A GREAT BREAK FOR THE BOARDER

For once there are no crowds of adoring fans, just the world's top surfers, ferocious waves - and a shark that wants its dinner. Christopher Sanderson visits the Quiksilver Pro in remote Java
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The Independent Culture
"It's hard to explain how surfers feel about G-Land," shrugs American Kelly Slater, 25, four-times World Surf Champion. "It's one of those special places. When we all got here yesterday and hit the waves, many of us regarded them as the best we'd ever surfed."

"The waves come all the way from Antarctica," he explains reverentially. "It's that journey that makes them special. They're just the most perfect arcs of crashing water which barrel on forever."

G-Land, miles from the nearest village and on the edge of a remote jungle reserve at the eastern tip of Java, Indonesia, was discovered in the Seventies by a couple of surfers who, while flying over the island, noticed the enticing wave formations below them. Some say that it then got its unusual name by continually hitting surfers' "G-spots". The more likely explanation is that the first surfers to visit the beach trekked along the narrow coastal path from the nearest village, Grajagan, 18km away.

Surf legend Jeff Hakman - in the Sixties he was one of the first Californians to storm the Hawaiian citadel of surfing - says, "In those days we would fill up a boat with supplies and get dropped off for days ... The jungle extended right to the sand and at night you could hear these noises, like, not geckoes or birds but deep growling noises."

Twenty years on, only moderate changes have taken place. The near-extinct Javan tigers may have gone from the reserve, but leaf monkeys, leopards, panthers, snakes, spiders and scorpions are still in residence. Two camps have been built close to the beach, offering accommodation for surfers on a pilgrimage to the G-Land waves. The camps offer spartan huts, basic shower and toilet facilities, and a generator which, in the evenings, illuminates a Vietcong-style canteen where you can play pool and watch endless surf movies.

G-Land is host, however, to the Quiksilver Pro, one of 12 events which make up the men's annual World Championship Tour (WCT). Despite facing competition from some of the world's most idyllic locations and best waves, it has won a special place in the heart of professional surfers. This is because while the other WCT events are run in front of crowds of spectators and are scheduled to fit in with media deadlines and weekend attendance figures, the Quiksilver Pro is organised for the pleasure of the surfers. The 10 days set aside for the competition allow the event director to wait for the best waves and the crowds of fans are absent because to get here requires time and effort: most of the competitors have had to take a long-haul flight to Bali, get a ferry to Java, travel overland for four hours, then take a speedboat across Grajagan bay.

ON THE DAY of our arrival at G-Land, the ocean violently spits out one of the 44 competitors. Derek Ho, seeded 19th in the pro-surf ranks, is wiped out by a wave which sends his normally buoyant board so deep into the water that its return ascent is fierce enough to cut him to the bone and sever the patella tendon in his right knee. Ho has his leg plastered on site before being bundled into a fast boat to catch the plane back home to Hawaii. He is unlikely to surf again professionally.

It's two days before the competition gets going properly. Most of the surfers spend an hour or two out on the waves but the rest of the time they wax and check their boards, sit around the bar and watch the efforts of their rivals. Two or three have brought wives or girlfriends along but there are no scenes of Point Break-style debauchery: beers are drunk and the odd joint may be smoked, but everyone has their eyes set on the lucrative prize purse. Surfing is still in its infancy as a professional sport but leaders like Kelly Slater make about US$140,000 (pounds 84,000) a year in prize money and then there are numerous sponsorship and advertising deals.

In the first round, surfers compete in groups of three in 30-minute heats. Each surfer can ride as many waves as he chooses within that time, but final scores will only be counted on the best three attempts. Judges, able to award a maximum of 10 points for each wave, are looking for the most radical and controlled manoeuvres on the most difficult section of the wave, with the surfer demonstrating speed and an ability to stay on his board for as long as possible. The size, power and complexity of the wave chosen by the surfer is also taken into account.

The winners of the first-round heats jump to round three, where they face the victors from round two, fought between the runners-up. After that, each round is a simple head-to-head, with the winner going forward to the next round.

HALFWAY THROUGH the contest, two Hawaiians who have been knocked out of the competition paddle on their boards to where a huge set of waves is peaking, but abort their leisure surfing when a 4m-long shark starts showing an interest in them. "Kalani saw the shark coming in with a wave and it darted towards him," says Shane Dorian. "We came in after that. I don't like sharks."

However, other reckless surfers seek ever more adventurous ways to pass the time. Brazilian Jojo Olivenca dives on the reef and catches fish with his hands. But his favourite pastime comes to a painful close when he reaches out for a stingray. "I've never tried to catch one of those before," Olivenca explains airily. "I was in so much pain for hours last night, but one of the local Indonesians told me to put my hand near the fire to get the poison out. I put my hand by the fire for one-and-a-half hours and then I could sleep. It's still very painful."

At the end of the first week, there are warnings of swells of up to 15ft which, if they arrive, will make surfing at G-Land impossible. The pressure is now on to get through the competition, and as surfer after surfer is knocked out, the quality of each consecutive heat increases - as do the number of dislocated shoulders, broken boards and bloody grazes.

Put off by reef cuts, sharks, effortless professionals and the risk of drowning, I, and a few other less proficient surfers who have come to watch the competition, take to sneaking off down the romantically named Tiger Trails, to a part of the bay where the waves are more gentle. Even here, on 3ft to 4ft breaks, the power of the G-Land wave is extraordinary, with currents that catch you unaware and drag you off your mark by as much as a kilometre within minutes. Surfing demands not only physical prowess but a deep knowledge of the sea.

"My relationship with the ocean and the environment where I live is really special to me," explains pro-surf veteran Barton Lynch. "It's my god - my god is my environment; the waves and the trees, the animals, all that stuff - that's why coming to G-Land is unique." It sounds too trite to be true but when they come from 180lbs of lean, weathered surfer such feelings carry a certain weight. The elation surfing creates stays with a surfer for ever; that moment of being in a "tube" surrounded by thousands of tons of moving water; knowing that this wave will never come again; understanding that by riding it you have become one with it.

The remaining heats are completed with surprising speed, with Australian Luke Egan taking the contest title. Having beaten world champion Kelly Slater in an earlier heat, he has clearly had a successful contest, yet the other surfers acknowledge that some of Slater's individual waves have taken the sport to new levels of perfection. Slater is unconcerned. "It's tough competing against friends," he admits. "But it's only the surf that really matters." !

Pictured, clockwise from top left: Mark Occhilupo (on the left) and Australian Luke Egan,

the competition title winner

Jungle stretches right down to the beach, where contestants stay in one of two basic camps

When surfers are not competing, they watch rivals perform, drink beer and smoke the odd joint

Surfer Sunny Garcia takes time out from the stress of the Quiksilver Pro to get a massage

Professional surfers like Pat O'Connell, pictured here, spend hours caring for their boards

Surfers never forget the feeling of being in a 'tube', surrounded by thousands of tons of water

The judges watch the surfers fight it out from a tower that has been specially erected in the water

You win the day with radical but controlled manoeuvres on the most difficult section of a wave

G-Land is dangerous and thrilling because of the reef that is hidden below the water at high tide

Surfers like Flavio Padaratz can earn as much as US$140,000 in sponsorship deals and winnings

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