All aboard for an Aussie surfari

By Greg Ansley

With Australia being the coast-hugging place it is, you can plan a surfing holiday that takes in a lot of the country, writes Greg Ansley.

I probably shouldn't be writing this, encouraging Kiwi surfers across the Tasman after waves that even in my remote part of New South Wales are seeing more desperados competing for them every year.

But, hey, this is a BIG coastline with stacks of quality breaks, and if you go about it right you can still catch some great action without too many hassles.

And what better time, I suppose, than at the crest of surfing's second great revolution, when women are discovering the sport in droves, longboards have put the basic competencies within reach of many who would have been crushed by the cruel sensitivities of the tiny arrows the original malibus have evolved into, and the middle-aged are returning en masse to a sport many gave up with the advent of families and mortgages.

There are also many more types of craft to surf with, from boogie boards to waveskis, sea kayaks to wind- and kite-surfers.

With Australia being the coast-hugging place it is, you can also plan a surfing holiday that takes in a lot more of the country as well, whether it is hanging around the Gold Coast to charge its run of world-class waves during the day and party at night, or divert through historic country towns and vineyards on a longer haul around the coast.

Nor do you need to be a gun to get into the water: surf schools and coaching sessions, normally providing pain-free soft surfboards and (if necessary) wetsuits, have blossomed in Australia.

Most popular areas also have surfboards to rent.

Choosing a place to start is the hard part. Australia has literally thousands of points, reefs and beach breaks, some easily accessible - and therefore frequently packed shoulder-to-shoulder - and others requiring time, knowledge and effort to get to.

Timing is a little easier. If you want warmth with your waves, summer is obviously best, although apart from cyclone season in Queensland - December to March, when it can really pump - it is also most often small and plagued by onshore winds.

Winter for the enthusiasts is generally better and more consistent. In Queensland, northern New South Wales and Western Australia, this is still pretty gentle for most Kiwis - but head down to southern New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania, and steamer wetsuits of at least 3mm are needed.

Covering the full range of surf breaks in this article is impossible. Far better to point to the main clusters, beginning with the magic run of waves around southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.

Flights to Brisbane or Coolangatta will put you right in the heart of this surfing country, with easy drives north to the Sunshine Coast (Noosa north to Fraser Island) and south to Surfers' Paradise, Burleigh Heads, Kirra, Byron Bay and Yamba.

The downside of these world-class waves is the crowds, unrelenting whenever the ocean is pumping, but worth the frustrations when (if) you finally get one to yourself.

Flying into Sydney, you can choose any number of good breaks around the city and, within a reasonable drive, north to Crescent Head or south to Ulladulla and Bateman's Bay, with plenty of action in between.

Melbourne's Tullamarine airport is the gateway to a state packed with superb waves, albeit nippy with swells pumping in from Bass Strait. Breaks within easy reach include Phillip Island, world-famous Bell's Beach and the Torquay area.

Further south, into South Island latitudes and temperatures, Tasmania is fuelled by the Roaring Forties and waves pushed in by the Southern Ocean: some of the nastiest, meanest, biggest waves ever ridden in Australia crash against it.

The good news is that there are good waves, including points and reefs, close to Hobart, along the east coast and, when you can find them, on the remote and frequently inaccessible west coast. The better news is that crowds are the exception.

South Australia is a more challenging proposition from a number of viewpoints, not least the great white sharks that notoriously troll its waters for seals and surfers.

Most of the best breaks are a fair distance west from Adelaide, but powerful swells and plenty of points and reefs are a strong drawcard for the hardy. Prime areas include the Yorke Peninsula, Victor Harbour, Streaky Bay and Cactus.

On the far side of the continent, Western Australia offers world-class breaks such as Margaret River and Yallingup south of Perth, some howlers on Rottnest Island - just a ferry ride from the downtown Perth - and a range of excellent waves north to Carnarvon.

Be advised to start planning your surfari at home. Australia is a vast continent, far too big to simply hope for the best if you have a limited time to explore it.

The internet is the surfer's friend, supplying huge amounts of information and real-time surf reports as well as listing the more mundane necessities such as accommodation, car hire and the like.

An early essential is the travellers' edition of Mark Warren's Atlas of Australian Surfing, widely available and priced about A$29 ($31), which contains a comprehensive list of surf breaks.

With many of the coastal highways frequently veering inland and out of sight of the sea, a guide to where waves break is pretty crucial: you could otherwise pass a lot of action without ever knowing it was there.

A good start on the net is Surfing Australia, which contains a huge amount of good information - surf reports around the country, surfcams or real-time reports, competition details, location of surf schools and contact details, and a lot more useful stuff.

Other good sites are online magazines such as Tracks and Australia's Surfing Life.

And for planning wave hunts when you're there, good guides to conditions can be found at coastalwatch.com, the Bureau of Meterology's site - which gives forecasts of swell size and direction several days out - and, for New South Wales, the Manly Hydraulics Lab, which charts offshore wave heights along the state coast.

There are several options for moving around. The first is to base yourself close to a number of good beaches in, say the Gold Coast or Sydney, and walk to the water. Second is to rent a car, but if you intend staying any length of time or doing some serious travelling, this can be pretty expensive - although you can find bargains on the net.

For long-distance travel, coaches are quite cheap but run only from town to town, meaning local transport is still needed. Or you could buy a cheap second-hand car, which may run out cheaper than a rental.

If the budget can stand it, get a car with cruise control. There are long, long stretches of road and hours behind the wheel can lead to serious leg cramps.

Accommodation is the other big expense, but it can be cut fairly substantially. Resorts in big tourist area such as the Gold Coast frequently have special rates, particularly in the off-season, and most of these can be found on the net. Very cheap rooms can also be found wotif.com.au, which sells beds hotels have not been able to fill. Bookings can be made no more than a few weeks in advance.

Otherwise caravan parks are a good option, with on-site caravans available for as little as A$30 a night and full-equipped cabins for a bit more. Tent sites generally start at about A$10 - but check first. Rates vary greatly depending on location and time of year.

Holiday homes can also often be rented relatively cheaply in the off-season.

Information about accommodation, caravan parks, road maps and the like are available through state tourism offices or, usually free, in the tourist centres that almost every town in Australia has.

So go for it - but don't drop in on the old bloke on the green mal.

Greg Ansley goes surfing at his own expense.

- NZ Herald

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