TO most Australians, Bali is at once a cheap tropical holiday and the scene of the two post-9/11 bombings that killed more than 200 people – including 92 Australians – and injured hundreds more.
Many of the victims of the second, 2005 attack were from Newcastle.
Bali is famous for its beaches, of course, but to the average visitor, the beach is just part of an experience that can be as full-on touristy or as mystically laid-back as any holiday-maker would want.
But for the surfers who undeniably turned the island into the tourist mecca that it is today, Bali is the gateway to an Indonesian wave paradise – a land of almost unimaginably perfect reef breaks, seemingly around every second corner.
Warm water and plenty of swell. What more could a poor boy want?
As Australian sports writer Phil Jarratt observes in this, the latest of his string of more than 30 books and countless thousands of magazine articles, surfers have a lot to answer for when it comes to the modern state of the mystical island of Bali.
Having first visited the island in 1974 (just before landing the job that would kickstart his career – editor of the surfing bible Tracks), Jarratt has been a regular visitor since, and his knowledge of the island’s people and places is as good as anyone’s.
Across the 300 pages of Bali: Heaven and Hell – corruption and chaos, bloodshed and exploitation, free love, great surf and high times under the banyan trees, Jarratt takes the reader on a historic and geological odyssey that begins with the island’s settlement in prehistoric times.
He takes the reader through the rise of Bali’s Hindu culture through to the cruel eras of European colonialism and the start of the tourist industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It’s these centuries of repeated rule and independence that Jarratt, probably rightly, credits with giving the Balinese their particularly accepting way of looking at the world and the difficulties it can bring.
As it happens, the family and I are going there, for the first time, later this month, and so for me, the Bali I encounter will be the best it could ever be. But for many old hands, the common refrain is that “Bali is ruined”.
It’s an understandable lament. As Jarratt points out, the surfers who discovered the rifling barrels along Bali’s southern-most tip – the Bukit peninsula – in the early 1970s encountered an area almost untouched by modernism and widely feared by the Balinese, who thought the Bukit was inhabited with bad spirits.
Word of Bali’s waves moved steadily, then rapidly, through the surfing world, but such was the quality of the waves at Uluwatu that it took a long time before the more distant breaks and adjacent islands were surfed by any more than a handful of hardy pioneers, and even today there are enough waves to go around for those who want to look beyond the usual spots.
Lest I mislead any readers, this is not a book about surfing per se, although thewaves of Bali are a constant backdrop to its broader content.
Wrestling with the culture clash that is at the heart of modern Bali, Jarratt interviews dozens of old Bali hands at length – as well as numerous members of the increasingly assertive Balinese locals – to build a picture of a timeless land hurtling headlong into a future built almost entirely on the affections of outsiders.
Jarratt was one of my inspirations in journalism and for my money, no one chronicles the gonzo side of surfing better than him. But this is Jarratt as social chronicler, a grateful man giving his thanks to the surfing gods that have paved the way to good fortune.
It’s a social history with a beating heart, and a love of subject that illuminates every page.
Bali: Heaven and Hell – corruption and chaos, bloodshed and exploitation, free love, great surf and high times under the banyan trees, Phil Jarratt, Hardie Grant Books, $29,95.