Surf Camp: Where all my walking did not prepare my feet muscles!

It’s funny to be writing this right now – I’m on my second stop in Yamba (the real Surfer’s Paradise) to work on the skills I picked up at Surf Camp. I suspect that I’m not a natural, although I prefer to just blame the waves. I don’t understand! Every time I try surfing the waves are too big, too small or too dumpy! The ocean conspires against me I say!

Anyway, if you’ve landed here looking for a review of Surf Camp Australia, I’ll get that out of the way first.

The Too Long, Won’t Read Surf Camp Review

Surf Camp is at Seven Mile Beach in Gerroa, about 2 hours south of Sydney. For a really reasonable price you get 4 hours of surfing a day (except the first and last day where you only get 2, but, really, that’s enough), surf lessons, food, accomadation and transport to and from Camp. (And I think, if you purchase the 7 or 10 day experience, you also get transported to Byron Bay and Yamba.)

Seven Mile Beach

Seven Mile Beach

Seven Mile Beach is fantastic for learning since it’s deserted (or at least it was in the winter while I was at camp!) and the waves are perfect for beginners. The lessons consist of a little bit of theory and practice on the ground, then you’re free to go play in the waves. The instructors change all the time, so it’s hard to know what they’ll be like when you go, but when I was there, they mostly let us do our own thing but would help if asked.

The campground has a giant bouncy pillow!

The campground has a giant bouncy pillow!

I liked the food and accommodation. For the price, you’re obviously not staying at the Ritz, but the surf cabins are cozy and everyone fights over the comfy hammocks. The food is typical Aussie barbie-style. I don’t remember exactly what we ate but I enjoyed it and never went hungry.

If you haven’t discovered Australia’s awful internet situation yet, know that internet in Australia is expensive and unreliable. Surf Camp is no exception. I think Wi-Fi was about 7$ for 24 hours. The connection was pretty decent, though, possibly because no one other than me used it.

Choosing between the 3, 5, 7 and 10 experience is a head scratcher. I found that at the end of the 5 day camp, I was pretty tired of surfing but loved that I had lots of time to bond with my cabinmates. 3 days is probably enough to get a good introduction to surfing but not long enough for the camp part of Surf Camp. The 7 and 10 day packages bring you to other great surf spots and, though I was tired of surfing, I kind of felt like I missed out by not going.

My recommendation: If you just want a quick intro, go for 3 days. If you want a real surf camp experiences but are short on time, go for 5 days. If time isn’t a problem, pick the 10 day experience.

That concludes my review, feel free to wander off. If, however, for an unfathomable reason, you take interest in my personal adventures, you’ll find the recap here.

The Departure

It was my second morning on the Other Side of the World. I slept longer than the night before, until 3 am insteal of 2 am. It shorted my wait for a reasonable time to go food and wi-fi hunting at Central Station.

The bus was to pick me up at 9 am, so about 30 min before, I made my way across the street to the pick up point. I thought I’d be the first one, but there was already a huge line up.

I immediately hated everyone there. I felt too old, too tall, too underdressed to blend in with all the 5ft nothing, 20 year old, German speaking, make-up wearing, short short sporting backpacker crowd. I mean, it’s freaking winter. I was cold in jeans and a jacket. How do they even stay alive in short shorts?

The urge to run away was taking a hold on me. What was I even doing here? How am I going to survive 5 days with these people? What a stupid idea, I told myself, to give up all my comforts, fly all the way to Australia, spend all my money. What was I going to get from this? An extended torture session with some small bragging rights when I get home?

Then I realized what I was doing. This always happens when I go somewhere new. A little believed secret about me is that I suck at travelling. I live for it, but it also turns me into a pouty teenager. I reminded myself that it’ll get better, I just have to power through for now.

By then I was at the front of the line.

Within a matter of seconds, I was identified, tagged and asked to “stand over there with the train group“. I wasn’t sure what that meant, there was a bus with a “surf camp” sign right there and the brochure specifically said it was a coach, not train transfer, but there were others in the “train group” so I figured I’d wait and see what happens.

After what seemed like a forever of me wishing I spoke German, a guide showed up and walked the group toward Central Station. I had to say, I did feel a little bit of happiness when everyone swung their packs over their shoulders and marched along without complaining. There’s no room for princesses in the backpacking world.

I guess we were an extra large group so the bus didn’t have enough room for everyone. The first people to show up were to get to camp by train. I was okay with that. I like trains, as long as I know where I’m going.

Two hours later, a van and a truck met us at the Gerroa train stop. We tossed our bags into the back of the truck (“What if our stuff falls out of the truck?” someone asked. “That’s why we follow it!” they answered.)

Canada 2 and Australia 1 065

We piled into the common area (in front the right cabin on the picture) for our welcome briefing, then for the cabin sorting.

I’m not the most outgoing person in the world (understatement) and I was one of the few people travelling without a posse, so when they told us to form groups of 7, I was obviously the one out. I looked for a group of six and fidgeted a little when I realized the only one was a group of six boys. Fortunately, the head instructor, Shayne, noticed and promised me he wouldn’t let me be stuck alone with all the guys. He directed me to a group of 7 and told us we could have the “special 8 person cabin“. It looked like the “couples” group (I hate couples) but I figured it was better than rooming with six strange guys.

On our way to our cabin (the picture above was taken from our cabin), one of the girls asked if I was travelling alone. I nodded. Turns out she was also a solo traveler, a nurse from Ireland. It’s almost embarrassing how relieved I was to find out I wasn’t the only one who didn’t know anybody!

My cabinmates ended up being totally awesome. A pair that I had mistaken for a couple were actually a brother and sister team from Germany. She was studying in Sydney so, unlike most German backpackers, she was confident in her English. Her brother was a lot shyer so I didn’t get a chance to talk to him much. One pair was a couple from the UK, but as much as I hate couples, I had to admit they were pretty cool. I had lots of laughs with them and I hope our paths cross again. The other pair were two girls from Germany. They were friendly, but not too confident in their English so they mostly kept to themselves and to the other Germans.

Surfing at Surf Camp

The first challenge of Surf Camp is not surfing. At least, not the first challenge of Surf Camp on the second week of September.

The first challenge is getting your wetsuit on. Your cold, wet, tight wetsuit.

Let me detail this. You’re already cold after a chilly Australian winter night. Then you remove your sweater and jacket, your shirt and your jeans, until you’re standing there shivering in your bikini. Then you pull a cold, damp wetsuit over the goosebumps on your arms and legs.

It gets better as soon as you’re in the water but the morning ritual did draw a lot of complaints.

After you win the wetsuit dressing battle, you walk with your board down this pretty path to get to the beach.

After you win the wetsuit dressing battle, you walk with your board down this pretty path to get to the beach.

After our walk to the beach and our theory session, we ran into the water to warm up and give our massive foamboards a go.

Now, I’d taken a lesson before, but I’m not sure how much quick lesson in Tofino, a few years ago, counts toward “surfing experience”. In the end, I was at the same level as everyone else, except for that I could catch waves. I could catch them, but not do anything with them.

It’s shameful to say, but I don’t even remember when I stood up for the first time. I don’t think it was the first session. Maybe the second. Anyway, I wasn’t the first to stand up, but I wasn’t overly slow either.

I nose dove a lot. I mean, a lot. To where I still refuse to lie properly on my board out of fear of sliding off the front. I was told it was the waves, they were too droppy, but I found it odd that I was the only person struggling with nose dives. Maybe my boobs are just too heavy.

Then, once, out of nowhere, I stood up on my board.

After that, provided I caught a wave properly and was positioned right on my board, I could almost always stand up.

I’d stand up, ride the wave onto the shore, jump off and get back out.

Surfing is hard on the foot muscles

I think it was as early as Tuesday morning (Surf Camp started on Monday) when the top my foot started to hurt. I ignored it.

Soon, I was limping and getting teary trying to push against the waves as I walked out into the water. By Tuesday (or was it Wednesday? I’m not sure anymore) afternoon, I broke down, hobbled my board back up on the beach and sat down. To my surprise, one of the instructors came running to see if I was ok.

Between sobs, I explained. Honestly, I was more frustrated than in pain. I hate not being able to keep up and it pisses me off to no end when my body doesn’t obey me. (I suppose I’ve been spoiled by being born with a pretty tough body. I’m not used to it refusing to do something, so on the rare occasion that it happens, i throw a temper tantrum.)

The instructor gave me a hug and told me how touched he was by my commitment to surfing. That made me think. I’m a pretty perserverant person. I’m very slow with everything I do and I have the attention span of a three year old, so I’m used to compensating by just hacking away at things, long after everyone else has quit. It only made sense to me to keep practicing until I really couldn’t take it anymore. But now that he mentionned it, I did want to learn to surf. I probably wanted to learn to surf more because my body wasn’t cooperating.

In turn, I was touched by how much my instructor loved his sport and how happy he was to see someone determined to learn it.

My foot didn’t get better. I was usually ok out of the water. Going barefoot or in sandals hurt but if I put on my hiking boots, I had enough support to walk pretty much pain free. But in the water, walking out into the waves and jumping off my surfboard were just too much. I spend the remaining lessons mainly practicing my paddling and wave catching and quitting early when it hurt too much.

The only lesson I skipped was Thursday afternoon. I was, and am still, ashamed, but I was hoping that a few hours rest would have me in top shape for the last lesson on Friday morning.

Sadly, it didn’t, but given that it was my last chance, I gave it everything I got. After all, who cares now if I made my foot worse?

I’ve talked to a few people about my foot injury since then and they all agreed. It was probably a strain, and foot strains are apparently the most common surfing injury. It most likely happened when I was jumping off my board into the sand. While I wasn’t the only one at camp with that injury – one of the German girls in my cabin did the same thing to her foot, only she did it Monday and needed crutches – it surprised me because I’m a hiker. I’m supposed to have strong, powerful feet! Not silly strain-vulnerable ones!

It took a bit over a week for my foot to heal completely, although I suspected my recovery was seriously slowed by the obscene amount of walking I pushed myself to do in Melbourne and the Blue Mountains over seven days after Surf Camp.

Wrapping it up

After 5 days of triumphs and failures, of commiserating about cold wetsuits, of sneaking across the campground to find the secret showers (most of the girls gave up after the first few lessons, but until then, the women’s shower lineups were always super long after coming back from the beach), of huddling together as we drank teas on those chilly evening, it was time to say goodbye.

Sunset on the walk back from the beach on our last evening.

Sunset on the walk back from the beach on our last evening.

I’d grown quite attached to my cabinmates that week. I was catching the overnight train to Melbourne shortly after camp so I sadly had to miss the last party. I was so overlwhelmed that i forgot my daypack with the group (the daypack that had my wallet, my phone, my passport). When I realized it, I turned and ran back, almost crashing head-on with my awesome cabinmates who were looking for me to bring me my bag.

Careful now, they warned me, we won’t be here next time to help!

And with one last hug, it was over and I was off to the next city.

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