Excerpt: The long way around at Chicama - by John Veage
A huge Cronulla Sharks rugby league fan, John Veage is, by his own admission, not really a surf photographer, but a photographer who surfs. Unless he’s getting paid, of course, as he doesn’t like to stand around when the surfs pumping taking pics for the hell of it. As John happily informs us, “If it’s not for a photographic job, I’ll take a few frames to record the moment, but of course I’d rather be surfing...unless it’s 15ft,” he adds with a chuckle.
John is a founding life member and club patron of the mighty Cronulla Sharks Boardriders club, established in 1978 and a valued member of several ocean-based committees including the Cronulla Surfrider Foundation, Surfing Sutherland Shire, and Cronulla Beaches National Surfing Reserve. He also worked on the Sutherland Council Surf Gallery installation celebrating 100 years of Cronulla surfing as well as the Greg Noll Surf Retrospect events, so you can obviously see how John easily qualifies under the banner of "one of Cronulla’s Favourite Sons".
He completed his apprenticeship in 1981 as a sports photographer before joining Fairfax Newspapers full time in 1987 and has worked in the media ever since - now as a photojournalist. John shot and wrote travel stories for Tracks for a decade and has written surf reports in the local paper for the last ten years, he's also published four books, one being 'Southern Surf: A Pictorial History of Cronulla Surfing'.
Here, John shares with us here a story from the early days of his career and I think you’ll agree with my own interpretation, that it’s a career as colourful as the character himself.
“I was in Peru in 1985 doing a story for Tracks and found myself in Lima. The travel company couldn’t find my boards, so I spent a few days chasing them down and, when finally reunited, I decided to stop at a pizza joint only to have the windows of the place shot out while I was eating, apparently by a vindictive business competitor. Thankfully no patrons were hurt in this bizarre attack, but all the windows were shattered and so were the customers. People were crying and yelling and the chaos grew exponentially, then cops were everywhere.
"Next morning I drove 1000kms to Trujillo which is a fantastic visual indicator for my destination - the fabled surf break named Chicama. My usual routine while documenting these travel stories was to surf the location, take pics after sampling the delights, and enjoy my day. My brief was to write a story about a random surfer just turning up and surfing this mythical location that we had only ever heard about in hushed tones. I was also directed to capture a few images to complement the story, so I did.
“I’m completely by myself and it’s another 60kms from Trujillo to Chicama. I’d never been there before and was working on the directions from a random map I had found. At dawn the next morning the swell had apparently picked up and while driving my shitty little hire car across the desert on the way to experience a great day, I had a flat tyre and I’m fucking blowing up deluxe by this stage at the very ordinary hospitality Peru had served up in the last 52 hours. I had lost boards and been in the middle of a shootout in a restaurant and now a flat tyre in the desert. And, as it turns out, the wheel brace used to fix said flat is the wrong size, rendering it, and me, useless in this screwed up situation.
"To add to my personal moment of sinking frustration, I could feel the wind puffing up offshore and knew the swell was pumping. Yet I couldn’t replace the tyre to get there and by then I was totally fucking blowing up deluxe at nobody in particular. Suddenly, I see way off in the distance, like some sort of miraculous mirage, this local fella walking straight toward me out of the desert and we happily greet each other but don’t speak each other’s language. So a good old-fashioned game of charades it was as I pointed to the tyre and show him the faulty wheel brace all the while performing a funny little Australian dance of frustration to complete my impromptu mime show. My new friend simply smiled, turned and without warning, calmly walked back off in to the desert in the direction from whence he came and I just stood there in total helplessness wondering where he went. But, forty minutes later my relief was palpable as ‘new mate‘ reappears out of thin air with a correctly sized wheel brace. Flabbergasted, I change the tyre and thank my kind saviour profusely - it was like a fucking miracle mate.
“I then drove the remaining 20kms through the desert to Chicama. Cresting the final hill I witness something you rarely see - quality four-to-six foot lefthand point waves, breaking for at least 700 metres with not a soul in sight. Not a surfer. Not a person. Nobody. Fucking zip mate. No-one! Naturally I shot a half roll of film at my first breathtaking sight. Apparently the only other photographer who had previously visited the spot had been shot and robbed, so for my film to survive I pulled it out of the camera that night and hid it separately to my other stuff. I hid this half roll well because, seriously, that roll of film harbouring that lineup shot, has profited me for over twenty years.
“For six hours straight I excitedly surfed each wave as if it were my last and at the end of the day, after absolutely no food or anything to drink, the cold water and bleeding wetsuit-rashed armpits finally took their toll as severe fatigue set in before one other surfer turned up late that afternoon. I had surfed perfect Chicama the entire day by myself and it was fucking incredible, so after all my previous travel dramas, the dedication shown to my mission certainly didn’t go unnoticed by the powers that be and the ocean loved me in a profound way, filling the bank with magical memories - and later on my bank account with similar blessings. I surfed Chicama, took the picture, got out of the joint alive with my roll of film to safely sell and the shot picked up a cool $20k which financially set me up rather well. And I’ve sold that shot over and over again over the years and it’s been an awesome payback for the shitty time I had to get there.
"The ocean definitely loved me back on that occasion as this place is so fickle, mate. It breaks fuck all and I just happened to be standing there with my camera at the ready. These days you have all the relative info at your fingertips to make surf travel decisions, but back then it was just go for it, mate. You will never never know if you never never go, as they say.”
This was a popular Aussie tourism slogan doing the rounds on TV in those days, enticing people to just grab a map and go check out the environment for yourself. Sometimes you get skunked and sometimes you score and boy did John score on that occasion. No-one could tell him the best season to go to Chicama because no-one he knew had previously been there.
It was Christmas and he spent the entire time with a family there, practicing traditions unknown to him in a language he didn’t understand, so, as John said, he certainly paid his dues to get that shot. He’d only seen one random picture taken of the place ten years earlier and that’s the only reason he knew the place actually existed.
I’m in awe at his experience and feel a little smidgen of jealousy as I think of being in that magical place and making a living off the experience, but I pull myself back to my own reality and ask if John surfed the whole break or just set up camp at one particular spot along the way, and he regroups to enthusiastically reply: “I surfed the whole break which was probably a kilometre in length and I ran back to the take off spot upon completion of a wave to begin again. I estimated that I ran twenty kilometres in six straight hours of surfing that day and I just kept surfing the loop, knowing this was an extremely special moment in my life and was worthy of my effort as this day may never happen again. Surf to the end, run back around, jump off, surf to the end, do it again, no-one around, just keep going, don’t stop, still no-one, jump off, surf to the end, do it again ‘til the sun goes down or exhaustion gets the better of you! That was my philosophy.
"In local terms, the length of the wave was a comparable distance if you imagine Snapper Rocks to North Kirra Surf Club – a pure surfing heaven! By the end of the day, my armpits were bleeding and I didn’t drink or eat a thing as the day rolled on, and amazingly, the guy who turned up to surf right on dark, offered me accommodation at his cabin which I gratefully accepted. And you probably wont believe this, but as I threw my bag on the bed in his spare room and looked up, I was greeted by a beautiful poster shot of my Cronulla mate Chris Iredale, standing tall in a gnarly barrel at my home break of Shark Island. I just stood there looking and I really can’t believe the coincidence, all those miles from home and I’m being watched over by my home break as I slept the night away”.
// JOHN VEAGE and CHRIS GUDENSWAGER