The descent saved us. We’d passed ‘running on fumes’ hours ago and were rolling, the van giving a false sense of acceleration whenever I put my foot down as the gradient was pushing the dregs of the tank around the engine. We take it for granted on the east coast that there’ll be a petrol station before things get dire, but once you hit the Snowy Mountains you’re on your own. Fortunately, Talbingo—the town that happened to be at the bottom of the steep, snow-covered mountain pass—had fuel, and a small country club with a Chinese restaurant serving inexpensive nostalgia. It also had a nice spot on the lake to camp. The next morning I sat down and jotted the previous day’s events in my notebook, and reflected on what had led us to this beautiful, eerie, spot. Four years ago I wrote a story about SA Rips, a photographer who takes stunning photos in an area of the country known for dangerous surf, big sharks and localism. I haven’t re-read it (although I’m sure it’s over-written and full of metaphors that don’t quite work) but I didn’t forget about its protagonist.
“Sing your song of the Blowering Dam And of old Talbingo too…” – Blowering Valley, Jack Bridle.
Most drive to the southern reaches in one hit on the promise of a favourable looking chart. They take shifts and drive fast on the endless straight road that connects Wagga Wagga to Mildura, then bends around Adelaide to Port Lincoln. We had time, and hadn’t looked at the charts in any capacity further than ‘next week doesn’t look flat’. Besides, the HiAce had a slow flat and bald tyres, so speed wasn’t an option. It’s good to take a few days to drive through absolute nothing Australia. Good for the soul and the perspective, but not the digestive system, as you’re resigned to eating whatever the local pub/RSL is serving. I’d been in email contact with SA Rips a few times since the article. His emailing style is cryptic and sharp, like he keeps his screen time to a minimum. In reply to telling him that I was coming a week prior he wrote, “fingers crossed for offshore winds and big ocean swells.” That was enough to enlist a friend with a van, and we set off.
An spooky, sub-par pointbreak
By the time we reached Port Lincoln we’d been in the car so long that the prospect of surfing felt foreign. That night, following the advice of a local barman, we drove half an hour out of town—hitting a roo on route—and parked up at what was supposedly a surf spot. The wind shook the van, and we could hear the swell. The next morning we woke to a big, fat, left point, breaking a kilometre out to sea and running along a staggered reef. We checked the other side of the headland, where raw ocean swells with 20 foot faces were blasting into the cliffs, then surfed the left. The phrase, “this is what you’re here for”, ran through my head as I sat way up the point waiting for my comrade to complete the lengthy paddle back after riding a wave. Anyone who knows the place will laugh at its lack of quality, and the fact that it’s one of the sharkiest spots on the coast. There’s a seal colony just around the corner. Later that day the weather came. All I’d heard from SA Rips at this point in response to an email saying that we’re here, was a reply that read: “Boys”. I assumed he’d intended to write more and got cut off. By this point it was pissing down with rain, and we faced the prospect of an unpleasant sleep in the van. I tried Rips again, and was delighted to get an instant hit back. He warned us that the next few days, weeks, looked ugly, but said that he had a cabin that we could stay in. An offer that turned a surfless trip into a memorable one.
The man himself.
SA Rips’s real name is Hayden Richards. Most people call him Richo, and when he’s not wandering, swimming, taking photos—which is fairly time consuming—he’s a father to a happy tribe of kids and animals, partner to the lovely Fi, and the manager of a caravan park. He’s lived down here all his life, eight plus hours from Adelaide, although it feels a lot further.
First off, Rips is a surfer. A lifelong surfer with the ability to navigate the plethora of waves in the area, nearly all of which are intense and hollow. Photographic evidence of Rips pulling into a solid, flawless left on his backhand is pinned to the fridge where the family live most of the time. The surf world is well-acquainted with Richo’s work, so I assumed that the surf world was in touch with him. Over a cup of tea however, I learn that it’s not necessarily the case. The high profile surfers who you see starring in some of the arresting images on his Instagram often come down unannounced. He told us a story of a perfect day at a big right in the area. After shooting all morning, swimming solo, Rips jumped in the back of his 4WD for a kip in the empty cliff-top carpark. He was awoken by a man gently tickling his feet. The man was Kelly Slater, politely asking whether he could borrow Richo’s jet ski for the afternoon.
He had no idea Slater was in town.
The gearstick of a memorable surf wagon that’s since deceased.
Photography consumes Richo, and even in the howling wind and shitty light, whenever we go out—visiting a drug house that was abandoned after its owner disappeared (his empty car was found splattered in blood), checking out some of the mind-blowing local geology, or watching his son play footy from the safety of the car—there’s a camera of some description swinging around his neck. It strikes me as ironic coming from the east coast, where people try so desperately to portray creativity, to meet someone like SA Rips. He’s just about as far away from outside influence as possible (even the internet’s not great down here) doing something truly creative and original, with nothing other than an intensely unique environment as his muse. Only yesterday I listened to some hack on Monocle’s Foreign Desk podcast saying that Australia’s major contribution to the the world in recent years (apart from a carbon footprint far beyond what’s acceptable) was flat whites and avocado on toast. Good breakfast is just fine, but I’m far prouder to be the adopted son of a land that nurtures creative, free-minded people like Hayden Richards than I am of our ability to subtly mix ground beans, hot water and (depending on where you stand) milk.
What’s out there? “Paradise man.”
Our last day with SA Rips was a memorable one. A day that involved a few too many Emus, a trip out to the family home—in a peach orchard that you’d need Richard Flanagan skills to aptly describe—and it ended, at dusk, on the edge of a cliff, watching the Southern Ocean batter into the limestone. We’d been there over a week and the weather hadn’t let up. Day after day a savage, unrelenting westerly and monstrous seas. While it didn’t provide us with any rideable surf, it did give a vivid first-hand account of how ludicrous the bid of big oilto gamble with the well-being of this place really is. It’s hard to find words to describe how standing at the edge of the Great Australian Bight feels, but it’s easy to see how wholly devastating an oil spill would be here. The fact that drilling is being considered is a sign that our priorities as a country have strayed. “Fuck work and all that other stuff,” Rips says, right on cue. “I just wanna be out there.” He waves his lit cigarette at the hulking, black mass of water. I ask him what’s out there and he turns to me, his pupils like pinpricks thanks to the failing light, staring into mine. “Paradise man.”