STORY BY: Dan Malloy
PHOTOS BY: Jeff Johnson
LOCATION: Australian Bight
I carried a surfboard across the desert, headed for the edge of a cliff, not knowing what was below. All I could see was the bitten-off edge of Australia, and beyond it, a blue haze. Somewhere beyond that was Antarctica.
The locals, what few of them live on this dried-up limestone pan, talk in hushed tones about the ocean, saying how alive it is.
That’s their way of saying sharky without having to say shark. Other people living in other places with animals that can kill them usually speak with caution or healthy respect – not abject fear. But where the outback meets the Southern Ocean, the topic arises like a dorsal fin breaching the conversation. Eyes get big. Throats sound tight.
I looked at my friend Jeff, the photographer, and considered his plan to dress like a touristy sea lion and bob around in the very alive water. I’m always glad to have him on trips, though now I had a new reason: more bodies in the water meant lower odds of getting eaten. I wondered distractedly if his throat felt tight and didn’t see the shrub that grabbed my foot. I stumbled and caught myself, but not without a lot of clanking from the cooler on my back.
“You shaking up my Cooper’s?” Heath said, grinning back at me.
“Thought groms these days liked ‘em that way,” I said. Heath Joske is a grommet because he’s 10 years younger than me, and that’s what I’ve always called people 10 years younger than me.
But he’s not really a grommet. He’s married with a kid, living off the grid on a desert compound where he let Jeff and I camp, to the lee of an old Greyhound bus. Heath retired early from a promising competition career and kind of just disappeared out here. He hauls nets on a shrimp trawler at night, shapes boards during the day, and surfs mostly alone, tracing powerful lines on seldom-seen waves along the vast Australian Bight.
He led us on toward the cliff. No other cars had parked on this stretch of road, and the goat path seaward was faint. Part of me wondered if the locals knew something, like maybe this spot was too alive. I looked at Heath, but he wasn’t thinking about sharks. He was listening for waves and tucking his chin in a poor attempt to contain a smile.
My mind snapped to where his was, and I imagined myself weightless, dropping off the lip. Making a late drop isn’t so different from riding a bull. The hardest part is saying ‘pull.’ After that, there’s no thinking. You are at the mercy of another power entirely.
Even in my daydream, my legs felt stiff from our 30-hour drive across the desert. I listened for what Heath was smiling about, but all I got was the crisp, folky bassline from track eight on Neil Young’s Greatest Hits, which we’d blasted over the hum of the old Land Rover for at least 26 of those 30 hours. It was the only CD in the car, which I know because I checked. Many times.
I tried but couldn’t remember the last time I was held hostage by a single CD. Or even a sleeve-book full of CDs. Was that... the nineties? This trip was like traveling back in time.
I listened again for the surf and rose to my tiptoes to see, but could make nothing of what was below. It was a long way to come with no knowledge of the waves. And even now, this close, I didn’t know.
These days, hardly anyone goes into a surf trip blind. Most of us watch the weather maps from our breakfast nooks, and when the right conditions appear somewhere, we hit purchase on the plane ticket.
It didn’t used to be that way. I used to plan entire trips around little more than a rumor of a wave, trusting that either things would work out, or that I’d be OK if they didn’t. On some trips, the swell was so slight or the weather so bad, I’d end up fishing or helping the guy whose couch I’d crashed on with a house project.
Back before global real-time surf reports, I had less control and more faith. Part of me really missed the old way.
That’s why I bought this ticket months in advance, with no way to know how future conditions would be. It's why I could now confidently sing along confidently to Neil Young, why I walk toward a nameless section of cliff with a guy who didn’t seem nearly concerned enough about sharks.
It’s also why I opted not to bring a board, figuring I’d ride whatever I could commandeer while I was down here. The board I now carried belonged to Australia’s surfing messiah, Wayne Lynch. As it navigated the wind, my fingers tightened around its tidy edge, and I remembered Wayne's eyes at the moment he handed it to me, creased with joy and generosity. He was quietly proud of the implement he’d shaped.
“She’s thick today, mates,” Heath said, and my eyes lept to the cliff's edge. A hundred feet below, the Southern Ocean reared up and collapsed.
The path grew narrow and steep, and we picked our way down, no place to stumble. Heath asked me to hold his board as he scrambled over a drop, slick with spray, then reached out for me to pass the boards down to him. I clambered down, and the beers in my Hopper Backpack clanked again. Heath was already gone, too distracted by the taut, muscular surf to rib me.
By the time Jeff and I made the narrow beach, Heath was squeezed into his wetsuit and waiting impatiently in the foam. Jeff donned his flippers to complete the sea lion getup, and the three of us paddled out, sticking much closer together than usual.
The water shot skyward in an electric blue arc, and Heath hurled himself over the ledge, landing with his rail fixed on a track straight through the tightening throat of the barrel. Jeff bobbed in the water, aware only of what came through his viewfinder.
I plummeted into the next set, and as I pulled my feet under me, there it was: a dark shadow just beneath the wave, shuddering alongside me in the blue. A dorsal fin breached the surface, and my chest heaved, and my heart drove every bit of oxygen into my hands so I could fight, then into my legs so I could run. My brain whispered to the rest of my body, “Hey, they’re dolphins.”
As that thought began to take over, I went all loose, giggling like a kid on top of my first wave. I was high on a flood of oxygen, ripping through the wind on Wayne Lynch’s board, dolphins so close I could touch them, off an abandoned beach in middle-of-nowhere Australia. No amount of planning or technology could have led to a moment like this. It was pure, wild, golden-era surfing.
And like a kid, impatiently, before even finishing out the wave, I dove off and started paddling for the next. Heath and I traded sets in rapid succession until my legs noodled and I couldn’t execute another turn. I left him with his sturdier appendages and headed back to shore for one, or maybe two, of those Cooper’s green labels.
Lipping an ice-cold bottle, I lied back in the sun and watched the triumphant grom cut streak after streak across the Southern Ocean. Jeff and his camera bobbed in and out of sight. The dolphins stuck around, giving us a sense of security. Maybe if they were here, it was because the sharks were. Even if it wasn’t true, we felt safe. 

I closed my eyes and awoke with a clanking. "Not shaken enough for you?" I said, catching Heath with his hand in the cooler. He grinned, tossed a bottle to Jeff, opened one for himself, and put half of it down in one go.

“Let’s get dinner,” he said and grabbed Jeff’s flippers.

We dove for Abalone, which I hadn’t done since I was a kid, back when it was legal in California. Chocolate-colored and tentacled shells covered the sea bed, and we collected a limit of five apiece in minutes. We tossed them in with the ice and beers and finished what was left in our bottles. I shouldered the cooler, and my stomach growled.

Heath turned back to the water and gave a look as if to tell an old friend he’d see him again soon, and we picked our way slowly back up the cliff, tired and content. I imagined the coming taste of grilled Abalone.

Dan Malloy’s life has revolved, in many respects, around the ocean. Surfing, fishing, exploring, and working on projects that bring awareness to the environment continue to drive him. When not spending time in the water, Dan is at home in California running an educational farm with his wife, Grace.