Imogen Caldwell Is A Rare Flower In Red Dirt
Ice don't survive in this climate!
Dressed in slim black jeans and a leather jacket, with that cosmic complexion and those ephemeral blue eyes, Imogen Caldwell fits neatly into the scene I’m staring at right now. We’re in a North Bondi eatery of her choosing, Imogen having spent the past two months in the suburb. For all her beauty and glamour it only takes a couple of minutes for the desert to come pouring out of her. Imogen is in a bit of a huff. City life has got her down and she’s sick of talking about herself, to people like me, in interviews like this. “It’s crazy and sometimes I’m like, what the fuck am I doing in the city?” she begins. She’s been living out of a suitcase for months now, travelling between Hawaii, Los Angeles, the Marshall Islands and elsewhere. “I feel so lucky but it’s hard to be here and wanna be in the city when all I want is to be back in the desert more than anything,” she says. “I get so homesick.”
Photographer Rich Freeman’s first impression of Imogen is thrilling: “This girl literally rocked up on the most stealth looking motorcycle I’ve ever seen, in a black leather jacket and matte black helmet, with proportions that defied belief. It was like a Japanese manga cartoon. She pulled off this helmet and threw out this blonde mane that went down to her waist. It was actually like watching a film.”
The clues are there. For one, she’s wearing mittens, on what is a very mild winter evening in Sydney (we’re also inside, next to a heater). A lifetime spent in the scorching desert heat of Australia’s remote north-west has not prepared her for this, and it’s only going to get worse. “I’m going to Perisher (in the Australian ski fields) on Saturday so I don’t know how I’m gonna cope with that. I’m so cold right now.”
Imogen grew up at Red Bluff, the famous fly-blown desert surfing nirvana 15 hours north of Perth. In terms of obscure places to grow up it’s hard to top. Imogen arrived there when she was six after her father sold the family earth-moving business back in Newcastle, bought a caravan and packed the five kids in for an epic journey to the other side of the continent with no particular destination in mind. Three months later, they arrived at The Bluff. “We never intended to go to the Bluff,” Imogen recalls. “We didn’t even know it was there.”
Despite Imogen’s silver screen entrance…
“I was quickly blown away with her maturity,” says Rich. “I don’t know if it’s the Western Australian grounding or what, but she was so down to earth.”
For several months, the Caldwells camped on the beach – “literally on the beach,” she clarifies – in which time her parents befriended the owners of Quobba station, the tourist camp of which Red Bluff is a part. As it happened, their stint there coincided with the departure of the existing camp managers. When they left, the job was offered to the Caldwells and they accepted confining Imogen and her siblings to the next 12 years of desert life.
“I was there all year, every year,” she says. “I’d leave a couple days a year, sometimes. We’d do the Carnarvon trips (for supplies), but that’d be mum. Sometimes you wouldn’t leave the desert for months if you didn’t get to go on the town trip.”
For those who’ve never made the pilgrimage to this part of the world, there are two things that hit you as you roll over that final sand track into the Bluff after 15 hours behind the wheel. The first is pure, adrenalised shock that such a place exists. A giant red cliff rockets out of the ground and forms a tremendous orange ridge-line that covets a shimmering cobalt and pristine beach teeming with edible sea life and a perfect (on its day) left reef on the tip. Kangaroos bounce around the hill amidst a half-dozen rustic desert shacks built into the side. The Caldwells live in a house at the bottom, 50m from the beach. The windows shake when the swell is solid. It’s hard to sleep sometimes.
Your second thought is what it would be like to live out the rest of your days here. Imogen doesn’t have to wonder. “Yeah, it’s different,” she says. Relentless heat, plague proportions of flies, pumping waves for days and weeks on end, whale watching, fishing, diving, caves, kangaroos, adrenaline tube junkies, outlaws on the run, and time and space so abundant and stretched as to render your existence no more significant than the thousands of grains of sand you tread each day on the way to the rock-off at the Bluff. For company, the Caldwells had another family who ran the small shop, comprising of six girls and two boys.
“I think she could very easily slide into the WA parlance when she needs to, but overall she’s extremely well spoken,” says photographer Rich, in reference to Imogen’s lack of slowed-down conversation – something you’ll commonly encounter in the desert, where time moves a little slower.
“It was just a group of girls,” recalls Imogen. “We’d just walk around all day in the sun surfing, fishing, diving, walking around the bluff and the desert. You get used to the flies in the first year – you’ve gotta swallow a few, eat a couple, catch one up your nose. Nah, they’re pretty fucked, but they’re alright.”
At 15 hours from the nearest major city, the Bluff was also an ideal hideout for citizens fallen afoul of the system and its authorities.
“There are a couple of weirdos but because mum deals with the office, everyone who comes through, she sees,” says Imogen. “If there’s someone she is a bit sceptical of, she’d just tell us not to go near their camp… It’s the same as anywhere. If there’s a weirdo, just don’t go near them,” she laughs.
It was atop the coral heads and raw Indian Ocean power of Red Bluff that Imogen learned to surf. By 13 she was in the pack at Tombstones, one of the world’s heaviest waves, located a 20 or so minute drive north of the Bluff.
“Dichotomy is the word I used the other day when talking about her,” says Rich. “She’s this beautiful, incredible desert flower, and yet her genetics go hand in hand with a big Instagram following and attention, and while she’s attracted to the glitz and glam somewhat, I don’t know if she has the patience for all the bullshit that goes with that. The world she lives in is a lot more simplified and realistic and truthful.”
“In that scene I’m comfortable, I’m okay, because it’s my scene, I’m allowed to be there,” she says, adding, “I’ve been out when I probably shouldn’t be out, but you’ve gotta do it. You can’t just sit there in the carpark watching it all day.”
Her oldest brother, Lockie, is one of the best out there and it’s not uncommon to find the whole Caldwell clan, along with their family friends, in the water together. It was here she also laid eyes on the love of her life, Kalbarri fisherman and semi-pro surfer, Cortney Brown. When she’s not travelling the world, they live together back in Kalbarri. But at an eight year age difference, she had to be strategic in the early days.
“He was Cortney Brown, so I knew who he was for ages, and he’s a fair bit older than me so it was always a bit off limits, especially with my parents,” she says.
Imogen’s character isn’t surprising once you’ve been to the place she grew up. As Rich recalls, “everyone that I met or encountered while I was in Kalbarri was so helpful, so kind, and so unfazed by anything.” And, Imogen is a true product of place. “She was always contactable, totally down for starting at any time and working hard and she never threw the princess tantrum at any stage. She was very grounded, a very solid human.”
Lately Cortney, Imogen and Cortney’s brother Kerby have formed a tow team. Their exploits are set to drop in film and photo over the coming months.
“I prefer Cortney to tow me,” she says. “Kerby is a bit more ruthless whereas Cortney takes it easy on me and my tiny little legs.”
The project has brought more challenges than just navigating bubbling-steps and bone-dry reefs.
“So now I’m modelling and surfing slabs and leading very contrasting lives. I’m like, I can’t do this shoot ‘cos theres a swell and Cortney wouldn’t let me miss it.”
Her preference for heaving Indian Ocean slabs over plush modelling gigs is an enduring one. It just makes more sense to her.
“It’s different and it’s kind of hard to adjust to,” she says of modelling. “It’s lonely because it’s always me travelling around, and being a young girl, you just get over it. But then if I go home, I’m not gonna be making money, I’m not gonna be going anywhere. So I have to be here. It’s work, it’s a job.”
From Stab Issue 87.
West Australia's brightest mirage.