Unexpected. Distant. Isolated. Unknown. There are a million different ways to describe this trip, but perhaps the most fitting is to say that it was unlike anything else. That’s the nature of a journey like this – you never know what you’re going to get.
It started in Huntington Beach, California, where Alana Blanchard, Tyler Wright and Nikki Van Dijk had just spent two weeks revelling in the chaos of the US Open of Surfing.
The day after competition finished they had loose plans to head to the airport and take off on a Search trip. They didn’t know where they were going, they didn’t have any plans. They just knew they had to be at LAX, bags packed, ready to go.
So at 3:30am the morning after the final, alarms went off, boards and backpacks were hastily shoved onto a rental car roof, and Alana, Tyler and Nikki drove to the airport. No expectations. No details. Just a stack of one-way tickets and 72 straight hours of travel looming ahead.
“We seriously didn’t even know that we were coming here until the day before we left,” says Nikki. “We were in America saying, ‘Okay, is this really happening?’ Even when we were driving to the airport we still didn’t really even know if this was where we were coming. I just knew I was going to be with Tyler and Alana, and I was going to follow them onto a plane and hope for the best.”
You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just go. It actually made me not care about what kind of waves we were going to get – it was just so exciting to be going on a Search trip again. – Alana Blanchard
What came next was three planes, two cars, a bus, a boat, a night in Australia and a night in Kuta. By the time the team arrived it was past midnight, not that we had much of a sense of time; after three days of transit, you don’t have much left aside from incoherent giggles.
It’s funny… a lot of the time people view lengthy travel and transit as a bad thing, or a necessary evil. But for this particular destination it wasn’t just a logistical necessity – it made the whole trip. It stripped away expectations. It kept us from making plans, dissecting days into locations and timeframes and waves and activities. Everything was unknown.
“It adds excitement not knowing where you’re going, not having all the details,” says Alana. We’re sitting on a couch in a casual restaurant on one of the last nights of the trip. She’s nibbling on vegan gado-gado wearing an ACDC t-shirt and a pair of boxer shorts. I’m sipping a slightly warm Bintang next to her, and the rest of the crew is dispersed around the tables, talking over their days. This is the way it’s been for the past week. Lazing in the heat. Comfortable. Relaxed.
“You get lost in the travel,” she continues as she dips a carrot into the peanut sauce and nibbles. This peanut sauce has been a major highlight for the vegans on the trip. “Ah, god, that’s so good! Anyways, yeah… you don’t think. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You just go. It actually made me not care about what kind of waves we were going to get – it was just so exciting to be going on a Search trip again.”
And that loss of expectations came in handy over the 10 days. We had chosen this destination because of a swell forecast to hit, forecast to light up a dreamy left that we’d heard rumours about. And for the first few days we held out hope. We’d hop in a car or jump on dirtbikes and drive the 30 minutes down the road to check. We’d stand on the shoreline squinting at the sun, hoping to see a set roll through, a barrel spit. But time after time that watery lump would hit the reef and try, really try, but just never stand up. So we’d jump back on the road and search for another wave, another empty bay, another place to get wet.
On most trips this might cause some havoc or angst. Surfers would get eggy. Tensions would get stressed.
There’d be a lot of, ‘Why did we bother coming?’ But there was none of that here. We’d drive down another dirt path, or follow another local to their secret beach, and it would be okay. We’d come over a hill and be greeted by yet another empty beach break, or another barrel breaking off the jagged cliff-side. Or maybe we’d decide not to surf. Maybe we just wanted to explore, or simply sit around and laugh. Not a day went by without success – it just wasn’t what the trip had originally hinged on.
“You know,” says Nikki, “it’s been a fun trip for waves. We were a bit unlucky with the swell, because what we were anticipating never showed up.
You can always go on trips and expect to surf certain waves or swells or winds or this and that, but it’s so easy to get too wrapped up in. It becomes obsessive. It can ruin the experience.
“If you go on a trip thinking that you’re going to get this and that, or you know what you’re doing the entire time, it takes a little bit away from the excitement. You already know what you’re in for. But with a trip like this… we came here and did what we wanted and explored. No, we didn’t find what we were looking for at the start, but we found something else entirely. We were on our own Search, not someone else’s. And the thing is… you never really know what you’re going to get. I think that’s the best part of it all.”
Over the days, the trip morphed. It became more and more about having fun, enjoying each other’s company, taking time, playing with the pregnant cat at the hotel (hi Mudcake), surfing when we wanted to, sleeping when we wanted to, relishing the isolation, relaxing.
We spiked our fresh juices with vodka and stayed up late watching surf videos in the lobby. We sat in reception for hours, picking up the bits and pieces of Internet that seemed to blow in and out of the red-tiled room every few minutes. We went to waterfalls and dug cars out of ditches, we scaled cliffs and searched for jump rocks, we lay on the beach and played in novelty waves.
This trip wasn’t about scoring perfection (even though we did). It wasn’t about getting the shot. It wasn’t about competition or preparation. It was about taking a step back from life and enjoying the roller coaster. And the girls who went on this trip? They needed that.
Here’s Tyler, who has had the biggest 12 months of her life, both personally and in terms of her career. Alana, who is learning to settle into a non-competitive life and be content with it. Nikki who is, for the first time, finding solid ground on the World Tour sans injury. Three very different places in life, three very different perspectives, all feeding off and into each other.
It’s clear Tyler has matured as a person since 2015 – since before Owen’s accident, before she really wanted a World Title. Alana and Nikki both looked to her to make decisions, to put things bluntly, to call it how it was – we’d be lined up in the dunes deciding where to paddle out and Alana would look around and say, “Where’s mum? We need mum to make a decision.”
And then when it was time surf, Alana flourished. Wave after wave she’d drop in and give it her all, laying into cutbacks and bottom turns with power you’d never guess she had in those tiny little legs fuelled with vegetables. At one stage there had been a familiar face in the lineup for a few days – a familiar face that didn’t seem to have much etiquette. And Alana, after being forced to miss a few of the best waves of the trip, had had enough. A bomb came in out the back, this guy dropped in and she burnt him like I’ve never seen anyone burnt before. And she tore apart that wave.
If there’s a way to burn someone with class, Alana has found it.
I’ve never seen her surf as well as I saw her surf on this trip, and it’s testament to finally settling into that non-competitive lifestyle, to embracing where her career is and learning to grow with it.
Nikki, the youngest of the group, clearly looked up to Tyler and Alana in the water. You could see that competitive drive kick in when Tyler paddled past her, or caught the bigger set wave. “Watching Alana and Tyler shred made me feel like, ‘Gosh, come on Nikki, paddle faster!’ Surfing with those girls really pushes you. Tyler does a sick hack in front of you, or Alana speeds down the line and does an epic bottom turn… it’s awesome to see and feed off of. We don’t have a lot of times like this, so when we do it’s incredible.”
Tyler echoed this sentiment when I asked her what her favourite part of the trip was. “Just hanging with the girls,” she answered. “We’re not stressed by the outside world to do stuff that we normally have to do. We get to go looking for jump rocks and waterfalls and surf new waves. The swell doesn’t even have to be good on a trip like this – we’re just out there having fun together, you know?
“Take the waterfall that we found. The waterfall was one of the best experiences of the trip for me – almost kind of random to find, but at the same time, perfect.
We were going along these tracks, opening gates, walking through forests. Then you get there and you take it all in and it’s beautiful, untouched. It really kind of removes you from the world of fast things.
“When you sit there under the waterfall, completely still of mind, you’re open to the huge world around you and it’s stunning. But at the same time it’s so simple. You’re just sitting there on a rock, with water from the mountains running down on you. It’s calming. It’s relaxing. It’s still. You don’t really need to think about anything else but that moment, and in that moment you can really think about nothing. I mean, outside of the hotel’s front desk, it’s a new kind of reception.”
And maybe, on a trip like this, that’s what the Search is about. Finding your own sense of reception. Not expecting anything. Taking a break from the world.
I asked Alana if she thought the travel was worth it, even though the swell we had counted on never really showed up. Bear in mind that when I asked she was facing another three-day journey home. “Travelling to a place like this? It’s worth it. Definitely. You don’t get these types of places close to society. Nowadays, you have to go that long distance if you want to get places that are actually unseen, untouched. You have to go that extra mile, and if you want to do it, it’s totally worth it. You get to experience things that you won’t experience anywhere else. It’s raw, it’s beautiful. It’s untouched by humans. It’s your own, and it’s freedom.”
We didn’t know what we were going to get when we set out on this journey. And on the way home, when we were delayed eight hours and nearly missed our flights, running from airport to airport, we still didn’t know.
We never found what we originally set out in search of. We never saw that watery lump hit the reef and turn into the barrel we’d dreamt about. We found something else entirely.
That’s the nature, and beauty, of the Search – you never know what you’re going to get. And that’s what keeps you coming back for more, over and over, time and time again, constantly Searching.