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Tom Blaxell’s Gallows recollections

Tom Blaxell is one of the pioneers of WA surfing. He was involved in the surf industry from the 1960s to 1990s. He is a past President of Dolphins Surfriders and was made a Life Member of the club in 1975. Tom is also a Life Member of WASRA (1982) and served as President of WASRA from 1995-97.

These are Tom’s Gallows recollections:-

My first introduction to the Gallows was with the Dolphin Surfriders in the mid 60’s. The Dolphins were largely a group of down south surfing pioneers who had originally banded together in the 50’s as the West Coast Board Club nicknamed the Big Wheels… because they had cars!

This older crew included Kevin “Legs” Merrifield who I consider to be the spiritual Grand Master of surfing in WA today, Ron “Jungle” Drage who was one of the first to ride Yallingup, Dave “Globehead” Williams who led the discovery of Guillotine as a surf spot, Ray Geary who Gearys surf break is named after, Tony Harbison who went on to build Hideaway Cottages at Yalls, Ray Nelmes the ultimate hairy back amongst hairy backs, Alan Robbins, Stan Duffy, Don Campbell, Rob Wakefield, Keith Smith, Glen Marshall, Ken Gimm, Alan Cough and several others.

It was they who had earlier organised South West farmer Boodge Guthrie to bulldoze the Gallows track skirting away from the Cullen cottage right down to the beach for 15 quid. The West Coast Board Club ended up fading out when they were made to pull down their shack in the grounds of Caves House, some went over east, others went overseas, most ended up getting married, going into business and headed off in all different directions.

The reform in the 60’s as Dolphins gave us younger guys including Garry Nicholas, Johnny Wynne, Geoff House, Jim McFarlane, Bruce Elliott and Steve Fordham the privilege of a fantastic mentor peer group because not only were they fearless trail blazing adventurers who lived and enjoyed life to the full, with a real sense of humour, but by that time were mostly successful trades men, business men and go getters who gave us great examples to follow on all sorts of levels in life.

“Legs” for example at that time was in partnership with Kerry Stokes and could have gone to the very top of the Australian corporate ladder, but later chose to turn south and apply his talents there, as well as soak up its natural blessings on a daily basis.

Photo: 1970s Kevin Merifield with his Blaxell Surfboard at Trigg Point. Ric Chan pic.

Later on in the 90’s I asked him if he would become the patron for Surfing WA. He asked me what that entailed so off the cuff I said “Well it means you have to keep surfing!” (as a bit of a joke, because I already knew that he did!)…He responded “What on a short board?” (He wasn’t getting any younger and I could sense a little bit of strain in his voice, so I kept the pressure on)… “Yeah of course!”… “Well it’s not getting any easier, but I think I can keep it up !”… “Great you’re in!”

Deal done. To this day he’s still out there most days, even if he can’t stand up any more, post inner ear and hip replacement operations.

The other good thing about the old guys was that they had wheels. My first trip down south was in Ken Gimm’s Falcon station wagon. We stayed in a Caves House shack that was still standing at the time, where I was introduced into the wonders of a blue flame competition and the supposed risk of abdominal explosion if you happened to suck in by mistake.

In those days the “search” was still on in full force to explore for new uncrowded perfect waves and to learn what breaks worked best in the various conditions and swells. Dirt tracks and bush bashing featured heavily in these explorations and our original search engines were 2 wheel drives. Looking back from today’s cruisey four wheel drive viewpoint, it really is amazing the places we used to pump our 2 wheel drives through. Some of course didn’t make it and there was always the odd dead wagon that had died and been abandoned.

Dirt tracks are an embedded facet of West Australian surf trips and Gallows was just the start. Places like Rocky Point, the Farm, the Other  Side of the Moon, Injidup Point, Wilyabrup, South Point, Lefties, Big Rock, Ellenbrook, Grunters, Conto’s, Booranup, Black Point and Bears all had their challenges.

Photo: 1972 Tom’s ‘Blaxell Surfrider’ HK panel van negotiating the boggy Gallows track. Jim McFarlane pic.

The Gallows track was always a major challenge because of its deep soft sand, steep hills, creek beds, valleys and wooded with trees, sometimes hot n dusty, other times wet n muddy and there was always the ever present danger of getting seriously bogged.

The first time I hit it, I was actually reasonably conditioned for it. I had been rattled around in the back of Graeme Pateman’s Vauxhaull ute on the Long Point track many times by then. He was a madman at the wheel and the ride was like being on a roller coaster in a bumper car, and just so much fun!  Pity about the boards that sometimes got knocked around.

Don Campbell brought down a brand spanking new Ford ute one time to put to the test and feeling a bit concerned about it I said “Don’t you worry about scratching and messing up your brand new pride and joy ?”  His wizened response was “Tom, cars are made for using, not for looking at.”

So from that day on I adopted the same attitude and when not long after I got my own first pride and joy, a FC Holden ute, I didn’t hold back either, and to this day I still wear scratches with a sense of pride. There’s no St Georges Terrace tractor for me.

Photo: 1967 Tom Blaxell, Garry Nicholas & Johnny Wynne in the back of Tom’s FC ute at Miami just around the corner from Gearys. Tom Blaxell pic.

The FC ute was later repainted bright Kodak yellow and became known as the Yellow Submarine.

On one memorable occasion in 1968 I was back at Long Point in my FC ute when the Meckering earthquake struck. It was a big deal and everyone was pretty freaked out about it but I didn’t feel a thing or even know about it because I was doing the roller coaster along the track when it struck. I thought that was pretty cool.

Another moment in the FC ute came at Salmon Beach out past Windy Harbour with Garry and Johnny. I had been giving it a fair bit of stick getting through the sand when I got the red light on the dash… followed by steam coming from under the bonnet. So in typical silly teenage fashion we decided to take the radiator cap off and have a look.

That of course allowed the last remaining coolant to burst out to the heavens.  Then we were faced with the prospect of no water to replace it, out in the middle of nowhere and no one else around. We were stranded. Then came the light bulb moment.  Piss in it! The three of us took turns to empty our bodily fluids into the radiator. We didn’t manage to fill it, but with a bit of gentle motoring along the track we did make it back to town.

Going back to the Gallows, getting down to the surf was always very refreshing. It was a reliable wave that caught the swell easily and even handled the sea breeze reasonably well because of the protection from the reform.

Photo: 1968 Tom Blaxell surfing Hangman’s at Gallows. Tom Blaxell pic.

It also had a bit of a mystical fairy tale atmosphere about it with the little Cullen’s cottage that you could see from the water out at Hangman’s, set amongst the wooded hills and even complete with a damsel!

Photo: 1969 Tom Blaxell on a Hangman’s sparkler at Gallows. Tom Blaxell pic.

Recently by chance I discovered that a friend, Dr Cullity’s daughter Jude, 50 years ago planted the very first premium grape vine in the Margaret River region at his property across the road from Gallows at Vasse Felix in Autumn 1967.

For more information on Vasse Felix click on The Weekend West 25-26 February ‘Age makes fine wine and fond memories’ by Wendy Barrett.

Jude tells me that the Cullity’s and Cullen’s were both vineyard pioneers across the road from each other and that the local folklore is that some previous owners of the Cullen property ran an unofficial abattoir and used to hang the stock from the trees which led to the property being nicknamed the Gallows.

If this is true, then this may well be the reason that Dr Cullen’s friend Rankin Wilson (who is said to be the first to surf Gallows) named it Gallows, rather than for the characteristics of the break. Interesting!

Tom now works in the Marine Industry at Hillary’s and still enjoys surfing.

For more Gallows history watch out for 1970s Gallows surf break & dirt track (Parts 1 & 2) on Saturday 20 May 2017.

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