ROSS yelled ‘I’m cooooold!’ in such a manner that he definitely was not joking. We’d dawdled a little before heading out at what looked like a perfect, glassy, slightly-less-than freight training right-hander. Under normal conditions we would’ve been out there so fast our dusty silhouettes would’ve been left behind like in a Warner Bros cartoon. But there was no one out, and this was the Southern Ocean; we knew what we were in for: biting cold, and biting . . . well, it was difficult not to think about. Ross chose jumping off the tip of the point, while I chose walking out across the ‘sand’, which turned out to be a walk across rocks – thankfully while wearing booties – which continued for about 50 metres until I was able to paddle, constantly worried I’d duck dive my board and possibly my face into more rock. Turned out my compadre fared little better: his leap from the point almost saw him promptly and painfully returned to shore by a following swell. If anything my longer paddle kept me warm for precious more minutes, but we both sat down and waited at the same time with seaweed gardens shifting below us, and ominous cramps building in our joints. Turned out the waves were massive, or simply seemed so because of what we later agreed was a lowering of our confidences by the temperature. Ross took a screamer and was forced to duck dive another three on the way back out, plunging into an excruciating ice bath each time. Which left him rattled. I can remember staring down one approaching beast. Paddling furiously toward it became futile as it crashed in front of me. Using all my weight to plunge the board deep I felt the foam-ball roll over me, then reach out, claw me back and spin me into the coldest wash cycle. Clinging to a board with lightly waxed rails in such a situation gave rise to irrational fears, such as seaweed wrapping ‘round my neck and strangling me and a great white shark snapping me out of the wave like fairy floss from a machine. It’s impossible to know which way is up in such situations until one floats to the surface or finds the sandy bottom, which for me was rock and seaweed. I forgot the cold from that moment on until it reared its ugly head again when I tried to catch a wave in – my joints had become so numb I couldn’t feel my feet and had predictable trouble standing up on the mountainous swell as a result. Pretty sure I was stubbing my toes on the walk to shore, but damned if I could actually feel it. A couple of guys paddled out as we towelled off and warmed feeling back into ourselves. We knew what they were experiencing; could tell in the rigid, time-lapse ways in which they surfed. Probably more used to it than us, though.
Comprehensively defeated at this point, I took the wheel and we started off silently past green hills dipped in salt water. Each kilometre travelled was rewarded by seemingly increasingly impressive westward vistas. We stopped to appreciate the free-standing 12 Apostles: skyward monolithic cliffs separated from the mainland by millions of years of erosion, two or three of which had succumbed to the ferocious wind and waves since they were named. The Arch was a self evident structure surrounded by seaweed that inconceivably clung to its base in the face of the liquid onslaught. Nearby to this was a small cove perpetually white-washed by waves from which it was battered. After a day of sharing our country’s most beautiful assets with brothers and sisters from all corners of the world, we cruised into the highway straddling town of Warnambool, population about 1000-or-so. Last port of Victorian call. The ambience of a Sunday night in that town was predictably subdued. So we played a couple of games in a pool hall in which our only companions were the dude running the place and his mate. The music seemed stuck on a loop of Pink and P Diddy, and the jukebox was busted. Wandered to a local pub which had a cool little group of Irish musicians playing as the locals and us sipped our pints, after that. Then returned to the hostel about 11pm to the disappointment of finding three attractive – and apparently Scandinavian – girls who weren’t around when we first arrived.
It was one of the best places we would stay – 12 bucks a night and they accepted van packers so we simply parked the van out the back and I set up the tent, with full use of the hostel’s facilities . . . except for the Scandinavians, of course. Internet access, big screen and sprawling couches safe from the outside winter. I spent an hour that night on one of the couches, reading In Cold Blood and scratching the neck of a resident black and white tomcat. The desk guy was 20ish, overweight and spent the night watching TV shows such as Dancing With the Stars with his mum and laughing hysterically. Other than that – and some Asians who spent half the night in the kitchen, making it difficult for us to cook our tinned soup and bread – it was a great place. An oddly enjoyable last night in Vic. The only dodgy but entertaining moment was when we first arrived and met a pudgy though tall, balding, squinty guy of roughly 45 who’d lived in The Bool all his life. Said he worked seven day weeks as a tree feller. Had probably done that all his life too. He’d made sudden plans to start over again in Broome. That’s north-west Western Australia. And his only companion was a poorly painted ute which screamed ‘serial killer’ as much as he did. The way he’d stare off into the distance, squinting even with the sun behind him, or penetrating your eyes while speaking of the abusive employer who drove him to flee made us worried he’d see said employer in one of us and wreak vengeance while we were slumbering. But such imaginings were unfounded and our only companion for the night was once again the cold. I should’ve crashed on the couch inside, curled up next to the black and white tom. Or, God forbid, one of the Scandanavians ladies.