Steve is a true Australian hellman. The owner and operator of Budget Surf Travel, this hard charging and good natured bloke is an embodiment of the Australian passion for adventure. Bungy jumping off untested bridges in Africa. Narrowly escaping a blood feud in Nias. Supermodels scrubbing bloody reef cuts on his back with lime and a toothbrush after he took one barrel too many. He was clinically dead, twice. Metal plates in his head keep his skull together after a run-in with a upset taxi driver. Spot on.
I met this legend lounging in a hammock near Sri Lanka’s Arugam Bay killing time between surfs. The small surf town of Arugam Bay is nestled on the East Coast of Sri Lanka in front of a long mellow right point break of the same name. Arugam Bay is dotted with cabanas, fishing boats, surf shops, and hotels and has just about everything a traveler needs. Affordable, nice weather, ancient culture, varied selection of dinning, and accessible surf, it attracts A LOT of vagabond Israeli surfers and jetset Europeans. The packs of surfers can make large crowds on nearly every wave in the area. The line ups are full of yelling and bad etiquette, like kids fighting for the last piece of pizza as everyone battles for the smallest ripple of surf. The maddening crowds and a 2 week flat spell could have made almost anyone stir crazy and it nearly did.
Before reaching a breaking point we escaped the beach to the hill city of Kandy to catch the super bowl of cricket, Sri Lanka vs India. We hired a van and a large languid Arugam Bay local to drive us to the Ella train station a few hours away. Our driver was good natured and spoke no English, but drove like he was escaping the Apocalypse and treated the derelict Toyota van like a Ferrari. Our driver didn’t care as long as we were going as fast as we possibly could. Climbing on the windy roads away from the dry flatland of the coast towards the cool misty mountains, the savana of the coast line was replaced with long green rows of carefully manicured tea trees filling the countryside towards Ella.The majestic plantations zoomed past our side windows unnoticed as all eyes in the van were focused forward as we approached certain destruction. More than once (6 times to be exact) I thought death was imminent as we played chicken with buses, mining trucks, and tractors while animals and people leaped out of our oncoming path. Banking into blind corners while texting, passing horse drawn carts and animals at high speed, and overtaking tuk-tuk drivers at will, our overweight driver remained expressionless as if this was all a playstation game and he still had three lives left. Through it all Hellman Steve didn’t seem to mind. Calmly and cool he announced that this road trip needed a soundtrack and the perfect anthem for our adventure would be Steel Panther.
Steel Panther is the single greatest retro glam 80’s hair metal band, ever. Guitar solos, high pitched vocals, and lyrics about drinking, screwing, and being scummy blasted through crackling speakers as we skirted death on the road. Instead of my life flashing in front of my eyes my psyche created a mental montage of us careening down the hill to a fiery death with Steel Panther’s Fat Girl as the background music. The potent mix of fear and kick-ass rock n’ roll intensified everything on this surreal third-world rollercoaster of a taxi ride.
After every near death instance Steve would look back from the front seat, flash the shocker, and smile. He took in the circumstances and laughed as much for the absurdly raunchy lyrics of Steel Panther as he did watching the tires teetering over the edge of a 40 foot cliff while passing a bus on the wrong side of the road. Staring death from the passenger seat of a Sri Lankan taxi is nothing for this hellman. I guess when you’ve been to the other side and back (twice) driving with a maniac and teetering over a cliff is barely noteworthy.