THAT WAS THEN, THIS IS NOW
Sardine spills and early Indo thrills.
Back when I was a lad, growing up in the shadow of the belching smokestacks of the Port Kembla Steelworks (not the ones that appeared on Tracks #1 cover, that was Newcastle) dads used to say (well, my dad at least), “You can’t stop progress.”
This homily was dragged out to explain everything from the smokestacks blotting out the sun to the rainforest of the Illawarra escarpment disappearing to make way for hillside estates of cream brick McMansions. And in the days before we learnt how to lie down in front of bulldozers, you couldn’t stop it. You could only run away from it. And we did. Up the coast, down the coast, then to exotic foreign destinations in search of unridden waves, and the world was seemingly full of them.
Never quite in the first wave of early adopters, I discovered Portugal in 1973, about four years after Nat Young and Wayne Lynch had brought it to our attention in Paul Witzig’s Evolution. We stopped at Nazare as we drove down the coast and swam in the placid deepwater bay. Who knew? Then we pulled into the dust bowl of a free camp on the southern edge of the fishing port of Peniche, saw friendly peaks at intervals along the white sand beach with not a surfer in sight and thought we’d died and gone to heaven.
We pitched our pup tent not quite far enough away from the rats that lived in the rock wall, made friends with the sardine fishermen who’d happily throw us enough catch for two meals a day, and with Madame Sirly, who ran the tiny café on the harbor where we ate chips and drank wine from plastic bottles for a couple of escudos a day, and spent hours playing table soccer.
It was late summer verging on autumn and it seemed the swell got more consistent with every passing day. Van-loads of surfers came and went, but we had the choice of so many beach breaks that it was never crowded. And if the swell wasn’t hitting the corner, we’d walk a kilometer or so down the beach to the barreling A-Frame in front of the sardine-processing plant, where the workers had dug a channel so that the blood from the catch drained out into the break, turning the water the shade of Madame Sirly’s over-ripe rose. When the wind was straight offshore, the stench from the factory was almost overwhelming, and only the quality of those waves kept us in the water.
Not that my surfing travel buddy and I were equipped to handle anything too serious. The rails of my 7-0 Bilbo from Newquay were almost square and the deck had begun to bubble. And there being no surf shop in Peniche, we were reduced to trading sardines for wax with the travellers. Sardines had, in fact, permeated our very beings, become a part of us. We surfed in their blood, cooked them over a fire and ate them every day. We stank of sardines. It was the best time of my life. And then it ended, and the next adventure came along.
Again I was two or three years off the pace. Steve Cooney and Rusty Miller had put Bali’s Bukit Peninsula on the map in Albert Falzon’s Morning Of The Earth, but Bali was still raw and exciting when I got there in August 1974, with Brian Singer and a Rip Curl crew from Torquay.
I recount the story of how I had never used a leg rope up to this time, and had no means of securing one to my Chris Henri board (I’d upgraded from the Bilbo) in my recent memoir, but the first morning that we took bemos up the hill and onto the Bukit to surf Uluwatu, I was very glad I could now attach myself to my board. Of course I’d seen the famous footage of Steve and Rusty flying down the line on a solid day, but nothing really prepares you for the reality behind the dream.
There was nothing on the hill behind the cave except the kids and fishermen who had excitedly followed us down from the temple road. In years to come, these lovely people from the Windro compound would become our friends and surfing valets, carrying boards, providing food and drink, and in return we would support their little community and teach the kids to surf (our first mistake, says Dick Hoole) but at this point they watched, waited and wondered.
We eased our way down the bamboo ladder, negotiated the cave and pushed out into the swirling break. I remember being smashed by several sets until I worked out how to zigzag into the lineup, where it wasn’t exactly virgin territory. The heroes and the cameramen were already out in force, but when I look back, we knew so little about crowded surf. That would come later.
I still go back to both places. The blood-red break in front of the (long gone) sardine factory became the renowned Supertubos, the Bukit morphed into something out of a Fellini movie. As Dad said, you can’t stop progress, and I’ve found other places to surf. But lord, it ain’t getting any easier, and if there’s one thing to be said for being old now, it’s that I was young then, when paradise was where you found it.
Uluwatu at a time when you could get it with two guys out. That was then, this is now