When surfing isn’t in the water, it lives in the surf carpark. Each has its own persona; sculpted by the wave it overlooks and the surfers who frequent it, and this is where the nuances of surfing spill out into the open.
In Margaret River there are three main car parks. Surfers Point lies at the core. When the circus rolls into town it becomes an amphitheatre, packed with spectators watching the world’s best do battle, but now, the parking bays are lined with work utes and rusting four-wheel drives. Picking a parker is like navigating a hierarchical minefield.
An older, weatherbeaten man stands at the lookout, tucked beneath a straw hat and expressionless behind his sunnies. He’s at the top of the pecking order, and anyone who hasn’t lived here for at least 10 years doesn’t qualify for acknowledgement. He’s one of the original surfers, and he calls himself a local even though he has the wrong coloured skin and wrong shaped nose.
But he’s earned his stripes. Before Margaret River became the Byron Bay of the West this car park was just a fleck on the foot of a farming town, and surfers were not held in such high esteem. On Friday nights, the farmer’s sons would saunter down from the pub; full of piss and hell-bent on vengeance. The surfers had been stealing from their scarce resources of women, and they were not welcome to camp here. For some, not even the council’s recent multi-million dollar refurbishment can wash away the bittersweet memories and blood-shed from the bitumen.
A few hundred metres North, at the river mouth, a lazy reggae tune fades on the breeze. The smell of burning herb wafts from a white transit van with Queensland plates. The dreadlocked occupant spends his days here, promoting peace, happiness and revolution to anyone who’ll listen, but really, all he does is get stoned, smell bad and block the sink in the public toilets with food scraps.
When he’s not too stupefied to move from the back of his van, he might stumble down to the shorey in his sandals, awkwardly lugging the 9 foot soft top he bought with the van. He’ll take a token photo by the water’s edge to post on Instagram, before retreating back to his parking spot to wrap his lips around another green lantern. It’s not just surfing that lives in the carpark, but some surfers too. At least until the ranger intervenes.
School’s out, and southern-most stretch of bitumen at Gas Bay is packed with bicycles and doting mothers. A blonde, mop-headed kid stands on the curb, surrounded by his admiring class-mates. A group of girls stumble up the track, flashing him wide-eyed, adoring looks as they pass. One even musters up the courage to stammer ‘hey’.
To him, this isn’t just a carpark; it’s a playground, a proving ground, and a black bitumen square of eternal grommethood. He spends more time here, in his wetsuit, than he does in his school uniform. One day, when he’s crawled up the pecking order at the point, he’ll look back at this place as a relic of his youth.
Further up the coast, a track leads through the forest to a dusty clearing. An abundance of waves means surfers in Margaret River rarely have to leave the shire, but when they do, it’s known as ‘crossing the border’. This patch of limestone is in no-mans-land, it’s smack bang between Margaret River and Dunsborough.
There are no parking bays or social hierarchy here. It’s a regular summer afternoon haunt, and everyone is here to have a good time. Most of the time, it’s too far off the beaten track for the ranger to bother with, and besides, which shire’s responsibility is anyway? Even so, anyone ignoring common etiquette is swiftly told to fuck off. This is a shared space, and it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep the vibes good and the car park clean. It’s a place of transience; vehicles come and go, and some are welcome to stay, as long as they show respect.