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The Echo of Santosha

"It’s more than just an island. It is many islands, and it is this island Earth on which we live. It is a state of mind, a state of being and a land of forgotten dreams. An island bound by the spirit of the sea and living within the spirit of man"

Where beige desert springs to life-inspiring green there is a special kind of place where spicy winds, drenched in the scent of jasmine and bougainvillea, blow offshore day and night and wretched reefs catch the swells of far off storms. When I first heard of this place it was in hushed and reverential tones. In conversations with the few who’d made it there it was alluded to with no more than a nudge and a wink and a knowing nod of the head. I was told it was a place of sinking sunsets and flirty girls with Caribbean eyes. I was told it was a place of breezy hammocks and slow ticking clocks. Some spoke of it as if it was just one step from Heaven. Others said it was tomorrows Santosha. All said it was to be treasured and cherished.

“It’s more than just an island. It is many islands, and it is this island Earth on which we live. It is a state of mind, a state of being and a land of forgotten dreams. An island bound by the spirit of the sea and living within the spirit of man”. The words of Larry Yates, spoken back in the groovy days of ’74, might sound a bit New Age for today’s corporate global village, but for all of those caught up in modern life and so very far from Santosha, the echo of these words might be more relevant than ever before.

Santosha, a mystical isle with cocktail coconut palms and dizzying roller coaster reef passes. Created by the genius minds of Larry and Roger Yates and distributed in the form of a film as a place of peace and escape to reality scared surfers. Its underlying message, that every single one of us can seek solitary surf bliss on our very own Santosha, was simple yet caused a revolution in the watery world of surfing. Back in the mid ‘70’s the known shorelines of the surfing planet were pretty much limited to North America, Australia, Europe and South Africa, beyond that the coastlines of the world were, for all intents and purposes, terra incognito. However, from the day the Lost Island of Santosha first screened it lit a spark of desire that sent a wave of movement across and away from the surfing worlds known limits. The world is your oyster, the film told us, so set sail in search of Santosha and, if and when you discover it, treasure it well and tell not a soul or, like a wish granting genie whose location is revealed, it will vanish forever, destroyed by greed. Strip away the tarnish, remove the shorts and sunglasses, the stickers and the glossy new skool moves and what you’re left with is the bare bones of surfing. A wave, a friend and the exploration of something new. Nothing, no tube, no contest win, no flash new board, can ever beat the feeling of setting off without maps or knowledge to a place you’ve never been in search of waves you’ve never seen. The very essence, the very soul of surfing, is travel. The call of the road assaults us every time we surf or even think about surfing. Is the peak down the beach better? Is the beach down the road better? Is the country over the ocean better? Every surf magazine we open, every surf film we watch and every surf brand we buy always seems to return to the same theme. The empty road to perfection. And of course this is how it should be. We should be encouraged to chase our dreams and we should be out on the road seeing the world for what it really is, but in doing so are we destroying the very thing we love the most? From Rip Curl’s ‘Search’ to Quiksilver’s ‘Crossing’, almost every surf brand has used the untainted ideal of hitting the road in search of virgin waves in order to sell their T-Shirts and bullshit. Every surf magazine seduces from its cover with promises of another journey of discovery to the untrammelled wildernesses of the surfing planet. From wannabe surfer websites to credit card surf camps, photographers to surf guides, magazine editors to pro surfers and clothing company directors to surf journalists. Every one of us has a part to play in this destruction. We’re creating your dreams, sending you to Santosha and in the process destroying it long before you’ve had a chance to bathe in its beauty. And you, you only seem to thank us for it.

Day one and the swell was shattering onto the coast with volcanic force, most spots we passed were too heavy for surfers of our calibre, but eventually, after scratching around a few nooks and crannies, we found a sheltered right point with two to three foot waves. By the time we’d suited up and paddled out we realised it was in fact a radical six foot top to bottom barrel for which we were the only takers. By all criteria the search for tomorrows Santosha was up and running with a bang.

Inspired by Yates’s call to arms surfers were quickly to be found kicking up dust on the back roads of Asia, Africa, the Americas and Europe searching for their own Santosha. For the first few years after the films release people largely stuck to the rules set down by Yates and, on finding paradise, they treasured it well and told not a soul. One of these inspired hunters was an Australian called Peter Troy, a man who probably knew the meaning of Santosha better than anyone. He hit the nail on the head when, summing up the vibes of the time, he said, “A surfers dream is to walk into a unique location with a perfect peeling wave which is totally unknown”. Back in those heady days, when surf guides, surf camps and websites without morals were far into the future and the newly born surf clothing brands were yet to cotton onto the money to be made by marketing and destroying Santosha, it seemed as if there was enough space for everyone to dream. But the times were about to change, within but a few years Nias, the wave that Troy discovered, became the very symbolism of Santosha found, Santosha lost, and with its passing the innocence of surfing became something to be pimped and sold to the highest bidder. Surfing and surf travel has come a long way since the rough and ready days of Troy and Yates. Back then the journey was as much the reason for going as the waves and the interaction with local communities as rewarding as the almond barrels. Nowadays of course it’s all about surf camps and classy boat rides and it’s not at all unfeasible to spend a fortnight in Indonesia, cocooned in the air-con bubble of your boat, without ever having to risk getting dirty and diseased by stepping onto shore and speaking to a local villager. The motto of today seems to be that if you’re not surfing the best waves of your life then you’re not on a surf trip. If it doesn’t have a surf camp then you cannot go and if it isn’t in a guidebook or paraded like a whore on the Internet then it doesn’t exist. What, I want to know, has happened to travel without maps? What has happened to traveling without swell forecasts and surf reports? Who has let us replace the chance of the gamble with the certainty of luxury boat charters? Who has let us, the industry, reduce the art of the surfing lifestyle into nothing but a glamorous product to be sold to men in suits? Who has let us, the industry, destroy your adventures and steal your secrets?

Who has let us, the industry, reduce the art of the surfing lifestyle into nothing but a glamorous product to be sold to men in suits? Who has let us, the industry, destroy your adventures and steal your secrets?

This country looks and feels like the stunning daughter of Mediterranean, African and Caribbean lovers and I’m quickly falling for her. There are tumbleweed streets where tomorrow could have been yesterday and yesterday is any day in the future. There are piercing green valleys of bananas and wispy white dunes of sand. There are hip-swaying women and muscle bound men, low slung houses and domineering churches ready for a marriage. And then there are the waves. Such blue and oh so quiet perfection I have rarely found. I can even say that after a week of riding identically formed masterpieces boredom started to set in. Take off, pull in, race it and then paddle back out and do it all over again a moment later. They were right, those people with the knowing nods of the head, this place was just one step from Heaven. How close to Heaven? Well, consider this, before coming here I had been assured that the wind blew offshore, without fail, every single day of the year. Of course I took this claim with a pinch of salt, but true enough from the first moment to the last the wind blew strong and steady from the same direction. When I finally, after several days, tracked down some of the handful of local surfers and asked them about this they told me that they’d only ever seen onshore waves in photographs - never in real life. Can you imagine that? Where I surf I’d be hard pressed to see anything but an onshore! And to think that this country, which is the very definition of Peter Troy’s ‘surfers dream’, hasn’t yet had its adventures carefully packaged up and sold and its secrets whispered to an eager world. And yet despite this, what seems to me, obvious good fortune, I bet you’re sat there now, reading these words and hoping, desperately hoping, that we’re about to tell you where this Holy Grail is. Hating us for not destroying your adventures and selling your secrets.

Before writing this piece I conducted a little experiment and, logging onto the forum of an immensely popular website and one that is infamous for its uncaring exposure of secret spots, I asked a series of questions. What, I wanted to know, was the point in exposing little surfed regions? Why could a veil of secrecy not be pulled down over these few remaining frontiers and who was responsible for selling our soul? In amongst the mountains of abuse I found an overwhelming response that left me surprised and more than a little disappointed. You people wanted this. You actually seemed to want us, the industry, to sell your last remaining havens of peace.

Back on tomorrows Santosha things were continuing to flow smoothly. Eight foot swells were blowing up all along the coast, the winds were gusting offshore, the sun was out and the top to bottom barrels of the first day had been replaced by a coastal road riddled with turn offs leading to cathedral cliffs and silky smooth beaches. We had no maps to find our way, no websites to set us on the right path and no expectations of the road ahead. We were, if the standards of today are to be used, wasting our time searching for surf spots that may not even exist when, with but a click of a mouse or the swipe of a credit card, we could be transported straight to surf nirvana. But do you know what? We couldn’t have cared. Maybe we’d find waves today, maybe we wouldn’t. None of it really mattered for ahead of us was a whole new country, rich with the fragrance of promise and packed with the adventures of the blessed. Maybe the time is now ripe to re-evaluate all that we are doing. Surfing has come of age and is now a multi-million dollar industry, which provides for the daily bread and butter for hundreds, probably thousands, of people across the globe. And that this is possible is great, but the question has to be asked. Is the old girl ageing well and growing into something to be proud of or is she turning into the very thing we, as surfers, are supposed to be so opposed too? We like to think of surfing as something pure with a social and environmental conscious yet, you, the day to day surfer, the lifeblood of the surfing lifestyle, glare and growl at one and other in the water, you bicker over your waves and then happily reveal them to all in cyberspace. You try to outdo one and other with your bravado and out fashion each other with your brand labels. To an outsider it could almost appear as if you surf only for an image. But if that seems a sorry state of affairs then just take a moment to examine us, the industry. Should we worry that Third-World surf camps come complete with spas, charge surfers more than non-surfing partners and restrict or ban local people from ‘their’ waves? Should we panic when a major surf clothing company claims to be environmentally aware, but sees nothing wrong in sponsoring a top Formula One driver? Should we fret when the publishers of FHM and New Woman control our surf magazines? Should it be an issue that golf brand owning advertisers dictate what can and cannot be said in our surfing media? And, maybe worst of all, should we be distraught when ‘surf’ shops in Europe’s most famous surf town are nothing but fashion sweat shops where the non-surfing bosses have a pool in the garden and a Porsche in the garage and the surfing staff are paid so little they can hardly afford to eat? How much do I mean when I say ‘so little they cannot afford to eat’? Well the shocking truth is that many of the major ‘surf’ clothing brands make a point of regularly employing European based work experience staff for up to a year at a time too whom, at least one of them, pays only €200 a month – this is roughly the same average wage as a person would receive in Thailand and a little less than someone in Algeria or Peru. Is this truly the sort of social and environmental conscious that you can be happy with? The ball is in your court. Only you, the true surfers, have the power to prevent us, the money hungry industry, from destroying what remains of your Santosha.

We explored from north to south and east to west, traversing stony deserts of blank canvases where every town and village was smaller and quieter than the last and the surf, on the often bleak and battered beaches, was normally rough and ragged, spoilt by gale force winds that blew just a little too side shore. Instead we found that most of our surfing took place in that vivid, fertile and jagged region of the country where the colours are clashing and loud and Africa feels just around the corner. Even though much of the coast turned out to consist of vertigo cliffs there were pauses where gentler endings produced reefs that were designed with nothing more than idyllic waves in mind. In one such area there was a sleepy town built around a whitewashed church and a little plaza of benches and flowering trees and here we were able to find some simple rooms, freshly baked fish in the evenings and a surfeit of poky little bars. There was no surf industry to be found here, no surf ‘culture’ to disrupt the harmony and it was marked on no surf websites, written about in no surf guides and packaged up into no surf tour. It was the kind of place you could come for a week and stay for a lifetime, but for the moment we seemed to have the benches of the plaza and the barrels of the reefs largely to ourselves. So you see, despite modern surfing's best efforts, Santosha does still exist and so long as I treasure it well and tell not a soul then that will continue. But I am the industry. I am the Great Satan of the surfing lifestyle and I am hungry for your money. Santosha exists and we, the industry, will do our best to tell you where it is to be found and for that you will only thank us. “So where”, you cry one last time, “can Santosha be found?” “How much” you demand, “do I need to pay in order for you to tell me all?” Well, I’m disappointed to report, that Santosha is not a place that even we can ever sell. It’s not a place that can ever be owned by anyone. It’s not a place that will ever be used to sell a T-Shirt, nor will surf camps or guides ever corrupt it. An army of modems will never broadcast its location, nor will its spirit ever be shattered by headline hunting editors and journalists. For once the grubby, money hungry paws of the surf industry will never manage to destroy this adventure and sell this secret, because tomorrows Santosha is no different to yesterdays and for the answer to its location you need only listen to the words Yates used to describe his bejeweled island in the sun. “Santosha really isn’t a place; it’s a word. It just has a meaning. It’s a state of mind. A forgotten state of mind”. There you have it. Santosha isn’t really a physical place. It is a place in the mind, a place of dreams. It is the untainted soul of surfing that must be treasured by all. To reach it all you need do is start remembering.

This piece was originally published in Tracks magazine Australia and Surferspath magazine.