Surfing My Way Through Agnes Water
I’m still slowly making my way up the east coast. This journey has made me realize how vast Australia is. The Sydney to Cairns route is a well-traveled backpacking path, but it wasn’t until I saw a massive map of Australia, hanging on the wall of a hostel, that I calculated how many miles I had covered (600) and how many miles I still had left (1,000). I’ve spent time in six coastal towns so far, with three more left until I reach Cairns. And even Cairns is up in the air, depending on when I jump on my catamaran to start working (more about that in another post!). But I’m grateful I’ve had all the time in the world to explore the east coast, because doing this journey any faster would be exhausting.
I’m in Agnes Water right now, a super small town of only 1,814 people. It became a stop for backpackers when a paved road was built a few years ago and Greyhound added a bus stop. It’s known as a quiet surfing town and the birthplace of Queensland, since Captain James Cook landed here 246 years ago. But Agnes Water is often skipped by backpackers. According to the typical 19-year-old backpacker, there’s only one bottle shop, no places to go out, it’s too quiet, and it’s boring. And if you do stop here, you don’t stay long.
But I’m a sucker for these small, quiet, often-skipped beach towns. I don’t mind the single paved road and the small strip mall of a post office, supermarket, and café. I’m not one to get bored easily and I don’t need to constantly be doing something, so I enjoy putting my feet up in a hammock, reading a book, and getting to know other backpackers over family cooked meals every night. It’s such a stark difference from when I lived in Indy. In Indy, there never seemed to be enough time. Here, I feel like I have all the time in the world. I don’t mind taking it slow.
- Travel time: 6-hour Greyhound bus trip from Rainbow Beach
- Location: Agnes Water, Queensland, Australia
- Expenses (in Agnes Water): $85USD
- Hostel: Cool Bananas
- Free wifi. $21USD/night for 8-bed female dorm.
When I arrived at Cool Bananas after a long bus ride, I was greeted with the smell of incense, old school rock humming through the speakers, and laughter and chatter as dinner began. I was hungry, but didn’t feel like walking to the supermarket to buy groceries. The owner told me that they do family dinners every night for $6USD each. That night’s meal was pork chops with vegetables and potatoes. My stomach growling, I asked the cook – an old, but spritely man named Robert – if there was a vegetarian option. On the spot, he whipped me up fresh vegetables, sweet potatoes, and lentils for only $3USD. And, of course, when I saw that he also makes dessert crepes with apples, maple syrup, bananas, ice cream, and cinnamon for another $3USD, I couldn’t resist. Agnes Water is already one of my favorite stops on the east coast.
At dinner, I sat next to a Canadian, Brit, and German. I’m getting better at picking up accents and figuring out where people are from: Scotland, Ireland, England, Germany, Canada, Wales. It’s harder for me to pick up Swedish and Dutch accents. Surprisingly, sometimes I don’t notice American accents because I don’t hear them often. I am also starting to pick up on Australian words and phrases: car park for parking lot, bottle shop for liquor store, arvo for afternoon, toilet for bathroom. I'm getting there!
The next morning, I rolled out of bed at 6AM for surfing lessons. Surfing lessons in Byron Bay and elsewhere are normally $55USD with groups of 20+ students. I had heard that Agnes Water had the cheapest surfing lessons, so I held out until I made it to the town. At 6:30AM, Lorenzo, a bubbly and energetic Australian, greeted 13 quiet and half-sleeping backpackers at the front of the hostel. There’s not a lot that can pull a backpacker out of bed before 10AM, but apparently cheap surfing lessons do the trick.
We clamored into the back of a van, all thirteen of us, and bounced around over dirt roads until we reached the beach entrance. It was a secluded beach but a good surfing beach, as locals were already out on the water by 730AM.
Each of us carried a board down to the beach, then Lorenzo, in his bright voice, demonstrated to us how to surf. He used funny sayings to help us remember where to place our hands on the board (“Put your hands by your nipples… Not because it feels good, but because any higher or any lower is going to put you off balance”) and how to battle the waves (“Grab the board, forehead to the board. Don’t put your chin, don’t put your nose. Your forehead. Otherwise you’ll end up with a broken nose or a bloody lip as the wave crashes into you!”). He watched us practice how to stand up on our boards, before we took a group photo and then headed into the ocean.
The water was warm, which I was thankful for, so we didn’t need wetsuits. The waves that day, as Lorenzo described them, were “messy,” but there were a lot of them. It was impossible not to catch a wave and attempt to stand with as many waves that were crashing into the shore. It became exhausting to battle them as wave after wave came tumbling towards you. Lorenzo was in the water with us the whole time, working with us one-on-one to help us catch waves and stand confidently. I stood quite a few times, but always hesitantly, and usually threw myself off the board before a wave did.
One of the guys, seeing me resting alongside the beach with my board, joked, “I’m guessing you prefer diving over surfing?”
I laughed. “Yeah, I think I’m more cut out to be under the water than on it. Scuba diving takes less work!”
Four hours after we had left the hostel, we returned, battered and bruised from the waves, but smiling and laughing from a morning in the sun and good company. As we were washing the sand from the surfboards and putting them away, one of the guys asked Lorenzo, “Why are surf lessons here so cheap? They’re so much more expensive everywhere else.”
“Because I love it,” Lorenzo quickly answered. “You don’t live in Agnes Water for the money. You live here for the lifestyle. I grew up here, I love surfing, and I just want to share that passion with other people. I don’t have a surfing business with employees that do everything for me. I buy the boards, I clean them, I wash the rash guards, I pay the insurance. I do it because I love it.”
He gave a breakdown of his expenses for his surfing business, which he launched only a year ago. It’s $20AUD for a lesson. $3.50 goes to the Great Barrier Reef Conservation by law. It’s $2000 a year for insurance and another $1500 a year to register his truck and trailer. By the time the profit comes back to him, he says, “I just need money for food and good beer. I’m happy. I’m doing what I love.” I love meeting people like Lorenzo.
Tonight, the family dinner is fish fillets with homemade French fries and coleslaw. I saw Robert this morning peeling and cutting the potatoes by hand, the coleslaw already freshly made.
After taking a nap, I read for awhile in a hammock. I picked up a 944-page tome, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, a best seller in Australia. It’s a true story, written by an Australian convict and heroin addict who escaped over the walls of a maximum-security prison and made his way to Bombay, India where he eventually began working for the mafia. It’s an enthralling book; I can’t put it down and it’s comforting to go through another travel journey through the eyes of someone else. Even though it’s massive, it’s well-read by backpackers and often left behind in used book stores (along with Marching Powder, another beloved backpacker book that I had heard about six years ago in Guatemala). I couldn’t find a used copy, so I splurged on a new book and hope to leave it behind for someone else once I finish it.
I’m in Agnes Water for one more night, then will spend tomorrow here until I leave on an overnight bus at 9:40pm for Airlie Beach. I could easily return to Agnes Water, though, and I might after my Whitsundays trip. Sometimes I don’t mind that other backpackers skip these “quiet” towns; it’s more peace and solitude for me.