Learning to catch the waves in Byron Bay, Australia’s surfing capital, is so much fun, but make sure you can stand on your own two feet...
“You’re either regular or goofy - whichever feels more natural,” said Mark, demonstrating the move by putting his left, then right foot forward on the board. I tried both, and neither felt natural. That’s when I knew that this surfing lark wasn’t going to be as easy as I’d hoped.
Earlier that day I had sat on Byron Bay’s Main Beach, watching the pros make it look so simple. Now, it was my turn to hit the waves, and suddenly they seemed so much bigger.With 10 or so other beginners, I had signed up for a three-day course with Byron Bay Surf School
. If you’re going to choose one place to learn to surf, Byron Bay is it. It’s widely regarded as Australia’s surfing capital, and when you see wave after wave breaking on mile after mile of Byron’s beautiful beaches, you’ll appreciate why.
Surfing first arrived here in 1963, followed by the artist community, who have given Byron a reputation as one of Australia’s most bohemian coastal resorts. More recently, sophisticated, well-heeled Sydneysiders have moved in, but thanks to the surfing crowd, Byron has retained its chilled-out, youthful feel. It’s a key stop-off point on the Oz backpacker trail, which is what had brought me here in the first place, and signing up for surfing lessons seemed the natural thing to do.
Thanks to Mark’s expert tuition, I mastered the first stage pretty quickly. Lying on my board, facing the beach, I waited until the wave was around a metre behind me and then paddled like mad to catch it. It was totally exhilarating, but also exhausting. Personally, I would have been quite happy to stay surfing on my stomach, but unfortunately Mark had other ideas. The next step, he told us, was getting on to your feet, and that’s when it all went wrong.
Once you’ve caught the wave, you’re supposed to simply jump up from a lying position straight into standing, in motion. The younger, more agile novices caught on quickly, but I struggled. The furthest I got was on to my knees, which is apparently a big surfing no-no. The next day, I tried again, but now the aches and pains from the previous lesson were taking their toll. I just couldn’t get the balance right, and as soon as my feet hit the board, I would be in the water.
I did, once, manage to get on to two feet, but by that time I was practically on the beach, surfing in just an inch of water. No matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t haul myself up, but I was still loving every minute.
My travel companion, Patrick, had cracked it, but he had other problems. Despite slapping on a thick layer of factor 30 since we arrived, he’d got a serious case of sunburn from yesterday’s lesson and now looked like a beetroot. If it wasn’t already obvious from the clumsy way we carried our surf boards, now we definitely wouldn’t be mistaken for locals.
Every muscle in our bodies hurting, we sloped off a bit early that day to chill out with a beer at the Beach Hotel, overlooking Main Beach. One of Byron Bay’s most popular drinking holes, it was built by John Cornell, who produced Crocodile Dundee, and movie memorabilia is posted all over the walls.
On day three, a little hungover, we joined Mark again. Pat was starting to peel and I had decided I was just too tired to surf on my feet, so instead I stuck to body boarding. The muscles in my forearms could no longer take the strain of trying to push up.
That night we hooked up with a few of our fellow classmates and headed to Cheeky Monkeys, recommended by Mark. It’s known as one of Byron’s wilder haunts and we soon found out why. As the night wore on, the music pumped up and the crowd got wilder, until people began jumping on the tables to dance. Pat and I found ourselves being swept along by the party atmosphere (and the cheap beers) and all of a sudden I, too, was dancing on a table. I’m not sure how I got there, but luckily, once I was up, I was able to stay on two feet. It was so much easier on dry land.
Byron Bay Surf School
offers a three-day course of three 3.5 hour lessons for AU$165 per person, including wetsuit and surf board hire and transfers to and from the beach. The school also offers accommodation, and a ‘Wipeout Weekender’ is AU$125 for two surf lessons plus $40 per person per night for accommodation in the surf school house. You can also stay at the Backpackers' Inn
Top drinking spots are the Beach Hotel and Cheeky Monkeys.