Friday 8 July 2016

Why I love surfing in northern NSW

Sometimes the stars align and you get an assignment to write about something close to your heart. This happened recently when the editor of Jetstar's inflight magazine asked me to write about why I love surfing in northern NSW, my new home. 

Yours truly & friend
All pics by Nat McComas
You can read the published version here (with beautiful images by photographer Natalie McComas) or by flying with Jetstar anytime this month, or the uncut original version below. Either way, I hope this ode to surfing makes you want to commune with the sea in some way soon.

North Coast love affair

by Louise Southerden

The sand is warm under your feet as you pad along a short track flanked by banksia bushes and spinifex, surfboard under your arm. At the water’s edge, you keep going, paddling toward the just-risen sun. A wave washes over you, smoothing your bed-hair, waking you up and calming you at the same time, and after it passes the light sparkles through your wet eyelashes.

When you reach the lineup, a jagged line of surfers waiting for waves, you sit up on your board. It’s the best kind of peaceful out there. Exchanging good mornings with another surfer, you take in the beginnings of the day – big sky, ripples of sand below, gannets and terns wheeling overhead – and wait.

Waiting is a big part of surfing. They don’t tell you that when you’re learning. It’s also one of the best parts. There’s nowhere else I’d rather be, sometimes, than on my board in the sea, in sunshine or rain, looking to the horizon, watching for the next bump of swell that might become a rideable wave. It’s peace and adventure, solitude and camaraderie all at once.


I learned to surf in Sydney in my early 20s, when I’d get up in the dark so that I could surf for an hour before catching the bus to work with wet hair. Surfing allowed me to live in a big city longer than I might have otherwise, by keeping me in daily touch with the natural world. 

One of my favourite drives up here
But a year and a half ago, after travelling and living overseas, I decided to drive north with my surfboard, a tent and not much else. I ended up just south of Byron Bay (it’s part of the surfers’ code not to get too specific about surf spots), for no good reason than that I had to stop moving and this place had a few nice waves.

There’s a lot for a surfer to love about the Northern Rivers. The water is warm all year round (who doesn’t love the freedom of wearing as little as possible in the sea?). This part of the east coast bulges eastwards more than anywhere else, copping swell from all directions. At the same time Cape Byron, mainland Australia’s most easterly point, shelters Byron’s north-facing bay, making for beginner-friendly surfing at Main Beach, Clarks and Wategos.

A glorious late autumn day
For experienced surfers, there are dozens of beaches and breaks between Yamba in the south and Tweed Heads on the NSW-Queensland border, many of which put this part of Australia on the surfing map in the 1960s and ‘70s, all facing different directions to ensure there’s almost always somewhere to surf in any wind and swell combination. And the three big rivers for which the area is named – the Clarence, Richmond and Tweed – make for great river-mouth breaks (though we know not to surf them alone or at dusk when “the man in the grey suit” might be around).

I love that surfing is a way into a community like this. One of the first surfers I met was Vic. When he told me he writes for The Lennox Wave, I asked if he’s a journalist. “Nah,” he said, “I’m a Gemini.” That’s so Northern Rivers, a place where a love of nature and a quirky world-view get along famously.

Morning sun, surfboards
and car park conversation
I’ve also met teachers, builders, paramedics and macadamia farmers, in the water and standing around in the car park afterwards, the sun on our faces, the Sunny Boys playing from someone’s car stereo, surfboards lying on the grass. Until I moved here, I'd forgotten that people still do this: hang out, shooting the sea breeze, with nowhere to rush to.

It’s not uncommon to surf with local legends up here too. Names like Bob McTavish and George Greenough and lesser known professors of the sea, all happy to reminisce about what it was like to surf the north coast in the uncrowded glory days, before there was even a sealed road between Byron and Lennox and everyone rode longboards (shortboards didn’t become popular until the late 1960s).

Me and my 9'4"
For the non-surfers reading this, there are basically two kinds of surfboards. Shortboards are lightweight, fast and about six feet long (surfers are passionately non-metric). On a longboard, which is at least nine foot, it’s all about the glide and, if you’re skilled enough, “hanging ten” (standing on the nose of your board).

If you squint a little to block out the beachfront holiday apartments, you can cross-step back in time, particularly because a lot of surfers around here, girls as well as guys, ride single-fin longboards (my board of choice is a 9’4” Gordon & Smith) or drive classic cars – or both; my friend Chris rides a 10-footer and drives a beautiful 1979 Kingswood stationwagon.

 Byron's legendary Pass 
On a practical level, I love not having to pay for parking (a local tip: an annual NSW National Parks permit gives you free parking at The Pass, in Byron) and being able to safely leave your surfboard on the roof of your car when you go for a post-surf coffee (I’d never have done that in Manly, on Sydney’s northern beaches). And thanks to the Northern Rivers cult of wellness, you can always find healthy post-surf snacks and organic, locally grown coffee; my favourite cafes are Macs and the Top Shop in Byron, Williamsburg and Marius in Lennox.

No story about surfing in northern NSW would be complete without mentioning the Zen masters of the sea. I’ve seen turtles, sea eagles, schools of tuna, even whales while surfing, but nothing beats being out there with dolphins, watching them swim under your board and catching the best waves, reminding you that surfing is, after all, play. You catch a wave and paddle right back to where you started. Over and over. Getting nowhere. Doing it for its own sake. And that’s more than enough.


No Impact Surfer Girl
A wave comes and you turn to face the beach, taking a few strokes to get in position and match its speed as it builds behind you, lifts you. Instinct takes over, your legs unfold as your board drops down the face and everything speeds up and slows down and nothing exists but the wall of green ahead and nothing matters but gliding along it, free as a seabird.

And when the ride ends, you paddle back toward the sun feeling refreshed and recalibrated, somehow, and smiling inside and out. This is what surfing is, a never-ending love affair with the sea.

[Big thanks to Nat McComas for the fun photo shoot and wonderful pics.]

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