April 18, 2005
April 18, 2005

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April 18, 2005

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Try to imagine what Tavarua was like more than two decades ago. To reach the tiny, deserted island, you would make a five-mile trip by boat from Viti Levu, the main island of Fiji, with local fishermen or one of the villagers who went to Tavarua to collect coconuts. You would have a late-'70s single-fin surfboard that the Fijians would joke about and touch. For sure they would think you were crazy when you asked about the waves that broke a mile to the south of Tavarua on what they called Naikurukurumailagi or Thundercloud Reef. The waves were so huge and broke over such a distance that they frightened the villagers and made fishing in the area treacherous. Back then Fiji didn't have a picture of a surfer on the cover of its phone book, as it does now. In fact, in the villages closest to Tavarua there were no telephones, or running water or electricity.

This is an article from the April 18, 2005 issue

Dave Clark doesn't have to imagine. He was there, in 1982, among the first surfers to ride the now legendary waves at Tavarua. Surf travel in the 1970s and '80s was anything but glamorous. It involved long flights to undeveloped countries followed by longer bus rides to boats that more often than not were barely seaworthy. Camping on beaches or staying with locals, drinking coconut milk and fishing for meals, was the norm. When the surf was good, the hardships became part of the adventure. But when the sea went flat, the romance waned. Thoughts drifted to toilet paper, never mind a toilet. Living in feral conditions on the beach of Tavarua, Clark couldn't have known that within 20 years he would forever change surfers' relationship with the ocean and become one of the most admired--and reviled--figures in his sport's history.

Even before he heard of Tavarua, Clark had it in his mind to build a resort around a world-class wave. As he grew frustrated with the crowds at Doheny, his local break in Orange County, Calif., Clark dreamed of an ideal wave, far from the masses. At UC Santa Barbara in 1979, he wrote his senior thesis on artificial reefs and included a chapter on modifying a coral atoll to create a perfect, private surf resort. "Back then it was a pretty unique thought," says the 51-year-old Clark from his home north of Santa Barbara. "It was either stupid or crazy." Turns out Clark wouldn't have to shave a reef to realize his dream.

After Clark graduated, his search for empty waves led him to the South Pacific, where he took a job teaching in American Samoa. There, a yachtie told him about a surf break near an island called Tavarua off the southwest coast of Viti Levu. On his first trip Clark camped on Tavarua for two months. He went out beyond the lagoon and surfed the shallow reef break. When it was on, this spot produced fast, hollow waves. But the surf was fickle; it needed just the right swell to break. When it wasn't working, Clark explored the 20-acre, sea snake-- infested island. On these forays he noticed a wave breaking a mile offshore, forming a white, frothy horizon line--what surfers call a cloud break. "Near shore the waves would be only one foot," says Clark, "but this cloud break would be like 20 feet and just catching all the swell."

The next year Clark returned with his wife, Jean, and friend Scott Funk and a Zodiac boat. They motored out to the offshore wave, which they named Cloudbreak. "Jumping off on a coral edge like that was really scary. You're on your own; if you get hurt, you have a major problem," says Clark. The setup scared the hell out of them, but the wave was the best they had ever ridden. It was Clark's eureka moment.

during his first visits to Tavarua, Clark befriended a village chief named Druku. Clark learned that Druku's family on Viti Levu owned Tavarua. He went to Druku--whom he'd been teaching to surf--and explained his plan to build a resort for surfers. Druku knew that besides the coconuts, the island was of little use to his family. He agreed to arrange a sevusevu, a formal sit-down, with his aunt, the paramount chief of the area. Clark arrived at the sevusevu with some kava (a mildly narcotic root that is pounded, mixed with water and drunk out of coconut shells) and a tabua (whale tooth). In Fijian culture, acceptance of the tabua grants the giver certain privileges and favors. With Druku translating, Clark made his pitch. Several bowls of kava later, Druku's aunt accepted the tabua and agreed to lease Clark the island for a share of future revenues. "We hated the wave because we couldn't fish there," says Druku. "But Dave said, 'Watch, people are going to be crazy about this place.'"

Clark had one other hurdle to clear. In Fiji native landowners hold fishing rights, or qoliqoli (pronounced ng-O-lee-ng-O-lee), which give them control of the surrounding ocean. Again with the help of Druku, Clark sat down to kava sessions with the villages that held the rights to Thundercloud Reef. In the end he secured a deal only with Druku's village of Nabila. Clark hoped that Momi, the other key village, would come around in time.

Clark had seen the negative cultural impact surfers had on developing areas in such surf meccas as South Africa's Jeffreys Bay and Bali's Uluwatu, and he was determined to keep this from happening to Tavarua. He knew that for his project to succeed he had to control the number of surfers on Cloudbreak. This policy of exclusive access to a surf break was unheard of at the time and unleashed a debate in the surf world that continues today.

Together with his wife and Funk, Clark designed the resort as a bare-bones surf camp. "The early days were pretty raunchy," says Bob McKnight, one of Tavarua's earliest guests and the head of a then fledgling surfwear brand called Quiksilver. "There were no candles, no fans, no electricity. The food was eggplant a thousand different ways with maybe a bit of fish. But because it was new and exotic and the surf was good, nobody gave a s---." It was a simple operation, but one that Clark knew surfers would crave. They just needed to know about it.

armed with a slide carousel, Clark proselytized in surf towns from San Diego to Santa Cruz but to no avail. Eventually he contacted Kevin Naughton, a well-known surf nomad who together with photographer Craig Peterson had produced an influential series of articles in the 1970s on such far-flung surf destinations as Ghana and Liberia. In '84 Naughton and Peterson agreed to check out Clark's island. The resulting cover story in Surfer magazine gave Tavarua Island Resort the launch it needed.

As Tavarua's waves became more popular with surfers, the resort started to enforce its exclusive-rights policy. The situation was hairy from the start, with stories of surfers who were not guests at the resort being roughed up. Throughout the resort's 22-year history there have been continual challenges to its exclusive claim on the waves. In the late '80s and early '90s, fights sometimes broke out in the water and reportedly village heavies from Nabila would come out in resort-owned boats to act as enforcers. Cloudbreak's ubiquitous presence in surf magazines drew increasing numbers of wave riders from the U.S. and Australia. This led to new conflicts as upstart businesses tried to horn in on Tavarua's action. Before a resolution was reached in 1996, the fighting between Nabila and Momi verged on tribal warfare.

In 1992 the pressure on Clark and Funk became so intense that the partners considered selling the resort. Rick Isbell and Jon Roseman, guests who had become managers at the resort, teamed up and put together a proposal that led to a partnership with Clark. "The resort was getting run down, and we brought in fresh energy," says Isbell. "Jon and I were stoked on the lifestyle, and we put all the money back into the resort." Roseman and Isbell knew that to survive, the surf camp had to have more amenities. "We basically made it more user-friendly," says Roseman.

Today Tavarua is the surf resort against which all others are measured. Often referred to as the Club Med of surfing, it has a one-year waiting list for peak periods and costs $3,000 per week (including airfare and meals). The bungalows have been upgraded, and the food has moved far beyond its eggplant origins. Not everyone was sold on the more upscale approach at first. "Man, you should have seen the violent reactions when they were thinking of putting in the swimming pool," says Bob Hurley, president of the sportswear company Hurley International, who in his best surf dude speak mimics the outcry: "'Ahwww, you can't do that. It's a total sell-out.'"

Now the resort has not only a pool, but also telephone service and Internet access and a fully equipped infirmary that if need be can serve as a surgical theater. Of course, the prime draw is the uncrowded surf experience. "In a way it's kind of like the old days of surfing," says Isbell. Each new group of guests is given an orientation on safety and wave etiquette and warned that aggressive behavior and wave snaking won't be tolerated.

Despite the resort's claims of exclusivity throughout the 1980s and early '90s, legal control of Cloudbreak wasn't resolved until 1996. It came about when a Fijian surfer from the capital, Suva, boated out to Cloudbreak and got into a confrontation with village enforcers. The incident, reported in the Fiji Times, led to a government investigation of the resort and its village partners' qoliqoli claims. After considerable political wrangling, the Fijian government issued a special license to the resort granting it "the sole right of occupation and use of Naikurukurumailagi reef and its surrounds for surfing purposes." As part of the deal the resort agreed to manage an open surf day on Saturdays that allows a limited number of nonresort guests to surf Cloudbreak.

twenty years ago there were virtually no Fijian surfers. But their numbers are growing, and a small but vocal group of them is not happy with the resort's special license or the Saturday concession. Ian Muller, who in 1995 opened Fiji's first surf shop, Viti Surf Legends, freely admits that the resort helped him establish his business. Still, he accuses the resort of sending the majority of its profits to the U.S. and contributing only a pittance to the villages and people of Fiji. He also contends that by not allowing Fijians to manage their own natural resources, the resort is engaging in a modern form of colonialism. Most of all, he hates that local surfers have to ask permission to surf Cloudbreak. "Sure, I'm piggybacking on their success, and I admit Tavarua has been positive in some ways," says Muller. "[But] we are being treated as second-class citizens in our own country."

Yet Tavarua's village partners enjoy a prosperity unimaginable 20 years ago. The villages receive 5% of the property's gross income. In addition, the resort makes contributions that fall outside the agreement, more than quadrupling the total, to roughly $1 million a year. "I thought it was ludicrous to lease the island to a surfer; I didn't see the economic potential," says Osea Gavidi, a tourism official and former member of parliament. "Ten years down the line, the benefit to Momi and Nabila is immense."

druku is proud of his role as ambassador, bringing together the resort and the villages, and perhaps prouder of being the first Fijian to surf Cloudbreak. When asked if the villages could run the resort without their U.S. partners and keep all the profits, Druku frowns. "Why would we want to take it from them?" he says. "Surfing was nothing in Fiji before Tavarua. They've done so much for the villages and this country. They build houses, send villagers to hospitals in America, give scholarships." He clasps his hands and adds, "We're family, bro."

While critics of the resort wonder if the arrangement with the villages quashes dissent, all parties to the deal seem content and recently renewed the qoliqoli contract for 10 years. Though the critics are slow to concede it, no other surf resort in the world makes near the financial contribution that the Tavarua Island Resort makes to its village partners.

Tavarua's success has paralleled the stunning growth of the surf industry and the surf population, which is now in its third generation. Surfing has evolved from its outsider roots to become a $4.5 billion-a-year industry. Crowded breaks continue to frustrate surfers and lead them to take trips to far-flung locales. More than 250 commercial surf operators have sprung up around the world; travel is the fastest-growing sector in the surf economy.

For better and worse, surf operations are looking to Tavarua as the model for future success. That means more exclusive resorts and--despite the complaints--more exclusive waves. "It's all exposed. People know all the hidden spots, and swell is announced on the Internet," says McKnight, whose Quiksilver runs its own travel division and employs a full-time boat dedicated to finding new surf spots. "It has caused us older surfers to travel to surf camps in these exotic places so we can get our hit of private, perfect surf." ■

"We hated the wave because we couldn't fish there," says Druku. "But Dave said, 'People are going to GO CRAZY for the place.'"
Tavarua is the surf resort against which all others are measured. It is often referred to as THE CLUB MED OF SURFING.
COLOR PHOTOPhotograph by Tom Servais/A-FrameCOLOR PHOTOWARREN BOLSTER (INSET) VISIONARY Clark (inset) saw a surfer's paradise in the curl of Cloudbreak. Those lucky--or wealthy--enough to ride it today clearly agree.COLOR PHOTOJOLI/A-FRAME [See caption above] COLOR PHOTOWARREN BOLSTERIT TAKES A VILLAGE Locals (here preparing kava) have worked with, and for, the resort. COLOR PHOTOWARREN BOLSTERHEART OF THE MATTER World-class surf sweeps in to 20-acre Tavarua's pristine shores. COLOR PHOTOWARREN BOLSTERTHEN AND NOW Clark (above, enjoying the surf he first sampled 23 years ago) transformed Tavarua from the rustic camp (left) of the '80s to the well-appointed--and exclusive--resort of today (right).COLOR PHOTOCRAIG PETERSON [See caption above] THREE COLOR PHOTOSTOM SERVAIS/A-FRAME (3) [See caption above]