Thanks to a sabbatical awarded by the California Wellness Foundation, I was able to take a 10-week break from my job as the Executive Director of WiLDCOAST, an international conservation organization, and travel with my family to Australia.
The plan was for my sons, Daniel (11) and Israel (13), and me to spend six weeks surfing and camping in national parks in Australia. Then Emily, my wife of 20 years, would join us for a final week in Australia and three weeks in New Zealand for surfing, hiking and skiing/snowboarding.
Most surfers who travel to Australia tour the world-class surf spots of northern New South Wales and southern Queensland (the Gold Coast). The boys and I were interested in the more remote and unpopulated surf coast of southern New South Wales and Victoria — described in our Surfing Australia guidebook as, “A surf explorer’s dream.”
The first part of our trip was to be an 800-mile pilgrimage south from Sydney along the coastal Princes Highway to Bell’s Beach. The location for the world’s longest running professional surf contest, Bell’s sits on a world-class reef in Victoria — just outside Torquay, Australia’s “surfing capital.”
Kauai meets Carmel
The boys and I arrived at Sydney Airport in the early morning after a long flight from San Diego. We hailed a taxi van and hauled our five surfboards and canvas duffel bags filled with wetsuits and camping gear to the Kea Campervan rental center on the outskirts of Sydney. There we picked up a 2006 VW diesel pop-top camper van that was to be our home for the next seven weeks.
South of Sydney, the Princes Highway skirts the forest of Royal National Park, the world’s second oldest national park, and then descends onto the coast at the village of Stanwell Park. Our first view of the beach was what every surfer dreams of-offshore peaks, minimal crowd and a park with showers and clean restrooms. The forested cliffs of Royal National Park that end at Stanwell Park gave the area a feel of Kauai meets Carmel.
Later that afternoon ,after checking out a surf contest at Sandon Point, we drove into an empty beachside caravan park in the village of Bulli Beach. We cooked up some lamb chops and passed out.
A few hours south of Sydney, the landscape changes from bucolic English pastures to Central America-like eucalyptus or “gum tree” rainforests and national parks. Our destination was Murramarang National Park, known for its population of “bodysurfing” Eastern grey kangaroos. The park is about 45-minutes south of the surf town of Ulladulla.
The turnoff to Murramarang from the Princes Highway immediately transported us into the Lost World. The gum forest was thick, dark and moist with heavy underbrush. A road sign warned of kangaroos. We spotted a lyrebird, a cross between a peacock and a turkey. Flocks of parrots flew across the road.
We arrived at Pebbly Beach and set off down the tree-covered path to a tree-lined cove.
Daniel raced ahead. Israel and I arrived at a grassy meadow above the beach and found him surrounded by a mob of kangaroos. Daniel sat motionless, grinning from ear to ear, as a joey approached and almost plopped into his lap.
Between surf sessions at a nearby reef, we hung out at our camp, under a huge eucalyptus. We were surrounded by kangaroos and laughing kookaburras. At night, a pair of brushtail possums, nocturnal marsupials, nosed around our campfire in their nightly hunt for food.
Living 24/7 with groms
Back in San Diego the lives of my two rambunctious sons revolve around school, surfing, skateboarding and water polo. Living in a cramped VW van presented a unique set of challenges.
Because Israel had moved around like a worm in the upper van bed during our first night, he was exiled to a waterproof and sturdy Sierra Designs two-man tent. Daniel and I split the upstairs and downstairs van beds.
They boys quickly adapted to life on the road. Each evening after a day of surfing, they slapped steak, lamb chops or hamburgers on the gas-powered campground barbie.
They used their extra energy, during downtime in the van, to give me a surfing makeover: They hoped to improve my hopelessly out of date ’70s flow surfing style.
“Dad,” Israel said. “You really need to work on your snaps. You aren’t getting vertical enough.”
An epic north swell we enjoyed during our stay at Murramarang had dropped off so we packed up the van and headed down the two-lane Princes Highway on our way to Bells Beach. The boys were exhausted from their last surf session.
We had communed with kangaroos, and had become enamored of the beautiful coastline, abundant national parks and wildlife, excellent waves and friendly people of Southeast Australia. As we drove off, each of us looked forward to what adventures awaited us. We looked forward to more surfing, more wildlife and meeting more Aussies.(Australians must be among the friendliest people on the planet.)
Originally published by San Diego News Network.