June, 1963. My family’s red Jeep Wagoneer trailed dust as it bumped down the dirt road leading through the coconuts to the beach. Ahead the trail rose slightly, and I was in the back seat, jumping up and down like the ten year old that I was, impatient to see the ocean. It’d been a long two hour ride from our house in Klungkung, in east Bali—would there be a spray of white water? Would there d be waves to play in, or would the sea be flat and boring?
I had no idea about the sport of surfing, but even then I was praying for swell. Waves were fun. I can’t remember not being able to swim, and I can’t remember when I first figured out to body surf. But that’s what I loved to do. I wasn’t the only one. A bunch of local Kuta kids would also play in the surf, sometimes with drift wood, or broken bits of bamboo outrigger.
If a Western tourist showed up, I’d gawk just as much as the locals, even though I was white myself. I’d watch, utterly baffled, as the tourist spread a mat or towel on the sand and then turn belly up to the sun. Hunh?
Dr. Spencer Reed, a British leprologist working with Balinese lepers, and his family lived in a bungalow on the beach, on the same property where the Kokes had built their hotel, and where the Hard Rock is now. During our end of year and Christmas vacations from boarding school, we would visit them and go swimming. Sometimes I’d hop on the bus, which would require three changes of transport by the time I got to Kuta beach.
Robert Koke took the photograph below after WW II, when he came back to Kuta to see what had happened to his hotel—you can tell it’s the wet season, with onshore winds. This was exactly how Kuta Beach looked in the sixties, too (I wish I had my own photos, but whatever pictures my parents took have been lost over the years). That far point was where the fishermen pulled up their outriggers, close to the Kuta reef channel. Miles of coconut groves, without a single building apart from the Reed’s thatch roofed bungalow and the bungalows of the ratty Natour Beach Hotel, across the lane. Behind the high tide line, ice plant and wild flowers grew, along with thorn and thatch and cactus, every once in a while shedding tumbleweed that would roll along the shore into the water. Sand dollars dotted the low tide strands, along with tiny periwinkle clams.
Not a soul around, except for a few fishermen throwing nets into the shallows (I don’t remember any line casting—it was most nets, as I recall).
If the Reeds weren’t home, I’d sneak over to the Natour Beach to shower off. The photo below is of one of the Koke’s bungalows, but it looks exactly like the Natour Beach bungalows did, thatch roof and walls of woven bamboo. No color in the photo, but I bet the wood trim is painted red.
As far as food and drink, either we brought in our own, or walked back to the warungs on the airport road for cakes and tea. I preferred cool water (not chilled—no ice back then), drunk straight out an earthenware jug with a long spout. It was rude to put your lips to the spout, so you kept the spout high and arced the stream straight into your mouth. The water was boiled over wood, and tasted smoky.
But I loved to body surf. I had no idea of what the future was holding in store for Kuta, and I think that most children occupy their worlds so completely they don’t understand how else it could be different, but even then, I had an inkling that this was something extraordinary I’d been given. The empty sea, the sluice and splash of the waves, the big shouldered sky with the sun beating down on you, the twilight trek home, salty and sun crisped, ready for dinner and bed, and the next day’s promise of more adventure.
Looking at the photograph brings back an odd feeling that isn’t quite nostalgia, but of something that’s forever lost. Or at least gone. Like a special childhood