Bali’s Bukit peninsula is one of the surfing wonders of the world. Located at the southern tip of the 2,200-square-mile Indonesian island, the area has become a haven for surfers over the last half century due to the headland’s perfect orientation for pulling in swells from the south Indian Ocean. Powerful waves roll over the coastline’s razor-sharp coral reefs, wrapping around the peninsula and filtering through every nook and cranny to create a handful of world-class surf spots.
It’s amazing how surfing has heralded a new era for the peninsula — for better or worse. Uluwatu, also known as ‘Ulus’, still has a tad of a rustic feel to it when you compare it to a standard tourist metropolis, but it’s a far cry from the unexplored frontier that it was in the ’70s for surfing pioneers like Gerry Lopez.
I love how Lopez recounts his first experience fighting through the overgrown brush in search of this mythical surf spot:
“It was as magnificent a sight as any surfer could behold. Perfect lines swept by clean offshore winds rolled in, peaked up and peeled off, occasionally hollowing out, spitting spray and continuing to peel off further. Jeff, Jack, and I blinked our eyes, blinked again, looked back, and realized we weren’t seeing things.”Gerry Lopez
While the wave is still just as it was described by Lopez, those days are obviously long gone. With paved roads, boutique hotels, crowded lineups, and avocado toast for sale, civilization has caught up with Uluwatu. But what’s interesting is that the once rural, monkey-riddled coast of Uluwatu has developed into the tourist destination that it is today with surf culture leading the way. Surf shops abound, stocked with top-of-the-line gear that you can’t even get in most countries on Earth. All the scooters for rent come with surf racks. And all the complementary sub-cultures that follow surf culture, like healthy eating, yoga, art, and hipster coffee shops, have found a home on the Bukit.
Bali is ground zero for surfing in Indonesia and a gateway into the rest of the hundreds of idyllic islands that arguably house the best waves in the world. It’s a rite of passage for surfers, a Mecca of sorts.
Having sailed around the sun 30 times, I was a bit late to the party as far as experiencing the surfing of Bali. It’s grueling 18+ hours of flight time for us Californians and I had always looked at other more convenient options when looking to make the most out of my limited vacation time. But come 2022, the time had finally arrived and it seemed like all signs were pointing towards a trip to Bali. I was only a half-century behind those once empty lineups, but I was excited to go experience the waves for myself.
My surf partner and high school classmate, Nate, and I found a home right on the bluff overlooking Uluwatu. We rented a simple, no-frills accommodation with a view of the waves, which was all we needed. As fate had it, the owner of the place was an ex-pat from our hometown of Santa Cruz. He made the move over 20 years ago, painting wave scenes on canvas that he sells back home in California. Nate even had a few of his paintings on his bedroom wall growing up. Small world, isn’t it?
Nate had already been to Bali before, so I was the one acquainting myself with the surf for the first time. Surfing in Bali and surfing my local spots back in San Diego is like night and day. It’s almost two different sports. The sharp, shallow coral reef of Uluwatu is exponentially more consequential than the gentle, sloping waves of Pacific Beach. You need to be calculated and intentional with your every move, or it could mean a dive down onto the reef below. And to further complicate matters, the spot is accessed through a narrow cave opening in the cliffs, which takes a bit of skill to navigate at high tide when the currents and waves prevent easy access.
The first impressions of surfing on the Bukit were the crowds. Bali is to Australians what Hawaii is to Americans — it’s touristy. There are just so many visiting surfers. Learning how to navigate the crowd and not succumb to frustration is the first step to success in surfing in Bali.
My first session must have had a hundred people spread across the point, but as I watched more from my balcony, I soon learned that if you pick and choose your moments smartly, you can find windows with a minimal crowd or even a peak all to yourself.
One of my favorite quirks of Uluwatu is how the locals have become quite industrious with their surf photography. As soon as you come out of the water, competing photo companies approach you with your photos and offer to sell them to you. As a media manager, I was astonished at how quickly they were able to run the memory card to the computer and organize all of your photos in a lineup of that size. And the prices were extremely reasonable, about $3 per photo, with discounts for bulk purchases.
After a day of warming up at small Uluwatu, the true test came with a large swell gracing the Indonesian archipelago. We woke up to waves up to three times overhead roaring around the peninsula, walls of water that really thinned out the crowd. The day before I had purchased a bigger board designed to handle bigger waves, and after owning it for only 12 hours it was time to get it in the water.
That session turned out to be a success, with me and Nate trading off some bombs with very few surfers out. It was one of those sessions that every surfer knows; you are constantly cresting the top of the waves hoping not to see a bigger wave behind it that will catch you in a bad position.
The swell eventually calmed down and more sessions were had at Uluwatu and the neighboring surf spots — some fun, some frustratingly crowded. We surfed twice a day for several hours, creating an appetite that was deserving of the excellent Balinese buffets.
Even with the arrival of tourism, the Bukit peninsula still holds its title as one of the world’s surfing paradises. But since those days of Gerry Lopez surfing uncrowded Uluwatu, the discovery of other wave-rich islands in Indonesia has created new frontiers and even better, more remote destinations. After experiencing Bali, that was the next chapter for me and Nate — two days of travel up north via planes, ferries, and boats to surf some remote islands that are now a household name for any surfer: the Mentawais.
Some of the photos we purchased from the locals at Uluwatu. At 30 years old we no longer care about looking cool, so helmets and reef booties are part of our outfit.