Baja Gallery

The Escape - Baja

Rip Curl The Search

When the Rip Curl Search Tactical Unit told us to: “Standby, you’re going … anywhere,” it sounded like carte blanche, an open cheque to find waves planet wide. The fact that the swell we were targeting had come and gone by the time we left Australia was more a matter of logistical friction than lack of planning. 

My histrionic ‘dang nabbit!’ type exclamation was a thin attempt at disguising the fact that I wasn’t fazed about our failed rendezvous with a done and dusted swell.

For me, surgical strikes are clinical and soul-less anyway. They aren’t real travel at all, they lack romance; they’re like paying for sex. I much prefer going out and just hunting for surf, the more so for the sake of story telling. Besides, if it’s guaranteed, it’s hardly ‘Searching’, is it? That we’d be camping in a desert wilderness, many hours drive from food, water, anything, would also be great story fodder, I thought, a touch nervously.

As the sole Aussies, Louie Hynd and me would be thrown into the desert with a crew of Americans, the plan being to first stockpile enough life support to see us through a couple of weeks in one of the most isolated, desolate and unforgiving ecosystems on earth. Dillon Perillo and Noah Wegrich were the other surfers, and our gang would be rounded off by Rip Curl staffers Matt Myers and Steve ‘Chimpsy’ Morrisette, videographer Rory Pringle and our local guide Vicente.

We had an RV and two four wheel drives, and enough camping gear, food and fuel to make Bear Grylls eat a bowl of spiders’ arseholes in disgust.

We seemed prepared, but really it was all just trinkets, a facsimile of protection against an environment that could take us out with a wink of its unfeeling eye. We could hold out for a while, but it would be a war of attrition.

We drove in convoy for a dozen hours, the highway’s narrow lanes, murderous oncoming trucks and numerous destroyed guard rails – with accompanying crosses, flowers and memorials – the first indicators that life burns fast here. And these were only the man made threats. As we headed farther south, the verdant landscape faded to earthy ochres and siennas, desert slowly prevailing until it was all you could see; we were entering the realm of natural dangers. It was rarely devoid of life, though. Tough, spiky, drought resistant life. Cacti run the show here, cacti of every possible shape and size. There are at least 120 species in this region, including the awesome Cardon, the world’s largest. It can attain heights of 20 metres, and weigh up to 40 tons after rain, its highly adapted water retention systems ensuring it drinks hard and fast during its rare chances. And it can live for over 200 years, a true testament to this prickly old grandfather’s mastery of hell.

Within this now parched region, there were a great variety of landscapes. Undulating plains dominated by single agave species, and mountainous slopes punctuated with the bizarre, Dr Seuss type cirio trees, creating a truly alien impression. There were also bouldered zones, transformed into stunning compositions by artfully placed verticals, in the form of the archetypal Saguaro cacti, growing majestically amongst the house-sized boulders. It looked like some sensitive giant’s lovingly created rock garden. 

The RV performed incredibly well during the last few hours of the drive down. Some of the evil off road trails we submitted it to verged on impassable, but it just kept crawling over them. Of course, on cue, our confidence high, we bogged it convincingly in powdery sand within a few hundred metres of our first camp. Vicente was mortified. His guiding credibility compromised in his mind, he compensated by grabbing the bull by the horns and attacking the problem. Chimpsy caught his energy like a virus, and they threw everything at the RV, which at this point was looking more like a home than a mobile home. It was bottomed out, two tons of cubic metal sitting flush on the sand like a shipping container. Despite our preparations, we had no tow rope. On a thin hope Chimpsy drove one of the 4WDs on to our proposed camp site to see if anyone was around, and incredibly returned half an hour later with a borrowed tow strap from some better prepared campers. Thankfully one of our 4WDs was a powerful beast, an F350 that had the balls to pull the RV out.

Our elation at escaping our first encounter with the desert’s claws was only tempered by the fact that we still had to set up camp, late at night after a very big day. Still, we were mobile again, and tomorrow was another day.

Vicente had delivered us to a right point break, and morning revealed mellow four footers running lazily down a cobblestone peninsula. I thought the waves looked fun, in a fishy sort of way, but I knew the surfers wouldn’t think much of them. As a rinse from the first night’s sandy debacle however, they did the job. 

Our camp resembled a shanty town. The RV was the community hall, and scruffy tents formed brave little suburbs around it. It took a while to settle into any sort of order with cooking and the like, with eight people and a huge pile of miscellaneous stuff, you need military type discipline to organise even basic things like meals. Since we were far from disciplined – I wouldn’t quite call us useless – we initially resorted to snacks, fruit and other easy pickings as a kind of buffer before we had to face any actual cooking. 

The loose plan was to relocate every few days, since the wave potential in the region was spread over a fairly large area. We would thus leave the RV at various base camps and strike out in the 4WD’s to look for surf. In this country, we were free to set up camp anywhere we liked, and one memorable night we bivouacked on a headland overlooking a fun right-hander with no one in sight, a rare treat in camping circles.

The ocean held more obvious signs of life than the land. Pelicans, gulls, ospreys, terns, sandpipers, sea lions, whales and dolphins wheeled and dealed around the coastline, plying their trades and seemingly doing very well in an environment that was so opposite to the one it lay adjacent to. But as you had to look harder at the desert to realise how much life it supported, so you also had to really observe the ocean to see its unforgiving side. We regularly saw whale bones, some of them the size of builder’s planks; dolphin skulls; dead sea lions and desiccated leopard sharks. Life burns here all right, on land and in the sea.