Escape Haven: Ladies learning to ride waves in Bali

Learning to surf at Escape Haven.
Learning to surf at Escape Haven. Photo: Tommy Schultz

Facing one's fears proves extraordinarily exhilarating, for Nina Karnikowski.

I cannot do this. I am standing on the sand at Jimbaran Bay in south Bali, with rain sifting down around me and a gigantic pink surfboard at my feet, staring at the waves.

I definitely cannot do this. A grainy memory starts to play in my mind: 15-year-old me, standing on the sand at Manly Beach, with rain sifting down around me and a gigantic surfboard at my feet, staring at the churning waves.

Taking a rest on paddleboards.
Taking a rest on paddleboards. Photo: Tommy Schultz

My friends had signed me up for surfing when I was off sick. How hilarious it would be to trap the girl with the morbid fear of waves in the ocean for a whole term. It was 15 years ago, yet I can still feel my guts tightening as I desperately tried to conjure an excuse to stay on dry land. I must have found one; I didn't spend more than a minute in those terrifying waves all term.

Today, however, I have chosen to be here. I signed myself up to a week at Escape Haven, a surf and yoga retreat for women in Bali.

It is time to conquer the fear. Nerve ends singing, I keep one eye on the ominous two-foot waves (which look bigger than they sound) as our pint-sized Venezuelan surf instructor, Yeni, all sun-kissed locks and caramel skin, leads me and two fellow retreaters in some gentle warm-up yoga stretches.

A young boy catches a wave.
A young boy catches a wave. Photo: Tommy Schultz

"In the water, it's all about being patient and present," says Yeni.

"I can't do this," says my mind.

"It's somewhere you can just leave your mind behind and enjoy the moment," says Yeni.

An outdoor yoga session.
An outdoor yoga session. 

"I can't do this," says my mind.

I watch the other retreaters (a psychiatrist from Melbourne and an optometrist from Mudgee, both casual surfers) confidently jump through the whitewash with their boards and paddle out.

My palms start to sweat.

Nina Karnikowski at Escape Haven.
Nina Karnikowski at Escape Haven. Photo: Miguel Castaneda Zajia

"Come on, I'll show you how," says Yeni with a soft smile and a squeeze of my arm. My face must be giving me away. She gets me to lie down on the board on the sand and demonstrates how to "pop up" - surfer code for pushing yourself up to standing position.

It seems easy enough. Until I get in the water.

Even with two fit young Balinese boys carrying my surfboard, telling me which waves to go for and when to start paddling, and pushing my surfboard once the waves pick me up, it is difficult. And terrifying. Each time I attempt to "pop up", I tell myself it will not work and tumble back into the ocean.

The sign says it all.
The sign says it all. 

As the two other women glide by effortlessly, Yeni figures out what I am doing and calls me on it. "You have to believe you can do it! Don't be afraid!" she yells from the shore.

She's right. It is time to mute the naysayer in my head.

The next wave rears up behind me and I paddle as if a great white were snapping at my toes. And then, I'm up. I'm standing on the board. I'm ... surfing! I pump my fists in the air in delight and everything else - the fear, the doubt - just fades away.

Our van bumps along the potholed roads back to the slick Villa Jepun in Seminyak, passing whole families crammed on to the backs of ancient motorbikes along the way. We munch fresh fruit and Escape Haven's homemade nut bars as we bombard Yeni with surf questions: What is the difference between beach and reef breaks? Between longboards and shortboards? What does cowabunga actually mean? We are still tingling with adrenalin and are on what can only be described as a surfing high.

An even bigger high comes later in the afternoon as we are taken by Escape Haven's owner and founder, a blonde, blue-eyed New Zealander named Janine Hall, to visit the Jodie O'Shea Orphanage in Denpasar.

Hall, herself an orphan, has recently launched the Creating Futures Foundation, a charity that aims to teach Balinese orphans self-awareness and confidence through lessons in surfing, yoga, meditation and English. After experiencing the pure liberation that came from my morning surf, I can understand how it might work for the kids.

We are welcomed into a small hall, the walls of which are covered with kids' drawings and large cut-out letters of the alphabet, to watch their afternoon yoga session. Four little girls on the pink mats closest to us squeeze their eyes shut as they breathe deeply through their noses and do their very best to perfect each posture. The small boys on the far side of the room, however, wrap themselves up in their mats, do cartwheels and handstands and run in and out of the room. Not that it matters. There is a palpable feeling of joy in the room and smiles on faces, and that is clearly what this is all about.

The next morning, I am standing on the sand again, a board of a different kind at my feet and the waters of sleepy Sanur beach undulating in front of me. I am about to give stand-up paddleboard yoga a whirl. Another thing I do not think I can do. Word on the street is that it takes Schwarzenegger-like core strength to stay upright. But, hey, when in Bali ...

A long-limbed teacher from California shows me the basics of how to place my feet on the board, how to distribute my weight and how to hold my paddle, then, within minutes, we are off. I won't lie: it certainly does take some strength to stay upright and to pull myself through the water. But with the sun beating down and the glassy water rolling gently beneath us as we paddle out towards the offshore reef break, I almost forget this is meant to be exercise.

That all changes, of course, once the yoga class begins. Balancing postures are hard enough on dry land, but add water and I am slipping and sliding all over the shop, often plunging headfirst into the water. But there is something truly special about doing a downward dog only to see the upside-down ocean sparkling between your legs, and I decide this is definitely an experience to be repeated back home.

From this point on, things get a little hazy - mainly because I find myself in a kind of bliss bubble, created by a concoction of increasingly Zen activities that allow us to sink into the beautiful natural rhythm of life in Bali. A visit to a local temple to give offerings to the Hindu gods. A healing session with the high priestess from a local village involving meditation, flower blessings and reiki. Hot stone massages. Gentle yoga sessions. Deliciously healthy, modern Indonesian meals at the villa and a couple of fancy dinners out at Seminyak's hottest restaurants. A session with a tarot card reader. Sunbaking by the lagoon-like villa pool. Switch and repeat.

At one point, I am asked if I would like to have a personal training kickboxing session. My initial reaction is "hell no, I'd like another massage". But then I remember I am here to explore new experiences, and to push myself out of my comfort zone. So I give it a big "hell YES" and discover boxing is surprisingly therapeutic and something I am rather good at.

By the end of the week we are all so blissed out that we can barely summon the right words to explain the highlights of our stay here, but we try.

As we sip fresh coconuts by the pool, one woman says she has a renewed confidence in herself and in where she is going in life. Another says she feels free for the first time in years, having finally given herself permission to have some "her" time.

For me, trying all these things has given me the confidence to take risks. It has given me more self-belief. Most importantly, it has made me realise actually, I can do this.

The writer travelled courtesy of Escape Haven retreat.

TRIP NOTES

GETTING THERE

Virgin Australia operates daily direct flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Denpasar with fares starting about $750 return. See virginaustralia.com.

STAYING THERE

Escape Haven health and wellness retreats, at Villa Jepun in Seminyak, run weekly for up to 12 women and cost from $2595 a person for a six-night stay. There are three packages from which to choose (Revive, Refresh, Renew) focusing on either water sports, spa, relaxation or fitness, with activity options including horse riding, white-water rafting, snorkelling and private breath-work classes. Price includes most meals, spa treatments, surf and yoga sessions and transport. Escape Haven also operates retreats in Byron Bay, Portugal and Morocco. See escapehaven.com.

MORE INFORMATION

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