A fortnight before:
It’s the Monday after the night before (travelling does this and days merge, making a Sunday social acceptable – although not for those I was with necessarily, who had to get up the next day), and I’m not really feeling the hectic day of sightseeing and organised trips that I had planned. The weather forecast for the rest of the week is more cloud than cornflower skies, and last night a friend pointed out that this would probably be my last chance to go to Bondi Beach. It’s something that every English tourist in Australia must do. And so I do my duty, and visit the famous Beach.
It’s exactly how I imagine it to be, shiny and sleek, strutting its stuff. All along the stretch of almost white sand are surfers running out into the turquoise ocean, gliding back in on the crest of the wave. They look so effortless, so cool, so powerful. I resolve that I want to try an hour or so lesson. A phone call, a glossy brochure, and some coffee later, and I’ve signed up to a MojoSurf surf school a week or so from now. Awesome!
The week before:
I’m going to surf school! I’m going to surf school! This are the words going round and round my head and the same ones that I utter to anyone who will listen, and everyone who won’t. There are visions of me riding high above a crashing wave. The warm water is splashing at me. The white foam offsetting my activity acquired tan.
The days immediately preceding:
I’m going to surf school. F**k. Why on earth have I signed up to this? I’m a writer for heavens sake, we’re geeks, not surfers. I hate swimming in the sea. I get cold in any water cooler than 30 degrees. I may be a Pisces, but I am no water baby. The place will be full of surf cliches – beautiful, young, lithe, tanned, and (prejudiced, moi?) lacking in intellect. F**k.
The first evening:
Around the dining area where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served, everyone does indeed look beautiful, young, lithe, tanned – and happy. No wonder, dinner is delicious and plentiful, there are some good films on in the television corner, and apparently the surf has been great today. I’m given a friendly greeting by Kev, the customer experience manager, and shown around the site, Spot X, a short drive from Coffs Harbour, which is about eight hours north of Sydney, and one of Mojo’s two surf camps. It’s open to all visitors, residents of Mojo or otherwise, and families and couples as well as surf camp students sleep in the site comprised of teepees, dorm rooms, spots for camping and camper vans, and chalets on the waterfront. Which is where the guys from Mojo have generously placed me. The chalet sleeps six, and is right on the beach, only a wooden causeway and rocky breakway keeping me from the sand. Less than fifty metres from high tide, and right on the curve of where Arrawarra Bay merges into Arrawarra Creek in this National Marine Park. So I am sat, an empty beach in front of me, as the bright disc of the moon hovers up high above a slither of fluffy cloud and rolling waves lapping at the shoreline. Some seagulls paddle in the tributary and a little breeze whispers in the treeline. A couple out for a post dinner walk enter the view from the left. Stunning indeed. Maybe I can do this.
Morning breaks, and I’m awake with a mix of nerves and excitement. Breakfast is plentiful and a shot of coffee has me ready to give this a go. The surf classroom is where I meet my instructor, and the rest of the guys I’ll be learning with. It’s exactly how surf shack should be – it is a surf shack after all – littered with pictures of boarders, wetsuits hung to dry, and all around are instructions (be safe, respect fellow surfers) and inspiration (look cool at all times).The first thing I learn is that the boards are bloody heavy. Those short reels you’ve seen of people running with a board above their head? Well, they’re built of stronger stuff than I am. Thankfully a friendly gent helps me with mine. Like lots of people, here he is over from the UK on a working visa and wants to get a taste of surf culture before settling down to the fruit picking and warehouse packing grind. The attraction of the culture is what lures so many, and from my chats with people all over the world, the common theme is ‘When in Rome…’. There are about thirty of us going down to the beach, but as it’s my first day and I’ve confessed my nerves, me and another first timer are given our own lesson. Before we can get in the water we need to learn about the sea, the shore, and the surf – and the right way of working with them all. Instructor Kyle takes us through the lesson, the notes on safety, rips, wave formations and the like scrawled on the back of an old board, consistently repeating that one very very important commandment: Thou must at all times look cool. Popping up, i.e. getting from laying tummy down on the board paddling frantically to standing in that slightly squat position and riding the wave, feels like some kind of torturous combination of burpees and yoga. And we’re still only on the sand. This is going to be tough.
Mojo have two surf camps, Spot X where I am, and Crescent Head, located just north of Port Macquarie. Spot X is the one recommended for beginners, as the shape of the bay and its position make the waves gentler and more amenable to us first time folk. It’s also not far from the backpacker paradise of Byron Bay.It’s like wading through briney jelly. The waves, though small, are a lot more powerful than I am, and armed (I say armed as though I have any power over this thing), armed with my board, it seems a constant battle to keep pressing forward into the sea before I can even consider turning back around and attempting anything that could be classed as surfing. With Kyle’s help I get there, and follow his shouts. ‘Wave – paddle’ – cue a outstretched form of doggy paddle. ‘Wave – now.’ Four quick strokes. ‘Pop up!’ And I do! I ride that wave to shore. Ha, easy.
However, after pride.. comes a wipe out. Or two. Several in fact. I don’t mean to sound dramatic; it’s just falling off the board. This, coupled with the fact that I am exhausted from even walking, let alone surfing, seems to leave my legs rendered utterly useless. I can’t pop up. I try, but my legs and arms seem stuck. No matter, I’m giggling on the rare times that I do catch a wave and can glide into shore on it. In fact, this seems a whole lot more practical. Kyle doesn’t give up on me, despite the fact that the other newbie appears to be a second Mark Richards (I confess, I had to Google this, but he was recently named Australia’s Most Influential Surfer) and at one with his board. Looking cool as he does it, damn him. I’m not sure whether Kyle’s laughing is genuinely with me rather than at me, but he seems supportive at least.
‘I’m rubbish!’ I say, as we leave the beach. ‘But you kept smiling,’ he says. He has a point. I just don’t understand how I managed that first one, but am sorely lacking the ability to move my legs now. Thankfully the cameraman spotted my beginner’s luck, captured it, and has now moved on. It’s remarkable how hungry all this failing makes me. Over lunch I chat with Oliver, one of the students on the surf academy, a month-long program where you eat, sleep and drink surf (metaphorically speaking). A minimum four hours of lessons, extra fitness classes, theory and academic work, access to a variety of waves, ocean safety courses; it’s intense, and is the start of instructor training for those who want to progress. These are the guys who crash out at 9pm from genuine hard work, whilst the backpacker, booze and banter crew crack on. Lots of people seem to come here for a week, fall in love, stay for the academy, and then never leave. It turns out that many of the instructors did the same, some going from complete surf virgins to surf instructors within a couple of months, now out for eight hours a day sometimes. Surf sluts you may say.
In the afternoon there are always activities planned, and volleyball, rounders and kangaroo golf are all on the agenda today. For anyone whose fingers haven’t started to go prune-like yet, kayaks, boards and paddle boards can all be rented, and there are always people out getting just a bit more water. Today I play volleyball, swing my rounders bat vaguely near a ball never once actually making contact with it, and get my downward dog on in a yoga session, which does wonders for stretching out my well-used (despite not well surfed) limbs.
They make us work for our dinner. Kev and all his reps jump on a table and lead the hundred strong crew in a rendition of Cha Cha Slide. It’s like a surreal version of Hi De Hi! but oddly charming. Films, a booze run, and speed dating are the evening’s plan, and come tomorrow morning there will be many tales of debauchery for those who want it, I am sure. Around the campfire in the chillout area there’s a more relaxed vibe than that coming from within the speed dating, but plenty of giggles. The age range varies from 18 to around 35 on camp, the majority being towards the lower end of the spectrum, but everyone here to have fun and try something new.The rush of the waves travelling to shore is glorious to listen to throughout the night, meditative and a bit magical. They don’t sound nearly so dramatic out there. Whatever can have been so hard?
You progress quickly at Mojo, and today we move on to green waves, the type that looks like you draw at school with a back to front ‘C’ at the top. Warm up and a recap of the correct way to ride a wave, and we’re back in the water. Given that I’m the one with the pen and therefore the power I could claim that overnight I have morphed into a pro, and today I go sprinting in the sea and ride that wave. But I have a certain level of journalistic integrity. Sigh. I’m still shocking.
But a dedicated teacher and supportive shouts from even the on-site photographer urge me to keep trying. This really is a place that, cliched as it is, changes lives, and all around are people who having never touched a board before this week are knees bent, arms out stretched, chakka fingers rocking and a screeching a celebratory ‘yeeeeeah.’ If stories around the site are anything to go by, many will end up staying for a while, or at least extending their trip. All day I talk to people who came for two days like me, extended it for a week, and ended up working here or joining the Academy. A laid back lifestyle, pristine beaches, daily surfing and fun new friends seem to capture people. I wonder why?
Afternoon activities are again varied, and around 15 of us decide to grab kayaks and paddle up the creek. So to speak. In a huge stroke of luck I am paired with a former UK national kayaking champion, so my job is less than difficult, but either way it’s a gentle little glide to a rope swing and some splashes.Back on the beach in the evening and it’s uncrowded and tranquil. The park truly is a place to get away from it, and families and surfers mingle quite happily, bonding over their mutual love for the beach. Everyone in Australia loves the beach, whether it’s their native environment or a novelty, and this is a pretty spectacular beach to be at, whether kicking back or surfing.
The mix of people, skills, and background here at Mojo has surprised and delighted me. Trying something new and seeing what thrills you is the name of the game, and the crazy characters and party vibes only accelerate what is already a heightened sense of celebration from being out here and doing something that was once so alien. Mojo’s mantra, ‘livin’ the dream’ is definitely something felt by the crew and the customers.
Day three, and the last morning:
I’m almost sad to leave. I mean, I’m never going to be a surfer, I’ve learned that much. In fact, I’m not even sure I like it that much. Actually, I hate it. But I do love the infectious enthusiasm, the beautiful location, and the embracing of ‘the dream’ that I find at Mojo. It’s been an experience, and for me probably a once in a lifetime one, but it’s awesome to know that for many it becomes a lifestyle. I’d definitely recommend it to anyone, even if they are full of doubt like I was. You don’t know until you try, and it’s pretty damn striking, friendly, and fun place to try. So many people here do love it, and they are people of all ages, fitness levels, and experience.Besides, at least I take with me that one crucial lesson. If all else fails, you end up crashing out, flailing in panic, soaked and scruffy, just get back up, and keep lookin’ cool.
Need to know: Mojosurf are one of Australia’s leading surf schools. They run camps, lessons, multi base adventure trips, surf schools and an academy program. Residential trips start at one night and are based at Spot X or Byron Bay, with pick ups from various points along the coast, including Sydney.