Bronte Macaulay made five trips to the north this year. Photo Mike Riley

FRONTIER

There’s a story Dave Macaulay likes to tell around the campfire about the first time he took daughters, Bronte and Laura out at Tombstones.

Bronte was 12, Laura 14, and the girls had been surfing inside the Second Bubble on a small day when they’d hassled their old boy to take them “out the back”. It turns out it wasn’t a small day. They got picked off by a 10-foot set. Dave lost both the girls and had a couple of minutes to contemplate what he was going to tell their mum before he found Laura, then Bronte. The measured, polite teenager yelled, half in shock, half in delight, “Dad, I just got fucking smashed!

The Macaulay’s head up north to camp at Gnaraloo every year, dragging the family caravan behind them. They’ve done it since Bronte was two, with the exception of the past two winters, where Bronte and Dave have been off following the world tour. They’ve instead been sitting on the beach at Huntington, watching clips of the waves they were missing back at home. Huntington slop in front of them, eight-foot Tombies at home.

But suddenly here they were, home for the winter and with all the time in the world on their hands. This year, they didn’t stop at just one trip. “We went up four times this year,” laughs Bronte. “Some of the trips were just for like three or four days to chase a swell, but one of the trips was five weeks.” All up, the Macaulay’s spent two months in camp, moving between campsites and the homestead and between swags and the family caravan. The chance here, presenting itself unexpectedly, was to get ten winter’s worth of waves in one. Bronte wasn’t going to waste it.

This was an opportunity. Most years up there, they’ll be lucky to encounter one or two swells, and getting any sort of rhythm going with that wave is tough. Tombstones is tough. It’s brutal country, and the West’s best measure themselves against it. Bronte has surfed it seriously for over a decade now, but only around the margins. In-betweeners on in-between days. This year would be different. “This year I wanted to get a good one. I just wanted to get a Tombies barrel.” The tour – whenever it would return – would be adding G-Land Teahupoo to the schedule for the women. Tombies was the closest thing Bronte had to either of those waves.

“It’s so scary out there,” offers Bronte. “Dad said to me at the beginning of the trip, ‘If you’re not scared, the wave isn’t big enough.’ But it’s so intimidating. When it’s six foot or bigger it’s just this massive line stretching out hitting the reef and you’re like, oh my god.” Dave Macaulay experienced first-hand this year just how heavy Tombies can get. “Yeah, Dad cracked open his Gath on one of the swells. He got sucked over and hit the reef and had a huge crack through the back of it.” Without the helmet, that crack would have been in his skull. Dave came in, taped it up and paddled back out.

Getting waves from the pack out there was the first challenge, but for Bronte it’s as close to a local pack as you can get 12 hours from home. “Everyone was there. There’s the Carnarvon guys, the Kalbarri guys, but there’s also a lot of crew from down home as well.” They know Bronte well. “I guess most of the time I’ll probably wait an hour-and-a-half for a wave, depending on swell. It’s generally inconsistent with sets, but it’s a really good system out there. It’s a really ordered pack. I feel like because the take-off is so hard, no one’s really hassling and everyone’s pretty respectful and hooting when you paddle for sets. It’s not chaotic, it’s nice and ordered, but you have to wait your turn.”

Like any serious reef wave though, you need to hold your nerve when your wave comes. “It’s easy to be too far out,” says Bronte. “You never want to be on top of the wave and trying to airdrop, you want to be able to get in early, you want to be under it. But it just looks so hectic and it’s so scary paddling into them. I’m just trying to get the medium ones. Like the sets all the crazy guys go, you’re looking at them like, oh my god, this guy’s going to die.”

Dave and Bronte drove up for the first two swells, but Bronte didn’t have great surfs. “I struggled,” she admits. It was difficult to get any rhythm going. “I can get some good ones but then next minute I’m just kooking it. You feel like you have it but then it knocks you back in your place.” It wasn’t until the third trip, when the whole Macaulay crew went north for five weeks, that things clicked.

Jacob Wilcox, who’s grown up surfing with Bronte down south at home and was having his own breakout year at Gnaraloo, was in camp shooting footage. Jacob’s filmer had caught a few waves of Bronte that she hadn’t made. “We’re watching the footage later,” recalls Jacob, “and Bronte was asking me, ‘Should I have pulled in there?’ And I went, ‘Yeah, you probably should have.’”

“I was pretty frustrated with myself,” recalls Bronte. “I’d jump off thinking I was too deep in the barrel or I’d straighten out. Jacob showed me footage of this wave I got, such a good pit, and I jumped off when I would’ve made it. I still can’t believe it. I was so frustrated with myself. I said, I’m never jumping off or straightening out again.” For Bronte, it was the sound of one hand clapping. As Jacob puts it, “After that she was riding those things to the absolute death.”

Things clicked. “I got three good ones that day and it was such a breakthrough. That was pretty big for me to make some drops and get some decent ones.” Tombies however had the last say. “On our very last surf Dad did his MCL trying to get over the step. I stayed out, but the tide was getting low and on my last one I got sucked over and hit the bottom. I cut my head and bruised my back. By chance a doctor had just rocked up that arvo and he put a staple in it. We were planning to stay for another five days but Dad and I both looked at each other and said, I think we should go. We were cooked.

The significance of Bronte’s winter wasn’t lost on Jacob. “From watching her paddle out at Tombies when she was younger with Dave pushing her into waves, to this year having that time up there with her, the way she goes about it is so humble. She’s just the biggest legend. This year she’s been hucking bigger pits than most of the guys up there. I’ve never seen a girl have that much of a crack in my entire life.”

Sean Doherty