Observer Escape Review of the Year

A section of my travel journal was published in the Observer on Sunday as part of the Escape review of 2008. Here it is:

Seeing the Invisible – Learning to Surf in Queensland

The long-haired man who runs the surf school is sitting outside his shop bemoaning the poor surf. He suggests it may not be the best day to experience the surf school (at $16.50 a day, it’s the cheapest in Australia by about $30). Paying no heed to his warning, I pay up and head to the beach to meet the surf coach, in his fifties, grossly overweight with an enormous orb of a belly squeezed into a skin-tight zebra-print wet suit.

Bearing in mind that he is supposed to be teaching our small group how to surf for the first time, it seems odd that he spends 20 minutes drawing complicated diagrams in the sand, mumbling about axis, trim and rip curls.

It becomes increasingly apparent that he is struggling with long-term drug and alcohol abuse. Unfortunately for us, he has yet to divulge which way round the surfboards go and how we might stand up on one. An Israeli girl asks him politely to go over the basics. Baring his rotten teeth, he spits: “This is a one size fits all lesson. You ask NO questions.”

With no further communication, he points us in the direction of the waves and goes to sulk under a tree. It is unclear whether he can see how poorly we fare in the difficult surf, or if he even cares. It is only when the entire group, battered, bruised and disgruntled, exit the water that he waddles out from the undergrowth and into the swell.

He catches a few minor waves, raising his arms each time in victory. He has sensed that the group has dismissed him as a charlatan. So his victory is that, yes, he can actually surf; despite his physical deformities and drug-addled mind, he can still ride a wave.

When he returns to the beach, I tell him that I had trouble reading the waves, trying to glean some iota of information before the lesson ends. He nods sagely and imparts the following wisdom: “What you must do is look for the invisible energy in the ocean.” He points off into the distance, mesmerised. I can’t see the invisible energy. I look back at him and know I never will.

Originally published here –


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Tom Spooner

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