On the edge of the desert at the eastern end of the Nullarbor plain, where the cracked and dusty land meets the wild shark-filled sea, there’s a wooden chair overlooking the ocean. Sitting on this seat you can watch waves break off a jagged headland, along a shallow reef platform. The lefthanders peel a distance and surfers take turns to ride their walls, the offshore wind sending spray off the back of the wave with each turn they make. This is Cactus.
The wooden chair was built in memory of a young man who was taken by a shark some years back, and its construction – with a little platform at the bottom, and a solid backrest – makes it like a mini grandstand with room for eight or nine people.
Early in the morning surfers crawl from their tents and vans in the sprawling campsite, rubbing their eyes and running hands through their hair, they stumble up the sandy path to the chair. They stop to piss into the bushes on the way, the sharp smell of all this accumulated urine lingers until the next time it rains and washes it away. Then they sit on the chair and watch the waves. Breath comes thick and steamy in the early morning chill, and the still air makes the ocean clean and glassy. Some have come prepared with a cup of hot tea that they wrap their hands around, blow into and look through the rising steam at the lefthanders breaking off the headland.
Another surfer comes along and he says a muted good morning, then watches too.
‘Looks alright eh?’
‘Yeah. Sets are closing out a bit but the inside ones look like fun.’
‘You going out then?’
‘Reckon I might wait til the tide comes in a bit more.’
‘Time for a bit of brekky then eh.’
But before he leaves others arrive.
‘You guys been out yet?’
‘What? Nah not yet. Waiting for a bit more tide’
‘I’m gonna get out there before all the crew paddle out.’
The waves were pretty good. The bay at Cactus has three main breaks, and a few others that work in certain conditions. The one in front of the campsite is the lefthander that made the bay famous. It's a long wave with a takeoff that wasn’t too tough and a nice wide channel to paddle into. Surprisingly friendly, for all I’d heard about the place.
The land is owned by an old surfer called Ron who runs the campsite. Every evening, in his brown overalls and wide brimmed hat covering his wiry white hair, he comes around in his rattling yellow ute to drop off the bundles of firewood and to collect the ten dollar fee from everyone staying the night. Unless it’s your seventh night, which is free.
A lot of the surfers staying there were part way through a crossing of the country, but such was the allure of the place, the consistency of the waves and the easy way that time slipped by, that they might find themselves staying weeks longer than they had planned.
There’s a bore water supply for washing and for a quick outdoor shower, but its not fit for drinking so you need to come supplied. The little town, Penong, at the turn off from the highway will sell you what you need, at the kind of prices you might expect from a small isolated town.
Throughout the day, the wooden chair is the spot to come for some company. As the afternoon wears on, people arrive with beers in hand and the stories and chatter fire up. With the chair full to capacity, others sit on the sand or lean against the old fence posts to join in.
Snowy demonstrated his black labrador’s party trick. When Snowy called out ‘it’s offshore!’ the dog yelped and ran frantically up and down in major distraction, then when he called out ‘it’s onshore!’ the dog immediately stopped and walked back to sit at his feet.
Jur and Ties, the easy going Dutch brothers told how they’d been in Adelaide and checked the surf forecast. It was going to be flat for a week, so they decided to drive to Uluru. At the maximum eighty kph their old landcruiser allowed, this took them three days. They got to the rock and weren’t that impressed so they took a few photos then turned around to drive straight back.
Matty seemed to lose track of who he’d already told his stories to, so we all heard his collection of tales many times over.
It was a little off putting when you were out in the water, because you knew the mob on the seat would be watching and having a good laugh at any flailing wipeouts. Coming in from the surf, you walked up the track and past the chair where they asked you what it had been like and if it hurt when you got pitched out of the lip on that last wave.
I stayed for a week, surfing a couple of times a day and hanging out with people living the same kind of dream as me.