The board was a bright-green Gunther Rohn, badly creased through its middle. No longer of any use to its owner, it’d been left on the point at Red Bluff.
“I spotted it and scrambled over the rocks to claim it before one of the other groms could get their hands on it,” recalls Imogen Caldwell of how she found her first surfboard. “Tourists were always snapping boards and leaving them out there, so we’d scavenge what we could and piece them together.”
Back at their homestead, Imogen’s father, Jim, showed his 13-year-old daughter how to fix the buckle in their outside shed that doubled as a ding-repair shop. Then he left her to it. Imogen, now 25, can still remember the long, uncomfortable walks home from the beach.
“I’d have so much bloody fiberglass sticking out of my skin because of the dodgy repairs,” she says.
Regardless, and despite the pintail being much too big for the teenager, the Rohn became Imogen’s one-board quiver, ridden every day no matter the conditions—from small summer waves to deep winter swells that arc up Australia’s west coast until they collide with Red Bluff’s coral-and-limestone reef at its namesake surf break, one of the world’s best waves.
Located on the extreme western edge of Australia, Red Bluff may as well be the end of the Earth. The closest major city, Perth, sits 1,400 kilometers to the south. The small outpost is surrounded on three sides by the endless expanse of the Outback, and to its west is where that sprawling desert finally tumbles into the Indian Ocean. Just offshore lies Ningaloo Reef, the country’s largest fringing coral system, which extends all the way to the Muiron Islands, 250 kilometers to the north.
To the Indigenous Yinikutira people, who have inhabited the region for more than 30,000 years, “ningaloo” means “deep water.” It’s an apt name. Eons ago, the seabed was thrust up by tectonic forces. Over time, the land was carved into massive cliffs and rocky terraces as the ocean subsided and erosion took hold. Today, most of the shoreline that composes the area is essentially fossilized reef. Viewed from above, the stark reds and yellows of the desert cut abruptly to the deep blue of the ocean, a mostly undisturbed pocket of water teeming with an abundance of whales, rays, sharks, fish, and coral.
Life on land, however, is a more arduous affair. Temperatures scorch year-round. There are no trees, nor is there a natural source of freshwater. During summer, thick blankets of flies create apocalyptic scenes. Old punters will wryly tell you that’s why locals talk slowly, from the corner of their mouths.
“It’s raw around here,” says Imogen. “It demands a do-or-die approach. But, at the same time, it’s wild and beautiful—everything I could have wanted as a kid. We had the biggest yard you could possibly dream of [growing up]. But you’ve got to be able to handle yourself around here. I grew to be comfortable with [it all] whether on land or in the water.”
It wasn’t always wide-open desert and pristine Indian Ocean for the Caldwell family. In another lifetime, back in the early aughts, Jim and his wife, Rebecca, ran an earth-moving business in New South Wales, all the way on the opposite side of the continent. With a substantial mortgage and having to work full-time to pay it, the couple rarely had time to spend with their five children: Lockie, Ebony, Imogen, Jasper, and Oska. Eventually, they decided on an alternative way of raising their young brood.
Against the advice of family and friends, Jim and Rebecca sold their house and business, packed the kids into a small Jayco caravan, and set off to travel around Australia without any real plan of where they wanted to end up. Oska, the youngest of the clan, didn’t even have a bed.
“He was just sleeping on a floor on one end of the caravan, surrounded by the rest of us,” says Imogen, who was only 6 at the time. “It was the biggest adventure for us kids. It was the start of a whole ’nother life.”
After rounding the bottom of Australia, the family made their way up the country’s left half and landed for the first time at Red Bluff, where they camped on the beach for three months.
“We were homeschooled in our little van,” says Imogen. “Dad taught me math a stone’s throw from the shoreline. If the weather was good, we did school until noon and then had the rest of the day off to go exploring caves in the headland. We learned to fish and dive and catch crays; Dad taught us everything about the ocean. We all fell in love with the place…having the ocean at our fingertips and the desert at our backs.”
When the family finally reached Kununurra, at the far northern edge of WA, Jim and Rebecca flipped a coin to decide which way to go: either continue east, toward their former home in NSW, or head west again. The coin said the latter. The family made it all the way down to Eagle Bay, south of Perth. There, Jim got a call from the owner of Quobba Station, the sheep ranch back at Red Bluff that stretches for 200 kilometers along the empty coastline and just happens to include a truly remarkable left-hander. The station’s owner was looking for a new caretaker for the property and offered the Caldwells the job. Nearly 20 years later, they haven’t left.
It’s uncertain who exactly was the first to ride the wave at Red Bluff, though it’s widely held that it was stumbled upon in the 1970s by a few sheep shearers who also surfed. Over the following years, word slowly filtered out among underground tube devotees about the Indo-esque setup. By the early 1980s, the Bluff was attracting a steady influx of pilgrims who camped rough for months at a time to ride the grinding left. The biggest hazard, however, wasn’t the wave. Without any infrastructure, the beach and sand dunes quickly became a communal latrine, littered with rubbish and car wrecks. And with the nearest source of freshwater 160 kilometers away at Carnarvon, hepatitis and dysentery were common.
The station owner had by then more than had enough, and threatened to ban the feral surfers from his land unless someone volunteered to sort out the mess. Phil Ogden, originally from Victoria and an ardent disciple of the wave, stuck his hand up.
Over the next two decades, Phil and his wife, Sue, established an orderly campground in the harsh outpost—fencing off the area, establishing sites, and putting in ablutions. It was hard going. It took almost a month, for example, to dig the first toilet, due to the boulders in the dirt, which had to be towed out with a 4×4. As Ogden would later say, “Nothing’s easy out there, except for the takeoff and pull-in.”
With an initial fee of a dollar per head, the camp was far from a money-making enterprise. But the Ogdens, including the three children they raised on the Bluff, were handsomely rewarded in waves. When they eventually decided to leave, after 24 years, it seemed fitting that the job was passed on to another family of surfers. Jim, a natural-footer with a propensity for backhand tube riding, found himself in rugged paradise. Lockie, the eldest of the Caldwell siblings, soon became a standout at the point, with his younger brothers in tow. For Imogen, however, surfing came later.
“I was basically a station hand for years before I started surfing,” she says. “I would go out with Dad at four o’clock in the morning to work. Mustering sheep, landmarking—just spending all day in the dirt. I was on the back of Dad’s motorbike long before my feet could even touch the ground. I fell in love with riding bikes before surfing.”
It was inevitable, though, that Imogen would find her way into the lineup. The only other family living permanently on the Bluff were the Durants. Of their eight kids, six were girls and all of them surfed. The Caldwell sisters were naturally absorbed into the fold.
“We had the best little girl gang in the lineup before it was even a thing,” says Imogen. “In the off-season, it was mostly just girls out there, no matter the waves.”
Her progression was rapid. Within just a couple of years of first standing up, she was sitting deep up the point and pulling into set waves.
“I just adapted to my surroundings,” she says. “When it gets big and heavy during the winter season—those were just the cards we were dealt. It was either go out and surf it, or don’t go out at all. And I wasn’t going to sit on the beach.”
Alex, the oldest of the Durant sisters, is more candid: “I remember sleeping over at her place not too long after she’d really got into surfing and waking to her doing push-ups and situps on the floor. She had been up since 4:30 a.m., just fizzing. When she saw we were up, she grabbed her fluoro-green board and yelled, ‘Let’s go surfing, fuckers!’ She was always so motivated and determined.”
It wasn’t long before outsiders began to take notice of the tenacious teenager.
“I met Imogen at Red Bluff when she was 16 or so,” says Western Australia–based photographer Mike Riley, who cut his teeth shooting tube hounds like Ry Craike and the Brown brothers along the coastline’s most notorious reefs. “It was pretty crazy watching her and the Durant girls. They were running circles around everyone in the lineup. I’ve never seen young girls dominate like that. They didn’t mess around.”
Over the last decade, Imogen has cultivated a global reputation as a committed tube rider. Riley has witnessed much of that evolution firsthand. One session in particular, at a wave farther south, stands out.
“It was a solid 8 foot at a very heavy slab,” he says. “There were a couple of the boys out there getting the biggest ones, but they broke all their boards and went in. It was just Imo left in the water. She stayed out and pulled into some of the biggest and heaviest barrels of the day.”
The area’s waves, as waves of that nature are wont to do, extracted their fair share of flesh, too. Near-drownings, bruises, and lacerations were par for the course.
“I have lots of scars where I should’ve had stitches,” says Imogen. “But the docs were just too far away, so I never went. Luckily, it was never anything major. Dad always made sure we had enough confidence and skill to be able to handle ourselves in whatever size it was, and then he just left us to it. You’ve got to be able to handle yourself growing up here.”
Red Bluff’s rough-hewn environment sits in stark contrast with the shine of Imogen’s career as a model, which has taken her around the world since she was 17. It’s a job she describes as fun, grueling, and cutthroat in equal measures.
“It’s definitely not all glitz and glamour,” she says, “especially when you’re just starting out. It’s mostly crammed apartments, dodgy photographers that just want to get your kit off, and constant rejection.”
She counterbalances her ambivalence toward modeling with the fact that it’s allowed her to pay the bills through traveling and surfing. Of course, there have been moments when the better ends of both worlds come together, such as scoring waves while on shoots in the Mentawais and Marshall Islands, or enjoying knee-deep powder on the slopes in Canada.
Photographer and filmmaker Morgan Maassen, who has worked with Imogen extensively over the years, offers some perspective on this duality.
“She grew up in the middle of goddamn nowhere, yet she’s this fantastic modern woman,” he says. “Drenched in style, savvy on the internet, a gourmet chef. But she’s more rugged and versed in the wild than most professionals I’ve worked with. She wrangles snakes, can clean a carcass in her sleep, fix an engine, and spear a tuna like it’s nothing.”
Maassen first met Imogen on a boat-and-beach shoot in Micronesia, an “over-the-top” fashion affair, but was surprised at how easy the Western Australian was to work with.
“She was sassy, somewhat bored, quick to put you in your place…I loved it,” he recalls. “Amidst all the hair and makeup and wardrobe,
I watched her exude a proficiency around boats and open ocean that was compelling. She wanted waves and was hungry to prove herself, but we were shooting fashion. It really made me curious about her, though.”
The pair stayed in touch and continued to cross paths until they decided to work on a surf-inspired project together in WA, where Maassen got to see firsthand that Imogen is the real deal.
“She’s fearless in the water,” he says. “The barrel is her home. She’s not crazy, though. Her read of waves and the ocean is very precise and methodical. I’ve rarely seen her wipeout or have a less-than-graceful exit on the wild waves she rides.”
Unlike many professional models and surfers he’s worked with over the years, Maassen claims, Imogen is constantly looking to push beyond her comfort zones, whether it’s riding bigger waves, exploring a new city, or engaging with different people. He describes this as an “ever-expanding curiosity” about the world around her.
Imogen is the first to admit, however, that she wilts when she’s away from the desert for too long.
“It got really difficult when I lived in the city for an extended period of time,” she says, describing her stints in fashion hot spots like Sydney and New York. “I hated that, and it didn’t last long. That pissed my agency off, but [the desert] will always be home.”
The move five hours south, or “just down the road,” to live with fiancé Cortney Brown in the small but wave-rich town of Kalbarri a few years ago is about as far as she’s prepared to go on a permanent basis. Brown, along with his brother Kerby, has a long-forged reputation as a fearless hellman, whose commitment to wide, shallow-bottomed tubes is nearly unrivaled in Western Australia. Imogen recalls how Cortney would often come up to the Bluff on bigger swells, and then started showing up when there were no waves at all. They eventually became a couple, and Imogen seamlessly fell in with the crew, traversing the coastline with them in search of setups few other people want anything to do with.
“I’ve been getting into some of the slabs around here lately,” she says of the spots near her new home, citing Cortney as her biggest influence in the water these days. “Cort always gives me the confidence I need to get out there when it’s starting to get out of my comfort zone. If he believes that I’m able to do it, that gives me so much courage to get out there and really back myself, whereas other people would maybe second-guess me because the end result is not always that pretty. When it’s really big, I still get nervous, of course. But the fear of not doing something or backing down is so much worse for me than the fear of actually doing it.”
The only thing that has kept her out of the water recently has been the birth of the couple’s first child this past July, a son named Rambo Wolf Brown, another apt name for a product of the remote Western Australian landscape. But Imogen doesn’t see motherhood changing her approach in any way.
“I don’t go out and do dumb things just to prove myself,” she says. “But I want to show him, especially being a boy, that Mum can do everything and anything that Dad can do. There shouldn’t be any limitations just because I’m a mum.”
More than anything else, though, Imogen explains, she can’t wait to show her son the desert and the ocean, the outpost where the two meet, and the vast world that lies in between.