STEVE COONEY'S FIRST SURF AT ULUS
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...