Five hot surf destinations to seek asylum at this summer
Unless you’ve been living under a rock (a possibility given Sydney’s house prices), you’ve heard about Australia’s ongoing detention centre controversies.
The UN asked Australia to urgently evacuate detainees from the Pacific islands of Nauru and Manus Island to stop the ongoing health crisis among asylum seekers. More than 6,000 Australian doctors signed a letter to our Prime Minister demanding children in detention be immediately removed from Nauru, amid reports one-in-four are suicidal. The Government, amid ongoing public pressure, said it will move all children now held in detention on Nauru to Australia by year’s end. And those are just this month’s headlines (read the BBC’s explainer on Australia’s asylum seeker policy).
But if you look past things like Australia being reported to UN’s human rights council, and the 12 deaths in immigration detention on Nauru and Manus Island since 2014 (through murder, medical neglect, “misadventure” and suicide), you’ll be pleased to learn there are pumping waves alongside the places Australia has locked up asylum seekers – both offshore and on the mainland.
Bali? Been there, done that. North Shore? Ha, old hat! Let’s take a look at our favourite new surf trip destinations for 2019.
Looking for an “off-the-beaten-track” island getaway that oozes Instagram street cred? Look no further! This petite Pacific island nation (21 square kilometres, pop. 11,200) sits north-east of Australia and is so fresh Lonely Planet’s guide doesn’t even feature any text.
“Chunky, fast and short would describe most of our breaks,” says John Short, a Melburnian who went to Nauru in 2009 on a contract to repair some phosphate mining equipment and never left. “The island’s round and it takes 20 minutes to circumnavigate the whole nation, so you can always find a wave somewhere.”
His description of its premier slab hints at the country’s wave quality when conditions align. “The biggest barrel-iest wave can get to eight foot, is very round and must be respected,” John says. “An ocean swell hitting a one-metre deep reef is very bowly but short in ride. You either get slotted or munched – there’s no halfway.”
John established the Nauru Surf Club earlier this decade to teach surfing and surf safety to Nauruans and refugees and they welcome donations of old surfboards, legropes, fins, etc. Contact him via email and he’ll find a way to get the gear.
Expats and locals surf alongside each other at Nauru Surf Club (Photo Nauru Surf Club)
Pros: White-sand, palm-fringed beaches. Uncrowded setups. Always offshore somewhere. A passionate surf community to hang with. English is widely spoken. It’s close to the equator, so the climate and water is warm year-round. Jump on a direct flight from Brisbane via Nauru Airlines.
If you thought Indo was the closest overseas option for a sneaky trip, think again! Papua New Guinea is a bee’s dick from Australia’s northern tip and it’s packed with waves.
Manus, in the country’s north, is PNG’s fifth largest island (2,100 square kilometres, pop. 50,321) and it’s covered by rugged jungle and the curious endemic emerald green snail. But what matters to you is its setups.
Unverified accounts - read: the Surfing Grapevine - says there's a range of waves along the north coast, and a quick gander at Google Earth appears to support the theory with a plethora of reef passes to choose from. Pictures tell the real story however, and these images by Sydney photographer Joel Coleman, who ventured to Manus in 2014, will have you salivating.
Surf all day on Manus Island (Joel Coleman)
...and night too! (Joel Coleman)
Pros: Tropical, warm water, palms, etc. Friendly locals. Uncrowded. Really close to Oz, via Air Niugini. See Joel’s images again.
Cons: Sharp and shallow reef – not for beginners! No local surf shop. Risk of malaria. While Australia’s offshore detention centre closed last year after the country’s supreme court ruled it was “unconstitutional and illegal”, there are still 636 men stuck in PNG, including 495 refugees and 131 failed asylum seekers. The fight to leave Manus and for compensation for their “unlawful detention” continues.
This tiny speck 2,600 kilometres north-west of Perth, nicknamed “the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean”, is bursting with biological diversity. Its annual red crab mass migration has been called one of the wonders of the natural world, while whale sharks, rare seabirds, stunning coral reefs, breathtaking national park and deserted beaches draw visitors from around the world.
Not to be confused with the other Christmas Island – Kiritimati in the Pacific Ocean – which also boasts pumping waves, information on the surf at Australia’s version is harder to come by.
However, a commenter on highly-renowned surf advice website Wannasurf said he scored on the island while working there for six months. “If you do some exploring you’ll find some pretty gnarly reefs, which I’d recommend for a bodyboard if you know what you’re doing.” We’ll take your word for it, Rob, considering the island’s close proximity to Java, which apparently has the odd wave too.
Though it's not known for waves, if you luck into a swell you'll think all your Christmases have come at once! (Artist's impression)
Pros: Awash with natural wonders. It has a surf shop. Warm, tropical, white sand beaches… you know the drill.
Cons: Access to many beaches is difficult due to the coast’s sharp cliff faces. The island was also, until it closed late last month, home to a notorious Australian immigration detention centre, where a stateless refugee with mental health issues was found dead in 2015. Another tragedy on the island occurred in 2010 when 50 asylum seekers drowned after their boat hit rocks and sank near the island’s main settlement.
A trip to Australia’s West Coast should be on the bucket list of every surfer worth his or her salt, and the state’s capital is the perfect place to start.
Perth’s beaches can pump on their day, the slabs and quokkas of Rottnest Island are a short ferry ride away and you’re only a few hours’ scenic driving from Margaret River, one of the world’s great surf (and wine) stretches.
Perth beaches, pumping!
Pros: Waves, scenery, wildlife, wine… it’s hard to fault the west.
Cons: Beers are expensive. Men in grey suits. West Coast Eagles fans. An hour-and-a-half away from Scarborough Beach is the Yongah Hill Immigration Detention Centre (YHIDC), where protests and fires raged after a 22-year-old Iraqi committed suicide in September. His family members say he wasn’t getting the mental healthcare he needed. A 2017 review of YHIDC conditions by the Human Rights Commission found a “significant level of concern about the standard of physical health care provided at the YHIDC and the impact of detention on mental health”.
Sydney, too, is a surf traveller’s dream and it’s the place where Hawaii’s Duke Kahanamoku popularised surfing in Oz during his 1914-15 visit. Not only is Sydney one of the world’s great cities, there’s a gluttony of riches when it comes to waves, from fun beachies to life-threatening slabs.
Surfing in Sydney: should you get in trouble there's always a wahine in a burquini watching over you
Pros: The culture, man. Sightseeing mecca.
Cons: Crowded. Expensive. Traffic. Late-night drinks are tough thanks to lockout laws. The Villawood Immigration Detention Centre – housing Australia’s largest immigration detention population (approx. 500) – sits, ironically, about 42 kilometres from a notorious slab and the landing place for Australia’s original boat people – Captain Cook and his Endeavour crew. The Human Rights Commission’s 2017 Villawood review found accommodation in its high-security Blaxland compound doesn’t meet standards required by international law, and it documented concerns about the negative impacts of detention on mental health, especially on people detained for prolonged periods.