride public transport, anything to sate her craving for the opportunity to dip her toes once more in the crystal clear warm waters of the Sunshine Coast. Simply being near the ocean was more than enough, but when she discovered surfing, an unquenchable passion rose within her.
“I remember getting a lot of flack from the boys for surfing, saying ‘what are you doing out here, you shouldn’t be here’. Even at that stage, not many girls were surfing at all. But I think that, too, drove me to be even more committed.”
The gauntlet was cast, and Mel more than rose to the challenge. Devoted to her newfound obsession, she immersed herself in the ocean at every possible opportunity, learning by watching, sheer persistence and determination her unwavering mentor.
Her love of the ocean rose beyond riding waves and she found new ways to venture to the shore, becoming a surf instructor despite, by her own admittance, her own lack of proficiency as a surfer herself.
Studying journalism and sustainability, Mel received a second-year scholarship to continue her education in Mexico, the gamut of readily-accessible waves affirming not only her love for the ocean, but also her oceanic aptitude.
“It was incredible - the best thing I’ve ever done. My time there got me into some really beautiful waves and reaffirmed my love of surfing, but also my love of travel, different cultures and languages, exploration and living a different lifestyle.”
But as with so many wanderings of our youth, Mel’s Mexican adventures were fleeting, and the chains of her education drew her back to Australia. Finishing her degree, she achieved what many would deem success. Straight out of university, she secured a position with media behemoth, Fairfax Media, working as a journalist, even venturing beyond print into television and radio. But the repetitive and persistent pressures of the media world took their toll, exacerbated by the fact that she was working in the crime department.
The two-and-a-half year tenure was more than enough to throw new perspectives into Mel’s life. She had grown up inspired by adventure, nature and the pursuit of happiness - the farthest-flung disparity of where she now found herself:
“I did investigative journalism, court reporting and so on”, she recalls, “but then I had a full-on meltdown. I looked at all my superiors and realised that, though I was incredibly grateful for the experience, this was not my path.”
Sometimes our greatest life lessons, the ones that reverberate loudest throughout our lives are the ones that challenge us the most; our best teacher, they say, is our last mistake. Despite her gratitude for her education and the experience it provided her, Mel realised that this was a course upon which she wasn’t destined to travel. With meager savings and few prospects, she returned to Mexico, the place that had ignited her soul and induced true happiness.
“That entire experience, leaving Fairfax and travelling throughout Central and South America, inspired me to figure out that I wanted to live a lifestyle that allowed me to do the things that I loved, whilst still making an impact on the world. That’s actually why I became a journalist; I wanted to help people - I wanted to empower people, and I thought the best way for me to do that was to write. And then I had a realisation: I thought that maybe helping people in different ways might enable me to have just as much of an impact.”
In the frenetic, high-pressure lifestyle of journalism, Mel had discovered yoga as a way to cultivate peace, the yin to the fiery yang of the media world. Finding inspiration in a 60-year-old yogi in Costa Rica, she realised that the drive and pursuit of busy-ness that the western world inflicts upon us isn’t the only way to live. In fact, one could suggest it is even the best way not to live.
Combining her altruistic passion for giving with her thirst to travel, Mel left the perfect waves of Mexico behind, embarking upon a yoga teacher training in India. Not only did this pilgrimage to the birthplace of yoga provide her with an education that aligned with her newfound passion, it also proffered a period of self-exploration, allowing her the ever-elusive opportunity for introspection, the chance to shed the burdens of the world and, in the serenity and peace of the Himalayas, listen to her heart.
She found perfect alignment in her desires - the love of travel, the gnawing desire to surf and her yogic calling - as a surf and yoga instructor in the oceanic paradise of the Maldives.
However, despite its seemingly perfect fit for her, the position only lasted a year before the whisper of Mexico and South America stirred once more. But this, too, would be simply a passing chapter in her life’s story.
The global yoga family has an interconnectedness much like that of surfing, the metaphoric six degrees of separation whittled down to just one or two, and Mel’s network had grown exponentially since embarking on her yogic journey. A friend happened to be hosting a yoga event in Bali and called on Mel to assist her.
As with so many Australian residents, she had visited Bali several times. A short and inexpensive hop from most international airports around the country, Bali is a default holiday destination, though for Mel, her initial impressions we somewhat disenchanting. Fun, of course, and with good waves, the Island of the Gods was only seen by her as a location for brief holidays, certainly not a migratory residence, no matter how semi-permanent.
“I’d been to Bali on holiday when I was around 17 and, though I loved it, I thought it was a little cliched.” But as Bali has such a profoundly inexplicable habit of inciting, everything began falling into place. “Things just started to happen; a guy asked me to manage his retreats for him, at Goddess Retreats in Seminyak. I began just teaching, but soon became manager. After a while, I broke away from that and started working on teacher trainings, helping certified people to become yoga teachers.”
This kaleidoscopic life has a way of rotating the pieces until they fit, and despite whatever preconceptions she may have had of a Bali relocation, she soon found her place. Through yoga, she connected with like-minded women, bringing them to both the mat and the ocean, combining her passions and sharing them with others in surf yoga retreats.
The symbiosis of yoga and surfing is undeniable: awareness of breath, connection with body, grounding in your environment - these things are equally as present in both. This exquisitely enabled her to practice yoga and surf, of course, but also to give back, to help, support, even heal the women she shared these moments with.
“The ocean has a way of absolutely letting all the other noise fade away,” she says. “You’re out there by yourself and nothing else matters; your job, your boyfriend, your children. It’s just you and the ocean.”
In this place of surrender and peace, she found, and helped facilitate, incredible life-altering breakthroughs. Through laughter and tears, space and calm, and the natural energies of the sea, her guests rediscovered themselves, able - often for the first time in years - to quiet the world around them and discover their callings.
Unbeknown to her, Mel was also in her own space of learning. A new chapter was about to begin - one one that, though vastly contrasting to those previous, would profoundly benefit from all she had learned of and for herself. Mel fell pregnant.
Mila came into the world in 2017 and she returned to Australia for the birth and Mila’s first months. But two things remained clear to Mel; first, that she would, while raising her daughter to the very best of her abilities, refuse to allow motherhood to steal her life away, and second, that she would return to the island she now called home. Not to the island of Australia, but to Bali.
“One of the biggest drawcards of living in Indonesia is a little bit of an addiction to the chaos, but also the simplicity and culture. One of the biggest gifts I would like to give my daughter is the opportunity to see the world from a different viewpoint. We live a pretty simple life and we get to spend a lot of time together - it’s simple, but it’s beautiful.”
The contrast between the two locations is antithetical, Australia with its order, its convenience and cleanliness, Bali with its chaos, its trials and its place as a Third World society. But the beauty beneath the surface, in the lifestyle, the landscapes and the culture, sing to Mel, and she views the gratitude for simplicity in every aspect of life as one of the most illuminating educations she can provide her daughter. Of course, being able to afford a nanny, especially when the waves are up and the swell is on, is an engorged cherry on an already delicious cake.
“I really appreciate having grown up in a Third World, in Africa, and the perspective it has given me of the world today. It is something that I am super-grateful for and it’s something that I really want to give to her too. It definitely places a feeling in me that I want to be part of the change. I want her to know that the little things are good enough; to know that it’s better to use glass and reuse, to know that we need to be careful of our water usage. I’m excited to see even the ways that she will challenge me to become a better citizen of the planet.”
Both yoga and surfing are ultimately selfish pursuits. We relinquish our responsibilities to immerse ourselves in moments purely and solely for us. As a parent, the conflict is evident. From the halcyon days of freedom and youth, we now have responsibility for another life, a dependant in a very literal sense, to whom we must account.
Yet Mel returns again to polarities, the yin and the yang that must exist simultaneously for balance to be attained:
“I feel challenged by this quite a lot, and as a mother you’re your own worst critic. It’s so easy to feel guilty. One thing I vow to myself, one thing I wish is for her to be inspired by, is the life that I live and to know that it’s okay to be selfish, it’s okay to follow your bliss and be happy, because that’s what we’re here for.
“If I don’t do those things [surf and yoga], am I going to be a better mother? Probably not. When I get the opportunity to go surfing or freediving, I come back completely refreshed and I can give her my everything, be there, be present for her. Yet the times that I don’t, when I am with her all the time, I can’t find that same energy.
“Whatever her bliss is, whatever she finds that makes her happy, I want her to chase that and be fearless in that pursuit.”
It is a fragile, ephemeral world, and seems to be growing more so by the day. Mel is instilling an appreciation for the environment around her, from the ocean and protection of the planet, to the humblest of insects. At a little over two years old, Mila already knows and respects the life of bees and their importance to the grand picture. Balancing this is the sense of self, the empowerment of inward compassion and the need to give to ourselves in order to nurture and give to others.
“I am going to be able to give all of these experiences to her,” Mel gushes with affection. “But more than that, I think I have given her an education in life already that allows her to dream, and I always want her to dream. The greatest gift that I can ever give my child is to simply experience life; to smell the flowers, to feel the rain on her face, to feel the wind in her hair. These are my gifts to her, and whatever challenges we face, she will see the beauty in the world as it is right now.
“I think it’s the biggest privilege to be alive, and I think giving her the opportunity to be here is the coolest thing. Someone did it for me, someone gave me the chance at life, and I’m really stoked to give it to her too.”
The echoes of her diverse life have continued to resonate in every step of Mel’s journey, reverberations now that will reach the ears of her daughter and continue to echo onwards in to the world.
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