’Great. Flew 19 hours to get killed in West Oz.’
That was the last thought that ran through my mind, then ran for cover, as I watched the lip of a 10ft. wave detonate five feet from the nose of my board. Before I could even flinch, I was flipped, rolled and thrown backwards until I landed with a two bounce skip, driven deep and dragged for almost 40 yards underwater. The wave beat me like I called its momma ugly. When the pounding at last subsided, I climbed my leash, hand over hand, towards the surface. Though progress was quick at first, it hit a wall when currents swirled around my legs and the water hissed into an aerated, grip-free impact zone. I couldn’t move. Seconds ticked by with a painful laziness until the currents finally released me. I broke the surface scared senseless and immediately paddled to the beach.
I lumbered out of the water and fell onto the sand with not a wave to speak of and my ego shattered. ‘Ellensbrook’ sounded like a soft place. Sweet even,’ I thought. I assumed I was easing into the area with a wave that looked like a fat burger A-frame. But within minutes of paddling out, I knew I’d been duped. “Like Sunset” is how one local described it to me later, “looks easy from the beach, but it’s gotta a ledge you gotta push over to make.” After an hour of pussing out, I’d finally sucked it up, paddled into the line-up and promptly missed the first wave of a set. And that’s where I was when I got the front row seat to a wave detonation.
West Oz is one of those places that can be your ultimate fantasy or your worst nightmare. Perfect line-ups abound, peeling over countless A-framed reefs, while twenty foot great whites patrol the shoreline. Thick karri tree forests and lush valleys cloaked in vineyards bring you back in time, while lethal king brown, tiger and death adder snakes slither through the trees and vines. Kangaroos look nothing if not goofy with their tiny forearms, giant feet and undersized heads, but they can pack a punch and have an eerie, unexpected wit. The dichotomies abound on land and in the water and, as I found out, you’ve got to ‘go big or go home’ in the land down under.
Only a few days of my trip fired, but when it did, it really turned on. 8-10 ft surf poured into countless reef breaks, points, bombies and beach breaks. Despite being more than adept in the water, I felt a bit overpowered on the big days. Every nook and cranny I found held the most perfect, yet thick, merciless lip I’d ever seen. My attempt at Ellensbrook was based on the thought that I’d found a wave I could handle. Shows you what I knew.
The surf continued to fire the day after my Ellensbrook session. Like some giant Flowrider, a storm sat offshore, continually pumping in 8-10 ft sets. Though nervous about the very real possibility of getting my head stuffed up my ass again, I scoured the coastline for three hours before settling on a right peeling ¼ mile offshore. From the cliff, the wave appeared perfect for my needs with a flawless shoulder peeling into a deep water cove. The wind was slightly cross-shore given the bend in the coast, but with only one other person making their way to the break, it looked fun and forgiving.
I suited up and paddled out, quickly catching up to the surfer who’d just left the beach. George was an unassuming local, quiet and comfortable in his own skin and a pleasure to talk to. He told me about the area, the waves and the wildlife that lurked beneath.
“No worries ‘bout the great whites,” he said straight-faced. “They’re not an issue ‘cept for the odd bite or two." Excuse me.
He then gave a wry smile and asked, “You ever surf this place?”
“No. Why?” I asked.
“It’s kinda square. No worries. I’ll get you in.”
We paddled across the dark, deep water, while my mind raced with images of toothy creatures and just what George meant by ‘square’. As we tracked wide of the impact zone, a set approached. George turned to me with that wry grin and said, “Watch this.”
An 8ft. wave sauntered in, felt the reef, then lost its bottom like it was cut off at the knees. To say it went square wouldn’t do it justice.
“Are you joking?” I yelled to George.
“Nice, eh?” A sick laugh lurched from his mouth. Turning to look towards shore, he pointed to a particular hilltop and told me that was my take-off spot. “A little left and you’re dead. Too right and you’ll miss it. And when you paddle, paddle.”
A set marched in, found the reef and began vomiting with remarkable precision. George saw something he liked, spun around, dug his arms in and dropped into a solid 8 footer. Huge fans marked his progress down the line until he coasted over the shoulder some 200 yards away.
‘Christ.’ I said out loud to myself.
I paddled around in a half-hearted attempt to snag one, while really staying too deep to make an honest go. George came back obviously jazzed.
“Did ya’ grab one?” he asked.
“Next one’s yours.”
The lone bagel I had for breakfast turned over in my stomach, while a cold fear rose within my chest. A set approached with the same form and anger as the last few we’d witnessed.
“Line up with the hill. You’ll be alright.” George assured me.
Something told me to trust his advice, giving me the confidence to zero in on the third wave and paddle with all I had. Taking two extra strokes and blocking out the vicious moan behind me, I slid to my feet, took the drop and felt the 7’0 smoothly bank off the bottom. A half dozen weak top turns later and I was cruising over the shoulder three hundred yards down the line, happier than a kid in a surf shop. I paddled back out stoked beyond belief. Set after set, I’d give George his pick, and then follow him into the channel all the way down the line. I nailed every drop and progressively drew out my turns or drove harder through my off-the-lips. Within just a half dozen waves, I knew it was the best I’d surfed in a long time, if not ever.
That night, the beer tasted better, I walked a bit straighter and the nauseating butterflies of failure from the day before were gone from my stomach.
As I discovered, it’s all there in West Oz: death and glory, humiliation and pride. You’ll get scared. You’ll even get beaten out of your mind. But if you really want it, it’s there to be had. Just paddle hard, keep your eyes peeled for those rows of teeth coming skyward and don’t try to pet the ‘roos.