Peripatetically Speaking — A Nutshell Tale of Surf Travel

 

Text and Photos by Michael Kew

{Written for Transworld Surf in 2004.}

 “A surfer’s dream is to walk into a unique location with a perfect peeling wave, totally unknown.” —Peter Troy, legendary 1960s surf adventurer

 

Wanderlust. Seafaring. Excursion. Trekking. Passage. Movement.

Travel: It begins with desire. A desire to depart familiar scenes and slip into something a little more comfortable…or uncomfortable, depending on what lies at Point B or Point C or Point D. And so on.

Chances are you’re at Point A right now, reading this magazine in a place you know all too well. Maybe not. Either way, this magazine is filled with images and words from far afield, pieced together by the editors for the sole purpose of showcasing the world to you, the humble reader. And, full of waves, it’s a big, wet world to see.

Africa.

“In the beginning, there was Hawai’i,” said longtime surf writer Drew Kampion. “Then there was Hawai’i.”

Hey, it was Hawai’i’s George Freeth who imported surfing to California in 1907, hauling a 150-pound wood surfboard into the waves at Redondo Beach. Three years later, as a member of the traveling U.S. Swim Team, Duke Kahanamoku left his beloved islands and brought surfing to the U.S. East Coast. In 1915, Duke was the first person to surf in Australia, on a big day at Harbord (a.k.a. Freshwater Beach).

In the 1920s, freshly graded Highway 1 (PCH) was the vein for surf travel in Southern California. Sure, we’d surfed all the name-brand spots like Windansea, Swami’s, Corona Del Mar, Long Beach, Huntington, and San Onofre, but what existed up north? Santa Cruz’s Steamer Lane soon became a destination, as did Rincon and the Palos Verdes Peninsula.

Santa Monica surfers Tom Blake (who surfed Hawai’i in 1924) and Sam Reid knew zones to the north featured high-quality waves with no one to ride them—not that it mattered in September 1926, as California’s surfer population was only a few guys. On that warm, Indian Summer morning, Blake and Reid hopped onto PCH and motored up to a place that was then as deserted as the loneliest point in Baja. Their find?

“Going to Malibu from Santa Monica was the equivalent of going from one country to another,” historian Gary Lynch wrote.

“We took our 10’ redwoods out…and paddled the mile to a beautiful white crescent-shaped beach that didn’t have a footprint on it,” Reid recalled in Tom Blake: The Uncommon Journey of a Pioneer Waterman. “No buildings and, of course, no pier! There was no audience but the seagulls.”

Essentially, first-surfing Malibu in 1926 was akin to first-surfing Jeffreys Bay in 1963, or Irian Jaya in 2004. It was (and is) all about the search, after all—a catch-phrase coined by Rip Curl for an advertising campaign several years ago, yes, but also the lifeblood mojo of surf searchers across the globe.

From the 1920s through the 1950s, a surf trip entailed traveling either to Hawai’i or California and vice versa. California’s Pete Peterson and Lorrin Harrison followed in Blake’s footsteps with a stowaway voyage to Waikiki in 1932; 15 years later, Hawai’i’s Wally Froiseth, George Downing, and Woody Brown sailed in the opposite direction.

Going back hundreds of years, Polynesians were the world’s first surfers, riding waves in canoes from island to island across great expanses of sea; why would they need to go anyplace else?

“To appreciate Hawai’i, you’ve got to leave Hawai’i,” said Randy Rarick, director of the North Shore’s annual Triple Crown series. “My first major trip was to California when I was 15, and, back then, it was a huge adventure.”

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more well-traveled surfer than Rarick. At age 54, it’s said that he’s been everywhere, met everyone, and seen everything. Rarick’s traveled in 110+ countries and surfed in more than 60 of them—random places like Somalia, Yugoslavia, Greece, and Burma. But, like all of us, his traveling had to start somewhere, and why not California? It was as exotic to Hawai’ians as Hawai’i was to Californians.

“In the 1960s,” Rarick said, “surf magazines were growing, and I’d look at all these pictures of glassy California beachbreaks. I’d dream about how cool it would be to ride a wave and fall off and step onto the sand—we just don’t get that here in Hawai’i very often.”

Rarick’s California sojourn fell smack-dab in the middle of the planet’s fledgling surf discovery. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, doors the world over swung wide open, thanks in part to cheaper air travel and to movies like “Endless Summer,” which was surfing’s first surf-travel documentary. Who’d ever thought of surfing in Ghana, Tahiti, or Senegal, anyway? After the film’s overwhelming success, surfers looked at their world maps in a whole new light.

In the 1960s, magazine articles about Mexico, Baja, France, Mauritius, Spain, Portugal, and Brazil effectively distracted surfers from the standard Hawai’i-California circuit. Europe became vogue; the England-to-Morocco migration route became de rigueur in the chilly winter months, and surfing’s popularity skyrocketed in places we’d never dreamed of surfing.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, Peter Troy introduced surfing to Brazil in 1961, setting the stage for what is today a teeming surf culture. Through the ‘60s and into the ‘70s, surfers had left their mark across South and Central America, and, halfway around the world, first-surfs occurred frequently in South Africa, Australia, and Indonesia.

A series of 1970s travel articles produced for Surfer magazine by writer Kevin Naughton and photographer Craig Peterson further fueled our wanderlust: who can forget the world’s first look at now-defunct Petacalco in Mexico, Fiji’s blue perfection, France’s fine wines and waves, or West Africa’s dusty barrels? The pair’s stories filled the reader’s mind with distant exotica, stating that, hey, there’s a lot of ocean out there, and that perhaps travel is the greatest education.

“Our tales from a lost horizon,” Naughton said, “were a wake-up call to fellow surfers that it’s better to have your passport in some thief’s pocket in a foreign land than sitting in your drawer at home. If there was any underlying message, it was that, for a traveler on the road, it’s better to be lucky than rich.”

Randy Rarick remembers those articles, identifying with the Naughton/Peterson ethos that it’s our world out there, and that everyone should get off their ass and go check it out.

 “The aspect of either discovery, interacting with the culture of the place, and then being able to actually share that with fellow surfers is really cool,” Rarick said. “If you take the time and energy to go find a place, you have the right to either keep it private, or share it with your friends or the surfing world. We’re all here to share the world, and if you can share it with people who surf and enjoy it with surfers, that’s a good thing.

“When you go traveling, my philosophy is the interaction with the local people and the place is why you’ve traveled. To get surf is just the icing on the cake. If you want to surf-travel, just go to the Mentawais—you cannot go wrong. Get on a boat and you’ll get good surf no matter what. But when you’re sitting on a boat, you don’t really interact with the place, per se, and you actually are missing the whole mark of traveling.

“When you do it that way, you’re nothing more than a surf tourist, as I call it. A traveler is different than a tourist: a tourist is somebody who goes there to see it, and a traveler is somebody who goes to experience it.”

And now? Well, where haven’t we surfed? A more interesting answer would be where we have surfed—it’s an impressive list. Rarick knows.

“I try to go to obscure places in the world where I don’t care if the surf’s really that good or not,” he said. “I go because it’s different.”

One of today’s preeminent and most conspicuous forms of surf exploration is the Crossing, an ambitious plan to scour the Earth’s oceans aboard the Indies Trader, funded by Quiksilver. Launched in March 1999 from Cairns, Australia, the Crossing’s original theme was a detailed one-year exploration of the South Pacific, which quickly evolved into a six-year voyage covering just about everywhere in the world with swell exposure: Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Indonesia, Indian Ocean islands, Africa, Europe, Latin America, the Caribbean, South America, North America….

Magazine-sponsored trips are another visible conduit of unique surf travel. One from 2000, featured in Surfer magazine, was a groundbreaking adventure deep into the pirate territory of Indonesia’s Spice Islands.

“It was one of those places where you began to wonder just how silly and frivolous the hunt for surf is,” said Hans Hagen. “We were constantly caught off-guard both by beauty and danger—sometimes they seem to go hand in hand. It’s always the hard trips that stick with you.” 

Pacific Northwest. Sea temperature: 37°F.

Initially, following the early days of Duke in Australia and Santa Cruz, surf travel was sowed via California’s Highway 101—gas it for 10 cents a gallon and go. North, usually. Rincon was as cold and wild then as Alaska is now. Not quite the Arctic Circle, but, then again, when you had no choice but to surf in trunks year-round, Rincon was cold enough.

Not as cold as Santa Cruz, though—hey, Jack O’Neill knew that, and gave birth to modern rubber. With great advancements in wetsuit technology, nobody dismissed the idea of surfing such extreme cold-water climes.

“You know, until you’ve surfed with polar bears around,” Dr. Mark Renneker told Surfing magazine, “you haven’t really surfed.”

To wit: Greenland, Sweden, Antarctica, Svalbard, Tierra del Fuego, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Falkland Islands, Alaska, Russia, Norway, and Iceland.

“They used to be places where the elements were working against you,” Rarick said. “Now, with the modern wetsuit, you can overcome those elements.”

A 1996 Surfer magazine delegation to Iceland raised more than a few proverbial eyebrows in the surf world, especially considering nobody had ever really thought this island nation smack-dab in the middle of the North Atlantic could produce some incredibly good waves.

Robert “Wingnut” Weaver, of Endless Summer II fame, was one of the trip’s participants. “The surf was really fun,” he recalls. “Good pointbreaks and reefs—even a bitchin’ sand rivermouth deal. Of course it was cold, but one of the points stretched for more than three miles with the right swell...amazing! I would go back in a heartbeat.”

Inspired by what they found, Wingnut is sold on the concept of surf-trekking into the world’s icy netherworlds. Who needs palm trees and white-sand hammocks?

“It will be the cold places that the new discoveries will be made,” he said.

Wetsuits are better than ever. So good, in fact, that they have allowed waves to be ridden everywhere from the Arctic to the Antarctic.

“Besides great wetsuits,” said former Surfer editor Steve Hawk, “with the growing number of surfers, there’s bound to be a lot more people looking at more interesting places based on their own personal travel needs. Some guys don’t mind camping out where it’s cold; I know a lot of people who think the idea of going to Alaska to surf just sounds like the stupidest thing in the world. But then you have guys like Doc (Renneker), who’s done with tropical places.”

Dr. Renneker surfed among polar bears and icebergs in Svalbard, an island north of Norway, which made his previous Alaska trips seem tropical. Hawk was with Renneker in Alaska, who, when flying home to San Francisco, decided that it was time to head south for the winter. Not to Tortola or Costa Rica, not to Fiji or Tahiti, but to the 33°F water surrounding the great white sheet of ice at the bottom of the world: Antarctica.

A brave sail from Tierra del Fuego to Antarctica, which some consider to be the deadliest trip in the world, then three earnest weeks on a steel-hulled boat with only one day of good surf. Why? Thank the great British explorer of yore: Ernest Shackleton.

“One of the real moments of genesis for our trip was the book about Shackleton’s expedition,” Hawk said. “There was a photo of some of his crew, who, for survival purposes, he’d left behind on Elephant Island. He left them and sailed off in a tiny boat, returning months later to get the other guys.”

Shackleton had a photographer with him, and, in the book is a shot of Shackleton coming toward his men on a skiff, with the mothership anchored offshore. It’s the moment of rescue, and all of the men in the foreground are waving—they’re ecstatic. And about 20 yards in front of them, there’s this little wave breaking, which was what planted the seed in Doc’s mind about surfing Antarctica.

“The first place we actually surfed was right at that spot on Elephant Island,” Hawk said. “Chris Malloy and I paddled out, and it all came full-circle.”

So is Antarctica a bona fide surf destination?

“Oh no,” Hawk assured. “It was a novelty trip—an excuse to go to Antarctica. In many ways, all of the best surf trips are like that.”

Seychelles.

Pinpoint the surf discoveries you remember best: perhaps it’s Indonesia: Uluwatu, Grajagan, Macaronis, Lance’s Right, Nias, Desert Point. Perhaps it was the Philippines and Cloud Nine. Or perhaps it were outposts in Australia, Panama, Africa, and Papua New Guinea.

Maybe it’s desert Arab sand that intrigues you: Pakistan, Oman, Yemen. Or 6-mils and hypothermia: Alaska, Scotland, Norway. Or Indian Ocean dreams of the Maldives and Andamans, Seychelles and Madagascar.

What is surf adventure? Driving without a map down Mex 1? Camping on Northern California’s Lost Coast? Booking a guaranteed 10-day Bintang Bash in the Mentawais? Or charting the unknown on an unknown vessel in a location with unknown surf potential and good chance of peril and misfortune?

“The roots of surf travel are based on two principles: cutting away from the herd, and finding an off-season resource,” said Scott Hulet, editor of The Surfer’s Journal. “Many centuries ago, a few boatloads of Tahitians split for Hawaii because things were getting rat-caged back home. In this century, Lance Carson turned on to Rincon because Malibu went dormant in the winter. The adventure element is there, but it follows the practical.”

Word-of-mouth and maps chicken-scratched onto cocktail napkins have exemplified more than one surfer’s quest for a foreign shore. Tales of the South Pacific, perhaps the most surf-rich region on the planet, have for years seduced us with omniscient images of Tahiti, Fiji, Samoa, and spaces between—usually unidentified.

Twenty-one years ago, Dave Clark was a schoolteacher in Pago Pago, American Samoa. A friend who had sailed through Fiji described a sublime, tiny island just off the coast of Fiji’s Viti Levu, and suggested to Clark that he pay a visit. That island was Tavarua, and Clark, along with friend Scott Funk, liked what they found on Tavarua and soon built accommodation on the pristine white sand fronting Restaurants, forever changing the picture of surf travel.

“I think it was the natural evolution of things,” Clark said. “Populations increase and people want to visit more remote areas. On Tavarua, nature did a wonderful job creating that reef, so we thought having accommodation there would be a cool thing to do.”

Clark’s creation? The surf resort. Forget about hoofing a backpack and surfboard through the jungle, or hassling with to a do-it-yourself travel tack. One swipe of your credit card could now buy you guaranteed perfection with three meals a day, air-conditioned bungalows, and hot showers.

All said, not everyone is sold on the packaged surf trip.

“There are still guys out there doing it hard because they believe that’s the way it should be done,” Hulet said. “Craig (Peterson) and Kevin (Naughton) were prototypes; contemporary ferals keep the vibe in production.

Contemporary ferals?

“Yeah, they’re the guys who get on some local fishing boat and scrounge it out for six months on $100 a month, surfing waves with no one around,” said Rarick. “Some people think that’s exotic—when I was 20 years old, it was great. But as you get older, you realize you need to maximize your time.

“I spent weeks and months driving the coast of West Africa—dirty and dusty and flat conditions, eating shitty food and just waiting for a swell. Weeks wasted. You can romanticize it and say, ‘oh, it was great and exotic and romantic, driving through the deserts of Africa looking for surf.’ But I look back at some of the shitty times and I know I could’ve been surfing (somewhere else) that whole time rather than crawling around trying to find surf. That’s why I have no qualms about surf resorts or sharing shortcuts for people to be able to get to the surf.”

Business at Tavarua’s new resort flourished following 1984’s Tavarua cover story in Surfer magazine, submitted by Naughton and Peterson. Now, 20 years later, the tropical surf world is virtually awash in surf camps and resorts—ideal Everyday Life escape routes for anyone with the coin, quiver, and time off from work.

“Surf resorts are great for a guy who’s an executive who’s got two weeks per year to pack in as much surf as he can,” Rarick said. “He’s taking his two-week vacation and maximizing the surf potential. Surf resorts allow people who don’t have the time, the energy, or the wherewithal to maximize their surf experience.

“It’s no different than building a golf course; you can go down to your little local driving range and hit balls, but if you can go out and play on a golf course, it’s obviously going to be a better experience. It’s the same thing with surfing: you can stay home and surf your local beachbreak, or you can get away and find a better wave somewhere you can have X amount of time with fellow surfers and enhance your life. I think there should be a thousand surf camps where people could go and enjoy the surfing experience in different places.”

Essentially, perfect waves have been the catalyst of change. Take Mauritius’ Tamarin Bay, for example. First seen (and identified) in Surfer way back in 1966, the flawless, fickle lefthander was later the star of Larry Yates’ seminal Surfer article about the “Forgotten Island of Santosha,” which, in 1974, assured each and every one of us our own mental utopia. The concept sent surfers worldwide into a dreamland, pining for “Santosha,” knowing that it existed, but not knowing exactly where.

Australian Kevin Lovett found it at Lagundi Bay on the island of Nias, Indonesia. After voyaging along Sumatra with partner John Geisel and their newfound friend and hard-core traveler Peter Troy, Lovett endured remarkable hardship and garnered personal growth while unearthing one of Indonesia’s finest gems, his reasoning described in detail in The Surfer’s Journal.

“Recurring images of pristine tropical environments, swaying palm trees and perfect surf seemed to fill my every waking moment from the time I read (‘Santosha’),” Lovett wrote. “The author…drew a red herring across the trail to the site of his experience by describing ‘Santosha’ as not really a place, but a state of mind….Was the Surfer’s Dream just a state of mind? Was there no physical basis for its existence? My friend John Geisel and I were determined to prove that Santosha was a hoax and that somewhere out there The Dream burned brightly and we were a part of it.

“We were to discover that journeys are rarely in straight lines, and that digressions occur for the most sublime reasons. That fresh-faced feeling of traveling for the first time; experiencing life moment by moment, the realization of being a part of a bigger whole, never leaves you.”

Today, Lagundi Bay is a site of overcrowding, decaying accommodation, theft, filth, and occasional sour vibes. The wave is still perfect and worth the trip, but the encroachment of “surf colonialism” at spots like Nias has tainted the original idea, driving many—Lovett included—further afield.

Africa’s potential has scarcely been tapped, due in large part to inaccessibility and civil unrest. Intimately, we know Jeffreys Bay, the Durban beachbreaks, Cape Town, and Morocco, but what about the rest of the Dark Continent’s thousands of swell-exposed miles? North of Durban, south of Morocco? What perfect lineups exist unsurfed in Somalia, Nigeria, Tanzania, and Ivory Coast?

Peterson and Naughton explored West Africa in the 1970s, surfing and camping and photographing for more Surfer articles back home. If you think surfing Africa is wild now, imagine what it was like 30 years ago.

The burning sensation of wonder certainly exists, especially for Stuart Butler, a writer who looked south of his British homeland—south of Morocco—and said, “I can do this.”

“The world may now be fully explored and mapped, but, for surfers, huge swaths of the planet are still as blank and unknown as it was for the medieval map-makers,” Butler wrote in The Surfer’s Path. “Several trips to northern Morocco had left me intrigued. South of Anchor Point and the world once again became an unknown blank. I’d heard of the waves around Dakar in Senegal, but that left thousands of kilometers in between and beyond.

“The first European explorers to Africa had come in search of wealth. They found it in the form of gold and slaves. I was searching for riches of a different type.”

He found them. Oh, yes, African perfection exists. But what about the Middle East? Hasn’t anyone observed the obvious, vast fetches of coastline yawning into the Arabian Sea? Hey, if western India and the Maldives have surf….

Ignoring today’s obvious dangers, traveling to those parched Arabian shores for the purpose of surfing could be deemed ludicrous by the casual observer. Not to a determined coterie of Brits and one Frenchman back in 2001, when ‘Pakistan’ was stamped into their passports. It had been a long road to get there, and a painfully rough, dusty, blistering hot road to find a few waves.

“An aerial photograph of the coast in a book…revealed an image that set my heart racing,” again wrote Butler in The Surfer’s Path. “Through apricot-colored dunes wound a long-dead riverbed that snaked down to the Arabian Sea. Thick righthanders could be seen breaking into a deep-water channel. The picture stayed etched into my mind for months, and, slowly, almost subconsciously, an idea was born. I had to go and surf in this desert of myth and mystery.”

San Diego’s Shayne McIntyre, along with his wife Shannon and photographer Jeff Divine, had a similar expedition in Oman, finding waves, but not the Arabian perfection they’d hoped for. But a few guys did stumble upon watery fortune off Yemen last year, confirming all speculation that, yes, the Gulf of Aden is indeed holding.

Flipping the climatic coin, however, McIntyre and friends were extremely successful with a 1999 trip to Russia’s Kuril Islands, a staunchly off-limits ex-military zone littered with decaying military hardware and, as predicted, a wealth of prime surf territory.

“I wasn’t looking for Kirra,” McIntyre wrote in The Surfer’s Journal. “I wanted to be vulnerable, with the elements opposing me. I even wanted the hassle of the military trying to kick us off the island. I was on a remote Russian island, surfing a virgin beachbreak by myself in a fierce storm in the Okhotsk Sea. I couldn’t be happier.”

Great surf adventure and discovery often occurs by accident…or serendipity, depending on who’s talking. In the case of Australian Tony Hinde, it was an act of fate. Led by wanderlust to Asia in the early 1970s, Hinde and friend Mark Scanlon spent some time in Sri Lanka with before boarding a spiffy yacht captained by a sketchy American and his pet monkey. The plan? Africa, thousands of miles and a world of dreams away.

But instead of reaching Africa, the crew ran aground on Maldivian coral four days into the trip. Desperate salvage efforts ensued during the next two months, during which time Hinde and Scanlon found decent waves on Male, the nation’s main atoll. The pair eventually left for India, but Hinde returned to the Maldives shortly thereafter—for him, the seed was set.

Hinde’s story, recounted in detail by Shawn Shamlou in The Surfer’s Journal, is a rare tale of serendipity and the ultimate result of surf adventure. After all, if it wasn’t for surfing, would Hinde have resided in the Maldives permanently since 1975?

“It wasn’t until Tony’s fourth trip…in 1975, that waves outside of Male were found,” Shamlou wrote. “…Tony headed straight for a spot he had seen on a very onshore day, hoping this time it would be the right season. What he found changed his life forever: not one, but two perfect waves breaking off an uninhabited island, an unreal right/left setup…After that first hallmark surf, Tony literally peered out from the surf break and sussed out the closest inhabited landmass—Himmafushi Island. That’s the island where Tony would live. He’d found the end of his road.”

After experiencing stellar, warm waves, the act of relocating one’s life to a steamy Third World country is not uncommon. Take Costa Rica, for example: some would venture to say there are too many damn American expats down there. Hawai’i would be close in the running for foreign transplant status if it wasn’t our 50th state.

Several Westerners also exist in Bali, perhaps the most benign Indonesian island for Western acclimatization. Naturally, their uprooting from home soil to craft a new life in this Hindu paradise was initially sparked by each individual’s quest for exotica in the land of perfect lefts.

Polynesia.

The future? Satellite images from anywhere in the world, beamed through your computer screen for a price. Wondering if a random reef pass in Kiribati is breaking right now? No problem—just click and zoom in.

If that’s the case, our world will get larger, not smaller. Vast expanse of unknown coast will become known, and we’ll figure out a way to get there. All it takes is money, time, willingness, planning…and plenty of classic wonder.

“(Surf travel) is like the search for the Holy Grail: you’re never going to find it,” Rarick said. “There’s always going to be something bigger, better, or different around the corner. Are you satisfied to stop and just say, OK, let’s stay here, or is the endless search where your head is at?”

Maybe you’ve found your Holy Grail, maybe you haven’t. Perhaps you’re on your third passport, or perhaps you’ve never had one. Airplanes, trains, buses, boats, subways, rental cars, rickshaws, taxis, donkeys, motorcycles, bicycles, scooters, camels, human feet—all modes of transportation from here to there, be it Port Elizabeth or Port Blair.

It’s all an interlude from the daily grind. Some come in packages, others come as full-tilt feral rumbles in the jungle. Or somewhere in between. Could be a weekend Baja jaunt in the Suburban, a two-week scouring of Norway, or a four-month tour of duty around Australia.

North or south? East or west? Warm or cold? Cheap or expensive? Near or far? Point is, surf travel is an open road. A choice. Your choice.

So get out there and do it.