Bali: Surfing before the ‘fame’

These photos were originally all Kodak colour positives. There is a special quality to the colour of these slides that digital can only in recent times be tweaked to emulate. In a blind screening to an audience of cinematographers a few years back 35mm and Super16mm film both consistently rated higher in aesthetic appreciation than digital. I have a thousand slides at least and the time it takes to digitise them for the modern world is a colossal drain. Then there is a five year period where I shot only colour negatives; why I did that to myself I’ll never understand.


When I began surfing I had no inkling that I’d get involved in any film work. I hardly ever took photo because the camera was a burden; it was just something else to get lost, stolen or damaged. Michael Dweck later published a stunning book called “The End. Montauk, N.Y” that captures the feeling of the time. With hindsight I’d give quids to have some 8mm footage of those days. Not just the lifestyle, but the look and feel of the time. It was the same time that William Eggleston was producing a body of photography that would become his signature work. One of his books is called “The Democratic Forest” and it strikes me that I had seen his vision laid out before me, but that I only recognised it myself it was too late. The rough beauty; the light; the innocence.

Bali_Staf_Banks Board

I had started surfing sometime at the end of the 70s or early in the 8os. Over time I became a typical lone surfer; driving down to the Southport Spit in pre-dawn driving rain to roam the messy winter swells; I’d take a gallon of hot water down to pour down the neck of my wetsuit after coming out with my teeth chattering. I got to know every bit of beach. One of my favourite breaks was South Stradbroke back in the days when you had to paddle across the river to reach it; getting in was easy, getting out was harder. Duranbah was always crowded and crisp. Further south it was Tallows in the corner under the Byron Lighthouse; they call it Cosy Corner now. I had fully closed stand up barrels there, and came out with my hair dry and my heart rate doing about 220 clicks.

Sometime at the beginning of the 90s I went to Bali. I took a custom Jim Banks 6’10” board. Bali was famous surf-wise, but beyond that it was still fairly undeveloped. Up from Kuta you’d walk through rice paddies to the black sand beaches; all resorts now. The other way from Kuta you’d go out to Uluwatu; to get to Impossibles you’d climb down a little path to Bingen; there was a Warung huddled under the cliff there on the high tide mark. A wet suit was wise; hitting the coral reef badly would send you back to Oz before infection set in; treatment in Bali was high risk.

Bali_Warung at Bingin_02Bali_Warung at Bingin_01Bali_Ulu from Impossibles

The Balinese were lovely. Sometimes boatmen taking us out to Airport Left or Airport Right would wear their lycra shirt on their heads; the sleeves tied into horns, giving them an appearance of Hindu deities. On the far side of the Island fishing dugouts were pulled up on rocky beaches by the hundred. Sometimes you’d see a funeral rite on the beach. We surfed one place and the whole school marched down to watch – surfing was still a rarity in parts of Bali and leaving the village was a big deal.

I was struck by the native dogs; later I realised they were in fact Dingoes, just like ours but isolated by nearly 10,000 years.

At a place that’s home to several resorts now, Tulamben, an American liberty ship being salvaged for it’s steel by the Japanese in WW2 had sunk in a storm while under tow; I swam out and there it was, only about 70 metres out and already 30 metres down.


On later visits the Island had changed beyond recognition, just not the surf itself. The Balinese Hindu culture that had seemed so strong seemed overwhelmed by Javanese and Sumatran Islam. Big resorts had taken over every beachfront rice paddy and clifftop; all Chinese and Javanese owned; to me it seemed the Balinese people had become simply low paid servants on their own Island. It strikes me that imagery of this earlier period are scarce. It was a more innocent time; more laid back and tolerant. I could have, should have, produced a consistent body of work; I had the ‘eye’ but I didn’t have the focus.

Bali_SchoolgirlsBali_FuneralBali_BuffaloBali_Boats_TerracesBali_away side surf

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