The Beach Boys sang of the simple pleasures of weekend surfing -- paeans to girls, guys and groovy times. They never dreamed of all-night flights, malaria vaccinations and bone-jarring motorcycle trips down rocky farm paths, all to grab some tube-time beneath the stony visage of an elephant god gracing the steps of a 1,000-year-old Hindu temple.
The days when "surfin' safari" meant loading up the Woody for a 100-mile jaunt up the California coast to Santa Barbara or down to Florida's Sebastian Inlet are history.
The era of the globe-trotting surfer has arrived.
Surfing's World Tour, sponsored by the Association of Surfing Professionals, now offers six-figure prize money for pros who continent-hop to contests in Japan, Australia, Brazil, France, Florida and California.
But professionals aren't the only ones logging frequent-flier miles.
Surf camps are sprouting on the shores of Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, Peru and Java. Surf magazines herald the glory of Uluwatu, Nias, Jeffrey's Bay, Noosa, Kirra and a hundred other places you've never heard of. Teenagers not old enough to drive, much less get an American Express card, are waxing down their boards and heading for the airport, bound for spots their parents would shudder to imagine.
But these are the '90s. Yuppies have Club Med. Surfers seek solitude, exotic adventure, massive waves and hairy tales to tell back home when the ocean goes flat.
My own month-long surfari to Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia and Indonesia started with a magazine article. The full-color surf-mag photo spread was something a dreamy 14-year-old might hide between the pages of his English anthology, sneaking peeks between paragraphs of Beowulf at page after page of rolling aqua mountains, neoprene-clad surfers and, of course, the inevitable awesome tubes. The magazine named its version of the world's top 25 waves.
My friends in Florida thought I was crazy to fly halfway around the world to surf. But they don't understand. Once it gets its hooks in you, the surfing bug is impossible to cure. You need bigger, better waves, and you'll literally fly around the world to get them.
And as any surfer can tell you, all waves are not created equal. Deep water, rock or coral bottoms, unobstructed ocean passages and powerful, wave-building winds that blow consistently but somehow curve away or get blocked near land -- these are the magical ingredients that surfers scour the world to find.
Hawaii was my warm-up. It was May, much too late for the winter big-wave season on Oahu's world-famous North Shore. But I got lucky. A late spring swell rolled in from someplace deep in the stormy North Pacific.
Coming from the land of little waves in Florida, I started out slow. A spot called Jocko's, an hour out of Honolulu on the North Shore, was a good introduction: six-foot surf, very powerful, more powerful than all but the best waves at home. It was fun.
It didn't get frightening until I moved a few miles up the beach to Sunset, site of world championships and many of those amazing and scary photographs I had been salivating over.
I was there on a "medium" day, according to the Hawaiians. To them, the waves were "four or five feet." Hawaiians, strangely, measure the backs of waves, after they've broken. In Florida, we measure the face.
These waves were monsters. Eight feet at least. Ten or better on the bigger sets -- at least to my nervous eyes.
I paddled out, hanging back from the line-up of the other surfers, hoping to catch a rogue wave that somehow missed the big group and slid over my way. It never happened. The submerged reef made the waves break, machine-like, over and over in the same place. The local guys had it wired, catching every wave. I didn't really mind. I watched, mouth agape, as they hurtled down incredibly steep faces.
I should have paid more attention. Before I knew it, a tricky current pulled me into the heart of the aptly-named impact zone. A big set of waves swelled on the horizon. Everybody dug out for deeper water to escape getting trashed when the incoming monsters broke.
I paddled like a madman, stuck as in one of those bad dreams where your limbs turn to lead as you attempt to flee some unnameable terror about to engulf you. The huge mountain sucked me up its face, its foaming crest gathering like Neptune's angry fist.
Somehow I swept over the top before it broke.
These waves were not like the ones at home. I looked around, caught a knowing glance from a local and gingerly paddled back to shore.
New Zealand surf was almost as powerful as Hawaii's. I drove west from Auckland on a winding, picturesque road that conjured New England to a spot called Piha, a stunning, rugged beach swept by cold May swells rolling in from the Tasman Sea.
I spent a morning climbing the Lion's Head, a huge cliff-etched crag jutting into the ocean that strikes a profile resembling the king of beasts.
The waves wrapped into a great arc cut by the ocean between the Lion's Head and another distant headland. The beach between was sandy. Way out to sea, huge sets of wind-blown surf crowded the mouth of the arc. They were so rough it looked impossible to paddle out. Surely you'd be pummeled over and over again.
Two surfers showed up. They scrambled out to the end of a stony outcrop and -- incredibly -- dove off, directly into the face of an incoming wave. Miraculously, a rip current skirting the rocks sucked them right through the breakers. They shot across the mouth of small inlet and snaked along the face of the jagged cliffs, dangerously close to the rocks.
Two minutes later they were beyond the breakers, safe, waiting for an incoming set.
Back in town, I retreated to the safety of my tourist hotel. It was something from another era. Stuffy but quaint, wrapped in English formality, it featured tiny rooms with a bed, bureau, one chair and a sink. Showers and toilet were down the hall. I heard my neighbor coughing through a late-night cigarette. The place was wired with speakers that announced telephone calls. I kept thinking of Fawlty Towers, kept waiting for the air-raid sirens to go off.
A hop across the Tasman Sea to Australia was like coming home to the America of the 1950s: a country reveling in prosperity, confident, full of itself, shaking off its adolescence and stepping eagerly into the realm of adulthood.
The roads are two-laned beyond the big cities. They sometimes wash out. Cows and kangaroos wander across. Roadhouses offer cold beers and conversation. The countryside is so expansive you feel like an adventurer just heading out to the horizon.
The surf is totally Australian, too. Unadorned, straightforward, it whacks you in the kisser if you don't watch out.
Kirra and Burleigh Heads on the Queensland coast are legendary stomping grounds of the great Australian champions. Just south of Brisbane and a Miami Beach-like resort town called Surfers Paradise, they are Australia's answer to the crowded breaks of Southern California.
It was just like home: Surf at dawn, paddle in, towel off, head to McDonald's and scarf down one of everything on the menu.
While in Australia, I stayed in "backpacker resorts" -- funky, youth-drenched places lifted whole from some American college town of the 1960s, with rock posters, ecological admonitions, pool tables and blue-jean-clad Dutch girls everywhere. Paradise for eight bucks a night, sometimes with breakfast thrown in. These places are usually run by some '60s hold-over, or maybe a party-loving older couple. Forget about privacy; you'll probably share your room with Frenchmen, Kiwis, Californians, Swedes, Germans or Brits.
It wasn't just the rooms that were crowded. One morning in Coolangatta, I got up at dawn and drove over to a semi-secluded rivermouth break, only to wade through a busload of eager tourists who were filming each other stepping off the bus, stepping in the sand, poking toes in the water and pointing at the sky, their super-tiny video cameras permanently mounted on their eye sockets. They were very nice and asked me to pose with my board, but somehow it broke the spell of my dawn adventure.
My only frights were the two sharks I saw at at Byron Bay, which didn't bite, and the funny jellyfish. Northeast Australia is home to the blue ring octopus and box jellyfish, which, surf mags will tell you, can kill with one sting. Australian lifeguards wear full-body Lycra suits for protection during the summer season. But off-season, when I was there, supposedly there was no problem.
My first day out at Burleigh Heads, something gelatinous bumped against my hand as I stroked toward the peak of a big wave. A few minutes later and -- yuck! -- there it was again. Another bump and I felt a sting on the forearm. Then the sobering sight -- a big, fat, blue, bottle-shaped floating nemesis that must have weighed three pounds.
My forearm started swelling before my eyes.
Well, I wondered, is this it?
I asked the nearest Aussie what kind of jelly it was. He must have noticed the terror lacing my voice.
"Don't worry, Yank. You'll live."
This was apparently a relatively harmless -- but prickly -- blue bottle jelly. There's nothing like the hardiness of the Australians. He plucked one out of the water and played with it, heedless of the stings.
Another eye-opener came my way north in Queensland at Noosa Heads, a prime surf spot that on the right swell can offer three-minute rides along a giant curving rock headland. The swell was big and gnarly, as they say, with rough, windblown waves constantly pushing you toward the rocks as you paddled out. I chose a spot midway up the headland, dove out from the rock beach and paddled like the devil to keep from getting swept back on the boulders.
After an exhausting morning, I paddled in, then walked out to the tip of the headland to explore. Two surfers passed me on the way. They followed the trail to a rock promontory, picked their way down, walked out onto a rock tongue extending into the pounding eight-footers and calmly dove just as a screaming monster washed over the rock runway.
It was a repeat of the New Zealand scene, only here there was no life-saving current. Mis-time the jump and forgiveness wouldn't come easy. One not-so-surefooted Aussie got swept off the rock and into the full brunt of the waves. His buddies grabbed him and he scrambled to safety. Somehow, there were no broken bones.
Bali -- the final stop on my surfing odyssey -- wasn't gentle either. A gem stuck low on the southern curve of the Indonesian chain, the island has long been a siren to surfers and other tourists, offering exotic customs and scenery -- and awesome Indian Ocean tubes.
Uluwatu is the famous break. An hour outside the nasty, over-touristed environs of Kuta Beach, Ulu is a breath of isolated fresh air.
But Bali has been too overrun by tourists for Ulu to have survived unscathed. Halfway out the road from Kuta, hefting a heavy board bag on my shoulder and loaded on an underpowered motorscooter with an Australian buddy on the back, I fell into the clutches of a toothy snake-oil salesman of 14 who managed to separate me from $20 despite my best efforts to resist.
His name was Hanky. When we pulled into the roadside bar to inquire about directions, he had us sitting, smiling and sipping cold beers before we knew it. Ten minutes later he was our guide, zipping along the country road on his motorcycle with my board on his shoulder and a big grin stretching his face.
He managed to take us to a spot that wasn't breaking, but somehow, sitting in the cool breeze at the top of a 200-foot cliff overlooking the ocean, it didn't matter. We got him to take us to Ulu, then ditched him the next day with the 20 bucks and many thanks. Twenty bucks, by the way, is half a month's salary for the average Balinese.
Two days later we saw Hanky at Ulu, guiding another deep-pocketed, helpless victim with the unctuous manners of a born pitchman.
We were too surfed-out to care. Ulu had lived up to its reputation.
Majestic white limestone cliffs plunge 200 feet to the surf. Jagged boulders lay strewn between spits of sparkling sand and sheer rock walls. A stair-step wash cut by water in the side of the cliff leads down to the beach -- a steep descent that ends at a bamboo ladder lashed across a small chasm to a boulder half-buried in the sand. Surfers scrambled off the boulder and climbed through a tunnel in the rock wall to a beach, or swam out the mouth of the cave to reach the waves.
Perched above everything, poised like a sentinel on a jagged rock over the ocean, is a 1,000-year-old Hindu temple. Festooned with statues of elephant gods and other creatures, it lures reverent Balinese worshipers but looks like a place Indiana Jones would frequent. Crafty monkeys played tag with fruit offerings intended for the gods. Shy, hand-holding Balinese men joked quietly at the foreigners wearing sarongs and tennis shoes.
Uluwatu's waves were first discovered by roving Australians, who must have struck the unsuspecting Balinese -- who have no history of surfing -- as slightly insane. Once discovered, Ulu's reputation spread quickly. By the late 1970s it had become the ultimate surf adventure destination.
Like most of the world's great surfing waves, Ulu owes its power to its reef and the unobstructed deep-water approach from the open ocean. When the big swells hit the rock bottom, they immediately pitch up into steep faces. The speed and power are deceptive. The bottom seems to fall out from under you, with seven- or eight-foot straight drops, curving walls of water that propel you forward and down.
The water is crystal clear, revealing the reef's sharpened teeth. You skate along, hoping you won't fall.
Ulu has phenomenal tubes. For the uninitiated, a tube ride is when the surfer scoots beneath the pitching crest of the wave, inside the hollow tube or barrel. The goal is to get completely hidden inside the tube, then shoot out the open end before it collapses. To accomplish this is sublime; surfers raise clenched fists and hoot in victory.
But falling is dismal -- and dangerous. I saw one Australian come out limping, two fins broken off his board, his back a quilt of cuts and abrasions. Ten minutes later, a Brazilian staggered in, cradling his right arm, a bright red ribbon of blood dripping from his wrist to his elbow.
When Ulu gets too intense, there is the rest of Bali to explore. Like many Third World haunts, it lures with beauty, then slaps you with stunning poverty. I found the best way to escape was to tour the countryside by motorcycle. In one rural village, I witnessed a cockfight, one of Bali's most passionate, if illegal, pastimes. A crowd of shouting men held fistfuls of money, screaming for their favorite.
On a festival day, I saw a sort of country fair, with booths set up around a temple for a Hindu ceremony. Sonorous music whined over a loudspeaker. Men carried fighting cocks in hand-woven bamboo cages. Half-naked children ran around chasing dogs. Women sold exotic foods. Bright orange streamers hung from tall poles at the temple entrance. I wandered freely, nobody paying me the slightest attention.
Later, I met Neoman (pronounced Nyo-man), a young Balinese man, who invited me to his home. He climbed a 40-foot coconut tree, sliced off a couple of prizes with his machete and hacked them into fresh milk cocktails. We sat drinking the cocktails and eating fried rice cakes in his brother's room, surrounded by posters of heavy-metal rock bands, while his barebreasted grandmother sat on the stoop in the shade outside, playing with her grandchildren. Nearby, Neoman's father and uncle slaughtered a suckling pig, meticulously cleaning its entrails as they squatted in the dust of the family compound.
Ten days after I left Bali I was back in Florida, staring out at an ocean full of two-foot mush, wandering the tame streets of Fort Lauderdale, wondering if I would ever be the same.
One thing for sure: My search for the perfect wave has only just begun. Next year ... the Philippines? Mauritius? Peru?
There's nothing worse than spending a heap to fly around the world on surfari only to find that the ocean is flat. Nobody can guarantee you waves, but careful planning will improve your odds. Your single best resource is the Surf Report, published by Surfer Magazine, which highlights one country or location each month. A mini-travel guide, the report gives tips on documents, money, accommodations, transportation, wave conditions, hazards and just about everything else you need to know. It's available for $6 per issue ($35 per year) from P.O. Box 1028, Dana Point, Calif. 92629, (714) 496-5922.
Surfer and Surfing magazines both carry ads for travel agencies specializing in surfing expeditions, as well as photo-filled articles on exotic destinations around the world.
A word of caution: The large, powerful waves of Hawaii, Indonesia, New Zealand and Australia can seriously injure or even kill the most experienced surfers. Don't try them unless you have several years of surfing experience, are in good physical condition and have the proper equipment.
SURF GEAR: If you've been surfing Maryland's Atlantic coast on a six-foot thruster, don't assume that'll be enough to handle Pipeline or Burleigh Heads. It won't be. You'd be wise to take your standard board, then a second board for big surf -- preferably a seven-foot-plus gun designed to give you the support you'll need for harrowing drops and lightning-fast runs. Invest in a durable, heavyweight board bag; a double bag capable of carrying both boards will cost you around $200. You may want to pack the boards in bubble wrap inside the bag, and definitely pad the fins and nose with foam blocks, towels etc. Most airlines will charge you at least $25 in board fees each way.
Other recommended gear:
A wetsuit is a must for southern Australia and New Zealand, while a vest is sometimes nice in Hawaii when the tradewinds kick up in the afternoon.
Booties or "aqua-sox," for wading out over stony reefs.
Surf wax, an extra leash, duct tape and a ding repair kit.
A soft car-top carrier for your boards, plus some rope or cord in case you lose the carrier or it won't fit on the rental car.
defbox A good first aid kit with bandages, antibiotics, antiseptic, aspirin, sunscreen, tweezers for picking out sea urchin spines and medicine for the inevitable stomach upsets.
CLOTHING: It depends on the season, of course. Remember that our summer is their winter in Australia, and it can get nippy. A warm jacket and raincoat are a good idea, as well as boots or water-resistant shoes. In warmer climes, T-shirts, sunhats and sunglasses are musts.
WHERE TO STAY: Hotels and motels in Hawaii, New Zealand and Australia are numerous and essentially like the ones here. Australia also offers an extensive system of hostels, many of which do not require membership in an association. They call themselves backpacker resorts, not because you camp out in the woods but because most of the folks staying there travel with rucksacks. For $8 to $10 a night, you get a bunk in a communal bedroom and access to a communal bathroom and kitchen. Possibly the best treat is the camaraderie of other adventurous people from around the world. My favorite is the Backpacker's Inn in Coolangatta, near the world-famous wave called Kirra. The place sports a swimming pool, barbecue pit, bar, restaurant, pool table, stereo, twin rooms instead of dormitory-style bunks, several crazy cats and a pleasant, time-warped atmosphere of '60s hippiedom. For a guide to independent hostels in Australia, contact Backpackers Resorts of Australia PTY LTD, 3 New South Wales, 2448.
On Bali, hotels in Kuta Beach can be found for $10 a night or less, with many charging extra for amenities like air conditioning and hot water. Outside the tourist areas, guest houses called losmen can be found for as little as $2 to $3 a night, although toilet facilities are often primitive and sanitation not the best.
Mike Williams is Florida correspondent for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.