We live in a time of creative saturation. The pace of invention, revolution and technological advancement has plateaued somewhat over the last few years. Sure, things are getting faster, machines are becoming increasingly efficient and the odd Eureka moment still occasionally presents itself, but rarer are the moments when we can genuinely exclaim: “I’ve never seen anything like that before.” At least not in a good way. This is perhaps typified by the complete absurdness of Samsung’s latest gift to Brazilian Gabe Medina, an internet enabled surfboard. Just because you can, really doesn’t mean you should.
The same goes for geographical exploration. Apart from the (delete as appropriate) fortunate/unfortunate few who live buried deep amongst the dense vegetation of the Amazon Rainforest, and those cowering under the shadow of a Korean dictator, there isn’t really anybody on earth inhabiting somewhere that we can genuinely classify as ‘unknown’. The world is so technologically connected that we can stream images from webcams secreted in its darkest and most far-flung corners. Should we desire, we have the ability to virtually circumnavigate the harshest environments thanks to the wonders of fibre-optics and the phenomenon that is Google Earth.
Surf spots unfortunately have failed to escape this march of progression. Even the remotest of locations (the ones where you’re convinced that no one will else will have bothered to endure the not inconsiderable effort of reaching the waves) usually present an unwanted and unexpected smattering of fellow surfers, merrily surfing away as if trudging through deep leech infested mangrove swamp to access a break is the most normal thing in the world.
In contrast, the pioneering surfers of 40 years ago must have had a blast. Coastlines around the world were discreetly hiding copious quantities of perfect and secluded ‘secret spots’ desperate to be ridden for the first time. And they would have remained perfect, secluded and ‘secret’ because nobody outside of a vindicated circle really cared. Surfing wasn’t cool, quite the opposite. Anyway, even if anybody did show a sniff of interest, how were you going to spread the word to the masses? A full page ad in the fledging Surfer magazine would have taken 6 months to come to fruition. And unless these new waves were on your doorstep, chances are you couldn’t have afforded the airfare (or time) to check out the hallowed new frontiers of the sport anyway.
Which is why, when I drove onto an empty Malaysian beach and was greeted by empty lines of 4-5 feet perfection lazily rolling into a secluded South-East Asian corner of the earth, it perfectly punctuated the end of a 12 month personal quest.
A bit of context: I’m currently languishing in the tropical regions of Malaysia. An area not renowned for its surf. A short hop from any number of world class surf sites but certainly nothing considered ‘surfable’ within the confines of Malaysia itself. Or so I thought.
Forced abstinence from the luxury of waves on your doorstep does funny things to a surfer. You start to behave oddly. Your obsession with surfing becomes more intense than when you’re regularly in the water. You even start making a fool of yourself by paddling your surfboard around an empty swimming pool.. And it was in one of those weird moments of surf deprivation that I started searching the internet for any hint of Malaysian surf. I’d always known there was potential for a small wave on Malaysia’s East Coast. Magic Seaweed even has some sketchy buoy data for one of the islands just off the small fishing town of Mersing. But it invariably reads: ‘flat’. Singaporeans and a few local surfers scratch around riding 1 foot mushburgers around the bizarre seaside resort of Desaru, but it’s rarely worth the effort of the journey. Yet in my persistent searching, something bouncing along the bottom of the Google search results caught my eye, the merest of suggestions on an obscure message board hinting that this may not be the full picture. Rumours of a quality wave. Not just any wave but a wave to rival anything anywhere else in the world is able to offer. An unconfirmed wave of almost legendary status.
So began the hunt.
I knew that any Malaysian bound swell was going to be generated by the massive energy of the monsoons far out in the South China Sea. I also knew that similar forces were responsible for generating the not so secret waves in the Philippines. Cloud 9 has epic surf, so the potential was definitely there. In the next few months I became an enthusiastic amateur meteorologist, obsessively trawling the internet for weather charts, storm predictions and swell forecasts. My most frequented website became the catchily titled: ‘United States Naval Meteorology and Oceanography Command Portal’ which generously provides “critical information from the ocean depths to the most distant reaches of space, meeting needs in the military, scientific, and civilian communities.” It can now add “wave starved surfers” to its tagline. At first I wasn’t even sure I should be allowed on this site, but no one has crashed through my front door in the middle of the night so I assume I haven’t inadvertently breached the Pentagon. I also began to use Google Earth to try and hunt down where any waves (should they arrive) might break. To be honest this was largely guesswork, but using the tiniest shreds of information I was able to pinpoint a few possible locations where decent peaks might be hiding. The biggest problem was always going to be access. Southern Malaysia is largely one big palm plantation, there’s no coastal highway to leisurely cruise along scouting potential surf spots.
From monitoring the weather charts and swell graphs, along with a few false starts assessing conditions along the coast, I soon sussed out what perfect conditions on the charts were going to look like. Put simply, a large storm in the South China Sea needed to be coupled with still winds on the Malaysian coast. The trouble with this is that the tropical nature of the Malaysian weather system results in very localised conditions. Squalls can exist in a radius of a few kilometres and either stick around all day, or pass over within the hour. Still, when all the elements promised to align, a trip up the coast was the only way to attempt to find something resembling decent surf.
And so on the fateful day that favourable conditions arrived and threatened a deliver a large shot of optimism, I packed my board into the car, managed to persuade a far from convinced fellow surfer that I was in fact on to something, and headed sea-bound. To disappointment.
There was definitely swell. But it was a far cry from the Indonesian-esque classic session I had dared to anticipate. On arriving at the coast the wind was far too strong. And the potential locations I had earmarked proved to be as inaccessible as I had feared. We got wet, spending an hour fighting the howling onshore wind and surfing 4 foot closeouts in the dubiously brown water surrounding Desaru. However, it was not how I imagined my hours searching the internet would finally culminate.
But I wasn’t perturbed. I intensified the scrutiny of Google Earth, zoomed in a little closer, strained through the increasingly familiar pixilation of the Malaysian landscape. And the next time the potential of a decent swell arrived we headed off again, my reluctant surf companion so full of scepticism that this time he didn’t bother to bring a leash. As we neared the ocean the signs began to look more promising. The air was clear, the breeze was slight, possibly even off-shore. We drove past the documented surf spots in search of the mythical wave of internet hearsay and rumour, still unsure of how we were actually going to access the section of coastline that clearly demonstrated the most potential.
And then, just at the point when we were considering whether to ditch the car and attempt to reach the water on foot, or cut our loses and turn back, a bright red Toyota 4 x 4 emerged from deep within the thick trees liberally lining the road. It wasn’t a surf vehicle, wasn’t colourfully adorned with stickers announcing a preference for a particular brand of board wax, but it was on closer inspection, access to the beach. Without signalling, braking, or looking at one another for fear of saying something that may jinx what was hypothetically lurking at the end of this road, we crashed our way down a route far from suitable for our very definitely not four wheel drive vehicle.
The bright red dust track was akin to something from the Australian out-back, perhaps in tribute to what we were about to find, perhaps not. And so, in an almost unbelievable fairy-tale style climax, the track opened out to reveal a vast stretch of sand. The beach was picturesque in isolation, but a million times more sumptuous to two surf starved ‘bule’ was what was currently being unloaded in the water in front of us. Sets measuring 5, possibly 6 feet in height, sparkling in the tropical sun and breaking majestically along the beach, offering rides for which superlatives fail to do justice. Oh, and there was not another soul in sight.
The pleasure, satisfaction and unbridled joy at not just experiencing, but discovering a new wave, is hard to commit to words. Monotonously trawling through chart after chart of swell prediction and hypothesis had paid off. Here we were, in deepest Malaysia, surfing waves that would have been considered exceptional in any surfer’s frame of reference. Never before have I been so glad of the inert feeling of isolation that presented itself on that beach. We were afforded a unique insight into the enviable world of the pioneering surfers of years gone by. In true British colonial style we even threatened to give the wave a name, or perhaps in tribute to the overpopulated spots that are all too familiar the world over, we’ll allow it its anonymity.
It’s obviously a fickle wave, subsequent return visits have confirmed this fact, a spot that only works in the bluest of moons. But it’s most definitely out there. Somewhere.