Where pro surfer’s dreams go to die.
Luke ‘Dozza’ Dorrington’s looked on with dead eyes as the temperature gauge hit 55 degrees (131F). Dressed in protective suiting, with a sandblasting gun in his hand, he was surrounded in every direction by red sand as far as the eye could see. His mind had gone to its happy place – the cool, crystal clear water of his beloved Duranbah beach back in Coolangatta.”The hardest part is that heat,” he says of his mining gig in Australia’s inhospitable North West desert today. “It fucken buckles ya.”
Sold the pro surfing dream as a teenager, Dozza never thought too much about the future. For a while, it looked like the dream might pan, but when he failed to crack a win on the WQS the noose was hurried out to him. He was given a year’s notice by his sponsor. “I was like, well, I can keep burning the candle and do the tour with no sponsor and battle or I can look to the future and find something else,” he recalls.
His brother already had a job in the mines. He told Dozza he could get him on if he wanted. But he’d be starting at the bottom. Like, rock bottom. Dozza could never have imagined how low that would be. He worked the first year straight. Twelve gruelling months in the desert, all of it spent off-site in the yard – a cruel purgatory of sorts designed to weed out the weak before they get to the actual mines.“I never wanna go back to that,” he says. “I did a year straight in that yard when I got there. Working off site, in a couple acres of sand, in the desert. It was fucken torturous.”
If the mines are the arsehole of Australia, Dozza was less than a piece of shit.
The cruellest twist came when Dozza walked into his boss’s office. There he found a surf poster tacked to the wall with a familiar figure in the frame. It was him. “It was bizarre! He hassled the local surf shop for one of the store-front Bong posters and it just happens that I was on it,” he recalls.
Being from the east coast, Dozza was at a particular disadvantage. The west coast mines are a west coast gig, and the locals know how to hold down the good jobs. For a low-end worker like him it’s all about who you know, but he knew no one (apart from his brother). Not that you’ll hear him complain.
“I just got addicted to earning money,” he says. “I never saved a cent when I was surfing. I always wondered what it was like to save some coin and have some money in the bank.”
It’s also one of the most dangerous jobs you can do. Though of all the dangers the worst tends to be your own mind. The job is infamous for its connection to suicides and mental illness. “Guys are so driven to make the coin, they make such a big sacrifice to their families and their relationships, and they just end up falling apart,” says Dozza.
He was fortunate in that way. Dozza had his brother out there with him. As they ascended they got more and more of their mates on, including former pro surfer and indigenous man, Dale Richards.
At his peak, Dale lined up against Andy Irons and Kelly Slaterin the Quiksilver Pro World Tour event after winning the trials. “The waves weren’t great, it was a bit small, I got my arse handed to me,” he recalls. Remarkably he walked away from his Quiksilver contract with half of it remaining. He cites dwindling motivation and poor competitive results for the decision.
“I woulda been 21 when the wheels started falling off. I just wasn’t that keen on surfing… thinking back now, I didn’t have that much drive. I was just surfing ‘cos of the fun of it,” he says.
He vividly recalls stepping off the plane in Port Hedland, deep in Australia’s North West, for the first time, about to begin his new life loading tanks with cement.
“It was 4pm and it was 45 degrees. I was covered in cement dust from head to toe and I did that for eight weeks straight,” he recalls.
He returned for Christmas then went back and punched out one of the longest stints anyone we spoke with could come up with – six months straight, including two and a half months without a day off. All of it 10 to 12 hour days.
“You sort of just get into the rhythm of it and before you know it, the days turn into a blur and the weeks pass. You never know what day it is up there,” he says.
The lifestyle change was extreme but Dale thrived. His previous life as a pro surfer was in fact the best preparation possible for the gruelling drudgery of the mines, he says.
“The work is pretty hard but it’s being away from friends and family and the birthdays and anniversaries that a lot of people can’t deal with. But me and Luke (Dorrington) were so used to travelling and being away from friends and family because of surfing,” he says.
Being a proud indigenous man, Dale was exposed to another layer of experience in the North West, a region home to some of the oldest living cultures on earth. “It was a real eye opener,” he says. “The local aboriginal people, it’s a different world up there. They still talk in their native tongue and still live out there in the bush but it is also very mixed. Some of them like to work and get in and some of the locals are just drinking and not doing anything. It’s sad to see billions of dollars going through the towns out there and, yeah, not very good results a lot of the time.”
Okay, so maybe the heat is similar to the tropics but that’s where it ends… …after you’ve done the time, banked the cash, however, it’s time to spin the globe and you could be paddling into the lineup at Teahupoo.
It’s not just the indigenous population feeling the pinch courtesy of the mining world’s tweaked social conditions. Thousands of men working endless shifts in some of the least hospitable terrain on earth, many of whom are suffering under the mental anguish of decaying relationships and time away from loved ones, no women, and nothing but a tiny town with a tiny pub to break up the monotony, has obvious potential for disaster.
“The first time Luke picked me up we drove through the town and it was the craziest thing ever. No girls, just men, and men that just drink and work. That was their life: drink everyday and the weekend was just crazy every time I went out. The pub in port Hedland holds the record for the most stabbings in one night,” says Dale.
It’s not all bad. Tevita Gukilau, a former Australian Champ from the largely waveless city of Perth (that’s another story), saw the writing on the wall and got into the mines early. Being from the West Coast he was at a significant advantage though it wasn’t enough to avoid him some time in the trenches. “It was 49 plus degrees, dirt everywhere, flies, I was just like, what the fuck have I gotten into?” he recalls of his early days working in exploration for Fortescue Metals – the biggest iron ore company in the world.
At its worst he compares it working in a “paid prison.”
“There are so many rules in those places, it’s not far off a prison. You walk into a mess hall to eat food and there’s guards standing at the door and it’s like, what is this shit?” he says.
Then there’s your workmates.
“You can get fuckwits, there’s no doubt about it. You meet crew who are there and that’s their whole world. They get in a position of power at some point and that’s the only part of their life where they feel like they’re in control, so you get bullying and all that shit,” he says.
But he ascended quick. Having the right connections helped. So, too, did possessing the kind of personality you get from travelling the world and seeing the inside of many a tube. “He’s got the even swings, that cunt,” says good mate, Luke Dozza of Tevita’s current gig, working the tug boats that bring tankers into port. In his time off he explores nearby islands and drop offs spearing fish with his best mate, who also works on the tugs. When the cyclones hit, sometimes they even sneak a little surf. Most important is simply being near the ocean. You can’t understand the solace that provides after months in the scorching red centre of the north west.
“I’m 10 times happier working on the water,” he says. “Just staring at the ocean makes you so happy.”
But it’s when the plane touches down in Perth that the fun really starts.
“When you get a whole month off you can spin the globe and decide where you wanna go. Brazil and Argentina for New Years Eve maybe. I went to Japan for my 30th birthday at the start of the year. I went to Fiji and Bali mid-year, then to Sri Lanka, back to Fiji and then I went to Tahiti just recently. That was amazing.
“I just try and gorge on life while I’m not up here,” he says. “I feel more like a pro surfer than I did back in the day.”
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