Reflections of an odyssey to an endangered headspace.
Surfing has entered a new age. Wave system technology has thrust our modus vivendi beyond the ocean, and into the backyards of landlocked masses and the hands of billion dollar investors. In years to come, the artificial proliferation of surfing is set to stretch across the globe.
The wave pool revolution poses exciting questions and unforeseen consequence. It will drastically alter the professional sphere of surfing, and spell subtle changes in the landscape of the everyday surfer. Fast forward 20 years, and what will a surf trip look like? Will the surf trip still even exist? Or will surfing be so accessible that we needn’t venture within a 5km radius of our home?
Speculations aside, there are some parts of the world impenetrable to forms of new technology. Up in the dusty North West of West Oz, there’s a place long entrenched in the fantasies of travelling surfers, and the myth and legend of Australian surfing folklore. At Red Bluff, the perennial magic of surfing carries on quietly, unperturbed by the revolution.
Sand dunes tower over both sides of the highway. Winter rain hammers at the boards stacked on the roof and through the windscreen, wipers work at a furious pace to clear the view. Oddly enough, it’s not the rain that poses the greatest hazard. A sign up ahead heeds a strange warning: ‘Caution – Sand blizzards may impair visibility.’ I’m now entering a desolate stretch of West Australian coastline.
1000km later; in Carnarvon. The sky is a pleasant shade of blue and the car is brimming with anticipation. The end of the pilgrimage is nigh! A quick pit stop to gather supplies – potatoes, rice, water, fuel, beer – and then back on the road. The final leg is the most gruelling; 120km down a bumpy, corrugated track in a dark, moonless evening.
Finally, the mysterious headland comes into view. Camp fires flicker in the distance. A strange silence envelops the car. The shrill blast of the speaker dims to a low muffle – partly out of awe, partly out of respect for fellow travellers – and I scour the inky night for a good spot.
Anyone who’s endured a lengthy stint at Red Bluff understands returning isn’t just another surfing rendezvous. This is a spiritual homecoming. There’s a kind of magic contained in the ubiquitous dust and salt; and if you spend long enough out here, the grit and the mystery seep under your skin. This is one of the seven great wonders of the surfing world.
The campground is just a sea of dusty lots scattered beneath the megalithic escarpment. My camp is just a flimsy gazebo, and for the next six weeks, it’s all that will shelter me from the elements. Out here, there is no internet connection, no mobile service. The only form of contact to The Outside World is a battered payphone up by the caretakers office. Red Bluff is off the grid.
Basic living conditions are compensated for by the view. From the relative luxury of my deckchair I’m gazing directly into the consecrated wave. It’s a mesmerising spectacle when it’s on, but today, The Bluff is a ghastly spectre of its pumping self.
The sun creeps higher into a cloudy sky and an onshore wind begins to howl. Every gust agitates my doubts about the longevity of my home. I’ve been here one night, and already, the Velcro straps holding fragile nylon sidewalls to an aluminium frame, are beginning to tear. At home, the gazebo stood stoutly in the driveway, but here, the relentless force of Mother Nature is not to be underestimated.
Up at the caretaker’s office, two bedraggled men are hunched around a dusty window, gesticulating wildly. They’re looking at a piece of paper and decoding the strange numbers and arrows on its graphs. To the casual observer this is just a weather forecast, but to us, The Forecast is a crystal ball of surfing fortune.
Both men are wearing defeated expressions. The rest of the campground is eerily quiet. There is a storm coming. Over the next two days, The Forecast has prescribed 40 knot winds and 25mm of rain. Some dwellers have opted to desert camp; when the weather turns there is nowhere worse be than Red Bluff.
Night falls. Rain drops patter at the roof. Is this thing waterproof? Retreating to shelter, I reach to zip the gazebo doors shut. The zip breaks. A violent deluge pours through the front door, prompting a mad dash for cable ties, tarp, and duct tape. Back at the gazebo, in a panic, and a sudden gust of wind lifts the gazebo off the ground. Abandon ship! To the back of the car!
It’s dawn when I crawl from the dry haven of the car to assess the damage. To my surprise, the gazebo’s effete skeleton is still standing. The rain persists for four interminable days, and the smell of mould lingers in the camp. Many decide to desert the campground. Of the hardy few who’ve remained, our spirits sink to a deathly low. Living in a muddy squalor, and I haven’t even surfed!
Standing atop the sunny headland, peering down at distant specks and long lines of swell. Finally; waves! From a great height the Bluff looks deceivingly perfect. In reality, it’s a borderline closeout. Most waves thunder down the reef at an impossible pace. Rarely, when swell wraps around the coral elbow at just the right angle, it tapers off at a semi-makeable pace. Wave selection is critical.
After two weeks at Red Bluff, the initial froth has subsided into a calculated, methodical approach to surfing. Despite constant analysis of the elements, deciphering the wave’s every nuance is seemingly impossible. Just as you think you’ve got it all figured out – the gaps in the crowd, the turn of the tide, the periodic changes in the wind – an inexplicable mystery throws you off.
Fervent white caps march in from out the back. The breeze is coming. It creeps in, closer, and closer, along the edge of the headland and towards the break, when suddenly, it stops! There are two totally opposite wind directions blowing within a few feet of one another. Witchcraft! Sorcery! Magic!
A bizarre scene is unfolding in the epicentre of camp. A coachload of non-surfing sightseers are disembarking at the foot of the headland. They’re encircled by the makeshift camps of around 20 surfers. Most of the tourists are pensioners, and they stand in a large group drinking tea and observing their bizarre surroundings.
Most surfers ignore the visitors. Quotidian tasks out here are prolonged and sometimes arduous, and almost everyone is pre-occupied: making food, washing dishes, cleaning, stretching, drinking beer. Except for Huey. Huey hobbles away from the bus, weighed down by a mountain of Tupperware and an open can of Great Northern.
“Get a load of this,” he says.
“Cake! I haven’t eaten cake for weeks. I walked past and they asked me if I wanted some cake. I was like, ‘uh, are you serious?!’ I ran back to camp and grabbed every container I could!”
Huey runs off with his haul, cackling gleefully. The group of tourists wander away from the sea of tents and out along a narrow walkway to the tip of the headland. The path skirts an overhang above the beach. Campfire smoke wafts up from the cave down below, where Nath is cooking a roadkill curry in two large camp ovens. Some of the sightseers stop and pull out cameras to capture a memento of this foreign universe.
Nath has been living in this cave for three weeks. He ventured up here solo, and because he doesn’t own a car, he caught the overnight bus from Margaret River to Carnarvon, where he quickly identified a fellow surfer outside the bakery and hitched a ride out to Red Bluff. For the four decades Nath has been visiting, The Bluff has served as a place of refuge and deep reflection.
“I was talking to my counsellor before I left, and I told her what I was doing, you know, just coming and living in a cave and going surfing for a month or two.” he says.
“You know what she said? She goes, ‘I wish all my clients would come and do that’.”
The full moon illuminates an approaching set. I’m standing on the headland, shivering in the midnight chill and surveying the line-up through the strange haze of a lysergic dream. The foul taste of cardboard lingers under my tongue. It’s 3am, and I’m going surfing.
I’ve convinced Nath to accompany me. Breaking waves are bathed in pale moonlight, but the Bluff casts a deep shadow over the channel and the edge of the reef. We walk along a section of coral where we know there are no urchins, and out to the faint outline of the keyhole. Nath launches into the ocean, disappearing into darkness.
It takes me a moment to work up the courage to follow suit. Paddling through black treacle, I try not to cast my mind back to the stories I overhead from the caretaker today; of the abundant bronze whaler sharks; or the guy who got attacked right here in this very channel where I’m paddling now.
Out in the line-up, it’s difficult to gauge our position. A wave breaks wide and we’re caught inside. A few strokes further out, and we’re in the spot. After a few minutes of familiarisation a sixth sense activates. Intuition and learned memory kicks in. One month at Red Bluff, and the intricacies of the reef slip into your subconscious.
A backlit wave breaks further up the reef, peeling towards me. Turning to paddle and gaining momentum with the rolling swell, scratching to match its speed as it stands up and crests into a bottomless black void. The wave sucks out before I make it to my feet. How close am I to the reef?
It takes four waves until I find the tube. I’m surfing purely on instinct; caressing my way down the face, gripping the rail and sliding higher up the wave until I find a line. Up, up and into the tube! My eyes register a divine vision; moonlight shimmering in the lip, a black vortex spanning my entire existence.
The moon sets, and there are still 40 minutes before first light. It’s too dark to surf, too dark to make our way in. There is nothing we can do but wait. The occasional shiver or cackle of laughter interrupts the maddening silence.
Finally, the stars peter out into a faint morning glow. Visibility returns in the slightest. Each tube glows orange in the burning glow of day break. Gliding through a fiery pocket of compressed air, shallow coral below and the Indian Ocean exploding all around. The eye of the storm! Heaven! Ecstasy!
Week six. Or is it seven? Since I’ve arrived, I’ve told myself I’ll be here two weeks. It’s been nearly two months. It’s not a unique phenomenon; all around the campground, days have slowly accelerated into weeks, months, and we’re all still here! Off the grid, and the continuum of experience is a hazy blur, defined by swell or no swell.
Intermediate periods between waves are a crazed, salt-encrusted madness. The routine of desert dwelling begins to grow tiresome. I’m weighed down by a subcutaneous layer of salt and grit, and only the most aesthetic waves are still enticing. Desert fever has set in. It’s time to leave.
Glancing in the rear view, The Bluff occupies the entire mirror. A few k’s up the road, and I know it’s gone, but I can still see it right there through the windscreen, a vivid mirage haunting my burning retinas. A set of sunglasses over my eyes blocks out the hallucination, and through an open window, I salute the extended surf trip. Long live adventure! Long live uncertainty!