Favors of Fortune

Across the Strait to Desert Point.

Light / Dark

In 1983, despite Ronald Reagan announcing that he would make GPS technology available for civilian use, there were still huge blank spots in the satnav matrix. Lombok Island, located 22 miles east of Bali, was not likely among them. The Lombok Strait was strategically important to both the U.S. and Soviet Union, being a deep-water transit between the Java Sea and Western Australia. Seen from low orbit, high-resolution satellite images would tell a different tale depending on the viewer. A geobiologist with defense clearance would immediately recognize the legendary Wallace Line running down the middle of the Strait, a maritime Berlin Wall separating Asian bird and animal species from those found in New Guinea and Australia. A KGB operative scouting Lombok would likely focus on the narrow gap between Nusa Penida and the tail of the Sekotong Peninsula, less than 12 miles across but almost 3,000 feet deep, ample cover to allow a nuclear sub stealth passage. But a surfer, should they have an inside connection at NOAA, would note the favorable exposure of portions of the Sekotong to Indian Ocean swell, the same swells that lit up Bali’s Bukit peninsula less than an hour’s crossing away in a fast Radon skiff. 

Still, for Northern California surfer Bill Heick and his friends hanging out in Kuta Beach, Lombok remained a fundamentally unknown and menacing Indonesia compared to the incense-scented surfer’s Eden they’d been lavished with in Bali since the late 1970s. For starters Lombok was essentially an Islamic state, as was over 85 percent of Indonesia outside of Bali. Drug, alcohol, dietary, gender, and religious taboos applied and were at times strictly enforced. The western side of the island was arid, thorny, and remote. And a particularly potent strain of cerebral malaria was rife. Among the Balinese, Lombok was considered a haven of black magic and a convenient place to exile their undesirables and village crazies.

Bob McDougall and Malcolm Campbell, 1985. Photo by Bill Heick.

All of which may have only added a veneer of swashbuckling adventure to a rather mundane one-day crossing as Bill and a small crew of hirsute California surfers sailed out of Benoa Harbor in July of 1983. At 32, with several Indonesian surf seasons under his belt, Bill was a seasoned surf traveler who, after high school and a stint of college on Maui and later Kauai, had traversed big swaths of Europe, Africa, and Latin America, sifting out recent A-list wave discoveries headlining each new issue of Surfer and Surfing World. In between surf trips, Bill would often globe-hop with his dad, noted San Francisco photographer William R. Heick, helping to produce corporate films or UC Berkeley-sponsored ethnographic movies of vanishing indigenous cultures.

In fact, Bill Sr. was shooting 16mm Kodachrome aboard the Moana Manu as it lumbered eastward through gut-heaving swells churned up by the Strait. 

Born a Kentucky farm boy but hardwired for adventure, Bill Sr. caught a lucky break early in WWII when he parlayed his high-school shutterbug hobby into Naval Intelligence service based out of Honolulu for the duration. After being discharged honorably in 1946, he settled in Mill Valley with his young family and used the GI Bill to study under Ansel Adams and Minor White at the fledgling photography department at the California School Of Fine Arts. Born in 1950, Bill Jr. learned to surf the cold but gentle rollers of Bolinas, California, and by high school was attending now-legendary concerts at the Fillmore West featuring the cream of psychedelic rock. Bill Sr., meanwhile, had been filming mining operations in Irian Jaya and other regions of Indonesia since the late 60s and he intuitively knew his son would be interested in exploring Indonesia’s huge surf potential. He in fact handed him an air ticket to Bali in 1977 and said, “You ought to go.”

The Sri Wira Bakti, Balinese turtle boat turned low-budget expeditionary vehicle, at Belongas Bay, Lombok, 1984. Photo by Bill Heick.
Bob McDougall and the shock of recognition, Desert Point, 1984. Photo by Bill Heick.

That first trip inspired a 40-year love/addiction with the Lesser Sunda archipelago, in particular with Lombok and a roping otherworldly wave that Bill and the others stumbled across by triangulating Kuta Beach bar rumors with swell probabilities on outdated marine charts. The break was called Desert Point. And although it had been first ridden years before by unknown surfers, no photos or film or even mention of it had leaked, other than an oblique two-line reference in a 1979 Surfer Magazine Surf Report. Through a combination of tight-lips and misdirection, Bill and the others managed to perform the Jedi Mind Trick of concealing a five-star tropical wave in plain sight for nearly a decade. 

The footage and stills that Bill Sr. and son shot of those early sessions remained off the surf-media radar for more than 35 years until Bill Jr. decided to create a legacy film for friends and family following his father’s death in 2012. The resulting film, Secrets Of Desert Point, opened to hoots and acclaim at a packed screening of the Newport Beach Film Festival in April of this year. It evoked a nostalgic smile among the older surfers and a tangible wistfulness with the younger digital natives raised on Surfline and Google Maps. Bill, it seems, may have had one of the last great dirtbag adventures of the 20th century.

When we spoke for this interview, Bill was friendly, open, and constantly wary of hyperbole, claims, and self-promotion. But at the same time he very much wanted this story told and the key players recognized, especially his dad. What’s shown in the film, but not discussed in the following, is the fact that Bill went to Deserts last year and was trading overhead tubes with his son Andrew—remarkable for someone who technically qualifies for an AARP discount.

“I’m 67 years old,” says Bill, “and I’ve been surfing since I was 14. I’ve surfed all over the world. I’m also an artist and a builder. That’s a small definition of who I am. I am also very much into self-deprecation, so I’ll try not to overdo it.”

Balinese cook and crewmember, Made, aboard the Sri Wira Bakti. Meals were based around the catch of the day. Basic but delicious fare. Circa 1984. Photo by Bill Heick.

Early whisperings of Indo

Indonesia started popping up on my radar when it first showed up in the magazines. The Australian magazines were on to it first, shortly after Morning Of The Earth was released in 1971. I first saw Uluwatu in Surfing World magazine around 1974. And I said, “I gotta go there.” But it took a while.

A Ticket from the Gods (through Dad)

My dad, William “Bill” Heick Sr., had been down to Indonesia a few times in the late 60s while shooting stills and films for academic and corporate clients. In the mid 70s, he and his partner were working on a series of films documenting traditional Indonesian dance and his client was giving him these Air Merpati charter tickets. He had some extras so in 1977 he handed me one and said, “You should check it out.” He even gave me a ride to the Oakland airport. It was a long flight on a third-hand, rust-bucket 727. We laid over in Hong Kong for eight hours. There were a lot of crazy people on the plane. The guy next to me was obviously a druggie and, as it turned out, he was going over to try to smuggle heroin. He’d heard that was the place to go. And then this other guy, a sort of a B-grade Hollywood actor, said he was going to Jakarta. “Man, the chicks there…it’s endless sex, you know? You gotta come and check it out!”

First Glimpse of The Bukit, 1977

Flying into Bali the first time we had a pretty rough approach. It was February so it’s the monsoon season. As we’re approaching Bali, I was sitting up in the front of the plane and the Indonesian pilots opened the cockpit door and said to the first few rows, “Anyone want to come up?” So we’re in the clouds and we’re bumping through, and the pilots are just smiling and looking around. Indonesians seem to have a different perspective on life and death than most westerners. So finally we burst out of the clouds and we’re flying between two volcanoes, and boom, the sun’s out and we’re seeing the entire Bukit Peninsula lit up like gold with the Indian Ocean sparkling in the background. 

Bali/Kuta, 1977

Walking out of the airport in Bali there’s a fragrance in the air. It’s a combination of a lot of stuff…some good, some bad. There’re flowers, there’re clove cigarettes, there’re diesel fumes and incense. And it’s really humid. So first thing on arrival, you’re inhaling this Balinese perfume. I’ll never forget that smell. Kuta in 1977 was a little community that reminded me of Bolinas. Maybe a square mile altogether. There was Bemo Corner as the hub and small shops going out in four directions from there…warungs selling t-shirts, drinks, snacks, or whatever. And going towards Legian it went a few hundred yards and then it was country…rice paddies and coconut palms. Super low key and friendly and no traffic. No high rises. Nothing was allowed to be taller than a palm tree. Bali at the time was friendly and cheap, with great food. The weather was good. The water was warm. The local women were beautiful and there were tourist girls that were highly available. And the waves were out of a dream. It was surf paradise.

Tony “Blinky” Brinkworth, well-respected North Shore journeyman, hiking in a season’s worth of supplies Tarzan-style at low-tide, 1994. Photo by Bill Heick.


Uluwatu in the 70s was the dream. In the article “The Forgotten Island Of The Gods,” it’s the wave Gerry Lopez was ripping. Surfing Ulu’s for the first time was a combination of adrenaline, satisfaction, and stoke…every good thing about surfing rolled into one. And not just at Ulu’s. We probably actually had waves at Sanur that were just as good because I was there in the offseason, so Uluwatu was blowing out during the day. It’d be glassy in the morning and then a lot of times it’d blow out. The second year there, I met Gede Narmada. Gede was an early Balinese surfer and he knew all the spots. He was friends with Lopez. So he’d take us to the east or west side depending on the conditions. And every time it was this magical discovery we’d have to ourselves. Even at the well-known spots like Uluwatu there were usually less than 20 guys out. I spent months there until my money ran out, but after that first trip I was hooked. I came back every year for the next 20 years.

Kuta Life

Before we got our boat, my friends and I were living in Kuta. There was a Balinese family just inland from Kuta Reef and the old bapak owned quite a bit of property. At one time he owned most of Kuta, which would now be worth a few billion dollars. But he lost it all gambling on cockfights. We stayed at his compound. They had a couple extra rooms they rented for $2 a day and you become part of the family, pretty much. I thought about living in Bali year-round but Indonesia can take its toll on you after a while. It’s so hot and humid in the monsoon season and it’s a struggle to stay healthy. You get Bali Belly periodically, and if you got cut it was really hard to keep from getting staph. Not ideal living conditions. And plus, where I lived in Northern California, we had great uncrowded surf in the wintertime. I didn’t have this burning desire to just leave the U.S. behind because I realized how good I had it, having the best of both worlds. 

First Sail To G-Land, 1983

I’d been going to Bali every year—and I think 1981 was the first time I surfed G-Land. That was a revelation. It was the best wave in the world at the time. That first trip we took the ferry and came in the traditional route, through the Plengkung Reserve via bemo and local fishing boat. At the same time, I realized if you sailed in, and anchored offshore, you could score good waves but not have to deal with jungle camping and mosquitos. So I chartered a boat from this guy, who was an American, a merchant marine, who’d been living on Bali since 1970. It was a big ferrocement boat, 55 feet, comfortable, but slow. It was called the Moana Manu but we nicknamed it “The Slug.” We chartered the Moana Manu for a month and the plan was to surf G-land and explore a bit to the east…Lombok and Sumbawa. I brought my dad and six friends who all surfed from up around Point Arena. On that first trip, it was Bill Sr., Jack Hansen, Tom Moore, Mike Fleming, John Mike, Nelson Swartley, and Bob McDougall. None of them had been to Indo but they were fairly astute and capable people. We did a night crossing of the Bali Strait and arrived off Plenkung at daybreak.  We got it good…scary good, 6- to 8-foot G-Land going off. It was pretty intense. A couple of my friends were seasoned big-wave riders and they were stoked out of their minds. My dad was shooting 16mm the whole time from the boat, in the skiff, and on the beach. It wasn’t to make a surf movie, but to just document my surfing life. We stayed and surfed for six days until the swell dropped off. Then we went back to Bali, spent a night, and sailed out of Benoa Harbor the next day.

First Trip to Lombok, 1983

I don’t think I’d heard about any specific spots to the east, really. But I’d been to Lembongan and if you just look at the charts, all those islands have a potential setup similar to Uluwatu. Ulu’s takes a south swell and the trade winds blow offshore on that corner of the island. So in theory, there had to be waves on one of those corners. We sailed first to Lembongan. It was really pretty and we got a bit of surf there. And then we skirted the south side of Penida, which is a big mistake. It’s super gnarly, and we all got seasick. My dad was the only one who didn’t lose it. It took us all day to sail 20 miles. We were just getting beat back by the trade winds. Finally, near sunset, we pulled into a protected bay off Lombok.

Original crew aboard the ferrocement Moana Manu for the debut Deserts trip, 1983. Bob McDougall, William Heick Sr., Tom Moore, Jack Hansen, Bill Heick, Nelson Swartley, Mike Fleming, John Mike. Mike would stay on in Bali and purchase the Sri Wira Bakti for further Deserts explorations the following season. Photo by Bill Heick.
Photo by Stefan Götzelmann.

Stumbling Over Gold Nuggets

Just before sunset two Americans cruised by in a Radon. It turned out that one of them was a surfer and the other was building Radons down there. And they said in passing: “You know, Desert Point is right around the corner.” And we go, “Oh, really? What’s that place?” They said, “You ought to check it out,” and then motored off. And that’s how we found it. So, we didn’t “discover” Desert Point, as many give us credit for. It had been surfed before a handful of times, but because it was so fickle and remote there were big gaps between it being surfed. And I’m not sure that anybody got it really good because the gunny single-fins prior to the thruster didn’t work at Deserts the way they did at G-Land. And a couple of the long-time expats like Dick Lewis and Tim Watts knew about it. But the fact is, I looked at a back issue of the Surfer Magazine Surf Report years later and there was Desert Point, listed in 1979. Not a whole lot of detail, but it was there. So I’m really curious who was the first to surf it.

Nelson, a former college water-polo ace turned kneeboarder, was a renowned free diver who earned his berth in fish. Any extra fish was given to the local villagers. Circa 1986. Photo by Bill Heick.

First Ascent

The next day we cruised out there and saw waves peeling off from the back. But you can’t really tell how good it is from the back. You can tell it’s offshore but you can’t tell how big it is or how it’s peeling off. So finally one of my friends goes, “Well, shit, I’m gonna check it out.”  He paddles in and we see him take off on a wave and see his spray coming off the back. And every once in a while you see his head come up and then go back down. And then again, and then again…and again. So John Mike and I hop in the Zodiac to have a look from the side. It was kind of a cloudy day. Not much contrast between the sky and the sea. We motored way inside to where we could turn around and look out toward the lineup. And right as we get in there, a set comes through and we see four barrels on the reef just coming at us like machines. There was a bit of shock: “Oh, my god, that can’t even exist!” Because the set we saw was
a cartoon. 

Desert Magic

The first day we surfed Deserts it was relatively small…barely overhead. But we were blown away by the speed and length of the rides we were getting. And we could see the potential was huge. The symmetry of Deserts is so evident. The reef is flat and straight with perfect gradation. The swell hits on an angle and creates a round cavern that peels down 400 meters of reef at high speed. The visual effect from land is mesmerizing. What makes Deserts special is that it’s a relatively easy takeoff compared to G-Land. You can get in early and have plenty of time to set yourself up for when the wave speeds up down the reef.

Magic Hour

Deserts, we discovered, seemed to get better in the afternoon as the tide dropped. We learned to wait for the afternoon magic hour. With an outgoing tide and afternoon offshore breeze, this wave gets sculpted into an aesthetic wonder. You takeoff, do a couple big carves to build momentum. At this point you’ve just traversed 100 yards of velveteen-green, ball-bearing-smooth, Indonesian pointbreak. Now, as the wave hugs the inside on a low-tide reef, the real challenge begins. Having gathered some speed and momentum you’re ready to pull into some incredibly long tube lines. The distances you can travel in there are astounding. The subtlest moves—rail-to-rail acceleration, edge control, and pure mental focus—are paramount. 

Our subject, Bill Heick, slipping into neutral for a barrel reset, 1985. Photo by Nelson Swartley.

Three-Fin Breakthrough

The thing that made surfing Deserts possible was that we had just made the transition to thrusters. Before that, we were riding longer single-fin boards at G-Land, which were gunnier and did not fit in at Deserts at all. You needed a shorter board that would do tight arcs so you could pump and accelerate in the tube. So the equipment crippled whoever surfed it before us. We were fortunate because we arrived with decent boards and had the time with no crowds to figure it out. Most spots in Indo are generally high-tide breaks. So everyone assumed every place is a high-tide break. But Deserts is a low-tide break. If you go there at high tide it’s too fast, sectiony, and weird. I think that might have contributed to someone like Gerry Lopez writing it off as a closeout.

The Bonzer Epiphany

In July 1985 we invited Malcolm Campbell to come with us and he brought his prototype five-fin Bonzers. We got G-Land really good and then we got Deserts as good as it gets for five days straight. That trip, I broke one of my boards so I rode one of Malcolm’s. They worked great. I was getting the best tube rides you could imagine…glassy, gray, and ripping down the reef. The payoff for all our efforts to get there was now apparent. With just four of us out, Nelson, who was injured, took photos with my old Leica. Lasting five days, this was perhaps the most perfect Deserts swell of the 80s. Everyone garnered extended tube time to the point of exhaustion. Cruising back toward Bangko-Bangko Bay at dusk, we shared the Betadine, Bintang, and obat in a ceremonial tribute to our Balinese crew.

The Turtle Boat 

After that first trip in 1983 my friend John Mike (aka “J.M.”) says, “I’m stayin’ another month.” And when he came back to California he goes, “Guess what? We own a boat.” What had happened was, right at that time, they banned turtle fishing in most of Indonesia. There was a whole fleet of boats that fished for turtles out of Benoa and they’d go out for a month or more to other islands and load up with turtles and keep ’em alive down in the hold and then bring ’em back to Bali and sell ’em. But when they banned turtle fishing all those boats were just rotting away in the harbor. So Mike got friendly with Ketut, who was one of the deckhands on the Moana Manu. Ketut’s family owned Bali Yacht Service which did work on boats in the harbor. Mike recruited Ketut, and Ketut helped him get the boat. Then he hired Ketut to help run it and handle all the maritime paperwork. 

Grass shack morning recon, circa 1995. Photo by Bill Heick.

The Sri Wira Bakti

The Sri Wira Bakti was a 36-foot motorsailer…a standard Indonesian-style workboat…diesel motor, a big hold down below with a roofed galley on the stern. Compared to the Moana Manu it was pretty crude. I mean we were sleeping in the same room with a diesel engine with no muffler. And the Balinese crew was pretty feral as well. They’d be chopping vegetables on the deck and cooking over an open flame near fuel cans on a small, rolling boat. While we didn’t discover Deserts, I’d say we pioneered feral boat surfing in Indo, pretty much. There wasn’t anyone else doing it at the level we were at the time.


Ketut came from a large, influential Benoa family. He grew up a turtle fisherman and spent most of his life working on boats out of Benoa Harbor. He knew every little nook and cranny of the Lesser Sunda Islands. And at Benoa he knew the port captain so we could cruise in and out of there whenever. A lot of other Westerners didn’t have it as good. We paid the officials off and everyone got greased for sure, but it was pretty minor, really. Ketut always treated us with the utmost respect and with great concern for our safety. He saved my life on more than one occasion. After a long absence from Bali, I learned of Ketut’s passing in 2010. I returned and was able to attend his final ceremony at Besakih Temple with my son Andrew and Ketut’s family. It was a major event and all of Benoa village turned out.

The Current and the Grower

The Grower took its name for obvious reasons. As swells pinwheel around Desert Point, much of the size and power will swing way wide, staying out in the deeper water. When it finally gets sucked onto the reef inside, it will focus on this one zone, sometimes doubling or tripling in height. Just past The Grower was The Death Zone, a closed-out area on a pinnacle reef, right in front of the cliff. It was a place to be avoided at all costs. After surfing 300 to 400 yards of intensity to get to this point, the key is to not get greedy. Ease out and let The Current gently sweep you back to the point. Deserts, being sited on the outermost edge of the Sekotong, is highly influenced by the narrow Lombok Strait. The river-like current the Strait creates can be heaven or hell, depending on your local knowledge and position. On the right tide, The Current will groom the wave like a brush. At the end of your ride, if you gauge it right, it will sling you straight back to the takeoff zone faster than you can paddle. But miss out and you’re screwed and on your way to Australia. I’ve seen guys stuck in the current 50 feet away from the takeoff zone, paddling desperately to get back to where we were sitting. But they were like rats circling the sewer drain. Never made it. 

Trial And Error

Early on, none of our crew had local anchorage knowledge. Gradually we learned to anchor off the beach, a mile north of the point by day, and at night to move around to Bangko-Bangko Bay. The current near the mouth of the Lombok Strait often reaches seven knots. It can bust the anchor loose or get it hopelessly snarled on the reef. On one particular day, a large swell lifted the Sri Wira Bakti and set her adrift. I watched in horror as she floated toward the crushing inside lineup in front of the cliff. My screams and whistles went unheard over the roar of the surf as the snoozing crew drifted to their doom. Finally, as our boat disappeared into the trough of a huge wave, which nearly took her, I heard the familiar bap-bap-bap of the Yanmar diesel. A puff of blue smoke appeared and she motored out of there…a firm lesson with no damage. A decade later, the Lucky Lady, another Balinese-built boat, tried to spend the night anchored off the beach. Dragging anchor in the dark, she ended up destroyed on the reef. Fortunately all her passengers and crew survived.

Chris Casillas, voted one of Deserts’ best tuberiders, getting patched by self-trained, barefoot-EMT Blinky, 1995. Aussie Nick Smart in the background. Photo by Bill Heick.

Perilous Crossings

I’ve learned the Strait is a very mysterious body of water, which I still haven’t figured out because the surf turns on and off on a whim and it seems there’s no pattern to it. It has something to do with the currents. We learned the timing of when to go and when not to go across the channel. When returning, you’d always go way upstream, north along Lombok, and then cut out toward Bali. And the current would you pull you down, but it would take you where you needed to go. Except one time, for some reason, we had an emergency so we just bee-lined it and the current sucked us toward the mouth of the channel. And once you get past the lee of the peninsula, it’s nightmare conditions, because the trades are blowing this way, and then the swell’s coming that way, and then the current’s going another. It’s just a washing machine. There are standing waves and whirlpools and many boats have just disappeared in the Strait. So we got out there, and there were huge standing waves…15-foot swells with 10 feet of whitewater capping at the top, because the current’s pushing against the swell so hard that it causes the top to peel over. And we got into a situation where we were between two big swells and we were parallel to the swell line. Nyoman was steering and panicked when we were at the bottom of a swell. Ten feet of whitewater was going to hit us broadside and possibly capsize us. And as soon as I saw it, I grabbed the tiller out of his hands and did a 90-degree turn to straighten us off. Fortunately the boat reacted quickly enough because we were moving pretty fast. The whitewater came into the back of the boat rather than hitting us broadside. Which probably saved us.

An audience of one takes in Dylan Longbottom’s 2014 burner. Photo by Woody Gooch.
São Paulo’s Leandro Keesse—“Leleco” to his friends—appears in a near-inappropriate number of perfect Desert Point photos. Photo by Stefan Götzelmann.

Keeping it Secret (The Pact)

It was always our goal to surf Deserts with just our little crew. That’s why we had a boat. And that’s why eventually we gave up on G-Land and totally focused on Deserts in the late 80s. Of the original 1983 crew, there were four of us who kept coming back year after year: me, J.M., Nelson, and Bob McDougall. All of us but Bob, who was the kid brother of the crew, grew big bushy beards like the Argonauts of old. The other expats back in Bali jokingly called us the “Golden Beards.” We were joined the next year by Jim Ingham of Oahu, who became our inspirational tube-riding guru. He was the guy who pioneered the deepest, longest innards of Deserts. We had a pact, an unspoken agreement: we don’t talk about our favorite surf spot. We don’t publicize it. We try to keep it for ourselves. We had photos from the early 80s that would have blown up in surf magazines. But what good would that do? We misdirected and became really good liars and managed to keep it off the general surf radar for most of the decade. I call that boat-based era the “Pioneer Era” of Deserts.

Early on, Pablo Miller endeared himself to Deserts’ long-term crew and visiting surfers by setting up his ding repair shop. He’s since trained at least two generations of local Lombok kids on how to make an income repairing boards. Circa 1994. Photo by Bill Heick.

First Exploitations

I think it was in 1987 that a Quicksilver B-Team crew came on a boat with Peter Crawford. That was his first time there, and they were only there for one day, but it was really good. And Marvin Foster was there and one Aussie guy and a couple Japanese guys. We surfed with those guys. They were with Paul King, the Aussie guy who had a surf travel company. After Paul King we saw Jim Banks appear, and then Gabe and Kurt started appearing on Lucky Lady. That was the first time we saw other surfers there. And even then, we still didn’t see anyone for a couple more years. But we were bummed, especially considering there hadn’t been any surf. There’d be one day of swell and then nothing for days, so they just kinda lucked out. But it was not a good feeling knowing these guys were probably putting it in a magazine. Then I realized that’s how the surf world works, so it was just another spot that was going to get exploited. It was bound to happen. We were surprised it lasted as long as it did. I can remember Nelson saying in 1986, “I can’t believe this. There’s no one here. Right over there on that island there’s 50 guys out at Ulu’s and here, we’re four hours away, and we’ve got this place to ourselves!”

Wayan tending her seaweed crop on the reef, 1995. Photo by Bill Heick.

Downtime at Deserts

Our last boat year was 1990. I was there for four months. I stayed all the way into October that year. And I think we only went to G-Land once. We didn’t even go back to Bali. To keep sane when it was small, we’d go to Trawangan, a little island north of Lombok, which was a Euro backpacker hangout. Loads of Euro chicks. They’d go to Bali, get partied out, and then go to Trawangan to recuperate.

Boris and Nikita

During the late 1980s, we never really saw any other expats, with the exception of Kiwi Rex and Dick Lewis, two Bali residents who would occasionally boat over but rarely surfed. But on two separate occasions, we noticed the most unlikely-looking eastern Europeans. The first time, they were just walking up the beach, literally miles from the nearest road. And the second time, they were in a small boat. They definitely weren’t from Surfer magazine. Both times we tracked them with binoculars as they went past Deserts, and continued all the way out toward the spot where the small lighthouse is now. It was a big question mark for us. “What they could possibly be doing?” We nicknamed them “Boris” and “Nikita.” After the second sighting, I decided to do a little research back on Bali. At the time, Bali was the R&R zone for intelligence agents who worked in Southeast Asia. Many of them were double agents and a lot of info was available for a price, if you knew the right people. It didn’t take long to find out what they were up to. Apparently the CIA had equipment out on the far point to monitor the passing of Soviet submarines from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans via the deep Lombok Strait. Boris and Nikita had been sent out there to find and dismantle the gear. Whether they were successful or not, I never found out, and we never saw them again. Those years of Cold War intrigue ended by 1990. Now there’re actually Russian and eastern European surfers out at Deserts.

Second Era

The second era was the beach era. In the early 90s, they put in a road that got us close enough where we could walk to the beach and camp out. And that’s when Pablo, Johnno, Chris Casillas, Nick Smart, Randy Dale, Tony “Blinky” Brinkworth, Thommo, and quite a few other guys posted up on the beach and basically camped out for months at a time. People came and went a lot, but there was a core group and they were there pretty much for the season. It was a pretty raucous scene. The huts began as the crudest assemblages…proverbial grass shacks. The grasses behind the beach had been cut by locals for years to make thatch for their own shacks, further inland. Surfers could now buy the thatch and build their own or have one built by the locals. For $10 to $15, you’d get a beachfront pad at Desert Point. The road, and now housing, opened the door to a wild group of low budget, hardcore, young surfers—a throwback to an earlier era. But beach camping was pretty gnarly. They called it “Club Dead.” Guys got malaria, there were snakes, they all got robbed. They were boiling water all the time so they wouldn’t get sick. It was survival. Most guys couldn’t cut it long-term. They’d come for a couple days and they’d be gone. But on the other hand the surfing got better. By watching the lineup from land, I learned new things about Deserts. Watching from the boat, you’re just seeing the wave come at you. Watching from the beach is a way better vantage point to learn about a surf spot.

Local fishermen returning with the night’s catch of a large tiger shark, 1986. Photo by Bill Heick.


One of the scourges of the tropical Third World, malaria is not something to be taken lightly. Rampant through much of Indo, including Lombok, this mosquito-borne parasite invades your bloodstream—literally eating your red blood cells until either your immune system can overcome it or it overcomes you. Many of us got it over the years and fortunately none of our Deserts crew died. I got it as well. Once again, I was lucky. Although infected with the often-fatal falciparum strain, I made it to an American hospital in Singapore. After eight days of living hell, I got the treatment to save my life. 

Dark Days

As the 90s ticked away, more changes came. The boaters and the overlanders were on it. The crowd became thick, but not always unbearable. Even the polisi and imigrasi were on it. These guys always showed up in their uniforms looking for a little shakedown money. Pablo once got walked all the way down the beach on his way to deportation before he managed to cut a deal and pay the fine. And the rip-offs were on it. They started small, probably village kids sneaking into the backs of huts for petty pilferage. The big boys farther in towards Mataram must have gotten word, though, because soon they showed up in the middle of the night wielding knives. The first incident got Pablo a minor chest wound and Nick had a blade held to his throat as they walked him around to each hut to translate as they relieved people of their immediate cash stashes. And of course there was the infamous incident of the Aussie surfer who almost lost his arm when he went after some Indonesian bandits armed only with a stick. 

Several international surfers make annual long-form runs to Deserts. Chris Ward, for example, has built his own hut there. North Shore surfers like Kalani Chapman have found it a seasonal compliment to Pipe. Most recently, Mason Ho seems especially well met on Lombok. Photo by Pete Frieden.
Photo by Pete Frieden.
Harrison Roach, running under the eaves and wasting no time. Part of the appeal—and the intimidating nature—of the place its sheer relentlessness. At most spots, one endlessly follows the tube spoor. Here you might find yourself praying for a moment of open face. Photo by Woody Gooch.

An Ill Wind

It was about this time that the bad north wind became particularly oppressive in the afternoons, causing untold suffering among the Deserts crew. The prevailing southeaster still hit Bali, G-Land, and other spots, but somehow missed west Lombok, leaving us with the onshore debacle. Some theorized that the massive forest fires burning on Kalimantan, just to the north, caused the local fluke wind. I viewed the winds as Indonesian shadow puppets, pushing back and forth across the stage that was our beachfront redoubt. The last time I walked out, it was blowing onshore, making it that much easier to leave. It would be seven years before I returned…

Third Era 

Era three, I call “21st Century Deserts.” After the machete incident received world press, the police came down and kicked everyone off the beach. The beach crew moved back to the “White House” near Labuan Poh and started commuting out to the point. Then the new road came in, so you could drive all the way to the beach. You didn’t have to walk around that cliff to get there. That’s when a lot more people started coming and the gradual development of all those little bungalows began.

The Local’s Local

Over the last 20 years, we’ve seen the first wave of homegrown Lomboki surfers emerge. These are the little kids of the farmers living out there, who started surfing on broken boards left by traveling surfers. They grew up watching the best surfers in the world on one of the best waves on the planet. And Pablo has taken a few under his wing…not only with surfing but with vital ocean and life knowledge. One of the local boys is Usman Trioko. He’s about 20 now—high energy, great sense of humor, just a classic guy. He’s been surfing ten years. Grew up, learned to surf at Desert Point. There’s a little inside area named after him called Usi’s. That’s where he learned to surf with Pablo’s coaching. He’s basically become the best tube rider at Desert Point now, hands down. Usman speaks English pretty well and has traveled to Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii, and California. He’s the one who’s hoping to put together a “Clean Desert Point” project to address the growing beach-trash problem. He’s aware of all the environmental issues and what’s going on around there, more than any other Indonesian, because most of the other Indonesians have never made it out of Indonesia. There’s Awan, who grew up surfing Desert Point. He’s a little younger than Usman. He’s a little bit shy. He’s lower key than Usman but the obvious heir apparent to Chris Casillas as the best resident backside tuberider. He wants to be a pro surfer. And then there’s Budi. He’s the oldest local surfer there. He grew up nearby, just inland from Desert Point, a kilometer up the road.

Precisely numbering just how many Lombok barrels Pablo Miller has threaded is a fool’s errand, perhaps best suited to a computer yet to be invented. Photo by Pete Frieden.
Photo by Pete Frieden.

The Future of Deserts

At the end of our film, Secrets Of Desert Point, we leave with a big question mark about what’s gonna happen at Deserts. Obviously there’s been a big evolution since we first rocked up there. Personally I don’t see it becoming another Kuta, Bali. Other parts of Lombok, maybe, but I think whoever’s in charge on Lombok is way more conscious of infrastructure development. They’ve seen what happened on Bali and they realized that’s not the right way to go about it. I think they’re planning a bit better. And Deserts itself, because of the location, it’s not conducive to mainstream tourism because there’s no safe beach there for tourists. There could be some kind of high-end surf camp. But for that you would need exclusivity.


As surfers, especially those of us attracted to Indonesia in the early days, we’ve lived lives that most of previous humanity could hardly comprehend. Indo has a way of luring the most dynamic, creative, and fearless people to its shores. I’ve had the good fortune to meet and befriend so many of these locals, expats, tourists, and travelers over the years. And the core groups on the boat and on the beach at Deserts remain some of my most prized friends and associates. Those were the best years of our surfing lives. We had a true Golden Era for almost a decade. I hope future travelers can have the same.

Pablo, simultaneously nursing a head wound and sunburn, 1996. Photo by Bill Heick.

[Feature image: Photo by Woody Gooch.]