Stuck on a rock
NORFOLK SLABS WITH STRINGS ATTACHED
As we circled Norfolk Island and I gazed down at the hypnotising water and lush vegetation, I realised I was about to explore the myths of a land that had preoccupied my imagination since I was a boy.
Growing up in Manly, where the Norfolk Pines line the beach like giant arboreal sentinels, I’d always wondered about the place that first gave rise to these glorious, skyscraping trees.
Our mission was to ride a new wave we’d been tipped off about by local photographer and surfer, Zach Sanders. I’d be hunting big barrels with friends in what seemed like an enchanted location – for me it doesn’t really get any better than that.
With the promised swell not due to collide with the island for a couple of days we had time to be swept up in a current of island adventure and hospitality. After a quick surf in dreamy, blue water at Kingston Reef, Zach took us exploring in his boat, skilfully navigating the myriad of coves and hidden inlets that Norfolk plays host to. Our afternoon was spent leaping from pre-historic cliffs and swimming through dark and mysterious underwater caves. As night fell, the Sanders family treated us to fish fry on the beach and I obliged the small gathering with a few tunes on my violin, which I always bring on trips. ‘Twas a splendid way to end a day where everything had been new and exciting to the senses. We had already been made privy to many of the island’s wonders but particular mention should be made of Zach’s son Charlie for his charming rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, beneath a celestial-lit Norfolk sky.
The next morning we climbed a hill to check the Bommie. I soon learned that I was standing in a sloping paddock owned by the sister of a friend (Ben Brown) from Manly. All this only added to the sense of connection I already felt to this place. The swell wasn’t showing up on the Bommie yet but there were other options.
Given the island’s vertiginous fringes, it’s no surprise that some of the best surf spots are located at the base of incongruous cliffs. Barney Duffy’s is one such wave and it requires the surefootedness of a mountain goat to make the steep descent – but before we went over the ledge we had to negotiate a swampy morass of crazed reeds and big spiders. Clad in nothing but boardies, it felt as if we were being touched up by the elements, but there was little we could do except laugh our way through the ordeal and concede that it was all part of the adventure.
Once in the water we chased lumpy barrels in a disorganised, growing swell. It was just the lemon next to the pie, but getting back to land certainly proved a worthy challenge in its own right. With a rising swell smashing the cliffs we waited for a lull, charged in and scrambled over the rocks, wishing we had booties as we tap-danced across the craggily shores. Then, we had to scale the slippery cliffs, placing our fate in the hands of the rough fisherman’s ropes, which provided the only way out. By the time we made it back to the car we were cackling – flush with adrenaline and the sense of fun that’s derived from jousting with the ocean in an entirely new way.
Eagerly anticipating the arrival of the swell, the next morning we rose early and checked the Bommie from our hill-top vantage point. The waves had jacked and the Bommie gurgled ominously as it sucked in the thick lines over a low-tide shelf. With the water on the way in we wanted to be out there as soon as possible, but the surging seas were swallowing the boat ramp and our motorized-catamaran transport looked like it might not leave its mooring.
For a moment I felt like Chief Brodie in the scene from ‘Jaws’ where he sights the shark and screams, “We need a bigger boat!”
In this instance the size of the swell was the major obstacle. There was some serious deliberation over securing a more appropriate craft, but eventually the salty old owner of the catamaran kyboshed the idea, displaying a classic “She’ll be right!” attitude. I have to admit, I was a little reluctant to board the boat, but once the skipper’s 11-yearold daughter jumped on, I guess we had no choice but to the run the gauntlet.
The captain waited for a lull and hit full throttle, transporting us smoothly into deeper water with Whippy trailing in our wake on the jet ski; all of us motoring towards our rendezvous with a cavernous slab we’d never surfed before.
At first glance it seemed like the tide was too low to surf, but when a set hit the shelf and chucked high and wide, we made the decision to get straight out there. While photog, Leroy, grabbed the rope and nominated himself as the first guinea pig, Fraser and I jumped in and paddled to the lineup. I was happy to go to school on Leroy’s wave and wait my turn for a sling in, but Fraser clearly had other ideas as he scrambled for everything, happy to rely purely on paddle power for his first taste of the Bommie. Pretty soon he’d hauled into a wedge and disappeared into the blue abyss – chased down by a 16 second period lump with raw Bommie power.
I was still thinking tow session only, despite being kitted up like a rubber, stunt man in my helmet, booties, steamer and impact vest. When a set lurched through, sucking water off the reef like some kind of giant aquatic vacuum, I suddenly felt like a speck getting dragged towards my doom. With rubberman arms I flurried for the horizon; determined not to get thrashed before I’d even had a barrel.
Seconds after clearing the set a wedgey one stood up and instinct took over. It felt like I’d scooped into it perfectly, but as the wave started lifting me like a piece of helpless driftwood, I wished I’d taken a couple more strokes. I stood up weightless and anticipating the inevitable flogging, but somehow my concrete boots stuck and I rode through the barrel – not deep, but it was enough to get me pumped on my first ride.
We alternated whip-ins, driving through sections, which were deceptively quick and powerful; the photos ultimately belying the force and velocity with
which the waves bent around the Bommie. Despite being clipped a few times our confidence grew with every ride and I found myself wishing I’d brought a specialised tow board, which I felt would have sat perfectly in the wave.
Our naive over-excitement was rapidly quelled when Leroy barely re-emerged after a horror wipe out. Soon after Whippy jarred his neck violently. The wave had started twisting and mutating in strange ways, so we decided to hang up the rope for the day, content to have found the exit signs on a few barrels and survived a volatile, virgin session at the Norfolk Bommie.
Once again, getting in was a frightening experience, but this time the variables and consequences were on a different scale. The captain demonstrated his deft navigational skills as we rode in on a wave, flanked by a dry rock shelf just five metres away. When we were safely docked, we erupted in a cheer of pure relief.
Riding high on the day’s conquest we headed to Barney Duffy’s pub for a feast. The pub obviously shared its name with the precariously accessed left hander we’d ridden a couple of days earlier, but it wasn’t until we picked up one of the bistro’s place-mats that we learned the torrid tale of Barney Duffy.
Barney was a towering, Irish convict who escaped the island’s penal settlement and used a hollowed out Norfolk Island pine as a hiding spot for seven years. His luck eventually ran out when he was caught swimming naked by two soldiers who were out fishing. However, before he was sent to the gallows and strung up, he swore that his captors would soon meet their death.
“Take me or report me, ye red-coated, lily-livered lice! Aye! And then I’ll hang – but hear me curse on ye! So surely as ye do this, before me corpse has hung a week on King’s Town gallows, ye’ll meet a violent death, the pair of ye!”
Barney’s curse proved to be quite prophetic when the two soldiers who had apprehended him were swept away by a freak wave two days after Barney’s capture. They had been fishing at the same spot, near the same hollowed out pine that harboured Barney for all those years.
Fortunately the grizzly tales didn’t quell our surfed-out appetites and we feasted on the chef’s recommendation of beef ribs. The meat on the menu was grassfed, Norfolk cattle and tasted every bit as succulent as you hoped locally sourced produce would.
Typically, the day after a swell we would have been straight on the plane home, but the next flight to Sydney was via New Zealand the following Sunday, so we were literally ‘stuck on a rock’ for a week.
To be honest I was happy to be stranded on a picturesque island, surrounded by hospitable people and fun waves. Plus, as it turned out, I’d been tentatively booked for a violin gig at another Pub by the name of the Jolly Roger.
When we arrived at the Jolly Roger the owner, Matt, was mid-way through playing a tune of his own. Once he’d finished I had an impromptu audition outside, where he asked me to play him something I love. I played him a minuet by Bach and another minuet by
“Barney was a towering, Irish convict who escaped the island’s penal settlement and used a hollowed out Norfolk Island pine as a hiding spot for seven years. ”
Steep fold of blue with a sheer Norfolk backdrop.
Finger-gripping ascent of an ancient rock-face.