Australia: Riding the breaks solo

By Duncan Gillies

Head over heels for NSW waves, Duncan Gillies feels the fear but does it anyway.
World-class surf spots are dotted all along the New South Wales coast.
World-class surf spots are dotted all along the New South Wales coast.

Fear can be an irrational thing.

I had parked my car next to my cabin, run through the campsite, through the bush to a clearing where I could see the surf. The waves were head-high and perfectly shaped, the wind had held off and the place was empty apart from a few people sitting on the beach.

I raced back to my car, changed into my wetsuit, grabbed my surfboard and ran all the way back to the beach. Only a few things make a surfer feel better than the discovery of a new surf break with nobody out. Maybe true love. Maybe the birth of a child. I suppose it depends on the surf break.

I was on the third day of a six-day road trip down the New South Wales south coast. I was possibly the only 45-year-old New Zealander to have never been to Australia, and the assignment was one that particularly appealed.

Pick up a car at Sydney airport and head south, out of the big city that so many Kiwis know so well, and thread my way through the beach towns that are home to some of Australia's best - but not necessarily most famous - surf breaks.

I may have left it late to make my first trip to Australia, but at least I was a following a route not so well travelled. All I had to do was drive, eat, sleep and surf.

To make me feel like a true Aussie I'd been given a Holden station wagon. My food and accommodation had been organised. I just needed the surf gods to provide waves along the way.

And at Bendalong - a three-hour drive from Sydney - the surf was close to perfect. After days of tourist-brochure blue skies, dark brooding clouds hung threateningly on the horizon, conditions that can add to the magic of a surf.

The calm before a storm, however, can also make the sea a foreboding place. Sounds fade, lines in the distance dissolve, and the water can look much deeper than it actually is.

By the time I hit the water, one other person had paddled out. An ageing surfer from the Sunshine Coast, he was travelling down the south coast for the first time in decades. He'd forgotten how good the surf was in this part of the country and how uncrowded some of the spots were.

After sharing waves I told him I felt like a bit of a coward but, because of the isolation, I couldn't help thinking about sharks.

"I must admit," he said, "I was pleased when I saw you paddle out."

And with that, he caught one last wave and left me on my own. And that's when the fear kicked in. Not the I-got-to-get-out-of-here-quick kind of fear that courses through your veins when a fin passes by you in the water. But the this-isn't-the-best-place-to-be-alone fear that rises in you when you realise if something did go wrong, nobody would hear you call for help.

I knew there was no reason a shark was more likely to turn up at a beach where I was all alone than at one of the crowded beaches I'd surfed at since arriving in Australia. But a troubled mind can be hard to convince. And as the sea took on deep turquoise blue and the white water flashed white like gnashing teeth under a darkening sky, I waited for a wave. I stayed out long enough to catch a couple more but never felt completely at ease and was happy to feel the sand again beneath my feet.

The rest of the trip was the sort of care-free experience I was expecting. I started my first day driving through the lush Royal National Park - less than an hour from Sydney's international airport and already I was making my way through rainforests and eucalyptus forests that at stages all but blocked out the sun.

My first beach stop was at Garie, inside the national park. It's a popular spot with Sydney day-trippers but was too windy for surfing. It wasn't until I got to Bulli Beach Tourist Park that I went for my first surf. With cabins metres from the beach, I was able to relax and wait for the wind to die down before hitting the waves.

The next day, I headed off early but not early enough to beat a swift breeze that spoiled conditions as I hugged the coast. I had been told to check out the Farm, a break at Killalea Beach, but, because of the wind, my expectations weren't high. Instead I found a perfect white-sand bay protected from the winds that covered the water in white-caps further out to sea.

The Farm is the jewel in the crown of Killalea State Park, a national surfing reserve that protects 250ha of beaches and coastal land. I rode the Farm's famous right-hand point break but there were waves for everyone along the bay.

After leaving Bendalong I teamed up with a friend who gave me a guided tour of his home breaks and took me for a surf at Tabourie, another isolated spot with quality waves and the most southern spot I surfed.

There were so many different breaks, all of them apparently great on their day, the variety and consistency helping make the region a production line of world-class surfers. Some are relatively well known. Others are loosely guarded secrets.

My friend introduced me to a Kiwi who has lived so long in the deep south he considers himself a local.

When he heard I was writing an article about the area he said I shouldn't be telling the outside world just how good the region's surf spots are.

"The last thing we want is crowds out here," he said to me.

"Nah," I replied, "the last thing you want is to be out by yourself with nobody around."

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand, Jetstar and Qantas have several daily flights between Auckland and Sydney.

Further information: See visitnsw.com and surfingaustralia.com.

Duncan Gillies travelled courtesy of Destination NSW.

- NZ Herald

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