When we were kings: Bondi's 1980s surfing legends

When we were kings: Bondi's 1980s surfing legends

Bondi was a different place when a beachside pad cost $39 a week and our surfers ruled the world, writes Derek Rielly. Image by Peter Crawford.

Thirty years ago, if you wanted to see the best surfers into the world you poured onto the sand at Bondi. Maestros of fibreglass included the master of the cutback Richard Cram and, at one point the best surfer in the world, Cheyne Horan, both stalking sand-foiled waves created by a stormwater drain in the middle of the beach.

This photo, shot circa 1988, in front of the Hotel Bondi, back when it was painted a blinding white and not its latter day hue of …peach, is a reminder of Bondi’s once-epic surf culture.

Horan, far right in this vintage image, with white hair, and with pectoral muscles that threaten to envelop the other surfers in the photograph (from left: Steve Jones, Col Sutherland, Ant Corrigan, Adrian Esposito and Cheyne), grew up sleeping in the sunroom of his mum’s thirty-nine-dollar-a-week apartment on 21 Lamrock Avenue.

He remembers Bondi as having a European feel to it, a dirty feel.

“I used to ride my bike down to the beach in the dark, dreading having to ride past the stinking fish shop. There were no cars on the road, only the occasional bus or taxi. The waves, then, were great. Water used to come off the road, into the water pipe and out into the beach. That thing used to create such good waves and everyone used to get hepatitis from it. I was lucky. I could surf in the dirtiest water and come out without even an ear infection. I would go out, the water would stink, right, everything would get washed out, needles, the whole lot. It would be raining and the waves would be really good fun. The best waves came out of that pipe because it created a cut in the bank, a right-hander in the centre of the beach.”

Horan, who is now 57 and runs an eponymous surf school at Burleigh Heads in Queensland, says that outside summer, the beach would be empty.

“Only the people who really lived there used the beach,” says Horan. “Hardly anyone on the sand. People filtered down out of the units and there was no backpacker scene.”

And the live music scene? You could call it dynamic.

“Bondi Lifesaver (an epic venue, demolished in 1980) was still rocking. I saw INXS with ten people, Midnight Oil, a dozen people on a Tuesday night, AC/DC, Skyhooks. The owner used to grease the walls so if you climbed over it they’d see you had grease on your shirt and throw you out. We knew one part of the wall without any grease.”

Horan united the two competing surfing clubs, South Bondi and ITN (the outrageous In The Nude) into one formidable unit in the mid-eighties. But he ain’t one for nostalgia, even if he did move north to the Gold Coast for a little extra space. And even if he does remember a time when thirty-six thousand dollars could buy a one-bedroom apartment on beachfront Ramsgate Avenue right there on the rocks at Ben Buckler.

“I go with everything. Bondi is a really…really… good place. People started to gravitate to it in the eighties. It went through a no-growth period in the nineties and then in 2000 it just… blew right out and became what it is today. Tourists, backpackers, it’s great, it’s for everyone. I always say, the promenade in front of the pavilion, everyone who’s ever visited Australia will always go past that point. I don’t know what it is. It’s a spiritual point on the planet where everyone crosses over. It’s an energy point. And it’s right there.”

He might’ve moved away, but Hor is never far away.

“I love going back to Bondi. I call Bondi home. I was just talking to someone at Burleigh and even though I’ve been surfing that place one way or the other since 1975, I don’t feel like a local. Bondi’s my home beach. When I come home Bondi feels comfortable, it feels secure. The memories flood through me. I always go and sit on the hill, at the end of my old street, Lamrock Avenue. I sat on the hill every day, year after year.”

And the waves?

“When I paddle out at Bondi, I know where the bumps are gonna come, I know when the sets are coming. When I’m in the water I really feel it all.”

After 19 years, beloved Billy Kwong is to close

After 19 years, beloved Billy Kwong is to close

Local cooking: Icebergs'  red mullet risotto

Local cooking: Icebergs' red mullet risotto