Bali’s First Surfers

Tracking the tumultuous dawn of the surf age on Bali.

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Ed. Note: Phil Jarratt’s feature story “Before Morning” in issue 24.4 of TSJ tracks the tumultuous dawn of the surf age on Bali. Here he investigates the origins of surfing’s arrival to the island. Both pieces are adapted from his latest book, Bali: Heaven and Hell.

In the dry season of 1936, two young Americans traveled from Singapore to Bali by steamship, introducing themselves to their fellow guests at the Bali Hotel in Denpasar as Robert and Louise Koke. In fact Louise was the wife of the distinguished but drunken and philandering Hollywood screenwriter Oliver H.P. Garrett (A Farewell To Arms, Duel In The Sun). The previous year Garrett’s affairs had become too much for Louise, so she embarked on one of her own with the handsome tennis coach and stills photographer Bob Koke, who often hung around the Garrett’s Beverly Hills estate coaching Oliver and his pals David Selznick and Charlie Chaplin. It may have even been Chaplin, after visiting Bali in 1932, who planted the idea of the island paradise in Bob Koke’s head. But when he stole off with Louise, that was where they ended up, and soon decided to stay.

In her 1942 memoir Our Hotel In Bali, Louise Koke (she had married Bob in 1941) recalled: “On the second or third day we were having drinks on the veranda and who should show up but a dumpy woman in a sarong, horn-rimmed glasses, black hair, and she spoke English. She rented us a car and … showed us Kuta Beach.”

The woman was the wildly eccentric Britisher Muriel Pearsen, known in Bali as K’tut Tantri—and as a professional troublemaker—but the Kokes fell madly in love with the broad expanse of Kuta Beach and formed an unlikely business partnership with Tantri to create the Kuta Beach Hotel, the first tourist hotel anywhere along Bali’s southern coast.

Top Left: The Kuta Beach Hotel served as the island’s original surf accommodations, spawning a copycat of the same name in its early years Photo: Robert Koke. Bottom Left: Bob Koke on the lawn of the Kuta Beach Hotel. Photo: Louise Koke. Right: Hotel workers with the boards they used for surfing lessons Photo: Robert Koke.

Bob Koke, 26 at the time, was a tall, slim, very fit man who studied at UCLA before getting a job in the production department at MGM, where one of his first assignments was to travel to Hawaii as assistant to director King Vidor on the 1932 film Bird of Paradise, starring Dolores Del Rio. Although he had grown up not far from the beach, this was Koke’s first real experience of surf culture, and he loved it. Soon he was riding big redwood surfboards alongside the beach boys at Waikiki. Now, while he and Louise sat up late at night drawing plans for their hotel over gin and tonic, Bob wired to Hawaii for his redwood plank to be sent by freighter.

Bob Koke’s photos of the relaxed dinner parties and drinks sessions on the lawn of the Kuta Beach Hotel (now the site of the Hard Rock Hotel) paint a familiar scene, although the custom-made bamboo furniture owes more to the Hawaiian lanai style than to traditional Balinese. But that was really where the Kokes pioneered the concept of the Bali resort, offering a combination of the exotic and the familiar. Part of the Kokes’ package was the surfing experience. Bob had recognized immediately the wave-riding potential of Kuta Beach, and even before his own board arrived he worked with his yard staff to carve out a couple of shorter wooden boards in the Hawaiian alaia style, sensibly thinking that they could be used by guests with no experience to ride either standing or prone.

When his own board finally arrived, Koke showed his young Balinese employees how it could be ridden on the Kuta Beach breaks. Koke, no master himself, couldn’t get his boys up and riding on the big board, but they soon became proficient enough on the shorter boards to guide guests through the thrill of a glide along a surging wave.

The Kokes had all kinds of takers for their surfing lessons, including at least one elderly aristocratic dowager, as Louise later wrote: “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 70, and now she wanted to go surfing. I tried to dissuade her but the undaunted spirit of the British Empire won … 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…”

By the end of 1937 the Kokes and K’tut Tantri were at war over a number of issues and she moved into a bungalow on the other side of the sandy beach lane and opened her own hotel, which she also called the Kuta Beach Hotel, although most people knew it as Manx’s Rooms and Bungalows. The Kokes went to court to try to stop her, and were still in litigation when the Japanese were poised to invade in 1942. Ahead of the occupation, Tantri fled to Java, where she became a collaborator with the Japanese, known on the airwaves as “Surabaya Sue,” while Louise took passage for California and Bob joined the US Army, before being recruited to the CIA.

Immediately after the war Bob Koke returned to Kuta Beach, and found that his hotel had been burned to the ground. The only souvenirs of those years were his surfboards, which are still in Bali today. When Louise died in 1993, Bob came back to Kuta for a final time to scatter her ashes in the waves of the beach she loved so much, an old man wading into the surf with a small jar, unrecognized by the surfers speeding by him as the father of surfing in Bali.


Phil Jarratt’s latest book Bali: Heaven and Hell—excerpted in issue 24.4 of TSJ—is available through Amazon and other online booksellers.