Stuck in a burning paradise

Tim Bonython videos a giant wave at Nazare, Portugal. Supplied.

Film-maker Tim Bonython is no stranger to danger, as his more than four decades of filming the biggest waves ever ridden up close and personal will attest.

But most of Tim’s bareknuckle exploits of recent years have been in the cold waters of Portugal’s Nazare or Tasmania’s Shipstern Bluff, and his close encounters with life-threatening masses of water have been executed with military precision. Two weeks ago, en route from a swell in Tassie to an impending mega-swell event at Teahupo’o in Tahiti, through no fault of his own he found himself overnighting in Noumea, capitol of French-controlled New Caledonia.

As editor Stu Nettle reported on Swellnet: “As he was transported to his hotel, Tim noticed fires lighting up the tropical sky, which, under normal circumstances, he might’ve taken as a welcoming gesture. Instead the fires – piles of car tyres set alight – added to the foreboding he’d felt since touchdown. Tim had unknowingly flown into a full-scale national emergency, though you wouldn’t read about it here in Australia. We can see footage from the channel at Teahupo’o moments after it happens, yet it was Thursday [nearly a week later] that any news appeared of New Caledonia’s civil unrest. By that time five people had been killed, one a police officer shot in the head, as nightly riots swept the capital, the airport closed and curfews were ordered.”

Tim posted on Facebook: “Two Fridays back I chased a swell down to Shipstern Bluff with Dylan Longbottom and his Tahitian guest, legend surfer Matahi Drollet to video for my YouTube channel. We scored great waves and come the following Saturday Matahi was heading back to Tahiti chasing the same swell and I decided I’d do the same. On Sunday I found out that there was a flight the next day to Noumea with a connection the next day, arriving into Tahiti at 5.50am on the same day. The swell hits that morning. I rent a car and arrive at Teahupo’o around 9am. This is fine. I can do this.”

Tim arrived at Tontouta Airport, Noumea at 3pm and grabbed a shuttle bus for the 40-km ride to town. He takes up the story: “I notice gendarmes everywhere, some with machine guns, so many it was like a Paris airport. [Once near the city] we are confronted by local Kanak people with makeshift road blocks, burning tyres but not stopping us. Further down the road we had to stop. I had a good view from the front of the bus seeing it all and shooting video.

“At the hotel everything seemed fine and I even dined at a restaurant next-door. But the following day everything had changed for the worse. The Kanak people had decided to really make a statement about a French decision on voting rights that would make them even more of a minority. Overnight things had become very violent with people being shot and businesses torched to the ground. I go to reception to check my shuttle time back to the airport and it’s all bad news. The airport is shut until further notice.

“That was almost week ago. I have been stuck in that hotel ever since, until this morning.

Simply put, France won’t be bullied and have sent in hundreds more troops and gendarmes, they need to sleep somewhere and my little hotel is one of those places. Fortunately I’ve been able to move into the house of a local surfer because all the hotels in the city are full.

“Yesterday I witnessed a convoy of 15 riot trucks and vans full of riot personnel. Too scared to pull out my phone to film them but I had a good look. Man, oh man, they looked so serious. I walked down one block thinking that when they leave I’ll get the shot. I take my iPhone out and suddenly this lady comes at me screaming, waving her hands at me to put my phone away, which i did in a split second.

“So it’s serious. Five people dead. [Six at time of writing]. Everything is pretty much shut down. A curfew 5pm till 6am until further notice. The Australian government has contacted me, and now I wait for the call on flights that will take us 300-plus Aussies back home.”

Several evacuation flights left Noumea for Brisbane last weekend and, having been bumped off earlier flights, Tim was finally on the list. Ever the film-maker, he had released an interesting vlog of his experience within 24 hours.

Teahupo’o set to fire

While Tim didn’t make it to Teahupo’o on this occasion, everyone else did and the WSL Tahiti Pro got off to a playful start last weekend with deep overhead barrels giving some of the old masters a chance to loosen up their pig-dog muscles.

Primary amongst them was the GOAT himself, Kelly Slater claiming a wildcard for an event at which he has excelled over the years, and which his brand, Outerknown, is the presenting sponsor. Unlike everywhere else he’s surfed in the jersey this year, Kelly made it look easy, winning his first round clash against Jack Robinson and Morocco’s Ramzi Boukhiam with some classically casual barrel-riding.

Also putting on a first-day masterclass were Hawaii’s John Florence and our Ryan Callinan. The event was on hold at the time of writing, with two super swell predicted for late this week.