Now another of the top female windsurfers (formerly) based in the UK, Maeli Cherel, taking the opportunity to explore the globe too. Having lived and worked, very hard, in Perth for the past couple of years, where would Maeli head first?
Gnaraloo, the most remote and intimidating wave in Western Australia, of course!
Here’s Maeli’s Gnaraloo experience…
The trip didn’t start well. Firstly I managed to lock myself out of my van during a pit stop at the supermarket to get supplies (luckily I found a pawn shop with metal hangers, and a big security guy with lots of tattoos who was willing to break into my van for me). And then at 10pm, about 250km south of Gnaraloo, I hit a double head high Kangaroo – Stereotypical! True, I shouldn’t have been driving at night but I was in a rush to score the amazing conditions forecasted for the next two days. Thankfully the Kangaroo only hit the right headlight and part of the bumper- easily fixable with a few heavy duty cable ties which lasted a whole month of me driving on dirt and corrugated tracks. As for the Kangaroo, I’m pretty sure (or hope) it survived.
On the day I arrived the waves were big and when it’s that size it’s quite an intimidating spot to turn up to for the first time. Thankfully people were keen to give advice:
“Don’t take off too early or you’ll get taken down, and don’t ride it too far or you’ll end up on the bombie”
…or the cheese grater as they like to call it.
I’ll admit I was scared and had a million active butterflies in my stomach. But I took it easy (ish) and had an amazing sunset session. It was the first time I’d ridden such big, clean, powerful, and long waves…with whales breaching closeby, and turtles swimming in the surf- I completely forgot about the mishaps of the way up. This was my first day in paradise and I still had 30 more days ahead!
It’s hard to explain the magic of this place. It’s the most remote place I’ve ever been to. It’s 70km from the closest tarmac road, 125km from the nearest town, no internet connection, and rare phone reception. At night there are so many stars in the sky that you can’t even spot the constellations. Yes there’s a lot of sand and dust (you’ll find it in places you never thought would be possible), kamikaze mice sneak into your van and if you’re not careful will eat those muesli bars you’ve rationed, you have to walk a fair way to the toilet, there’s no fresh water, and the strong seabreeze and lack of shade can drive you crazy at times BUT the beautiful landscape, perfect conditions, super friendly people, and chilled out lifestyle make it all worth it.
Picture a typical day: wake up at sunrise, check out the surf, surf, breakfast, morning windsurf, nap/ read, sunset windsurf, gourmet snack and beers at the car park, dinner at camp, and then bed. Difficult to beat!
There’s a small group of Aussies, which I would consider locals of the spot, who come up (or across) every year and stay for months. I’ve rarely met such genuine, interesting, funny, and generous people, more often than not inviting me and others for a bonfire, delicious dinners (with freshly caught fish, oysters, curries), and plenty of funny banter. They know what to expect and come fully prepared to endure the conditions with amazing camp set ups, veggie patches, great coffee…so what was supposed to be a month of living off tinned foods and dry cereals, became a month of fine dining and snacking extravaganzas!
It’s still rough living, and it’s Australia in its truest form. Arid landscape, burnt and abandoned cars, rugged (and very reefy) coastline, and lots of wildlife. Hit Kangaroos, drink lots of beer, even eat rabbit road kill grilled on a make shift fire…You can’t really get more Australian. After the tidy, clean, and well groomed suburbs of Perth it was refreshing to see and live in the wild, and to see that people are still capable of letting their kids run feral barefooted, dirty, and free all day on dusty broken bikes. I guess it’s a bit like Never Never land, and we (even the adults) were the lost boys (and girls).
Windsurfing wise I got to sail and/or surf pretty much every day. With clean surf in the morning and cross offshore winds picking up at about midday every day it was difficult to hold myself back, which meant my body took a serious beating. 4, 5 , 6 hours on the water every day will do that to you. And so, inevitably, I injured myself and ended up breaking quite a bit of kit.
The kit breakage happened mostly all in one day, one of those days where I probably shouldn’t have gone out. It was huge, and way above my level but I thought that maybe if I stayed on the shoulder and took the smaller ones I’d be alright. Problem is that on that day behind the small waves were the biggest ones, making it easy to get caught out.
As I watched the sets coming in I set myself two rules: don’t get the first one of the set cause there’s always a bigger one behind, and make sure you time it well so you get off it before reaching the bombie, but not too early to get caught out by the one behind. Easier said than done. I made it out easily which gave me the confidence I probably shouldn’t have had. And as I took off my first (and last) wave, I knew I’d made a HUGE mistake. Literally. It was a beautiful wave but it was mast high and heavy and most importantly It was the first one of the set. Oh shit. But I rode it, didn’t go over the falls, phew, and decided to not be greedy and get off nice and early. Error- my timing couldn’t have been worse. As I gybed off and saw the second wave forming my heart sank. It was a massive wall and about to break on me, I was in the worst spot with no time to escape. So I bailed, jumped off my board, and dived down. As I went under I remember seeing Scott McKercher taking off super late, and thinking “my god- that guy is crazy”. So I got tumble dried, my shoulder half coming out of its socket. Coming back up to the surface I had a long (and painful) swim to reach my kit: broken mast, broken sail, booties ripped off my feet…luckily I didn’t end up on the cheesegrater, and landed safely on kite beach with Lacky (one of the guys who comes up every year) there to help me out and take me back to Tombies…All part of the Gnaraloo experience I guess. And a valid lesson I thought I’d already learnt: never underestimate the power of the ocean. Cliché phrase, but so so true.
There were big days and small days, fun days, scary days, and the occasional frustrating day. But when you’re windsurfing with the likes of Scott McKercher, Ben Severne and Margaret River/ Esperance crew it’s hard not be inspired and push yourself. When you think you’ve ridden a wave well, and look back to see those guys do massive aerials, slashy cutbacks, or wave 360s in the heaviest section of the wave, you realise that there’s riding a wave, and riding a wave, and I’ve still got a hard and long way(ve haha) to go. But no surprises there.. I, we, knew that the day we started uphauling didn’t we?