GSA Surfing the Maldives

Words by Gero Lilleike

Photographs by Gero Lilleike / Roarke Bouffe / Dara Ahmed

I hail from a dedicated crew of Johannesburg-based surfers known as the GSA (Gauteng Surfing Association). Never heard of us? Well, now you have. Don’t forget it.

Refusing to be defined and restricted by the shackles of living in a land-locked city in the middle of the South Africa, we have developed a fine appreciation for surfing and the ocean over many years. Incredibly, we’ve racked up surf time all across the world. We’ve surfed all over South Africa, ridden waves in Mozambique, Namibia, Tanzania and even ventured abroad to surf swells in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canary Islands, Mauritius, Bali, Sri Lanka and even Hong Kong. The list is growing.  

In a recent escapade, a select GSA crew, including Ross McIlroy, Jerome Tozer and yours truly, unleashed themselves in the Maldives. Riding waves in an exotic location such as the Maldives is a surfing dream come true  and this surf trip was hugely significant for us and more importantly, for the GSA. 

We were writing our history.

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Gero Lilleike, Ross McIlroy and Jerome Tozer, making history for the GSA in the Maldives. Photo: Roarke Bouffe

Our foray to the Maldives, however, wasn’t nearly as provocative or groundbreaking as that of the late Tony Hussein Hinde and his friend Mark Scanlon, two Aussie adventurers who were en route to South Africa from Sri Lanka in 1973. Tony was a natural-footer with an African dream of surfing the groomed walls of Jeffreys Bay but his dream was dashed when their sailboat ran aground on Helengeli reef in the Maldives. 

Effectively stranded in the Maldives, Hinde committed himself to the islands and went on to discover and surf the very breaks that we were about to enjoy. That’s an epic tale, one that’s well documented in the film Serendipity, a story that has inspired surfers the world over. 

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Cinnamon Dhonveli, home to Pasta Point, one of the most consistent left-handers in the Maldives. Photo: Gero Lilleike

We were headed to Cinnamon Dhonveli to surf Pasta Point, a famed left-hander that Hinde himself loved and surfed for many years.

For a goofy-footer, Pasta Point is heaven and no aeroplane on earth could fly me over there fast enough. Our surf skill level is best described as intermediate with a hint of kookery and it remained to be seen how we would fare on the long walls of Pasta Point. 

More than this, we would also be surfing another left-hander in the Maldives, Lohis, a wave known for producing big, gaping barrels. Hell yes, bring it on!

Waves for days at Pasta Point

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The wave at Pasta Point delivers fun by the bucketload. Photo: Roarke Bouffe

After 15 hours of travel, our plane made its approach to Malé, the capital of the Maldives. Looking out the window below, I could see countless pristine islands surrounded by a vibrant blue sea pulsing with waves. We were amped!

A quick 30-minute boat ride got us to the Cinnamon Dhonveli resort and after checking in, we beelined for Pasta Point to check the surf. It was low tide and Pasta was laying down 4-foot runners in clear azure water that was impossible to resist in the humid heat. In the blink of an eye, we were lining up our first wave of the trip. The flood gates opened and we surfed our brains out!

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Gero Lilleike riding the line at Pasta Point. Photo: Roarke Bouffe

With only 30 surf passes issued at any given time, there was more than enough stoke to go around and we gorged ourselves on the waves rolling down the point with only a handful of surfers in the water.

After lunch, we were at it again and surfed until last light. What a day! Every day should be like this!

The surf was firing the next day and there was nothing else to do but to go surfing. What a blessing!

We all dropped into bombs and had incredible rides that left us beaming with joy. Hinde was so right about this left, what a phenomenal wave! 

We witnessed another magical sunset from the water and with only 3 of us on the point, it was the perfect end to another great day of surfing.

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Magical sunset in the Maldives . Photo: Gero Lilleike

My barrel came the next morning. The swell had dropped off and within 5 minutes of paddling out, my first wave of the morning appeared and I thought I’d give it a go.

I was slightly out of position and I took off in the white water. I almost kooked it, but somehow I managed to regain control. I shot back onto the face of the wave and started making my way down the line. As the wave reached the inside reef section, the wall jacked-up ahead of me and all my senses stood to attention.

My time had come!

I tucked in and stepped on the gas as the lip of the wave curled over me, the sea gods blessed me with my first Maldivian barrel.

I was so stoked! 

Most Joburgers will drown in a teaspoon of water and the fact that I got shacked at Pasta Point made me incredibly happy. I was beside myself! 

Meeting the locals

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The locals are friendly in the Maldives. Photo: Roarke Bouffe

After breakfast, we went snorkelling offshore in the hope of spotting blacktip reef sharks and turtles. We boarded Tony Montana, a boat operated by Atoll Adventures, and set off around the island. Just beyond Pasta Point, sharks and turtles are common and after a quick briefing, it was time to meet the locals…

We spotted a few juvenile blacktip reef sharks patrolling the reef and then a while later we were swimming alongside a beautiful turtle that seemed completely unphased by us. What a magical experience!

The wind turned onshore in the afternoon, effectively skunking us, but the day couldn’t have been better. My dream of catching a barrel in the Maldives had come true and my stoke pot was overflowing. I was quite possibly the happiest man on the planet.

Surfing Sultans

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You can easily acess Sultans and Honky’s by boat. Photo: Gero Lilleike

There’s a cranking right-hander near Pasta Point called Sultans, named so by the legendary Hinde himself and we were amped to surf it. Interestingly, the perfect left-hander adjacent to Sultans is called Honky’s, which was Hinde’s nickname. 

It was still dark when we made our way to the harbour where we boarded a boat with surfboards underarm for the short ride to Sultans. When Sultans is firing, it gets crowded very quickly and by catching this early boat, it meant that we would have Sultans to ourselves for the magic hour before other boats arrived.

We arrived at Sultans at first light and the waves looked fun. There were a few bigger sets that looked tantalising and as they rolled in over the reef, the inside section hollowed out and barreled beautifully over the reef. We could only imagine what it would look like on a big swell with heaving barrels rolling down the line.

We jumped into a warm, deep blue sea and paddled over to the peak. The sunrise was spectacular!

We had a fun surf at Sultans but after 2 hours in the water, hunger drove us back to the boat. A thick storm rolled in that afternoon and the surf went mank. 

It was time to look forward to surfing Lohis!

Living the life at Lohis

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At the gate to Lohis. Photo: Photo: Roarke Bouffe

The storm set in overnight and it was pouring with rain.  We packed and made our way to the harbour to catch a boat to Malé where we would transfer to another boat to get to Adaaran Select Hudhuranfushi resort, home to Lohis.

When we set eyes on Lohis for the first time, we were amazed, yet again, to see a perfectly structured wave. It looked super fun and we couldn’t get into the water quickly enough!

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Ross catches his first glimpse of the waves at Lohis. Photo: Gero Lilleike

It’s a fast, rippable wave and on a large swell, Lohis delivers big, long barrels that run endlessly down the point. With a surf pass limit of 45, crowds are well-managed and we got it good with only a few surfers out.

Access to the wave is made easy with a slipway that serves as the entry and exit point to the surf and perhaps the most attractive facet of Lohis is that it’s a wave that caters for all skill levels and there always seems to be a fun wave on offer. 

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Lohis from above. Paradise. Photo: Gero Lilleike

There’s also a large viewing deck right on the break and Lohis bar and restaurant is ready to serve you an ice-cold beer and a meal as soon as you step out of the surf. 

It was our last night in the Maldives and so we went bar-hopping to celebrate the trip and I even showed the locals a thing or two on the dance floor…

I woke up at 4:30 am, half-boozed and depressed. It was dark and I couldn’t sleep anymore. The reality of going home was sinking in and this Maldivian dream I had been living so fully for the last few days was quickly closing out on me, much like the wave that barreled over me at Pasta Point 2 days before.

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The surf at Lohis is easily accessed via a slipway. Just watch out for urchins! Photo: Gero Lilleike. 

I got out of bed and walked to Lohis to look at the wave in the dark. I saw nothing, but I could hear the wave breaking just beyond the limits of my vision. It was music to my ears. I closed my eyes and listened intently to the sweet sound of Lohis dancing in the dark.  

First light came and Lohis was alive. The ocean was calm and clean with a perfect wave peeling before my eyes. My depression instantly evaporated and stoke flowed through me once more.

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Lohis is known for producing tasty barrel sections on bigger days, but it’s a super fun and fast wave when it’s smaller too. Photo: Gero Lilleike

I paddled out for the last time and managed to get stuck into a few waves.  Another storm was brewing at sea. The surf was short-lived as the wind picked up and the sea turned to chop. We spent the day relaxing in hammocks before packing for the long haul home. 

While I was packing, I thought about all the amazing experiences we had in the Maldives. The perfect waves, the crazy-good rides, my barrel at Pasta Point, the incredible sunsets, the stunning accommodation, excellent food, the laughs with friends and all the great people we met along the way. 

All these experiences filled me with immense joy and gratitude. This place makes you feel alive and being able to witness the beauty of the Maldives and to ride her swells will surely rank as one of the best surf experiences of my life.

Just as Tony Hussein Hinde’s surf dreams came true in the Maldives all those years back, so too did ours and we have him to thank for that. The GSA would never be the same again…

Book your dream Maldives surf trip on Pollywog here!

 

 

Bali Daze – Drop of Faith

Words and photographs by Gero Lilleike (unless otherwise stated)


My phone rings to the tune of Rancid’s
Time Bomb and I can’t help but turn the volume up full blast and let it ring, leaving Ross hanging on the other end. As the song reaches its climax, I answer. We exchange pleasantries and the conversation quickly shifts to surf and travel. Out of nowhere, Ross drops the Bali bomb on me.

“Dude, let’s go to Bali” he says.

Neurons fire in my brain as images of warm, hollow and perfectly peeling waves consume me. Surfers standing tall in gaping barrels, bronze flesh, cold Bintangs, golden sunsets, palm trees, paradise — the dream.

The Bukit Peninsula offers consistent swell with warm, perfect waves on offer. Photo - Gero Lilleike
The dream – perfect waves that roll in endlessly from the deep. Photo: Gero Lilleike

A surf trip to Bali crosses every surfer’s path at some point and out of pure desperation to escape the daily grind, I submit to the inevitable.

“I’m in, let’s do it”, I respond. Days later and with more research under the belt, common sense and doubt started gnawing away at the dream.

Uluwatu offers up another dream ride. Photo - Gero Lilleike
Bali has some of the best surf breaks in the world. The waves are fast and the reef is sharp, beware! Photo: Gero Lilleike

‘We can’t surf these waves. Our surfing is not on that level yet, we aren’t good enough,’ I think to myself.

How on earth will two average and occasionally kooky Joburg-bred surfers cope at breaks such as Padang Padang, Impossibles, Bingin, or heaven forbid, the legendary walls of Uluwatu or Keramas for that matter? These are some of the best breaks on the planet, right? It felt like we were way in over our heads on this one.

With flights and accommodation booked, there was no turning back. The Island of the Gods had us firmly in its grasp.

My wife, Maree, joined us for the adventure while our friend and colleague, Andrew, decided to come along at the last minute. Our crew was complete

Gero Lilleike strikes a pose in a rural village on Nusa Lembongan. Photo - Ross McIlroy
Things to do in Bali? Explore, surf, love and ride old rusty bicycles… Photo: Ross McIlroy

We set off with the goal of exploring the now popularised, wave-rich Bukit Peninsula, using Bingin as our base for 5 days before heading up Bali’s east coast to surf the renowned right-hander at Keramas for the remainder of our 10-day surf bonanza.

The stifling heat and sticky humidity hit us square as we stepped off the plane at Ngurah Rai International Airport. Balinese security thought Andrew to be a fine African drug mule and proceeded to search every nook and cranny of his body and luggage. They even caressed his hair in awe, they’d probably never seen a pale drug mule from Africa before.  

Bingin lights up at sunrise. Photo - Gero Lilleike

Andrew survived the rubber glove and soon we found ourselves in the throngs of Bali traffic with trucks and scooters expertly weaving through the congested streets. We arrived at our private villa in Bingin later that afternoon, frothing for a surf. With skegs in and wax on, we made our way down the steep steps to the beach where countless warungs and guesthouses lie tucked against the plush hillside, providing stunning views of the glistening incoming surf.

Bingin at sunset. Photo - Andrew Crawford
First surf in Bali with the sun setting at Bingin Beach. Epic… Photo: Andrew Crawford

It was mid-tide and the waves were small. Further south, larger clean lines groomed by offshore wind rifled in at Padang Padang before offloading the last of their might at Impossibles. Further still, we could see larger sets pummeling the famed Uluwatu. The scene was magical and what was once a dream was now our reality. This heavenly place was our playground.

We shared waves in the golden glow and as the sun set over this watery wonderland, Bali welcomed us into her bosom and with a few Bintangs down the hatch, we were right as rain!

Scooters are great for exploring the Bukit, just drive carefully. Photo - Andrew Crawford
The Bukit’s numerous surf breaks are best explored on an iron horse. Photo: Andrew Crawford

Scooters are a wonderful way to explore the Bukit and from the hilltop above Bingin, we set our sights on nearby Dreamland, which appeared to be picking up a sizable chunk of swell.

We scooted over for a closer look and arrived to find heaving swell filling the lineup. The short paddle-out ended with a beating as solid 6-footers bore down on us from the deep.

Ross scratched into a screamer and raced it all the way to the beach while I got hammered into oblivion by walls of whitewater. He returned to backline with a smile brimming from ear-to-ear and shouted, “That was one of the best waves of my life!”

My turn came soon after and I found myself drawing lines on a large, fast face that took me right to the beach where I got drilled into the sand in front of wide-eyed Chinese tourists. Our stoke pots were overflowing but we were hungry for more and as our confidence levels started surging we soon ticked off more rides at Bingin, Padang Padang Right and Impossibles.  

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Uluwatu is one of Bali’s most revered surf spots and it can be daunting when it’s breaking big. Photo: Gero Lilleike 

Then, Ross pulled up a surf report and all our attention shifted to the possibility of surfing Uluwatu for the first time. Prior to coming to Bali, we had written Ulu’s off purely based on our skill level and we were well aware that the complexity of the break was perhaps beyond our ability.

We’d gathered that Uluwatu was a break best left to those with the skill and nerve to navigate its often large and powerful barrels that break with bone-crunching force on shallow reef. It’s not a wave to be trifled with, that we knew, but after some consternation, we decided to go see it for ourselves.

Surfers walk out to the waves at low tide at Uluwatu. Photo - Gero Lilleike
The lineup at Uluwatu is accessed via this cave, shown here at low tide. Photo: Gero Lilleike

Situated on the southern tip of the Bukit Peninsula, Uluwatu is perfectly positioned to receive the biggest swells the Indian Ocean can muster. More so, massive limestone cliffs and an expansive lineup makes Uluwatu even more intimidating.

We arrived on the high tide and the surf was pumping with 8-10 foot waves detonating on the outer reefs and breaking unpredictably across the lineup. The intensity of the rip on the high tide was vicious. The cave at Uluwatu is where you enter and exit the lineup and from above we watched as surfers were being swept from the cave and dragged far down the point in no time at all. It looked sketchy and the paddle was going to be monumental.

Dream ride at Uluwatu. Photo - Gero Lilleike
An unknown surfer rides a wave at Uluwatu. Photo: Gero Lilleike

We observed the lineup in silence for a long time, grappling with our fear and contemplating consequences. Ross was fighting a ferocious internal battle. The grandeur of what lay before him was tearing his conscience apart. He clearly wasn’t comfortable and truth be told, nor was I. We were simply out of our depth and eventually Ross suggested that we give the surf a miss. We stared on blankly in silence as the surf exploded on the reef below.

In an effort to find some solace, I tried to imagine how Gerry Lopez would have mentally approached his first surf at Uluwatu in 1974, but comfort was lost to me. Gerry paddled out and pulled into a barrel on his first wave, but that’s Gerry for you… what a legend!

Another dream wave at Uluwatu. Photo - Gero Lilleike
The wave at Uluwatu viewed from above. Photo: Gero Lilleike

Recent events in Uluwatu had cast a darker shadow over our endeavour. Just 3 weeks before our arrival in Uluwatu, Jae Haydon, an Australian surfer and musician perished in these waters after suffering a wipeout in massive surf that reportedly knocked him unconscious. Despite efforts by other surfers to rescue him, Haydon drowned and his body was discovered some 12 hours later in the region of Impossibles near Padang Padang.

Yet, here we were, faced with a critical decision – paddle out, or merely observe. The thought of missing my only opportunity to attempt surfing Uluwatu was crushing me. Time was ticking and our window of opportunity was slipping away fast. I knew I had to push Ross harder to commit.

“Am I paddling out alone?” I asked Ross, nervously.

Ross looked at me and smiled, “Don’t worry G, you’re not paddling out there alone”. It was on!

Gero Lilleike makes a drop of faith at Uluwatu. Photo - Andrew Crawford
Gero drops in at Uluwatu. Photo: Maree Lilleike

I kissed Maree goodbye and told her I love her, hoping it wouldn’t be the last time I saw her. Minutes later we were in the cave with my heart pounding hard and fast in my chest. Neither of us had ever felt this tense before a surf.

“Have faith in your ability, we can do this”, Ross suddenly said reassuringly. Fear was replaced by calm as we stepped into the turbulent waters of the cave. Adrenalin surged through our veins. We paddled into the sunlight and into the unknown.

The cave at Uluwatu. Photo - Gero Lilleike
Uluwatu cave at high tide, the starting and ending point of every surf.  Photo: Gero Lilleike

Beyond the chaos of the cave, the rip swept us quickly around the point and we spent the next 15 minutes paddling into position at ‘The Peak’ which was breaking at about 6 foot with bigger sets occasionally catching us off guard. We watched in wonderment as more experienced surfers dropped into the bowels of thick pits that only Uluwatu could conjure up. The power and perfection of these waves was incredible to witness.

I looked around at the pulsing surf and jagged cliffs. I couldn’t believe we were sitting in the lineup at Uluwatu! It was a surreal moment. My heart was happy, content but also filled with fear. We sat in the swell for a while, waiting. The size and power of the surf became overwhelming and with the tide dropping, we decided to hustle a wave and head for dry land.

Gero Lilleike drops in at Uluwatu. Photo - Maree Lilleike
One good wave is all you need… Photo: Maree Lilleike

All we needed was one good wave. Ross eventually paddled for his first wave but flogged it after the drop but then quickly scavenged a rare mid-break right which he almost rode back into the cave. He was safely back on land.

A while later, the Gods of Uluwatu spawned a solid left for me. It was my time to go! I stuck the drop sweetly and rode the wave out onto the shoulder and paddled hard to make it back into the cave before being swept back around the point. A Balinese woman conducted a Hindu prayer ritual in the cave and the smell of incense filled the air. We were blessed, we were alive, and we had endured one of the most intensely special surfs of our lives. Stoke palpably radiated from us for the rest of the day.

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There’s is much to see and do if the surf is off. Tegenungan Waterfall is a must-see attraction near Ubud. Photo: Gero Lilleike

We left the Bukit buzzing after surfing Uluwatu, but we still had high hopes for Keramas. We booked into the chic Komune Resort in front of the famous right-hander. The waves were sizey when we arrived, but onshore wind made conditions choppy. We surfed anyway and caught some great waves but we would never see Keramas in its full glory.

That evening, we congregated at the Komune Beach Club for dinner and a few Bintangs to celebrate our arrival in Keramas. I ordered the ‘Chicken Schnitty’ which sounded like a marvellous way to replenish my waning energy reserves. The meal arrived and it was delicious up to the point that I discovered what looked like toilet paper under my schnitzel. I called the waiter over to find out more, thinking that perhaps it was a Balinese custom of sorts.

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The Komune Beach Club in Keramas is a great place to socialise and eat. Photo: Gero Lilleike 

The waiter was utterly horrified and genuinely apologetic about this diabolical discovery and quickly removed it from the table. The chef arrived in shame soon after to apologise and we shared a few laughs with no harm done. I would recommend the ‘Chicken Shitty’ to anyone visiting Komune Resort, it really was delicious.

Sadly, the surf report for Keramas wasn’t looking good for the remainder of our stay. The wind was skunking us and we needed another plan.

With a bleak surf outlook, we decided to take some time to explore the region of Ubud, the cultural epicentre of Bali. Bred, a local tour guide and surfer took us to beautiful attractions such as the nearby Tegenungan Waterfall and the famous Tegallalang Rice Terrace on the outskirts of Ubud, both of which are in easy reach of Keramas and well-worth the effort.

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Tegallalang Rice Terrace viewed from above. Photo: Gero Lilleike

Armed with local surf knowledge, Bred suggested that we catch a ferry to the nearby island of Nusa Lembongan to surf a break called Shipwrecks which would be offshore in the prevailing wind. We took his advice and boated across the Badung Strait from Sanur the following day, reaching Lembongan in time for the tide. Shipwrecks was crowded and we were advised to surf the nearby Nomans reef instead. It turned out to be the best call.

A surf trip isn't complete without a boat ride out to the reef. Photo - Andrew Crawford
A boat affords you the opportunity to explore waves that are typically out of reach. Photo: Andrew Crawford

We chartered a boat and headed for Nomans. Our captain couldn’t speak English but he knew exactly what we were after. Crystal clear water and a fun, consistent right lay before us and we had it all to ourselves — what a pleasure! An empty lineup is a rare treat in Bali and it’s days like these that make surf travel so gloriously wonderful.

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Nomans reef delivered the waves and we had to ourselves. Bliss… Photo: Ross McIlroy

We couldn’t ask for more, this was Bali magic! After conquering Nomans, we squeaked another quick surf at a nearby break called Lacerations to top off the day before catching the ferry back to Sanur.

Bali left us in a daze and its warm waves and friendly people made this trip truly memorable. More importantly, this surf trip also taught us that with a drop of faith, a dash of hope and a splash courage, your impossible can become your destiny. Your dream is there for the riding, so just paddle in and enjoy the ride…

Watch my Bali Daze video here!

Ross McIlroy stoked after his surf at Nomans. Photo - Andrew Crawford
A surf trip to remember… Photo: Andrew Crawford