Tony Harrington’s career as a surf and snow photographer has taken him around the world many times. From heli-skiing in Alaska, to big-wave surfing in the shark-infested waters of southern Australia and exploratory missions into the Indonesian wilds long before the Mentawai landed on Google Maps, Harro has shot it all. So it came as a bit of a surprise when he got in touch late last year and let us know he’d just ticked a new destination off his list – Bali. As a latecomer to many Aussies’ favourite surf destination, Harro noted down a few tips for fellow first-timers…
Words and photos by Tony Harrington
Mention Bali and stories of the Aussie yobos, out-of-control Euros, crazy Kuta clubs, and scary tales about Schapelle Corby and the Bali 9 are never far behind reports of the island’s amazing, if increasingly crowded, waves. The week I was booked to fly in a 14 year-old Aussie was caught buying a couple of grams of weed and sentenced to two years behind bars in Kerobokan prison. I've driven post that place; it looks like a hell hole and smells a lot worse. There is plenty to be paranoid about. Behind the Bintangs and barrels, it is still third world country and you'll hear daily stories of corruption at all levels.
I certainly double, triple and quadruple checked that I had all my paper work in order, and that I wasn't carrying anything even remotely illicit. I even went as far as wrapping my board bag completely in plastic at Brisbane Airport just in case some baggage handlers wanted to use it as a courier bag. In just about every place you go these days with a high concentration of international travellers, hotels and tourist destinations, there is no problem or real anticipation of things going wrong with your travel plans.
Bali is the same, but you need to be prepared. This introduction isn’t intended for those who have been there before, or have connections. Likewise, if you want to just smash it up in bars, rent a villa, a resort bungalow, hang with your partner or family, then you don't really need to read this. You should be sweet. Still, more information is better then less when visiting a place like this.
If you’re a first-timers who just wants to go to Bali and go surfing, this is for you. It’s a great destination for waves, but to make the most of it, you will need as much info as you can get. The following are just some of the key points…
Landing in Denpasar, the first step to entering the country is obtaining a visa. Simply proceed through the airport and when it opens out into the customs area, turn right and go to the least uncrowded visa counter. Here you'll have to part with US$25 to get your stamp. Then turn around then proceed across to the immigrations officer. Smile, be polite, and once through continue on to collect your bags off the carousel.
Don't let any of the bag handlers carry your stuff unless you are happy to pay them. By all means do, just make sure that you have a few thousand Rupiah to give them.
Next you'll need to put all your bags, including carry-on, through the X-ray machine. This is quite a painless task, but the next step is the tricky bit as a team of hawk-eyed custom officers scan your every move. If anything is going to go down, it will be at this point. But clear these fellas and you are set free into the world of hustle, bustle, heat, hawkers, hustlers, crazy driving, and general chaos that Kuta is renowned for.
I’ll cover the logistics of getting around and looking after yourself a little later, but first let’s have a look at the waves.
If you’re not an accomplished surfer, you really should be saying in Kuta. The beachbreaks are a great place to brush up on your skills, and turn on proper barrels on the right tides. Unfortunately they also get busy with hordes of surfers on an flotilla of surfcraft dropping in on each other, getting in each others way and simply having fun. But if you think it’s crazy in the water, check Jalan Sunset at peak hour, as tens of thousands of motor bikes, cars, trucks and hand-drawn carts battle it out to get from one place to another.
If you don't know how to surf yet, Kuta’s beachies are a great place to learn. By all means visit the spots I'm about to tell you about, just leave your board at home as the reefbreaks around much of the rest of the Island are definitely not the place for beginners.
To the west of Kuta, past Legian and Seminyak and about 40 minutes from the airport by bike, close to hour in a car, you'll find Canggu. This is a quaint surfing area where your accommodation is more likely to be surrounded by rice paddies than Kuta’s concrete walls. There is a multitude of super-fun waves, a mixture of reefs, beach breaks or combination of both. It is certainly one of the most consistent surf zones and offers the greatest diversity of waves in the region. Typically the reefs are better on a higher tide, though there are a couple of sand-breaks that break across all tides. This is very good place to start and slide into the Indonesian surfing experience before heading out to the heavier reefs out on the Bukit Peninsular to the south.
I don't mind Canggu. It’s consistent, the waves are super fun, and hanging out and eating at Echo Beach and the surrounding warungs is delightful. It’s a great "hang" spot and gets very social at breakfast, lunch and arvo surf sessions. The water tends to be on the dirtier side. It’s best when there is a swell or good movement in the tide to flush the bay out. It gets quite nasty after rain or slow tidal movements and infection isn't far behind any minor cut or abrasion if it isn't cared for.
The Bukit Peninsula
If you are a surfer and up for the challenge of real Bali waves minus the Kuta bar and party scene, then the Bukit Peninsula is where you'll want to be. There are six main surf areas on the Bukit that are offshore on the easterly trades that typically blow from May though until mid-to-late October. In the middle of this time Bali is at its most crowded. I wouldn't suggest that you come here in July or August unless you really had to.
Many Aussies are realising that the end of the season has some of the best surf and a lessoning crowd. Still, this place remains busy all year round now, so don't expect a solo surf or with just you and a few mates unless you are prepared to go an extra mile and seek out some of the lesser-known breaks. I arrived in mid October and we had the best surf all year and the trades were still blowing for at least another week.
As your plane lines up the runway for landing into Denpasar, you’ll see the Bukit Peninsular off to the right. This is the best time to scope the line up, the cliffs and reefs that draw tens of thousands of surfers here each year. The Kuta / Denpasar / Changgu area is a flat land - hot, often dusty, hectic and grubby. But as you drive up to the peninsula you'll feel the temperature cool down with a little bit of altitude. The population here is less dense, the roads less crowded, and the vibe more peaceful and serene. This is what you come to Bali for.
Bingin is a one of my favourite places, both the waves and accommodation options. This short, left-hand barrel lies on a piece reef in the middle of the western side of the peninsula. More than 20 warungs are perched on the side of an almost-vertical cliff face, and handful of higher quality accommodation places sit right on top of the cliff.
The trick to getting here is finding the right turn off from the road to get to Bingin. Bali may have been conquered decades ago by marauding tourists, but its infrastructure has changed little over the years and so every day's journey around the place still feels like an adventure.
Up the reef is stretch known as Impossibles. This setup actually consists of a number of breaks, that work on various tides and swell sizes. It gets its name for good reason - most of the sections are impossible to make, but on a good swell it churns out endlessly long sections. You can access Impossibles from Bingin, further up at Padang or straight above. It is noteworthy to mention here that if you are travelling with your lady and want to spoil her with a real treat in comfort and remoteness, then the Rock n Reef resort situated right at the bottom of the cliff base overlooking Impossibles is a sure charm. This four-bunglow place is secluded from the rest of the world and a true get-a-way experience.
Padang is next along the reef. This intense lefthand, freight-train barrel is considered the most flawless wave on Bali. It’s a relatively easy take-off before you are locked in for the ride of your life. Padang is a legendary wave that starts breaking only when the swell is getting solid. It demands respect from even the best of surfers, so make sure you know your what you’re getting yourself into before paddling out.
There’s a cool little village community at Padang and, like all places in Bali, plenty of accommodation and food options to suit most budgets. The Padang Beach is great for kids and families and if you like monkeys, then this it the place to see them frolicking on the beach and hanging around the cliffside.
Uluwatu is home to the a famous Hindu temple and has an almost religious significance for surfers too. Contrary to what you might know about the place, it’s not actually a perfect barrel. It is one piece of reef, chopped up into a myriad of other reefs that break at different sizes, tides and swell directions. Lots of people come here thinking they'll experience the perfect ride of their life. That claim should be left to G-Land a few hours away by fast boat on the south western tip of Java. There is a good chance you'll get shacked off your nut but making them is a different story, as most waves close out somewhere along the line.
The reef is broken up into three main surf spots. Temples, right out around the corner to the left will often be the biggest and least crowded. Out in front Kongs is the most playful and a mixture of A-frame peaks that twist and wind with barrel and hackable sections, more like a beach break than a point break and one of my favourite places.
The true Uluwatu though is Racetrack. This strip of reef begins where the coastline bends around the western side of the peninsular. It is at it's best at medium to low tide when in the three-to-six foot range. Get locked into the pit here and you can travel through a barrel for anything up to 50 metres, maybe two to three times on one wave.
When is Ulu's is big, there are outer reefs that start breaking and hold an huge swell. Recently it was 15 foot plus and the big wave crew were out there on rhino chargers getting the rides of their lives. Its an ugly scenario if you lose your board out there. Onene poor bugga found out the hard way in a recent swell after he had to swim a couple of kilometres down the cliffs and come in at Padang.
You will fall in love with the warung scene here. Perched all across the steep cliffs, these little shelters are hang spots that serve up delicious Indonesian cuisine, offer massages and the hospitality that is typical of the Balinese. There's no better place to sit back after a gruelling surf session sinking couple of cold Bintangs watching the sun setting as a fiery ball into the Indian Ocean. You'll definitely get brownie points with your lady for taking her there, even is she does have to sit around for hours whilst you surf.
In the other direction from Bingin back toward Kuta, the first place you'll come across is Dreamland. This little section of sandy paradise is perfect for beginner and intermediate surfers. Up until recently it was settled by freeloading hippies, transient Indonesians and offered places to stay where surfers could have free accomodation if they ate where they stayed.
This all changed when one of the Suharto sons kicked everyone out at gun point and started construction on a massive number of developments including large scale hotels, resorts and golf courses. The story goes that a judge ruled against the development for at a least a 10 year period. Within a week he was blown to bits in an explosion and the development went ahead shortly after. Go figure…
Tucked around the corner again is Balangan Beach. The beach is truly exquisite. A long sandy foreshore greets the reef and in its southern point is a gorgeous swimming pool for the family when the waves aren't that big. The shoreline is littered with warungs - so many that it’s difficult to see how they all make a living from it, as the place doesn't seem to get all that crowded. The wave itself is basically a close out, but like Impossibles, every dog has their day. Catch the right one and you could get the ride of a lifetime, but I found it more frustrating then anything else and unless I was to spend a few months here, would rather surf other places and just come back to experience it for a change of scenery time to time. Although risking serious carnage at the end of the wave where the reef gets extremely shallow isn't my cup of tea, it's there to be surfed, if you want it.
So you've just hopped off a plane, now what?
If its night time you’ll need to head into Kuta and sort out some accommodation. If its of a day time, then you've got a chance to get out to the Bukit Peninsula, pass up all the deals on Kuta accommodation and find yourself in paradise straight away.
If you do arrive into Bali at night and you aren't on a package deal, it’s definitely best to book a night or two in Kuta. But if you are visiting Bali for the pure surfing experience, you'll want to get out there as fast as possible and escape to Bukit. From Kuta you can rent a car or a bike, or hire a driver to get you out of the smoggy, dirty and smelly party and shopping town to where it’s much cleaner and pristine on the Peninsula.
There are four for transport. One is walking. Good for short trips up and down the beach, but sucks if you want to access the various surf breaks.
The most expensive, but certainly worth the effort if you are here for only a limited time and have a surf buddy or two to share the cost, is a rental car and driver. It will run you around $50-$75 a day and if you pick the right one, the driver will be surf savvy and will take you to all the right places at the right time. This is luxury travel plus you can store things in your car knowing that it shouldn't get ripped off because your driver will look after it.
For about $30 a day you can rent your own car. Now this is a lot of a scarier prospect that you might count on. The roads are absolutely chaotic, chocker block packed in peak hour and you'll spend as much time freaking out trying not to hit other road users - cars, bikes, trucks as you will driving on the road. Then you got to know where you are going. Best to have one of your friends in the passenger seat with an iPhone or good map, as long as they know how to use it, to guide you through the rabbits warren of roads that lead off everywhere.
The real Indo experience is all about the motorbike. And it will be an experience that is as intense as an eight foot wave at Padang if it is your first time riding one over here, and heavier then a fifteen foot Uluwatu wipeout if you crash.
A lot of people say to avoid riding a motorbike in Bali. I don't disagree with them, but they are definitely the best way to travel around. You can weave in and out of traffic and make better time on getting places then any car.
Riding around in the Kuta region is absolutely outrageous, elsewhere not much different. I've seen a drunk Euro show off in the main street of Kuta, try a wheelie and lose control, taking out one women on the side walk and belted through another group of three people as well. A girl lost control of her bike from a standing start making a right hand turn and floored it up into a restaurant of the sidewalk. Cars, trucks and buses simply pull out with total disregard for wants happening. Its a cruel sight seeing a 14 year school kid lose control of his bike as a car pulls out in front of him, or an older local sliding out sideways and crashing to the ground as another local rider simply cut in front of him making a turn.
For the majority, the locals are excellent riders, but there will be younger kids riding along texting messages on their mobile phones as they dodge and weave through traffic. Now and again you'll see a person being doubled where the rider is doing twice the speed as everyone us whilst weaving around bikes, cars and trucks. These are for sure going to be temporary Indonesians, you just can’t ride that hard and not go down big time at some stage.
Last month there were 240 motorcycle deaths in Bali alone. Imagine how many others were all torn up from road and gravel rash, had bones smashed to pieces, head injuries and the like. I had an idiot Euro overtake me just leading into the Uluwatu carpark. He hit a rock and went down hard. I just rode by and shook my head. There were another two people with destroyed knees and cut up legs, not from the reef, but bike accidents. The reef looks tame compared to what happens when things go wrong on a motorbike.
I've got to say though, riding a bike between the breaks of Bingin, Padang and Uluwatu is a lot more manageable then the Kuta rat race. It is still relatively peaceful up there, with not nearly as many people on the road. You still have to be careful, but it’s actually an enjoyable experience.
Just like having your own car, you are going to need an iPhone so that you can use the maps application to find out how to get places. Its not always 100%, but it is better then anything else when you don't know the place. You can get a local sim card on every second corner store to fire up your data on your phone, just make sure that your phone is unlocked before you leave Australia so that you can use it in Bali.
If it’s not the reef cuts, or car and motorbike shenanigans that are going to keep you on your toes, its the police. While much top-level corruption has been cleaned up, at ground level it is still very much alive. Kuta and the surrounding region is notorious for getting pulled up. Up in the peninsula, it appears to be remarkably quieter and less stressful, but never say never - it could happen at any time. The best thing to do to avoid being pulled up is never look directly at a policeman. Turn away and keep riding. If you hear them yell, keep on riding, don't slow down or pull over till you know that that they’ve got you locked in. Learn where the police huts are, when pulling up at traffic lights at a red light hide behind a truck or car, just try and stay out of their sight.
I had to make two trips down to Kuta in a week, and both involved the police. The first time was on the main road between Kuta and Sanur. It was mid afternoon, typically a quieter time on the road and that’s when there are plenty of opportunity for police to pull you over. I heard a siren wail behind me, then two cops on bikes ushered me over. "Safety Check," one of them said with a smile, as the other stood around and kept a vigilant eye on the proceedings. I had a helmet, was going at a safe speed, all the lights and blinkers worked, had the registration, had my license, but no international drivers license. He wrote me out a ticket and said that I had to turn up at court at 9.30am the next morning and I will be fined 700,000 rupiah (about US$90). He then said, "or we can make this go away, you just pay 300,000 rupiah now". I said that I didn't have 300,000 and opened up my wallet. I thought I only had 100,000 rupiah in there, but there was 200,000. He took it all, smiled, then held up the traffic to let me go. It was a good thing that I hid the 500,000 rup that I had in a secluded part of my back pack.
Just yesterday I went to Kuta to take a few photos, trying to get some shots of police without getting locked up for looking like a terrorist on a surveillance mission. Rounding a corner on the main road between Legian and Kuta there was a road block with at least 20 police pulling over every single person who didn't look like a local. Same thing, "safety check". I had everything except the international drivers license. It wouldn't have mattered if I did have it, he said that the registration papers were not right (they were) and asked me to get off the bike and follow him. I had no choice and noticed that there were a couple of other guys doing the same. We were herded into a lane way where there were three other police. One had a leather bag. He was stuffing cash into it that came straight out of the travelers’ wallets and back packs. I was demanded to hand over 300,000 rupiah, I said that I didn't have it, opened up my bag and showed him everything I had. It amounted to 30,00 rupiah. He took it from hand, stuffed it in the lather bag and waved me away back to my bike.
Two things you need to do when riding a bike, apart from trying to stay safe, are hide as much money as you can somewhere where they wont find it (just leave 50,000 ups or so that they can find), and make sure you've got enough fuel in your bike to make it home if they do take everything you got.
You do have to feel sorry for the poor bastards. They pay good money to be policeman, they see all of us people coming over to Bali splurging money left, right and centre, they just want a small piece of it. If it weren't for all the drinking, sex and black market activities that we bring to their culture there would be a lot less crime for them to deal with. I guess its best looked upon as a tax that we must pay if we get caught, whether you indulge or otherwise.
You' often associate third world countries with deprived medical facilities, famine, disease, sickness and infection. In Bali, I've been pleasantly surprised about the availability, quality and standard of the conditions here. As you would expect, sanitary and hygiene leave a lot to be desired and infection is rampant, but manageable.
Infection is the main health issue to be concerned about, both from open wounds and stomach bugs, more commonly referred to as "Bali belly". Malaria by all accounts has been eradicated, although formerly an issue, rabies is now under control and an occasional case of dengue fever might pop up now and again, but nothing you need to concern yourself with if basics are taken care of.
The strategy in staying healthily is cleanliness and personal hygiene. It is the tropics; it’s hot, damp, sweaty and sticky. I'm sure that I don't need to tell you that bacteria and disease love living here more then we do and thrive in the not-so-sanitary water systems. Anything to do with water, be careful with it.
Food and Personal Hygiene
There is a simply rule to avoid Bali Belly: If you can’t peel or cook it, don't eat it, and if it’s not bottled, stay away from it. By following this basic rule, you should be able to spend you entire holiday sickness free and have all the energy and health you need to spend every possible moment surfing, sinking a few cold Bintangs with your mates and watching incredible sunsets drop down over the Indian Ocean.
The alternative is a few days in bed with gastro so gross that you be stuck on a toilet for days, full body sweats, head and body aches, your guts wrenching with cramps and spasms so all that you'll feel like doing is crawling into a hole, curling up hoping to die.
Indonesian regulations state that restaurants and food outlets need to use sanctioned water suppliers to buy their ice from and to wash all salads with purified water. I don't see this being a problem with the more established eateries, but feasting on food being sold by hand pulled carts along the road sides or little old shanty stalls that line the roadways, no matter how inviting the food looks, is another matter. It pays to be paranoid. Even at an established restaurant or bar it’s worth asking if the ice is clean. Cocktails, spirits, smoothies, and juices all usually come with ice and it you aren't 100% about where the ice comes from, make to ask them to leave it out.
Cleaning your teeth is an interesting one. I'll always brush and rinse my teeth using bottled water, but what about cleaning your brush? Do you use the running water, figuring that if there’s any live bacteria in the water supply that it will die when your tooth brush dries out? I've gambled a few times and been fine, but where I can I'll even wash it with bottled water. Same goes for showers. It’s nice to be cooled and refreshed, shampooing the salt out of your hair and running the water across your face. Just try keep your mouth closed.
Travelling with a good supply of Imodium always helps if things go bad. And by the way bring twice as much as you need, as there’s a chance that a friend might need some too and you wouldn't want to give away you only supply.
For anyone who wears contacts, here is a cautionary tale. Right now I'm paying the price of being slack. I'm writing this with one eye open and the other 3/4 shut, with puss oozing out, swollen and tender. It didn't need to be this way. It would have been fine if I had changed the solution each day and washed my hands each time before installing or taking the contacts out. At home I mostly often get away with it, not over here though.
There are plenty of pharmacies available around Bali and they are very well stocked, so don't freak out if you left anything medicinal at home, they more than likely have it here too.
You really need to take into consideration the ocean environment you are entering each and every time you go surfing and how you will deal with a situation if it arises.
As much as I love the Canggu area with its reefs, sand and combination of both sand / rock breaks, it is still in a bay. The water can become very stagnant, especially when there’s a lack of swell or tidal movement. Put some rain into the mix and the rivers and creeks start flowing and there’s a good chance your contract some kind of infection or other.
Kuta, Legian and Seminyak are usually the worst. There’s no way I could see myself going for a swim there. I cant remember the actual bacteria level reading in the ocean water there, but I know from memory that it was the past the point where a city beach at home would have been well and truly shut down.
Ear infections are classic, but prevention is manageable by using Aqua Ear each and every time that you get out of the water.
There is a process when treating reef wounds and it’s quite simple, though often painful. First you need to clean out the wound. Dettol and swabs help, but if you forget to pack them, a lime cut in half and scrubbed into the would will do just as good a job. You need to ensure that you scour inside the wound, open up the flesh and get any bits of coral, rock or sand out of it. You'll be amazed of the stories where skin heals or doesn't heal because of a foreign object that’s been left inside a cut.
Iodine and Betadine are always handy, but it’s the Chinese medicine Tieh Ta Yao Gin that is by far the greatest ointment available for cuts, abrasions and small wounds. By religiously applying this stuff a couple of times a day, there a good chance that you can keep on surfing without risking an easy infection and / or ulceration for at least a week.
The risk of infection is greatly increased or manageable depending on where you surf. As mentioned earlier in the writing, in the bay areas stretching from Kuta to Canngu, its almost a given that an open would will fester. Out on the Bukit Peninsular the water is a lot cleaner, though there is greater risk from reef cuts and abrasion.
And here’s something to ponder: If you looked at the cost of going to the dentist at home to get filling or two or some major work done like a crown or root cannel, then the same treatment in Bali. For about the same amount of money you could buy a return airline ticket, pay for food and accommodation at Uluwatu or Bingin for a month and cover your Balinese dentist bill.
For the most part, the basic medical services in Bali are exceptional and although I was very wary at first and did plenty of investigation before hand, I was very comfortable and relieved to find such a good level of professionalism and cleanliness when getting a few teeth repaired last week. What I saved from this procedure covered the majority of my trip over here. Now that is the best experience I've had with any dental appointment!
A couple of numbers worth noting and taking with you, making sure that they sit next to your passport and are locked into your phone before leaving home, are:
Bali International Medical Centre: +62-361 761263
Australian Consulate: +62-361 241 118 Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
And if you cant remember the above numbers, just ask around and you'll get what you need as far as doctors and medical attention is required.
- Tony Harrington
Checkout Surf The Earth www.surftheearth.com.au for a great package deal on Bali and other exotic surf locations.
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