GUARDIAN I am not renowned for my sporting prowess. At a push, my lexicon of games might include rough and tumble bouts of Scrabble and an occasional innings at blackjack (normally out for a duck). Most who know me would happily confirm that I am sans any great British sporting genes. But having now been taught by the Zen master (or is he the patron saint?) of surfers, I might well be on my way to silencing my critics with some nippy footwork on the ocean wave.
Byron Bay is a regular utopia laced through with improbably friendly streets and a strong sense of communal identity (borne out by four pages of letters in the parish newspaper) – an ideal small-town-no-worries-ville-on-sea. It’s also a town full of flags, and more specifically, the rainbow flag. I momentarily assumed that I’d arrived in a gay surfing nirvana only to discover – more’s the pity – that the multicoloured pennants celebrated the diversity of the town’s inhabitants rather than their sexual proclivities. Tattooed hippies, skinny and sandblasted, walked bare foot along the road. Honest Joes, stubby in hand, surfboard in the back of mum’s red Toyota Camry, hung outside the Beach Hotel hoping to catch more than just a wave. And Abowannabes – delusional white boys from west London with dreads and a penchant for didgeridoos – outnumbered the aborigines three to one. The town is full of earth mothers and craft shops, artists and entrepreneurs, sexy Aussie legs and pretty girls; a far cry from the whaling station cum meat-packing centre of its inglorious industrial heyday.
It is impossible to get any further east on the Australian mainland than Cape Byron – a ridiculously photogenic finger of land that prods the Pacific and stirs up waves. Perched above it is a lighthouse – a building with the pearly good looks of a Spielberg set – and on its flank is Watego’s Beach. Watego’s is pronounced “water-goes”, not “wa-tay-goes” as I foolishly called it in the taxi over to my hotel. Victoria’s is an ineffably laid-back joint, a cool, help-yourself, welcoming boutique-style hotel that’s more home than guesthouse. Sarah, the manager, had just baked cakes, piling them up on a plate in the living room, ready to be snaffled by passing guests. It’s my kind of place.
I’d been given a number to call on my arrival: “Hawaiian surfing with Rusty Miller: learn to surf with the legend.” To my mind this name belonged to the credits of a 70s porn movie, but then I was full of dumb preconceptions: Australia would be corky; I’d have to drink 12 cans of Fosters before breakfast; to surf you needed waves as big as a house.
I phoned Rusty, arranged to hook up for my first lesson, then sat listening to the parrots outside my window. Wanting to look vaguely the part, I put on my Ripcurl surf shorts, scoffed another cake and went outside in the winter sunshine to await my fate.
“How you doin’ buddy?” Rusty was not as I’d imagined him, older than a porn star, sprightly, with the neck of a gecko and the body of a youth. He was the US surf champion in 1965, a pro throughout the 60s and 70s who moved to Byron Bay (via Hawaii) 30 years ago. Surfing, he explained was egalitarian, it was for those aged between four and 80, for beach-bums and billionaires, a great levelling pastime. I was not convinced.
The Hawaiian phrase hehe nalu means to slip, slide or flee on a board. Mana is the spirit of surfing, to share the waves and to be a good sprite in the water. It’s all encapsulated in Rusty’s philosophy: soul surfing rather than competition surfing. I began to feel a little more at ease. “Nick, you should remember that the guy who wins at surfing isn’t the best; he’s the guy who enjoys himself.” I was back to being unconvinced.
There weren’t many folk on the coral sand beach: a couple of spindly kids sprinting into the sea, unable to resist the waves; another surfer was chained to his board with a length of nylon rope – a latter-day convict. And a beautiful youth slicked tarry and black like a wasp in a wetsuit sauntered into the foam then shot effortlessly through the ocean. I felt lumpen in comparison, certain that I’d never be able to lie on the board, let alone stand on the thing.
Rusty showed me the basics on the sand; essentially one swift movement that took me from horizontal to upright, arms out, legs bent, purposeful gaze into the bluey horizon. It was a lot more effective on dry land as in the water I spent most of the time being buffeted with a stupid grin on my face. Rusty, patience corroded, suggested I took a break and try again in the afternoon.
The restaurant, Rae’s on Watego’s, is a chic study in white, fabulously located by the beach. It strikes me that the eatery, like the area, is movie perfect; akin to being caught up in Jim Carrey’s Truman Show. Everyone is so fantastically friendly that it wouldn’t surprise me if paid actors were constantly prepped and scripted to cheerily say “g’day mate” or the like to all newcomers. By Aussie standards Rae’s is expensive – Au$30+ for entrees, ditto mains. A delicious appetiser of a single Morton Bay bug (a kind of lobster) and chilli wonton did the trick and was gone in one bite. Blue eye cod and white bean cassoulet with black lip mussels and seared scallops was ocean-fresh and tasty. The amazing thing is that a place this cool has no pretensions.
I also found out that the residents of Byron Bay adore my hotel manager Sarah. Uncle Pete, a local aborigine elder, fell upon her at the Beach Hotel bar like a long-lost friend. Rusty was keen to send his regards when he discovered I was staying there. And Andreas, the waiter at Rae’s, told me in reverential tones all about her chocolate cake.
On the outskirts of town is Maddog, a surf shop and local legend. Established 20 years ago, it helped reinvent Byron Bay from the all but forgotten butchery of years ago into the vibrant place it is today. They rent out boards to weekenders for $30 a day or sell new/second-hand equipment. I imagine that some over zealous folk end up hanging their boards on the wall back home in much the same way a big game hunter would the trophy-carcass of a crocodile, never to see water again. Maddog is a one-stop shop where backpackers, fresh from Norway, can adopt the tribal dress and badge of the true Aussie surfer. I was assured that after two months most long-stay visitors are indistinguishable from the locals.
After my break, I find my long-suffering teacher again. Rusty reads the ocean like an old sea dog; he knows every ripple, dark shape and swell and finds the perfect breakers. To my utter amazement the waves are only about 3ft tall, tiddlers in comparison to the tsunami monsters of Hawaiian myth.
And it’s here – to my even greater astonishment – that I catch a wave, stand up on the board and elegantly coast (as I like to think) into the beach.
Rusty Miller is a god; he is a surf genius. If he can get me up on a board, then there is no one in the whole wide world who can’t benefit from his magic. I am as proud as any juvenile sea nymph; I’m as happy as a hungry croc in an old folk’s home.
Early the next day, I trek up to the lighthouse to watch daybreak. Beautiful jagged mountains, partially skirted in mist, marshal the bay. As the sun ruptures the clouds, like a huge furnace bursting its walls, molten gold pours through the cracks chivvying life back into the landscape. I feel bruised and battered, my back aches, my knees are grazed and I’m certain I’ve broken a toe – yet I’m grinning, buzzing over my minor triumph. I remember Rusty’s words and know that I’ve won at surfing.
Did I manage to run the tube? Did I hell. I stayed on my board for perhaps 30 seconds and 50 metres. But I know I’ve won, I haven’t enjoyed myself so much playing a game for years.