Before Surfing It: Bird Rock, 1858
Surfline x Surfing World is a regular series that features curated stories from the world’s oldest surfing title – Surfing World Magazine. This is an excerpt from issue 417, which is on sale now on the SW site. Read the full article and more by subscription to Surfing World Magazine.
Here you are looking at what may be the oldest surf photo taken in Australia. John Ogden thinks so, and who are we to doubt him? Oggy recently published a book on the subject and is an ardent student of history – of surfing, of aborigines, of cosmic realms. This photo crosses all three.
The photo was taken by Englishman Richard Daintree in 1858. He was a geologist who came to Australia to prospect in the Victorian gold fields. He had also studied photography at the Royal School of Mines and used those skills to take some of Australia’s earliest landscape images, using the collodion on glass wet plate process. He will soon partner with French adventurer Antoine Fauchery, under the Sun Pictures of Victoria working credit.
For his part, Fauchery photographed the people of the Kulin nation. Daintree photographed the landscapes they walked on. Their collective work captured some of the earliest images of Victorian life, both European and Aboriginal. Daintree would eventually leave Victoria for North Queensland, where he would have a river and rainforest named after him.
The adjacent image needs no introduction to surfers living in Torquay. They see the same sight today, standing on the cliffs of Jan Juc beach. Looking west, in order, you see Bird Rock in the foreground, followed by Sparrows, Calders, Steps, Evo’s, Boobs, Winkipop, Bells, and Point Addis beyond.
Of course, they didn’t have those names in 1858, when the only people who walked the reefs here were the Wathaurong, who collected abalone and crabs.
The photo is historically significant, but there’s also something haunting about it. The camera’s slow exposure makes the waves appear like a haze, but that’s not the most haunting part.
It is the fastest eroding coastline in Australia. Cliff falls are common. There is a thick seam of Jan Juc gray marl running through the cliff you see here. It is a mixture of clay and carbonate that is worn down by the ocean. When enough of it erodes, blocks of limestone embedded in the cliff fall from above. During heavy rains, the cliff begins to burst and crumble before your eyes, a hundred years of erosion occurring in a minute.
It was during such an erosion episode in the 1990s that the skeleton of a previously unknown carnivorous whale emerged from the cliff, smiling, for the first time in 25 million years. It has been given the scientific name Janjucetus.
The photo is almost 200 years old, yet it looks like it was taken this morning. Just missing are a few surfers marching around the corner and a procession of banked-up Melburnians walking their designer dogs along the beach. The cliff line looks the same as it does today, despite falling apart. It’s constantly evolving, but at the same time it hasn’t changed much at all.
But what is 200 years on a geological scale? What is 200 years for the Wathaurong? Nothing. The bluff here has seen a lot in its time. Janjucetus died and sank to the bottom while part of the seabed. The Wathaurong climbed it when it was a coastal escarpment located far from the coast during the sea level drop of the last ice age. In recent geological times – the 1970s – Sydney surfers were seen being told to fuck off when Bird Rock was the most localized wave in Victoria.
During two years of confinement, I walked around and looked at this sight almost every morning. Lockdown was a time when time itself had just melted away. It didn’t make sense, so you could stare at those cliffs and walk away, as spastic in time as Billy Pilgrim. In the second year of confinement, when we were really going crazy, if you grabbed the cliff in the right mood, at the right time of day, with no one around, you’d swear she was trying to talk to you and tell you everything this . The story the Wathaurong have been listening to for thousands of years. You could look closely at the cliff, look through it and you could see 25 million years in the past and a million years in the future. you could see Janjucetus swim around it…and you might see a future anthropological dig pull your bones off the cliff.
Then you will go home and pick up your board.
Midwinter is doing this coast a disservice right now, but there is a glimmer or two on the horizon: Surf coast | West of Victoria | Mornington/IP