The Kupang to Flores Toast Surf Trip: The Snake Lady, Guardian of the Mythical Wave

This is weird. Truly, a weirdliness beyond words.

For several days now, I’ve been trying to get this post written on the Mystical Wave of Snake Lady Ridge. I know we were there. This is an absolute fact. We did find Albert Taylor’s mythical wave and we surfed and rejoiced in it. Surely we did. I know this and I believe this as surely as I believe there is a God, or at least a Kelly Slater, both of whom have been in Bali but neither of whom have I met in the flesh, only in the spirit.

But yet as I try to write this post, as I try to summon my memories of the Wave, they rise close to the surface of my consciousness, and for a fleeting moment I glimpse it, empty blue perfection. My soul stirs with excitement. But then a mist comes over the memories and wisps away and I find myself instead grimly remembering Serangan Island of the past few days, the westerly winds blowing every surfer and surf school to the spot, soft tops and longboards and short boards and SUPS flying every which way, and my soul shrivels.

Was the Wave a left? A right? A peak? I cannot recall. What is vivid as blood is the horror of a Russian surf school instructor shoving a shrieking student over the falls and directly at me.

And where exactly was this Wave? The Kupang to Flores Trip was a long journey threaded through many islands. Sumba? Flores? Sumbawa? Rinca? I do recall a Komodo dragon on a beach, and I do recall a sinuous ridge where the Snake Lady dwelled in her splendor, but were they the same place?

None of the boys on the trip remember, either. Except Clayton did draw this from one of his fevered dreams. “I think it was somewhere around here,” he said.

jurassic-land

Or maybe that’s just what they say and don’t want to tell me. The Snake Lady put the fear of fangs into them should her wave be revealed to the swarming masses. Perhaps Albert Taylor is her vassal of doom. He will cart away anyone speaking publicly of the holy place and feed the offender to the wild civic cats slinking through his coffee-plantations slurping ripe coffee beans that they poop out and you drink as $10 luwak coffee.

And the Snake Lady herself. Did we meet her? Some of us. Mike did. This is the lad before he entered her lair. Notice those original Ripcurl Bali booties, possibly the only extant pair left upon this earth, but more importantly notice that beaming smile. Little did he know that he would not be smiling for long.

bali-booties

I did not meet her. Certainly not I. I stayed put upon the boat for I feared what I might find, the magic she would weave, as evidenced by the jabbering chatter of the others and their darting eyes that would for an instant go still and glassy.

No, I did not set mine eyes upon the Snake Lady. I most certainly did not.

And yet, dear God, what is this that appears from the mist? No, no, oh have mercy upon my soul–

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The Kupang to Flores Toast Surf Trip: In Search of Albert Taylor’s Mysterious, Magical, Mystical Wave

If there be any one surfer on the planet who’s cataloged all of Indonesia’s world-class surf breaks, and most of the B-grade ones, then I’d say that person would be legendary surf boat charter skipper (and coffee plantation entrepreneur) Albert Taylor, he of the sun-leathered skin and bushy eyebrows and maniacal grin that gets grinning most maniacally when he’s at the helm heading into the dark eye of cyclone or when he’s dropping into the Cyclops eye of a mutant slab beast on some god-forsaken Indo reef. East and west, north and south, he’s skippered surf charters everywhere and around and through every nook and cranny. But he doesn’t mark his maps, and no matter how many brews you ply him with and knees you bend in begging, he doesn’t spill the luwak coffee beans on where and when and what. His grin gets sly, but his lips stay sealed.

(Unlike mine. I’m not a blabbermouth, but my lips have leaked. Some folks aren’t entirely pleased about my comments on the Savu waves in my previous posts. Too much information. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. But to tell the truth, I’m not burdened by excessive guilt. I’m a bit too jaded for that. After decades of surfing through the archipelago, after years of witnessing a multitude of unknown surf breaks overrun by the masses, if you’re today planning to enjoy a remote reef break that is supposedly hush-hush, I don’t think the question is how hush-hush it really is or how many underground surfers know where x-marks-the-spot, the real question is how many lads and lasses are gonna be there when you show up. The X that marks the Savu spot has been well and truly marked by the grapevine and Internet for many years. Plus, in my humble opinion, it’s not one of those waves you drop everything and spend a few days of your life getting there to surf).

So. Back to Bert. Some years previously, I had heard Albert murmur something about a wave in a neighboring region, a mystical, mysterious, magical wave that only appears to those who are righteous in spirit. So a few weeks before our Toast trip, I made a point of catching up with him.

“Hey, Bert, what about this mysto right?”

Bert grins and waggles his brows. Like he does when he ain’t sayin’ nuthin’.

“Come on, mate, it’s just us old-timers. You can tell us.”

“How do you know it’s a right?” he asks.

“It’s a left?”

Bert didn’t reply. His waggling eyebrows could have scrubbed a potato. His sly grin could have skinned a skunk.

Then, as I left, he said, “The Snake Lady of the Ridge.”

“Sorry?”

“Mate, bring her a gift.”

“Who on earth are you talking about?”

“The Guardian of the Break. Bring her a gift.”

“Like what?”

“Jeez, a boat of manly men show up and and you have to ask? But if that doesn’t work out, then something fresh and bloody should do.”

***

snake lady ridge

***

On our last day at Savu, while in the line-up Clayton the artist chatted with one of the Europeans from the surf bus charter boat. For one reason or another, Clayton gave the Euro his email address, which has “LoveBigArt” in it.

The wind must have muffled the words and the Euro misheard. His eyes lit up.

“Me too, my friend!” he exclaimed. “I love big ass, the bigger the better.”

Then the next wave, the guy rides too far onto the shallow end bit and smashes his face up on a coral head, requiring some emergency field-dress stitching.

***

Late that afternoon, with trade winds moderated to a steady breeze and the Savu harbormaster’s sailing permit signed, the Bajo Baji set off for a sunset fishing cruise around the islet of Raijua and hence on westward. Alas, despite Robert Wilson’s expertise, the trolling lines did not sing, but no matter, for we had our Bintangs and our Prost and our stories (and Steve Palmer his iPhone).

What we did not realize, as the sky’s colors faded to the velvet sparkle of starlight, was that the Snake Lady of the Ridge was already singing her siren song. The compass heading held steady, the GPS unit spat out its orderly coordinates but yet all around us, and unbeknownst to us, the cosmos was shifting.

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The Kupang to Flores Toast Surf Tip: The Boat People finally show up.

A large chunk of the history of Indonesia surf pioneering consists of unknown adventurers hiring local fishing boats out of grungy scummy harbors to find along islands and coasts what they could find where no surfer had gone before. In the pre-charter boat era, there wasn’t much of an option. Damned uncomfortable, those cockroach-y boats, the sun searing down on you, the deafening beat of the engine boring a hole in your head, the stink of diesel fuel and miasma of black oily exhaust smoke adding to your misery. It seemed to be a law that on these boats, one could try to get away from the diesel fumes or one could try to find shade from the sun, but one could not successfully do both together. And if it wasn’t the sun, then it was a deluge from the skies, rain so thick it got into everything, even your waterproof gear stowed below deck. Nothing like mildewed T-shirts.

And these boats were not particularly safe, either. You know the saying, an adventure doesn’t start until something goes wrong, and on the local Indonesian fishing boat you chartered, the probability of something going wrong in a very bad way was about equal to the probability of you at some point in your charter chucking up your dinner of Super Mie instant noodle with boiled egg.

But this is now the good year of our Lord 2016. Half of the Toast Surf Trip crew were safely on board the safe and luxurious Bajo Baji, with nary a roach scuttling in a dark and hidden corner. Part Owner Robert Wilson makes sure of that by Baygon nuking every box and carton that comes aboard. The boat was holed up at Savu, with trade winds gusting at 30 knots plus and shutting all harbors. We had flown in to Savu from Kupang. The other half of the Toast Surf Trip crew, consisting of Steve Palmer and Tim Watts and Murray Bourton, were on a local fishing boat they’d chartered on the quiet, and which had slipped out of Kupang in the dark of night. By dawn of morning, they were somewhere out at sea, hopefully heading downwind and our way.

Or were they already starting the adventure of a lifetime, even before they had a chance to go surfing? Well, they wouldn’t go thirsty, at least not for a while. They had five cases of Bintang beer to sustain them.

At least we had some waves to surf as we waited, sporadic head high sets that we shared with the land locals and the other surf bus boat guys. The modern Indonesia surf experience: no island too remote. You think you’re going to have an epic solo session and then, wait, what’s that I see scuttling out of the jungle, or looming on the horizion?

Savu’s one of those tropical languor islands, where time’s measured by sebentar (soon) or nanti (later) or mungkin nanti (maybe later, which pretty much means never). On Savu, only mad dogs and surfers stir in the mid-day heat.

When would our boat boys show up? Who knew? Nanti. The island’s cell phone tower signal extended a dozen or so miles out to sea. When would the boys get in range to make a call? Sebentar.

By about two pm, though, Robert Wilson begins to fret. Robert’s not a nanti or sebentar sort of person. He’s a sekarang man. Now. As in, right now. Finally Robert’s cell phone does ring, and Steve Palmer says, “Hello, where are you guys?” His voice is faint, shouting over the dong-dong-dong of a very loud diesel.

Robert’s relief is short-lived, turns quickly to exasperation and frustration as he tries to explain to Steve where the Bajo Baji is anchored, because Steve’s sense of direction is determined by the intricacies of his tesseract brain, where north is indicated by a random cosmic ray stirring the mental gyroscope.

“No, mate,” Robert growls, “you go around the top of the island and then head south – that’s to your left. You turn left. No, no, you don’t turn left now, you have to clear the top tip of the island. The tip, that bit of land that’s as far out west as you can see, west where the sun sets …oh for *!!# sake, let me talk to Watts.”

Tim Watts. Tim’s sense of direction is spot on. He’s stoic and calm, about as flappable as a manhole cover, yet paradoxically he’s also a man of rampant action. Not in the sense of being continuously restless, but always doing something, whether in the surf or the snow or running his business empire. An early Outside Corner and Padang ripper, and also G-land when the getting there was damn tough. Paid the price with malaria. In the early years of the 80s his business was batik and clothing, and then he branched out into exporting vanilla beans. This was ballsy, a white bulé invading vanilla fields across the islands, trying to teach the farmers to let the beans mature on the vine, for goodness sake, and get better value. In doing this, he pissed off a lot of middlemen who for decades had a monopoly on the crop. Ballsy, I say again. (You want to read more about Tim The Dog Watts, he’s been profiled in Surfer’s Journal

Thus it was that our boat people finally show up. The Toast Surf Crew is complete. The five cartons of beer haven’t been raided. Robert Wilson sprays the hell out of the Bintang cardboard cartons with Baygon before they so much as touch the Bajo Baji

boat-people

And Tim immediately gets into rampant action:

dog-kiting

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Interlude

Some friends have been in touch, asking about the silence of the blog. Am I okay?

It’s called writer’s block. Trying to write anything these days is like clawing through granite with my fingernails.

I’ve been surfing, going prone on the bigger days on my longer board and stand-up paddling on the smaller days, but my post-surgery shoulders twinge and I have inflammation of the toe bones of my feet, so either way it aches and session times are limited.

Writer’s Block. Another name for it is Life. I’ve been writing a series of blog posts on the Toast Surf Trip, a nostalgic boat cruise through Eastern Islands, a bunch of old Bali hands in our advanced middle age. We all commented, in our various ways, that at this point in our lives things should be getting easier as we head toward the golden sunset of our years, content in the saddle or on the surfboard or dangling from a kite or reeling in the fish, but in truth? Such is not the case. Problems keep coming, toil and trouble. It’s almost like the saying, life’s a bitch and then you die.

Almost, I said. Because an old Sunday School song comes to mind: “Count your blessings, name them one by one…” I had five such blessings on the Surf Toast Trip, and I count them one by one: Robert Wilson, Mike McHugh, Clayton Barr, Tim Watts, Murray Bourton, Steve Palmer.

the boys

And there are other friends I count as well, naming them one by one. For a hermit like me, why, far more than I deserve.

Okay. Silence the maudlin violins. Cue the trombones of the Marching Band.

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The Kupang to Flores Surf Trip: Yes, there is surf in Savu

It seems to be a cosmic law that every feral surfer who pops out of the remote shoreline jungle upon the unexpected arrival of other surfers is named Dave. In thirty years of careening through Indonesia’s outer islands and along their unpopulated coasts, I’ve met more skeletal, malarial, thirsty, and socially (not to mention hygienically) deprived Daves than I can count. There was Scratchy Dave, Super Dave, Stinky Dave, Speechy Dave (couldn’t get him to shut up), Sorrowful Dave (he’d accidentally stepped on his beloved pet hermit crab).

And this being a tale of a surf trip to remote islands, there will inevitably be yet another Dave. Whom I’ll get to in a minute.

But first, the other half of the Toast Crew, had first to get to Savu from Kupang by fishing boat. The last we heard from them was the evening they boarded, with all other supplies and board bags and five extra cases of beers. Then they went dark upon the wind-tossed sea, with no more word. We weren’t really worried – Tim Watts for one had decades of traveling the islands by land and air and sea on various modes of transportation, and he hadn’t lived to his ripe old age of 60 plus by taking unnecessary risks, such as chartering sketchy boats that barely looked capable of floating in placid harbor waters. Our main worry was for Steve Palmer, who would be without Internet for more than 24 hours. Could he cope? Would he have a breakdown? Would he arrive gibbering and whispering, “the horror, the horror”?

During the day that we waited at Savu, the swell arrived without much fanfare, just a few desultory head-high sets, but the boys were out there. Yes, boys and girls, Savu does have surf, its main right-hander a fairly technical barrel that at the end gurgles over shallow reef. Clayton showed us all how it was done, surfing like he was drawing a picture, the same smooth and easy lines, seeing it in his head and making it happen without hesitation, an organic process.

clay-barrel

Then from the distant shore appeared a surfer, knee-paddling a longboard, a floppy hat perched upon his head. “G’day,” he called out to us as he cruised by. Grizzled and weathered and sun-beaten. I guessed about our age, sixty or so.

He ripped. His familiarity with the wave was clearly evident.

dave

A couple hours later, as he headed back to shore, Robert Wilson invited him on board for a cold drink.

“Hello, fellows,” he said, “my name is Dave.”

Thus we met Savu Dave, who was not sixty but in his seventies. When he was younger he’d wandered the Indonesian islands looking for a place that called to his soul. It happened to be Savu, a lovely yet mostly arid island, where to this day the locals still drink palm juice when their wet season wells and cisterns run dry. He’d been living there for many years, married to a local princess and running a farm and traveling around the small island showing locals the skills he’d learned in a lifetime of farm and handyman work. Also popping into schools for impromptu English conversations and demonstrating basic computer skills.

He lived up in the hills with an eyeball’s view of the right. He surfed it every time it broke, which wasn’t often, he said. The biggest? Double-overhead, which for that wave is big and throaty enough.

The trouble, he said, is that surfers and surf charter boats know when the proper swells are coming and will show up.

And sure enough, in quick succession, there paddled out these guys from shore. (Thus we would meet Arno — in the back — who was doing some sort of on-the-quiet surf resort development in Sumba and snuck over to Savu for this swell, staying in a villager’s home and renting his canoe).

ferals

And then, in the distance, we could see a surf charter boat puttering toward the bay, a regular bus route charter boat crammed to the gills with Europeans eager for some uncrowded waves after a few days of packed Rote Island, but the inescapable trouble with surf charter boats, of course, is they bring their own crowd with them.

Meanwhile, Tim Watts and Murray Bourton and Steve Palmer were still dark somewhere on the Savu Sea.

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The Kupang to Flores Toast Surf Trip: The (Almost) Curious Case of the (Nearly) Missing Artist

We have lost the plot.

The Kupang to Flores Toast Surf trip has already receded into the mists of time billowing over this blog correspondent’s wonky memory. As I recall, I’ve written a dozen posts and we haven’t even boarded the Bajo Baji. Where was I last? What happened next? All mist and haze, fog and vapors.

But I shall persevere! Use dental drills on the old neurons! Jackhammers! Or perhaps memories will flood back on a tide of Prost beer, which I tasted on the trip, in lieu of Bintangs. But it is only ten in the morning, and beer o’clock does not come until the sunset hour.

So. To help us get back on track, here are the dramatis personae:

the boys

L to R : Mike, Clayton, Murray, Robert, Yours Truly, Tim, Steve

According to what I have written, Michael and Clayton and I were at the Kupang hotel, waiting for the next morning Susi Air’s flights, while Tim, Steve, and Murray were arriving the following day to find a fishing boat willing to slip under the harbormaster radar, downwind with 35 knot gusts to Savu Island, where the Bajo Baji was waiting.

So, what happened next? Ah. Of course. How could I forget. The artist who vanished (almost).

This below is the Susi Air plane, just big enough for eight passengers including Mike and Clayton on the first flight, and boxes of food including Steve’s chilled tofu burgers kept overnight in the hotel restaurant’s kitchen fridge, and one small surfboard Clayton pulled out of his coffin bag.

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This is the Wings plane, which flies about the outer islands but is considerably larger than the puddle-jumper.

wings-air

Now it must be admitted that the departure lounge at Kupang’s airport is scrum mixed with chaos, overlaid with screeched boarding announcements. The Susi Air flight was among several called. Mike charges to the front across the tarmac to get the best seat on the single-prop plane (of which he has experience from his sky-diving days). Clayton toodle-doodles along in the absent-minded way of an artist tracing cloud patterns in the sky, following by instinct a group of fellow passenger to a “small” plane. There he shows his Susi Air boarding pass to Savu to the flight attendant, who glances at it and waves him aboard. As he sits down he is somewhat puzzled, because the plane is large and spacious, and so why all the fuss about full flights and very limited cargo space? Why couldn’t they have loaded all his boards? Why, look at all these empty seats in the back.

In the meantime, at the Susi Air plane, everyone boards, including Mike…but not Clayton. Where the hell is he? The Susi Air manager races around trying to find him and double checks with the Wings flight staff, who then do another count of their passengers and sort out the confusion. Lo and behold, Clayton was just about to fly off to Bima. The manager hustles our awol artist across the tarmac to the right plane. Mike and the Western pilots in the cockpit are cracking up with laughter.

I was on the next flight two hours later. The same pilots, still chuckling. There’s a number of these foreign contracted pilots based in Kupang. Apparently a number of them are surfers as well. I’m pretty sure that these pilots at times deviate slightly from direct point A to point B flying to check out reefs and coasts and take note. When we flew over Savu, my pilot banked around the Bajo Baji at anchor a thousand feet below. The pilot was filming his airstrip approach on a mounted Go-Pro, and he swiveled the camera to get the Bajo Baji in on the footage.

A beautiful sight, the blue sky and blue sea and green palms and a boat riding the iron in a channel, a gentle swell breaking on either side in white triangular swaths. No boards in the water, so it was obviously too small, but the real swell was due the next day.

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Kupang to Flores Toast Surf Trip resumes shortly, in the meantime

Your blog correspondent hasn’t been posting lately, initially jet-lagged upon returning from a trip attend his son’s wedding in San Diego, followed by an attack of acute laziness, compounded (today) by lack of wind and rising swell on Bali’s east side. I know this account is dragging out longer than the luggage screening at Bali airport customs when four flights arrive within a half hour of each other and everyone is scrambling from conveyor belt to conveyor belt to find out where one’s luggage will be regurgitated, (although I was delighted to find upon our return this trip that customs has suspended the silly and tedious x-raying of all one’s bags — but one surfer was pulled aside for the full monty for some reason).

So in lieu of more verbiage here’s a depiction of what the whole toast trip was pretty much about:

toast-island

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