Riptide contributor Michael Jennings went on the road with professional bodyboarders Joe Clarke, Chris James and Matt Young as they travelled deep into the South Australian desert in search big, empty waves for Part III of the Cover-More Travel Diary.
Day One: The call
It’s always exciting when you get that last-minute call to go on a surf trip. On this occasion, it was from Chris “Griz” James. He wanted to know if Joe Clarke and myself would be up for a trip into the South Australian desert. We checked out the forecast, and it was looking pumping with the same “swell of the decade” that attracted so much attention on the West Australian coastline. The team that we would be travelling with would consist of (French photographer) Johnny Utah, Matt “Moot” Young, Joe, Griz and myself.
After growing up in South Australia for most of my life, I always jump at the chance to get home and enjoy the place I grew up surfing and frothing out. After some quick phone calls, a plan was made and Joe and myself booked our flights to Adelaide. From there we planned to meet the rest of the crew who were towing their jet ski over from Sydney. With the forecast being so big, it’s a necessity to bring a ski for when it’s a little bit hard to paddle. It also helps a lot to shoot from to get that unique and elevated water angle.
I usually struggle to get sleep the night before a trip. The mind is always ticking over: have I got everything I need? Will the swell and conditions be what was forecasted? Could we encounter those men in grey suits? There are so many “what if’s” and unknowns when planning a trip like this, but what better way to do it then grab it by the balls and give it a shot?
Day Two: The Journey
After a sleepless night, followed by quick flight, we arrived in Adelaide to some very cold conditions – about 12 to 13 degrees. Out in the desert, there is little accommodation options available, so you have to fend for yourself and camp. Fortunately for us we had Moot’s legendary troopy (Landcruiser Troopcarier) that he travels with everywhere. It’s an amazing vehicle for this type of travelling as it has the power and four-wheel-drive ability to go off road and tow a ski. Also, one massive advantage is that it has a pop-top that can sleep two up the top and then one down the bottom in the back with Bella (Moot’s dog and travel companion). Ater doing some luggage Tetris and filling the vehicles, we were on the open road.
South Oz is a pretty wild and open place. If it’s not the sharks or angry locals that worry you, it’s the wildlife on the road. Usually, the flights into Adelaide get in around midday or the afternoon. Which means that you’ll have to be doing a lot of night-driving to make it to the spots for the early morning surf. Everyone takes turns in driving and sharing the role to make sure everyone makes it safe and sound. After a solid 12 hours driving, we made it to our destination before dawn so we can settle in and get a few hours before the sun rises.
Day Three: First Glimpse
After all the flights and driving, your body feels like it has aged around 20 years overnight. The joints are sore, and you’re tired beyond belief. But it is quickly forgotten about when you get your first glimpse of those groomed lines presenting through the fog. Instantly you get that tingle, and you forget about the cold or anything else. You just want to suit up and get in the water.
The first day of waves the swell was still on the increase, around the four-foot mark. It’s an epic feeling to be able to watch some maps and then jump on a plane and a long drive and get into pumping waves.
We were surfing Kony’s, a wave found by the Wild Hogs crew about four years ago. It blew up quickly and has become a popular spot for a lot of big wave surfers and bodyboarders. The wave suits Griz’s style like a glove, and he used this to his advantage when he was able to get on the biggest pits early and navigate his big frame through the barrel at their deepest. Occasionally he would change things up and hit the lip, busting a nice air forward.
It was a relatively standard day with the boys all ripping and getting some nice waves. It was a good day to get rid of the travel vinegar and wet the loins. With the forecast looking bigger and better the next day, we retired to our beds after some food and chatting around the fire.
Day Four: Freezing mornings, big wipeouts and encountering the ‘Silver Bullet’
Each morning we would lay still, nearly freezing, until someone was brave enough to leave their beds and start making a fire. At this time, I was sleeping in a swag that I borrowed off a mate, and I thought it would be sweet out there and snug at night. But holy shit, I was wrong! I was going to bed with three pairs of socks on, two pairs of pants, two t-shirts, two jumpers and a beanie! There was also two blankets and a pillow inside the swag. It was all good when I would first jump in, but by morning it got colder and just before light it would be at its coldest. I could feel the cold creeping through the zips in the swag and go straight through my body! We later found out the mornings were getting down to minus five degrees Celsius while we were there.
After getting up and eating some honey and oats, we went to check out Kony’s but, as per usual on a super cold morning, there was a nasty fog, which made it nearly impossible to see the waves. So this morning we decided to go for a drive and check some other spots to kill time while the tide dropped.
After driving around for a while, with no better luck, we headed back to Kony’s where there were some lads already in the water.
Out in the desert you sometimes meet some shady characters or some really nice ones. We were lucky enough to meet a bunch of legends this time. Camping on the front of the cliff out the front of the spot was a local lad named Felix and a bunch of his mates from Victoria and Tasmania. Whenever we were in the water, there wasn’t any hassling, and if someone got a bomb, there would always be someone in the channel hooting or throwing their arms up in the air with excitement.
After watching some sets roll through, the boys suited up and hit the water. The waves seemed like they had a little more punch in them and a tad more size. The first person to take to the skies was Joe with a looped out air forward which he landed so smoothly. In the same set, Moot took off on a bomb wave, getting a deep pit before being spat out into the channel. There seemed to be a little bit of a lull after that with not many rideable waves coming through and the boys got a bit restless looking at waves that weren’t really hitting the reef properly, resulting in some dangerous closeouts.
Around another five minutes passed with no waves being ridden when a large set started rolling in. All the boys started paddling around to get into position when Josh, one of our new friend’s staying up on the cliff, took off on a bomb. He was a little late onto it which causes him to go into a free fall. I was shooting into the wave, and it looked like it all happened in slow motion.
“He was a little late onto it which causes him to go into a free fall down the face. I was shooting into the wave, and it looked like it all happened in slow motion.”
The impact of when he landed caused him to bounce off his board and onto his back. He then slid on his back for a moment before being drawn back up the wave’s face and slammed into the reef. After being held down for a while, he came up in the whitewater after being dragged quite a long way on the inside. You could see that he was in some pain, but the extent was unknown from where we were. So a few of the boys paddled around to him to give him assistance. At first I thought he had done his back or neck. The sheer remoteness of this place is what can also make it so dangerous. With no people, hospitals or phone reception for hundreds of kilometres, you are kind on your own.
After around 10 minutes of floating in the channel with everyone Moot swims out the ski, which was anchored out the back of the wave, so he can help Josh to the shore. His friends then get him in a car and drive to the nearest hospital in Ceduna.
After that episode, everyone was a bit rattled not knowing the full extent of his injuries. So for the rest of the day everyone was playing it safe in their waves choices. There is always one that’s still pushing the limits hard. Another lad that had made the journey down to chase the swell was the Silver Bullet aka Matthew Stewart. Everyone would be familiar with his on-screen antics taking some of the biggest waves and getting punished.
As the sets are rolling through and slowly getting bigger, Silver Bullet took off on one of the bigger sets of the day. He managed to make it down the face and began to bottom turn when he suddenly got hit by the thick lip of the wave and wiped out. In true Silver Bullet fashion, he just popped up in the whitewater and casually paddled back out like nothing happened. I swear it is like his body is made of rubber!
“In true Silver Bullet fashion, he just popped up in the whitewater and casually paddled back out like nothing happened. I swear it is like his body is made of rubber!”
Later that day we heard the news that Josh was all right. He was already back out at camp with some crazy painkillers and a sore neck. It’s lucky there were no serious injuries, but for the rest of the swell he would be sitting it out on the sidelines.
Day Five: The Big Dance
Waking up to one of the most amazing sunrises, we all stood around the fire while trying to warm our bodies and eat breakfast with anticipation on what could be in store for the day. It was forecast to be the biggest day of the trip and the first day where the ski could come into play, whipping some boys into the big ones deep.
We were off to a good start with no heavy fog resting over the ocean, and we could see the waves were looking nice and big. At first glance, it was looking a solid six-foot with some odd ones rolling through around the 10-foot mark.
“At first glance, it was looking a solid six-foot with some odd ones rolling through around the 10-foot mark.”
It didn’t take long for the boys to get into their wetsuits – which were ice cold from the freezing night before – and get out there. Moot and Griz were the first in the water as they drove the ski around. At first they were just sitting in the channel looking at a few sets before putting the rope in the water and getting some bombs. Moot was first on the rope and slid into what was some of the biggest waves I had seen him get for the trip. I was in awe as I watched him take off almost impossibly deep and draw some of the best lines. The wave would swallow him up, and it looked like he had been wiped out by the giant foam ball. But suddenly he would pop out of the tube just as the wave spat. From all my filming and time spend around the globe, I think both Moot and Griz would have to be the top two big wave barrel riders I know.
In between the sets, there were still some smaller waves that could still be caught by paddling. It would have been a bit scary to be sitting in the dark water on your own while the other boys were being towed, but it didn’t seem to faze Joe as he continued to get the mid-sized wave with big air bowls and nice barrels.
After getting his wave count up, it was time to change up on the ski and Griz was going to get behind the rope for a while. It wasn’t long after that the biggest set of the day came through, and Griz was getting towed into it. For me filming all day, it’s a great sense of excitement with every wave as it is hard to know what is going to happen. Will they get smashed? Will they do the biggest air? Or will they not even make the tow and kook it? With all his experience at this place, Griz always knew where to be. His knowledge has landed him on the cover of magazines and garnered him some of the best sections in countless bodyboarding films. So catching one of the biggest waves of the day was something he did almost effortlessly. He casually let off a bit of speed and faded to the deepest part of the barrel, until it was time to put the foot down and get spat out into the channel with a mighty spray behind him.
“With all his experience at this place, Griz always knew where to be…So catching one of the biggest waves of the day was something he did almost effortlessly.”
After getting countless more waves, it was Joe’s turn to get some rope burn. People are more familiar with Joe’s style of surf in beachbreaks or smaller wedges around his home of the Gold Coast, where he shines his glossy technical surfing. This was going to be a test for him as it was some of the largest surf I had ever seen him take on. But having experienced two guys in Moot and Griz was a huge advantage. Joe got a few warm up waves, which weren’t really in the big category, but was just enough to give him a warm-up for what was to come. It was around his fourth wave that he got an absolute bomb. I had not seen Joe surfing in that size waves before, but he seemed so casual and was holding his own.
After surfing all morning until mid-afternoon, the other crew rocked up and decided to get the arvo session. So with having a lot of waves under our belts, we all made some food and hung out at the top of the cliffs while watching the others trade waves. It was a satisfying feeling for the day after everyone had got some good pits and we could celebrate with some tins of beer while overlooking the view.
Day Six: A Unique Encounter
After the normal morning rituals, we hit the road in anticipation of what other waves we could find and surf. After surfing Kony’s for the last few days straight, I think the boys were looking for something different to mix it up in.
We had traveled for a while before we ended up at a spot that would be unrecognizable at low tide as it’s such a shallow wave and only really starts to break at high tide. After killing some time, the tide filled in enough for the boys to get out there and enjoy some small slabby lefts.
Because it was small, I thought it would be the perfect opportunity to get the drone out and try and capture some unique angles of a wave that has been filmed to death.
During my first flight, I started to notice some other things in the water. There were around six or seven dolphins darting around below the surface. They were so intrigued by the boys and would follow behind them as they caught a wave. Then, as one of the riders would swim back to the lineup, the dolphins would be underneath them. Watching from the drone screen, I couldn’t believe what was happening, it was some of the best footage I had ever seen. Watching the connection between humans and wild animals just blows you away.
“I couldn’t believe what was happening, it was some of the best footage I had ever seen. Watching the connection between humans and wild animals just blows you away.”
With it being one of the best sessions I had ever filmed, I decided to shout the boys a carton of Pale Ale on the way home. It wasn’t the biggest surf nor did anyone do huge airs, but it was the surroundings and what was happening in the water that made it great.
Day Seven: The Long Road Home
After a few brews and a big day yesterday, everyone was a little slower to rise out of bed this morning. The waves were still ok but nothing special.
The young Tassie lads were on it early, and there were some nice air bowls on offer. With the forecast changing and boys being surfed out, this was going to be our last day out here.
The session let Joe shine and do what he does best. With some of the waves only being around 2-3 foot with a nice kink air bowl, it allowed him to do some of his trademark tight and technical surfing.
One of the biggest airs of the session was Cohen Thomas from Tasmania. He has such a skinny and lanky frame, and he got one where he did a massive extended invert out the wave into the flats. It was very impressive from the young kid and showed a lot of diversity from the big waves you normally see him riding in his home state.
After a few hours, the boys decided to call it quits as the waves weren’t that good. It was a decision to get on the road earlier and make some kilometres up before the sun sets.
We headed back out on the open road after what was a very very successful trip. Joe and I were flying out early so we pushed as far as we could to Adelaide to make it easier in the morning.
After a few handshakes and goodbyes, Joe and myself were checked-in and sat in the same airport we had only just arrived in six days prior. From all the boys and the footage we got, I think the “swell of the decade” lived up to its reputation, and we got some amazing waves. It was now time to head back home and do some work in anticipation of when that next phone call might come.
All images and footage courtesy of Limited Edition
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Photography is sponsored by Cover-More Insurance Services Pty Ltd (ABN 95 003 114 145), which is an Australian travel insurance company.