The Jungle Endures

A modern Grajagan survey.

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In the beginning was G-Land—almost literally for the Javan people, who believed this jungled eastern tip of Java was the first place in the creation of the world. In symmetry with some Australian Dreamtime stories, animals here are believed to be the embodiment of their ancestors. In surf mythology, Grajagan is almost equally foundational. In the last 12 months, not one but two separate books have been devoted to its discovery, its development, and its jungle camps. 

Fifteen years had elapsed since my last visit to the spot, and when my oldest mate offered up an Afterpay-type deal, I gleefully accepted. I was keen to see what had changed as modernity steamrolled across Indonesia. 

The first change: A 15-meter, full-cabin, deep-vee fiberglass hull with four 200-horsepower Yamaha engines got us the 30 or so miles across the Bali Strait from Tuban to Plengkung in slightly more than two hours. Unlike the overland-ferry-overland–Grajagan Village river crossing, which left you feeling like a sack of potatoes pummeled by a baseball bat, we arrived fresh as daisies, ready for an immediate paddle-out—as were the other members of our boat.

Those members revealed a stark change in the human diversity visiting G-Land. In 2008, the camps were full of Aussies and Americans, a fair whack from Hawaii, a smattering of South Americans, and the very odd Euro. This time, the accents were thicker and more ungulate. At least 50 percent of the boat was Russian. The rest consisted of a handful of Aussies, a big contingent of Argentinians, and a French trio.

Ashley Bickerton, GREEN REFLECTING HEAD SAM NO. 5, 2006
laser-printed head hand-cut and assembled with steel insect pins on color-pulped STPI handmade paper, 48 × 38 × 2 inches
© Ashley Bickerton/STPI, photo courtesy of the artist and STPI, Creative Workshop & Gallery, Singapore

No change to the jungle walk past the camps and dilapidated fishing huts nestled in a tangled grove of bamboo. We made the paddle out into groomed 4- to 6-foot Fan Palms before drifting down to the Ledge/Money Trees. I looked at my mate: “Where the fuck is everyone?” There was nothing but space and water and sunlight and a sparse scattering of human beings in the lineup. All our new comrades were nowhere to be seen. Constantin, from a village outside St. Petersburg, Olga, from Moscow, and “Hero,” from Volgograd, along with the others who’d filled up the boat—all marked absent. 

We found out later that while we had turned left and walked up to the keyhole, they had gone the other way down to Tiger Tracks and 20/20’s. Thus, the rumors of Russians dominating the camps and packing out the “beginner” waves turned out to be largely true. 

No real changes to the wave itself. The top of the reef is shiftier and softer. Peaks, wedges, and walls all reveal themselves. Farther down the line, it gets faster, hollower, and more sectiony. Contra the great mythology surrounding it, G-Land is far from a perfect wave. Instead, it’s more a series of sections, as great swell lines from the Indian Ocean interact with the massive karst reef complex. 

Finding the takeoff is tricky. A tapered wall is not a guarantee. You have to feint and jab and roll the dice to find an open one. It’s no Cloudbreak. This is one reason I have no qualms about writing about it. The wave itself will always regulate its numbers, especially as adult learners become dominant across Indonesia. It’s just not a good wave to learn to surf on. Even for the competent, it’s a constant challenge. 

The distortion of space and time that I remembered from my last visit remained intact. It was shocking how quickly you untether from the human realm on the most densely populated island on Earth. Walking past the camps, you find yourself quickly alone, navigating the sharp single track across ancient, raised reef. It’s not kind to bare feet, nor is the long walk out and back in across the reef. 

I’ve never been able to make peace with booties, but I took my colleague Stu’s advice and brought a pair along. I wore them only once or twice before passing them on to a west Australia FIFO worker. That put me back in the realm of long, meditative walks across the reef. With care and attention, you could traverse the multitude of ecological niches without too much damage to skin or reef. Light-footedness was key to slipping away from the sharp spikes of urchin enclaves before the spikes snapped off. 

Cuts were inevitable. Borrowing from Balinese/Hindu customs, I made a small microbiological offering to the bacteria of the littoral zone, asking for a simple bargain: Don’t go ham on me and I won’t smash you with antibiotics. It seemed to work. I could feel the cuts and flaps of skin catching on the blanket at night, but nothing blew up. 

I noticed a change in biodiversity, mostly for the better. Birds were abundant and, judging from the breadth of birdsong, many species were inhabiting the lowland jungle. Only the pied hornbill (Anthracoceros albirostris) stood out enough for me to identify. Prey species were more conspicuous. The Javan deer (Rusa timorensis) grazed freely on forest edges. Herds of Eurasian wild pigs (Sus scrofa) wandered in the jungle undergrowth. Old World and Colobine monkeys were abundant, mostly long-tailed macaques (Macaca fascicularis) and, less commonly, the black (with ranga babies) Javan lutung (Trachypithecus auratus). With such abundant prey, sightings of the Javan leopard (Panthera pardus) in both the “black panther” and spotted form have become more common. Several mornings, I woke with the first birdsong and, selecting a stout stick, walked the jungle road, hoping for a sighting. At one point, a startled herd of pigs ran out of the jungle as if fleeing a big cat, but no sighting was forthcoming. 

Even the coral-reef communities, especially up toward the keyhole, appeared in reasonable shape. Abundances of brain and branching corals seemed in good health. A multitude of turtles, mostly greens, shared the lineup with us. Plastic pollution, of course, was horrendous. The World Surf League, with its much-vaunted greenwashing at G-Land last year, had made no difference. In fact, with the amount of contest livery and junk they’d left behind, they’d made it worse. Concrete pilings from the now-deceased judging tower sat halfway in at the end of Moneys, with rebar poking out at crazy angles. I won’t judge too harshly there: Nature is structure agnostic, and the pilings have already been colonized by a multitude of marine invertebrates. 

Our founding documents—Morning of the Earth, for example—fuel a self-conception for surfers as being guardians of an environment they are intimately connected with. By and large, that self-conception is a mirage. We are as much a part of environmental destruction as any other group of humans on Earth, maybe more so with our extravagant tastes for travel and petrochemical toys. The surf camps built on the edge of the jungle at Plengkung offer a more optimistic vision of how it could be. Yet even that is not without a certain degree of dark irony.

The G-Land jungle camps are largely a result of the vision of Mike Boyum. After reading Jack McCoy and Mike Ritter’s history of G-Land, Surfing in the Tiger’s Lair, it’s impossible to escape the conclusion that Boyum was a vile scumbag who thought nothing of ripping off his mates, then ratting on them to put them in prison for long stretches. Yet reality demands we accept there was something inherently good and pure in his vision of surf camps in the jungle, which would, in effect, serve as surf monasteries existing in harmony with nature. 

The days were long and the nights were longer. My mate was going through a rough patch. Marital breakdown. He was up in the night, pacing, sitting outside smoking Indonesian cigarettes, sometimes until first light. Life leaves no one unscathed. Surf travel when young is about adventure and exploration, a complete letting go. As you get older, problems become stickier, the consequences of falling short more acute. What my mate wanted was to be a respected surfer in a respected surf community. But what if that ain’t enough? Like our environmental self-deception, we are not disposed to counting the costs of a hardcore surfing life. Romanticizing it creates a much easier pill to swallow.

The most delicious and intoxicating sense of freedom overcame me. To be here in the jungle at G-Land, able to paddle out while vast sections of the world were immiserated, seemed an almost obscene luxury.

There were nerves, intimidation, fear as the swell filled in: 8- to 10-foot range, the trades close to full dry-season strength on the big days. I spent a long time watching from the Speedies tower. Walking back to the room to suit up, I witnessed an epic battle between rival troops of macaques. The battleground was the helipad, for reasons unknown. The two sides squared up in the bamboo groves with copious shrieking before the growling and snarling alpha males ran into the center of the pad, a development that precipitated all of the combatants charging. Multiple attacks of the males finally climaxed in the beaten troop fleeing back to the bamboo, while the victorious male howled and danced with his teeth bared before casually walking to the nearest female, lifting her tail, and copulating. 

I took a 6’6″ Webster Desert Storm out as the swell began to fully pump. Bombing at the Pad, throttling tubes down into Speedies. A boatload of Balinese pros and expats had arrived. A frothing, ruthless, relentless feeding frenzy ensued, equal in intensity to the monkey battle I’d just witnessed. My mate managed to find a couple in the chaos. For an hour I zigged and zagged and got nothing, but, far from despondency, the most delicious and intoxicating sense of freedom overcame me. To be here in the jungle at G-Land, able to paddle out while vast sections of the world were immiserated, seemed an almost obscene luxury. Freedom is nothing if not the freedom to retreat, and like a humiliated simian I retreated to the relative security, safety, and peace of 8-foot Money Trees. 

Unfortunately, the sense of being untethered from the human realm had been shown to be nothing but a brief illusion. The Balinese surfers had taken over, primarily with skill and intent. They caused me to reflect on Australia and Indonesia as neighbors, and how our relationship is ill-formed, lacking in depth and complexity. We burn their illegal fishing boats. They execute our drug smugglers. We’re remarkably incurious. We see the locals as ciphers, cooking our meals, transporting our boards and bodies across island straits, mostly as functionaries of our surf desires, sometimes forgetting they have dreams and aspirations of their own. 

“Pedro” at the camp is a Javan who said he was pushed out of Bali in the COVID period by local forces. He now works for a pittance sweeping paths. He tells me the fishing boats, mostly traditional pirogues with the double-outrigger setup, have been killing it the last few years, catching lobster planula to sell to Taiwanese lobster farms. The sheer fecundity of the Java Trench and Indonesian Throughflow is almost impossible to conceive. 

The lights of the numerous fishing boats at night strike a cheery note, like sparkling Christmas lights. Other elements of our relationship with Jawa Timur (East Java) are less positive. The Bali bombers Amrozi and his brother Muklas were from Tenggulun, East Java, and learned their severe form of Wahhabism from religious schools in the area. Any visitor to areas of Indonesia outside Bali will recall stern gazes and uncomfortable vibes as they are assessed as takfir (unbelievers) by those hardcore adherents to the strongest and most rigid elements of Islam. We scarcely credit the Indonesian principle of Pancasila, which mandates religious freedom and plurality, with keeping the moderate form of all religions in the ascendancy. Extremism, by and large, has been sidelined. 

The next day was bigger. In the morning mist, my mate and I watched an endless 10-foot set (maybe 20 waves?) bombard the reef. I’d like to say we were fresh and ready, all yoga’ed up like the Russians, who performed a daily group ritual on the sunset deck. But hungover from copious Bintangs is closer to the truth. Coughing after too many Indonesian cigarettes. At least we had migrated to the slightly milder Sampoernas. 

Ashley Bickerton, FLOTSAM PAINTING: GREEN SKY, 2019
Beach flotsam, oil, and acrylic on canvas with plywood, glass, and stainless steel, 61 × 84.5 × 8.5 inches
© Ashley Bickerton, courtesy of Gagosian

It had been eight years (Cloudbreak, 2015) since I had last packed left tubes of any size, girth, and consequence. I had one advantage: a 7’6″ Desert Storm I’d added to my bag in a last-minute spasm of quiver anxiety as the reality of the forecast dawned. But a 7’6″ sitting in the rack also removes the possibility of excuses due to quiver inadequacy. Damn. I briefly thought about hiding the board in the bush and claiming a monkey had stolen it. I couldn’t take that froth fest on again. What to do? 

There was one small window of opportunity my mate had identified. As the tide dropped, the crowd thinned out rapidly, most of the camera boats left, and the lineup became more spacious, albeit rapidly increasing in danger, as the already shallow reef became even more so.

I held off. The tide peaked. Four years since I had ridden a wave on the 7’6″. Too late for second-guessing now. It was still crowded, but the extra size from the day prior had reduced more of the aspiring to spectators. It took a while to catch a wave. Two 10-footers on the head. Then two more. Like a heavy crest-to-trough wipeout at the Cobra the day before, the punishment was a great ally. Mentally, it filled me with confidence. I could still take a hit. 

A moderate set pushed in a little wider. I was able to scramble deep into space and stroke into it. The hard trades meant I was halfway down the face before I could take bearings. There was a second to decide whether to commit to the Speedies section. And then the wave was sucking and lurching, and what felt like a large, thick lip was throwing over me. It seemed like the whole wave was sucking dry, so I went low. It was the wrong line. 

I traveled with an insane view, but the 7’6″ was not going to break that low line. The lip pounded down on me and drove me deep. In a fetal position, I waited for the harsh thud of the reef. Two, three, four violent rotations. The impact never came. I could see the dude in the camera boat gesturing at me: Was I alright? I offered a weak thumbs-up and slow-paddled down and out. I thought I was done and sat there for 10 minutes. 

When I looked around again, the camera boats were gone. I could see people paddling in across the reef. This was the small window of opportunity we’d identified. Back in the lineup, there was space galore. Room to pick and choose. I didn’t have to wait long. A smaller set wave, with a wide-swinging wall, unencumbered by any aspiring rider. I whipped it and dropped down, again with a brief moment to decide to commit. It threw over. This time, the low line was correct. 

James Joyce once described a night sky as a “heaven tree of stars hung with night blue fruit.” This tube was equally beautiful. It was glowing blue inside, streaked with lines of pale white from a previous wave. The reef was perfectly visible below, like a buckled set of train tracks rising sharply upward toward some undisclosed terminus that would, in the very near future, bring the ride to a shuddering halt. 

I somehow squashed a horrifying urge to jump off as I saw the reef and thought, You’re too deep. A moment of pure, luxurious joy followed as I sensed the wave slowing enough for an untouched exit. I could have pulled in again, over ever-shallower reef, but the sensation of banking a clean make was so overwhelming that I simply straightened out. It’s fun, and appropriate, to realize that no one gives a fuck about your best ride—that you could sit afterward and smoke a clovey, listening to the croak and groan of bamboo, the whoosh of straw brooms sweeping paths, lost in a gentle euphoria, letting it all wash through to where it belongs: back to nothing- ness, to memory. 

The jungle endures its myriad forms, at least for now. 

Everything flows, everything changes.

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