Camp Of The Moon

Words and photos by Carlisle Rogers

From Red Bluff to Gnaraloo: the coast where time stands still.

The rocky path that leads from the camp to the end of the bluff cuts through keyholes of deep orange limestone, burning embers in the first glimmering light of sunrise. The ground is worn down in this basilica of surfing lore. I watch my feet carefully over the edges of these serrated cliffs, and I am reminded of the way human feet have worn down the stone steps of cathedrals throughout Europe. I have always been amazed at the way mere footsteps can wear away something as substantial as stone. And here, where hundreds of pilgrim surfers have come to find one of the greatest left-handers in the world, I am making my way down a finger of stone that separates me from the shark-filled water on one side, and the red dirt and spinifex of the bluff on the other.

The full moon is setting behind the red hump of a hill, and I wonder at the perfect luck that has landed me here, just as a fresh swell comes barreling up from down south, to a place surfers have called ‘Camp of the Moon’ since they first started coming here in the early 70s. A subtle subterfuge to keep the true geography of this place under wraps for as long as possible.
To this day, it is taboo to ask anyone
about the place. If you don’t know, mate, I’m not going to tell you. Why don’t you just stick to Noosa, mate, is the kind of response you are likely
to get.
Our campsite was right down on the beach, with just enough bollards to make turning around a little bit tricky with a camper trailer, but not so many to make it feel like a national park.
After another few nights of falling asleep to the rhythmic crashing of waves on sand, the moon is growing smaller, and rising later. After the sun sets, you can watch the moon glow rise over the hills behind our camp for an hour before the pale plate breaks the horizon.
This isn’t a swimming beach where we are. The sand curves around a bit more further down the beach, but any swell coming in rears up and smashes down with such ferocity that I’m more scared of it here than I am out on the reef with the sharks.

 

Just up the road from the Quobba Station homestead, and technically still part of the station, Red Bluff is the kind of place that draws a special kind of person in the first place, and once they are there, if they are the right kind of people, it infects them for life.
The road in leads further north to Gnaraloo Station, but there it ends, and many travellers are loathe to make the
journey north on a dirt road, just to have to turn around and come all the way back south before heading north again on the highway.
Which suits everyone up here just fine. This natural barrier, of sorts, has kept Red Bluff in pretty much the same condition as it was ‘back in the day’, excepting a few new sawdust toilets and fishing shanties.
One bloke who was actually there, back in the day, is Phil Ogden. Phil came here when there was nothing here except the land, a few sheep, and that left-hander. He describes it as a crazy time, but the place was a mess — “Weed, waves and women!” I say to him, nodding my head. He doesn’t answer me, as such, but his eyes glaze over and he looks up at the ceiling,
off in that perfect, polished world of nostalgia.

Top to bottom: New safari tents and old fishing shacks - different budgets, same view.
Phil Ogden opened Red Bluff up in 1986 as a bona fide campground.
The Hilton’s million dollar views, minus room service.
Stonies cottage stands sentinel over the bluff as the moon rises and Venus lights up a few midnight waves.


“No toilets, mate. No trash collection, and a lot of surfers blowing in and blowing out. It wasn’t pretty on the ground, but it was definitely crazy.”
So Phil decided to stay on and sort the place out. That was in ’86. I met him in one of the little fishing shanties that line the steep sand dunes that run all the way up to the ring of red hills around the bay. These days he lives out east in Byron Bay most of the time, but he still finds time to come back to this place. We sit down in front of the door, which is actually off an old 1950s Kelvinator that has been painted by the previous occupant with a technicolour mural
of the break out the front,
complete with yellow sunbeams and
a cobalt blue sky with the chrome letters
bleeding through.
We talked about the special magic that hangs in the air here like the spray from the sea. We talked about what it was like for Phil to follow his heart and live in the middle of nowhere just to be in the
middle of this place, and the strange
effect it has on just about everyone who comes through. We talked about the year Mark Richards won at Bells Beach in 20ft surf, and the changing
fads that have swept across the
surfing world over the years, and about how little really changes out at Red Bluff, in terms of the essential qualities of the
travellers that came here. The clothes and the cars and the accents have changed, and the boards are so much faster now. I can’t even imagine trying to get out of the barrel on the old single fin sliders they used to ride. And maybe they didn’t. Surfing was a lot different when you got into the barrel knowing full well you weren’t coming back out until the wave had thoroughly chewed you up first. The green room has a wholly
different aura when you attach the
stigma of sacrifice to it.
The Bluff still takes its sacrifice from you, whether you are willing or not. If you want to paddle out into this wave, you’re going to pay one price or
another, in knuckle skin, sea urchin spines or just a good old two wave hold-down. But when you duck into one of these perfect left barrels, and all of that water is spinning around over your head, the sacrifice doesn’t seem so expensive.
And so you let yourself go deeper, and you pay your dues. And that is why no matter what shape boards we’re riding, no matter how many fins or how old we are or how deep we go into the barrel or any of that stuff, one thing will never
change out here at the Camp of the Moon: you have to pay the price. And as Nietzsche said, no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself.

 

Red Bluff doesn’t get into you, like something new that you become
addicted to. It would be more accurate to say that, for some people, it is a kind of spiritual homecoming, a return to a forgotten homeland. The feeling can be quite intense, because recognizing a strange place as home isn’t the kind of thing that comes up as healthy behavior
on your average psychiatric form. Then again, if more people took the time to find places like this, their own places, where everything feels perfect, psychiatry
would probably be a dying trade within a few years.
These palm-frond thatched shacks look like something out of a Robinson Crusoe set. The fronds are 20 years old, a miracle of arid weather and constant wind. Thatched windows are propped open with huge slabs of notched wood, and everything relentlessly whistles or sways with the ceaseless wind. The breeze here either pushes a thick cloud of spray up into the campsites, or holds the wave faces up and blows
curving arcs of spray behind the line-up in
effervescent rainbows.
Built by fishing families who would come up for months at a time to live and fish, the rules around these shacks are simple. You can stay in them, with the blessing of the caretakers at Red Bluff, unless their real owners come knocking,
at which time you must move on to
another camp. Several of the huts are quite popular, including the ‘Green room’, a simple shack with bunks, sidled at the base of the dunes almost level with the barreling shorebreak.
The locals all talk about how people come here and ‘just feel at home,’ or that after a few days spent lounging around in the lee of the huge red hills that line this strange valley of waves, the place ‘just feels right’. Nevermind the reef that takes a toll from most
surfers who paddle out (they call it Red Bluff tattoos), or the utter remoteness of the place, or the litany of deaths that come from rock fishermen who get caught by king waves and washed away forever. Nevermind the sharks and the weird loneliness that sets in when you realise how far away from the rest of the world you are, no matter
what your definition of ‘the rest of the world’ is. For many people, this is the home they never knew they missed, and as I dig my elbows into the sand and watch the moon set over the bluff a little smaller than yesterday while the sun rises behind me, lighting up the first few inches of each breaking wave out at the reef, I’m beginning to feel
homesick already for this place.
I tell Bec, the caretaker here, that I’m already trying to figure out how, and when, I’m going to come back to spend a lot more time here. She says
everyone who comes here and falls in love says exactly the same thing.



Punch drunk with our infatuation with Red Bluff, we move further north to the southern end of Gnaraloo station, known as Three Mile. At Gnaraloo Bay, north of the homestead, big boats can be launched, and there is a very sport-fishing feel to the place. In other words, bring your ego and pack it a lunch.
At Three Mile, things are a little more relaxed. The camping is fairly basic here, and you get a strange mixture of road warrior surfer types: guys who are here to explore the rocky, deadly-looking coastline between Red Bluff and the Gnaraloo homestead.
Just up the road from the campsite is a place called Tombstones, or Tombies, which is reputed to be the third best left-hander in the world. I paddled out on a windy day with so much sweep it was all I could do to make it back into the beach within a kilometer of the car park.
Further up the road Ry Craike, who was ‘in town’ for a few days, was towing into 14ft beasts on the deeper reef. We watched him drop in on some sloppy faces while we were driving up the track to Three Mile.
There are breaks along this ragged coastline that have never been surfed. Places like Turtles have been explored, but there are dozens more that are still virgin – meaning nobody has achieved that perfect blend of booze and
courage that opens up new waves.

Our accommodation at Three Mile was dubbed ‘The Hilton’ and yet again, the west’s affinity for shanties is glaringly apparent. I don’t mind a good shack, don’t get me wrong. I grew up camping in shacks with open fires and dirt floors. The second shack we built on some land back home was nothing more than a three-sided log cabin with a roof and a bit of tin that hung inside one of the windows as a chimney.
I think we burned that hut down eventually… but that was more a failure in responsible serving of alcohol than in the whole concept of shacks, shanties and humpies. In short, I have a healthy respect for hovels.
The Hilton had no particularly redeeming characteristics save two: it had million dollar views out over the Indian Ocean and it has one of the best (and most introspective) graffiti collections I’ve ever had the benefit of reading by candlelight. I don’t know if it is the surf, or this part of the coast, or just the singularly edifying experience of sleeping in or near a structure consisting at least partly of corrugated iron, but something has induced particularly thoughtful and ponderous scribbling on every available flat surface of The Hilton’s interior. I read poems by Dutch kids, epithets about happiness and vague sexual innuendos, but one line kept repeating itself in the back of my head, from another fan of shacks, lean-tos and shanties, Henry David Thoreau: “Simplify, simplify.”

 

Vital Stats:

Red Bluff is 1025km north of Perth, (08) 9948 5001, www.quobba.com.au
Camping at Red Bluff costs $15/adult and $5/child, sites are unpowered but fire pits and toilets are provided.

Gnaraloo Station is located 150km north of Carnarvon, (08) 9315 4809, www.gnaraloo.com
Camping at Gnaraloo in The Hilton costs $72 for three adults, $12/child. Unpowered camping costs $20/adult and $10/child.