A Non-Life-Threatening Day, With Russell Bierke
Kicking the can around between swells.
Whenever I hear Russell Bierke’s voice it’s generally serious in tone, over-dubbing violent ocean scenes shot in hi-definition and played in slow motion. So it’s refreshing to hear him laughing and speaking freely, in between getting belted with balls after losing first to five in “sting pong”. It’s a pretty nothing day on the south coast: overcast, with small swell and big wind coming from the same direction. Earlier in the day, Max Zappas (one of Russel’s close school friend’s who’s been filming him since before either had a whiff of puberty) and I had met Russ at his family home, where his mum was herding his little sister out the door and in the direction of school. After a quick chat we piled into Russ’s Toyota LandCruiser (which has completed a miraculous 600,000 kilometres) and headed out. A quick stop at what may well be the best pie shop in Australia (ham and cheese quiche for Russ, and a bourgey-as, but magnificent, button mushroom, spinach and goat’s cheese for Max and I) and then we pointed the LandCruiser in the direction of one of the area's premier waves, which we knew wouldn’t be breaking, but would provide a nice backdrop for a couple of portraits, and evoke some fond memories for the boys of an idyllic upbringing.
Well over half a million clicks and going strong; maybe dad was right about Toyotas.
Rolling out of town, Russ gives us an update on his recent wanderings and what’s to come, most notably his maiden Big Wave Tour, and Nazaré. “I’m pretty keen to try and get my head around Nazaré a bit before I’m in a heat out there,” he says. Max and I both mock the polarising wave and, although he’s being diplomatic, Russ admits that it’s not really top of his list either. “It doesn’t really appeal to me as much as other big waves. It’s like the risk versus reward is… a bit out,” he says. “You do hear about guys going there not expecting much and frothing on it though.” We turn off the highway and hit the dirt road that leads into thick bushland, and Russ tells us that the previous day Network Ten, prime-time show, The Project, had come to interview him about the BWT. I remark that it’s funny that it takes a big spectacle like the BWT to get the mainstream media interested, when for surfers, the way that Russ has negotiated the dense waves around home, and in other obscure parts of Australia, is far more interesting, and takes far more skill.
Russ's confidence and positioning at this particular shelf is nothing short of virtuosic. It's a make too, in case you were wondering.
I ask Russ whether he feels conflicted in his career, as he makes a living being filmed and photographed at waves that are, in general, guarded secrets. He says that it’s something that he's forever conscious of. “It is really hard to balance going and getting footage of places and then trying to keep them quiet and as they were,” he says. “Especially with social media; everyone wants to put it out as it happens. If they’re posting about it in real time you can work out what conditions it works in or where the swell was. Whereas if I’m filming something that’s not known about across the world, I’ll get the footage, try not to include landmarks or anything, and then lump it in with other stuff later on. Then the word’s not really getting out.” We hop out of the car and start walking through the thick bush in the direction of the wave. It’s a geological marvel, and on its day breaks metres in front of the rocks, where the wave stands up and opens mechanically before blowing out onto a dry end section and hitting a deep channel. Today however, it’s unrecognisable. We stand on the rocks looking out to sea, and Max circles Russ a few times firing off a few frames. “Did you used to wag school a lot?” I ask the pair. “Yeah,” they reply instantly, in unison.
A man in his element.
Russ looks at home walking through the thick bush. He’s wearing an open caramel button-up over a black tee with chocolate chinos, his dark brown Blundstones—which he bought for Splendour in the Grass a few years’ prior—completing a look that’s very modern Australian coastal dweller. His surfing exploits are now well known around the world, but down here, where a spade’s still a spade and overt’s swiftly chopped down to size, he’s still just Russ. Talk turns to the inevitable development in the area. It's happening, fast, and while the locals aren't chaining themselves to the trees, they're certainly concerned as to what’s going to happen to their slice of nirvana. Russ speaks precisely on the subject, as he does generally; he strikes me as someone who was good at maths and science at school. “A lot of these estates are going to be young families,” Russ says. “So they’re going to need a new school. I heard the other day that our old school’s already the fifth biggest in the state in terms of numbers.” He then tells us of a recent developer who used the phrase, “It’s going to be great, just like Shellharbour (ghastly pleasantville on the edge of a National Park),” which didn’t go down well at a local meeting, to put it mildly.
"That place is really weird," Russ says of the wave pictured. "It comes in like an open ocean wave, and you go to stand up and it turns into a slab. You can’t sit under it, and it’s really hard to roll in from outside."
Back at Max’s we tear straight into table tennis, and before long I’m charged with smashing a ball at Russell’s bare back, which I feel slightly guilty about seeing as he’s been nice enough to hang out for the morning. Spending time down here, you hear plenty of Russ stories. They generally involve him surfing very, very dangerous waves, sometimes solo and in less than favourable conditions, and (seeing as he’s only 20 now) at a very young age. I ask whether, since the wipe-out a year and a half prior that could well have ended in catastrophe, Russell’s reconsidered his approach to his hazardous profession. “You never think that you’re going to get in a really bad car crash or anything until it happens to you or one of your mates,” he says. “It’s definitely made me more conscious of safety in big waves. If there wasn’t a ski out there it would’ve been pretty different, I think.” He then goes on to explain how an avalanche safety course that he'd done the past winter—snowboarding’s another of Russell's great loves—had opened his eyes to how important risk assessment (a very bureaucratic term for the fringe pursuit of hunting remote slabs) can be. Russ references a recent trip to SuperSuck in Sumbawa, where inexperienced surfers were paddling straight to the inside and hucking themselves out of the lip, as an example. “They’re not looking at it thinking the coral’s really sharp here, this section’s a bit fast…” he says. “I don’t know how they don’t come in skinless.”
Everything's easy to find, if you know where to look.
After a cup of herbal tea to ease the sting of the welts, Russ bids us adieu. He's heading home to pack a couple of ten foot plus, three inch thick guns into boxes to be shipped to Portugal to avoid the nightmare of carrying them through customs. As he unassumingly floats up the drive, starts the Landy and heads back in the direction of his mum and dad's, it's hard to think of him as anything but a totally normal young man from this part of the world. Before long, however, Max and I are deep into the hard drives, and I'm watching wave after wave, most of which is unseen, of Russ piloting himself through some of the most astounding situations I've seen on film. Not ludicrous charging either, precise, highly-evolved tuberiding; feeling for the edge of what's possible. Despite his mellow disposition, it's clear that Russell Bierke is far from a regular 20-year-old.