Geelong & Surf Coast Living Magazine, Provincial Media.
As the cream of indigenous surfers prepare to compete at the Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles, Kristie Hayden discovers the true meaning of the competition and its sacred location, Bells Beach. Geelong & Surf Coast Living magazine Autumn 2016
Otis Carey. Photo courtesy of Surfing Victoria
In the pristine waters of Wathaurong country, surfers gather. Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders are welcomed from every corner of the land, although most reign from the east coast where the Bundjalung Tribe’s rich connection to ocean produces some serious talent. The guys from up north are freezing. This is part meeting place, part fierce competition. As they waxed their boards, they sharpened their spears. It’s initiation time. But before they crown this year’s ocean warrior in the colosseum they call Bells Beach, they’ve got some catching up to do.
This May, Australia’s best Koori surfers will face off in the fifth annual Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles at Bells Beach. The three-day event is more than just a competition. It’s a social gathering promoting a healthy surf culture among indigenous Australians with Dreamtime ceremony and story-telling in a culturally significant saltwater heartland.
“It’s the coming together that’s the most special thing about the event,” says event-host Surfing Victoria’s Anthony Hume. Bells Beach was a meeting and trading place for Wathaurung clans. “They met down at the creek mouth,” Hume says. “There was a midden (food preparation area) down there; the layers of shells, and there was a tool trading area.” The creek crossed the beach and children played safely in the corner. When the lure of refreshing surf got too much to resist, their little feet could be heard pounding across the creek, alerting parents before they reached the shoreline.
“During the event, we all stay in one spot,” Hume says. “We eat together and sit around the fire, tell stories and play didgeridoo. I don’t think I’ve been to any event where every competitor’s got each other under the wing like this.”
But when they’re out in the water, it’s a different story. “It’s similar to a sibling rivalry,” he says. “When it’s big, it tests the man and the mouse and that’s just part of that whole competition element. (In the past) when there were big gatherings like that, not just local clans but from outside tribes all over, it used to be more of an initiation so it’s a quality wave for that.”
Surfing Victoria has a long history running programs for indigenous surfers. From 1998, where Hume was plucked from his workplace and trained as a surf coach, to soon organising small satellite events around Victoria, the intention was creating opportunities for young aboriginal people. “But everyone was passionate to get that whole coming together,” Hume says, “and (an actual) title; to have more of an initiation champion, like a cultural shield sort of thing.” The time was right in 2012 and the first Australian indigenous title for elite Koori surfers was up for grabs.
Building on the success of previous years, this year’s event will showcase the top 32 indigenous males, 16 masters and top 8 females from across Australia. On the cutting edge of Australian surfing, last year’s winner, 21-year old Soli Bailey will return to defend his title, as will three-time Masters winner and composed veteran Robbie Page and 2015 female champion, 14-years-young, Summer Simon.
For younger competitors, surfing gives them a confidence that translates to their daily lives. Aboriginal culture hinges on mentoring; learning and wisdom. The gathering delivers a coveted opportunity to imbibe wise words from the leaders who, Hume says, despite their love of surfing, are never there for themselves. “What they experience out of it,” he says, “they hand back to the kids that are coming up into their shoes. So it’s a sustainable cultural mentoring; working and sending it back down to the beginners.”
2014 men’s winner, rising star Otis Carey says, rather than going to compete against others, he sees the event as more of a union. “It’s a really special place,” he says of Bells Beach. “I wish I could call it my people’s country. I don’t even think about going there to compete against other people it’s just sort of nice to meet up with other indigenous surfers and spend time with them, sit around and have a yarn and a laugh.”
The general public are invited to participate in a cultural walk from Point Addis to Bells Beach on the Friday morning, preceding the opening ceremony. Led by Connecting to Country, the walk is an opportunity to view the remarkable coastline, flora and fauna through the lens of an indigenous Australian. A moving smoking ceremony on the sands of Bells Beach then marks the event’s opening, the smoke cleansing the beach of negative spirits and inviting good spirits to create a positive energy for competitors.
For non-indigenous onlookers, this is an opportunity to witness the special meaning of this location and where it sits in the hearts of Koori people from across the nation. “It’s that whole cultural element that’s embedded in the event which is what brings them all back every year,” Hume says.
The 2016 Australian Indigenous Surfing Titles is a three-day event running from Friday 20th May to Sunday 22nd May 2016 at Bells Beach.