Tim Baker is so stoked that he can’t put his wetsuit on fast enough.
Somehow, in the middle of his life, the prolific surf scribe has slipped one past mediocrity to live the adventure he wished for as a teenager. Balancing life on the road for the best part of a year as a writer, husband, and father whilst surfing every Australian coastline to (mostly) his heart’s content, the only nagging he gets is from his mistress, the ocean.
Written in a distinctly Australian voice full of self-depreciating wit, thoughtfulness and honesty, Baker describes what it’s like to share familial responsibilities with an insatiable appetite for waves. Surfari is personal, informative and will resonate with every surfer’s fantasy search, no matter what their circumstances are, and frankly, what surfer worth their salt is not up for that?
You describe reading Surfari Highway twenty years ago, the dream it inspired, then last year your final determination to drive/surf around Australia with your family. Was there one moment though, did something happen that you were stopped in your tracks and you thought, bloody hell, it’s now or never! What was the tipping point?
It’s hard to identify an actual tipping point. It was more a slowly gnawing feeling that I wanted a bit more adventure in my life and pondering how to do that in harmony with family life and financial/work commitments. It may have been just driving the kids to school one morning, whenever it was, that old teenage memory of the great round Australia trip just re-surfaced. At first I was kind of nervous to mention it to my wife, but when I did she was totally into the idea. I think it was partly an age thing – my age and the kids. I’m 46 and I’ve billed it as a pre-emptive strike on my mid-life crisis, but also the kids were the right age to pull out of school without harming their education too much. I think it was all those things in combination creating this dawning realisation that now was the time.
You throw in a bit of non-surfing socio-political commentary throughout the story, was this trip in part about getting out from the restrains of conventional society? And what now, do you slip back into it?
Yeah, it definitely was about wanting to live a somehow unconventional life. Once your kids start school and if you have a mortgage or rent to pay, those two elements in tandem can make you feel like you are really “locked in” to a certain way of life, and that this is it, this is what you are expected to do. I wanted to try and defy that, be able to dream and live outside those constraints, or at least not be imprisoned by them. It is tough now slipping back into regular life and I feel a resistance to just going back to the same old. I felt like I achieved a state during that trip of almost perfect freedom – waking up each day and just deciding what you wanted to do, where you wanted to go, how you wanted to spend each day. It is a blissful feeling and I find myself pondering how to achieve this as an ongoing condition.
The journey is as much about you and surfing as it is about your family. Familial responsibility crops up a lot. You manage to juggle obligations to your kids, your wife, and your mistress the ocean, all without too many dark looks. It’s an admirable feat. Looking back, would you have tackled things differently? Is it just the nature of the beast that a surfer will always be searching for another ride?
Yeah, I felt like I had to kind of surrender to greater forces. In Tasmania, for instance, I was chasing it too hard and the family suffered a bit and I was missing surf by a day or two everywhere. I was kind of too desperate and grasping. Like a lot of things, when you let go a bit things fall into place. That was my experience across the southern states from Bells westwards. Once I relaxed and went with the flow it was a much happier, easier experience. But having said all that, it would be amazing to do this trip as a young single surfer just with a mate and no commitments, surfing your brains out all day. I would recommend it to any young surfer. With a family, it’s definitely a delicate balancing act that requires a fair bit of compromise and understanding from all parties.
Has surfing all of Australia’s surfable coastline continuously for nine months opened your mind more to what’s on offer, in and out of the water? How will you deal with the crowds back home now?
It really opened my eyes to how much uncrowded surf there is around the country, and how herd-like surfers are in all congregating together in certain places. Basically, if you don’t mind a bit of cold, there’s no need to surf with crowds. I definitely struggle with the crowds on the Gold Coast. That said, I recently drove 15 minutes south and surfed a five-foot point break by myself with a few dolphins recently. You just have to fall out of step with the herd, and having flexible work hours helps.
The fear of localism and stepping on toes as a surfing journalist preoccupies you. Did it turn out to be a very real fear? Do you think the days of hard-core localism are fewer and further between?
Localism wasn’t nearly as prevalent or extreme as I’d expected. A lot of those really gnarly hard core locals have aged and mellowed, but I think if you stepped out of line and behaved badly in the water you would still get pulled up pretty quick. I tried to be discrete in the water. I’d paddle out wide, sit wide of the peak, watch the crew all catch their waves and just kind of edge my way in gradually and I think that’s all most locals want to see – that you are treading softly and not out to try and take over a spot. I was generally surprised by how friendly and accepting crew where, although I didn’t advertise the fact I was a surf journalist. I think there’s a great opportunity now if traveling surfers can be cool to enjoy some of these remote locations without some of the nastiness of bygone years, but it requires sensitivity and respect.
Someone once said, “Travel is not reward for working, it’s education for living.” Cheesy, but true? Now that you’ve settled back into the Goldy, how do you think the trip has impacted and will impact your children? And your family dynamics, how have they changed?
I’d definitely endorse that statement. At the moment I think we are all going through a bit of a transition phase of getting used to life back home. I’m sure it has made the kids more outgoing, social and adaptable and I hope it gives them a sense that life’s possibilities are wide open, that you can choose the sort of life you want to live. We still have all the usual family squabbles from time to time, but I feel like we have passed through a bit of a furnace together, the “road of trials,” as Joseph Campbell calls it, that will bond us. There are certain experiences we had together on the trip that only the four of us can share and recall and I hope that is a special bond that will help sustain us. My little boy used to wake up every morning of he trip and ask, “What are we doing today?” and it was pretty much always something new and different and exciting. He still does it now that we are home and I have to say, “Well, you are going to school and I am going to work and that’s how it’s going to be for a while now.” I kind of struggle with that and the idea that you then just get a few weeks off a year when the rest of the country does and everywhere is packed. There is a lot to be said for falling out of step with the herd and I want to keep trying to find ways to do that.
Had you travelled a bit or a lot with your family before? This trip didn’t seem to me to be inspired by wanderlust as much as it was a not forgotten dream. Is there a next chapter?
We’ve been fortunate enough to do a fair bit of travel as a family. I had a work trip to the Maldives that I was able to take them on when the kids were very young. They have grandparents in Italy, Melbourne and Perth so there have been family trips to visit each of them. And we love just heading a couple of hours down the coast to a favourite spot. I’d like to think there can be more of these short getaways, and maybe some Surfari sequels – NZ, the South Pacific, Indonesia, Europe, Hawaii, the Americas. But there was something very special about seeing our own country and feeling a deeper connection to it. I would love to do more travel within Australia, and get more in touch with indigenous culture in particular. But I also feel concerned by the environmental impacts of travel, so I might have to learn to sail or something!
In a sentence, what is Australian surfing to you after the Big Lap?
I say it in the book but I honestly believe we are the luckiest people living in the luckiest country in the luckiest period in human history. We are living in paradise. The freedom, ease, beauty and diversity of traveling the Australian coast is a great blessing that ought to be cherished and savoured. Sitting in line out at Snapper with 300 others is not making the most of your inheritance as an Australian surfer.