The Drifter Journals

Sri Lankan Sojourns

It is often the expectation of a thing that inspires us, enthralls us, instills in us the excitement, enthusiasm and positivity to keep wading through the bullshit to get to the prize.

The second quarter of 2020 has been a time of attrition, our wanderlust stolen from us, fingers slammed and bruised in the doorways of closed borders, leaving us disheartened and licking our wounds. But inspiration doesn’t have a shelf life. It can wait out the longest lock-down, bide its time deep within us until such a time as it can ignite and rage once more.

Every year, Jake Drifter gathers his flock and departs one island for another, hopping the Indian Ocean from his home in Bali to the sanctuary of Sri Lanka. The annual pilgrimage, now in its seventh year, has metamophosed from family vaycay to a collaboration of stoke, still family-oriented, though moreso a family born of brine, not blood, bringing together like-minded souls for down time revelry in the playful warm-water waves of Sri Lanka’s East Coast.

“I’ve done the trip probably six times now. It’s a yearly pilgrimage to the East Coast and medicine for our souls. Initially, me, Vanessa [Jake’s wife] and the kids did it, and we loved it. It’s like going to Bali back in the day; it’s so incredible that we came home and started telling all of our friends how epic it is.”

Much as keeping a well-found, hard-won secret destination is the general rule of thumb with the surfing nomad, Jake’s open-heartedness brought others to his haven to experience for themselves the warm hospitality, incredible waves and familiar yet unique island lifestyle proffered by The Jewel of the Indian Ocean. It’s a quandary, almost oxymoronic in its bipolarity; on the one hand, you want to keep such a paradise all to yourself; on the other, it isn’t enough simply to tell the tales and share the images. The true joy lies in the sharing of mutual experience.

“A couple of years ago.” recalls Jake, “I went over with Nathan Oldfield and he shot part of Church of the Open Sky there. We were joined by Dave Rastovich and Lauren Hill, Johnny Abegg and his family - it was like this Byron Bay posse! It’s always been an incredible, sharing experience all based around the ocean.”

Borne partly by the union of perspectives, but also founded upon his inherent, almost cellular love of ocean experiences, Jake - more often known for his thirst for the large umbral oceanic swells that unleash upon his home break of Uluwatu - found himself revelling in the diminutive lines of Sri Lanka. Indeed, his go-to craft of high-performance thrusters and quads remain on the racks when the family pack for the Indian isle, Jake’s quiver instead comprising the more diverse, from fishes and historically-inspired singlefins, to timber alias and handplanes for bodysurfing

“The amount of fun I can have on tiny waves blows my mind. The bodysurfing there is amazing, I take an alaia, and it’s amazing riding that too - it’s right-hand point breaks stacked up just one after the other like conveyor belts, and on their day they are absolutely world-class.

“It’s more about the pure trim,” effuses Jake. “It’s the clean line you can draw on a pure wave as it bends majestically around a perfect point - it’s pretty magic. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of what I love about Bali and Uluwatu.

“I always tell people to pack the funnest craft you can possibly bring. I bring an alaia, a paipo, handplanes, singlefins, fishes…t for me a straightforward thruster is not really the modus operandi.”

As Phil Edwards rhapsodised, "The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun" and, for Jake, his family and his invitees, this is the pure charm of Sri Lanka - and the fun is boundless. 

While at home Jake is rarely out of the water long enough to dry, despite the omniscient tropical warmth of Bali, work is always equally as present as the heat and the waves. No sooner has he towelled off than he is on his phone answering emails, checking in with staff, placing orders, arranging meetings and attending to the myriad requirements bestowed upon a co-founder and manager.

So while the ocean is never far away, neither are commitments, the clock continually ticking to bring him back to land and business-as-usual.

Sri Lanka is his respite, his therapy, the medicine required to diffuse the seven days a week of concerns, pressures, obligations and the barrage of questions and requirements put upon him back home.

Amplifying this exponentially is the tranquility of the surf - a feminine energy, as Jake puts it, that embraces not only himself, but also his entire family in its placid waters.

“They [the waves] never really get above four feet, but they’re just sand-point perfection, especially for the kids. They can just stand in chest-deep water and jump on a board straight into a wave. It’s an insane set-up.

“I have snippets, these pictures in my mind, of surfing this one particular wave with my whole family - all five of us in the water with these massive smiles on our faces, dappled in sun… it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s like a pinnacle life experience and it holds a really special place in my heart.”

Yet stepping away from the snow-white sand and pristine sea, that energetic embrace isn’t relinquished. That warmth, that allure, stretches inland, far beyond the shore, in the people, the landscapes and the unfathomable experiences found down a simple dirt track:

“As you go out each morning on your way to the waves, you pass through National Park, where there are elephants, peacocks - if you’re lucky you might see a leopard - and all kinds of other animals. It’s just incredible.

“One place we would go to is a pilgrimage site near the ancient Buddhist stupa and hermitage of Kudumbigala. Right at the entrance of Kumuna National Park is this little shack where this man would make these delicious banana and chocolate crepes with a little bit of condensed milk and honey. They are so addictive!

“We’d be salty and sun-burned from these mammoth surf sessions, and on the way back we’d stop at this shack with the little old man making crepes on an open fire, and it would be the perfect exclamation mark on an immaculate day of surf.

It’s this really rootsy, natural experience, and probably very reminiscent of Bali back in the ‘70s.”

It is a simple life that is intoxicating, at once reminiscent of many things Bali, yet also entirely unattainable on the more populous island upon which Jake lives and works. ‘From one island paradise to another’ it would seem, and even the culture is so indicative of the Balinese condition. A culture founded on Hinduism and Buddhism infuses daily life with a humble kindness and openness so rarely found in other societies, and - despite more recent political turmoil - there is an undeniable, and very tangible gentleness in every aspect of Sri Lankan life. Ancient temples - inhabited for thousands of years, and to this day, by devout, Theravada Buddhist monks - crest clifftop headlands, asphalt dwindles to dirt on the winding country roads, family-owned hotels welcome you like kin, the distinct Portugese influence in the south and tea plantations to the north have changed little since the bygone days of the East India Trading Company, and the untamed jungle interior unfurls in a cacophony of flora and exotic fauna.

“I definitely feel, and tune into, the ancient vibe of the land,” Jake muses. “Inherently I love the vibration of nature there, and the ancient traditions that are fundamentally based around love, acceptance and good will to all men.

“One of the things I love is that we get up early in the morning, leave the hotel and wouldn’t really see any other cars as we drove out to a couple of breaks a little off the beaten path. You’re driving along these beautiful old country roads, very reminiscent of Bali back in the day. It has that classic, South-East Asian allure; the strong smells of the cooking, the natural flavours in the air…” he trails off dreamily, transported back to the halcyon moments of his six-year sojourn-on-repeat.

When we find a slice of heaven, the temptation is to engorge ourselves upon it, to savour it, relish it and, like an addict, crave it more and more and more.

For Jake, the allure remains in the transience. Though opportunity, or at least, the concept of a ‘Drifter Sri Lanka’ has occurred more than once, Jake appreciates that much of the joy derived from his annual island hop is in the opportunity to place life on hold, to free the fetters of obligations, and to reconnect with his family in peace and simplicity. Seeing the evolution of his eldest child, Flynn, moving from surfing the powerfully mascline waves of Bali on his backhand to embracing the fluidity of the pure forehand trim on Sri Lanka’s more sedate and feminine walls, sharing rides with twins Hanalei and Ziggy in conditions that give you the time and grace to pause and appreciate, returning time and again to the same family-owned hotel - a “sort of like a Sri Lankan version of Faulty Towers; a little bit disfunctional, but full of life and love and wonderful characters,” as Jake affectionately describes it. These are the things that matter - beyond the desire to call this Eden home, surpassing the yearning to migrate, or even give reason in another business outlet to return more frequently.

It is in the moments, the memories, the opportunity to whisper to a friend, ‘come, look, share this fragile dream’, that the allure remains. The mental images remain sharp, the waves that bit cleaner or longer or more perfect, the moments lasting days, the days weeks.

The moment we call even the most exquisite idyll ‘home’, the colours begin to fade, time ebbs away and paradise suddenly becomes normal.

So dream, friends, dream of those moments in resplendent hues, those flickering frames of experiences past, and dream of the memories yet to be made.

May they be many.

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