Stuck on a rock


Tracks - - Ethan Ewing -

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. ”

Photo: Leroy Bel­let.

Steep fold of blue with a sheer Nor­folk back­drop.

Photo: Zach San­ders.

Fin­ger-grip­ping as­cent of an an­cient rock-face.

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