The Toast Surf Trip Kupang to Flores, Part 5 — “There’s gonna be no surf in Savu, but don’t worry, be happy”

(Part 1) (Part 2) (Part 3) (Part 4)

We had a situation.

Six of us were trying to get from Bali to the Bajo Baji anchored up Savu. Three of us (Mike, Clayton, and your blog correspondent) were on Friday’s Garuda flight to Kupang. The big jet had no problems taking our bags, the four boxes of delicate chilled provisions packed in Stryofoam, and Clayton’s and Mike’s board bags. However, the next morning we flying on Susi Air, a small single-engine plane, from Kupang to Savu. The 30+ knot winds were keeping all ferries in port, and the two Susi Air flights were fully booked. We’d been lucky to get seats. It was uncertain the little plane could carry all our stuff. (I am reminded of a story of a missionary pilot in Papua who told the five local passengers getting on his plane that they couldn’t carry the two banana stalks they had with them– too much weight. So the passengers sat down on the grassy field and ate all the bananas before boarding.)



Our back-up plan was to leave whatever could not get on the plane at the hotel where we’d be staying, although we didn’t know where yet. Steve, Tim and Murray, arriving on Saturday, would then add these to their gear and get on whatever boat to Savu they could finagle. Things were uncertain. The winds were howling. The harbormasters were refusing boat clearances. It appeared that for Tim and Co to get to Savu, they would have to quietly scout around for a local boat and practice some of the Magic that Must Not Be Named. This trip was getting more expensive than planned.

But we were motivated by the swell forecast. So were a lot of other surfers on the same flight to Kupang and then on to Rote via the afternoon Wings Air flight. Old days, you’d have to spend the night in a flea-bag Kupang hotel and next morning catch the slow, the very very slow, vehicle ferry to Rote and then a slow bus, a very very slow bus, to Nembrala.

I ran into “Bingin” Mick at the airport. Oddly enough, for all that both of us call Bali home base, I’ve only ever seen him at Rote, where he has a place away from his small boutique Bukit operation and where he takes a busman’s holiday to surf by himself. Rips, too. He said he’d sailed to Rote for one of the previous large swells and it wasn’t really doing it. He reckoned chances for this swell were pretty iffy. I kept this to myself. Why bum the boys with negativity?

Although Clayton is impervious to negativity. Even though he is the artist as a young man (his age relative to us greybeards), he’s not one of those tortured artists. You know that song, “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” ? That’s Clayton, beaming out positivity and good cheer. The perfect guy to have on a small boat with many people, his presence wafting a combination of aerosol Xanax but more organic and uplifting, and that soothing background decor you find in good mental institutions.

Clay and Dance 2

(Clayton with Chef Danch’e)

I can imagine it, me wandering back to Clayton and Mike in the airport waiting lounge. “Looks like Savu isn’t going to have any surf and we’re going to be stuck there looking at a flat ocean.”

Mike curses and frets as only Mike can curse and fret.

“Hmmm,” Clayton says, as he continues doodling at his portable drawing pad, “we’ll go in search of the Snake Lady of Savu and have adventures anyway.”

You’ve no doubt seen Clayton’s art work, as he is the artistic director of Surfer Girl. Just like some people read books when in waiting lounges, or twitch through the Internet on their smart phones, or play solitaire or some other application game phones if there is no Internet signal, Clayton doodles. He has with him his small pouch of colored drawing pencils and skinny rectangular drawing pads cut from a full-sized drawing pad. It’s mesmerizing to watch him doodle as he chats. He draws a smooth line and then just as smoothly puts in a small kink. It’s effortless. Water flowing downhill. You have no idea what the doodle is going to be, and then voila, there it is.

snake lady ridge

(Snake Lady Ridge, as drawn by Clayton …. would we find her coiled upon the peak?)

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The Toast Surf Trip Kupang to Flores — the saga of Steve the Deve’s soybean burgers

Let’s see, where was I? Ah yes, Robert Wilson and the Bajo Baji were stuck in Savu, pinned there by strong easterly winds that prevented the good ship from reaching our designated pick-up spot of Kupang. The rest of the Toast Crew were in Bali strategizing bemos, boats and ojeks to get to Savu. The first beer crisis had been averted, but another would soon raise its foamy head.

While beer tops the list for any surf trip provisioning, it must be admitted that food comes a close second, especially the cuisine that the Bajo Baji is famous for.

Robert had not only planned in military detail the beer supply but also sauces and bread and coffee and pasta and cheese and fish and meats and vegetables and a seemingly endless supply of soybean burger patties for our resident surfing vegetarian, Steve “the Deve” Palmer who eschews all things slaughtered, and chews only things harvested.

Steve’s originally from the western suburbs of Sydney, and while I don’t know much about the western suburbs, I know enough to know that Steve would have fit like Westerly Windia in an army barracks. Actually, that’s a lousy comparison. Steve’s never had gender issues or confusion, that’s for sure. So, fit in like an organic tofu burger in a McDonalds? Fit in like a hyper-dimensional tesseract in Bob’s Auto Shop? The Deve’s always been in his own creative world – can we call it Steve’s World? — his mind fissioning with endless ideas. As Clayton put it on the trip, Steve’s brain is wired like a tangle of spaghetti, requiring a special liquid helium-type cooling (which is probably generated by his special mix of soybean burger). Come to think of it, Steve’s attention span resembles a hyper-dimensional tesseract, which is to say a small percentage of its bandwidth is dedicated to ordinary 3-dimensional stuff like talking to those around him, while most of his neurons are fissioning into hyper-space where only the brave crew of the Starship Enterprise have dared gone before. If he could, he would blend his neurons into the Cosmic Internet so that he would be eternally and internally on-line 24/7.


Remember when webbed surf gloves first came out? Who wears them these days? Steve does. I recall one trip we did to the Hinakos pre-earthquake days on the Bohemian (captained by Steve Bridge with the late great Charlie Harris on board as well). We pulled up to a solid 10 foot plus swell booming on the reef. Steve waxed up his board and slipped on his webbed gloves and charged. He says paddling bare-handed into waves is like paddling with drumsticks.

webbed gloves


Steve was one of the founders and creative forces behind OM Clothing Company, about the first real big batik and garment exporter out of Indonesia. in 1980, OM sponsored Bali’s first pro contest, the OM Bali pro. Then he moved onto the Bali Quiksilver franchise with Ketut Kasih. He contributed Genius Mental Radiation to the original Tubes Bar. Surfer Girl, as well. Steve got up to lots of other things too, but Jeez, I could write a book about it, not a blog post.

At any rate, all these provisions were chilled and boxed in Styrofoam coolers, ready for our Garuda flight to Kupang and hence straight onto the Bajo Baji. Now we had to get the damn things to Savu. Robert re-sorted the provisions down to the essentials packed away in four boxes, one of them being Steve’s soybean burger patties, otherwise the poor fellow was going to starve away to bones on the trip. Somehow we’d have to keep this particular box chilled the entire way while traveling to Savu on bemos, boats and ojeks.

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The Toast Surf Trip Kupang To Flores — Interlude

This past week I’ve been busier than a one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest and haven’t had a chance to write more about the beer crisis and whether or not there is in fact surf in Savu.

So for today I offer a gratuitous scenic shot of one of our trip anchorages.

sumba view

That white speck is the Bajo Baji. At this point, we were still blissfully unaware of the Snake Lady of Sumba singing her siren song, and that doom and disaster lurked.

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The Toast Surf Trip Kupang to Flores, part 3 — A crisis of beer (and is there really surf on Savu)?

(Part 1)

(Part 2)


There was trouble brewing about the beer.

Robert Wilson, who’s as efficient as an atomic clock, had started his usual meticulous planning months prior to our departure on the Kupang to Flores Toast Surf Trip. The lead item on his planning was not the overland trucking of our surfboards to Labuhan Bajo on Flores, where the Bajo Baji would depart to Kupang for pickup, but the beer supply. That, of course, is how it should be. Beer first, boards second. He emailed us, asking us how many Bintang or Prost cans we each wanted for the two weeks.

Michael “Toast” McHugh said he would like Bintang bottles, please. The tall ones.

“Mate,” Robert said, “glass bottles and boats don’t go together. Cans can be crushed flat, and they don’t break into shards.”

“I don’t drink cans,” Mike said. “Bottles, please.”

I personally agree, for beer in a can has a lingering finish on the palate that is faintly reminiscent of frog urine on the tongue, but I understood Robert’s reasoning and was willing to go along with cans. Mike remained brusquely adamant.


That’s the Toast for you. This is how it is, boys. Concise and definite about what he wants and how he wants it, one reason why he’s a successful, if occasionally stressed, entrepreneur. He came to Bali and was not only enchanted by the island and its waves, but also the prospect of setting up a business that could allow him to stay and surf. Quite a number of the early day surfers (the Toast Crew being a representative sample of a whole bunch of other guys and gals I could name) could sniff their fortunes in that early Bali air, one such prospect being Indonesia’s artisanal batik and embroidery products, hitherto unknown in the West.

Mike lugged a couple suitcases around California flea markets, a young Aussie in America long before Crocodile Dundee, which led to him and his Balinese partner establishing the Uluwatu brand of embroidered women’s garments. You still see the stores around Bali (although Mike is no longer involved — he and his wife own a couple silver & handicraft stores in LA, and to hear him talk sometimes, those shops are like his personal La Brea tar pits, he’s gotten stuck in them and can’t get out and is going to end up fossilized right there on Melrose Avenue.)

So, anyway, Robert graciously agreed to bottles, and prepared a suitable disposal unit for them. That beer crisis was averted, but another would soon rear its foamy head.


The Beer Supply, before being loaded on boat

tallies bin

The Toast Tallies bin: Robert custom-made that that heavy wooden lid, by the way

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The Toast Surf Trip Kupang to Flores, Part 2 – introducing the boys

Any of you remember Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, that hilarious comedy about a stiff-shirted marketing executive (Steve Martin) and a zany salesman (John Candy) trying to get from New York to home in Chicago for the holidays? What’s normally a simple three-hour plane ride turns into a three-day run of misadventures and disasters.

If you recall from the previous blog post, the boys from Bali were supposed to fly to Kupang to board the Bajo Baji, but strong easterly trades had kept the B.B. pinned on the remote island of Savu. So we had to get to Savu, and the getting there reminds me of that movie, except it was more like “Bemos, Boats, and Ojeks.” With a Susi Air single-engine puddle jumper thrown in.

We did finally get there. The swell forecast motivated us greatly. Surely Savu’s fabled but fickle waves would be working.

first swell of the trip

In this post, let me introduce the Toast Trip Boys

the boys

From left to right, and when first came to Bali and where stayed

Michael “Toast” McHugh: 16 March 1976, Losmen Sudani

Clayton “Young Man” Barr: 1989, Mutiara Cottages

Murray “Muzzah” Bourton: 1975, Losmen Jalan Pantai

Robert “Sil” Wilson: May, 1974, Losmen Lasierawati

Your Blog Correspondent, born Bali 1956

Steve “The Deve” Palmer, Dec 1974, Losmen Lasierawati

Tim “Dog” Watts, July 1976, stayed with Made Waces (Big Froggy’s uncle) at Kuta Reef

We all either still live in Bali, or divide our time between Bali and elsewhere (say North America ski slopes in Northern Hemisphere winter months), or are constant repeat visitors. Those lined and craggy mugs you see lined along the foredeck represent a lot of history, from the early “Morning of the Earth” days all the way to the present “Midnight of the Garbage Dump” (or so it seems when a mild southerly blows across Peninsula Bali’s highest geographical feature, the man-made hill that is Suwung dump, rising ever higher to spread the aroma of rotting garbage).

The boys were drawn to Bali for its surf, Uluwatu being the siren call in those early years. They arrived with a surfboard, a backpack, and a couple hundred dollars in their wallets, enough to last for months at Kuta’s inexpensive family homestays scattered around dusty lanes winding through the coconut groves. They bathed and drank water drawn from the family well and ate black rice pudding for breakfast and warung noodles for lunch and perhaps a pasta dinner at one of the few restaurants. Should I mention the papaya stem bong? Kerosene lamps illuminated the night, and sleep was on a bamboo bed and kapok mattress. After hours of surf, and accessories one didn’t didn’t feel the kapok lumps.

As we talked story of those early days, we sometimes directed our comments to Clayton, the Young Man as an Artist who first set foot on Bali more than a decade later, but that is both understandable and excusable, as he was born more than a decade later. He was the same age at us when he landed at Ngurah Rai airport. But that early Kuta we knew was already changing with accelerating and irrevocable pace.

We recalled how Kuta was in the 70s a traditional, conservative Balinese village where the villagers eked out a hardscrabble living. Surfers with dollars in their pockets were a god-send. They were welcomed into the family homestay but the parents who ran the homestays didn’t really want the surfers around their children. They didn’t want their sons to waste time with surfing and darkening their skin in the sun like the poorest of the poor peasants laboring in the fields. They especially didn’t want their daughters consorting with these big-nosed, crazy foreigners. Not that it didn’t happen. There were lots of secret midnight knocks and climbing over walls and what a romantic novelist would call “trysts.” There was plenty of drama. If a Western lad went out publicly with a Kuta lass, then marriage was pretty much the expected outcome.

It was a different era and time, when the concrete shadows of big hotels and greedy Jakarta money were still way below the horizon. Kuta today occupies the same geographical coordinates, but it’s no longer the same place.


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The Toast Surf Trip Kupang to Flores, Part 1

On a sunny Wednesday morning, I was working on a story about an asshole who didn’t want to be an asshole anymore, but my mind drifted. In a few days on Saturday, six of us old Bali Bulé Boys were off to Kupang to board the Bajo Baji to island hop through Rote, Savu, Sumba and back to the boat’s home port of Labuhan Bajo on the west coast of Flores. Three weeks of surfing and fishing and diving and telling tales over sushi and sunset beers.

board rack

(the Bajo Baji is a customized high-end scuba dive boat, so owners Robert Wilson and Steve Palmer purpose-built a board rack on the stern for boards that some of us sent overland to Bajo via truck so we wouldn’t have to hassle and worry about getting them on planes)

The trip had been christened the Toast Tour, in honor of Michael McHugh, Sydney boy turned early Bali expat turned current LA resident. We were going rid him of some of that LA urban crust.

Asshole story abandoned, I debated whether to bring my SUP along. I was nearly five months into rotator cuff shoulder surgery rehabilitation, and even though the doc and physio had said no surfing for six months, surely a little bit of paddling in soft waves here and there wouldn’t do me any harm? (I couldn’t prone surf yet, but the thing about the standup paddle board, is you are already upright and the shoulder rotation is easier.)

What the heck. Yesterday I’d had a tentative experimental SUP paddle at 2 foot Serangan and caught a dribbler – just the one, doc, I promise – and felt fine. So sure, I’d bring it with me. I checked with Garuda. Yup, it’d fit into the 737 cargo hold. I was slipping the 9’6″ beast into its elephantine board bag when my cell phone rang.

“What a night, mate, we got hammered,” Robert Wilson said on the other end. He’d spent a solo week or so in Sumba, doing some warm-up surfing, getting back into it after eight years off the board. He and the boat were supposed to be in Kupang already, getting clearances, all that fine bureaucratic foo-daddle, and re-provisioning.

But as he told me on the phone, the boat had been going fine across the Savu Sea when out of nowhere they got slammed by easterly winds with gusts of 40 knots. The Savu Sea is notorious for this kind of weather, Mother Nature getting real cranky real quick. After a couple hours of battling, clawing and banging in the motorized catamaran and getting nowhere, Robert and Skipper Nasrul turned round. They were now anchored up in Savu Island. That’s where he was calling from. The wind forecast looked grim. Trades of steady 25 knots with 35 knot gusts had set in. The Bajo Baji wasn’t going anywhere upwind for the next five days or so.

Savu Sea

(Wind just starting to blow, those little waves would soon stand up and growl)

Now I’ve known Robert since 1974, when our paths first crossed in Bali. He’s the sort of fellow who brings to mind the philosophical conundrum of the Irresistible Force and the Immovable Object. Robert belongs to the Irresistible Force category. I can’t remember him meeting an Immovable Object that he hasn’t somehow managed to at least nudge out of the way, either by direct frontal assault with associated sturm und drang and high-voltage sizzling, or with delicate negotiation, or by clever subterfuge, or engaging in the secret rituals of the Magic that Must Not Be Named.

I got on and zeroed in on the Savu Sea and saw solid rays of 30- knot green blasting from the east.

wind 11 June

(this is the screen grab of real-time wind conditions for 11 June. Savu is the small island in the middle. All that greens means that this too wasn’t a good day to be heading east to Timor on a boat — it was a lot more solid green when the Bajo Baji was trying to do it)

In this situation, the philosophical conundrum had been reversed. Mother Nature had become the Irresistible Force, and Robert and the Bajo Baji were, for a couple hours at least, battling it out as the Immovable Object and getting nowhere, with a lot of banging and crashing and not doing the boat any good.

So for Robert not to have gotten to Kupang meant that getting to Kupang was impossible for any mortal man on a small boat.

turning back

(The above GPS navigator image shows the track of the Bajo Baji — got half-way there).

dinghy surfing

(Heading back downwind to Savu, cabin steward Basti, surfing the dinghy after bailing water out of it and having a grand old time)

For this trip to get started, the six of us in Bali would have to get to Savu (via Kupang) somehow at short notice, either by small puddle-jumper plane or government ferry. That is, if the Kupang harbormaster was allowing the ferry its sailing permit. If the ferry wasn’t running, then we’d have to resort to plan C which would require some of that Magic that Must Not Be Named. Over the decades, we’d all of us been in this kind of situation before.

A perfect situation for Michael McHugh to declare in a group huddle, “This is how it is, boys.”

At any rate, it was clear that traveling with the SUP was out of the question. I opted instead for my trusty duck fins. They’d fit in my duffle bag.

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Wait, we’re not quite dead yet — The Toast Surf Trip 2016, Timor to Flores

14 May to 2 June on the Bajo Baji. An account to follow. In the meantime, as a teaser:

bay fun

Bajo Baji

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