STEVE COONEY'S FIRST SURF AT ULUS

Tracks - - The Jungle Book -

Steve Cooney was a stylish 13-year-old nat­u­ral footer from North Narrabeen when he started trav­el­ling up and down the east coast of Aus­tralia to shoot surf­ing footage with Albe Fal­son. It was 1970 and as co-editor/founder of a new mag called Tracks (along with John Witzig and David El­fick) Albe would spend two weeks a month shoot­ing film and the other two weeks mak­ing sure the pop­u­lar new pub­li­ca­tion made it to print.

Steve had spent about a year roam­ing the east coast with Albe and the likes of Dave Treloar, when Albe ap­proached him with a more ad­ven­tur­ous propo­si­tion. Prom­i­nent surfer Rus­sel Hughes had re­cently re­turned home from over­seas via Bali and in talks with Albe painted the pic­ture of an ex­otic, eastern cul­ture with se­ri­ous surf­ing po­ten­tial.

Sens­ing the op­por­tu­nity for (but by no means cer­tain of) scor­ing clas­sic surf footage, Albe told Steve he’d spot him the ticket to Bali and ac­com­mo­da­tion costs, if he could con­vince his mother and head­mas­ter to let him go. Steve was a straight-A stu­dent, but had al­ready de­cided that surf­ing was the path he wanted to fol­low. While his mum was un­der­stood his surf­ing ob­ses­sion he had a harder time con­vinc­ing his head­mas­ter to ap­prove the trip.

“My Mum sup­ported it. She knew I was pretty much gone so far as school was con­cerned but the head­mas­ter tried to talk her out of it… I had to go to a meet­ing with the head­mas­ter and sit there with my mum while she told him the bad news.”

De­spite the resistance from the main­stream sys­tem, Steve ne­go­ti­ated an early school exit, and shortly af­ter the re­cently crowned NSW ju­nior cham­pion was en route to Bali along­side Albe, Tanya Bin­ning, David El­fick (co-editor of Tracks) and Lisa, Paul and Geoff Hutchin­son and Peter De Bono, Steve's main spon­sors), and Rusty Miller. It was the school of life from that point on and he never re­turned to the class­room again.

“We didn’t know what to ex­pect un­til the plane started to land at Den­pasar air­port and then fly­ing along the cliffs at the Bukit and get­ting off the plane and the heat and just re­al­is­ing that was just a com­pletely dif­fer­ent cul­ture. Like noth­ing I’d ever seen… And the peo­ple were so lovely.”

It was Au­gust of 1971 and 14-year-old Steve had swapped Narrabeen’s com­fort­able, coastal sub­ur­bia for the sti­fling Bali heat, the dis­tinc­tive scent of clove cig­a­rettes and a cul­ture that was at once en­chant­ing and to­tally for­eign. The crew posted up in a ba­sic but tidy marble-floored warung in Kuta. Steve re­mem­bers there were few French restau­rants and the trav­ellers were mostly Euro­pean “nud­ists”. The only surfers they saw were rid­ing beat up boards on Kuta. With the tip off from Rus­sell Hughes the crew were con­tent to spend the first few days rid­ing the long, outer left at Kuta reef, which at the time seemed a good enough wave to war­rant the in­ter­na­tional jour­ney. “I mean Kuta reef was per­fect it was un­real.” Mark War­ren and filmer Bob Evans were also in Bali at the same time but fo­cused their search west­wards, to­wards Tanah Lot tem­ple. While the back-drops were strik­ing and the waves fun, it will be re­mem­bered as one of surf trav­els ul­ti­mate ex­am­ples of choos­ing the wrong di­rec­tion to go in.

The way Steve re­calls it one day Albe took a car trip out along the Bukit Penin­sula and re­turned late with a moderately op­ti­mistic take on what he’d seen. He said ‘I think I’ve found some­thing that’s re­ally in­ter­est­ing … we prob­a­bly should go and in­ves­ti­gate.’ He’d cut off the Bukit road and gone in to­wards the cliff to see the ocean. And he’d just hap­pened to end up on the south­ern side of Ulus, so he was look­ing around the cor­ner a bit and watch­ing it peel off.”

The next day the crew, mi­nus Rusty Miller, who came out on a later ex­cur­sion from Kuta, took a beamo out to the top of the Bukit, where the ar­du­ous walk in through the scrub be­gan. In­vari­ably Steve’s ini­tial re­ac­tion to the quest wasn’t quite the ro­man­ti­cised ver­sion of his­tory some might pre­fer.

“It was fuck­ing hot. I was wear­ing thongs and I was kick­ing my toes. We had to carry all the gear from the cars on the Bukit road through the fields. We were rooted by the time we got there. We were look­ing at it and see­ing the po­ten­tial, but un­til I pad­dled out there…”

They man­aged to find the mys­te­ri­ous cave, which granted ac­cess to the reef via a spec­tac­u­lar asym­met­ri­cal por­tal. The tide was just low enough for Steve to make his way to the lit­tle beach around the cor­ner, where a rip fun­nelled him out at what’s now known as the Race­track sec­tion.

“I guess I must have been surf­ing it pretty low – low com­ing in. We couldn’t re­ally tell what the tides were do­ing be­cause they were very dif­fer­ent to here

and we had no tide charts so we just played it by sight.”

Steve was the only one out, and un­der­stand­ably a lit­tle dis­con­certed by the eerie sense of iso­la­tion and the dense schools of fish, which speared in ev­ery di­rec­tion. Both the si­lence and any ap­pre­hen­sive­ness were quickly for­got­ten when he took off on his first wave.

“The first wave blew me away be­cause it just went on and on for what seemed like a while and there were peo­ple scream­ing on the head­land – the lo­cals were scream­ing their heads off as I was surf­ing which was all pretty weird…”

At the time Steve didn’t know that the Ba­li­nese be­lieved the Uluwatu wa­ters were oc­cu­pied by evil spir­its. While they were en­rap­tured by the sight of this white guy fly­ing across waves on a thin strip of fi­bre­glass they were also in­cred­u­lous that some­one would at­tempt such a dan­ger­ous thing in wa­ters where dark forces lurked. He was es­sen­tially danc­ing with the devils. The crowd even­tu­ally swelled to about 100 lo­cals. With each ride the wild howl­ing would start and once Steve pulled off the eerie si­lence would re­turn.

“As far as I know I was the first per­son to surf it,” sug­gests Steve. “I haven’t found any ev­i­dence and I’ve asked a lot of peo­ple…”

The crew spent the first night in the Cave out at Ulus, but were ille­quipped to last any longer. Con­vinced they’d found a new nir­vana they went back to Kuta the next day to stock up on sup­plies and re­turned straight away. For the next few weeks they fell into a rou­tine of surf­ing their brains out, ex­haust­ing their sup­plies and then send­ing some­one to Kuta on the four-hour round trip to re­plen­ish the stocks.

On these round trips, de­tails about their wan­der­ings were kept top se­cret. When they did run into Mark War­ren and Bob Evans in Kuta the vibe was tight-lipped – like the KGB and the CIA cross­ing paths in neu­tral ter­ri­tory. “We only saw them in Kuta. They weren’t telling us where they were surf­ing and we didn’t tell them,” chuck­les Steve in hind­sight. Af­ter sev­eral spells at Ulus Steve re­mem­bers fall­ing into a rhythm with the waves and the place and the peo­ple.

“Af­ter six weeks I was re­ally start­ing to get the hang of the place. I was ac­cli­ma­tised. I could surf for a long pe­riod of time. I didn’t re­ally need a lot to eat. I was re­ally start­ing to en­joy it.”

Be­tween ses­sions the in­trigued Uluwatu lo­cals, who by now were friends, would bring down snacks for the surfers.

“The Ba­li­nese are just amaz­ing peo­ple,” ex­claims Steve. “They treated us like kings and they liked the fact that we tried to learn a few words from them as well… There was no warungs. They used to trek down to the cave with some peanuts and some hot le­mon­ade – I think it was 7UP. There was no ice or any­thing like that. They just liked hang­ing with us … later they started bring­ing rice wrapped in ba­nana leaves.”

The fan­tasy had to come to an end and af­ter a month and a half Albe,

who was al­ways in­ter­ested in other as­pects of travel be­sides waves, or­gan­ised a train jour­ney across Java, up through Yo­gyakarta and on to Jakarta. Un­for­tu­nately for Steve the life-chang­ing ex­pe­ri­ence ended badly when he came down with a heavy bout of some­thing on the train.

“I got a dose of some­thing that was hor­ren­dous. Like some sort of dysen­tery or some­thing like that, so I don’t even re­mem­ber leav­ing from Jakarta air­port. I was gone. I don’t re­mem­ber the flight back. I re­mem­ber wak­ing up about a week later at home.”

Steve’s delir­ium meant he never had a dis­cus­sion with Albe or the crew about what they would say when quizzed about their sur­real ad­ven­ture in the In­done­sian archipelago.

“It was pretty hard to keep your mouth shut … but you’ve got to re­mem­ber that the movie came out a year af­ter we got back from Bali. It came out in 72. I was spend­ing a lot of time with Albe and a lot of time at Whale Beach and get­ting to know mag­a­zines, so not that much spe­cific stuff got out.”

In the lead up to Morn­ing of the Earth’s re­lease Albe and David utilised their own­er­ship of Tracks as medium through which to run a so­phis­ti­cated and suc­cess­ful mar­ket­ing cam­paign for the movie. Sto­ries from the mak­ing of the movie, frame grabs and pho­tos ap­peared in Tracks – the most iconic of which was the sil­hou­ette shot of Steve Cooney and Rusty Miller about to jump off the dry reef and pad­dle out at Ulus.

Steve re­mem­bers be­ing a 15-year-old who was sud­denly thrust into the surf­ing lime­light.

“There was a lot of that lead­ing up to the re­lease and then when the film was re­leased it es­ca­lated and I was pretty well known around surf­ing cir­cles.” Morn­ing of The Earth pre­miered at the Sil­ver Screen Theatre at Manly, which ac­cord­ing to Steve was also owned by the film’s pro­ducer (and Tracks co-editor) David El­fick. De­spite the ex­cite­ment over his role in the film, the first public show­ing was a some­what un­com­fort­able ex­pe­ri­ence for the teenager.

“Go­ing to the launch at The Sil­ver Screen Theatre at Manly was a bit daunt­ing. There was a lot of guys in the film who were older than me and they were sort of a bit more used to that kind of thing than me, so I just watched the film and took it in.”

De­spite strug­gling with the in­tense crowd at the open­ing night, Steve chuck­les when asked if he made the most of his new found surf-star sta­tus. “I think ev­ery surfer in the world who has had any cre­den­tial at all has had to take ad­van­tage some­how. If you’re not get­ting paid you bet­ter get paid some other how.” Morn­ing of The Earth cap­ti­vated au­di­ences around Aus­tralia and ul­ti­mately it was the Bali sec­tion of the film that had surfers hoot­ing the loud­est be­cause they’d never seen waves like that be­fore. Steve’s footage at Uluwatu in Morn­ing of The Earth marked the be­gin­ning of Aus­tralian surfers’ ob­ses­sion with In­done­sia.

Although on the whole Steve re­mem­bers it all as an over­whelm­ingly pos­i­tive ex­pe­ri­ence, there was also a mix­ture of back­lash and envy. The fact that some­one as young as Steve was en­joy­ing all the fame didn’t go down so well with cer­tain surfers and of course there were oth­ers who were al­ready call­ing it the death knell for Bali.

“Peo­ple started do­ing that sort of, ‘Don’t you know you’ve just ru­ined Bali’ … The tall poppy thing was pretty rife in those early surf­ing days. There was a bit of jeal­ousy in some cir­cles but gen­er­ally peo­ple were re­ally nice.”

Af­ter Morn­ing of The Earth, Steve went on to be­come the art direc­tor of Tracks and con­tin­ued his love af­fair with Bali, later pro­duc­ing the surf film Ulu 32. “I re­gard as the good years 1971 – 1984. There were places that I could surf by my­self like Padang, but af­ter that it sought of lost its gloss for me.”

Af­ter a suc­cess­ful ca­reer in pub­lish­ing Steve now runs a Mercedes deal­er­ship at Mona Vale. And although in re­cent years his surf ex­pe­di­tions have been fo­cused on other parts of In­done­sia his affin­ity for Bali is still re­flected in the peo­ple he sur­rounds him­self with. “I still like the Ba­li­nese peo­ple. I’ve still got three Ba­li­nese peo­ple that work for me. I re­ally like talk­ing to them.” The last time Steve looked over the lineup at Ulu’s was around 2004. “There were good mem­o­ries but the cliff doesn’t look very sim­i­lar,” he re­flects.

De­spite mixed emo­tions about the way Bali and the Bukit penin­sula have evolved since he rode the first fate­ful wave at Ulus in 1971, the eu­phoric na­ture of his early ex­pe­ri­ences ul­ti­mately makes it hard for him to be cyn­i­cal.

“I don’t want to seem neg­a­tive about Bali … I’m sure it’s still a ro­man­tic place. I feel like I’ve had my share. I en­joyed ev­ery minute of it and if some­one bought me a ticket to Bali to­mor­row I’d go.”

STEVE COONEY POISED TO PAD­DLE OUT AT ULUWATU IN 1971 AND CROSS THE THRESH­OLD INTO A NEW SURF­ING UNI­VERSE. PHOTO: ALBE FALZON

CLOCK­WISE FROM OP­PO­SITE: STEVE DRAW­ING HIS­TORY'S LINES DUR­ING ONE OF THE FIRST MEM­O­RABLE SES­SIONS AT ULUS. BEAMO RUN FOR SUP­PLIES WITH STEVE HOLD­ING THE BOARD. THE SIL­HOU­ETTE SHOT OF STEVE COONEY AND RUSTY MILLER THAT BE­CAME THE ICONIC MAR­KET­ING IM­AGE...

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