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Turaco in the Drylands

Meeting a Swiss with seemingly bottomless primitive skills in Baja.

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He was camped next to us at a remote Mexican pointbreak. One afternoon, I noticed his legs sticking out from underneath his old Ford Country Squire station wagon. I walked over and asked him if he needed any help. 

“No,” he answered in a thick European accent as his slight frame scooted from under the car, covered in desert dust. “I just needed to fix the oil pan. The job is complete. Would you like an apple fritter?”

“An apple fritter?” 

“Yes, I just made some,” he said. “Also, I have Turkish coffee.”

I looked over at my camp table and saw a sandy, half-eaten bag of stale Fig Newtons: “Yes, please.”

Photo by John Barton.

He introduced himself as Robi Egle. He was from Switzerland, a cabinetmaker by trade, fluent in five languages. On a chance trip to the coast, he had fallen madly in love with surfing. He was presently traveling the world on an extended wave hunt. He wasn’t the best surfer by any means. But what he lacked in talent, he more than made up for in enthusiasm. 

The following afternoon, Robi pulled a large Mason jar out of his car and showed it to me. Inside was a dark-brown triangular object, cracked in two pieces but glued back together. I looked closer and realized it was the largest goddamned shark tooth I’d ever seen—so big it seemed fake. At the bottom of the jar were dozens of much smaller, whiter teeth.

“The big one is from a very large shark from many, many years ago,” he said. 

No shit, I thought.  

I asked him where he got the teeth, assuming they were from one of the little souvenir stores in Cabo. He pointed to the empty desert directly across the bay, about 2 miles from where we stood.

“If you like, I can show you tomorrow,” he offered. “You and your friends can come and we can hunt for the teeth. All you need is something to scrape the cliff with and something to put the teeth in.” 

The next day, Robi led an expedition of us sunburnt surfers to a ravine just off the main dirt road that leads into town. He walked calmly toward a small cliff face and made a gesture upward.

“Look,” he said. “You can see the layers.”

My friends and I stood there and stared at the cliff, pretending to see what Robi could see. Eventually we began scraping the cliff with metal tools. Within a few minutes we were finding small, ancient shark teeth embedded in the sediment.

After a couple of hours, Robi came over to look at my little collection. “It is from the mako,” he said. “You can tell from the shape.”

Who the hell is this guy? I thought. His knowledge and skills seemed boundless.

Eventually Robi moved on, his Country Squire slowly disappearing into the distance, leaving nothing but a jet trail of dust. I was sad to see him go. 

About six months later, I got a letter from Robi. He’d made it to Kauai, where, as he declared in all capital letters, he’d “CAUGHT SOME BIG ONES.”

I imagined Robi, the intermediate European surfer, paddling out at the Bay on a big day, oblivious to the political intricacies of the lineup and savage nature of the inside bowl. The thought caused me to cringe in sympathy; he must have taken some heavy beatings. But then I thought about it some more. That little Swiss Indiana Jones, that multilingual MacGyver, of pure heart and with a razor-sharp mind, probably correctly interpreted the critical conditions, smiled his way through the lineup, and picked off some bombs.

[Feature Photo by John Barton]