Moments on a Road

Plastered over the tourist media, yet frequently overlooked by surf scribes as ‘the stuff west of Bells’, the Great Ocean Road retains a mystical quality for surfers, and has delivered its share of iconic moments

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This article was first published in Surfing World Issue 288 March 2008. We are revisiting this story now to commemorate this Thursday the 20th of September 2019 being celebrated as the 100th anniversary of the commencement of the Great Ocean Road project.

By Jock Serong

There is nothing so ubiquitous, nor so casually confronting, as a war memorial. Every town has one; in every country backwater, they form the universal hub for directions, standing disjointedly at intersections like a tombstone in search of a cemetery. Simple feats of masonry or landscaping; a plinth on a block of locally quarried stone, a row of trees. With names – too many names for such tiny places- in proud upright capitals, marching in orderly rows to their doom. Finite, sober things, are war memorials. Easily recognised.

Odd then, that Australia’s largest war memorial is not in fact a statue, or a tomb, or a row of elms, but a road. Cut into fearsome coastal cliffs, blasted through hillsides, spanning rivers and winding through mile after lonely mile of countryside, the Great Ocean Road is at once a feat of engineering and simultaneously an ageless expression of sorrow and loss. Ingeniously, it was also a source of productive work for thousands of damaged and confused young Australians on their return from the Great War.

Maybe it’s illustrative of some cultural differences that the Sydney Harbour Bridge also turned 75 this year, an event marked by national media saturation, and a celebratory walkover attended by thousands…while the Road will be adorned with another plaque, but little more. The Bridge, like the Road, represents a triumph of engineering over geography, a uniting of disparate communities through industrial muscle. But unlike the Bridge, spanning precisely 1149 metres from Dawes to Milsons Points, the Road is an ill-defined thing. No-one really seems to agree whether it starts at the wooden archway near Spout Creek, or at Bells, or Torquay, or even Geelong. And no-one knows whether it ends at Peterborough (where it leaves the coast), or at Warrnambool, or even the South Australian border. It is possible to be on the Great Ocean Road, and yet deeply immersed in forest, or meandering through Irish-looking spud farms, with no view of the ocean at all.

The Road is a journey of two halves; first, the damp, permanent twilight of the cliff country to the east of Cape Otway; a light and a surface tension on the ocean brought about by the protective southwest slope of the coastline. Tree ferns. Thin, silent eucalypts. It always feels glassy and quiet and cold on the east side. I know it has its summers, like everywhere, but they don’t seem to resonate the way its autumns and winters do. Then there’s the west side – grass and hard sunlight and incessant wind. Beaches on an epic scale, with rips to match. Bays and headlands viewed from a hundred feet up, so that shimmering ripples in the blue satin turn into green-eyed killers after the cliff descent. Picking through wheel-ruts on farms. Tiger snakes. Painful reef walks over spiky limestone. Monster crays ruling the potholes beneath.

And in between these two physical extremes, the Otway forest. Magestic and deeply mysterious, it stands defiant against the paddocks, a reminder of a Victoria swept aside in the fervor of westward expansion. There are places in there that get two metres of rain a year. Such is the density of the forest that in 2003, in the era of Google Earth and GPS, a couple of hikers found a series of seven waterfalls. Seven. And nobody had ever seen them before. Nobody white, at least.

Driving southwest from Torquay, there’s a sense that you’re not taking a linear trip to a wave. In fact, there’s almost no straight lines to be had. You’re winding through waves, compelled to follow the intricate geography of the headlands themselves, bound into an ongoing visual transaction. It’s two sleeps from one end to the other if you’re in a hurry; four if you’re drifting. In a west wind, with a lumbering southwest groundswell gripping the headlands, it’s enough to get surfers out of their seats, hanging from car windows, pointing and howling, stabbing at the brakes without warning. Such is the abundance on a good day that it can be very hard to know when to finally stop and open the tailgate.

1932 Hitchcock’s hat The governor of Victoria, William Irvine, cut a ribbon at Mt Defiance in November 1932, symbolically linking the towns of the Otway coast for the first time in history. As he returned to his car and was driven along the new road, a second car followed him. The back seat of that car contained nothing but a hat. Both the car and the hat had belonged to a visionary local politician named Howard Hitchcock, who had scoured the western districts of Victoria raising funds to keep the project alive for fourteen long and desperate years, frequently throwing in his own money to pay for wages and materials, while men laboured in teams on the cliff edges, eking a road out of the hard limestone with steel bars and picks.

The handful of trading towns dotted along the western coastline of Victoria were each isolated from the other by the mammoth geography of the Otways. Anglesea, Aireys Inlet, Lorne and Apollo Bay all nestled into backward-facing easterly bays, whilst the vast bulk of Cape Otway shouldered the prevailing westerlies behind them. Houses huddled in ravines, clinging in determined little clusters like barnacles. Travel by sea along this coast was severely curtailed by weather and a snarling tangle of reefs. The only land access to the towns was a series of arduous tracks through the Otway forest, making the carriage of goods in and out a logistical horror. Bullocks laboured under unreasonable loads. People died in the mud.

Hitchcock himself died of heart disease a mere eight weeks before the road opened, agonizingly short of seeing his project realised. But the culmination of his work – of so many peoples’ work, was a slender ribbon of road which saved time, money and lives.

The Road is a natural refuge for loners. William Buckley lived among the she-oaks at the foot of Mt Defiance in 1804, alone, cast out of two cultures and covered in sores. In the early days of surfing on the Road, there were a handful of surfing communities –at Torquay, Lorne and Apollo Bay. Carloads from one town or another would travel through, sharing a keg and comparing tales of the waves further on. “We were like kings on the Road in those days” says Barry Langan, who dived, fished and surfed the region in the ‘60s and ‘70s. He talks of conger eels, shipwrecks, campfires, and what he calls “the old freedoms.” Between 1970 and 72, Barry spent months on end at Moonlight Head, living off the scrub and surfing every day, until he got sick of crayfish and came to town to re-supply.

1966 Barrie Sutherland and Kavvy Kavanagh If a moment can be pegged out in history like a miner’s right, this is the point which defined the beginning of surf tourism on the Road. Mates taking the early, tentative steps beyond Bells, all of it done it before, but never documented. Barrie’s shots from these trips are landmarks in Australian surf photography, not only for their views of that which is visually extinct – empty lineups, dirt carparks and campfires – but also for the quiet simplicity of their composition. Glowing gently in black and white, the Victorian surfers of forty years ago shivered, laughed and squinted from clifftops exactly as their sons and daughters do now.

Barrie can remember the trips vividly. On a trip in November ’66, with Brian Singer, Wayne Lynch, and others, Barrie caught a shot of Peter Troy which Jack Finlay later dubbed “A man, a wave, the ocean”. Perfectly framed between the rockpiles of the future breakwater and the grey promontory of Cape Patton, Troy is dropping into a glassy righthander, relaxed and unhurried. The sky is heavy and brooding. There’s a stillness about the whole composition, which sits in stark contrast against the violent action of modern surf photography.

Barrie made further trips down the road in the years after those images were shot. In 1970, he remembers it snowed on the Wild Dog Creek road, behind Skenes Creek. By ’74, when Barrie left for WA, surfers were regularly venturing west of Cape Otway. Ironically, those surfers had started using a road built by returned soldiers as the perfect way to dodge the Draft.

1970 Rolf Aurness at Johanna for the world titles The Titles nearly came unstuck for lack of swell, and so headed around the Road to Johanna. The consequent exposure put Johanna on the map. Yet it’s hard to find tales about this event, because a number of the locals who surfed Bells in the week preceding the comp came down with dysentery from the creek at Rincon, a favourite surfers’ shitting spot.

As world title wins go, this one surely ranks as the most obscure. Aurness was the 18 year old son of “Gunsmoke” actor James Arness, and had never previously clapped eyes on Johanna, or Victoria for that matter. He took out the event late on the final day in near darkness, surfing a 6’10” twin on his backhand.

Rolf had taken up competitive surfing to aid his recovery from a fractured skull, sustained when he fell out of a tree aged 9. He’d risen at stratospheric pace through the Californian junior scene, and was all but unknown to his peers at the world titles. And as fast as he’d risen…he disappeared, taking up improvisational jazz piano and later working as a volunteer counselor in a mental health clinic. Though he eventually found his way back to surfing, he never defended his world title.

The Road has always had its secret spots. Early on, they were the clifftop bends where people would push cars off the edge for the insurance. Locals turned a blind eye to the practice for years. I once walked round the bottom of Cape Patton with my father, and stepped around the crushed remains of a brand new courier van, side by side with a wooden-spoked jalopy and half a dozen other vehicles in various states of decay. I was only small at the time, and I thought the owners of these cars had all died, rather than received windfall payouts. Somewhere in the cliff face above us was a cave, legendary among geologists, where the ironstone had trapped dinosaur bones among pools of water. It is said to be festooned with stalactites and stalagmites, jagged and crazy like a shark’s mouth.

1975 Lopez unplugged If you’re prepared to wade through enough cowshit and nettles, there’s a wave near the Cape that can deliver powerhouse lefts and rights on its day. Then and now, it’s not widely discussed.

Such a day occurred in 1975, so the story goes, when Gerry Lopez, Wayne Lynch and Nat Young surfed it. Would’ve been an odd sight, no doubt, a world champion, a fabled mystic and a gnomic Hawaiian weaving their way through the Friesians with boards under their arms. But as there are no witnesses to this incident, we’re just going to have to leave it to the mind’s eye.

So the place was firing. Really big. Obscured from view by the height and inland trend of the Road at that point, the three of them would’ve traded barrels for hours, a dream heat which went unwatched by all but the heifers. Until Lopez came unstuck, taken over the falls and thrashed to a degree which he said was “equal to Pipe on a lot of days”. He surfaced with a dislocated shoulder, and made the long climb back out through the paddocks in wretched pain.

Somewhere in the bowels of the regional hospital there must be a note, scrawled by a long forgotten GP, recording the day he re-set a shoulder for the humble guru, most likely never to see his patient again. And behind those big brown eyes, the cows have their secrets.

It’s not hard to love Cathedral. You can see it coming for miles as you drive west, the Road looping at sea level just past the end section on a big day. Getting changed, you bare your arse to the tourist traffic on the Road, but that’s pretty much a given between here and Apollo Bay. The walk down to beach level here is one of the tiny joys in surfing; a meandering path through coastal scrub, dripping with fresh rain, or dappling the summer sun, opening out at a little patch of sand in front of the reef. The rocks are flat, grippy and sure underfoot, and from the takeoff, you’re looking back at the dreamy hillscapes of the Road, almost always in shadow through their southerly orientation, and fading away towards Aireys in chromatic scales through green to grey.

Cathedral at size is uncommonly perfect. Much like Winki, it’s the down-the-line rush we all dream of but rarely execute. Straight, strong and steep, it draws the surfer down the long, long ledge of reef. The scrounging, slicing bottom turns, storing up speed and power, setting the pitch of the inside rail and holding until the physics threaten to give out; and then throwing it all at the lip in a lustful instant, tearing a wild shatter in the precise line of the wave; and falling again, back towards the glass, knifing silently into another bottom turn to set it all up again…

1981 Lynch swings from the rafters of giant Cathedral With the world watching Simon Anderson as he staked his credibility on the unproven thruster in huge easter Bells, a quiet few had retreated down the Road to experience the reefs at a size rarely if ever surfed before. Prominent among these was Wayne Lynch; at that time able to lay claim to being the most gifted surfer on the face of the earth, and a man with an intimate understanding of the Road’s potential.

Lynch surfed Cathedral alone during the Sunday morning at about fifteen foot. It’s hard to visualize now; a lone, bearded prophet paddling over mountainous seas, a speck on the huge faces, while bemused daytrippers looked on from the safety of their VB Commodores. In the afternoon, a few of the touring Hawaiian pros, including Larry Bertlemann, joined him. Barry Langan, who took a drive along the coast to ‘pay homage’ to the swell, came across the scene in the afternoon. “The Hawaiians were freaked,” he recalls. “It was the length of the wall, as opposed to the very peaky waves they were used to back home. It was a westerly swell, peeling beautifully, but god it was a long face. And they couldn’t get their heads around how deep Lynch was taking off – he was linking it up all the way from Supertubes.”

Others had headed further west. Boggaley Creek, beyond Lorne, a fairly nondescript stretch of reef on any other day, was a churning mass of whitewater in this swell of swells. At that size, the swell was picking up bottom contours which simply didn’t come into play ordinarily, meaning that the coast was, for practical purposes, a different shape. St George River, also a nothing-much bend in the road, was turning out fifteen foot, barreling widowmakers.

Russ McConachy remembers camping at Kennett River that Easter, hearing people on the road claiming that Bells was fifteen foot, and expecting it to be overstated. Then he hit Boggaley. “It was an exceptionally big swell” he says. “I surfed it with Sean Black at about ten foot, and it was bloody nice.”

Two Mile Bay is sort of around the corner, and sometimes out of sight of the township of Port Campbell. The town is a tranquil place, particularly in winter, perfectly sheltered by a deep, ‘v’ shaped harbour. Kids splash around in the knee-high shorebreak in front of the surfclub, whilst just behind the headland, out of sight and mind a small band of lunatics are throwing themselves down the front of waves the size of apartment blocks.

Two Mile has probably been outed for a number of years now. But long and elaborate efforts had been made to conceal its identity, particularly under the pseudonym ‘Easter Reef’. It all seems a little overcooked; the place doesn’t break under ten foot. A ‘fun day’ here is double overhead. What has protected this place for years is not the time-honoured tradition of deliberately mangling its name, but the hard, cold fact that there’s very few around who have the equipment and the will to mess with it. Hold-downs here are deep, and they take a mortally long time. One local describes it as being “lost in a black void, waiting for something to happen.”

1991 Two Mile throws up a very, very Good Friday The comp was on at Bells, so there was serious talent in town. Tight coils of low pressure were snaking up from the roaring 40’s, and plainly, something big was brewing. But then as now, only some of the touring pros had the interest (or the equipment) to scare the tripe out of themselves down the coast in between chasing ratings points.

The swell had jacked significantly overnight on the Thursday. Martin Potter paddled out at Massacres and turned on an amazing display for a handful of onlookers. Meanwhile, much further down the Road, the lineup was filling fast at Two Mile: Tom Carroll, RCJ, Jeff Sweeney, Wayne Lynch, Tony Ray, Brad Gerlach, Cheyne Horan and Derek Ho had made the trip. Some of them were dangerously undergunned; Ho was paddling around in 12 –15 foot sets…on a 6’2”. The more fortunate ones like Cheyne and TC had borrowed guns from Simon Buttenshaw.

Russ McConachy had managed to surf it alone for two hours before he snapped his 9’0”, necessitating a swim back to shore. This involves getting out of the lineup – no mean feat in itself -then all the way back into the harbour at Port Campbell, after which the sort of people who aren’t Two Mile regulars would probably call it a day. Russ got a lift home, grabbed another gun, and put in another five hours.

Cheyne recalls picking off some huge barrels, and then getting rolled, deep in the back of one. The thrashing he got was so intense that he burst a blood vessel in one eye: “After that, I had no idea how to get in. In the end, I remember paddling up this really deep bay, and I kept thinking of all these stories I’d been told about a great white that cruises there, the size of a double decker bus. Anyway, the water’s mega dark there, and I’m paddling in along the cliff wall, like about three inches off the cliff wall, just freaking on the idea of this shark. Buttenshaw kept appearing at the top of the cliff going “you right mate?” and then he’d disappear again, and I’d start freaking again…”

1992 Blue whale in late takeoff tragedy at Cathedral On 5 May 1992, 40 tonnes of giant cetacean washed up stone dead on the beach near the end-section of Cathedral, sparking a desperate race between decomposition and souvenir hunters. Now the Californian approach to this problem, you might recall, was to unleash a truckload of high explosives in the hope of kabooming the carcass down to edible shrapnel for crabs. Being more scientifically inclined, the Victorian National Parks Service deployed an army of cranes, and a bulldozer to get the big guy  – all 60 foot of him – onto a semi trailer, and off down the Road to Melbourne Museum. There he remains, doomed for eternity to be covered in globs of chewing gum by nit-ridden ten year olds on school excursions.

1993 Pepsi “Surf the Edge Helicopters, TV cameras, talking heads and heavy duty hype…brought to you by – not a trace of irony – “Sold Out Event Management”, Surf the Edge was a one-day, one-beach, winner-takes all slugfest, like a warped love child of World Championship Wrestling and the pro tour. Pepsi laid down a million dollars US to secure the event, and seriously bad blood ensued between existing tour sponsor Coke and the ASP over the whole episode. “Surf the Edge” memorabilia, including Pepsi cans, still turns up on Ebay from time to time, though no-one’s built an empire on it yet.

For what it’s worth, the event was ultimately taken out by Todd Holland. Cheyne, clad in a white Mormaii wetsuit, took second. Curren tore the place up and the heat between the two of them was one of the highlights of the day. “You got three waves” recalls Cheyne. “And you had to ‘claim’ one of them as your scoring wave for the heat. Anyway, I got this great barrel – it just went for miles – so I’ve claimed it, and got out of the water. Just as I’m heading up the steps, I heard the crowd, and I knew Curren had got onto one, and I just couldn’t look. I had this feeling like if I turned around and looked at him, he’d surf it perfectly. So I just sat there on the path, in front of everyone, with my back to the beach. Apparently the lip hit him and he fell, but I wasn’t gonna turn around for anything…”

The day before the comp was an unsurfable eight foot, and so was the day after, but by an amazing stroke of luck, the organisers got away with it. As far as anyone could see, there was no contingency plan.

The traffic management was atrocious, and the foreshore grasses were badly trampled and took a long time to recover afterwards. Back then however, the locals were just as excited as everyone else to have the eyes of the surfing world on their little patch. But maybe it was the accrued angst of events such as this one which spurred them to much greater militancy in years to come…

2000 The rise of No Exposure Dear Rip Curl: you have lost the plot”. Published in full in issue 256 of this magazine, the Port Campbell Boardriders letter marked a line in the sand for the surfing community west of the Cape.

The locals were crook because the organisers had moved the Rip Curl Pro from its base camp at Bells to the beaches west of the Cape, and perched it with much fanfare on the beachfront near town. “Your crime, Rip Curl, was to bring the circus to a fragile pristine area of the Port Campbell National Park with only a token effort to protect the place”, they thundered. But was that the crime? Or was it actually the bringing of attention to a coast that had hitherto (with the notable exception of “Surf the Edge” above) escaped the attention of the surf media? 

‘No exposure’ is not easily derided as another term for localism. There’s more to it. Since the letter, the movement seems to have evolved into a call for broad-based censorship of the discussion of local waves, rather than necessarily the surfing of them. The media, of course, can be either friend or foe where causes are concerned, and a coastal community which imposes an indefinite moratorium on its own coverage, runs the risk of having no platform to speak from when it actually comes under threat. As developers warm up the earthmovers to slap together a monstrosity on the eastern headland of the bay at Port Campbell this year, it seems the locals could use a friend or two in the media. Even, god forbid, amongst the corporates.

2003 How not to import drugs… on the morning of 15 April, two staff members watched from the balcony of the Rookery Nook pub at Wye River, as a ship drifted in unusually close to the reef at Boggaley Creek. It hung there all day, despite a huge swell. It was nowhere near any recognised shipping lane. After dark, the two of them headed over to Lorne for a night out. They stopped by the road above Boggaley to share a joint and watch the strange ship, blissfully unaware that they, and the ship, were being watched by dozens of Feds.

So began one of the weirdest sagas in the history of the Road; the story of the Pong Su.

The North Korean registered Pong Su was supposed to be collecting luxury cars in Melbourne. But for reasons which were a little hard to explain, it never got the cars, and instead passed by Lorne deep in the night, dropping off two men and 150 kilograms of pure heroin in a rubber dinghy. The plan was that they would sneak into Lorne and meet a shore party who’d wisely elected to fly and rent a car. It all went wrong – the dinghy got smashed off course by the punishing swell, a crewman drowned and one of their heroin bundles (worth millions of dollars) was lost. The soaked and exhausted survivor made it to the beach at Boggaley and tried to conceal the body of his accomplice. The shore party were quickly arrested at the Grand Pacific in Lorne, where they were sleeping off their big night. The survivor, meanwhile, went all Rambo in the scrub above the beach, and was found there, shivering, the next day. Later on, searchers on the beach at Boggaley turned over a pile of kelp to find the milky eyes of the drowned man staring back at them.

The Pong Su did the maritime equivalent of a tyre-squealing getaway, and headed off up the coast to NSW, with a slow motion police chase building up behind it. After four days, they were cut off by a navy frigate beyond Sydney.

Andrew Green from the pub wound up selling a couple of thousand Pong Su T-shirts, mostly to the homicide squad and the Feds, while the kitchen turned out “Golden Triangle Samosas”. Thirty crew members were arrested and tried over the episode, and the survivor from the dinghy and the shore party are now doing more than twenty years. The police put the value of the shipment at A$160 million.

It’s too easy, and too glib, to talk of development in purely negative terms. The Road is, after all, a development. Such mystique as is left, is probably to be found among the aboriginal legends of the place, the Wathurong and Kolakngat stories. It’s likely that the last remnants of their idyll were already pillaged before the Road came through, but their presence in the deep bush is indisputable. Tribes of all kinds take their cues from the landscape. Old Jack Douglas, geologist and fisherman, used to point at the headland at the mouth of the Gellibrand River near Peterborough. It was, he said, the point at which one ancient dune complex slid beneath another, forming a startling rampart against the sea. I’ve heard others refer to it as “the juncture of the lands”, and no doubt it speaks to Kooris in more ways than these. Same rivermouth, just a matter of perspective. 

2007 Chopper to base  Tourist operator Aussie Copters proposes a joyflight chopper service, to be based at the Otway Fly treetop walk, sweeping up and down the coast, brilliantly evoking the spirit of tourism for the few at the expense of the many. Thooka thooka thooka thooka thooka is not the sound of anything natural. It’s not even the sound of the rescue helicopter which the southwest badly needs.  It’s the signature note of idiots who don’t give a stuff about dead soldiers, the sound of the ocean, ancient trees. It’s the sound of shortsighted exploitation, an infantile yammering which drowns out the quieter voices of reason who say, this is a wilderness. You want to see it? Get out and walk.

If you really dwell on the Road and its origins, you’ll find there’s a very strange juxtaposition going on. Any carload of surfers on weekend release – male or female, young or old – is in no mood for reverence. The pure stoke of hitting the Road with mates, of having so many wave options, of music, of backseat sledging, of good pubs, of nights in the scrub with the sound of the ocean…it’s just not conducive to contemplation. But something deadly serious is at work in the history of this place, as heavy and as solemn as the rocks themselves. How do you reconcile it all with the diggers who vented the echoes of their terror in place names like Shrapnel Gully and Sausage Gully? Those blokes also fished and hunted while they worked, gathered crays from the rock ledges and stuffed around. When the supply ship Casino ran aground and spilled its cargo of booze on the beach, they ran amok for three straight weeks, and no-one did any work at all. Maybe, had history been kinder to them, they mightn’t have been so very different to us.

Last word goes to Lorne veteran Barry Langan, straight from a magnificent letter he wrote me while I was researching this article. It proves that, whatever the hype, there’s a heartfelt union between two seemingly unrelated faces of the Road – the coastal journey and the war memorial:

“…the diggers came home to their families after being shot at, bombed and mustard gassed. They were in no fit state to assimilate back into normal life with others who didn’t understand what they’d had to put up with. So it was a recuperation and re-assimilation, enjoying the sheer beauty of their own country, and still working together as comrades. They spent thirteen years building something to improve the country they’d so arduously fought for, and built it willingly as a memorial to their fallen mates…”

 

Jock Serong