TAHLIJA AND MICK
By Jed Smith
Tahlija Redgard had a feeling something was wrong. On a stormy, overcast day at Iluka, she watched her partner, Australian surfing icon Mick Campbell huck himself into the trough of an ugly eight-foot tube. When it detonated and he failed to emerge, she knew something was wrong. For five minutes, Tahlija scanned the beach. Still nothing. Then she saw it… Mick’s board floating in the rip next to the breakwall. “I just knew,” she recalls. “I paddled as fast as I could.”
Next to the board was Mick, unconscious, eyes open, blue in the face and foaming at the mouth. “Dead,” says Tahlija. His board had whacked him on the jaw and on both temples, knocking him out. He’d already sunk to the bottom and filled with water before resurfacing. With her brain oscillating between grief, panic and denial, Tahlija pulled his head above water and began punching
him in the chest and screaming. “It was horrible,” she recalls. “My best mate is dying in my arms out here. What am I going to do?’’ They were the only ones out and the beach was deserted. As eight feet of storm swell slammed the wall, it created a ferocious rip that sucked them out to sea.
As Tahlija held on for grim life, pounded Mick’s chest and kept screaming at him, a young surfer, Scott Teale from Yamba appeared on the beach and started making his way out. Tahlija screamed at him. “Just swearing my head off,” she remembers. As Scott made his way out, he registered the scene with a blank stare. He was in shock. Tahlija recalls, “I said, ‘Mate, this is my best friend. We can’t let him die. Please help me.’”
They kept Mick’s head above water as Tahlija continued to beat his chest. After another five or so minutes an air bubble emerged from Mick’s mouth with a gurgle of water. Now it was Scott’s turn to take charge. “He looked at me and said, ‘Let’s just get him in now,’” recalls Tahlija.
Mick had been unconscious for ten minutes by this point. They ditched Tahlija’s board, and she climbed on top of Mick and began paddling for shore with Scott pushing and kicking from behind. Water continued draining from Mick’s mouth. After another ten minutes of slow progress Mick coughed, vomited, and spoke his first words. “He was talking like he was special,” recalls Tahlija. “I thought he might have brain damage or something, but we just kept paddling.”
Half an hour or so later they reached the shore and dragged Mick up the beach. Scott called an ambulance while Tahlija worked on Mick, helping expel the water. Another half hour after that the ambos arrived and took Mick to hospital in a coma, which is how he stayed for the next five days.
They got lucky. The knockout had preserved enough oxygen in Mick’s body for his brain to feed off while he was out, preventing death or permanent brain damage. Nine months later Mick was fully recovered and back in the water, though he still has no memory of the incident. He is certain of one thing, however. If it wasn’t for Tahlija, he’d be dead. “She clicked into beast mode and brought me back to life. I don’t know how she did it,” he says. “It could happen to anyone but the fact it happened while both of us were out there and we’re a couple, you couldn’t make it up. We’ve got such a unique bond now. You just pinch yourself.”
When Tahlija picks up the call from Surfing World she’s just finished a hard day’s labour mixing concrete alongside Mick on a quiet stretch of Australian coastline, a long way from Iluka. They bought a patch of red dirt here together a couple of years ago and are in the process of building a makeshift structure to sit over the top of their caravan. It’s harsh country. The winters are long, windy and freezing while the summers are scorching hot, bone-dry and fly-blown. It’s barely liveable in their uninsulated tin can. Unable to afford a cement truck they mix the mud by hand, live off the fish they catch, eking out a living working in the seasonal fishing industry. It’s a brutal lifestyle that not many could put up with, but as Tahlija puts it, “That’s what I live for. That’s what makes this place so special. It’s a harsh place and everyone is just down here trying to survive.”
Born and raised in Bagara Beach on Queensland’s Coral Coast, Tahlija’s oceanic education began as soon as she could hold her breath and a spear. Her father, a cane farmer by trade, supplemented the family’s income spearing and selling coral trout and other fish. He took Tahlija with him as soon as he could and taught her everything she knows. She is as formidable as anyone with gun, gidgee or rod in hand today. She and Mick live off the ocean. “We catch fish every day,” she says. “We’ll be eating abalone, all sorts of stuff, anything from the sea. We’re always trying to find it. That’s just what we do. I’ve done that my whole life.”
Tahlija’s parents split when she was young and she was raised for the most part by her mother, a hardworking hairdresser and Murri woman. Tahlija maintains a strong connection to her Indigenous roots and feels it everywhere she goes. “My mob’s country is along the banks of the Maranoa River,” she says. “I’m always grateful for Mundagudda (the Rainbow Serpent), the maker of our waterways, our sacred places. In Gungarri language “gudda” means belonging to the water. I feel this very strongly, my connection to the water. I feel they’re always present if you want to acknowledge them. Our ancestors, their spirits are always there and they’re the true keepers of this country and our waterways.”
Tahlija left home for Port Macquarie aged 16, where she worked in cafés and surfed competitively. That’s where she first crossed paths with Mick. Their first encounter was not something Mick was likely to forget. “I see this chick paddle out and she’s ripping,” he recalls. “There were quite a few fellas in the water, and she was giving it to them, hassling ‘em and getting a few waves off them,” he laughs. They got chatting and developed and instant rapport, but both were in relationships and thought nothing of it. Tahlija packed in her surfing career pretty quick. It “never clicked.” Crowded waves, shitty surf and the brand of surfing required to succeed wasn’t her thing. “I felt out of place and couldn’t deal with the crowds. I just wanted to go fishing.”
Fast forward a few years and Tahlija and Mick cross paths again. This time they’re both single, their connection blossoming around a shared passion for surfing, fishing and exploring the coastline. “We went back to what we were doing as kids and just loved it,” recalls Tahlija. With the help of a bank loan, Tahlija bought a second-hand Hilux with a dodgy canopy, quit the café and took off with Mick chasing waves, mulloway, and bits of work along the east, west and southern coastlines of Australia.
“One trip the canopy leaked the whole time so we were running around in our wetties for three or four days, fishing off breakwalls at one in the morning in the middle of winter,” she recalls. They lived off powdered milk, Black and Gold coffee and Weetbix. “They’re some of the best memories I have. All we lived on was that and our fresh fish. We surfed, fished and lived on North Coast breakwalls chasing fish. We were so happy.”
Mick’s near-death experience only further consolidated their path. After five days in a coma, it was a further nine months before he could get back in the water. Then they really took off. “The accident made us realise that none of the crap in life matters. All that matters is your health, the love you’ve got between your family and each other and your friends, and just live everyday ‘cause that’s what we’re here for in the end. Life comes and goes quickly. Do what really matters. Live!”
“In our Aboriginal culture our lives revolve about being there, making a shelter for our elders and giving back what they gave to us. That’s all life is about at the end of the day to me – catching my own food, living on the land, having a strong connection with my loved ones and being present in the now,” she says. “When you’re at a funeral no one is going to be there saying how many cars and houses or how much money you had. They’re going to be saying how you treated others, how you loved your family, how you were willing to lend a hand, how you had time for everyone.”
Tahlija and Mick bought a Troopy and hit the road. During one mad mission to the northwest, they spent five days holed up in the car at Red Bluff hallucinating from a fly-borne virus that hit the camp, watching perfect, empty Red Bluff reel off in the distance. As soon as they were better, they hooked it to Tombstones on an eight-foot swell. The crowd was conspicuously low, around a dozen mostly bodyboarders due to the low tide. “You can’t surf it on low tide when it’s that big,” says Tahlija, “but we weren’t gonna just stand there and watch it.”
They suited up and squeaked across the shallow reef between the sets, taking up a spot behind the boils. Tahlija swung and went on the first set that came her way. Mick reckons it was, “Ten foot, easy. All the guys were paddling over it and she just swung under the lip and airdropped into it.” Watching the love of his life airborne off the ledge of a ten-footer at low tide Tombstones was a jarring experience – equal parts love, pride, and pure dread. “I just went, ‘I hope she made that’,” recalls Mick. Tahlija stuck the drop, angled up into the pit, let go of her rail and stood tall in the barrel before getting spat safely onto the shoulder.
“This bodyboarder just looked at me and went, ‘What the fuck?!’” recalls Tahlija, “I just shook my head at him and smiled. We were both in disbelief.” The wave was a crescendo to the time they’d spent surfing as a couple. “We’ve had an amazing journey together,” says Mick. “I’ve seen her do some amazing stuff in the water that I haven’t seen girls do. She’s got a special ability to read a lineup, especially in heavy reef breaks even if there’s no one out.”
You can only imagine what Mick’s seen. “It’s hard to put into words,” he says. “What impresses me most is it doesn’t matter where she is or what the situation, whether there’s guys or girls around, she’s supremely confident in her ways, nature and ability. You notice it especially in heavy waves, when there’s a lot of guys around and a lot of testosterone. She stands her ground.”
Tahlija, for her part, is quick to credit her soulmate. “Mick’s my biggest inspiration of all, you know. If you’ve seen some of the shit he does its mind boggling. His surfing inspires me more than anybody. He’s still so fit. I’ve seen footage of him from back in the day and I think he surfs better now.”
Back at Tombies, Mick was up next and knifed the wave with surgical precision. It might have been low tide and maxing but they were making it look easy. “We were just looking at each other like, ‘How good’s this joint?’” recalls Tahlija. But on Mick’s next wave he came unstuck in the pit, dislocating and fracturing his shoulder. Writhing in agony and unable to paddle, it was once again left to Tahlija to pick up the pieces. They got Mick to shore with some help and loaded him into the Troopy for the two-hour drive across the corrugated dirt road to hospital. “I was going 110 and trying to hover over the bumps,” remembers Tahlija.
As luck would have it an ambulance came speeding the other way – another guy at Tombies had broken his ribs and punctured his lung. Tahlija flagged it down to ask for some morphine but they had none to spare, so Tahlija drove to the nearby salt mine. The mine’s medics met them on the road in and rushed Mick and Tahlija to the first aid room. They were still in their wetsuits. Mick “scoffed” two green whistles. Nothing. The medics looked at each other and decided to drive Mick the rest of the way to hospital. Tahlija followed but got a puncture on the way and pulled over to the change the tyre. At the hospital, Mick got another two shots of morphine which didn’t touch the sides. The fifth finally brought him some relief allowing the doctor to go to work. “The doctor came back in and said, ‘You’re a red head. The whistles don’t work,’” laughs Tahlija.
Back in September 2019, Tahlija suffered a serious knee injury on an eight-foot day at Port Macquarie. As she squeaked out the front of the tube, the left met the right and apexed straight on her neck, forcing her into the splits, snapping her anterior cruciate ligament and tearing her medial collateral ligament. Doctors told her she was looking at two years out of the water – nine months of waiting for an operation in the public health system and another nine at least of rehab. “I didn’t see it coming,” she says. “I was loving my surfing, Mick and I were on the Mid-North Coast, fishing heaps, living in the car, doing what we do.”
Mick had just healed from his Tombies shoulder injury and was working on a fishing trawler. Each morning they’d wake at 3am, he’d carry Tahlija from the bed to the front seat, drive to the harbour, carry her back to bed, then go to work, leaving her in the parked car all day. She spent the time researching everything she could on the body, in particular the knee’s capacity to heal itself. When she got a pair of crutches three months later she exploded out of the blocks. “I was like, stuff this. I got really hungry, like, ‘I’m not gonna let that happen.’ I got so dedicated. I’m gonna try and heal it, or at least be the best I can for surgery so it heals quicker.”
When Mick went to work Tahlija did too, training the house down seven days a week, rain hail and shine, before sun-up in the park next to the port. Before long she was in a brace and landing massive mulloway off the breakwall. “The anticipation before that big mulloway hits that hardbody [lure] is almost the same as getting a big barrel. It’s exactly the same silence. You’re just retrieving that lure and all you’re thinking about is that big strike.”
Where she really knuckled down was her diet, eating only wholefoods and the fish her and Mick would catch – a diet they’ve maintained to this day. “Food is medicine,” she says. “All the pharma companies don’t want anyone to know that.” The process of catching the food, meanwhile, proved just as rehabilitative. “I reckon it had a lot to do with healing my knee, all the different angles when you’re landing a fish and running around when you’re hooked up on the rocks,” she says.
Four months after the injury she went back in for a check-up. “I was in the waiting room and the surgeon come out and pulled me in and said, ‘You’re not gonna believe it, your ACL has reattached itself, and your MCL is fully healed,’” she recalls. “I thought to myself, I do believe it. All the hard work I put in had paid off. You’ve healed yourself was what I was thinking to myself. I didn’t stop. As soon as I could walk, I didn’t stop. I got movement and as soon as I could put pressure on it, I was training and as soon as I was strong enough, I was running around the rocks fishing. Seven months after I did it, I was back in the water. Now I’m back 110 per cent. If I had of got that surgery I still wouldn’t be back in the water.”
As painful as it was, the injury – and her remarkable recovery – set off an atom bomb of self-belief. “That injury was a huge blessing in some ways. Sometimes you can get so selfish as a surfer. You forget what’s going past so fast. It brought me back to ground level that injury. It’s made my surfing better and made me grow. I’m happy it happened in a way.”
Among the many universal truths it consolidated was health is wealth and love is everything. “Love, family and health – you’re rich!” she laughs. Her bond with Mick is as strong as ever. The experience of kicking out of the pit, only to watch your spouse knife the one behind and come screaming out is a rare joy. It’s a fact Tahlija doesn’t need reminding of. “How special is that to be able to share that with the love of your life? It’s so rare. True love. Real stuff like that is rare in life. You’ve gotta cherish it. That’s what I’m constantly doing. I cherish that. To be able to share that is remarkable. It’s all I ever wished for,” she says. “Our friendship means more than anything on earth. We were destined to arrive at this place together. I know that for sure.”