Legs dangling casually from the bow of an island-hopping water taxi, pro surfer Dedi Gun peers out onto the light ripples across the glassy water with an expansive grin. The colours shift from dark shades of cobalt to radiant turquoise and on into a sparkling sapphire.
He’s hunting waves at one of Indonesia’s least likely places – Lombok’s Gili Islands, a destination more commonly visited for its world-class diving, laid-back waterside cafés and absence of motorised traffic.
One of Asia’s most recognisable surfers both in and out of the water, Gun is sporting his signature captain’s hat, perched atop a sun-bleached mountain of curls that wouldn’t look out of place on a ’70s rock guitarist. His laughing eyes are hidden behind a pair of John Lennon-esque sunglasses, but he’s still spotted before he even sets foot on land.
With shouts of “Dedi!” and “Gun!” echoing across the beach, a grinning pack of local grommets, or young surfers, swarm around him as surfboards are loaded onto one of the horse-drawn carriages waiting beside the pier.
As the emcee of surf company Rip Curl’s GromSearch event, Gun has traversed the Indonesian archipelago, seeking out and coaching the country’s next generation of surfers. This has given him ample opportunity to observe the differences between Bali’s “groms” and the expanding troupe of Gili grommets trailing him on the island’s sandy streets.
“Kids in the Gilis are very different. They live by chance and often there are no waves to surf,” he explains. “Compared to Balinese kids, who are maybe a little spoiled, the Gili kids have no gear. They’re just stoked to be in the water. They talk to surfers from America, Australia, Europe… for them, surfing becomes an education of sorts. It can change their life.”
Comparisons between the Gilis and neighbouring Bali are nothing new. For decades, crowds on the Island of the Gods have pushed adventurous travellers to the north-west coast of Lombok, where the tiny trio of Gilis (meaning “small island” in the local Sasak dialect) have become famous for their “no shirt, no shoes, no problem” brand of living.
However, changes are afoot on the Gilis, too. Today, accommodation options on the islands range from idyllic bamboo bungalows on white-sand beaches shaded by swaying palm trees, to full-service resorts complete with luxe spa treatments and gourmet chefs.
Thankfully, each island still has its own distinct personality, drawing different tribes of beach lovers. Gili Trawangan (Gili “T”) is the most developed, with a reputation for all-night beach parties on a par with those of early-days Ibiza. Gili Meno takes the opposite approach, with its secluded romantic hideaways favoured by the early-to-bed crowd. Gili Air – the Goldilocks island – sits somewhere in between, offering an eclectic strip of restaurants and a surprisingly buoyant nightlife scene, balanced with sandy streets and scattered beach bungalows.
Gun and the Rip Curl crew have chosen to stay at one of Gili Air’s family-run bungalows, just a short carriage ride from the pier. Situated on a beautiful stretch of sand with a panoramic view of the towering Rinjani volcano and glimpses of Bali’s iconic Mount Agung, it’s hard to believe that this slice of paradise can be experienced for just US$30 a night.
For most of the year, the coral reefs located here are known as one of the best snorkelling spots in the Gilis. Shimmering schools of tropical critters like parrotfish and angelfish dance within the tines of colourful branching corals, and gentle sea turtles and pygmy seahorses glide by. Adventurous divers push the limits of their air tanks for a glimpse of whitetip reef sharks and elusive cuttlefish up to 40m below the surface.
However, at rare moments when the tides, moon, ocean swell and winds all align, this snorkeller’s paradise transforms itself into a pro surfer’s dream, a perfect right-hand barrelling wave.
Pro surfers forgo the guarantee of perfect barrels in Bali to chase this elusive Gili wave
This opportunity to catch a ride at the unicorn of Indonesian surf spots has led Gun and a handful of other pro surfers to forego the guarantee of perfect barrels in Bali to chase this elusive Gili wave. For many, the odds against success are too overwhelming.
First, the Indian Ocean swell must be truly ginormous – the kind that comes along only once in five, 10, or even 100 years – pushing wave faces at Bali’s legendary Uluwatu Beach to over 30ft. The wind must be blowing offshore – from the beach, towards the wave – to groom a perfectly rideable barrel. Lastly, the tide must be just high enough to cover the dangerously jagged reef early in the morning. Otherwise, after 9am, passing tourist boats can make the waves impossible to ride with their huge wakes.
Gun’s crew is here one day before the peak of the Code Red or “Muzza” swell is expected to make landfall. Several internet forecasters are already calling it the biggest to hit Indonesia in the last century.
Sipping a fresh coconut on the beach and scrolling through his Instagram feed, Gun is hit with a wave of self-doubt as he sees a steady stream of photos from his friends back in Bali, already scoring perfect barrels as the first stirrings of the swell begin to arrive. “We made the wrong call,” someone mutters glumly.
But pro surfers are gamblers by nature, and Gun is blessed with natural optimism. The iPhone disappears into his travel bag, and as he walks down the beach for an ice-cold Bintang beer and a freshly caught snapper fillet, live reggae music is played on an acoustic guitar – its rusty strings twanging in the salty night breeze.
On the morning of the swell, the sun casts a warm glow on the Rinjani foothills. There’s a light wind blowing offshore, and white lines are crashing on the horizon. The waves have officially arrived. It’s game day.
The anticipation is electric as everyone adds the last few layers of surf wax to their boards. The Gili grommets – who knows if they got any sleep last night? – have already arrived, too. Ezha and Coco, the most outgoing lads of the bunch, are watching Gun go through his pre-flight checklist before heading out.
The boys have never seen waves like these in their lives. To distract themselves from their fear of the booming surf, they ask their hero for some last-minute tips about riding the barrel – one of the most difficult tricks to pull off in the sport.
The crew catches a local fishing boat out to the usual snorkelling spot. Today, however, it has been transformed into the surf break, and only then does everyone comprehend the magnitude of the wave.
A small crew of tourist surfers dot the line-up where the waves start to break, but most appreciate the fact that they’re in way over their head. They are only really here to catch the show.
Without fanfare, Gun dives in and paddles briskly to the peak of the line-up – the take-off spot. Within minutes, he’s snagged a gargantuan wave. What ensues is a momentary alchemy of wind, water and man that is simply magical to behold.
Laughing at Gun’s sheer joy, Ezha, Coco and the other grommets forget their terror, tossing second-hand boards over the gunnel of the boat and paddling as fast as they can to keep up with their hero on the waves.
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This article originally appeared in the January 2017 issue of Silkwinds magazine