Cyclone Surf in Australia

New South Wales coast. Photo: Zach Plopper

Former WQS surfer, WiLDCOAST employee and San Diego County standout Zach Plopper talked to me about his recent trip to Australia where he caught one of the best cyclone swells in recent history.

Serge: You recently spent a couple of weeks surfing Down Under. Out of all the surf destinations in the world, why did you choose Australia?

Zach Plopper: I had an opportunity to visit friends with my girlfriend Holli in Sydney and Crescent Head, New South Wales. The water in New South Wales is in the upper 70s this time of year and it is one of the, if not the, most wave rich coastlines in the world. I celebrated Christmas four days after the longest day of the year. Kookaburras birds woke me up every morning. I was surrounded by hilarious Australians and surfed a perfect right point with surfing legend Robbie Page. That’s why I went to Australia.

Serge: On your trip you managed to catch one of the best Christmas cyclone swells in recent history. What was that like and how did that swell differ from a major swell here in Southern California?

Plopper: The intensity of the swell was incomparable to a big swell in California. The waves jumped from three feet to double overhead in a matter of hours and stayed that way for seven days. As the cyclone moved south the swell came at a slightly different angle each day producing more wrap around the point. It’s like an East Pacific hurricane moving north along the California coast for a week, but with a hundreds point breaks to choose from. Apparently Parko and the Coolie crew were towing in at Kirra and all of the Sydney beaches were closed out.

Serge: The assumption for lots of California surfers is that Australia is a very crowded surf destination. Was that your experience?

Plopper: The prime spots are no more crowded than those in California. And overall the surfer density on the coast is much much lower than here because of the amount of “bush” between cities and towns. There are hundreds of miles of absolutely empty beach. On pumping Christmas Day I surfed an overhead, very popular point break with an average ten people. There were two people out for a period.

Zach Plopper in action in Australia. Photo courtesy of Zach Plopper

Serge: Where did you surf on your recent trip. And where are some of your favorite surf destinations in Australia?

Plopper: I got wet at Manly in Sydney before the swell filled in. And then surfed Crescent Head for five days with a session at Scotts Head just to the north. I wrapped up the trip surfing the beach breaks and points around Booti Booti National Park. I have always been fascinated about surfing those spots after seeing them in a bunch of movies growing up. I’ve been to Australia twice but only to New South Wales and Southern Queensland. I’d love to explore more. I’d say Bluey’s Beach (named for a cow named Bluey that fell of the cliff) is my favorite zone thus far.

Serge: What is it about the Australian people and surfers especially that makes the country such a welcoming place?

Plopper: The surfers in Australia are the friendliest I have ever encountered. It obviously gets a little more congested and anonymous around the cities but beyond that surfers seem super open and excited to chat and share waves, if you are respectful of course. I made a friend at just about every spot I surfed. Australian’s in general are very friendly. Their culture has many British undertones but is also a lot like California (50 years ago). It is a very easy place to adjust to coming from Southern California.

Serge: Are Australians surfers ahead of their counterparts in the U.S.?

New South Wales.

Plopper: I noticed a lot of very good surfers. I’d say the average surfer in Australia is better than the average surfer here. The fact that the sport is so much more mainstream in Australia, the quality of surf and the coastal centralized population probably have a lot to do with it. Something like five of the top 50 athletes in Australia are surfers, one of which is female. The sport is much more accepted there and a much bigger percentage of the population are surfers. Even the old ladies in the tourism offices know what the swell is doing and where you should go to “get a few kegs (barrels)” before looking for a place to stay.

Serge: One of the things American surfers seem to love when they visit is the quality of the beachbreaks there. What makes them so unique or special?

Plopper: The rainforest backdrops, crystal clear water and white sand has a lot to do with it. Add powerful, hollow peaks and a handful of people and you’ve got a sand bottom surfing dreamscape.

Serge: Your girlfriend Holli came along on this trip. What makes Australia a good destination for a couple?

Plopper: If you have people to stay with, your girlfriend doesn’t mind a camper van or you are rich, Australia is a great place to go as a couple. It is not a good place to go and expect nice, cheap accommodations. Australia is ridiculously expensive for an American right now. Nonetheless, there is a lot to do from Sydney nightlife, empty warm beautiful beaches, world-class wildlife, wine tasting, café hopping … you nor your significant other will ever get bored.

Serge:  In the past six months you’ve caught great waves in Spain, Baja and Australia. What location ranks best in terms of surf quality and quantity?

Plopper: They each provided such unique experiences that it is tough to compare. For me it is not just the waves that makes up the experience. The three places couldn’t be more different. I surfed tropical beaches and points in first world Australia. I surfed river mouth lefts in old world Spain. And I surfed sand bottom point breaks in the desert of third-world Mexico. I got really lucky with swell at all three so I’d have to say quality and quantity were equally matched but in their respectively unique ways.

Photo: Zach Plopper

Surfing Wild Australia Part II

Bells Beach, Victoria

Image via Wikipedia

Phillip Island sits almost due south of Melbourne in Southeastern Australia and was a natural stopover on the 10-week surfing pilgrimage my two sons Daniel (11) and Israel (13) and I were on.

To get there, we had driven a 2006 VW diesel pop-top camper van through the immense coastal wilderness and ancient gum forests of Eastern Victoria or Eastern Gippsland. The only other vehicles on the hilly two-lane Princes Highway were huge logging trucks filled to the brim with giant eucalyptus. The evidence of the devastating fires-burned out hillsides, blackened stumps — that hit Victoria almost a year ago, was everywhere.

Managed by Phillip Island Nature Parks, a non-profit organization established by the State of Victoria, the island is a Disneyfied version of a national park. It is home to a large colony of penguins, thousands of fur seals, white sharks, wallabies, koalas, and a Grand Prix racecourse.

Just a short drive over a bridge from the mainland, Phillip Island is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Victoria. Despite that, it is still ruggedly beautiful and has a variety of great waves for surfing.

Upon our arrival we headed to Cape Woolami, the most famous of the island’s surf spots. The waves that broke along the beach, which is protected by large dunes, were shoulder high and immensely rideable. The water was in the mid 50s and required us to wear neoprene booties and hoods along with our winter wetsuits.

After about about 90 minutes in the cold water, we returned to the van for hot tea, ramen noodles and our hoodies.

During our stay on the island we scouted for waves during a succession of never-ending storms, offshore winds, rainbows, sunshine, and a hailstorm. We were in the middle of the Southern Ocean winter with weather coming straight at us from Antarctica.

The boys and I enjoyed an afternoon of 4 to 6-foot Woolami waves and then watched a squall snuff out our fun. Israel and Daniel found diversion from the rain in the A Maze’N Things theme park conveniently located next to our campground. I enjoyed a few rare hours of solitude.

The highlight of Phillip Island was observing hundreds of Little Penguins (the smallest specie of penguins, about 16 inches tall) emerge from the ocean in a “Penguin Parade.”  The penguins mesmerized Daniel as they emerged from the surf and waddled their way from the beach into their sand dune dens.

We also enjoyed wandering among koalas and wallabies at the Koala Conservation Centre near our campground.

San Diego: Israel (left) and Daniel Dedina rejoice when the family reaches Bells Beach.Israel (left) and Daniel Dedina rejoice when the family reaches Bells Beach

On to Bells Beach

We pulled into Torquay, the home of Bells Beach, one of the world’s most renowned surf spots, with high expectations. The Santa Cruz-like city, about an hour southwest of Melbourne, is home to the Surf World Museum and corporate surfing giant Rip Curl.

“Maybe we’ll see pros here, dad,” Daniel said excitedly, as we we drove the Surf Coast Highway, passing surf shop after surf shop: Globe, Rusty, Quiksilver and the large Rip Curl retail center.

We hurried through town, found the turnoff to Bells from the Great Ocean Road, and drove by fields filled with kangaroos. As we pulled into the parking lot of the world’s first surfing reserve, we could see that the swell was up.

A vast reef and point fronted by sandstone cliffs, Bells was not breaking that well (it requires a really big swell to get good), but the adjacent Winkipop, a rocky point where waves break for hundreds of yards, looked great.

We had arrived!

Israel jumped out of the van raced to the edge of the cliffs, and shouted, “It’s going off.” We had arrived!

Over the next few days, we shuttled between the 30-acre beachside Torquay Caravan Park (that charged us about $7 a night for a campsite) and the Bells parking lot. After surf sessions, I cooked up pancakes and ramen noodles in the van.

The boys enjoyed meeting other visiting surf pilgrims from Tasmania, Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland – all living in their own beat-up vans, plastered with surf stickers, in the parking lot.

When we weren’t surfing, we took day trips:  An outing along the Great Ocean Road provided a stunning introduction to one of the world’s most scenic coastal drives.  We took an overnight trip to the Twelve Apostles, a national park featuring awe-inspiring sandstone monoliths at the edge of the Shipwreck Coast.

We also enjoyed visiting the excellent Surf World Museum in Torquay. The boys loved the Bells surf contest trophy “Bell,” the huge display of retro surfboards, and the informative exhibit on the history of big-wave surfing.

San Diego: On one day trip, the family visited the Twelve Apostles.On one day trip, the family visited the Twelve Apostles. 

One afternoon while surveying the surf from the parking lot ,we realized that the swell had come up and Bells was offering solid but stormy 6- to 8-foot waves.

Israel who is fearless, quickly threw on his wetsuit and rushed into the surf. I waited and paddled out with Daniel, who is more cautious. Together we managed to snag a few of the gray-black double-overhead waves, enjoying the company of a handful of friendly local surfers who were ripping.

Finally, a motel

Back in the parking lot, after changing out of our wetsuits, it was apparent that the temperature had dropped even more. For the first time during the trip, the boys convinced me to get a motel room.

We retreated to the reasonably priced Torquay Tropicana Motel near the Surf World Museum, owned by a Troy and Casey Dunlop a young couple completely in tune with the needs of traveling surfers. The lobby came complete with a surfboard signed by world tour surf pros including former world champ Mick Fanning (that sealed the deal with the boys). Troy, a surfer, promised a dawn patrol with offshore winds the next morning and we slept soundly.

San Diego: Phillip Island is home to a large colony of penguins. (photo courtesy of Phillp Island Nature Parks)Phillip Island is home to a large colony of penguins. (photo courtesy of Phillp Island Nature Parks) 

After another great surf session, we departed Bells the following afternoon and headed back north toward the warmer beaches of New South Wales. We enjoyed another month of surfing and wildlife adventures in Australia including a great week with my wife, Emily, exploring Sydney and beautiful Jervis Bay.

Now, back home, we are  enthusiastically planning our next family surf adventure to Australia.
Originally published by the San Diego News Network.

A Family Adventure on the Wild Coast of Australia Part I

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.

Kangaroo Beach

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.

After we set our bush camp at the nearby Depot Beach campground, Israel stumbled upon a swamp wallaby feeding in the dunes. He described it as ”a cross between a kangaroo and a giant rabbit.”

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.”

Bells Beach

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.

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