I was tired, angry and a little freaked by the time I had swam the 150 metres in to the beach and then began trotting northward, searching for my surfboard in the shallows and the gutters parallel to the sandy shore, where the strong sweep had dragged it as sure as a parcel travelling on a conveyer belt.
The water was colder and clear, flushed up from the deep by the persistent onshore winds of the previous week acting on the ocean’s surface. The constant breeze and the summer sun’s heat creating an upswell rolling the warm surface water down and setting up a cycle.
Today the weather had changed. The wind had dropped and was blowing light off the land, smoothing away the chop on the ocean’s surface like a mother’s touch on her child’s brow. The sea had calmed but martialled its forces. The previous days’ small, close, choppy waves had been like the child’s hitching sobs. But now they had lengthened and strengthened and had grown in size as the period between each one grew. They now rose and fell with metronomic regularity and real power. It was early morning and the sun’s rays across the ocean highlighted the swell like the lines of corduroy across the royal blue.
It was a fine swell but close to overwhelming most locations along the coast. The waves’ power needed a coastal feature like a headland or a river mouth to mould and direct the force. I had jumped in at the foot of Cuthbert’s Head, off rocks bordering a small cove. Not especially dangerous but embarrassing if timed poorly. A mistake would be met by a wash of whitewater forcing surfer and board back on to the round, slippery boulders. Lasting damage was unlikely even in the biggest of swells but there would be bruises and damage to a surfer, his board and ego. The jump went fine, leaping over an oncoming swell into the deep water I was off and paddling with my hair still dry. I was attempting to time the paddle between the sets of the larger waves. With swells like this the effect of wind on water over thousands of kilometres meant waves would group and come in sets of 3 or 4 with a small gap in between. The idea was to use that gap to paddle as quickly as possible through the breaking wave zone, saving strength, time and sometimes equipment.
Even with observation, watch and a favourable tide it is still easier said than done on days like this when the whole ocean seemed to be on the march.
As it was day one of the swell it was still a little unruly and my timing was out so just as I entered the impact zone I found myself paddling furiously as a smooth green wall reared up on the sandbank and prepared to topple. The offshore breeze held the guillotining lip of the wave up and just in time I paddled up and over it and slid down its back covered in wind blown spray from its detonation. The next wave in the set approached and this was a nearer thing. I just punched through the wall of the wave at its base by duck diving. Pausing from paddling I grabbed the rails of the board with both hands and plunged the nose of it down in a submarine style dive through the wave as it reared. Practice and timing got me through but when I popped up to the surface and saw the next wave already cresting I knew I was going to be hit hard by the weight and power of the falling lip. There was not enough time to evade so once again I duckdived.
As a surfer you perform the manoeuvre hundreds if not thousands of times. The idea is to push deep enough under water and have the lip of the wave hit the surface of the ocean behind you giving you an extra push to slide under the wave’s base and pop up. This time I knew I was in the wrong position.
Suddenly an immense physical force smashed across my back and shoulders. In an instant my surfboard was torn from my grip and flung away. I was ragdolled and I tumbled down to the sandy bottom. I felt the legrope that tied my board to a strap around my ankle suddenly snap. I wondered how bad this would be and I thought about the articles and interviews I had read about this situation and what to do.
So I knew what was coming. I had taken a deep breath before duckdiving and experience told me to be patient and calm and let the turbulence fade. All easier said than done but in the last few years I had heaps of practice. Fortunately the power of the wave’s passing faded quickly and I swam up to the surface with the feeling I have been left off lightly.
The next wave was misshaped and small and strangely had no power in it. It was oddly out of place and I dove deep and swam under it easily. That was the last wave of the set and as I treaded water and sucked in air I turned and looked towards the headland. It was about 30 metres away and for a second or two it looks blurry and jumpy. I thought I saw a small landslide off a cliff that is further around, toward the south away from the carpark. But I was not sure as I was breathing heavily and I was really pissed off from from losing my board without even catching a wave. I was also conscious of feeling exposed as I was still in the impact zone and close enough to the rocks to be washed in.
I started the swim to shore. Here the current was my friend and by tracking carefully I dodged any more breaking waves as it dragged me past the rest of the rocky headland and by the time I was standing in the shallows I was in front of Cuthbert’s Beach, which stretches north for about three kilometres. It was still early in the morning and there was not another person in sight. In the carpark there was still only the campervan that had been there when I had arrived in the predawn, which struck me as strange. It should have been certainly filling with the cars of other wave hungry surfers, joggers and dog walkers by now.
After the quiet violence of my underwater pummelling I was suddenly conscious of how the ocean was roaring with noise. Even the white water running up and back on the shore made a hissing sound filled with energy and life. In the scrub on the top of the sand dunes there was bird song and cicadas were roaring.
I consciously controlled my breathing to recover from the paddle and swim. I bent down and undid the strap of my now useless snapped legrope and tossed it aside. It had been old and was probably starting to perish but I was still surprised and a little unnerved at how the urethane cord had been snapped. I was angry too which was good. The board was an old favourite, ideal for those conditions and I would have hated if it had drifted the other way out to sea with the stiff offshore breeze.
“Well you have shit timing but at least your surf fitness is still good,” I mumbled to myself as I started jogging north looking for my surfboard.
It was not that far away. Maybe another 40 metres down the beach my surfboard floated fins up in a gutter of still water only a few metres from the sand. The waves were only gently breaking over an inner sandbank with their force having already been leeched by the outer bank. The inflow had to go out eventually though and with the tide the gutter’s water and contents were gently heading north parallel to the shore and into a large rip talking the water and anything in it back out to sea.
Sitting floating with my surfboard in the gutter indeed even perching on my board were hundreds of seagulls. I had never seen this before. They were packed tightly, floating silently except for the ones beside my board. They were fighting savagely. As I jogged closer I could see the birds pecking and flapping in a savage brawl all around the board’s perimeter. Any bird already standing on the floating fibreglass island was viciously defending its spot. Any bird that was close and still floating in the water was trying to claim a space on my board. Suddenly, whether through an accident or a plan that I did not yhink the birds were capable of concocting, three or four birds ganged up on another and forced it off the board in a burst of feathers and flashing beaks. There were already three or four floating copses, all half plucked feathers flecked with pink and red.
I stared for a moment, reminded of something and then began to wade into the water. The outer birds reluctantly paddled away. I got to within arms reach of my board, standing in chest deep water that was warm and still and seemed filled with their shit and feathers before I realised that the birds were dead silent. During my whole observation and approach, during the vicious fighting not one bird had made a cry.
Then every bird no matter where they were in the gutter turned and cocking their heads, looked at me.
I froze, feeling real fear for the first time that day. I glanced up and down the beach. There was still no one to see but on the land breeze I could now hear distant car horns, engines revving and right then, distinctly in the silence I heard what sounded like a close and large collision. It shook me and my fear rose.
That mix of crunch and bang took me back to Indo and Hannah. Her brown body sprawled on the road, the broken hire scooter beyond. The black SUV with its doors open, inhabitants wondering what they had done. Hannah’s sarong slowly being stained crimson and her head cocked like the seagulls’, her dead gaze staring right into my eyes as I sat up from where I had been thrown.
I looked back to the birds and on mass with beaks open, they took to the air squawking deafeningly. I shut my eyes and waited to be attacked.
I was swept with the down draft from their wings, sprayed with runny bird turds and I could see down and feathers on my wet arms and shoulders when I finally opened my eyes again. I was shaking and but I was unharmed. The birds were gone and so was my surfboard.
The water was now only thigh deep and it was draining away, rushing out to sea and taking my surfboard with it. I looked around. The whole ocean was sliding to the horizon. The swell was gone. The roar of the breaking waves had been replaced by a loud and relentless gurgle as the water flowed between and around my legs almost pulling me off my feet. The wind gusted and I could hear voices and more horns and then in an instant the breeze turned from the land and starting blowing from the sea. It was charged with electricity and it crackled as it whipped across the surface of the disappearing water creating instant ripples and white caps.
I ran toward my surfboard. The water was now shin deep and the running was easy but it took 30 long strides to reach my board just before the current swung it around the curve of the now exposed sandbank and headed it out to sea.
I picked it up and washed the bottom clean of bird in the running water.
By this time the water was only deep enough to splash my face which I did and then looking out to sea I thought I could already see on the horizon the low line of a wave that seemed to extend forever across the orb of the world.
I turned and started running for the carpark.
The steps from the beach up to the carpark were out of shape and a crack had split them, running diagonally down the concrete from the top step to the bottom. It wasn’t there last week. But my car keys were where I had left them, tucked up under a lip in the front driver’s side wheel arch. I grabbed them and opened the door, reached in for my backpack, and added my waterbottle and towel to the wallet and mobile phone already inside. My thongs were in the back with my boardcover and I didn’t think there was enough time. I pulled my t-shirt over shit covered salty skin. I remember it itching me around the back of the neck as I bent down to grab my board and towel and barefoot, ran across the sharp gravel that I didn’t feel at all. All was quiet; the onshore breeze was much fresher now and was blowing any traffic sounds away from me. I reached the other side of the carpark where the path upwards to the top of the bluff starts and looked again to the ocean.
This time I really could see the waves coming. There was a definite lump and I saw a feathering, white line way out on the horizon where the first wave had just broke on McCulloch’s Shoal. Even in the largest cyclone swells I have only ever seen whitewash there once and that was when the wave buoy feeding data back to the Bureau of Meteorology registered 11.2 metres before going silent. While I looked I could see the white appear across the ocean on top of the reef again. It was bigger the second time.
The top of the bluff is about 30 metres higher than the carpark.
Two car parks away the campervan, a rental from Crazy Campers stood silent. I could see the windows were misty with condensation. People were still sleeping inside.
I ran around the drivers side and yelled “Hey, Hey!”. I was hoarse and breathless and I pounded on the sliding side door and then dropped my board on the ground so I could grab the handle and wrench the door open.
I almost pulled it its tracks and there was a sudden strong odour of dope smoke, wet towels going mouldy and McDonalds and as my eyes adjusted I expected to see some surfers or a backpacker couple still sleeping.
But the couple looked to be in their 50s and they blinked and cowered from the sudden intrusion. They were still under a sheet on a mattress and had clearly slept through everything. Suddenly I was reminded that I used to share a bed and I felt the old guilt and sorrow and pain from poor choices, thoughtlessness and the world’s random harsh lessons.
But then their docile helplessness reignited the fear.
“Get up, Get up!” I screamed into the their blank faces. “There’s been an earthquake somewhere.” I pointed wildly out to sea, while jabbing the air with my forefinger. I was running on the spot, dancing from foot to foot on the gravel.
“A tsunami is coming. There’s a fucking Tsunami! Get up and follow me, we gotta go up the hill now”
The woman got it first, something got through to her and rung true. Further way from me, against the other side of the van, she threw the sheet off exposing their nakedness and grabbed a t shirt off a shelf. The man suddenly became angry as his morning erection was exposed and I realised I had interrupted them.
His first words were, “What the FUCK? FUCK OFF!” delivered in gradually deeper and angry tones. But he was cut off when the woman tripped over his legs trying to get out and I realise she was actually attempting to attack me. Along with the shirt she has grabbed scissors off the shelf. She has knocked over the ashtray too which showered him in the butt ends of a couple of joints and grey ash and now she too started to scream FUCK OFF at me.
Struggling to get up and over the tangle of sheets and legs she almost stabbed her partner in the chest with the scissors but she was agile. I could see her thin and yoga fit torso tensing to leap at me again so I stepped back. Now we were all screaming so once I again I pointed frantically at the horizon and screamed into their faces.
We all looked this time. Even he could see enough from his half sitting position on the mattress. They stopped screaming and the collective intake of breath was deafening. No bird noise, the crickets and summer cicadas had gone or were silent.
I could see the waves were close now. The first was clearly visible as a massive spray flecked wall stretching as far as I could see from left to right. It was truly a wall of water gradually growing in height as it approached, already bigger as any I have seen on the ocean. The sea-lane where cruise and container ships navigated on the way to or from the city’s river mouth and the rest of the world is about 2 kilometres off shore. Mercifully there were no ships that morning as the wave was, at that distance, already half as high as a cruise liner.
“Up the hill” I screamed again.
I grabbed my board and ran to the path, almost tripping on my towel that fell from around my waist as I ran. I left it and hit the path that circles upwards around the bluff on the western and southern sides. In distance it is about 80 metres long with occasional flights of 5 or 6 steps to cover steep sections of the hard volcanic rock. I guess it took me about 15 seconds to reach the top and I collapsed, chest heaving and light headed on the observation deck.
An area built by the local unemployed with National Parks resources, it was not much of a deck, made from hardwood floor lengths, joists and posts with a particularly uncomfortable bench seat that had been graffitied by pen, paint and carving.
Exhausted I sat and looked for my life.
The first wave rushed towards me and toppled forward about 100 metres out. It was below my level when it broke but was easily the height of a three-story building. The roar of its approach was not deafening but there was an endless rumble like distant thunder, the approaching whitewater’s speed was frightening and I could feel my gut grew heavy and urine spilled down my leg. I had brought my board with me as a last resort should the bluff had gone under but the largest yacht would be tossed and swamped in that avalanche of water.
Despite my fear the surfer in me was suddenly fascinated and filled with a strange exaltation. I strode to the rail on the north where looking down I could see the van and my car in the carpark. The van’s lights went on and I couldn’t hear the engine but I saw it reverse jerkily and then start to accelerate forward down the exit road towards the coast highway. And then the water hit.
The deck shook me to the ground and I was instantly soaked in spray. I could hear the massive rocks at the bottom of the cliff rattle and tumble together like board dice in a plastic cup. Looking down, the sea was back and then some. The surging water moved though the car park at door handle height and my car held its ground for a second or two and then listed and spun and disappeared out of view. The van, hit in its rear by a wall of white water its own height was simply accelerated out of view. The water rose up the bluff swiftly like a movie of a sink draining, ran in reverse.
I never saw the second and largest of the waves break. For the third time in an hour I was pummelled by water. The wave hit with such force that I felt the bluff literally move and the elevated viewing platform was smashed to pieces. I was almost drowned as thousands of litres of seawater hurled into the air from the collision of water and earth and dropped on my location. I found myself gripping a handrail support as the draining water threatened to drag me over the edge.
I moaned in terror and I watched the water inexorably rise towards me up and up the cliff until it peaked and held as it still rushed inland past me. The third wave was not as big but with the massive volume of water already in place it lapped the crest of the bluff, smashed me to tilting wooden deck again with its spray where I held on for my life until it receded. I passed out for a few minutes.
When I recovered I was on an island in a cloud of mist. I could see no further than my hand in any direction but the breeze seemed to have swung back off the land which was clearing the air. It smelled strongly of the eucalypt and ozone. My legs were deeply scratched and I had torn fingernails from gripping the post but I was otherwise ok. My board was long gone but my backpack was still on my back. I remember taking it off and rolling painfully on to my back and looking up at the whirling mist. I no longer wanted to see what was down below.
I closed my eyes and slept again. It was 8.27 when I woke to engine noise.
A bright red and yellow helicopter hovered above me silhouetted against clear blue late summer sky and I waved lazily up at a figure that hung out of its guts.
I was hoisted up into the sky. Down below the ocean was now mud coloured and looked almost solid with debris. I could see a surfboard amongst branches and roofing iron. As we flew off there was a dividing line in the water between the unnatural brown that had poured back off the world and the clean blue sea.
We flew back over land scraped and washed clear of geometric form. All was wiped clean or jumbled chaos. I sipped water and lost myself in the chopper’s engine noise and the endless wash of air from the open door.