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The Island

At the end of Australia’s Black Summer, family and friends found clear air on an uninhabited offshore island and contemplated a future that needs to be fought for.
The Island

The Island

Peaceful, clean water, no crowds, and a breaking wave. That’s surf trip criteria for the easily pleased. Anything more is an added joy. These central thoughts motivated us for a family-oriented surf adventure, coupled with the idea of staying in our home country to minimise dirty travel miles and support remote communities in Australia that rely on tourism.

Dave Rastovich.

Dave "Rasta" Rastovich finds rejuvenation and this epic ride on The Island. Photo: SA Rips.

We packed our shortboards, longboards, Tonka trucks, cloth nappies, and wetsuits and headed somewhere along Australia’s 12,500 km coastline. Our party included my partner Lauren Hill, our little boy Minoa, Belinda Baggs and her son Rayson, Jarrah Lynch, Dan Ross and his partner Emeshe. The fizz factor in this group for any type of wave was extremely high. Any type of surf is good surf. Belinda alone can clock six hours of water time in any condition, the kids love ankle-high rock runners, and the big boys are no stranger to marathon sessions. The Island had waves for all of us.

Party wave.

Waves for all ages. Photo: SA Rips.

I reckon every surfer has experienced this at some point in their life, where we all dream of going to an island removed from the traumas of everyday life and really stepping outside of the human story for a little bit. It’s so rejuvenating and regardless of what it is you’ve left behind, just for a short period even, it’s so recalibrating, to get some space and to go, ‘Oh, that’s right. I do really value going diving and getting some abalone or fish or some seaweed and feeding my family.’ Really valuing having no screens and watching my groms just get feral and dusty and sandy and sunburnt for days on end.

We travelled near the end of the 2020 summer, a summer that’s been darkly historic in so many ways. That summer ended Australia’s hottest and driest year on record. We experienced the largest bushfires Australia has ever seen. Every coastal community in Australia has in some way been affected. Rivers have dried up then flooded out. We saw a farcical show of governmental leadership. We also saw the greatest show of community compassion and crowdfunding. ‘Extreme’ appears to be the new normal in the age of climate change.

The Patagonia Global Sports Activist is as prominent on the frontline of environmental campaigns as he is in the water. Photo: SA Rips.

Most of us have had some personal experience with the shifting climate of our planet. In some ways, it feels like the nebulous nature of the term ‘climate change’ keeps us from pinpointing its effects. It’s hard to touch or feel. While it’s the issue that deserves top priority in each of our communities, it can feel removed from local events. It feels like a global issue. This catastrophic bushfire season, followed up by flash flooding in our home region, has shown us a glimpse however of what the future may hold. It’s brought all those things down to a physical level in our own personal sphere. It’s not on the other side of the world. It’s not in these far-flung places anymore. It’s right here in Australia on our doorstep. It’s in our lungs. It’s everywhere. And so inside that feels really new. You can’t explain this away. It is not conceptual anymore; it is real and physical for all of us. It doesn’t matter what you think, you’re still coughing, spluttering when you’re breathing in that nasty air. It’s undeniable now that we have an impact on the ecology that sustains us, and we need to sort our shit out and start cleaning it up. It’s indisputable. You cannot argue it in any way. It’s crystal clear.

We’ve seen what climate change means for the places we call home, now what we can do about it? We need specifics. Right now, those specifics can be defined by one of our great ecological heroes, Tim Flannery who wrote, ‘We must preserve as much biodiversity as possible, defend our most important coastal infrastructure, and protect our food and water supplies.’ Locally, that means reforesting our lands, turning farming practices regenerative, localising our energy production and strengthening our marine ecosystems.

"It’s undeniable now that we have an impact on the ecology that sustains us, and we need to sort our shit out and start cleaning it up."

From what I’ve seen, the practice of vertical kelp farming promises the most exciting restoration of marine health while at the same time drawing down carbon from the atmosphere faster than any other practice. The first Australian placement of a vertical kelp farm has just been launched in Tasmania. The kelp also creates habitat for fish, food for us, and financial opportunity for fishers who are catching less and less each year. Plus you can eat it.

Out on The Island we were able to sample some of the local seaweed. It’s not for everyone, but I really like it. Lauren’s a bit of a master with it and we’re using things like apple cider vinegar and lemon and olive oil to marinate it, stuff like that. Then basically you just leave it in a jar or a bowl overnight and then the next day it’s kind of softened up, it’s got a bit more acidity so it’s not so fishy. You can also dry it and eat it like kale chips. If you eat seaweed it feels like you’re kind of halfway to self-sufficiency. The funny thing is I was talking it up on The Island but I don’t think many of the other crew really liked it. I felt like Gollum down there on the rocks pulling up the seaweed and eating it on my own!

Belinda Baggs.

Belinda "Bindy" Baggs has been combating seismic testing on the NSW Central Coast and vocal in the nation-wide Fight For The Bight. Photo: SA Rips.

We had a lot of time to talk. For most of the year we’re all off working on different campaigns, so this was a great chance to sit down and compare notes. What’s worked, what hasn’t. Belinda hails from Newcastle and although she lives and surfs in Victoria these days has been active in the defense of the coast she grew up on. Bindy has been working with community group Save Our Coast, who are based in Newcastle and work to stop seismic testing off the coast between Newcastle and Sydney. Companies are trying to develop the area into an offshore gas field, and there are plans for drilling as early as this year. Bindy worked tirelessly on the Bight campaign, and saw firsthand how effective people power had been in keeping the Bight wild and free of oil and gas. It was a spectacular win.

While we sat in the sand watching the kids play in clean water, breathing pure Southern Ocean air, Bindy offers the thought that, ‘Personally, it all helps. The mass paddle-outs and marches are empowering and that community pressure is changing business. Just being a part of those paddle-outs and marches are a win in themselves; to be a part of such passion is inspiring and when you share that passion with family and friends all of a sudden what was once just a handful of people paddling out for the Bight or marching for climate action becomes thousands.’

In-between sessions, Dan Ross is spearheading deep community concern against the damming and draining of NSW's iconic Clarence River. Photo: SA Rips.

Dan Ross and his partner Emeshe’s home is Wooloweyah, near the fabled North Coast pointbreak of Angourie. Dan has been shaped by those waves and the local elders his whole life, and it’s obvious in the way he carries himself in the surfing community, both locally and internationally. The place raised him well. It’s been testing times up there though. Dan and Em’s neighbourhood was at the very frontline of the fires. Way back in early September Wooloweyah locals were evacuated and the village came within metres of burning out. The houses were saved, but over 7000 hectares of coastal bush were torched.

Before the fires came, Dan was working to protect the local Clarence River, which sustains dozens of townships and flows through the indigenous nations of Yaegl, Gumbaynggirr, and the Bundjalung people. The Clarence is one of the largest and most celebrated river systems in Australia. Dan’s been working closely with friend Hayley Talbot, both part of the Clarence Catchment Alliance which aims to preserve and protect the iconic river from mining and damming proposals. Dan says, ‘There’s a deep concern from the broader community. After the big dry we are more protective of our water than ever. People are horrified when they hear of these threats because the health of our water is of the highest priority when we rely on it year round, through droughts and fires.”

"Surfing carves out a moment to be in the living world... immersed in the ecology that we are a part of and sustained by and taught to respect."

When the fires were finally extinguished, the one thing we heard from friends and locals throughout the country was a call for solidarity. The help we could bring each other by simply turning up and spending some coin on local food, or homestays and going for a surfing road trip. This seems like a weird way to deal with natural disasters, but it echoes the strange way surfing fits into our personal lives too. Riding a wave can seem like a selfish way to spend your energy and time, but we are all better husbands and dads, wives and mums, workers and mates for each other when we’ve gone to the beach. Surfing carves out a moment to be in the living world, outside of anthropocentric spaces, free from the human story for a moment, immersed in the ecology that we are a part of and sustained by and taught to respect. If surfing can bring a better us back to each other and the land we inhabit, then it surely isn’t at the ‘bottom of the list’ of priorities in these wild times.

Around the campfire.

Early evening beach bonfire as seen from the shack. Photo: SA Rips.

But it isn’t at the ‘top of the list’ either. As surfers, we should know that life isn’t strictly linear and straight, if anything it’s circular and round, the shape of that barrelling bit of wave we love riding best. There are times when we come around to riding waves and times we come around to activism, to resting, mobilising, marching, protesting and petitioning, finding solitude, and finding joy in the living world, with each other and our children.

The current ecological crisis is an indicator that we can – and must – do better. If we don’t know where to begin, then maybe starting with doing what makes us better people is a good place. The part of us that helps a stranger, acknowledges our mistakes, humbly asks for help, and cleans up our mess is a part of us that I feel surfing can draw out.

Belinda Baggs

Lauren Hill, Dave's partner and Waterpeople podcast co-host. Photo: SA Rips.

What I’ve found helpful is that each time I speak of the “big picture” and use the term climate change, I can also consider how it manifests locally. Speaking locally offers us a tangible goal to shoot for, one that we can apply our local, experiential knowledge and skills to in order to have an impact. Localising the issues at hand makes seemingly insurmountable issues feel suddenly more human and more workable. Thinking globally and acting locally is not a new thought, just one that needs fresh application within the climate dialogue.

Coming together with our community for assistance, solidarity and for meaningful play, has been essential for getting through recent events. And even though surfing sits low on the list when our houses have burnt, or our crops and gardens have died and our friends are hurting, surfing is still a crucial part of our lives that can revive or reconnect us, and make us better at facing harsh realities. Surfing can help us cope, bring new energy to our bones, insert a lightness among a dark time and bring mates together.

Family on the foreshore, barrels out the back.

Family fun on the foreshore, barrels out back. Photo: SA Rips.

Our small group of families, all surf rats, needed a moment together to surf and talk story around the challenges our separate regions are facing. To reset in some ways. Diving for fish, collecting seaweed and communal cook-ups in a shack near the shore. Playing with the kids down empty sand dunes as the fierce Australian sun hands the sky over to gentle moonlight and scintillating stars. The kids slide and roll into the sand, face first, and we hand our words over to hoots and whistles of stoke. The spacious clarity of wild country makes for easy parenting, and allows room for thoughts to turn to the big picture and our small, though impactful, part in it.

An update on the Fight For The Bight and more Patagonia Surf here.

Banner image – Dave and Bindy talk big-picture issues over a coffee. Photo: SA Rips.

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