Who's who at Lakey Peak

Among hardcore extremists and surfer dads, Malcolm Knox charts the breaks and the cliques on Sumbawa.

Because he is the font of all wisdom and wears loose, flowing pants, we call him Grasshopper. "This place is just about used up," Grasshopper tells us during one of his dawn pronouncements, when we gather to see what the ocean has given us for the day. "I'd give it two more years and it's done."

This place is Lakey (Lakai) Peak, a surf break on the south coast of the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, between Lombok and Timor. Lakey is a cluster of reef breaks well known to surfers and the site of an annual Rip Curl Gromsearch event.

As well as the A-framed peak, there are the left-handers (Lakey Pipe and Nungas), the right-hander (Periscopes) and Cobblestones.

Grasshopper also goes to a place called "Unsurfed Lefts", to which he warns us not to follow him. We venture west of Lakey to surf the right-hander named Maci Point but not the West Sumbawa breaks of Scar Reef and Super Suck, whose names serve as advertisements.

Grasshopper has been coming from Sydney to Lakey since the 1980s, and his hard-won local knowledge suggests that while there is adventure and exploration in the surf traveller's outlook, the vein of Australian pioneering it really taps is resources prospecting.

Surfing travellers, like miners, search for a natural resource no one else has found. Having done so, they do their best to extract its goodness without letting the secret out. Waves are not a finite resource but, in the surfer's mind, they take on a scarcity because every other surfer in the water is a potential rival.

When Grasshopper talks of the Lakey area being "used up", this is what he means. Good waves don't end but if crowding gets to a certain point, they might as well.

The Indonesian surf trip, which as recently as 30 years ago was the province of intrepid exploration, now divides into several commercial categories and sub-categories.


The key taxonomic difference is land- versus boat-based trips. Boats offer the idea, if not the reality, of freedom to follow the waves and find the unsurfed spot. Mostly roaming the Mentawai Islands off Sumatra, boats also promise expense and politics; who you go with is as important as where you go.

Among land-based Indonesian surf trips, the spectrum ranges from Bali's crowded and polluted beaches, to the Balinese reef breaks, to high-end exclusive breaks such as Sumba, through to the more rustic and hard-core experience of Grajagan (G-Land) in Java. Indonesian surf travel is a thriving and well-trodden industry serving Australians and surfers from around the world.

Lakey Peak, at best, slots into a Goldilocks point of being out of the way but not too hard to get to (flight to Bali, then a 90-minute flight to Bima on Sumbawa, then a two-hour bus ride). It offers a series of heavy and technically challenging waves but with some slightly softer options, and is relatively rural in atmosphere while not wholly primitive.

We often hear the phrase "this is what Bali was like 25 years ago", though Grasshopper says Lakey has already passed through that prelapsarian phase. The surf breaks were discovered not long before Grasshopper arrived, when Australian sailors moored outside the reefs and amused the locals by "playing" in the sea. While Bali, Nias and G-Land drew surfers during the mid-1970s, Lakey was surfed on the quiet.

When we go to dinner at the home of a local named Ali (his "restaurant", actually his home with a few tables for mates and guests, serves a feast of epic generosity and quality), he talks of "Bruce", an Australian yachtsman who was the first to surf Periscopes in about 1980.

Other Australian surfers came by sea or land through the 1980s, by which time a local lifeguard, Jimmy, had built a hut on the waterfront known as Jimmy's Camp.

The Aman Gati Hotel, facing Lakey Peak across the lagoon and reef, opened with four rooms in 1994. Now co-owned by Australian and Indonesian proprietors, the hotel accommodates about 80 guests and is on a strip with half a dozen guesthouses. Aside from food stalls, restaurants, a village housing the local workforce and some private houses, that's pretty much all that's there. No surf shops, no doctors, no town.

What passes for local entrepreneurialism extends to a service industry for surfers: a board-repair guy, a photo-video guy named Mamat (whose day's work is displayed on the hotel TV screens each night) and the motorbike-taxi crew who, for minimal cost, take surfers to their break and wait to take them back later.

What this has produced is fairly monomaniacal tourism. Some surfers bring their non-surfing partners, for whom sitting by the pool, massages or perhaps some high-tide snorkelling constitutes the full menu of activity. You could take the family but the only family we see at the Aman Gati was polarised into surfing and non-surfing factions and not having a good time at all.

The clientele is there for one reason only. That, combined with the low cost of transport and accommodation (less than $2000 a head for our flights, lodging, food and transfers for a 10-day trip), means Lakey Peak draws a high proportion of young, budget-conscious surfers. As far as I can see, about 85 per cent of Lakey Peak surfers are under 30, male, deadly serious and highly skilled.

This doesn't necessarily make for a holiday atmosphere. In fact, finding yourself in this kind of hardcore environment is something of an anti-holiday. The day we arrive, so does the swell: two- to three-metre waves at a period of 12 to 16 seconds. It lasts until the day before we leave.

This is perfect timing for a hard-charging 22-year-old but for a group of 45-year-olds it means game faces every session and little margin for error. Every day people limp back to shore with leg, back and neck injuries, sea urchins in their feet, and boards broken into pieces.

The size and direction of the surf means that only Nungas, Periscopes and (sometimes) Lakey Peak are surfable during our visit, which crowds highly competitive surfers into small zones. The typically long lulls between Indian Ocean sets encourage the type of east-coast Australian urban behaviour that might be what you go on a tropical holiday to get away from.

One of my travelling companions - a fit, experienced and talented boardrider - is hassled non-stop by a clique of Australians who seem to think they can export their pea-brained pack mentality and create a portable local break. One explains to my friend, "It's all good, bra, as long as you're on the team."

While surfing colonialism leaves none of the toxic run-off of resources colonialism, there is a human cost.

The Indonesia surfers, having seen how the Australians and Brazilians behave, have taken these codes, imitated them and magnified them.

I'm careless enough to drop in briefly on a local surfer I didn't know was going to take off on a wave. When I hear him scream "f--- off! I kill you!" I take the hint.

After pulling out of the wave, I paddle about looking for him, so I can say sorry. He doesn't show. I have visions of him waiting on the shore with a machete.

Finally, he returns and I apologise. He is so surprised that an Australian surfer would say sorry that he proceeds to offer me meals, accommodation, motorbike rides, anything.

Whenever a wave comes, he calls me onto it. He's a very friendly fellow. Yet everyone else in the line-up is terrified of him. An American warns me to "stay away from Mr Psycho". What I see is not a psycho but a colonised culture imitating the coloniser.

If this all sounds a bit negative, then I will become a hero to Grasshopper and a foot-soldier in his anti-propaganda campaign, convincing the hordes to steer clear of gnarly, overcrowded, over-intense Lakey Peak.

That would be a false impression: notwithstanding the stress, the hold-downs, the coral cuts and the constant risk of injury, my overwhelming memories will be of a relaxed shore life, great food, the odd interesting conversation and, yes, the longest, fastest, hollowest, most exhilarating waves of my life - the essence of risk and reward, scarcity and value.

For Grasshopper, though, the waves have lost their shine, because he can remember how it used to be. He surfed three-metre Lakey Peak on his own one day, "but then another guy came out, and y'know, it only takes one to wreck the whole thing".

If Grasshopper were a miner, he'd be the one who had prospected the site when grapefruit-sized nuggets were lying bare on the ground, but has seen the machinery move in and strip the land until all that's left are mounds of dirt being sifted for a few grains.

The explorer, however, lives on hope. Is Grasshopper going to stop coming?

"One more year."

And then?

"Mate! Look at the size of Sumbawa, look at the size of Indonesia. There are thousands of places that haven't been discovered."

Such as?

"As if I'm gunna tell you!"


Getting there

Garuda has a fare to Denpasar from Sydney and Melbourne (6hr) for about $850 low-season return including tax. Jetstar and Virgin Australia also fly this route. The route from Denpasar to Bima on Sumbawa is serviced by local carriers Merpati and Wings Air, which fly for about $80 one way. Hotels at Lakey Peak offer packages. Hotel Aman Gati has flights and transfers from Denpasar and seven nights' accommodation from $US450 ($432) a person, twin share. Australians obtain a visa on arrival for $US25 for stays of up to 30 days.

Surfing there

Lakey Peak and Lakey Pipe are directly opposite the hotels, and are accessed by paddling or walking about 400 metres across the lagoon. Nungas is a one-kilometre walk and an 800-metre paddle. Periscopes is a further kilometre from Nungas, while Cobblestones is three kilometres in the opposite direction. Local motorbike riders offer transport at set rates of 20 rupiah for Nungas and 50 rupiah for Periscopes or Cobblestones.