ULUWATU: Rebirth At The Temple Of The Last Stone

Uluwatu: the rock at land’s end, the wave at the edge of the earth. There is a divinity here. The ground is littered with palm-leaf trays of flower petals, smoke curling up from sticks of incense. Towards the sky, the temple on the cliff forever reaching towards the spirits. Balinese tradition floats melded in this sweet, clean air.

Like a shaman’s journey to the lower world, surfers make slow descents to glistening waves, growing more and more hollow as coral peeks out. Coral, alive atop lava which was once a molten layer of death and destruction. Reef, which has birthed the perfect waves beckoning people to experience their magic. Life and death and destruction leading to creation. Life is illusion, these cycles are eternal. Somewhere beyond these births and deaths and rebirths is a merging with the universe.

I join them, happily tied down by the promise of physical pleasure just beyond this cave. The reef’s silvery pools reflect the lights of warungs and the people in them, spanning from across the world, gathered here to watch the speed and power and flow drawn across these perfect lines stretched out to the horizon. The long rides of the outside peak. The inside peaks, and especially the predictable rides of temples, lineups held down by locals and grey-haired men in white Bintang shirts. The hollow, winding tubes of Racetracks. The fight for the drop, the comforting and thrilling and seemingly never-ending energetic pockets.

Cement stairs twist down to the cave, past GoGo mending a ding in his colorful repair shop, past the open-air room full of surfers hunched over computer screens gazing at their newest shots, past two workers grinding dust from a roof. These stairs guide our methodical march. My thoughts are not with these people. Right now, I think only of the monkeys jeering down from rooftops, the crabs skittering back into their cave holes. The lefts racing by through the opening beneath us. This journey encompasses mind and body, it is impossible not to be present in a place so demanding of one’s full attention. There is no need for prayer. We are breathing in, letting the golden light pass through well-trained lungs.

Cutting though this serenity is the final jump to sand. Influencers, sculpture-like, flash faces into mirrorless reflections of their own plastic bodies. Groms dart through the crowd, hooting and jeering and bumping into tourist families that stand no match for the pure, unspoiled joy of boyhood. Girls sit together, laughing and fixing their layouts of sandy towels.

There is a darkness, too, threatening to jump out from the cracks in the damp, sharp caves. There is a defaced sign reminding beachgoers of impending foreign development, cliffside. Kids with sugar mouths and grimy hands. Vendors seated on colorful rugs, weaving hats with knitting needles, watch with silent eyes.

I walk through it all. The cave is quiet even with the water’s frenzied movements. G. Wayne Thomas echoes through my head, I am once again reminded of Alby Falzon’s discovery of this place and its beauty in the ‘70s. Stop, Velcro my leash to my ankle. It has been quite a few decades since Alby and Steve Cooney and Rusty Miller’s initial gaze over the cliff and onto paradise found below; things are different now. Though no longer virgin, vines hang, dreamlike, connecting caves. The same waves reel by, still perfectly paced, hollow on the right tide, glimmering under today’s soft clouds.

It is no surprise this place runs wild with the lore of those who filled these sands with steps before: Ketut Menda, Gerry Lopez, Gede Narmada, Peter McCabe, Made Kasim, Peter Crawford, Terry Fitzgerald, Jim Banks. Some, of course, still surf here. Sometimes I look up at the cliffs and wonder if Jim’s looking down, watching to see if anyone’s riding his boards at Secrets. He claims he can’t tell, but I fantasize differently.

Immediately, I trip over a low spot on the reef. The tide is low, and as I stumble to my feet, Rio screams past me on a chunky wall, throws spray, kicks out. There’s chatter all around us, fast mouths and slow footwork across sharp ground. This is another normal day; Rio is calm, doesn’t talk much, doesn’t smile. I saw him win the Sydney Surf Pro in 2022 in Manly. He smiled then, the red and white flag catching the bitter breeze above his upthrown arms as the roaring crowd carried him across the beach.

I join the lineup and suddenly the ocean breaths, there is calm. The people in the warungs of the cliffs, usually the audience of the natural amphitheater, seem to pause too, as if in intermission. And then, rhythmically, lines fill in on the horizon and once again everyone is jockeying for position, boards stacking three, four deep, movements hectic and animated.

All of this is to be expected. Tides fill and drain, the moon waxes, wanes, disappears. Swells come up and they drop off. The cyclical nature of life is reminded to us by the temple on the cliff. And all of the life force in it whispers that while Uluwatu has grown busier and busier it, someday, will be quiet again. And so, the end of this day is not an end at all, even as the sun dissolves, incense sticks burn to ash, and the last surfer paddles in.

By Ella Boyd


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