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The Chachi Files: Tasmania

Part III of photographer Ryan Craig's maiden voyage to the Land Down Under and beyond

[This installment is Part III of a three-part series on photographer Ryan “Chachi” Craig’s maiden trip to Australia in early 2017. Read Chachi’s Gold Coast travelogue here and his Sydney / Central Coast travelogue here.]

Two weeks into my time in Sydney, it looked as though all of South Australia, Victoria, and Tasmania would be rocked by a massive, clean, long-energy swell. Jughead mentioned that South Oz would be all-time, but had already committed to another trip. Other surfers were unavailable or were undecided on how to approach the coming swell.

I knew that I needed to get out of Sydney, but the options seemed overwhelming (again). The conditions for Tasmania were predicted to be perfect, touched by a slight offshore breeze. Plus, Shipstern Bluff was a bucket-list location for me, a place that I knew I would eventually see but never had any idea as to when. There was a catch, though: Shipstern doesn't like long-interval swell, and the seas were predicted to be about 19 seconds, a very long period.

With 12 hours to spare, I decided on Tasmania. I didn't have a crew, and I didn't have a plan, but I knew I had to see Shippies firsthand.

***

The hike to Shipstern is something you'll never forget. It's a gorgeous journey to the headlands, the sounds of bird chirping over your head while you breathe in some of the freshest air on earth. About fifty minutes into the hike, you get your first glimpse of Shipstern at a distance. I had awoken early and had arrived to the lookout well before sunrise. The swell was slow, but absolutely real. I relaxed at the overlook, bundled in a jacket while staring off at the horizon. There were no people, no boats, no skis.

Turns out I would leave in the dark after arriving in the dark. The period was in fact too long, and the uncharacteristically small crew that showed up rode very few waves. In total, there were two tow teams and three bodyboarders paddling, seven riders in all. When the right waves came, there every bit as amazing and radical as the web clips I've watched over the past decade. At sunset, I stood on the edge of the reef, nearly showered by the waves, and there wasn't a single person around. The boats had left with all the surfers, and the bodyboarders had begun their hike back. It was surreal to watch one of the most famously massive waves in the world without another soul in sight. As the day progressed, the swell interval began to drop, and the best sets of the day rolled through.

After a grueling two-hour and forty-minute hike back in the dark, I finally reached my car. I didn't end up getting the type of high-action photos that Shipstern is known for, but I saw it in an equally rare light: an empty one.

THE WILD FACTOR:

A crisp, clear and full moon made the evening car-ride south from the Hobart airport almost eerie. Around the Tasman peninsula late into the night, the drive was a roadkill massacre. Keeping my eyes firmly on the road but still taking in the scenery, I spotted a wallaby out of my peripheral bouncing toward my wheel. I couldn't avoid the little guy and tagged him at a solid click. Now I understood why the road looked as it did. I car-camped that night at a spot close to Shipstern. As I attempted to sleep, I wondered if my loosely planned trip would pay off.

THE HIKE:

I had heard how intense the trail was at Shipstern, but I figured that it wasn't all that bad. Maybe the lack of sleep, the weight of camera gear, and me being a touch out of shape made the hike more difficult, but the trail is exceedingly tough on any day. After an hour or so, you're greeted with your first glance of the wave in the distance. Hundreds of meters above sea level and a kilometer or so away, you can still hear the rumble of the lip as it breaks underneath the massive Shipstern Bluff. Another one-and-a-half hours downhill will get you to the Bluff, a magnificent spot that makes you feel insignificant in the grand scheme of the scene.

Up close and at the reef’s edge, Shipstern Bluff looks significantly less surfable than it already does in video clips. The amount of water that rushes over the reef as the waves bend toward the rocks is crazy. It reminded me of a better (albeit smaller) version of Ghost Trees, which is close to my home in the States and barely classifies as a wave. With the swell direction and interval on hand, everyone was being extremely selective.

THE WEATHER:

Tasmania tends to be streaky, weather-wise, with a few days of similar patterns before it suddenly switches moods. As long as you're not booking a ticket in the midst of a strong south-wind flurry, the clouds come and go, and the temperature and winds are tolerable. I tend to prefer slightly colder climates anyway, but I didn't think Tasmania was inhospitably cold to begin with. With the abundance of hiking trails to check out, the colder weather makes for more pleasant outdoor recreation.

THE NON-SURF:

Hobart is a quaint little city with plenty of atmosphere and restaurants, while some of the national parks like Freycinet and Cape Hauy were absolute stunning. Tasmania has some of the most well-maintained and dreamy hiking trails I've seen. Apart from the surf, it's worth a trip to Tasmania just to get out and explore what their national parks have to offer.