Photos by Jam Hassan
“So what’s the goal for this weekend, exploring each other’s bodies?” asks Ari Browne, causing the five strangers crammed into the back of a 4WD to snigger.
It’s the first time that we’ve all collectively met each other—the comment instantly quelling the danger of any initial awkwardness.
We’re in Lennox Head, northern NSW, cramming boards, groceries, each other, into the back of the 4WD that Jason “Salsa” Salisbury borrowed off his brother for the weekend. The reason that we find ourselves in this plentiful—and rapidly expanding—part of the country, is that we’re being chaperoned by Josh Keogh, a switched on young gent from Merimbula on the far NSW coast who makes beautiful surfboards. I was looking to do a little feature on Josh, and Salsa and Ari are both lucky enough to ride Josh’s boards. It was decided that we’d make a weekend of it.
The “goal” for the trip is to loosely profile Ari, dissect the ethos of a faction of the surfing fraternity that’s a little left of centre, and generally hang out and have a good time.
We were heading to a slice of the coast that’s a little, overlooked. The only way you can get in and out of the settlement on the bank of the river is via a 4WD track (for which you need a key), or by hightailing it in over the sand at low tide. Ari’s family have owned a house there since Ari and his brother Raf were kids, and we have all the appropriate keys. Combined with Salsa’s loaned Toyota, we’ve got all the necessary ingredients.
After we turn off the highway, zipping past the usually green—but this time of year, scorched brown, with plots of green thanks to recent rain—hinterland, Ari points out a field in the distance and identifies it as the scene of one of the many “doofs” held in the extended Byron Shire (for non-Australian nationals, a doof, or “bush doof” is an illegal rave, usually held in a field).
I ask whether Ari’s knowledge is firsthand, to which he replies no, with a hint of disappointment.
“That was my resolution for this year too—to tap into the doof scene…”
Bumping into the village via the track, it’s striking how simple the living is here. “Backwards” would be the wrong adjective, because the ethos in the region—at least to those who abide by its founding principles—involves existing with only what you need. With the Shire morphing into what it has, it’s easy to forget that once you hit Ballina and head south, signs of the region’s boom are scarce.
Ari Browne’s become a known quantity in the Australian surfing world (and the more the left-field of American surfing enthusiasts) thanks to the unbelievable—especially at the time it was released—footage of him surfing finless, most notably at big Lennox Point. Before the finless (or friction-free, as Derek Hynd stringently calls it) phenomenon hit, the sight of Ari riding a flying saucer of some kind (in reality a Ryan Lovelace “Rabbit’s Foot”) trimming, spinning, sliding and performing re-entries, was astonishing. Novelty’s one thing, but this was functional, and performed at maximum velocity on one of the country’s best, and most closely-guarded waves.
Since then Ari’s gone on to explore various other avant-garde surfing experiences. The board with the spinning yin/yang platform on the deck that allows you to crouch down and spin whilst trimming (not sure what he calls that one), finless soft top riding (see @softspacemen for proof), and most recently, foil boarding. Whilst certainly not the first to enjoy the fruits of floating above the surface, he’s certainly the first non-ocean-going SUP six-pack aqua dork to take to the hazardous past time with such fervour. In short, despite being an exceptional surfer by traditional standards, Ari’s surfing interests are diverse and experimental.
The other gent on the expedition charged with supplying the surfing, Salsa, by contrast, has arrived at his fringe surfing existence by a slightly different road. By that I mean he used to deliberately lose in the finals of mandatory surfing contests so that he didn’t have to make a speech—the south of France every Australian winter being the safest bet because his host, Jeremy Flores, was a shoe-in for each of the Euro meets. Salsa’s long since broken free from the traditional career expectations of talented surfers from Sydney’s Northern Beaches, and these days splits his time between surfing and teaching Vedic meditation. One thing that becomes clear at a session at a tricky backbeach, is that Salsa’s surfing is sharp. Tack sharp.
“Geez Salsa’s an amazing surfer,” Ari says to me during the session after we’ve watched Salsa release the fins two or three times (on a twin fin) on a wave from the back. Meanwhile, we’re bobbing, paddling, duck diving, bogging, trying to avoid the shark that Salsa’d spotted earlier.
On land the vibes were high. But it was a natural high. The beauty of the “Fresh Approach” weekender (named after the fruit shop in Illuka that we stopped at on the way down) was that all involved are extremely health-conscious. Despite Ari declaring that he was going to drink “500 beers” after anything good happened (a wave, lunch etc…), we didn’t.
Whilst the weekend might’ve been conservative in beer consumption, it certainly wasn’t short of laughs. The most memorable of which came just after lunch one day when Salsa felt nature’s call. The hedge in the garden was the kind of shocking green that permeates the Northern Rivers after an intense hit of tropical rain. Using the compost toilet at the other end of the garden was a bit of an effort, so Salsa opted for said hedge. Wearing nothing but a pair of green and white striped shorts, Salsa sauntered, unannounced, across the lawn and started fertilizing. Hearing a few chuckles, he turned, leaned back, grinned through his thick facial nest, and gave the group the thumbs up with his spare hand. It was the most organic thing I’ve ever seen.
Growing up with teachers for parents, I pride myself on identifying those with a similar lineage. After spending a couple of days with Ari talking about sustainability, space, history, weird podcasts and everything between, it came as zero surprise to learn that Ari’s Dad was a teacher. Contrary to what the kids at school say, the offspring of teacher parents tend to swallow less of what’s prescribed than regular kids in my experience. A great example of this trait in Ari is Baywash, aka “Byron Bay’s Worst Magazine”. Published by Ari and Raf, the magazine’s blurb, “surf slash conspiracy slash Illuminati slash UFO slash disco-tech slash magazine ‘the truth is out there’”, is a fitting description. I don’t laugh out loud often, especially whilst reading and sober, but flicking through the classifieds tickled me: “Wanted: Guy with staunch legs to kick my dog”. Knowing firsthand how difficult it is to be funny on the page, especially with gags rather than anecdotes, I was baffled to find out that Ari and Raf just sat down together and bashed them out last minute.
Seeing as the trip had been instigated by the common admiration of beautifully handcrafted surfboards, the fact that we spent the majority of it riding factory-made finless 88 foamies could be seen as ironic. In reality however, it’s more reflective of the true ethos of the gang. Fun. Fluffy right point? Out come the softies. And Ari is bafflingly good at riding one. Sprinting past the group of us less apt at piloting the crafts on his way back to the point, Ari yells out—without a hint of snark—“You guys are in the top 500 soft top finless surfers in the world.”
After what we all agreed was one of the best weekends of the year, my parting image of Ari was fittingly hilarious. Ari’s girlfriend Bree (who he’d met in the village back when they were teens—her folks owning a shack there too) had to shoot back to Byron for work, and the car that she brought down was on the other side of the river mouth to where we were staying. The sun was dipping, showering the pretty waterway in the shade of gold unique to the region, as Ari paddled the Bree in a borrowed kayak to the other side. Before they reached deep water, however, Ari was accosted by a rotund, sunburnt man who’d been frolicking (see also: semi-conscious) in the shallows. There was another group blaring Top 40 hits and yelling on the other side who’d clearly spent the majority of the day actually drinking “500 beers”, so we figured that the man was a stray member. Ari kept going and dropped Bree on the other side, before jumping straight back in the kayak and heading back. He scooped up the pink-skinned man, balanced him on the front of the vessel after much ado, and put all his might into propelling them forward. “Lady Lumps” blared from the speaker across the way (“My hump, my hump, my hump, my lovely lady lumps”) and by the time they reached the other side, gold had turned to black.