photothe longwayhome

I left town in a leap of faith.

White van packed to the gunnels with surfboards and wetsuits. My journal and notebook standing ready to receive stories delivered by hand in the elaborate Queensland state school cursive script I still write with.

Sherlock the dog is at my side. He is my scruffy wingman who looks like a hobo but (mostly) behaves like a gentleman. He laps up a good road trip but I don’t know how he’ll cope with camping. When he’s not behaving like a gentleman he can live up to the neuroses of his namesake and frankly, be much too high maintenance for a dog that looks like he came from the wrong side of the pound.

When we get to the Yuraygir National Park turnoff I check the pencil-drawn scrap of map that has been tucked in the passenger seat pocket for years.

Half of it has worn off, rubbed itself out as the paper aged; but this is the turn I know it in my guts. This is where we came four years ago with a group of women surfers when the northerly blew so hard the ocean turned into a giant washing machine and the beach exploded in a desert storm.

We swing right then left onto the rutted dirt track that winds through dust and stubby coastal regrowth towards the mythical surf breaks that hug Angourie Point.

On and off these breathtaking beaches have spawned snarling surf rage and a type of testosterone-fuelled tribalism that is the polar opposite of the ancient dolphin blessing of the Yaegl women. This is Yaegl land – always has been, always will be.

I see no evidence of ugly-bloke-syndrome this time and dolphins are abundant.

When we play in those waters with our sticks of fiberglass and resin today I sense only respect and laughter echoes through the ages and the dunes.

My three-week campsite is nearby on a riverine island; one of 53 in this place.

I confound everyone there with my prayer flags and fairy lights, spindly camp tables set with rose crockery and candles, and my open-air living in this community of rough diamonds.

This is not a glamping place.

By week’s end though, I’ve become part of the furniture and the weathered itinerants who call it home reveal their tender hearts by sharing homegrown bananas and their love stories of the river.

The mountains that run in my blood from Wollumbin’s caldera seem to shrink south of Byron Bay. Here it is flatlands, lowlands and stumpy hillocks.

The full-bodied moon rises over canefields.

Dawn breaks open when the sun climbs the sky over canefields.

The emerald and sapphire river signals blink between fishing shacks and tinnies that dot the island road running the gauntlet of canefields; but nothing here is sugar-coated.

Two huge fish carcasses are strung up from branches.

I stagger in disbelief when I see them, reeling back in shock then realise – hope – that this is brutal fisherman efficiency. Why feed the bull sharks by chucking the dead into the river when birds and insects can feast for weeks? Any other explanation is too terrible to contemplate.

Each night in Yaegl country, held in the arms of the matriarchal line, the river of stars whispers through the She Oaks in the dark. They spin and twist in serpentine swathes, in time to the heartbeat of the mighty Clarence.

This river is a light-catcher, a bewitcher. This river has stolen my heart, especially at sunset when the colours of romance breathe love into liquid light.

Here is the largest river delta in Australia. It is so wide she transports me to the heat and the sweat of Mississippi.

I entice butterflies to land on my shoulders and free-dive to the ocean floor, writing out my stories of an unlikely soulful surfing life.

The weather is kind.

The surf (mostly) pumps except the day after I wail for the long fluffy right handers of home. In an overreaction of epic proportions the swell plummets overnight from a clean six foot into a lake. We are left stranded, staring with wonder at a Back Beach and Point so flat that I can safely paddle my longboard right around the rocky outcrop from one side to the other.

The hobo dog and I walk long beaches every day and our smiles stretch along the sand. He turns into a coastal creature and bathes daily in the shallows then rolls with abandon in softly grained sand.

Work blows away in the westerly wind. So do regrets.

I am emptied of opinion and shame; complicated no more by worry, guilt or suffering.

I stand on the bank like a She Oak that tangles the Milky Way in her hair and whispers love songs to the river.

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