As seen in Salt Water
In the flood lit desert plains of northern Western Australia we drove over the gravel corrugation winding and bending with the dust in our wake. With the large timber ‘King Waves Kill’ sign foregrounded before the ocean we watched through the dust coated windscreen the undulating ground swells lined to the horizon pulse to the land. We drove directly west over the final sloping arid hills to the camp and watched the swell lines crash one after the other on the shallow reef shelf down a red limestone bluff. I turned my phone off for the last time and looked to the driver’s seat where Ben sat.
'Looks pretty big,' I said.
'Frothing,' he said and the others turned off their phones.
Red Bluff camp is over 1000 kilometres north of Perth on Quobbastation—an Aboriginal word meaning ‘good place’—in the Gascoyne region and is over an hour and a half from the nearest town and hospital. Colonised in the late 19th century the land is now a working pastoral station and the decayed sheds and cottages and a blacksmith workshop besetting the land are the last remains of the first white colonisers that tried to cultivate the desert country.
We stayed in one of the beach dwelling humpies. The walls and ceilings were made from palm fronds and was surrounded by coastal trees and shrub. We unloaded the necessities for the week into the humpie with the sand and Indian Ocean before us.
The surf was hollow and fast. The sets would stretch across to the horizons in the south and north and the horizon on the west would disappear. You would paddle for a wave and look down the two storey over hang to the coral and urchins and stand feeling the cold desert offshore breeze and set your line. I turned to Ben. 'These are not waves you want to catch after not surfing for two months' I said. He laughed, agreeing. On a 7’7 single fin I paddled for a wave. On the inside shelf the wave jacked up and the board caught then slid down the face to the lip line. Half blinded from the sea spray the lip crashed down and on impact the wave drove me underwater and my eardrum burst a little. I didn’t surf for two days after that.
We watched the dimming sun set over the Indian Ocean plains and the moon rise over the eastern desert country. The sound of the waves washing over the sand and rocks and the crackling of the fire resounded in the dead silence of the night. Chanel, one of the crew, sat needing the damper and put it in the coals. Everyone sat eating around the fire in silence for a long time. I looked at Ben.
'Could you do a month out here?' I said.
'Easily,' he said. 'I don’t want to head back.'
With vertigo from the shoddy eardrum I lay on the bed in the timber shack set on the desert bay and opened Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines turning to the page that read, Man was born in aridity, in the desert. Man was led by nature.
The first day marked the coming of the first swell and a few days later was the second swell. That day only a few surfers would sit on the shallow reef shelf at Tombies, a wave forty five minutes up the coast. From the car park we watched set after set explode 400 meters down the reef.
'Hectic,' I said.
The others slowly nodded their heads. Between the sets we paddled out through the impact zone all white faced with the water bubbling from the water surging out over the shallow reef shelf and a set looming on the horizon. On the outer ledge Ry Craike, Jake Perkins, Zac Haynes sat. They were some of the few chargers that had made the wave home for the week and we watched them paddle hard and airdrop into cavern like barrels, barrels you could fit a small truck in. Zac looked at me.
'Hey,' he said. 'You getting any?'
'A couple,' I said. I hadn’t, though. 'You?'
'Yeah,' he said and paddled hard for a set.
As the wave jacked on the shelf he stood in the barrel all composed as the spray from the lips impact caught between the lip line and the wave face and as the wave collapsed inward the spray spat him into the channel. He knew that desert and ocean better than most.
At the cafe back at the camp we ordered a smoothie. The cafe is an old beach shack set on the coastal fringe with seating on an extended porch. The woman behind the counter stood smiling, writing the order down.
'How long have you lived here for?' I said.
'Around 25 years,' she said. Her kids ran around the cafe behind her.
'What made you want to move here?'
'We just love it,' she said. 'Wouldn’t want to be any place else.'
She moved there with her husband when the camp was rid of many facilities and cost only a dollar a night to camp. Camping back then, she said, was pretty simple.
'Has it changed much, though?' I said.
'Not really,' she said.
We drank the smoothies overlooking the swell lines wrapping around the red bluff.
That night, the night before we left, we watched the full moon rise over the desert hills and fade out the light of the smaller stars. I poked the coals and turned to the others.
'Why do you think we’re so happy out here?' They all gazed at the fire in silence for a long time.
'There’s nothing here to make us unhappy,' one of them said.
I thought about that as we drove out of the camp winding and bending back around the capes along the dirt road. I pulled out of my bag Out of Africa by Karen Blixen and began reading. With the flat plains extending all around I read, "Now, looking back on my life in Africa, I feel that it might altogether be described as the existence of a person who had come from a rushed and noisy world, into a still country."
We drove from the corrugated dirt road to the smooth concrete and into reception. I turned on my phone and the others turned on their phones and the beeps of the message and Instagram notifications returned. Ben sat driving and looked at us attending to the notifications.
'I didn’t want to talk anyway, guys. Don’t worry about it.'
'Good point,' I said and watched the desert country slowly recede into civilisation.