I had even remembered the toothbrush this time, my board bag was neatly packed, tight as a drum when I rang Ian “Cocky” Cochrane . “What boards have you packed ?” I asked. “My 5ft 11 and your 5ft 11” booms the voice down the line. Geez. On my previous trips a 6ft 4 has been my shortest surfboard for those cliff hanger takeoffs at Tombstones so it’s lucky I have time to completely repack my bag to include the 6ft 4 that Mr ‘short board’ Cochrane will end up trusting with his life on the three days of swell to hit W.A. and become labelled “The Swell Of The Decade”.
This years trip to Gnaraloo was instigated by my long time mate Ian Cochrane (affectionately known as the moth) – where there’s a light left on Cocky will turn up. He doesn’t sleep much, but loves a chat. He was keen to experience what I had been talking up for the past ten years and he certainly came home raving in fact he was on the mobile every night relaying the days happening’s to half the Peninsula. Joining us on this eventful trip were Ian’s wife Deidre, Prue Latchford and Hannah T.
The Ningaloo reef starts up at Exmouth so the Qantas flight to Learmonth is a ripper if you have lots of frequent flyer points and at the end of the day it’s only a few more hours than going via Carnarvon where your board size is limited. Deidre’s love of the ocean and marine life saw her take a 9ft SUP which enabled her to reach many inaccessible parts of the reef. The Exmouth peninsula has plenty to see. The drift swim at turquoise bay is world class and there are some fun waves at Dunes beach close to town but for us the Jewel in the crown Yardie Creek a small boat throw away was unattainable on this trip.
Three hundred and fifty dollars is all you need to for an experience you’ll savor for the rest of your days . Yes the whale shark swim is a must and Ian and co were blessed with multiple sighting’s plus humpback whales, hammerhead sharks etc etc etc. The remoteness and lack of infrastructure make this Peninsula ideally suited to a Camper Van where for $20 bucks a night you can stay at anyone of half a dozen sites but you do need to book.
It was time to travel south (at this stage we had no idea what was heading our way) so we switched to a 4 wheel drive for the journey down to Gnaraloo. Half an hour into the 2 hours of corrugated dirt section we pull over to check our vehicle. Its a fairly remote part of Australia where you take all your food and water to the camp and the Aussie spirit shadows anyone in a spot of bother.
Before we can step out of the car a Land cruiser towing a well suspended van has pulled up beside us.
“Need a hand mate” ? Geez you wouldn’t believe it we’ve travelled from one side of the continent to the other and here’s Chris “Red Eye ” Fowler and Joe from Stumpy Gully road on the Mornington Peninsula with a how do you do. We exchange a few stories, handshakes and hugs and catch up at Red Bluff a few days later for a cuppa (its just 20 minutes down the road).
For a change from camping we have chosen to stay in one of the cottages at Gnaraloo station. This location is about 10 minutes from the beach with all the essentials including a distant view of Tombstones and next morning we are still 1st to hit the water on a dropping 1 to 1.5 m swell.
GALLERY: Gnaraloo Station accommodation.
My mobile phone was completely useless at Gnaraloo station but both Hannah and Ian managed to get some limited service at night. I had noticed a rising swell report on the farm’s noticeboard which I believed would probably fall short by at least a metre. In the meantime it’s fun small waves at Turtles for the next few days as migrating whales pass on their journey north just metres behind the break.
The new swell started rolling in early on Friday the 26th of June with sets up to 12 ft at Tombstones and even bigger down at Midges. I had never seen it ridden before but T-Ray told me guys had towed in on this ultra extreme part of the reef. We were fortunate to watch two lone surfers on boards around 8ft 6 surf a couple of 15 ft freight train monsters not dissimilar to Cloud break at that size.
Moving up the reef a group of 25 surfers including Dave Macaulay and daughters Laura and Bronte were having a Barrel feast, while at Tombstones 25 to 30 warriors were huddled closely together and taking turns on the 1st couple of waves in each set. If you can make the vertical drop you’re in for the ride of your life. The later waves draw too much water off the reef and even the most experienced riders were paddling backwards on these.
Cocky ventured out on my 6ft 4 and was lucky to sit in the line up with Tony Ray learning from one of the best big wave riders Australia has produced. Tony’s advice was to sit 30 to 40 meters wider of the pack where one would catch a dozen A plus waves compared to riding just 3 or 4 triple A’s from the cliff hanger drop. There is very good cause for the main break to be called Tombstones and its a bonus if you can hold your breath for a few minutes. Most of the guys out there were on their big guns 6ft 8 to 7ft and even longer for the older crew.
GALLERY: Tube time at Tombstones.
GALLERY: Midges – approx 500m down from Centipedes
GALLERY: Surfing Royality – Bronte and Laura MacAulay
The swell of the Decade ran for three days and hopefully none of the gladiators participating were too badly injured but there was definitely some carnage on the equipment. Tony snapped both of his Guns and when we checked out Red Bluff it was a similar story with 2 to 3 nose sections floating around like drift wood. Surfboards don’t crease at Ningaloo they either stay in one piece or you have two.
One of the more inspiring aspects of this trip was seeing so many female surfers charging in big surf. There were at least half a dozen girls taking on these gnarly waves and at Red Bluff on her home break Alex Durrant was sitting with three others way deep inside where angel’s fear to tread.
Offshore every day, water temp around 25 degrees, a range of waves from big to small and the chance to surf with a good crew Way out West in the land of OZ .