The afternoon sun streams between the two stone tigers at the gates of the empty camp. Somewhere, out in the glare, languid lines of swell shimmer slowly into the giant bay, bend around an offshore wedge of ancient limestone, and focus tightly into its southern tip. The lines draw and stand into long walls that topple, slowly at first, then faster, growing hollow and grinding down the mile-long reef. The sun is so bright the wave can only be seen as zippering emerald pinlines between the darkness of the reef’s edge and the blinding white of the sky.
If your eyes can take it, this is a great time to surf G-Land, when heat and glare send most into the shade of the camps between surfs. Old timers like Larry McGraw know this is a good time to surf without crowds, but this season, out of all his 30 seasons past, Larry isn’t thinking about that. This season, Larry is the crowd. In this strangest of years, when the Indonesian archipelago sits locked down and shut off from the world and surfers everywhere navigate their own new normal, Larry sits alone at the edge of the wilderness. It’s his birthday today. He’s 72, but for now time is on his side. He can afford to wait for the sun to dip a little lower and surf the sunset alone.
By some strange navigation of yo-yoing visa entry rules, opening and closing borders, zig zag itineraries and quarantine, Larry got himself to G-Land for a good long stint in late April 2021. It’s now late June, and the other two guys in the camp left this morning. No one else came in on the boat.
May. After McGraw arrived in camp, a few more surfers arrived. Tom Kellerman, a quiet, graceful Californian who rides big boards from up at Kongs down to Money Trees, and Greg and Stephen, a pair of garrulous kneelos who favour the shallower sections down the end. Rizal, Mike Akima and Bob Hurley passed through for a while. Larry sits way out on the Launching Pad. He rides a big yellow 8’0”, which gets him in early and rides smoothly over The Cobra and into Speedies. His movements are economical; a long swooping bottom turn sets his line and draws the bow. Back elbow cocked, front fingers straining forward… the classic tube stance of all goofies from the Lopez-Russell era.
It’s quite likely Larry McGraw has been surfing since before you were born. Skimboards, Paipos and surf mats as a kid then an old balsa Jacobs that graduated him into the lineups around California’s Orange County as a mid-‘60s grom. “I studied Biology at San Diego State and surfed a lot around Sunset Cliffs. I was there when my buddy Steve Lis took a pair of Churchill swimfins, put ‘em together and drew the tail template of what would be the very first fish. I rode them a lot from about 1970.”
“From ‘71-‘75 I was in San Francisco doing dental school. I thought, moving up there from San Diego that surfing was done for me. Then I arrive and there’s these giant A-frame beachbreaks half a mile out to sea with barely anyone surfing them. That was Ocean Beach. I had a photo of me from November ‘74 on a really big wave, totally undergunned on an 8’6” pintail. I’d put the fish away pretty soon after seeing what was going on with the waves up there.”
It was around this time McGraw, invited by some old buddies from the Laguna Beach area, did a stint at Petacalco, the mythical Mexican mondo-beachie. Puerto Escondido’s big brother. It was a tight-knit crew, sworn to near-paranoid secrecy about the wave before its eventual destruction courtesy of a dam project.
By 1975, McGraw got his dental license and headed straight for Hawaii. Waianae, the heart of the notoriously localised West Side, seems a strange fit for a freshly-minted haole but Larry soon became both dentist and friend to Hawaiian royalty like the Keaulanas, the Sunns and the DeSotos. He would practice in Waianae for the next 20 years and become a fixture at Makaha and various North Shore lineups. “They treated me like family,” he recalls. “My wife was good friends with Rell Sunn, who was involved with all the kids contests, so we really got to know all of them. Sunny Garcia, all those guys were my patients.”
June. It had been a good run… consistent well-angled swells, warmish water and so damn empty. By agreement, the four surfers and camp photog Donny decided to stop social media posts of the waves. G-Land regulars around the world were getting increasingly desperate, even downright snippy in the camp’s social media comments. After dinner, the four would retreat to separate corners to take little breaks from each other, rub phones and connect with the outside world.
Larry first got to G-Land in 1987 and has been every season since. “It was pretty primitive,” he recalls of that first year. “Bamboo huts, no fans, communal toilets and the same meals on a three-day rotation. Vinyl mattresses with a thin sheet. The nights were miserable. The same Sundanese flute music at dinner they play to this day. But the waves were insane. Peter McCabe and his mate Peter Hoskins were the guys that first year. I used to come for two-to-three weeks at a time – partly as I had my practice to run – and I realised you could only surf all day and drink beer every night for about that long before the body needed a break.
Matt “Dibble” Dobell, widely regarded as one of the best at G-Land, remembers Larry being the guy on all the sets out there when he first came in ’94. “And he still gets bombs. Great style, good tube rider and just a classic gentleman.” Larry is quick to return the compliment. “Dibble, David Scard and Eddie Blackwell have been the main perennial standouts. But for just sheer tube riding magic, Camel just had a different relationship with it. The weird boards he was making, the giant washout days, he was just finding gems when no one else was even out… really something else.”
July. Things had settled down… not that four guys in camp with regular overhead surf had been too hectic. Swells slumped and wobbled their way down the reef, as opposed to rearing and reeling. Occasionally, guys from Bali would blast in on speedboats for a day on swells, but no real classic days. The momentary crowds would remind them of the world outside but then be gone without setting foot ashore.
On July 3, a stay-at-home order was issued for Bali and most of Java. Larry checked with the camp manager exactly what qualified as “home” via the terms of the orders. He called Bobby Radiasa who told him he was staying put. Larry would have G-Land to himself for a few weeks.
Others were not so lucky. Charlie Quesnel, another jungle regular from the Big Island of Hawaii, spent two months organising a visa, then took five flights to get to Jakarta where he quarantined for a week. Finally free on Indonesian soil, he flew to Bali and the next boat out to G-Land. Whilst in the air though, lockdown was announced with immediate effect. Charlie moped around the Bukit for two weeks, then retraced his itinerary home, defeated. Larry and Tom meanwhile remained in camp, just the two of them, sometimes going whole surfs, whole days, only seeing each other at a distance on the vast reef. Each usually surfs his own section and hundreds of metres separate them.
August. “It was about now things started to get weird. The swells were being generated much farther north than usual and were disorganised and hard to read. The waves were sectiony and undersized and we’d go a couple of weeks without a decent day. Lots of fun, mellow Money Trees that in a normal year I would’ve bailed.”
Regardless, there’s still a lot of surfing to be done. “What limits you at G-Land is the paddling, not the actual surfing,” offers Larry. “Back home, I only surf if it’s decent. No real need to if it’s not. I play tennis and before a trip I’ll paddle across the bay at Waikiki, about five miles, a few times a week. I don’t surf much through winter as I snowboard a lot, so I’ll do some weights and squats for that. Try to eat right. I’ll be honest, it’s more luck than anything. I haven’t had many injuries.”
September. After a while these ones can drag. The season was one of those occasional anomalies where the wet season teases early, the trades slacken, and the jungle attempts to reveal herself in her full sodden tropicality. Evening thunderstorms are regular and drenching. The days become hot, thick, still. Your towel never quite dries. The winds this month never blew strong enough to cool things down and nights were hot and sleepless. Larry seemed happy enough.
“My girlfriend is with me, and we both speak Indonesian so we’re pretty comfortable here for an extended time. All the staff at Bobby’s are close friends. It was nice to be able to get out for the day and head to Banyuwangi and play some tennis once the lockdown lifted. In lockdown, if we’d left, we weren’t going to be let back in.”
“The reef ecology hasn’t really bounced back,” offers Larry of the effect two seasons without crowds. “It’s about the same. The shell pickers are still out there collecting what they can and there’s a lot of fishing going on. The land fauna is definitely more prevalent. The monkeys have to compete a lot harder for food, but there are definitely more deer, pigs, and peacocks. I even saw a banteng (Javanese water buffalo) the other day and some big prints from a macan tutul (Javan leopard) down at Tigers the other week.”
October. Borders are slowly reopening and the well-placed or well-heeled are starting to come back into camp. A few Russians, some local families and Bali expats are starting to bring a little ambience to dinnertime, but the season is slowly drawing out. Larry is reflective. “Aww man, it’s been a shitty season all up. I mean, we’ve got some little waves today and there’s a Speedies swell coming in a couple of days. Swell looks good but depends on the winds. At this point I’m just waiting it out. I mean, I may as well stay till Thanksgiving and just head straight to the mainland to visit family. Save me travelling again.”
The late season has a glassy torpor to the ocean. The horizon blurs in the grey mornings. The afternoon is a wan yellow as the monsoon moves southward in a moist creep. Soon the season will end, onshore winds will blow, and camps will close. Random creeks will burst through the beach and spill across the reef as they drain the teeming rain from the jungle.
Larry will be back. When the trades blow again at the end of the wet. He realises the emptiness of this season will never happen again. “All the camps have been building extra rooms and the World Surf League is coming again next year. When they came in the ‘90s the crowds jumped after that. They got it really good. I’ve never seen Money Trees as good as they got it that first one. I kinda hope they don’t score this time, but those guys will make it look incredible anyway. I’ll still be back. My pop-ups are getting a little slower, but it’ll be fine. I just don’t think I’m gonna be able to surf out here with a normal crowd again. I mean, I just can’t envision how that even looks right now…”