Sometime in 1936, an American named Bob Koke took a break from building his hotel on the deserted shore of Kuta and strolled down to the breakers for a surf on his home-made Honolulu style surfboard. He’d learned to surf when he was in Hawaii, a sport he took with him to Bali, and that afternoon, he was the only surfer in the water for thousands of miles.
He soon had other boards, and his guests and his staff frolicked in the waves. Village kids also snuck off on the boards now and again.
On the Dutch maps of the time, the impoverished fishing village was spelled “Koeta” but according to Louise Garret, who traveled with Bob to Bali and would later marry him, most Western tourists pronounced the name like a hog call, “Ko-ee-ta”, so when they put up the sign for their hotel, this is how the sign read:
Louise, in her fascinating memoir “Our Hotel in Bali” called Kuta the most beautiful beach in the world. Their hotel was located on the beachfront where the Hard Rock Hotel is now. But it wasn’t the first hotel. Apparently, Bob and Louise initially went in a joint venture with another American, a Scottish-born woman named Muriel Walker, who’d taken the Balinese name of K’tut Tantri. This first establishment was across the dirt road, in what would later be the Natour Beach Hotel. But soon there rose disputes—one of the first of many, many expat squabbles to come—and by many accounts of expats and Balinese who knew her, K’tut Tantri was an unpleasant stump of a woman. So the Kokes leased property across the road, and not a mention of K’tut Tantri’s establishment is to be found in Louise Koke’s book.
In a passage reminiscent somewhat of today’s surf schools, Louise provides an account of one guest, who was no doubt Bali’s first Pommie surfer:
Down from the hotel came Lady Hartelby, in a severe black bathing suit, her stern English features lit with determination. My heart sank. Only a few days before she would have drowned in a deep and turbulent spot had not Bob been there to grab her. She could not swim, she was nearing seventy, and now she wanted to go surfing. I tried to dissuade her but the undaunted spirit of the British empire won.
I demonstrated how she must hold the board in front of her, how to wait and plunge as a wave approached, how she must fling herself flat and then crawl up the board as the current griped it. Over and over I pushed Lady Hartelby off, until she was carried all the way to shore, more than enough for the first day.
But not enough for Lady Hartelby. Though she was worn out, she struggled back for more, falling under the impact of each wave. I picked her out of the ofam, holding her with one hand and her board with the other. The next wave was a beauty. When I pushed her off she disappeared in the spray. A second wave was catching up to her, and I knew that she would not be able to keep her board’s nose up. It would dive to the bottom.
My heart racing, I hurried after her. Her empty board was bouncing around but she was nowhere. Then, yards away, I saw her gray head, cap gone and hair streaming over her eyes.
…She never complained about the ugly green and purple bruises along her thighs where the board had hit her…”I don’t mind,” she said [to a friend]. “I had one jolly good ride. It was worth it. My only regret is I won’t have time to try it again. How did you catch on so quickly? You’re really topping.”
At the start of World War II, the Kokes had to leave Bali as the Japanese began their Asian invasions. Bob returned after the war, but the hotel was gone, nothing left but weed and daffodils. The next time an expatriate took up residence in Kuta was in the fifties, when Dr. Spenser Reed, an English doctor working with Balinese lepers, built a family bungalow on the former Koke hotel property. My family would visit, and we kids would swim and body surf, but after Bob Koke, there wouldn’t be a board surfer surfing Bali’s waves for another thirty years.
(accounts & photos from “Our Hotel in Bali” by Louise Koke; last two photos from “Surfing Indonesia” via Bukit Bear )