By Sean Doherty
Let’s watch the sun come up in another town
Try our luck a little further down
Leave the cards on the table
Leave the bread on the plate
Put your hand on the gearshift
Put your foot off the brake
And take one last look
At the place that you are leaving
Take one last look
– Tom Waits, Take One Last Look
A Sunday morning in the Point Impossible car park. Walking around, nursing my baby daughter while her mum surfed. Bluebird morning, sunny and offshore. Three cars up a guy in a straw cowboy hat was drinking a beer, not his first of the day. I turn before he makes eye contact. A young couple return to the van next to me, open the back and sit down to watch the surf. The van is kitted out in the style of the day. Board racks top and bottom, day bed in the middle. We small-talk surf, and I ask them where they live. The guy replies, almost reluctantly, “Grovedale.”
As a surfer, you don’t want to live in Grovedale. It’s the closest suburb of Geelong to Torquay, only 20 minutes down the road, but a million miles away. It’s the suburban badlands of Gee-troit. Grovedale and the new suburbs springing up along the Torquay Road are the scourge of local surfers. Every crowded morning at Winki some local will paddle back out grizzling about “Grovedale Boardriders.”
“Grovedale?” I couldn’t help but ask. The van was full of boards. The couple were clearly surfers. They didn’t look like they belonged in Grovedale.
It turns out, just a few months earlier, the couple had been living just around the corner from me in Torquay. They’d been renting there but the owners had decided to sell the house and they were given the boot. The timing was bad. The local rental market had dried up completely. At one point last year there wasn’t a single permanent rental anywhere in town. Not one. With no choice, the young couple – expecting their first child as well – were forced to pack up and leave town. Tough move.
They weren’t alone.
They were victims of a special madness that swept the coast last year. The pandemic saw small coastal towns right around the country overrun with people fleeing locked down cities. The pandemic broke old ways of thinking about work and home life. Why would you live in landlocked Melbourne if you could live down the coast instead? Torquay filled up with a Melbourne diaspora. Holiday houses became just houses. Rentals dried up while the property market ran white hot. House prices spiked wildly. Everything was suddenly seven figures, including old fibro bangers.
Of all the bizarre things that happened last year, maybe the most bizarre was that my house here in town earned more than I did. If you owned a place, it was a windfall, but if you didn’t, life became suddenly precarious. The flood of money into the local property market flushed away the young and the vulnerable alike. Occupants of share houses disappeared to parts unknown. Their only consolation was they didn’t live in Byron where things were infinitely worse.
Of course, this is hardly a recent phenomenon. Twenty years ago, I wrote a story titled The Sold Coast about how the shift was in full swing. Young surfers were already being priced out of their hometowns and suburbs. More people, but they weren’t making any more coastline. It was population, but also policy. In Australia, negative gearing was making it cheaper to buy your seventh property than your first. Investors flooded the market.
In more recent times, you’ve had historically low interest rates, a fetishisation of coastal property, and the rise of the short-term holiday rental market. Airbnb has gutted some holiday towns. Prices spiked, coastal property became an investors’ picnic, and then prices spiked even more. In the eighties a young person could buy a house with three years of an average wage. Now it’s 10 years and climbing radically. The result of all this is that it’s now almost impossible for young people to buy into coastal towns.
It’s a generational shafting.
Bleakly, it won’t change anytime soon. At the last election Labor ran on a platform to remove negative gearing and lost the unlosable election. Decades of Australian wealth has been built on property, and nobody is game to stop the music. For a young person, your only hope is to wait for an economic crash, but the last economic crash – last year at the start of the pandemic – lasted about two weeks. From that point it’s gone batshit crazy, even crazier than before, washing away the last hopes of young homeowners.
For most young surfers to buy in their hometown they need some gumption and some good luck. They need two jobs. Maybe live at home till they’re 30. Inherit. Borrow from the bank of mum and dad. Stop eating avocado. And even then, to afford living where you grew up, you’re chained to a nasty 25-year mortgage, working so hard to pay it off you’ll never fully get to enjoy the place anyway.
Or you could just leave town altogether.
If ever there was a film for the times, the Lost Track series was it. The virtues of the film itself have been celebrated in these pages at length over the last year. The surfing, the cinematic scope, its simple surfing truths. But it’s what the film has represented socially that might mark it as more significant again.
The timing was perfect. Torren Martyn and Ishka Folkwell filmed the final sequences in Morocco and got the last flight home before Australia’s borders slammed shut. They had the perfect surfing escape film in the can, ready to screen to an audience who could no longer escape. It would be the vicarious hit of the year.
But escape people did. They didn’t escape in planes though… like Torren and Ishka they escaped in vans. The pandemic has catalysed all sorts of social shifts that have been slowly bubbling away beforehand. Working from home. Sea and tree changes. The Great Resignation. But for young surfers, it’s been the idea of jumping in a van and taking off around Australia that’s taken hold. If you stayed light on your feet and could navigate the odd border slamming shut, Australia was your oyster. It’s moved broadly east to west, with a touch of north to south. The campgrounds at Gnaraloo and Cactus have never been busier.
The Lost Track films felt authentic because they were. At home in Australia, Torren drives around in the same Ford Explorer van he drove in the Atlantic film and has spent most of the pandemic doing hot laps of the Australian coast. He’s rarely been home in Byron at all, where he lives small. Home is a caravan, parked permanently on a mate’s property. The irony is that the caravan doesn’t move. He’s never home anyway.
Van life has been a particularly Millennial response to being shafted out of the property market. Their hopes and dreams aren’t tied to bricks, mortar, and a mortgage. The current generation don’t seem as hung up about staunchly clinging to their tribal patch. They can’t buy in, and it’s liberated them. Their response to not being able to afford to live on their home beach has simply been to buy a van and make the whole coast their home. And when you live in Australia, that’s a lot of home.
But the pandemic won’t last forever… and only the most soap-resistant can live in a van for more than a year or two. At some point young people will look for a town to call home. When Surfing World interviewed Beau Cram last issue, he was living in his van and had long given up hope of ever buying in Avalon, where he’d grown up. He and his mates were already looking down the South Coast, way down, but was conscious of displacing others, just as he’d been displaced.
Seeds of new surf towns are being sown. The Eyre Peninsula and the East Coast of Tassie, even before the pandemic saw crew from the Eastern Seaboard relocate and start new lives. Good surf, cheap property, room to move and the promise of an easier life.
But these new surf towns are not always where you’d expect them. While the couple at Point Impossible had moved toward the city with Grovedale, other local surfers around Torquay have moved in another direction.
Winchelsea is a cow town about 20 minutes inland from Bells. In the past, the only time surfers would ever go near it was passing through it while taking the back road down to Johanna. But in the past year a handful of young surf crew have moved out there. It’s not a surf scene. It’s not even a nascent surf scene and it may never be a surf scene at all. It’s certainly not what Bangalow is to Byron. But it’s a 20-minute straight shoot to Bells, a head-start on the road to Johanna, there’s no tract housing and the rent’s cheap. It’s still got some rural charm and feels authentic, just not in a surf way. I don’t think any of them plan on living there till they fall off the perch, but it’s a step in wherever it is they’re going next.
We’ve been here before with all of this. A couple of generations ago young surfers fled the cities, up and down the coast, and posted up in small towns with good waves looking for a better life, a cheaper life. Room to move. The irony now is that Byron isn’t the Promised Land. It’s the place the dreamers are being booted out of.
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