I’m roaring down the road, knuckles white from gripping motorbike handlebars for so long, my dirty backpack glued to my back – the hot, heavy air is thick with incense while black truck fume coats everything in a thin layer of grime. But as I speed past warungs, old men with clove cigarettes pressed to their lips, beautiful women in colorful dresses… I’m free. Gloriously, totally, stunningly free.
I don’t know how much longer this road will wind before I reach my destination. Traveling alone comes with certain costs. Discarding material things: shampoo bottles, extra sweaters, a book you wanted to bring but they don’t make in paperback. And non-material things, too: your friend who starts drinking at 10 a.m. and would surely ruin the trip. (I didn’t pay $1,000 and sit on a plane all day to chug Bintangs and ogle at people until the crack of dawn.)
Oh the liberation of traveling solo! That’s where you’ve found me during this very writing. Jack London’s words ring through my head as I gun it past taxis weighed down by clusters of longboards. Now, with dramatic effect, it is I who is “mastered by the sheer surging of life, the tidal wave of being, the perfect joy of each separate muscle, joint, and sinew in that it was everything that was not death, that it was aglow and rampant, expressing itself in movement, flying exultantly under the stars.”
But the solo voyage also comes with dread of the unknown: It’s I, alone, who sits waiting out flat spells in mildewy huts at the edge of the beach. It is I, alone, who battles sickness from foreign food or maybe the bottle of water that came from the tap. Every decision is mine, and mine alone. Some come out wrong. I, alone, try to read swells, or book flights to a remote spots on remote islands. I’m alone to watch for men emerging from the brush with machetes…… and it’s my imagination alone that gets the best of me.
But all this is to ask the simple question: is traveling alone better for scoring waves?
Veteran surf traveler Kepa Acero seems to think so. In an interview by Dashel Pierson, Acero explains how he did a world tour alone. “I took my backpack, three surfboards, and I simply bought a ticket to Namibia. Then I went to Indo, West Oz and Chile. It took me six months and after that one I never stopped traveling solo. I love it.” To him (and I agree) the freedom is the best thing about solo travel. “I love the fact that you’re the one who makes all the decisions. If you want to stay, you stay. And you leave whenever you want to leave.”
Even in group settings, the best and most historically important surf discoveries are often credited to one person, who ventured out on their own in search of something more. Thousands of surfers who’ve taken Indonesian surf trips have Morning of the Earth filmmaker Alby Falzon alone to thank for the discovery that led to Uluwatu and the iconic cave scene.
In The History of Surfing, Matt Warshaw pens in “Hippie Trail Gold,” discussing Falzon’s early Indonesian surf discoveries, that “the Kuta surf was enough to keep everyone happy for the first week or so. Then Falzon hired a bemo and ventured by himself out to the peninsula, aiming for a cliff-top temple called Uluwatu. Leaving the temple grounds and walking a short distance to the west, he tracked a small but gorgeous little wave as it wound off toward Kuta. This was the spot.” Today, that spot is not only famous, but one of the all-time best spots in surfing worldwide.
Besides the possibility to make insane discoveries, the next best thing about solo surf travel is the necessary building of skills to survive. Acero claims that “you learn. You want to find waves but there is a point where you also need to meet people. You’re forced to connect with people you otherwise wouldn’t, because it’s a human necessity.”
Acero speaks to what I believe is the biggest reason to embark on these missions alone. Connecting with others not only allows you to make new friends but forces you to experience new cultures – one of the most important and rewarding parts of traveling. People aren’t going to share spots with a group of surfers, but for one, (if you’re nice enough and try to speak the language) they might make an exception.
And this has been true since the dawn of surf exploration. Case in point: Peter Troy. The famed Around the World on a Surfboard author, whose surf adventure amassed over 125,000 miles, spoke to the good fortune he experienced during his travels saying, “for some reason or another you’d look at the map and think ‘Oh I’ll go on down there’ and when you got down there you met other people and you started to acquire languages and you started to acquire experience …you met some guy and he’d say ‘Well, why don’t you go out to the Galapagos, you know the Chilean navy can take you out there, here’s a little letter,’ and he’d write it on a table napkin or something and you’d give it to the admiral of the Chilean navy and you got a free trip in those days. And each time you became more extroverted in what you did, the easier it was to get to the next place.”
Acero, like Troy, draws attention to the benefit of building people skills from going at it alone. “You develop a sense to know people, to decide fast. Who to trust and who not to trust.” Acero expresses a sentiment many of us have discovered while traveling in groups. You’re sheltered. Even the most exotic place in the world becomes familiar because the people you’re with are familiar. And the quest for new waves is all about the new, the novelty, the unfamiliar.
Plus, and don’t hate me for this one, there’s something undeniably spiritual about surf traveling solo. Venturing off to ride cosmic waves of energy in some undisclosed location, without anyone around to see it… that’s soul surfer material, plain and simple.
But there are downsides of traveling solo, too. There are the risk factors: higher chances of getting bit by a shark, no one to save you if you hit the reef or get caught in a rip, no one to check your storm forecasting or correct your swell direction by a couple degrees, saving you from getting completely skunked. And then there’s the biggest risk of all: death.
Speaking of Peter Troy and Uluwatu, the two combined were nearly a fatal combination. Wayne Lynch recounts that Troy was speared in his back by his board and nearly crippled as a result. Had he been alone, he surely would have died. And Lynch had his own near-death experience in Bali: in a piece by Kirk Owens for The Surfer’s Journal titled “Back From Hell,” Owens writes that a motorbike accident with a girlfriend sent both to the hospital, where Lynch then contracted malaria and later received news that he had three compressed vertebrae. Ordeals happen frequently in surf travel, but alone, they’re more likely to be fatal.
Kirk writes that “death and danger are stitched into the fabric of Indo surf exploration. Californian Bob Laverty drowned while surfing Uluwatu in 1972. Nias co-discoverer John Geisel died from malaria nine months after finding the best right in the archipelago. Desert Point devotee Pablo Miller was stabbed by bandits while feeding his Lombok tube-fix. And those are just the well-known tales.”
Then there are the material costs: you can’t charter a boat solo, taxis cost double or triple what they would in a group, and you only have your own quiver to use instead of swapping boards with friends. (Men love to laugh at logs until the best waves are ankle high, and then it’s the modern-day story of Quigg’s malibu chip all over again.)
And when looking to score, money matters a lot. The less money you spend, the longer you can camp out at a spot, and the bigger your window becomes for catching swell. Or, you can use that money to ditch a flat area and head somewhere better. By yourself, you get more flexibility in making these decisions, but they’re gonna cost you a lot more. In a group, you may not like where you end up, but it will probably have waves, and you’ll have the camaraderie to persevere even if it doesn’t.
At the end of the day, it’s easier to be somewhere with waves in a group setting, but you’ll probably have a more rewarding and unique experience by yourself. Looking for a change of pace, to really learn the intricacies of a particular coastline, and to push yourself to gain the skills you need to hunt down perfect waves? Go alone. Looking to surf your brains out, have a mellow vacation, and score on a budget? Go with friends. Whether you make friends along the way or bring them with you, either way, it’s a surf trip and it (pretty much) always beats surfing your home break. Get out there!