Sean Doherty: “You should come to Australia and surf against Pam and Jodie", Wendy Botha in 1984

29 Aug 2020 4 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Wendy Botha at the Stubbies.

Wendy Botha at the Stubbies.


The following is an excerpt from Sean Doherty's new book – Golden Days: The Best Years of Australian Surfing – which tells the story of Australian surfing through the lives of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame members, one year at a time from 1915 to today. Last week met Albe Falzon in 1970, before that we jumped into the story of 1990 World Champ, Pam Burridge, as a 13-year-old Manly grommet in 1979, this week we time-travel to Wendy Botha in 1984.

"You should come to Australia and surf against Pam and Jodie"

Getting on that plane was a remarkable leap of faith for Wendy Botha. At just 16, she’d boarded South African Airways flight SA280 from Joburg-to-Sydney with no idea what – or who – was waiting for her at the other end. Regardless, she knew she had to go.

As the South African junior champion, Wendy was starting to outgrow her home break of Nahoon Reef, outside of East London. Nahoon was starting to feel a long way from anywhere. As a kid the place had been good to her. Her dad was a rock fisherman, but neither her dad nor her mum could swim. Wendy found her own way into the ocean. ‘I used to live eight kays from the beach, so if mum or dad couldn’t take me I just ran down after school. There was a tree which was past the last turnoff, so anyone who drove past the tree had to be going to the beach. I’d wait under the tree, but we’d surf when it was howling onshore and rubbish so most of the time no cars came anyway so I’d have to run.’ Wendy did the last three kays barefoot on a dirt road, Zola Budd style, board under her arm.

The Nahoon crew was small, but welcoming. ‘I had a different experience to a lot of the Aussie girls who had a hard time out in the water getting abused and hassled. I was more treated like a princess,’ she laughs. ‘But I was such a little shit to them. They soon accepted that and the old guys were actually quite sweet to me.’

South Africa at the time was not only isolated geographically, it was politically isolated as well. The country’s Apartheid racial policy was facing huge international opposition. Surfing was one of the few global sports that still toured South Africa, but it was under increasing scrutiny. Tom Carroll, the world champ at the time, would famously boycott the South African events the following year.

For a young surfer with stars in her eyes, the world of pro surfing felt like it existed in another dimension. ‘We had magazines. We had Zig Zag and Surfer and Surfing. My dad wouldn’t buy them and I couldn’t afford them, so I’d go to surf shops and flick through them till we got chased out. Then this guy, Dave had a pub and a room out the back where he’d screen surf movies and we’d all be in there hooting. It was mainly movies of the guys, but I also remember watching Margo [Oberg] and Rell [Sunn] surf. But that’s all I had to look at.’ But what Wendy did have was Shaun Tomson, world champion, South African and by then and possibly also the world’s coolest surfer. ‘I’d never met Shaun but I’d watched him in ’78 when they had the amateur world titles at Nahoon Reef. I remember Chapstick was a sponsor and to this day if I smell the original Chapstick I think of that day. They were free and I was a typical grommet with 20 of them stuffed in each pocket. I even had the T-shirt from the contest.’

By age 15, Wendy was South African junior champ, but she was running short of competition. ‘I actually surfed an open men’s event at J-Bay that year,’ she recalls. ‘I came dead last in my first heat but I surfed against Shaun and against Michael Ho and all those guys. Man, I was so young.’ But what happened back on the beach later would open a door for her. Australian contest promoter Bill Bolman was in South Africa at the time and watched Wendy’s heat. Bolman ran the Stubbies event at Burleigh and watching Wendy surf gave him an idea. There’d been no South African women surfing at the Stubbies. Wendy could really surf, and the press would love the cosmopolitan angle. ‘He came up to me and said, “You should come to Australia and surf against Pam [Burridge] and Jodie [Cooper] and these girls.” Well, that set me off. The seed was planted. I’d just won my first SA Champs, so I started begging and pleading with my dad but he said, “Sorry, I just don’t have the money.”’

Wendy wasn’t taking no for an answer. ‘I was so strong-willed. I was a good kid, I didn’t do anything radical, but I was so strong-willed I think they just threw their hands in the air. I think back and I’m like, what were they thinking? Here are these people who couldn’t swim and they’ve got this kid who wants to go and surf on the other side of the world.’ Wendy was sponsored by Graham Smith at Town and Country Surfboards, who she spoke with about the trip. A family friend lent her the money. It was only the second time she’d ever flown. At 16 she was off to Australia on her own.

‘I was sitting on the plane next to this Aussie lady and I’m telling her how it was my first time to Australia and how I was going there to surf and how excited I was. She got my whole story over 24 hours in the air. Her name was Donna. We landed in Sydney and I’m thinking, okay, here we go. I’m going to walk out and someone from the contest is going to be holding up a sign with my name on it.’ Wendy navigated immigration, collected her boards and walked into the arrivals hall ready to start her life as a pro surfer. ‘I’m looking around and there’s no one there. Nobody. I just stood there and waited for a few minutes and just burst into tears. The lady from the plane hung with me for a bit but had to eventually leave. I sat there and got more and more upset. I was just sitting there with my boards and a bag just in tears. I’m 16. I was distraught. I had no phone numbers to call and only had $200 on me. I was beside myself. I’d cried myself into a tizz.’

An hour later Donna doubled back. ‘She comes back in a taxi and walks over and says, “Come on, I’ll take you home.” She lived in Hurstville, in the suburbs with her mum, an elderly lady. We got there and I’m jet lagged and I just cried myself to sleep. I woke up 17 hours later and she knew I was about to lose my shit again and she went, “Look, it’s all good.” She’d found my phone book. “I’ve rung your dad and told him you’re okay.” She’d also asked him, “Where is she supposed to be?” He’s rung around and got a hold of Graham who said, “Sydney? No, she’s supposed to be on the Gold Coast!” How that happened still to this day I have no idea. This lady has then called Bill Bolman and told him she was putting me on a bus the following day.’

Wendy stepped off the bus into the white Queensland sun and when she saw the contest site at Burleigh, ‘My head exploded.’ Her situation improved dramatically. ‘Bill put me in an apartment at Burleigh with Pam Burridge and Jodie Cooper. I couldn’t believe it. And then we had all these vouchers and I went to Maccas for the first time in my life. I’d never even seen a McDonald’s before. Jodie came with me and watched me eat six burgers. I just went, this is the best!’

As the only South African woman in the contest – and just 16 – Wendy was the centre of attention. ‘It was mind blowing. Rabbit was making a fuss of me, and I had a photo with him in the newspaper eating an ice cream. I’m hanging out with Larry Bertlemann who’s making a fuss of me because I’m riding for the same surfboard company as him. These are people I’ve only seen in surf mags and in movies.’ The press also swooned. ‘Nev Hyman took me to meet Joh Bjelke-Petersen. I was wearing these pink shorts and thongs and standing there with all these politicians in suits. I had no idea who they were or why I was even there. No idea. I was just standing there thinking, who is this old dude?’

The tabloid papers also worked the apartheid angle. ‘I met Ketut Menda from Bali who was surfing in the event, and the press made a big deal out of it because he was dark and I was white from South Africa.’ The press cared more about it than anyone at the contest. ‘To tell you the truth it was amazing how little I knew about what was happening at home myself. But on that first trip no one really mentioned it … my first trip to America the next year, though, was a doozy. I got smashed. It was really bad, because I was South African and the South African Prime Minister at the time was named PW Botha. They thought we were related and a few Americans gave it to me.’

But while Wendy was the only South African woman on tour, she wasn’t the only South African. Her Australian trip was about to go to another level. ‘I got my arse kicked in the contest, I didn’t do any good, and Bill asked me where I was going next after Burleigh and I shrugged my shoulders and said, “I’ve got no idea.” Next minute here’s Martin Potter and Shaun Tomson going to me, “Okay, you can come with us.” I couldn’t believe it. Here I am on a road trip with the two most famous South African surfers. I’d met Pottz once before but didn’t really know him. Pottz was only my age but he seemed so much wiser and more mature. He’d really travelled. He’d been on tour since he was 14. Pottz had won a HiAce van the previous year in the contest so I jumped in with him while Shaun and Willy Morris drove behind us.’ Pottz didn’t have a drivers licence, but off they drove, south.

‘From there we went to Angourie and the surf was six-to-eight foot and incredible. I was pretty ballsy coming from Nahoon Reef, but I was terrified. I was watching the boys pull into these huge barrels, watching Willy snap a board. I remember these huge manta rays with 10-foot wingspans jumping out of the water. Man, my eyes were big as saucers. From there we picked up Stuart D’Arcy in Sydney and drove to Bells. I stayed with those guys down there. They were so good to me. They were so sweet. That same trip MR and his wife, Jenny actually took me on a road trip down the Great Ocean Road. The Ash Wednesday bushfires had just gone through and [they] showed me where all the fires had burned. But what sweet people. Everyone went out of their way to help me.’

Wendy lost early in both Stubbies and Bells events, ‘got my arse kicked’ but remembers ‘my surfing improved in leaps and bounds. I was improving daily on that trip. I wanted to surf like a guy. Tom Curren was always my favourite surfer, along with Pottz and Shaun, and I watched those guys surf and I tried whatever they did. I was also blown away that I was surfing Burleigh and Kirra and Bells and all these places I’d only seen in the movies and in magazines. If I didn’t come to Australia I would never have improved the way I did.’

When Wendy finally made it back to South Africa a month later her world had changed. She let everyone know about it. ‘Of course I got home and I was out of control. “Yeah, I’ve been hanging with Shaun and Pottz and Pam Burridge.” I must have been such a punish. I was shy around people I didn’t know, but at home was another matter. I went home and even though I’d got my arse kicked all I could think of was, I don’t care what happens, I’m going back.’

Wendy left school immediately. ‘I went to them, “I’m so out of here you’re not going to see me for dead.”’ She took jobs lifeguarding and working in a burger restaurant on the beachfront. She saved. She handed out a thousand letters asking for sponsorship and a few rand to fund her travels. She returned to Australia the following year and ‘had it totally sussed this time. Trust me.’ She had it more than sussed. Wendy won the 1985 Stubbies. She then won the BHP Steel contest in Newcastle.

She felt the pull of Australia. ‘Straight away I went, this is where I want to live. I wanted to live in Australia. The Aussies were so into their surfing, while back home in South Africa no one really cared. There are contests in Australia, there are sponsors. The first guy to sponsor me was actually Rod Brooks at Piping Hot wetsuits. He was so good to me. I went in there to the factory and got to pick out wetsuits; grabbed all the fluoro colours naturally. I also went through a white wetsuit phase, because I had a crush on Cheyne [Horan] at the time.’

Wendy moved to Australia, settled on the northern beaches in Sydney and by 1987 had won her first world title, still as a South African. She won her second title in 1989 as an Australian. She laughs now. ‘The grounds I eventually got let in as a citizen was basically, “This kid can surf and she might win another world title.” I was pretty homesick the first few years, but after three years it had turned around and Australia felt like home and South Africa felt like a holiday. It was tough. I love home and that never goes away, but to do what I wanted to do I had to be here in Australia.’

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