There is an island in the Pacific that shivers in the shadow of black cliffs 3,000 feet high. The sun only fringes the two moss- and fern-covered mountains a little before midday, when the usual dim and violet haze turns, for a while, gold.
On this island, the ear tunes to the whining and chattering of the seabirds—the boobies, the petrels, the little shearwaters, the grey ternlets. And it catches the measure of the hissing of ocean swells flowing onto thickets of undisturbed reef.
The air is cool and sweet here on this island, which was unknown to Polynesian mariners. It was first sighted and claimed by a British naval vessel en route to its country’s greatest social experiment: to land the detritus of its kingdom—the overflow of its prisons—on a southern continent 9,000 nautical miles from home.
But here on this island, which sits 400 miles northeast of Sydney, 400 souls live today in deliberate and splendid isolation, many from the same families that were first to build their small farms in its fields. They live among 3,000 acres of subtropical forests and valleys and ridges and pastures and mountains. There are neither snakes nor stinging insects nor land animals that rear on hind legs and bare teeth and threaten.
In little wooden shacks dotted across the landscape, an honesty system works for the selling of fruit and for the renting of snorkeling equipment. Pay your two dollars for an avocado and a bunch of organic parsley. Slice off a ten for your mask, tuba, and flippers. At Government House, a pink or blue flag appears whenever a local bears a child.
All the profit from the liquor store is channeled back into community works.
If you were to visit this island, you’d find your mobile telephone to be a glass-and-aluminum paperweight. There are no towers. There is no reception. With only a few exceptions, there are no cars. Too hot? Open the window louver. Air conditioners are forbidden. So are rubbish dumps and the disposal of household goods. When a local tires of, say, a couch, by law he has to ship it to the mainland for a thousand bucks. Recycling is everything. If it doesn’t turn into mulch in the island’s vertical composting unit, it must be sent back.
When the naturist prophet David Attenborough landed and sniffed around the island’s providence petrel seabirds, he called the place “so extraordinary it is almost unbelievable.…Few islands, surely, can be so accessible, so remarkable, yet so unspoilt.”
The ocean barely swings from 68 in the winter months to 78 in early spring.
Yes, in some ways, it’s a paradise. In others, it’s a brooding isle of nostalgia and bitterness haunted by the ghosts of vagrant spirits.
The surfer, riding a bicycle, surveys his options in one day. The outer reefs hugging black-water drop-offs. The electric-blue beachbreaks that remind the well-traveled of King Island. The deep-water reef pass shadowed by Gower and Lidgbird, the two mountains.
These aren’t world-class reefs, even if you squint hard into a January sun and try to imagine you’re in French Polynesia. Nice for pictures, and, like most places when the pressure of a specific swell direction cuts through the maze of grottos and fissures, it can offer something the surfer can exaggerate later.
The surfer looks around. A fin cuts the surface amid a school of fish at a 4-foot left-hander 300 yards offshore. It’s too big to be one of the curious reef sharks that’ll shoulder-hop your tubes. Either a mako, a tiger, or a whaler. The fin disappears again below the surface. The school shifts south.
His decision is fairly plain and straight. He’ll be surfing alone.
Such was the position that shaper Greg Webber found himself in the Australian spring of 1974. Then living in Bondi Beach as a 13-year-old, though already three years into the board-building game, Webber walked along the little wooden jetty at Rose Bay on Sydney Harbor to board one of the two Sandringham flying boats—Beachcomber and Islander—that serviced the island.
The birds had spent the prior 30 years in the sky, having been converted to civilian use by the Royal Air Force after WWII. Basic as all hell, the cockpit looked like something out of The Dam Busters, all levers and wheels and a vast domed windshield. The two Sandringhams were flown in convoy, to the island, where they would touch down in the lagoon, their takeoff and landing times being tidal dependent.
On that day in ’74, Webber climbed through the starboard door of one of the planes (the exact one, he can’t remember) and strapped himself into one of the 41 vinyl-covered seats in the lower cabin, alongside his 15-year-old brother, John, and his parents, John and Di. Both brothers had self-made surfboards, single screws, stored in the hold.
The Webbers had decided to take the trip on a whim, since it was the last time the birds would fly the island route from the original terminal, which sat just a ten-minute walk from the family house. An airstrip that was being built on a slab of flat ground near the south end of the island meant that regular passenger planes would soon take over the ferrying work.
Now 60, Webber remembers the chattering of the finned hull and the side pontoon, as well as flames coming out of the back of one of the motors when the unburnt fuel ignited. Taking off and landing in water, he says, “was a bizarre and beautiful experience.”
The Webber family stayed on the island for one month, the boys doing volunteer work pumping aviation fuel out of 44-gallon drums and into storage tanks in order to prove to the locals that they weren’t just “tokenistically pretending to respect them.” They surfed, too. However, they kept to the beachbreaks, Ned’s and Blinky’s, on the eastern shore. They ignored the reefs on the other side of the island.
On a return trip in 1975, they convinced the father of a local kid to take them out to a wave they’d seen when they flew in, a right-hand reef-pass setup, which Webber describes today as “a really sucky, radical sort of wave.” The man’s son was too young to surf, so the Webber brothers broke the champagne bottle alone on the wave’s 4- to 6-foot tubes. “Surfing those reefs in the 1970s was some of the best things we ever did,” Webber says. “No one was surfing then.”
The island, and its untapped surf resource, got into Webber’s head. It got into his brother’s head. (Two decades later, John would join Lance Knight, who discovered and named Lance’s Right in the Mentawais, on one of his regular supply trips from Yamba to the island on the barge MV Island Trader. Thirty hours straight listening to the drone of its diesel engines. On a flat-bottomed barge. Open ocean. Hell of a ride. The result was unequivocally worth the trouble. Part of the whole appeal, maybe.) The island would later get into the head of at least one of Webber’s sons, who would spend three years of his twenties there.
Webber likes that it ain’t easy to be a surfer on the island.
“You have to have balls,” he says. “You can’t be fragile. You can’t be worried about massive drop-offs, fathoms and fathoms deep, totally black [ocean]. The guys that fish there know how sharky it is. They pull up their kingfish in a rush, and it’s a shit-fight to get ’em before they’re bitten in half. They get the shortest window before the sharks move in. It’s a beautiful place, but it’s raw.”
Once, some years ago now, Webber decided he wanted to experiment with “awareness” while inside the barrel. His gut feeling was that the only thing one can think about inside the tube is the tube itself.
To prove this theory, at least to himself, he made the choice to surf nude. If he was aware of his own nudity inside the tube, well, his theory was wrong. So he paddled out at Middle Beach to test his tube experiment in the little shorebreak. Webber wasn’t aware of his own nudity inside the tube, though he wasn’t correct in his assumption. What he did notice was some sort of panicked noise. A frenetic splashing. He looked over and saw an 8-foot shark in water so shallow—maybe 2 feet deep—that its tail fin was entirely exposed, as was most of its dorsal fin. “On every trip there,” he says, “I used to see sharks at least once.”
Ten trips all up, including living on the island for two years with his wife, Christina, and sons, Hayden and Joe, in the early 2000s. While they were residents, a newly retired couple from Brisbane arrived on this beautiful and peaceful little isle to celebrate a life without work. The husband, Arthur Apelt, was 70 years old. On one warm autumn night not long after they’d landed, he told his wife he was going for a walk. He never came back. A few weeks later, a 12-foot tiger shark was caught. When its guts were cut open, out spilled Arthur’s head, still with its hair.
If you want to get real tough—if your fear glands have been sufficiently cauterized and you’ll do anything for waves—you can pay a skipper to take you to Middleton and Elizabeth reefs, two sandy cays sitting 60 or so nautical miles to the north.
“The most horrifying surf trip ever,” says Webber. “Absolutely frothing with sharks. Only two or three people have ever surfed it. A ten-hour boat ride. Reefs in the middle of nowhere.”
It ain’t all sharks. Well, not entirely.
The best wave on the island proper is a joint called Little Island, a wave-pool-esque right-hander with a tapering shoulder that gets snapped at the cliffs along the base of Mount Gower. At its ideal size, 6-foot, you’ll take off and be swung into a bowl that’ll have you still telling reporters about a session you had 35 years ago, with your shaping pals Rodney Dahlberg and Murray Bourton, and Narrabeen surf-star doctor Rod Kirsop. And there’s a solid and fast left-hander, called La Meurthe, named after the nineteenth-century French warship that was abandoned and sunk in 1907 right at the wave’s point of entry.
In addition to the fish and the surf and the isolation, there’s the stillness of life on the island. The same looks from the same faces.
The same inflections at the same points in the same stories told over the same schooners of beer at the same bowling club.
It ain’t for everyone.
“You’ve gotta be able to handle certain levels of quiet,” says Webber. “City people, they could handle one month at the most.”
The secret is to step back, he explains, and feel where you are.
“The biggest thing is the two mountains at the end [of the island], Gower and Lidgbird,” Webber says. “There’s a certain energy that even really straight, non-spiritually minded people pick up on. The mountains exist in the background of everything. People visit and are dumbfounded by those mountains, one square and blocky—very male—the other with convolutions and curves to it—female—like a mother and father protecting the island.”
Webber says he wants to buy property, if he gets the chance. Houses, which cost in the millions, are presented to residents first. Then they’re offered up to approved applicants, who sit for years on a waiting list.
“I adore the place,” he says. “Old people are very respected there. Because there’s no original inhabitants, that changes the feeling of being local. But they are…it. They’ve got this sense of connection to the island that no one else can get in Australia. It’s a great place to have a base, forever and ever.”