In 1972, a hardcore group of American adventures organized simultaneous surfing expeditions to a remote reef rammed-up hard against a dense jungle teeming with wildlife, somewhere off in the Never Never.
The first group of three surfers piled all their supplies and boards on to a rickety old boat and made for the horizon. Meanwhile, another group of five surfers went by local transport overland and arrived in a fishing village they figured was close by, before lugging their gear 20-odd kilometers along the beach to the point.
The Boaties sailed into the bay and beached their vessel, which was to be their base camp for the next 10 days. They had very little fresh water after the crossing, and would have to collect more off the sails when it rained that afternoon. They were desperate, but ahead of the Overlanders.
As the swell filled in that first night and the rumble of the reef drowned out the roar of the tigers they knew there would be insane waves at first light. And there was… And they surfed…
The Overlanders came in a day later and while amazed at the find, could never lay claim to being “first to surf it.” They had been beaten… Or had they
An interesting yarn, true or not, but it raises the question: does it matter if you are not the first to surf a place if it’s pumping, and there’s someone else already there when you arrive? This would be the case for Matt Wilkinson and Gabriel Medina in their brief-yet-welcome downtime between stints in J-Bay and Teahupo’o. The world number one and three decided they wanted a piece of the warm water swell action that has been flooding waters around the Equator this year and flew from Africa to Asia, destination hooting lefts; surf camp and others waiting and all.
Collecting fellow goofyfoot ninja Garut Widiarta along the way, the trio dusted off the spirit of The Search and boarded a boat, like those original surfers in 1972, with no plan beyond getting tubed, laying some rail, playing some pong, and unwinding at night with a few beers and plenty of laughs.
“I used to love watching The Search videos,” says Wilko, to nobody in particular shortly after arriving. “Me too!” chimes in Gabriel, with unexpected vigour. “I used to watch all the DVDs. I remember when Rip Curl first sponsored me I thought I was going to go on all these trips to the middle of nowhere, to find perfect waves with my friends, and now we’re here, and it’s sick!” With that sort of positivity from our charges, how could we go wrong?
Day one dawns big and burly with plenty of energy in the water and not many others out. Perhaps they were catching water as it dripped from the sails of their boat, and who could blame them? This wave is a killer.
The swell is solid, but according to our local water diviner Nick Chong its aim is out to lunch. Not that it bothers our crew one little bit. Spend time with Gabriel and you’ll soon realise there is nobody on the planet with a bigger appetite for waves, and his hunger pangs need to be fought off all day long. Before our boat has made the lineup Gab is gone, a million miles up the point and out of sight, only to reappear moments later, flying down the line and over the lip alternately. It’s a sight you’ll see repeated time and again when you surf with the 22-year-old superstar from São Paulo.
“My uncle was good, had the third fastest time in South America for one of the strokes. I have long arms and it’s something I really like to do. My dad said I used to be pretty good. I enjoyed training when I was young and I think that’s why I’m a strong paddler now.”
Gabriel has the perfect physique for the modern surfer, standing a shade under six-foot tall and heavier than you’d imagine, around the 80kg mark. Superbly fit, he has a thick upper body and broad shoulders that propel him around the lineup like a surfing terminator. Surely he has a history in the pool? “Yeah, I used to swim a little bit,” Gab grins. “My uncle was good, had the third fastest time in South America for one of the strokes. I have long arms and it’s something I really like to do. My dad said I used to be pretty good. I enjoyed training when I was young and I think that’s why I’m a strong paddler now.”
It’s the sort of conversation you’d expect to have with Gabriel, but he’s not the only one with fitness on his mind. As we wait for a boat one steaming morning Gabriel and Wilko turn the sand into a studio. Both guys are doing push-ups and sit-ups and suddenly we’re no longer in the jungle, we’re back on the title trail. Filmer Bali Strickland marvels at one of Wilko’s whole body contortions, and Wilko breaks down the who, when and why of the stretch; which muscles are activated, what greater purpose the pose achieves. It’s good stuff, not an ounce contrived, and a stark reminder of why the kid from Copacabana who for so many years fought to requalify now finds himself atop the title totem.
Garut is thrilled to be on the trip, the 2014 Rip Curl Cup champion more than holding his own against his fellow goofyfooters. Slight of stature but superbly fit Garut pinballs off big sections, tucks into the tightest of tubes, and would challenge Gabriel if the speed gun was pulled out. Garut lives a charmed life in the heart of Kuta, his family surfing royalty in the Island Of The Gods. When not sneaking up to the Bukit Peninsula to dominate Padang Padang alongside his cousins Made “Bol” Adi Putra and Raditya Rondi, the trio rule the Indonesian contest scene, carrying on the surfing legacy of family patriarch, Balinese surfing pioneer Wayan Ganti Yasa. Then, when Rip Curl come calling, Garut is more than happy to jump on The Search program and explore the outer fringes of his beloved archipelago with an all star cast. Last year it was a boat trip with Mick Fanning to a little known and highly sought after slab, this year a mystery left with Wilko and Gabriel. A charmed life indeed.
Wilko and Gabriel present a study in contrasts in the lineup. Gabriel never stops moving, rarely sits up on his board. His range is huge, any wave that rears up within a football field’s distance is within reach such is his paddling strength and ability to know exactly where to be. At one point he disappears to the horizon and returns minutes later riding a feathering outer reef set, flanked by a couple of dozen fish jumping from the water around him. It’s a surreal sight, but after a few hundred metres of pumping and weaving Gab is still too deep when the wave finally throws, and the lineup chuckles; maybe he is human after all.
When he takes off, Gabriel rewrites the book. There is no bottom turn in his repertoire, instead he gets in early thanks to his paddle power and 30-plus-litre boards, and he pumps and extends and races across the upper third of the wave until finally he attains some crazy kind of maximum velocity. Then, and only then, will he drop down into the wave, screaming off the bottom at Mach II and eyeing off the next unlucky section, while letting it determine his next move, be it a lightning quick gaff or monumental air. Regardless of which way he goes, he won’t fall. It’s just not something he does.
Wilko, as is his wont to do, talks to people the length of the lineup as he makes his way back out after waves. He shares jokes with those who were there before him, and hoots when guys wipe out. He loves a layback more than anyone, and should a tube fail to open up you can bet your bottom dollar that a moment later Mat will be dropping the other shoulder and carving a swathe through the next section, a whirling dervish of spray and wild hair. His mood fluctuates depending on how he’s surfing or how his board’s going, and the magical red Darren Handley he rode to glory on the Aussie leg is thousands of miles away, thoroughly out of harm’s reach.
“Sometimes I don’t even want to pull it out at CTs any more,” Wilko says of his most prized possession. He is, however, particularly psyched on a six-foot channel bottom he’s carted around the world all year. From Bells, to Margaret River, and Fiji twice it logged platinum amounts of flyer miles untouched, before finally seeing wax for the first time in Indonesia. Two waves and two tubes later it breaks, along with Matt’s heart. “It just felt so damn good,” he whispers, inspecting the damage and returning it to its coffin, the boardbag’s name never more apt.
Light moments between Gab and Wilko are endless. The pair have been travel buddies for years, you don’t really have a choice when you share sponsors, and these days they’ll happily cruise away from the circus too. “Gabriel came down to my place in Byron during Snapper this year to hang out,” says Wilko, “and I’ve been to his place in Brazil too.” It’s fair to say that of all the tour friendships, Gabriel and Wilko’s is easily the strongest bond between the Brazilian and Aussie camps, but Wilko sees nothing special about it. “He’s a legend, we get along sick, and we’re good mates,” he says simply, as if anyone who doesn’t see that as sufficient is not worth bothering with.
After a week of jungle time and with mission firmly accomplished we find ourselves back in the bright lights and bustle of Bali. After eating lean on Indonesian food we feel like we’ve earned a meat feast, and make our way to a highly recommended South American barbecue restaurant. Gabriel is in heaven and orders the 450g rib eye with a grin, while Wilko feasts on scallops. The restaurant staff ask for Gab and Wilko to pose for a photo with a piglet being cooked asado-style over hot coals. The ensuing Instagram is captioned with Wilko first on the ratings and Gabriel third, while John John Florence (sitting second in the world) is tagged as the piggy in the middle. With the ice finally broken on the elephant in the room, it seems the perfect time to ask the title questions we’ve been hanging to have answered.
“Is one of you going to win this year?” I ask.
“Yeah,” says Gabriel flatly.
“I hope so,” says Wilko.
“Yeah, one of us,” laughs Gab.
“Can you work as a team maybe?” The pair look at me like I’m stupid.
An awkward silence later we sit back down to our plates of pulled pork and lamb cutlets, with nothing more to be said. As the pair pull apart chicken wings, and scoff down every last morsel, it’s clear we’re in counsel with two kings of this year’s World Tour jungle.
Every heat for the rest of the run home is going to make for captivating viewing. Will the Brazilian wunderkind come home hard, or will the red hot Aussie keep on riding the roll of his life? These two mates from opposite sides of the planet will be pushing each other every last inch of the way to the Pipeline podium and like the Boaties versus the Overlanders back in 1972 in the race for the reef: it’s then that it really matters who gets their first.