I can see the dark blue shape forming on the horizon. Without thinking, I start to move my arms. Right, left, right, left — never diverting my eyes from the oncoming mass of water. Stopping abruptly once I’m in position, I turn my board and start paddling towards the beach, still focused on what’s coming up behind me.
I feel the back of my board lift as I pick up momentum and start moving with the water. Jumping to my feet, I look down the face of the wave as my board picks up speed. I press down as hard as I can on my back foot, turn my board quickly towards the right and start racing down the long blue wall that stretches out before me. Rising and falling, turning and slashing, I finally kick the board over the back of the wave, a giant smile plastered across my face.
This feeling of rapture, felt by thousands of people every day, is one you need to feel. From the icy shores of Alaska to the palm-tree-lined beaches of Costa Rica, surfing has infected every land mass surrounded by water. The sport’s brilliance lies in its unbiased agenda: surfing doesn’t care where you come from, what gender or race you are or what religion you follow. The adrenaline rush that greets you when you complete a vertical turn or pull into a barrel is so addictive that one wave will never suffice — you must get another.
Surfing’s origins can be traced back to the Polynesian and Hawaiian islands, where European explorers such as Captain James Cook marvelled at the indigenous people riding the waves of Waikiki on planks of wood. Fast-forward 200 years and surfing is a true global pastime. You’ll find surfers everywhere, riding everything from the wake of passing super tankers in Texas to natural 60-foot swells that form on an underwater “mountain” 100 miles off the coast of California.
However it’s surfing’s ability to allow you to connect with one of nature’s most volatile elements that makes it so special. Sitting on your board, rocking to the rhythm of the waves, has the ability to put a lot of life’s trivial issues into perspective. An individual builds their own relationship with the ocean, but each and every surfer understands the feeling.
This mutual connection with the ocean is what united me and a bunch of fellow surfers for a long-weekend trip to one of Australia’s most beautiful coastlines.
I’ve surfed since I was five and am well accustomed to the rituals of the “surf roadie”. With heavy eyelids and a groggy disposition, I wake at 3.30am to put the final items in the car before meeting my buddies: Holly, Jess, Mikala, Craig, Paul and Ben. Some I know, others I’m meeting for the first time.
Exiting the northern beaches, our motley bunch heads to the coast south of Sydney, an area renowned for its white, sandy beaches and picturesque towns. As we drive through the desolate city roads, our anticipation builds, in synch with a sun slowly revealing itself over the urban landscape.
Our first stop is known in surfing circles as The Farm, a name borrowed from the surrounding farmland. The beach is part of a property left by the previous owner to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service. Which means there’s no development — just a natural backdrop — to greet us.
A half-hour drive south of Wollongong, The Farm faces south, making it a swell magnet. That was certainly the case when we pulled up: thanks to a southerly change the previous night, a messy eight-foot wind swell greeted us just as the sun peeped over the north headland. The one brave soul of our group, Paul, decided to challenge the elements, only to be thrown around like a lolly in a piñata for half an hour before admitting defeat. A no-go. We hopped back into our convoy and headed onward to Gerringong.
Enveloped by dairy pastures, the seaside town of Gerringong is the quintessential Australian coastal town. It’s normally quiet, but the Easter long weekend means every campsite is occupied and bands of children rule the streets with all manner of wheeled objects.
Pulling into the southern end of Gerringong’s Werri Werri beach, we got our first look at a crowded, but fun, right-hand point break. As we watched a wave break over the rocky point, a familiar feeling of excitement swelled around us. A quick wetsuit change and board wax later, we paddled out into the line-up for a sneaky afternoon session. The sun had set by the time we stumbled from the sea to our campsite. Sunburnt, sandy and satisfied, we eagerly awaited tomorrow’s delights.
Bays & beaches
After a 5.30am wake-up knock on the car window and two-minute deliberation the next morning, we hit the road. As we drove down the highway, I kept having to remind myself I was in Australia and not Devon, the southwest region of England where I lived for a few years. Over every crest you get a staggering view of a cliff range; around every corner the green fields fade away into the distance.
This region is home to Jervis Bay’s white sands and turquoise waters. Fishing towns with picturesque harbours, such as Ulladulla, line the foreshore. Locals are on first-name basis with each other and their continual smiles create a unified atmosphere of community spirit.
Back on the Princes Highway, we headed for the town of Bendalong and its compatriot, Green Island. Boasting a left-hand point break, Green Island is flanked by beaches to the north and south. Thanks to the currents of neighbouring Lake Conjolo, Green Island is attached to the mainland via a natural tombolo, creating a large sandbank that is always occupied by children and families.
We decide to check Bendalong’s Inyadda Beach first, and judging by the number of people and cars in the side streets, we knew we were in for something special. At the sight of water feathering off the back of a perfect wave, we grabbed our boards, lathered up in sunscreen in record time and ran down the warm sand towards the kaleidoscopic water.
Surfing is a genderless sport, but there is something truly amazing about surfing with a group of girls. You can all be at different ability levels, but the support and encouragement girls give each other allows you to test your limits in an affable environment. A cloud of calmness always seems to descend over the water when girls hit the line-up.
Leaving the boys to their own devices, Jess, Holly, Mikala and I snagged a peak to ourselves. We whiled away the next two hours with laughing, cheering and general silliness and emerged from the sea with coat-hanger-sized grins splitting our faces, knowing we’d just experienced something that may only come along once or twice a year. When you live on the popular northern beaches of Sydney, finding an unoccupied break is like striking gold. For the rest of the day we didn’t need to say anything to one another: a simple look and smile was all it took.
Take a deep breath
After staying the night in Ulladulla, a lazy morning was in order. A quick surf check showed the swell had dropped dramatically. We breakfasted like royalty before clambering into the cars to start heading back north.
Back at Bendalong, we filled the morning with a fun mal and spear-fishing session; then, over a lunch of our fresh catch, we decided to check the north end of Werri Werri beach: it would be one of the only places suitable for picking up the remainder of the swell.
Unfortunately, everyone else on the coast had the same idea — cars, kids and boards where everywhere. The upside was that there was a wave. The waves here are generally left-handers, but Holly and I noticed while paddling out that there seemed to be an outside bank and an inside section where the bigger waves were reforming. We decided to join the rest of our crew out the back of the line-up, but the ocean was about to play a very mean trick.
Every now and then a surfer needs to take a beating. It’s a side-effect of the sport. A big wipeout is seen as something of a rite of passage: most surfers would agree that is as much of a challenge as how well you ride a big wave. It sure is adrenaline-inducing, but fear, rather than elation, is the culprit.
Sitting around in the swell, joking with each other, we were all oblivious of the giant wall of water coming our way. But I knew we were in for a beating when I heard the surprised scream come from Holly’s mouth. In situations like this, it’s every person for themselves.
We each paddled with added ferocity towards the oncoming giant, hoping to make it over, but it wasn’t going to happen. The wave crashed down mere metres in front of us and I saw the boys leap from their boards and dive under the oncoming mass. There was no way I was going to attempt to duck-dive this thing, so I followed suit. I dove straight down, straight into the impact zone.
When a wave hits the water with great force it creates a natural suction hole that can pull you further down into deeper waters, making it harder for you to find the surface. Opening my eyes to get a sense of direction in this vortex, I saw light, then a pull, then darkness. I had no idea which way was up or down. A few more seconds of twisting and turning and I was desperate for oxygen. Air was running out. I was about to hit the panic button.
I wasn’t sure how long I had been under, but it felt like an eternity. This was definitely not how I had intended to spend my Easter Sunday. Grabbing onto my leg rope I climbed for the surface, following the sounds from the open space above. I broke through the water to Holly’s face and a: “Dude, what happened? You were down there for, like, a minute. We were starting to panic!”
Like any living organism, the ocean moves to its own heartbeat. A smooth surface can turn volatile in a matter of minutes or seconds. Taken for granted a lot of the time, the ocean occasionally likes to remind us it deserves respect.
The ocean’s funny that way: a few seconds on land can seem like 10 minutes underwater. And, while episodes like this are scary at the time, they’re one of the most peaceful experiences you can have: there is no sound, no white noise, nothing. Just you and that screaming voice inside your head.
That night we dossed down in our cars at Werri Werri beach and woke to a foggy, rainy morning. Our Easter Monday might have been a wet one, but we made the most of it. In the drizzly haze, we packed up and started our homeward journey, sneaking in a session at The Farm on the way back. We filled the trip home with recapping our adventures, breaking into impromptu song and resting sleepy heads. Each of us had a favourite day, ride or spot; each of us agreed the trip had to be repeated soon.
Laying a very heavy head on my pillow that night, I floated off to sleep on the back of a wave, visualising the rush, turns, sounds and spray of the ocean. I remembered the sunrises and sunsets I had experienced over the past few days, sharing the ocean with old friends and new; counting down the days to our next adventure.
The south coast of New South Wales is an hour to three hours’ drive south of Sydney. Take the Princes Highway out of the city and follow the signs for Wollongong and Kiama.
When to go
Depends on what you’re after. If you are a beginner and need smaller swells, late spring through to the beginning of autumn is for you. For bigger swells and better winds, autumn through to spring is the best time.
There is a plethora of campsites up and down the south coast, all offering unpowered and powered sites as well as cabin accommodation. The main ones are run by a company called Holiday Haven (holidayhaven.com.au).
Beginners will prefer the soft beach breaks of Seven Mile Beach and Mollymook, while more advanced surfers opt for the heavier breaks of The Farm, Werri Werri, Green Island and Rennies.
Surfer lingo explained
Tips for beginners
Don’t run before you can walk
Go to a surf school
Don’t drop in
You’re not Evan Almighty