Where The Wild Things Are
A glimpse at Western Australia through the eyes of Taj Burrow and Jake Paterson.[IMAGE 1]
Taj Burrow doesn’t like to talk about it–that day at Mufflers. It still haunts him. The wave. The wipeout. The head bobbing, faceless in the whitewash. The mad scramble to the limp body. The discovery of the hole big enough to fit a fist in. The reef-punctured skull. The nausea. The fight to preserve life. The long and difficult paddle to shore. The dust-covered four-wheel-drive that eventually turned up and took the injured man away. The indelible images that will stay with Taj forever. “It was just the heaviest thing I have ever seen,” he says with a blank expression and a stunned shake of the head. “I’ve never been so scared.”
Before we go on, let’s get one thing straight: Taj ain’t no pussy. When you’re born and raised in Australia’s largest state, you simply can’t afford to be. The weather, the wildlife, the women, the waves–”The West” is where the wild things are. It ain’t no place for a teet-suckling, diaper-soiling mama’s boy. So when the former world number two says he’s scared, you know some heavy shit has gone down. The bloke TB pulled from the water? Yeah, he somehow survived. But the caved-in cranium turned out to be the least of his worries. His collision with the reef snapped his neck, confining him to a wheelchair. It didn’t sever the spinal chord, so there’s a chance he’ll make a full recovery, but you gotta ask the question: What sort of a wave could do this to a man? Just a normal four-foot day in The West. That’s what.
“There’s no beginner-type waves around here, so if you’re gonna paddle out, you tend to learn quickly,” says former Pipe master and 44 mainstay Jake Paterson, who along with his brother Paul “The Antman” and Taj Burrow, heads the current charge of talent from the “other” coast of Australia. “It’s not hard to find yourself in trouble, but most guys will have a go. You can paddle out at ten- to twelve-foot North Point, and there’ll be ten blokes you’ve never heard of sitting deeper than anybody. As much as guys come here from all around the world to get all their photos and stuff, it’s the locals who’ll paddle to outer reefs on their eight-0s and get the biggest barrels on any given swell.”
For all its tranquil beauty, wide-open spaces, native bushland, and peaceful atmosphere, there’s something about The West that makes a human hard, resilient, less prone to bullshit, and more aware of reality. Compared with other more populated parts of Australia, the land itself is far more hostile. When a Dutch explorer named Dirk Hartog unknowingly sailed off course from a spice run to Indonesia and landed on the west coast, he had a bit of a look around and deemed the place uninhabitable. That was back in 1616, more than 150 years before the English landed on the east side and thought, “How lovely, we’ll take it.”
Even when the rest of the country was being colonized, Western Australia remained largely untouched due to harsh weather patterns and lack of proximity to growing commerce. Regardless, those who moved there and stuck it out wouldn’t have had it any other way.
It’s a f–kin’ piece of gold,” says Twiggy, creepy TWS photog and twenty-plus-year veteran of the area. “Surf-wise the variety is the best in the country. Reefs, bombies, beachies–whatever you want. I went over east for a week, and it was the same size everywhere we went. On a small day in W.A. there’s always somewhere sucking swell. And when it’s ten foot, you can surf fun small waves if you want. There’s plenty of options. Life in genal is a lot more mellow, too. Everything is so open, and there’s a lot of distance between everyone. There’s no suburbs running into suburbs or people living in boxes on top of each other. There’s no traffic jams, so there’s no real reason to be uptight. There’s heaps of chicks in the summer, and even though things can get a bit cold and rough in the winter, you can just pack the car and make the pilgrimage north–a fourteen-hour drive back into summer. Up north there’re outer islands, Gnaraloo, The Bluff, good fishing, and the best light for photos in the world. I don’t reckon you’ll get better color anywhere. The place is f–kin’ gold, mate. F–kin’ gold!”
Snakeman Jake Patto agrees: “Sometimes people come here and cop two weeks straight of shit-full weather, then they’ll come back and get two weeks absolute perfect. It’s a unique place, and there’s no way I’d live anywhere else. We’ve got everything–tow-in waves, right barrels, and in winter you head up north and score good fishing and some of the best lefts in the world.”
Vance and Nancy Burrow were just a couple of young, broke, hippie musos from the States when they first visited the west coast. With just ten dollars in their pockets, they scored what little work they could, saved up, bought land, and still live there today. Little did they know when they pushed their first and only son Taj out into the breakers, he’d go onto become a state, national, then international surfing icon.
“I was born into the beach lifestyle, and it was pretty quiet down south when they moved there. At first I played in the sand with little trucks, then eventually I moved into the lineup,” remembers TB fondly. “It’s definitely one of the hardest places to learn how to surf. There’s no dribbly beachies, it’s almost all intense reefs. You just have to learn to surf it or pretty much give up.”
Surfing the reefs gave both TB and Snake an advantage when going places like Fiji, Tahiti, and Hawai‘i. Says Snake, “Sometimes surfing Backdoor is just like another days surfing down south. I think we acclimate better in Hawai‘i, too, ’cause we’re always surfing big boards. Some guys are lucky to pull out a seven-0 more than once a year, here we do it all the time. Surfing Backdoor can be like surfing any number of reefs over here, only you’re not sharing with 200 people.”
TB agrees, despite being a little unsure on how big the advantage actually is: “You get a lot more confidence surfing reefs as you grow up, but some of the best tube-riding and reef surfing I see is done by guys from Florida, so I dunno.”[IMAGE 2]
Thanks to Taj and Jake and easy-to-photograph places like The Box and Supertubes, The West has become more and more of an attractive option to traveling surfers. “It really sucks how popular and crowded it’s getting,” says TB. “It wasn’t that long ago I used to just surf out there by myself. Actually, it doesn’t affect me too bad. I seem to get most of the waves I want.”
Snake adds, “I guess Taj and I may have contributed to West Oz getting more exposure than it was before we started surfing. I’ve copped a few blowups from locals who spew when you turn up with cameras and stuff, but there’s no hiding the place. We try to disguise it as best we can.” Seems no one is prepared to ark up at Wiggsy, though. “I’ve been here for twenty years, so no one really has anything to say. If they did, I’d say, ‘Where are you from, blow-in? Why don’t you go back there!’ You pretty much know all the longtime locals, and they’re cool anyway.”
As for getting waves from the natives, well, even though it’s getting more crowded, the West Oz crew are a pretty happy-go-lucky bunch of people. “Down Margies way after Easter is the best time, and there’s never many crew around then ’cause the contest has finished and things are starting to get a little chilly,” reckons Twig. “It’s like anywhere, you can’t just paddle out and snake up the inside and shit like that. Most locals have been surfing together for years, so if you piss off one bloke you’re more than likely pissing off ten of his mates as well. But it’s not heavy, most crew are pretty mellow and keen to share a wave and have a laugh. You just gotta respect the lineup.”
In true W.A. fashion, Snake is quick to back up his mate: “When crew come in from round the world and paddle out expecting to get waves, they’re usually in for a bit of a shock. The guys might not surf as good as them performance-wise, but like I said, they’ll sit as deep and take off on the heavy sets when other blokes are pulling back. But nothing pisses off locals more than midsized days and crowded lineups.”
Ask anyone who’s been there and they’ll tell you Sandgropers (that’s what they call Westoids everywhere else in the country) are some of the friendliest people on Earth. Says Snake, “People here live a country way of life. That means if there’s a chance to help out your brotha-man, you’ll do it no probs. People go out of their way for each other because it’s a simple lifestyle and a down-to-earth area. It’s pretty sick.”
Although TB has seen the best and worst of what W.A. can do to a man, he offers this as his final words on the place: “It’s wild, but in a lot of respects it’s more mellow. There’s less people, everyone knows everyone else, it’s a clean and relaxed environment that also happens to have some of the sickest waves in the world. No matter where I go or what I do, I’ll always come back ’cause I love it.”
For more about the “Wild West,” go to transworldsurf.com.
West Oz Online sidebar[IMAGE 3]
Wiggsy’s Wild Stories
Nobody tells a story better than Twiggy, so when it came to getting the word on a few of the wildest things about W.A., we didn’t need to look any further. Heed the word of the man with the golden tonsils.
The chick situation in W.A. is pretty good in the summer. I’d say it’s as good as Byron or any of the tourist epicenters. But in winter things get pretty thin on the ground. The biggest bushie in the pub ends up looking like a princess. Up in Perth, no one would look at her, and she’ll come down to Dunsborough and just have blokes hanging off her. Things get a bit wooly in winter for sure, but if you’re coming down in summer or for the comps, you’re almost guaranteed to get rides.[IMAGE 4]
In my opinion, the most dangerous thing in The West is the roads. There’s a lot of driving to do when you get there. Fatigue, drunk driving, and trees are killers. That and the ’roos. The f–kin’ kangaroos wreak havoc. A mate of mine was driving along one day and this monster boomer just smashed in through his windscreen. Didn’t hit his bonnet or anything, just straight out of a paddock and in through the front window. The bugger didn’t die, either. It landed on their laps and started going berserk, kicking and scratching and going off. They had to pull over and run for their lives. People don’t realize how powerful and aggressive the f–kin’ ’roos are, mate. They can do some serious damage to a vehicle, too, and they get smashed every night. Every morning the roads are lined with carnage and the crows are feasting. Gotta watch the boomers.