Fabulous Misadventures on the AmEx Account.
When Tracks made its debut nearly 50 years ago, there was no such thing as surf travel, unless you counted heading up or down the coast in a panel van with your mates for the weekend.
From the 1950s, the more adventurous (and usually the more skilled) California surfers began taking the Matson liners over to Hawaii each winter to ride the big waves of Makaha and the North Shore, but in Australia it was only true pioneers, like the late Scott Dillon and Barry McGuigan, who made such daring treks. In the 1960s, the Hawaiian sojourn became more common, as did the bizarre idea that there might be good surf somewhere else, made fashionable through the adventures of the late Peter Troy.
So yeah, it was a long time ago and most of the pioneers are dead. But by 1970 the world was changing. High-speed jet travel was more affordable. We knew there was good surf in South and Central America, South Africa, Europe, and even the possibility of it closer to home in South East Asia. And these places were becoming more accessible.
In 1969 the Indonesian government completed construction of an international jet airport on the island of Bali. Within a year Bali was the buzz word within surfing’s cognoscenti, and in 1971 film-makers Bob Evans and Albert Falzon both filmed there. While Evo’s Family Free became the first surf movie to feature the fun beach breaks of Kuta, it was Falzon and producer David Elfick’s landmark Morning of the Earth, featuring the world class waves of Uluwatu, that opened up the floodgates to the first wave of modern surf tourism, helped along by the constant barrage of Bali photo features unleashed in the pages of their new toy, Tracks magazine.
When I first went to Bali in August 1974, the trip was organised by a little agency called Bali Easyrider Travel Service, one of only two outfits that offered the complete surf experience – air fares, 21 to 35 days losmen accommodation with banana and tea breakfast, and a motor bike – for a ridiculously cheap price. But by the time I became editor of Tracks a few months later, big business was sniffing around the edges of surf travel, and in the middle of 1975, Albe had an offer on the table from American Express to partner with us in the Tracks Travel Co. Of course no one had a credit card in those days, so AmEx wasn’t yet the big, swinging dick it was to become. Still, it was a global company, and they were interested in throwing dough at our little Whale Beach bong club!
AmEx hadn’t twigged to Bali yet. They wanted us to focus on Hawaii, came up with a hotel and car package and asked us to fly over and test it out, producing words and pictures that blessed it with some Tracks cred. The deal was meant to be for hardcore North Shore wave warriors (hardly likely to be in the market for a packaged tour) but Tracks photographer Frank Pithers and I arrived in Hawaii mid-summer when the North Shore was flat and deserted by all but flag-waving Japanese tourists on their way to or from the Dole Pineapple Cannery.
Frank and I had never been to Hawaii before, so we were completely in the hands of the package designers, who clearly had never been to Hawaii either. It didn’t help that Frank and I had an edgy relationship at best, particularly after a near-dustup in the car park at Bells a few months earlier. But we soaked up the free grog on the plane and arrived at our destination tired but happy.
We picked up our car – a less than luxurious Pinto – and drove out to the fabled North Shore, where absolutely nothing was happening. Haleiwa, flat; Waimea, flat; Pipe, couldn’t find it; Sunset, flat. And that’s it – North Shore pau! It was a pretty ignominious start to what would become a pretty ignominious relationship between me and the seven-mile strip. What was worse at the time was the fact that our ‘North Shore accommodation’ was not there at all but half an hour further on at alcohol-free Laie, in a motel attached to the Mormon-owned Polynesian Cultural Centre.
Frank and I lay on our twin beds for a while, wondering what to do. He remembered that he had a phone number for Owl Chapman, so we went to the front desk and phoned it. Owl was in Bali. So were most of the Hawaiian pros, the North Shore being flat. Through Gold Coast surfer Paul Neilsen, we both knew Honolulu socialite Faye Parker. She was a fun gal so we phoned her. She said: “Get your butts into town, I’m having a party!”
So that was our North Shore experience – two hours in a motel on the wrong side of Kahuku. Things got better in town – oh yeah, believe it! We surfed, we partied, we drank beers and smoked ciggies at the Outrigger Club with contest promoter Fred Hemmings while he ranted about the increasingly bad behaviour of the leading Australian pros. We went home empty-handed, except for a few photos of palm trees and bikini girls, and a rough idea that the North Shore would be more interesting in season.
The Tracks Travel Company was a resounding flop. We blamed AmEx, of course. It was the first time, but by no means the last, that big business failed to understand what made Tracks tick. But over the next couple of decades, the surfers themselves would take surf travel, and surf discovery to unimaginable heights.
From the pages of Tracks # 571