It’s A for Away at Arugam Bay

Watching the political turmoil unfold in Sri Lanka, I was glad to have had the opportunity to visit the country on a surf trip four years ago. Here are two columns I wrote for Zigzag magazine at the time.

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I’m writing this at a rustic beach bar in Arugam Bay, a cold Lion at my elbow and a warm sea lapping at my feet.

Three weeks earlier, Bad-Ass Bernie and her henchchick The Artist – leaders of the notorious deep south gang, the Muizenberg Matriarchs – paddled over to me one morning and asked if I wanted to go to Sri Lanka. “Yes please,” I said, before my brain could come up with any number of sensible reasons why I shouldn’t.

It was one of those surf trips organised by a company specialising in this sort of thing. I’d never been on one before. I’d rather travel solo and risk dying a lonely death than be trapped with a group.

But this seemed an interesting if unwieldy bunch. Six women plus me and a grizzled dude from the west coast. That’s three apiece, I thought. More than enough. I’d have to run this by Westie, obviously. He might be happy with just one, or even none, in which case I’d be in serious trouble.

Stepping out of Bandaranaike Airport into Colombo – after a brutal nine hours to Dubai and another four to Sri Lanka – felt weirdly similar to stepping out of Denpasar Airport in Bali. Same torrid heat. Same tropical vibe. Same same, but different. For a start, the roads aren’t packed with a billion bikes, trucks and taxis. Tuk-tuks rule these roads, but they can’t go very fast or weave through the traffic because they’d topple over and lie there like overturned beetles.

Eight longboards jammed vertically into wobbly airport trolleys was a disturbing sight. It looked like Stonehenge on acid. One of the posse, the Duracell Bunny, had brought a longboard and a SUP wedged into one giant bag that a carthorse would have had trouble carrying.

We were booked for 10 nights in Arugam Bay, a solid eight-hour drive from Colombo. It’s a well-known fact that surfers can’t drive for more than two hours without wanting to stop for a wave, beer, food or, in the case of six women, a wee.

When men are in a significant minority on a trip like this, one must be careful to make suggestions and not demands. So I suggested we stop at a place called Hiriketiya Bay. It came recommended by Umdloti brewmeister and licensed reprobate Graeme Bird who’d been there a few weeks earlier. There wasn’t a massive amount of support for my plan until I showed them pictures of the spot – a classic horseshoe bay bracketed by jungle and a long curve of pristine beach.

Our drivers were less than thrilled when we started hauling our boards out. They had to drop us at Arugam Bay, then travel all the way back in the dark. My driver was particularly unhappy. “You can’t see the elephants at night,” he grumbled. I was going to tell him he could see them another time, but it occurred to me he probably didn’t mean it in the game-spotting sense.

I later found out that if you kill an elephant in Sri Lanka, the government does the same to you. Every year elephants on the island kill dozens of people without being punished. Fair enough.

Night falls faster than a hooker’s broeks in this paradise the British once called Ceylon. Half-mad with jet-lag and hallucinating from a critical lack of beer, I was starting to believe we’d been kidnapped by a berserk Tamil Tiger who thought the war was still on, when we exploded onto a strip of restaurants, shops and lodgings that signalled the entrance to A-Bay.

Not the kind of strip you find in places like Kuta or Pattaya. No flashing neon. No bars with scantily clad women or even men pretending to be women. No signs offering buckets of booze. Everything seemed super laid-back. Right until we arrived at the hotel to discover there was a screw-up with the accommodation.

The women, some of whom had only just met, were told they’d be sharing double beds with each other. I couldn’t see the problem. Women love sleeping with each other. Perhaps I’ve been watching the wrong documentaries. But when I discovered I’d be sharing a bed with Westie, I tossed my complimentary coconut aside and threatened to destroy the tour company and burn the hotel to the ground.

Someone fed me a beer and I calmed down. Later I ended up in another hotel down the strip. A better one, as it turned out. Sea-facing room, surf movies playing on a giant screen in the restaurant, no swimming pool full of freaks who prefer chlorine to salt.

“So,” said young Tulip from Amsterdam, “early start, then?” I agreed. We should absolutely be in the water by 8am. Jay the Placid Pedagog snorted politely. “We’ll pick you up at five,” said the Medusa-haired ACDC, asserting her dominance as one of God’s chosen people.

I don’t where they went that first day. I had an unusual breakfast involving fish curry, dhal and some kind of noodly affair – maybe it was lunch – stretched a rashie over my boep, rubbed some Durban wax over my Kommetjie wax and ambled off down the beach past the fishing boats. The point was ridiculously small and jammed with human flotsam on foam boards. This is the famous A-Bay? I felt sick. Oh, wait. This was Baby Point. The real deal was around the corner.

It was four to five foot with around 50 people in the water. Longish lulls added to a fairly tense atmosphere. Nobody wants to come all this way and not get a wave at what’s been rated as one of the top ten right-handers in the world. This meant positioning was critical. Surfers were jostling like players in a penalty box ahead of a corner kick.

Half the crowd sat at the top of the point, with the rest spread out down the line praying for one of the hotshots to fall or waste their speed on a cutback or lip bash and blow the section. A bit like Supers, in a way. With a dash of Seal Point. Except this wave is faster with at least three flat-out sections that toss up a barrel or two if the size and tide is right. And on a big day it can connect with Baby Point, giving you a wild ride of several hundred screaming metres.

I’ve learnt that sitting wide doesn’t get you anywhere in life so I paddled up the point past a smattering of shortboarders hoping for scraps in the second section. I imagined them thinking, “Look at that fit, older gentleman on the longboard upon which Simone Robb won the 2013 ISA Women’s World Championships.”

I hadn’t been waiting 10 minutes before something came my way. Everyone scrambled for it. Everyone missed it. Except me. I quickly found out that you want to be on your feet well before the wave hits the reef and jacks. The drop is savage but if you can survive it and make the bottom turn, you’re set for a belter of a ride. I snagged two more bombs after that and went in.

Oh dear. I’m out of space. Next issue read about how I almost died from crocodile poisoning. Maybe it was alcohol. I’m pretty sure there was a crocodile involved. Plus plenty more waves.

……..Part 2…….

Without warning the tuk-tuk driver slammed on brakes and veered violently down a dusty track. Skidding to a stop behind a thorn tree, he shielded his eyes from the setting sun. What was it? Coming from South Africa, I reckoned a roadblock. Instinctively checking my pockets for contraband, I scanned the strip of crumbling tar leading into the fishing village of Arugam Bay.

Three more tuk-tuks took evasive action, scuttling about like mutant three-legged metal insects.

Then I saw it. An elephant in the middle of the road, flapping his ears and in no apparent rush to get anywhere. This was worse than a roadblock. I couldn’t be sitting behind a tree all afternoon. There were waves to catch.

The elephant lumbered along for a bit, then made a slow left turn through a set of metal gates and into the naval base. The armed guard stood back. I half expected him to salute. My driver sighed and mumbled something in Sinhalese. Fifteen minutes later I was paddling out at A-Bay’s legendary main point.

Arugam Bay is on Sri Lanka’s east coast in some kind of weird dry zone. The town is known locally as Arugam Kudah. Its Tamil translation is “Bay of Cynodon dactylon”. I won’t google the meaning in case it turns out to be a dinosaur and then I’ll get side-tracked and there’s not enough space to start this story in the Mesozoic Era.

It did feel a bit prehistoric at times, though, what with all the monitor lizards skulking about. Mind you, I also felt pretty damn prehistoric the morning after over-medicating on powerful cocktails at a laid-back bar called Hideaway. Ah, well. It’s not a proper surf trip if you don’t wipeout at least once on land.

There are at least a dozen spots in and around A-Bay, virtually all of them point breaks where you can jump off the rocks a few metres from the peak in water that can only be described as womb temperature. Twenty seconds and you’re in the line-up. That’s my idea of a paddle-out. And with every break being a right, it’s a natural-footers dream.

Most mornings we would pile into tuk-tuks and head to a nearby break where our hearts would sink at the sight of the crowds. Sometimes, though, there’d be only a handful of people in the water. I have no doubt their hearts also sank when they saw eight longboarders pull in and start waxing up. We were a crowd on its own. At the start of the trip I thought this would be a good thing. We could dominate a peak. Maybe even block for each other. Yeah, right. The six women, so lovely and gentle on land, turned into absolute Nazis in the water. I was constantly getting shouted at for dropping in, snaking or generally being in the way. It was hopeless. The only time I got my fair share was when I went to a spot without them.

Most locals have a working knowledge of English but their accent can be on the strong side. When it comes to comprehension, having lived in Durban is an advantage. One night, something got lost in translation and I inadvertently purloined a tiny amount of weed from a waiter. I don’t know what he thought I was asking for. I was under the impression it was more beer. You can get tossed into jail for having drugs in Sri Lanka so later that night I set fire to it on the beach to prevent it from falling into the wrong hands.

Apart from a few bombs I snagged at the permanently crowded main point in A-Bay itself, my most memorable waves were at Peanut Farm at the end of a heavily rutted dirt road that leaves you with whiplash and challenges the sturdiest of tuk-tuks.

There’s an outside reef and inside section that reels down the beach before closing out on the shore. Under the trees is a rustic restaurant run by Rastas serving shark and chips. You have to bring your own beer.

The break nudges up against a navy base replete with rifle-wielding guard in a turret overlooking the beach. He seemed to spend most of the time checking out the babes rather than scanning the horizon for hostile forces. Not the worst job in the world. Unless, of course, you also surf and you’re stuck in a turret.

Some of the breaks nearer to A-Bay, like Pottuvil Point and Whiskey Point, offer up perfectly shaped runners which can be ruined by imperfectly shaped beginners being pushed into the waves by their instructors.

“Stand up!” shouts a lean, longhaired local as he shoves a chunky Australian girl into my path. “Fuck off!” I shout, but not so loud that he can hear.

In peak season it doesn’t really matter how early you wake up – you’re not going to beat the crowds. Virtually every break outside the village is packed with people from around the world. Among them are the Israelis, who take it all terribly seriously. Most of them look like Mossad agents, even the women, and they behave as if they are in the finals of the Pipeline Masters.

I looked up one morning and saw hundreds of vultures circling above us. They seemed to know something we didn’t.

There were some spots, like Elephant Rock, that I never made it to. And not because a 24-year-old British surfer was killed by a crocodile right there in the lagoon a year ago. I just didn’t wake up in time for that particular trip. It might’ve had something to do with that night in the Hideaway bar.