It took me about 45 years to get to Cactus. Of course I’d long heard about the place west of Adelaide and its uncrowded waves on the edge of the Nullarbor Plain.
The guys that first got me into surfing went there on an annual basis. Back in those days, the late 1960s, they were looking for company in the water.
They regularly saw sharks, came in, waited a while, and paddled back out.
In those early days they had sat around a campfire with filmmaker Paul Witzig and Wayne Lynch.
Witzig, concerned for the environment, later went on to establish the camping ground. A surfing break is named after him.
But as time went by the stories filtering back about localism and agro in the water took the shine off the lure that had made it somewhere I wanted to go.
It was the humans not the fins that put me off. I finally made cactus at Easter 2012.
Driving out of Melbourne before dawn, Cactus veteran Kevin Rydberg regaled me with tales of waves and fish, mice plagues and, of course, sharks. He’s a big bloke who’s paddled a kayak from Victoria to Tasmania, worked in the mines and done his share of diving. But he tells a self-effacing tale about jumping off the pier just across the point from Cactus and then scrambling back up when he realised his mates remained with feet firmly planted on the boards.
Another friend of mine had been “chased out of the water” a few years before I went and vowed never to return.
I’ve been to sharky places before. One of our home breaks is opposite Seal Rocks off Phillip Island and is no doubt visited by sharks that prey on the seals.
Board maker Mick Pierce eyeballed a great white while on a stand-up two years or so ago. He was so surprised (Mick that is) that he fell off and just about flew back onto the deck to paddle back to shore.
Then we had the dead whale episode. The beast’s putrefying remains fed a visible outgoing flow of burley that kept surfers at bay for about four weeks. A couple of bone collectors were fined $16,000 for souveniring parts of the whale, which eventually returned in some form or another to the sea.
Rolling in to Cactus was for me like a dream revisited.
I knew it was a left from Penong and the wide, smooth crushed rock and clay road seemed to stretch toward beckoning sand hills. Across a causeway between a dry salt lake bed and an inlet and we were there.
Caravans and tents were grouped in clusters. My companion remarked that the camping ground had never looked so full.
Old hander Rod Sly was caretaking a campsite for us next to his and boiling a billy as we arrived.
Another regular, Henry Kelsall, was caravanning with his family next door.
Handshakes all round and then a quick scramble over the sand dune gave me my first view of Cactus.
It was onshore and big. Swells smashed into the eroded cliffs, water spouting upwards from cracks in the limestone.
People stood around watching the spectacle. Some were sitting on a bench, which carries an engraved metal plate dedicating it to Cameron Bayes “tragically taken 24th September 2000 while surfing”. The seat was a memorial from his wife, Tina.
The New Zealand couple had been honeymooning at Cactus. Bayes was 25 and was going in alone for an early morning surf.
The seat is the place to sit to watch surfers at Cactus and also the place to get the best phone reception. Night and day there’s always someone sitting there, fingers jabbing away at a keypad.
In subsequent days I saw other silent testimonials to lives lost in the surrounding sea.
I know all waves travel huge distances before breaking and dissipating energy around the Australian coast, but there is definitely something impressive about seeing the swells come ashore on this desert coastline.
Maybe it’s the jagged cliffs, the coarse sand and the feeling that, apart from the Easter-filled camping ground, there are few people witnessing the event.
The desert makes for a dramatic backstage for what happens in the sea.
As Talking Heads frontman David Byrne sings: “Same as it ever was, Same as it ever was”. That’s part of the lyric from Once in a Lifetime, which also has a verse:
Water dissolving…and water removing
There is water at the bottom of the ocean
Under the water, carry the water at the bottom of the ocean
Remove the water at the bottom of the ocean.
He song has absolutely nothing to do with surfing, but is appealing and, on reflection, somehow relevant.
The reputation and fable of Cactus ensures a steady stream of visiting surfers.
One morning we shared the waves with a couple of Brazilians, stoked to be out in the middle of nowhere with just three others.
Before that, on my first paddle out a surfer from nearby Port Lincoln holidaying with his family called me over to the take-off spot. A friend indeed.
Christo Reid records much of the surfing history from around Point Sinclair in Cactus – Surfing Journals from solitude, a book my wife gave me when she heard I wanted to fulfil an early surfing dream.
As Christo’s narrative shows, it has not always been a pretty tale in the jealously guarded waves next to the Nullarbor.
In 1975 the authorities moved in and burned surfers’ shacks after an outbreak of hepatitis.
Things seem to have settled a bit these days. Youngsters in the water are the sons and daughters of Cactus veterans. The second generation of surfers.
Their fathers are taking shots from the beach.
Cactus is on the “to surf list” of many overseas surfers and, as Easter 2012 showed, can be friendly and inviting.
Ron Gates, who runs the cactus camping ground, signed a shot of himself in my copy of Reid’s book: “See ya in the tube.”
That’s where he is in the old picture and where he still often is today.
I hope to see him there again, some day.