Bali was a latecomer to the international surfing scene. Australia, California and Hawaii have been associated with the sport since the early 1930s, but the Indonesian island only really garnered attention in the late 1960s and early ’70s, after films such as Morning of the Earth and Tubular Swells put Uluwatu and a coterie of young local surfers on the radar.
In fact, it’s taken more than a few decades for Bali’s nascent surfing scene to get going. Bob Koke, an American photographer from California, is widely credited for introducing the sport after he moved to the island in 1936 with his soon-to-be wife Louise Garrett. The couple opened a small hotel on Kuta Beach—offering surf lessons along with basic accommodations—and lived there until 1942.
The World Surf League (formerly the Association of Surfing Professionals) didn’t host competitions in Indonesia until 1995, kicking off with the Quiksilver Pro at Grajagan, which was won by 11-time WSL world champion Kelly Slater. Since then, qualifying rounds have been held at Keramas on the east coast of Bali and Lances Right, a break in the Mentawai Islands, a national park off the west coast of Sumatra.
Dave Prodan, vice president of communications for the WSL, thinks that Indonesia, and Bali in particular, burst into surfers’ consciousness after Tubular Swells. Filmed in Bali and other parts of Indonesia, as well as more widely recognized surf spots in Australia and Hawaii, the 1975 film created unprecedented interest and started to attract surfers from all over the world.
‘Warm water, friendly communities and a bevy of world-class waves make Bali one of the most desirable surfing locations on the planet,’ says Prodan, whose favorite spots include the Mentawais and Keramas.
Jason Childs agrees. One of a handful of staff photographers at Surfer magazine, Childs grew up in Australia but has spent the past 23 years living in Indonesia, shooting some of the world’s greatest surfers and waves for Rip Curl, Hurley, Rusty, Red Bull and others.
Indonesian surfers are among the most successful in Asia and are ranked by the Asian Surfing Championships, which holds contests throughout Asia. The current ASC champion is Raditya Rondi from Bali’s Kuta Beach, who has won the Men’s Open four times. But Indonesia’s surfing talent doesn’t have the high profile it deserves on the world stage, according to Childs.
‘Though Indonesian surfers have been gracing the pages of international surf magazines for about a decade, the homegrown talent hasn’t done so well competitively on the world contest stage—because the waves are so good [in Bali], there’s less incentive to do the traveling you have to do to qualify for things like the WSL championship tour,’ he says.
Childs reckons this will change soon, and happily waxes lyrical about his subjects, who include the young Dede Suryana and Oney Anwar, the latter of whom is currently being tutored by three-time world champion Mick Fanning.
The photographer’s all-time favorite, though, is surfing legend Rizal Tanjung, who rides what is known as Bali’s Pipeline at Padang Padang. ‘Tanjung began surfing at age eight,’ Childs says. ‘At 13 he started riding Uluwatu, Bali’s famous left-breaking reef; two years later he won an international 16-and-under grommet [young surfer] contest at Kuta—beating young surfers from America, Australia and New Zealand—and at 18 he was invited by Pipeline deity Gerry Lopez to spend the winter season at his Pipeline beachfront house in Hawaii.’
At 40 years old, Tanjung still surfs for extreme sports brand Hurley and founded the Indonesian Championship Circuit.
Today there are a multitude of surf schools around the island, with Kuta and Seminyak well-known destinations for package getaways. But what about the lesser known spots that only the pros know? Here are the ones you should get acquainted with.
‘Uluwatu is the most famous surfing destination in Bali,’ Childs says. ’It’s like a holy place for every surfer who comes here, despite it not being easy to surf.’
The left reef break on the Bukit Peninsula isn’t an easy sell; surfers wanting to tick it off their list have to paddle out through a hole in the cliff face because the close tide means that most of the time there is no beach. Even so, the break is exceedingly popular, and the cluster of clapboard viewing platforms dotted along the cliff are ideal spots for sinking a sundowner while watching the action unfold out at sea. During the dry season (April–October), the trade winds make surfing on the western coast of the Bukit Peninsula more favorable.
Just north of Uluwatu in Jimbaran are Bingin and Balangan beaches. Both are rough, rugged stretches of sand with a few warungs (family-owned restaurants) clinging to the bluffs. The short, reliable left-hand tubes here are popular with mavericks looking for a more intimate practice area.
Also in Jimbaran is Padang Padang, a challenging break over a coral reef. It’s not one for novices, though the lesser-known Padang Padang Rights is more accessible and breaks on a picturesque white sand beach.
‘Mention Keramas Beach to any of the top world tour surfers from Kelly Slater to 2013 World Tour event winner Joel Parkinson and it would be hard to find one who doesn’t smile and recount memories of a great session there,’ Childs says.
Keramas can be surfed from waist-high right through to triple overhead. Early mornings are best, so lay off the arak the night before. It’s a favorite among the pros—the Komune Bali Pro, a competition run by the Asian Surfing Championships, took place at Keramas in May 2016.
Around seven miles to the east you’ll come across Ketewel Beach, which probably won’t win any beauty contests (it’s a black sand beach) but is a good hidden spot. Most of the time there are only a handful of boards in the water, mostly locals and pros in the know.
Known more for its five-star resorts than its surf, Nusa Dua is also home to some excellent and lesser known breaks. Pro surfers often stay at the St. Regis Bali Resort while taking part in competitions, then escape to nearby breaks including Geger and Mushroom close to Water Blow. For novices, Black Stone is more suitable. Hire equipment from Surya Segara Water Sports or organize a day trip with lessons if you’re a beginner.
If you need somewhere to hang your surfboard, St. Regis, W Retreat & Spa, Le Meridien, Four Points by Sheraton, Sheraton, The Luxury Collection, Westin—all have locations in Bali.
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Photos: Jason Childs