Surfing on a shoestring on Australia’s east coast

by sarah.stirling

In a van big enough to house two people, two surfboards, one gas stove and a few clothes, we drove from Sydney up the east coast of Australia, surfing all the way


A second-hand 7’2” board caught my eye in Sydney; it had a few pressure marks but no major dings. I bought it, slung it in the van with Sam’s and we drove up the coast to Palm Beach. The sea was sparkling, scattered with fading sunlight. We brewed tea in a saucepan over the gas stove. “I'm glad you’ve come over for a couple of months,” said Sam. “One person in a van is a tramp but two is an adventure.”

We planned to drive up the east coast of Australia and surf wherever we found some. I’d not surfed much before but I’d learn. It was April, autumn-time, and quiet on the beaches as Australians don’t like the cold; 25˚C wasn’t cold to me.

The battered white van had no curtains and we laid our sleeping bags next to our surfboards. I fell asleep under the stars and woke, refreshed, with the sun. The next afternoon we found some surf at Redhead Beach in Newcastle. A sign read: ‘Sharks. High currents. Rocks. Marine stingers.’

“They all say that,” said Sam: “Health and safety.”

A wave rolled towards us, green and clean. A pod of dolphins was swimming along in it, parallel to the shore. Water crashed over and sucked me under; I tumbled round thinking, “The dolphins are in my wave!” Later, I laid my surfboard on the sand and practiced springing to my feet over and over while Sam cooked dinner by head torch.

The beach we fell in love with was Digger’s Beach, Coff’s Harbour. Trees surrounded a wooden balcony overlooking white sand. Every day we woke to perfect intermediate waves and I improved a little with each.

One evening I decided on a late surf. The water was warm with heat soaked up from the day and the waves were languid yet full-formed, peacefully splashing me as I paddled out. I looked down from a wave crest, pushed and hopped to my feet. I moved my feet a bit to turn, rode the wave all the way into the shore and picked up my board, grinning. It was the wave that made all the effort worthwhile.

Back on the road, we surfed Lighthouse Beach, Ballina, then drove to Byron Bay, one of Australia’s famous surf towns. We parked under the beam of the lighthouse that marks Australia’s easternmost point. Over the next week we surfed Byron’s Lennox Head and Broken Head. The sea was mostly crazily wild and big; I’d come out with my hair wrapped round my head, exhausted.

We drove on to Noosa. Sam cut the engine and the heartbeat of waves told us we were home. A different beach but the sea was home now. Cool ripples of water welcomed me back and the rising sun made them pink and cute. I settled to paddle the distance out. The waves proved only just big and fast enough to ride, rolling smoothly into shore over shallow sand, and I could walk about on my board as I rode them, there was so much time till I touched the sand.

Later, chilled, we read the map. A fishing village called 17.70 just below the Great Barrier Reef would be the furthest north we could surf. We arrived there late, filled the water canisters from the beach facilities and found a ramshackle cafe called Saltwater, lit by curls of fairy lights and overlooking fishing boats.

The next morning a hot track through draping trees led to the beach. Worried about snakes, we watched our feet until, emerging into the sun, we gasped: a stretch of deserted sand and perfect, rolling bright blue waves. We stood at the top of the sandbank surveying our kingdom, then slid down it on our boards and ran for the sea.

The next day the journey back south began. We camped on Sunshine Beach, Noosa. At 5.30am cars started pulling up. A crowd of guys gathered, looking seawards in the dark. Sam woke up: “Check that beard! There are some hardcore surfers here for sure.” With a blast of pink and orange, the sky revealed tiny surf. They stomped back to their cars.

We drove all day without finding surf and I sulked: feet crunching sand on the dashboard, head on knees. Then I spotted about 30 kangaroos. “Stop, stop!” I yelled. They looked at us for a moment before hopping away.

On the way south, we surfed the beaches we’d missed on the way north: Woody Head, Wooli, Minnie Water and Woolgoola. It felt like coming home as we pulled up at Digger’s Beach. I was going to be flying home tomorrow. But tonight, Digger’s Beach was full of my favourite colours. The sand was dark gold and cool between toes, the sea was turquoise and the sky dusky blue and dusty pink. I saved the memory.

Anyone who surfs will back me up: when you shut your eyes at night after surfing, you see waves. I dreamt in waves long after I flew away from Sydney.



Where to stay

Before the trip kicked off, I stayed in the Manly Bunnkhouse in Sydney. It's a superb and popular place with a friendly atmosphere - everyone heads to the beach by day and hangs out on the barbecue terrace in the evenings.

We also dipped into Barracuda Backpackers in Coffs Harbour. It was a small, homely place with a family atmosphere, which made it ideal for meeting friends. Just 10 minutes from the beach, too.



I wrote my first book, The History of Melton Mowbray (pub. WHSmith/Francis Frith) at 20. My university years were spent working and playing hard. I was an active member of four outdoor sports clubs, enjoyed the subsidised UK and world-wide travel that entailed and graduated with first class honours in English literature and language. I then launched the master plan: combining my favourite things (the outdoors, travel and writing) and thereby never having to do a day's work, ever. Words and work snowballed and I have spent the last five years enjoying being outdoors, loving travelling (UK and worldwide) and excitedly encouraging others to do the same by writing and illustrating magazine articles and guidebooks. My website is Favourite places: Wales, Somerset, The Peak District, Rutland, France, the Greek Islands, Australia, New Zealand.