“So let me get this straight,” I’d heard this story a few times already today, but the old surfer was enjoying telling it and I didn’t want to stop him.
“This guy was climbing up the cliff, about to grab his mate’s outstretched hand to pull himself up, when the wash from a set rolled up the rocks fifteen feet high and swept him off?”
“Yeah, he was plucked off the cliff, washed through the boulders in the cove and back out into the lineup. He lost his board and took a hell of a beating”. The old surfer’s sun cracked face wrinkled under his white and blue striped beanie, laughter lines forming a serious frown, his smile lost in the tale. “But he made it up the second time round. Lucky to alive I reckon. And it was like three times overhead. Normally it’s just the rocks you gotta watch out for. And the cliff.”
Well that’s good to know.
After driving through the night, Ewok (small and hairy!) and I slept in the back of the van, comfortably crammed in next to four surfboards and an empty bottle of Laphroaig whisky. We reminisced through a soundtrack of dance music, blaring bass into the dark nothing of the mountain road, headlights matching the beat in the cats eyes. We arrived at half past two in the morning, way too excited to get any sleep, needing
As soon as the alarm woke us, we could hear the rumble surf on the other side of the headland. Kettle, coffee, porridge, stack the boards, get on the road. We knew the drill by now. And we knew what we were expecting; hollow lefts punching the sand of a sheltered cove.
We thought we knew what we were expecting, but we didn’t expect what we found.
Climbing out of the van, we wrapped our fingers round our mugs for warmth, our breath mixing with steam in the weak light. Stumbling between the gorse bushes, coffee spilling, to the lookout point we found that a large south swell had pushed into the coast overnight. Lines of swell marched into the headland. Every cliff sprayed white at its base. The waves in the cove under the lookout buckled and wedged into hungry peaks.
“That is easily double overhead. And a bit more” proclaimed Ewok, familiar with the breaks of this remote headland, “and I’m not in the mood to spend two hours getting slammed”.
“When you put it like that, neither am I”, I said, before noticing an unmistakeable glint in his eye, “you got somewhere in mind?”
His grin answered my question. “Yeah I do. But we’ve got to wait for the tide to drop first.”
The four other surfers in the car park hadn’t exactly looked excited. I’d put it down to the lingering winter cold, but now I understood their grim faces. Surfers often describe themselves as hunting for waves, but looking at these waves throw so heavy and wide I could understand why the tense faces in the car park looked like prey than predator. I’ve surfed this cove in these conditions before and it’s a full on rollercoaster ; a proper Hossegor style barrel. If you make one drop you’re stoked. If you get a solid turn in you’re raving about it for a year.
We surfed a playful right hand reef break while the tide dropped. Ewok caught up with some of his old friends. Every time he mentioned the spot he wanted to surf, his friends would answer with an intake of breath and a shake of the head. They all talked about the rocks, climbing down a cliff, boulders the size of cars, dinged boards and heavy wipeouts were mentioned. A lot. Then came the story about the guy being washed off the cliff. I heard it in full at least five times in the space of two hours. Needless to say all this talk wasn’t getting me excited, but it seemed like a rite of initiation. Scare the shit out of the new guy kinda stuff.
It was finally time to check the spot. I don’t need to say how secret this place is. It is a heavy left hand reef that doesn’t often work. The locals know about it, but it doesn’t get surfed much due to its remoteness and the difficult access. The scare stories help to keep people away who don’t know what they’re doing. And they work.
Ewok didn’t need to blindfold me to take me there. There was no way I was going to find my way through the maze of fields and dirt tracks unguided. We pulled up by a cowshed, it’s shaded occupants complaining about the disturbance to their quiet home. I parked respectfully and out of the way of the farm yard. The farmers round here don’t take any shit from tourists. I pulled out my 6’2 pin tail, excited pleased to have the opportunity to test my new board in the waves it deserves, making a mental note to remember today next time I have to defend myself for owning 5 boards.
We walked through greening fields, feeling the warmth of spring through the neoprene of our wetsuits. From the headland we could see coastline stretching out before us, a reminder of how far we were from anywhere. Villages and towns smudged white on the mountains in the distance, while I could see lines bumping their way landward from the grey blue haze on the horizon.
I love searching for waves on this headland. It is rare to find a place so insulated and protected, where the rural life and traditional culture remains, changed rarely and only when necessary. Looking out at the caravan sites and cheap holiday parks it felt easy to think of myself as here for a more worthy quest than the mere tourist. I was not here to battle my way to a fish supper. I am not just another visitor. Am I?
After climbing several rusty gates and slipping our way through muddy, poached, fields we found ourselves at the top of a steep grassy slope. At the bottom of the slope was a slab of rock the height of a house, and enough off vertical to allow a person to climb up and down. At the cliffs base was a barricade of large irregular boulders that looked hard and sharp even from a distance. Breaking down this boulder point was a set of waves.
“It looks a bit fat. And only shoulder high. You sure it’s worth it?” I bleated; the scare stories had been told with style and enthusiasm.
“Nah that’s overhead and cranking mate, it’s hard to tell from here” smiled Ewok. I sighed. Is there no end to this mans enthusiasm, I thought. Well there’s no way out of it now.
“You’re the boss. How dodgy is it?” I asked, hoping for the truth.
“It’s not that bad. At least it’s dry so the rocks aren’t slippery and it’s a setty swell so we can jump off the rocks easily”. I tried to look convinced. I’m not a big fan of rock jumps after spending an hour standing on a rock in
We picked our way down a narrow sheep path, every step carefully placed to avoid the snaring brambles, heather and gorse. The path got steeper, our hands gripping tufts of grass for support. We made it to the top of the rock slab. Seaweed and kelp had crisped in the sun, and cracked under our feet and hands as we crabbed our way down the slope to the top of the boulder field. Dank, menacing holes darkened the gaps between the red rocks. We jumped and clambered, scraping knees and clunking boards and fins. Eventually I was perched on a rock, knee deep in water, watching a two foot line of whitewater close on me as Ewok leapt off his rock. I took a breath, timed my jump and quickly paddled after him up the point into the line up, feeling relieved to be in the water.
Sets wrapped close into the point and jumped up in size when they hit the rocky ledge, breaking close to the boulders. Ewok sat inside, leaving me in position for the first wave. Paddling straight at the cliff and the rocks, the takeoff was unnerving. The wave itself was intense. A steep ledgey drop into a fast running wall, followed by a hollow bowl section then a shoulder that screams out for a hack. I caught the first wave of the session, easily finding the speed I needed to pump through the bowl, before doing a big roundhouse cutback at the end. I whooped, and grinned as I paddled back out. Two surfers in the water, quality surf, and the sun was shining. Fortune favours the brave.
For an hour we surfed for ourselves. No one was watching. We couldn’t see any buildings or signs of people save for an old fence peering over the cliff edge. Ewok knew the spot well and put in plenty of big turns in places where I’d been pumping, looking for an exit. Ewok made some deep takeoffs, effortless speed lines and turns on the lip, while I screamed at the end of each ride, as much in fun as relief to get to the end of the wave. I was loving my board, big fins and the pintail giving drive and hold in the pocket. This wave was a far cry from weak beachies, letting you speed into each turn, and really lean into bottom turns. Proper top to bottom surfing.
All the way through your ride you can feel the rocks at your back and under the water. It was a dramatic place to be in the water, the collapsed cliff and unforgiving rocks dominated us, putting us in our place as a mere sideshow in a long, powerful and dramatic coastal saga.
I couldn’t believe this place doesn’t get surfed more. In this part of the world you don’t often find intense waves, mostly just fun but gutless points and beaches. I guess the difficult access, the rocks and the stories keep people away. But I suspect that the tales have taken on a life of their own, becoming part of the local folklore that protects this remote, sea-scarred headland from the modern world.
I found myself thinking that it wouldn’t be such a spooky spot if someone put in a fixed rope to help you climb up and down the rocks. But I realised that if someone did this, it would be the end of the place. The verbal history of the place, the folklore of spoken word that survives through the tales told by the local surfers, would be lost, and this classic secret spot would be opened up. It is one of the few places left that rewards the curious and the adventurous.
After the session, looking again from the headland to the hinterland, I found myself admiring the view that every visitor, every tourist pauses to photograph. We are all linked as visitors by the fact that we take something from the place. The only difference between surfers and tourists is that we can tell new stories in an ancient landscape.