Cape to Cape

Published In White Horses - issue 18

After spending hours hauling my gear through the bush, the physical liberation of shedding my pack, the simple joy of feeling the water move through my fingers, the lightness and sensation of speed from pumping down the line - these are the things that become elevated on the path.

‘Skate shoes and a guitar?’ I asked incredulously.

‘A surfboard?’ he countered.

Yet, united we sat, a pair of worn-out, dusty young men, taking refuge from the sting of the midday sun in the narrow shade cast by a craggy peppermint tree. A long way from our respective homes and further still from the differing motivation for our trips, yet oddly connected, a similar thread of vision and/or stupidity had weaved us into this path. He was travelling south, and I to the North.

 

I’ve learnt that it doesn't matter what adventure you undertake, you will invariably meet someone taking a wackier and zanier path than you could ever have dreamt up. In this instance, I had been usurped by a man who thought carrying a guitar along the longest coastal trail in Australia, in the middle of a summer heatwave, whilst wearing skate shoes was an idea worth implementing. My unnamed friend equally baffled as to why anyone would lug along an object as unwieldy as a surfboard. Colour attracts colour, I guess.

 

So we sat. Me and my surfboard, he and his guitar, awkwardly sharing a three pack of Oreos whilst discussing in detail the varying factors at play in the cosmos that had bought us to this juncture. Almost precisely equidistant from both the start and the finish of the ‘Cape to Cape’ track in the far south-west extremity of Australia, some 250km from the nearest city of Perth. The conclusion we agreed, could be neatly summarised along the lines of: ‘All the nuts fall to the bottom of the stocking’. So here we sat, the end product of an aphorism.

The ‘Cape to Cape’ track is a challenging 135km trail that traverses the coastline through long, lonely beaches, stunning national park scenery and occasional forays into majestic Karri forests, bookended by the Cape Leeuwin and Cape Naturaliste lighthouses. The few evenly spaced, low-key camp sites (with rainwater tanks) maintained by the ‘Friends of the Cape to Cape Track’, mean it’s possible to hike the entire track self-sufficiently in five to seven days. The tracks defining feature is an ongoing narrative; played out by the ancient and tumultuous relationship between the Indian Ocean and the Leeuwin-Naturaliste ridge, a backbone of limestone resting upon a bed of gneiss granite. The reassuringly familiar and bodily presence of land on one side washed by the flux of the Ocean on the other provides the hiker with a delightfully knowing sense of location without the need for an array of navigational aids. Land and water combine here in a way that produces more than just great views. The limestones beautifully temporal and crumbling qualities echoing the fragile nature of the human condition; bolstered by the grand cathedral like, seething permanence of the exposed granite headlands. Both alternatively set upon and caressed by the many shades of blue that the Indian Ocean possesses.

 

Passing by the townships of Margaret River, Gracetown and Yallingup. The trail also passes dozens of world-class surf spots from Margaret River Mainbreak, The Box, Womb, North Point and more. It was these prime strips of surfing real-estate that had originally drawn me to the area a number of summers ago. Isn’t it strange how an adventurous idea can spark and catch fire? Since first catching sight of the numerous, bright yellow ‘Cape to Cape’ trail marks, stamped upon wooden posts at surf spots along this stretch of coast, I’ve wondered what it would be like to join up these dots by completing the hike with a surfboard. Despite knowing the coastline and its surf as well as a newcomer can, I’d become habitually accustomed to accessing the breaks by the select number of roads and four wheel drive tracks that offer a horizontal run to the ocean. Lacking a parallel coastal road, like the Kam highway on the North Shore of Hawaii for example, it is hard to get a truly holistic view of the coastline beyond that of the varying features of the small townships or dirt car-parks that characterise the main surfing entry points. The end result is similar to that uneasy feeling of riding subterranean train lines in a foreign city, emerging only at a destination of interest to quickly duck beneath the surface on your return, blinkers on. This form of travelling has the tendency to leave the protagonist feeling like a proverbial rabbit trapped in the warren. So, my plan was lit. I would hike the ‘Cape to Cape’ track with a surfboard, hopefully gaining an expression of the whole, rather than a sum of its parts.

 

It’s been a while since I started taking on these ‘Surfing/Walking things’. They are typically evenly spaced by about a year; I’ve found it takes me this long to truly forget about the harsh realities of combining the noble art of surfing with the arduous act of hauling your gear by biped power alone. The romantic, idealistic voice in my head likes to invoke the spirit of John Severson’s epoch defining call-to-arms in SURFER magazine in the 60s:

‘In this crowded world the surfer can still seek and find the perfect day, the perfect wave, and be alone with the surf and his thoughts’. 

However, my eminently pragmatic mind is able to moderate that vision into a decent and honest peak, distant from any regular access point, silently going off, no witness. This is where I come in. The hard truth involves more than its fair share of graft, resulting from the inevitably heavily laden pack weighing down on the bearers grand aspirations. The surfboard if you wondered, is surprisingly the least of your worries. Shelter and provisions in all its guises forms the bulk of the weight - from the obligatory $15 K-mart tent (I don't have a tent sponsor), to a motley assortment of non-perishable food items with dubious nutritional value, and finally, the most important part. Water, a non-negotiable 4-5 litres per day for camping.

Walking in the West Australian summer requires a fair amount of preparation to stay happy and consequently safe. Despite lacking significant elevation gain and seemingly close proximity to wineries / sleek townships (in part thanks to the WA resource boom), hikers should not underestimate the challenges that lie in wait. The formed track is often soft and sandy, coupled by long, remote stretches of beach walking (over 20kms in total) which can challenge the will and calves of even the most seasoned walker. Summer temps that are capable of pushing the high 30s, magnified by the reflective nature of the land and sand add another challenging variable for the ill-prepared.

 

Surfbreaks, sublime vistas and occasional guitar-playing minstrel aren’t the only things you can happen upon. The area is recognised as a bio-diversity hotspot, a riot of wildflowers tear through the heath in Spring, whilst nestled behind the shelter of the ridge, Jarrah and Karri forests offer a quiet refuge of contemplation out of the salty breeze and relentless summer sun. Out in the brine, the raised position of the ridge offers the perfect vantage spot to see migrating whales (from May-Dec), fur seals near the capes and dolphins rounding up schools of fish.

 

Not all the nature is quite as delightful. A revelation in the bush, irrefutable evidence that god does not exist. What you ask? The March fly. A foul and pestilent beast intent on extracting the blood of its prey, the itchy bump serves as a constant reminder of its success, your loss. One hell of a call card. My frequent trials (Kangaroo courts I admit) and subsequent executions along the five day hike did not serve to deter their comrades. They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, yet expecting differing results. With no way of communicating the concept of mutually assured destruction, this insane game of ‘cat and mouse’ continued from lighthouse to lighthouse.

One morning, mid-hike, I found myself seeking corners in an empty lineup of two foot high rectangular closeouts. My kingdom for a corner! My appeals where of little use though, this remote stretch of sand cared little for the idle wants of man. So I gave up. There is something quite cathartic about giving up on a surf, like taking your shirt off at the end of a night out. I resigned myself to either paddling in or taking a token straight-hander to the beach. As I lay across my board, resting my legs and blistered feet in the cold water, I started to play with a small part of wax I had pried off the deck of my board, smiling as I enjoyed the simple base pleasure and familiar tactile sensation.

 

Remarkably a strange thing happened, a small bulge of ocean appeared behind a crest of a meagre set, even now my infantile senses where awoken - firstly my attention, followed swiftly by my singleminded focus. Positioning first, a few subtle strokes to my right before starting to claw at the makings of a glorious little bend feeling the drag of the sand below. I power through the small ledgy lip which had rebelliously tried to form beneath me in the stiff offshore breeze. Release. Leaving my trailing arm buried to my elbow, I pivot off this brake, keeping my momentum subdued in the throat of the peak. Stillness, yet around me a small cauldron of frothed and condensed anger is being stirred. I hold myself there, aware of and controlling the very subtle drift of the fins on the aerated foam. Caught in the pot. The rare wave that allows you the illusive, brief illusion that you alone are in control. A second or two, a brief exhalation, only a cheek full and I find myself skittering through the slack water, into waist depth water and back to my disorganised pile of gear alone on the beach.

A masterful reduction of the individual elements that define what it means to surf. A distillation which rids all that is unnecessary.

Normally indispensable surf items quickly get put to the wayside whilst trying to shave weight for as trip of this nature. A block of surf wax, replaced with a nugget and a full steamer, replaced with a wettie top. The surfing element of my trip comprised all but a small percentage of the total time and effort expended; yet in a way it was a masterful reduction of the individual elements that define what it means to surf. A distillation which rids all that is unnecessary. After spending hours hauling my gear through the bush, the physical liberation of shedding my pack, the simple joy of feeling the water move through my fingers, the lightness and sensation of speed from pumping down the line - these are the things that become elevated on the path.

 

On my fifth day and seven surfs later I round a small bend in the coast and catch first sight of my final destination, the Cape Naturaliste lighthouse. I take a pew on a nearby weather-beaten bench, finishing the last of my now unneeded supplies. Closing my eyes to find brief solace from the sunny glare, I find myself sat back under that craggy peppermint tree with my unnamed companion, halfway through our respective adventures. It strikes me that I never heard him play a song on that guitar and he never once saw me ride a wave. But I did ride waves, and he did play the guitar. This much I know. It was just, in this crowded world sometimes its just nice enough to do these things alone with nature and ones thoughts.