My older brother Jeff was the big wave guy, the gnarly tube rider. I was the daggy grommet, barely fit to surf Bondi. So how I came to be the one heading off surfing Hawaii – The Garden Isle (Kauai), in 1981, was more a tweak of circumstance than an execution of logic. Mind you, I was pretty happy about going.
The thought of a Hawaiian outer island – one of the least known, least photographed and rumored to be the most beautifully esoteric – to an 18 year old Bondi sewer rat was about as exotic as life could get. I may as well have been off to Mars.
Our much older cousin, Steve, had ended up on Kauai after years of trekking around the best wave zones on earth. After taking one look at the surf, the majesty of the landscape, and one particular spitting left hand wave on Kauai’s north shore, he realized his search was over.
Now of course, posting up in a place like that is no easy thing, as the locals, though not as assertive (or numerous) in those days as they are today, were nevertheless very protective of their nirvana.
Steve had an overwhelmingly charismatic personality, and could effortlessly charm the fangs off a python if he had to. People, both male and female, just wanted a part of him, and consequently he was able to install himself in this wave haven without much fuss. He’d met and married an American girl, and it seemed to us his life was perfect.
That was when the postcards began, and whenever our bourgeois Bondi mailbox produced one of these long awaited teasers, Jeff and I would pick the eyes out of it, reading and re-reading it, flipping it back over to look once again at the impossibly scenic island. On the latest one, there was a shot of Lumahai Beach, the jewel of Kauai and though only average for surf, one of the most exquisitely beautiful beaches in the world.
Steve’s words on the back worked in concert with the picture:
“Right point breaks, left and right reefs, epic bombies – and consistent! Get over here boys, before it gets crowded.”
After years of surfing sloppy, concreted Bondi, the very thought of Kauai seemed cosmic to say the least, and our dreams of going to heaven just kept growing.
Being 2 years older and a far more advanced surfer than me, it was logical that Jeff would be the first of us to get over there. Alas, girl trouble stepped in. Delay after relationship-issue delay ensued, and before either of us knew what had happened, I was on a plane while Jeff was in yet another deep and meaningful “discussion” with his girlfriend. The poor bastard couldn’t even bear to see me off at the airport, such was his pain.
“I’ll get there next year for sure!”, he said. He never did end up going.
On the flight over – my first overseas trip – my nerves were out of control. I could surf pretty well, I could even ride the tube, but would I handle Hawaii? And as for Steve, he was about as exalted a figure as I could imagine. Mid ’30’s, a huge, handsome Clint Eastwood look alike, and so confident and well traveled. In comparison I felt like a troglodyte. I hadn’t seen him since I was a kid, and I was probably more nervous about meeting him again than I was about the unknown surf.
In a bit of a daze, I landed in Honolulu, stumbled straight onto a small plane bound for Princeville, near Hanalei Bay on Kauai, and sat staring goggle eyed out of the window. Only an 18 seater, the plane had no other passengers, which only enhanced the whole surreal vibe.
Sadly the weather was bleak, torrents of rain lashing the windows and obscuring any views. But after about 20 minutes, and just as we began our descent, the plane magically broke through the cloud to reveal the majestic, storm washed escarpments of Kauai.
Endless waterfalls, with accompanying rainbows, sprung like huge parabolic leaks from the mountains, and color coded outer reefs fringed the ultramarine lagoons, their foamy edges showing vivid white. This luminous scene was bracketed by breathtakingly lush valleys, and I could almost sense the spirits of ancient Hawaiian settlers rising in the misty hinterland. My heart was a bass drum at full blast.
Before I head off to somewhere new, I always have a pre-visualisation of the place, but Kauai was so far beyond my expectations that it simply overwhelmed me. It was more as I’d imagined Tahiti, particularly the towering, green frosted mountains, and how close they seemed when you looked back at them from the ocean.
As for the waves, it was game on from that first afternoon, my opening surf more of a warm up, and a way for Steve to gauge what I might be up for in the next two months. I had a pretty good surf, and even got a little tube in front of him. That’s the sort of confidence booster that can positively alter the flavor and direction of an entire trip.
After that session, at a fun wave featuring rippable lefts and rights, I commented on the power of the surf. He just laughed at me and told me they call this place “Why-Go-Slow’s.” Holy shit, what was I in for?
I was in for plenty, and looking back it feels like we surfed different waves almost every day. I was riding around in Steve’s slipstream, his amazing affinity with the locals greasing the wheels of my Hawaiian initiation in a unique way.
Some of his tips definitely saved me from catastrophe. Like taking the low line through the North Bowl at a notoriously sucky left reef break. Coming into it, the Bowl looks like the most whack-able section you could imagine, but without warning the bottom drops out of it, and if you’d have attempted any kind of top turn, you’d be mincemeat, launched onto the razor sharp lava pinnacles just a couple of feet below the water.
The first time I encountered this section, I somehow remembered Steve’s counsel, stayed low, and miraculously found myself slotted, taking an ultimately easy, straight line exit onto the safety of the shoulder.
Steve’s nous was no guarantee though, and over the next couple of months I still managed to chalk up twenty odd stitches at various wedging bowls around the North Shore. I got a dozen of them at another hollow left named after a local legend (an amazing lady who used to swim northwest Kauai’s wild Napali coast – solo).
But … the waves! Being only a kid, my favorite was a glorious right hand point break that holds 20ft plus, but is a beautiful wave from 3ft up.
While Steve attended to domestic duties, I had some early morning surfs there, all alone in six to eight foot perfection. I’d sit out the back and look up at fluffy, peach and violet tinted cumulus clouds enveloping the summits of the imposing volcanic peaks.
I was pinching myself, thinking how far away the Bondi slop seemed, but not for long. Here and now ruled like never before, and my 6’10” Michel Junod pintail single fin felt perfect. So did life.
Kauai, the Garden Isle, is so scenic, so breathtakingly stunning, you are constantly taken aback by the vistas that open up in front of you. Little wonder the numbers of major movies that have used it as a location, or the increasing numbers of rich and famous types that have bought up property there, virtually creating an impossible dream for any local with aspirations of home ownership.
Although they lived in a sweet little A-frame, tucked into the exquisite Waiiniha Valley, Steve’s relationship with his wife, Kim, wasn’t all roses. Many were the times that, after a big row, he would storm out of the house with a tense aside to me of: “Come on Dave, let’s go surfing!” I would skulk along, ostensibly all sheepish, but secretly stoked we’d be going to surf some other incredible, brand new outer island gem.
Steve and Kim just seemed to clash somehow, but their marriage was a real roller coaster, as loving one day as it was volatile the next. Perhaps she felt threatened by the constant competition with the best waves in the world?
The two months went by like a surreal dream, and after I returned to Bondi, I never did have the heart to tell Jeff just how incredible the trip had really been.
About four years later, Steve came home to Australia, Kim long gone, and him far gone with cancer of the tongue; he was dying.
He was holed up at his mum’s place at Maroubra, and it occurred to me that he’d never seen the photos from my trip to Kauai. In his darkened room, I set up the projector and started showing slides, transforming him from his sick bed to his Island paradise, back into old tubes and old times. He asked me to show them over and over, and in the end we were both in tears.
After he died a couple of months later, I thought a lot about his life in that island paradise, and prayed he had taken those memories with him, wherever he went.