Back From Hell

Unpacking our hard-wired fascination with surf trip disasters. Pulled from TSJ 29.2.

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Wayne Lynch remembers his first surf at Uluwatu in 1973. He was with the Australian surf explorer Peter Troy, who was later speared in the back by his surfboard and almost crippled as a result. “Uluwatu was considered taboo by the Balinese,” recalls Lynch. “It was a place of evil spirits and you didn’t go there. They were shocked and concerned for our well-being. Bob Laverty dying and Peter getting injured reaffirmed what they had been telling us. It was spooky. I mean, it was so raw back then. There was no one around.”

There were no guide books, websites, travel companies, social media, or surf resorts around either. Surfers relied on word-of-mouth recommendations and warnings. They relied on stories.

Lynch had heard rumours about even better lefts than Ulus and made plans to return to Bali later that year. The second trip started well, but ended in a double disaster. Returning home from dinner on his motorbike with his girlfriend on the back, he rounded a corner to find a big pile of road-fill sloughing across their path. “I touched the brakes and it made no difference, so I sat the bike straight and we went flying into the air. My girlfriend landed on her face and slid down the road. She was unconscious in a pool of blood. She lost all her teeth. They were stuck up in her nose.”

Lynch landed head-first and broke his collarbone, yet finished on his feet. But the couple’s ordeal was far from over. After hitching a ride to Denpasar Hospital, they were left unattended all night. Lynch’s girlfriend woke up screaming, her face a mess. She was given an injection and sent home. Again, they hitched. It took hours. When they finally reached their rental in Legian, their friends took one look at them and told them to go straight back.

“We were in the hospital for three days and nothing happened,” Lynch says. “The doctor would come around and get an English lesson. I’m serious. He did nothing. I was feeling not very well. Intense headaches and sweating. Two American doctors arrived and told me I was in a bad way and to get home. We went to leave, but there was an airplane strike so we couldn’t go for a week. It compounded my condition and I became really sick. Shaking. Sweating like a pig.”

Lynch had contracted malaria. But even back in Australia it went undiagnosed. Sweating bullets on a futon in his parents’ house, fading in and out of consciousness, it got to the point where he was ready to give up. Even after a proper diagnosis and treatment, it wasn’t over. “It took me a long time to not get reoccurrences. I couldn’t do anything for a long time. My back was hurting. I found out I had three compressed vertebrae from the accident and was told I wouldn’t surf again.”

Travelers to Indonesia have long had to make peace with that idea that they are holidaying in a country that can kill them. While all developing nations can be dangerous, Indo, arguably the world’s best surf zone, harbors a long list of natural and manmade hazards. Tsunamis, earthquakes, terrorism, malaria, dengue fever, reef collisions, drownings, volcanic eruptions, bandits, car crashes, capsizing ferries, poison cocktails, open sewers, electrocutions—all can send you home in a body bag.

Death and danger are stitched into the fabric of Indo surf exploration. Californian Bob Laverty drowned while surfing Uluwatu in 1972. Nias co-discoverer John Geisel died from malaria nine months after finding the best right in the archipelago. Desert Point devotee Pablo Miller was stabbed by bandits while feeding his Lombok tube-fix. And those are just the well-known tales.

None of these horror stories have done anything to slow surf tourism in danger zones. You could even argue the opposite is true, that surfers are drawn to the risks. Maybe we like hearing gnarly travel tales because, in the era of luxe surf camps and mechanical wave pools, it reminds us of our collective roots as explorers, mavericks, and adventurers. In other words, there’s a sort of cultural catalyst at work.

It’s a theory that has been examined in a relatable field. The University of Southeast Norway recently completed a study on rock climbing’s relationship to risk and recognition. They found that risk is not just an individual motivation, but is built into the value system of an action sport like climbing. “As newcomers become part of the climbing culture,” posits the report’s authors Tommy Langseth and Oyvind Salvesen, “they learn what has value and make these values part of their own intrinsic motivation. Hence, climbers develop what we call a risk-libido.”

A risk-libido? It sounds like the sort of thing that drives Ross Clarke-Jones. Or the dynamic behind a slew of energy drink slogans. But there’s a flipside. And it’s simply that sometimes taking risks ends tragically. Sometimes people return home physically and mentally ruined. Sometimes they don’t return at all.