West Of Pointerville

Swim out with Hayden Richards, the great white’s hope.

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Rich is talking about wind or swell or heading down the coast or something, but I’m not hearing a word. I’m busy watching the fly crawling across his face. It’s a big one, black and tweaked. It scurries down the length of his nose, rappels under the overhang, and disappears straight into his right nostril. 

To my amazement he doesn’t flinch, but just keeps on talking. That’s hard core South Australian right there. I buckle over laughing as the fly realizes it’s trapped inside his nose and panics. It’s early spring and the flies are hatching in the adjacent sheep paddocks. By summer, when it’s 115 in the shade, they’ll be thick, the sky buzzing like a neon light. 

I do a lot of exploring on my jet ski. I pack a few cans of fuel, and set off to check out the islands up and down the coast from where I live. This photo was taken about 45 miles from where I launched. When I saw this view, I had to turn the ski and just gaze and admire at how empty and beautiful the coast looked. I had a chicken and avocado sandwich, rolled a smoke, took this shot, and left. I love when the desert meets the ocean. 
It can take a lot of hikes to find a way down to the bottom of 60-meter cliffs.
It took a rope and three rusty ladders to get to this vantage point. This particular day was in the middle of winter. We had a crazy storm and 6-meter swells. A lot of what the fucks circled my mind as I watched such crazy power at such a close distance. 

We’re on the clifftop above Blacks, just outside of Elliston, and it’s nice to have some comic relief. For the traveling surfer from over east, Blacks is fucking eerie. It was originally “Blackfellas,” named with macabre irony after the Waterloo Bay Massacre of 1849, when local aboriginals were driven over a nearby cliff by white settlers. The wave, the sharks, the ghosts—take your pick. The place has heavy psychic weight. It’s only 4-foot today, but the wave surges almost dry before barreling down a crescent-shaped reef and fading out into deep, hissing water. 

There are half a dozen dusty cars parked on the cliff and a local crew in the water below. “Camel” is out with a bad back and is instead birdwatching through a pair of binoculars. Camel—Jeff Goulden if you must—once lived in the Grajagan jungle, and now maintains his underground status by living in Elliston. 

Rich points straight below us, to a shallow, weedy section of reef. “That’s where the young fella got taken. Thing roared like a lion, apparently.” He pauses. “The kids who saw it happen just gave up surfing after that.” He pauses again. “Don’t blame ’em.” 

Jordan Robertson, at my home break. At this same spot, I had a friend get taken by a white shark about 15 years ago. He was 20 years old. I have days where I get that certain feeling and I won’t go out.
Heath Joske, Dan Ross, and Dave Rastovich. We were bogged on the beach, up to the axels. We were talking about funny nicknames from back in our school days. I was telling them a story about a guy I knew named Pie Bags. They looked real unsure about it. 
I dreamt this angle up from the back of my car the night before I took this photo of  Creed McTaggart. It was his first surf out there, and it’s a real gnarly spot. If you hurt yourself, it would take hours to get to a hospital.

The great white attack was followed by another fatality the next day down the coast. The guy was on his honeymoon. The east coast of Australia might be buzzing with teenage whites these days, but their bad uncles still live down here. 

Rich is “Richo” to the locals, and “SA Rips” to his cult following on Instagram. I knew him for six months before I discovered his real name was actually Hayden Richards, although no one calls him Hayden, ever, not even his wife. His age is indeterminate. He tells me he’s 42, but he could pass for 22. He sounds almost satirically Australian. He talks in clipped sentences with a contemplative breeze blowing between them and, if he sounds like a farmer, it’s for good reason. 

In a previous life he farmed chickens but, like most everything down this way, even they proved dangerous. While recounting some great Eyre Highway roadkill stories, Rich mentioned that he always stops and throws the carcasses in the back. “Best chook feed ever. They love it. Two hundred chooks will devour a roo in a day. You’ll come back that afternoon and there’ll be only bones and fur left.” He then workshops a dark thought. “You wouldn’t want to fall in the chook cage and knock yourself out, ay.” 

It’s a pointed notion, especially since Rich knocking himself out is what led him out of chicken farming and into surf photography. While surfing Blacks one day, he got pinned to the bottom, rolled into a cave, and held under for three waves. If his leash hadn’t snapped on the third, he’d still be there today. The impact dislocated his elbow and damaged vertebrae, and he was flown to the hospital in Adelaide. While recovering, doctors suggested he start swimming. 

About that time a crew from Maroubra rolled into town to surf Blacks. At that point, the spot was off limits to cameras. So was anything to the west. The Maroubra crew had words with the locals in the car park. “It was a bit, ‘How you goin,’” is how Rich describes the altercation. Koby Abberton paddled out regardless, along with his photographer. As the local crew yelled abuse from the cliff, Rich was more interested in the lens man walking down the track carrying his water housing. “I’d never seen one before,” he remembers. “Got me thinking.”

Just because there aren’t many people around, doesn’t mean there isn’t anything going on.  The landscape down here is so harsh and varied that on any given day, everything from the shorebreak to the sand dunes can take on a life of its own. The emptiness has its moods.

Rich shot his first frame of surfing at age 35. “I swum out at Blacks and was shitting myself the whole time. It’s bad enough on a board, and everything you know tells you it feels wrong. I was panicking, kicking my legs, got washed down into Shark Alley. If I was ever going to get taken, that was the day. Now I just lie on my back, put my housing on my chest, look up at the sky. Just relax and don’t look like lunch.”

The coast west of Elliston is a million miles from the Australian surfing consciousness. It is, of course, strafed with good surf that gets every bit of the Roaring Forties, but it’s a big commitment to surf it for a week, let alone make a life down there. Its tyrannical distance, the sharks, and its reputation for some occasional Wolf Creek localism has kept it safe from crowds. East coasters were barely tolerated. East coasters with photographers were run out. 

During a decade spent editing Tracks magazine in Australia, I ran maybe a half dozen shots from the west coast of South Australia. This was largely because there were no photos—no one felt expendable enough to ever shoot it. It was also the unspoken way. The place existed more as a state of mind. That coast has its secrets, some of which it will never give up. 

Rich took us down a back road one night and pulled the car over at an abandoned house in the middle of nowhere, stripped of all fittings and covered in graffiti. It had once belonged to a Kiwi surfer who got in with the wrong crowd, went missing, and has never been found. It’s hard country, with a way of self-regulating. 

This makes Rich’s story all the more remarkable. He’s the first guy to be given a green light to shoot this coast. Born in the tuna town of Port Lincoln, and having lived most of his life around Elliston, he’s one of them, although it’s still been a dance. 

Sometimes I find more action after a wave. Most people put their cameras down as soon as a ride seems finished, but I like to try and twist and turn things around until it looks exciting. Harry Bryant, kicking out.
I was walking through the dunes when I noticed this geometry between the land, the ocean, and the sky. 
Jessie Castley surfing around the cliffs. There are more than a few setups like this, but most don’t get surfed. A lot of the area is national park land, so you can’t drive along a huge portion of the coast. It’s a full mission to reach certain places.

“I’ve had to be careful, but I’ve never been tuned. I’ve made one enemy on the coast since I started and that guy’s a knucklehead anyway. I try and be good about it. There are spots I don’t shoot. There’s a place where you can’t shoot. I don’t worry though. Most days I shoot I’m on my own anyway. Just me and the dogs.” 

While it’s less lawless these days, there are still guys who get primal when a camera comes out. Rich tells the story of a local girl who was recently dragged around the car park by the camera strap around her neck. The guy dragging her then smashed the camera to pieces. 

Rich gets by on his local status, his respect for the old ways, his honest nature, and baby face. For the most part, he has been left alone with a whole region to explore and shoot. It’s a big playground—400 miles from Port Lincoln to the Head of the Bight—a stretch where the dusty red skirt of the Australian continent falls abruptly into the Southern Ocean, a coast few people have captured intimately. Rich reckons, at best, he’s seen five percent of it. 

“I’ve done it for a few years now so I’ve got all my magic areas, and I’m getting more direct with them. I know where to go when it’s a 20-foot swell with a howling onshore, and where to go when it’s 2-foot, sunny, and offshore. But those are just the spots I know. There must be thousands more.”

The coast is his primary subject, even when a surfer stumbles into frame. And for an area characterized as desolate and ancient, his images teem with life—right whales, white sharks, white-bellied sea eagles, and Maltese terriers. When the onshore hits 30 knots, Rich dons a pair of swimming goggles and marches his dog, Doug, up the sand dunes outside of town for an ongoing portrait series. Never has one of God’s creatures looked so noble—Doug gazing at the South Pole, his white coat fluttering, his underbite protruding, giving the illusion of speech.

Sharks get most of the attention in South Australia, but the beach can work you over just as easy.
The shooter and his range. Photo by Fi Fi.

There’s a distinct look to Rich’s work that’s hard to decode. His images are beautiful but also a little unsettling. You tend to wonder where everyone went. Then, if you imagine yourself in the frame, it feels like you’re being watched. Rich doesn’t see it—swimming out there alone is just daily life for him—but for an outsider there’s certainly an unnerving quality to the shots. 

Some of it is also clearly technical. While most photographers err on the side of saccharine oversaturation when color correcting, Rich tinkers less with color and more with contrast. In fact, if anything, he rinses much of the color out of his shots. Everything looks like it’s been washed by a white-hot noonday sun. The browns in the cliffs may have actually leeched away millions of years ago, but the blues of the ocean—a rich palette, anything from deep cobalts to milky aquamarines—are almost underplayed. “I get bored by blue,” he offers. 

Rising from the sea, the cliffs look almost gothic, although it’s hard to determine whether the landscape is Precambrian or post-apocalyptic. His car certainly looks Fury Road. It’s a 1989 GXL Landcruiser, on its third engine, and the odometer currently sitting on 780,000 kilometers. 

“I get a letter from the Queen if it hits a million, don’t I? That car has been barreled more than I have. I can’t count how many times I’ve almost lost it on the beach. Almost lost it over a cliff once too. Forgot to put the handbrake on, turned around, and the thing was heading straight for me, and the cliff. I had to dive through the driver’s window ’cause the door doesn’t open and pull the handbrake just in time.” 

Everything about the region is extreme—from the swell to the wind to the cliffs.
My friend Pete, pictured, is so in tune with this wave. The water is usually so murky here that these types of shots are impossible. But, this day I had the opportunity, and I focused everything to get a shot from underwater. So much can go wrong from this angle. Luckily this one came out quite nice.
The area is known as the Great White Highway. Some people hate them, but I love them. I’ve known people who were eaten and swallowed, with nothing found, but we know the deal. We’re entering their world. Getting into a cage and swimming with pointers lets you make a connection with them. You can see past their black eye and into their pupil. I try and think that they can smell fear. So, when I’m swimming I don’t think about being scared, and just try to go about what I’m doing.

Through Rich’s lens we’re seeing an old coast we’ve never known and slowly being allowed in. In recent years, surfers from the east coast and beyond are gingerly venturing down this way to chase the reefs. Rich has shot with guys like Craig Anderson, Beau Foster, Dave Rastovich, even Dane Reynolds, but the place is far from overrun and it’s unlikely it ever will be. After our day at Blacks, we jumped in the car and headed west. In three days, and 500 miles, we passed 11 cars. The only times we had company were when we’d come across a solitary local. 

When I ask Rich whether the coast has changed, he doesn’t dwell for a second. “Nah. It’s still the same. You get a handful of crew but it’s quieter now than 10 years ago, I reckon. It’s just so far away and there’s no infrastructure here. I can’t see Elliston growing in the next 10 years—120 degree days, no girls, flies. No one hangs around. It’ll be like this for a long time. I don’t reckon it will change here in Elliston unless you get one of those big oil rigs starting up out there.” 

The Great Australian Bight, and whatever oil sits underneath, is being sized up by Big Oil, which wants to drill dangerous, deep-water wells out beyond the horizon. While the rest of Australia is rallying to save the Great Barrier Reef, this coast—equally precious in its own wild way—is in just as much danger. The irony is that by exposing the coast west of Elliston, its grandeur, its critters, and its waves, Rich might be saving it. 

The career change to surf photographer has been good to him. He moved down the hill three years ago and now manages the Elliston caravan park with his wife, Fiona, and their four kids. The lifestyle is accommodating. The park is quiet during autumn and winter when the waves are on, and full of tourists in summer when it’s flat. The move has allowed him the freedom to shoot on his terms. He’s wandered into surf photography totally removed from the game. His prodigious eye is balanced with a lovable naiveté about how to turn it into a living. When I asked him for a back-up drive of images to submit for this story, there was a silence at the end of the phone.

“Back-up drive?” 

Turns out Rich had years of images—everything he’d ever shot—sitting on his computer without a single frame of it backed up.

And while he might have a great frame of reference for this coast, he has no idea how the outside world regards his work, nor the faintest inkling of how good he really is. It’s a glorious thing in this modern day that guys like him are still out there. 

Heath Joske in the safest place to be in South Australian waters.

Last January, he went to Hawaii on his first trip overseas. During his initial swim at Pipeline he sat in a pack of 30 shooters, 29 more than he’s used to. “I was sitting in this huge pack of guys, and then I saw Jamie [O’Brien] and John John [Florence] going right and I thought, I’m just going to swim over to the right and clean up. I swam around the back to, what do you call it? Backdoor? I’m siting there thinking, I’m going to kill this, and a big wide one came in and exploded on me and washed me in. I tried it again and the same thing, another 10-footer. I realized why there was no one shooting there.” 

He wants to go back. He wants to shoot the other 95 percent of his own coast. He can’t believe he waited this long to shoot his first frame and wants to make up for lost time. 

For now though, when I catch up with him again, it’s summer and 115 in the shade. I call him in the middle of a heatwave, a bone-dry desert heat, shimmering and still. The caravan park at Elliston is full of punters from Adelaide, swatting flies while complaining to Rich about the lack of cell phone coverage. Rich is up to his shoulder in sewage, retrieving a diaper that was blocking the park’s septic tank. Once he’s done with that, he needs to empty a flyblown bin full of fish guts and maggots. 

He texts me after we finish the call: “Mate, you got to get me out of here…”

[Feature image: I shot this while walking back to the car after taking a piss. Ellis Ericson caught the wave before the one here, and I saw him through the window. I thought it was a cool angle, so I stayed there and snapped the next wave, which was this one of Beau Foster.]