Land of The Rainbow Serpent
Protected By Distance (And Its Locals), Kalbarri Remains An Oasis in the Vast West Australian Desert
Words by Kirk Owers
Photos by Jamie Scott
Western Australia is the world’s largest state after Russia’s Sakha Republic. You could fit Texas within its borders three times over and still have room for New Zealand. Its coastline is rimmed by coral reefs, lashed by swell, and measures an astonishing 12,968 miles. Inside its vastness there are five deserts and more than 270 operating mines. The wind howls across its sun-blasted interior and scours the countryside flat. Everything looks ancient and partly erased. Even the dunes appear stunted and harried. You drive past it all thinking this could be the end of time or its beginning.
Travelers seeking a singular Australian experience are more likely to find it out here in remote WA than in the busy urban centers. The accents are broader, the pubs are darker, the humor is drier, and the dogs are smarter. Kalbarri, which sits in an oasis-like national park five hours north of Perth, is a good place to start. The locals may be protective and parochial by instinct, but they are also accustomed to travelers who arrive in small, respectful numbers. Maui freesurfer, Clay Marzo, sampled the region’s tenuous hospitality last winter while staying with local host Ry Craike. He left after scoring a string of epic barrels (which you would expect), accompanied by a Kalbarri waitress (which you wouldn’t).
The call of the West runs deep for Australian surfers. Its storied waves are as big as telegraph poles and as perfect as Indonesia. But it’s more than just thumping kegs. Despite being one of the most urbanized countries on Earth, Australia’s national identity remains tied up in rural values and mythology. West Oz, with its enormous size, sparse population, and abundance of natural resources echoes back to the hardscrabble lives of the pioneers who shaped this country only a few generations ago. And so we drive west, looking for waves and adventure, but also re-stoking our essential selves.
It’s only six hours from Perth to Kalbarri, which on the WA scale makes them virtual neighbors. Once you get out on Highway 1 the road becomes ruler-straight and endless. It literally laps the country and is the longest national highway in the world. Driving in WA requires patience and consciousness more than anything else. You plant your foot on the gas, crank the stereo, and steer one-handed. Nothing happens along the way. You might see a dead kangaroo, a pack of dusty sheep, or a peripheral hallucination. Other than that, it’s sand-plain and sky, sand-plain and sky. After a while, it starts to feel like train travel.
Kalbarri lays 60 km off Highway 1 on the banks of the Murchison River. The name is thought to be derived from an indigenous word for an edible seed, but no one knows for sure. Recorded aboriginal history, sadly, is as patchy as the surrounding land. We do know they lived harmoniously in the region for many thousands of years and that they explained the countryside in dreamtime stories. The aboriginals believe the Murchison gorge country was formed by the belly of an enormous rainbow serpent as it slithered to the ocean. When it reached the water, the snake encountered the evil spirit Gabba Gabba at Red Bluff, and quickly turned north. More on Red Bluff’s evil spirit waves later.
While the modern town of Kalbarri wasn’t formed until 1951, the region has a long colonial history. Today there is a small cairn near the mouth of Wittecarra Creek, which marks the first permanent landing of white men in Australia and dates back to the 1600s. It’s easy to miss, particularly if there is a swell running, because just nearby lies a much more impressive sight.
Jacques—anglicized to Jakes—is one of the best waves in Western Australia, but it is a demanding mistress. Just getting off the rocks requires a certain amount of grit. At least one local has lost front teeth due to poor decision-making. Catching a wave is almost as intimidating. The ocean drains off the exposed shelf just meters from the takeoff point. You’re best to ignore the rocks though, because the wave ahead needs focus. Make your bottom turn, and you’ve got a split second to set your rail inside the pitching lip. Ahead could be the barrel of your life or a crushing wipeout.
After a long, shunting barrel, the wave offers a steep, velodrome wall that begs to be torn apart. The thrill is addictive, but to surf Jakes well means to surf it often and to surf it often means to become a local and to become a Kalbarri local is difficult. You might have to leave your home, your country, your woman, or your job. You’ll probably have to work on a fishing boat or down in a mine. You’ll definitely have to endure hot, windy, flyblown summers and stiff competition for the limited number of available women at the only pub in town
Which is why the local crew paddle right past unfamiliar faces again and again at Jakes, and why no one complains. Despite occasional tensions, drop-ins are rare and almost always accidental. Because it’s such a small takeoff area, there simply isn’t the room for a pecking-order breakdown. The spurned visitor has limited options. You can paddle up the reef and take off on dry rocks, make a scene, and limp out of town on flat tires, or choose your waves and your words selectively.
“We don’t mind travelers passing through town,” says local crayfisherman, Peter “Lumo” Perkins. “Most of us are from the East Coast originally anyway. But if you want to get waves, you’ve just got to surf around us.”
Like Lumo, most of the locals are actually pretty affable when you get them talking. One of the friendliest Kalbarri surfers, and an absolute standout at Jakes Point, is an awesomely eccentric cat called Junkyard Johnny. His technique is one-part surfer to three-parts Cirque Du Soleil. He’ll take off switch and magic-foot around midway through a reo, ala Buttons. On his next wave he’ll ride through the barrel on one leg and emerge lying on his back with his feet kicking at the sky like a dying cockroach. The tourists love the theatrics, but some of the other local surfers give him a hard time.
“I’ve never had a problem with Johnny,” says long time Kalbarri surfer Glen Brown, father of Kerby and Cortney. “Some of the locals think he’s only about showing off for the tourists, but I’ve seen him out on big, messy days when there’s no one around and he’ll be doing cockroaches and Nazi salutes. He’s a strange man. But he’s a true surfer. He’ll catch more waves at the point than just about anyone.”
Like many of the older locals, tales of perfect waves drew Brown to Kalbarri in the 1970s. Back then, Jakes was all but empty and you had to seek out a surf partner or ride alone. The allure for Brown dimmed in the ’80s with growing crowds and aging reflexes. But he’s not one to pine for the good old days. “It’s all a matter of perspective,” he says. “For the guys that arrived in the ’80s, those were the best days. For Kerby, Ry, and Cortney right now are the good ol’ days.”
Pride in the phenomenal abilities of the town’s most gifted surfers are tempered by the media spotlight that hovers around them. Ry Craike occasionally hosts famous international surfers, filmers, and photographers and this has been an issue for some locals in the past. Today, though, they are accustomed to it—and less xenophobic for it. As long as the pros don’t take too many waves, there’s grumbling but no drama.
Craikey also likes to take visitors out of town, to give the Jakes locals a break and to show his guests the real Australia. In winter, they’ll often chase a swell north into the WA wastelands. “The Desert” is the generic name for any wave that breaks north of Kalbarri. Given the size of the coast, you would imagine there are scores if not hundreds of them. But you have to drive eight hours north of Kalbarri to find the true desert, and when you get there, you’ll learn it’s actually a sheep station and there are only two real waves, both of them crowded and sensationally dangerous.
This is what most surf mags don’t tell you about Western Australia: the vast majority of its enormous coastline is completely unsurfable. Access is often a problem, but even if you had a boat or a small plane you’d burn a lot of fuel before you found quality waves outside of the known spots.
Ry Craike has scoured some of the coastline north of Kalbarri by boat, and found a whole lot of nothing. “We found this one pretty crazy left that we’ve been going back to, but not much else,” he says. “For about 200 kilometers north of town—all the way to Shark Bay—it’s just massive sea cliffs that drop right down to the ocean. It’s some of the most rugged coastline you’ll see.”
The left Ry refers to is crazy indeed. It’s also unsuitable for most humans. There are a couple of other slabs around Kalbarri, but for most you need a ski, local knowledge, and up-to-date medical insurance. Local maniac Kerby Brown admits to getting bored with Jakes Point from time to time. In recent years he’s been dicing with Red Bluff, a gonzo slab which hospitalized him last winter and which, as mentioned earlier, is thought to be the home of evil dreamtime spirits. Safe to say you won’t be surfing there either.
If you were to place red dots at every point on a map of WA where a surf photo has been published, you would end up with an overloaded handful of red clusters and lots of empty space. While there are lesser-known breaks that get good on their day, the consistent super-perfection that most surfers chase is strictly rationed in Western Australia. And in small towns like Kalbarri, the biggest portions always go to the locals first. That said, the lively traveler can still make their own luck.
By all accounts Clay Marzo was the perfect WA guest and the stars aligned accordingly. He stayed around Kalbarri for two weeks, threaded a hundred tubes, made friends with all the right people, camped in the dust without complaint, and even managed to charm a local waitress. When he left he offered the local girl a plane ticket and she threw in her cafe job and packed her bags for Hawaii. The young lass is the daughter of one of the town’s most respected surfers, so Mr. Clay Marzo will be welcome—if not expected—back in town soon.