Once the preserve of intrepid board riders, the cliff-girded coastline around southern Bali’s Uluwatu headland has evolved into the nexus of the Indonesian surf scene—and a destination in its own right. Yet for all its modern development, the area’s ancient magic endures.
Photographs by Tommy Schultz.
Gerry Lopez wasn’t long out of the icy waters of Bells Beach on Australia’s rugged southern coastline when he first set eyes on Uluwatu.
The year was 1974, and Lopez, a tawny-haired 25-year-old from Oahu, was renowned throughout the surfing world for his masterful tube-riding skills. “Mr. Pipeline,” they called him. His peers—people like surf photographer Jeff Divine—spoke admiringly of the meditative, almost Zen-like movements he applied to the sport.
Lopez traveled frequently between Hawai‘i and Australia to compete in prestigious surf competitions, and on this occasion, he was in Torquay, Victoria, for the Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach, now among the most coveted trophies on the World Surf League championship tour. He didn’t win the contest that season, but over dinner one night at fellow surfer Jack McCoy’s vegetarian restaurant, a framed photo on the wall caught his eye.
“It was a water shot of another surfer friend, Wayne Lynch, taken the previous year,” Lopez recalls. “The wave he was riding wasn’t particularly exceptional—there was white water all over the face—but it was hollow and Wayne’s position was cool, racing across a long, lean lefthander. What intrigued me most was seeing him surfing in board shorts rather than his usual wetsuit, and the fact that I had absolutely no idea where the wave was. I was mesmerized.”
McCoy informed Lopez that the shot was taken in southern Bali, just off a dramatic limestone cliff called Uluwatu. Lopez repeated the name, the syllables rolling dreamily off his tongue. “As soon as I said ‘Uluwatu,’ I felt destined to go,” he says. “It was like a mantra that put me into a trance.” He and McCoy booked tickets to Bali pretty much straight away.
The pair flew from Australia into a heady, heaving Kuta and set out south on scooters the following dawn. They rode past the ramshackle fishing villages and markets lining Jimbaran Bay, and up and around the steep limestone hills of the Bukit Peninsula, Bali’s southernmost point. They stopped at beaches with promising names like Dreamland and wandered around sun-bleached cliffs in search of the mythical Uluwatu wave, stumbling across sacred Hindu shrines and troops of macaque monkeys along the way. Finally, they met a group of Hawaiian surfers who guided them into Uluwatu’s now legendary cave, which offers the only direct beach access to the reef break. Once they had paddled out, Lopez says, they found the perfect wave: soaked in tropical light, it peeled off in a barrel down a long reef. With six breaks to choose from—from Secrets and Temples farther around the bluff, to the Peak and the Racetrack right out front of the cave—they were spoiled for choice.
“When we got there, it was everything and more: a lack of other surfers, warm water, and surf that took your breath away. The quality and consistency of the waves was something I’d never experienced before,” Lopez remembers. He and McCoy camped out at Uluwatu for the next month, during which time the surf never got below six meters. Any size, any tide, any wind direction—they’d find somewhere along the huge reef that was working. But Lopez was also intoxicated by the culture, the food, and the people. “The real underlying magic of Bali and Uluwatu was just that … magic. Balinese culture incorporates lots of black magic and white magic. There was a pervading energy that seemed to percolate not only into the waves but also into everything and everyone there.”
Lopez’s maiden trip to Bali is now woven into local surfing legend and, indeed, the story of the island’s wider tourism industry. Just a few years earlier, Australian indie filmmaker Alby Falzon had featured Uluwatu’s stellar waves in his instantly iconic surf film Morning of the Earth. That movie, along with the sepia-toned footage Lopez and his colleagues brought back to Hawai‘i, arguably opened the floodgates to surf tourism in Indonesia.
Now, more than 40 years later, I’m standing inside that same cave entrance at Uluwatu, but it’s hardly a secret anymore. Next to me two surfers are hesitating about whether to take the leap out into the rough, churning sapphire-hued water. Surrounding us are a couple dozen other tourists posing for selfies and scrolling through their smartphones. Making my way back up to the top of the cliff, I wind and weave through a jumble of warung food stalls and mom-and-pop stores, which give way to several breezy, bohemian restaurants. Scores of sun-bronzed bar-goers spill out of a joint called Single Fin, sipping on Aperol spritzs under striped umbrellas or lolling in the venue’s cliff-side pool. From above, the surfers look like tiny black specks, but there must be at least 40 or 50 out there, all crowding around the Peak and the Racetrack for a piece of the action. The panorama stretches right out over cornflower-blue skies and the shimmering Indian Ocean.
This is the Bali of the 21st century, and where there are enrapturing vistas and sublime coastlines, a deluge of tourists, health food cafés, and glitzy beach clubs will follow. In 2018, more than 6.5 million international visitors arrived at Bali’s Ngurah Rai International Airport, an increase of more than 10 percent over the previous year. And with around 70 percent of the island’s economy generated through tourism, there are few places in the world as dependent on the holiday business as Bali.
With its rocky, arid terrain and precipitous sea cliffs, the Bukit Peninsula’s southwest coast was one of the last areas in southern Bali to succumb to mass tourism and development. But in 2013, CNN Travel named Uluwatu the world’s fourth best surf spot. Now, more than 500 people visit it each day.
“Just 15 years ago, landowners around Uluwatu were giving land away for free. It was worthless,” laughs my driver, Putu, as we squeeze through a traffic jam outside Single Fin. “It’s so different now, and everyone is in a race to develop,” he adds, reeling off a list of swish luxury brands with resorts in the vicinity: Alila, Six Senses, Anantara, Bulgari. From Single Fin, we can even spy Dreamland around the headland. Once a secluded beach, in the early 2000s it was subsumed into a resort development that includes an 18-hole golf course and water park. “There needs to be more regulation if the free, wild spirit of this place is to remain. We can’t afford to destroy the unique landscape,” Putu says.
Lopez feels somewhat apologetic to the Balinese people for helping to put Uluwatu on the map, but maintains that its “magic” is still very much alive. On his recommendation, I head to Uluwatu Surf Villas, a gorgeous surfing retreat set amid four hectares of lawns and flourishing tropical gardens that tumble down to the cliff edge; Lopez says this “slice of paradise” lies at the heart of Bali’s surf scene. And with a private staircase leading down to the secluded Secrets and Temples breaks, it’s little wonder professional surfers like Kelly Slater, Ozzie Wright, and Rob Machado are all part of the Uluwatu Surf Villas community.
At the property’s South American–inspired Mana restaurant, I meet founder Tim Russo over a breakfast of avocado toast and eggs with chorizo and salsa verde. Russo’s own Bali story is one of tragedy and triumph. Having grown up on the coast of Maryland, Russo made the “standard Indonesia surf pilgrimage” with his friend Alan Cassell in 1999, chartering a jukung outrigger around eastern Java. Halfway through the trip, the Balinese skipper offered to sell his share of the boat to the two young Americans. “It was a no-brainer. The next time we went ashore, we went straight to the nearest ATM, took out as much as we could withdraw, and signed a contract on a napkin,” he says. “We definitely had the Indonesia bug.”
Russo split his time between San Diego—where he worked at a record label—and Bali, where Cassell had moved permanently to oversee their new surf charter business. When Cassell drowned in a diving accident three years later, a devastated Russo traveled to Bali to collect his friend’s ashes and bring them home. But a trigger had been pulled. “It was a turning point. I decided life was too short and I was going to quit my job and move to Bali. So I did. With just US$2,000 to my name. Alan and I had a lot of dreams together, of what we’d do in Bali, and I wanted to realize those.”
One of those visions was dreamed up the first time the pair surfed at Uluwatu. Between a set of waves, they looked up at the soaring limestone cliffs above and saw six simple coconut-wood shacks. “Alan said, man, that’ll be our spot someday. And many years later, I feel that I was able to manifest that dream.”
Russo took over the property and spent years refurbishing the bungalows and designing lush gardens full of frangipani, palms, and wildflowers. His latest addition is a trio of striking tropical-modern villas designed by German-born architect Alexis Dornier and filled with commissioned pieces by Californian artist Andy Davis. But the crown jewel of this resort is its outlook: perched right near the cliff’s edge, it could lay claim to Bali’s most spectacular sunset views. Later that afternoon, the gardens cloaked in golden light, I watch as the sky melts into a sublime watercolor painting of pastel pinks, violet, and tangerine.
One of Russo’s biggest passions is protecting the Bukit Peninsula’s fragile ecosystem. As guesthouses, warung, and bars mushroomed across Uluwatu’s cliff face, it soon became obvious that few had septic tanks. Sewage, food waste, and oil spilled directly into the ocean and were often dumped at the cave’s entrance. In 2012, eleven-time world surfing champion Kelly Slater expressed his disappointment at the state of Bali’s waters in a tweet: “If Bali doesn’t do something serious about this pollution it’ll be impossible to surf here in a few years. Worst I’ve ever seen.”
Around the same time, Russo and a clutch of other residents founded Project Clean Uluwatu, creating a liquid waste bio-septic processing plant for the homes and businesses along the cliffs. The treated water from the plant then ran through coral gravel gardens, the nutrients absorbed by the plants back into the earth to complete the cycle.
Simultaneously, from Uluwatu to Canggu, Bali was being besieged by plastic rubbish that washed ashore from elsewhere in the Indonesian archipelago whenever the westerly winds picked up. The Balinese government now appears to be addressing the issue, passing an island-wide ban on single-use plastics earlier this year and joining the rest of the nation in trying to reduce plastic waste by 70 percent by 2025 (according to a 2015 study, Indonesia is the world’s second-largest producer of plastic waste after China, contributing 3.2 million tons annually). Russo and his wife Seewah are now drawing up blueprints for a sustainably minded school modeled on Ubud’s acclaimed Green School. “It sounds like such a typical thing to say, but it really does start with kids and education, and in 10 or 20 years’ time, once they become the decision makers, then we’ll see a real difference,” he says.
Russo tells me the local surf community is making genuine strides to both protect the shorelines and welcome visitors to the region, with regular ocean cleanups being organized. “Surfing is a bit of a territorial sport, but the Balinese are super friendly and very inviting out in the lineup,” he says. “They have also been savvy in connecting with professional surfers from around the world, in really growing the industry here. To me, Bali feels like the center of the surf world.”
My next stop is nearby Padang Padang Beach, home of the World Surfing League’s Rip Curl Cup, Indonesia’s longest-running and most prestigious surfing competition. A concrete staircase twists down to a luscious sliver of golden sand and turquoise rock pools; it’s so idyllic that a scene from the movie Eat Pray Love was shot here. I spend several hours snorkeling and watching surfers attempting to catch tubes out on the reef break, before jumping back on my motorbike and cruising two kilometers northeast to Bingin Beach. En route, I pop into Drifter, an indie surf shop and café. Roofed in shaggy thatch, the rustic pavilion-style space stocks alternative and bespoke surf brands, from boards and books to fashion, fine-art prints, and homewares. Adjoining it is a leafy courtyard café with a menu that spotlights sustainable Balinese produce.
“It’s about a more creative, left-of-center approach to the surfing lifestyle, while still paying homage to Indonesia’s surf history,” says Jake MacKenzie, the shop’s Australian-born, Hong Kong–raised founder.
According to MacKenzie, the worldwide shift of surfing into the mainstream—the sport will make its debut appearance at the Tokyo Olympics this summer—is palpable in a place such as Uluwatu. “Surfers were once viewed as dudes and degenerates, but there are now more families coming here to surf, more women surfers, and more affluent customers willing to pay for a handmade Gerry Lopez surfboard or a set of specialist fins.” Mackenzie views the “massive changes” the area has undergone as a double-edged sword. “The vibe is slowly changing and the lineups are more crowded with surfers, but there are also more people at my café buying flat whites.”
With 80 steep, tricky steps to navigate, Bingin Beach tends to attract more dedicated surfers and the local community. I’m greeted at the top of the cliff by Agus “Dag” Sumertayasa, a Balinese surf instructor who grew up in the area and caught his first wave when he was 12. His uncle—one of the first generation of Balinese surfers who learned from the likes of Gerry Lopez—showed Dag the ropes, and he now participates in locally organized competitions such as September’s Bingin Open, in which he scored second place. And while those ’70s surfing pioneers may have helped pave the way for the development of the Bukit’s wild shoreline, they also propelled a bona fide surf scene among the Balinese: champions like Tipi Jabrik, who has won a number of prestigious international surf competitions and is considered instrumental in promoting Indonesia’s burgeoning industry; female pro surfer Diah Rahayu; Mega Semadhi, who grew up on Bingin Beach’s breaks and has twice won the prestigious Rip Curl Padang Padang Cup; and Rio Waida, who narrowly missed qualifying for the 2020 Olympics when he placed ninth at the ISA World Surfing Games in Japan in September.
Together with his cousin Mega, Dag runs a successful surf school at Bingin Beach. “That’s what I find most exciting,” he tells me as we climb down to the shore, plumes of incense floating through the air and bright purple bougainvillea spilling over the pathway’s limestone walls. “Not only do I get to teach tourists, but there’s a real interest from young Balinese kids. I’d love to see Indonesia become a strong contender in the sport. Bali is such a surfing mecca, we just have to be a part of that.”
There’s a high tide when I paddle out at 9 a.m. The current is strong and I’m instructed to hang onto a rope attached to a buoy until it’s my turn to line up. Dag tells me when to paddle and when to pop up, and before I know it I’m standing—and then tumbling into the white wash. I spend an hour in that same cycle, but by the end I manage to catch a frothy wave all the way into the rocky shoreline. Exhausted, I carry my board past supine sunbathers and park myself under the shade of a repair shop, where a warm and chatty older chap named Jelly tells me he’s sanded surfboards since the 1990s. “A lot has changed here—more villas, more people—but the spirit is still the same,” he says. “And there are many more Balinese women surfing now. This is good for Indonesia.”
Two women making waves at the vanguard of Bali surfing are the Johnson sisters: 21-year-old Pua and 17-year-old Kailani. The former is a reserve on the national women’s team, while her younger sibling this year became the first Indonesian female to compete in a World Surf League championship event.
Pua’s favorite breaks are at Uluwatu and Bingin. “There are a lot of barreling lefts, and I like how clean and spread out it is. There’s just a great community out there.” Still, she thinks the surfing community can do more to encourage female surfers. “Even these days, 90 percent of the time I paddle out, I am the only girl.” This year Pua traveled to Desert Point in Lombok, one of the country’s surfing treasures, but she says she was warned off it by male surfers. “It was a dream of mine, but so many peers said I couldn’t handle it. I just went for it and I rode the wave of my life.”
The Indonesian government seems to have finally recognized the significance of surfing to tourism figures, last year injecting serious funding into hosting more World Surfing League events around the archipelago. Pua says this has already had a significant impact in poverty-ridden regions such as Lampung and the Mentawai Islands. “Surfing has brought a lot of possibilities and improved the economy already in these spots, which is so great,” she says. “But because tourism is already such a huge industry in Bali, we haven’t seen much of that funding allocated here, which is a shame. I think we have a unique opportunity in Bali to really grow this into a serious and professional sport.”
On the last night of my trip, I make the pilgrimage to Pura Luhur Uluwatu, an ancient Hindu temple built right on the edge of the cliff. Each night at dusk, a kecak dance performance lures in hundreds of tourists with exotic chants, colorful costumes, and fire twirling. As it turns out, much of Dag’s and his cousin’s lives revolve around this enchanting site. Mega comes from a long line of Balinese mangku (holy men) at the temple, and his family believes he is the reincarnated soul of a Hindu high priest.
“At most ceremonies, my family and I prepare the rice and water for rituals. This culture stretches back thousands of years, so it’s important for me to keep it alive.”
Mega believes it is the energy flowing from the temple that makes surfing in Uluwatu so exceptional. “The waves of the Bukit are so special for me. Whenever I’m in the water I feel the god of the ocean and its power underneath me.”
Gerry Lopez, who returns to Bali each year to hold meditation and surfing retreats, echoes this sentiment. “After all these years, Uluwatu is still so very special. That cave is just so magical. The moment you step down into its belly and see the water crashing in and the surreal rock formations, all dappled by golden sunlight … it’s a pretty psychedelic place.”
Jl. Labuan Sait No. 52, Pecatu.
Jl. Labuan Sait, Pantai Suluban, Uluwatu.
Uluwatu Surf Villas
Jl. Pantai Suluban, Uluwatu; 62/817-555-421; one-bedroom bungalows from US$360.
This article originally appeared in the December 2019/January 2020 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Rolling With The Times”).