A weekend at Yeppoon reveals the wonder of Surf Lakes’ “5 Waves” technology on an old beef cattle farm, and the rewards and perils of chasing an improbable dream
It all began with the proverbial pebble dropped in a pond.
Eight years ago, Aaron Trevis was skipping rocks with his kids when he threw a larger rock and watched the ripples radiate out from it and tiny waves peel along the bank of the pond, like countless others have before him.
But for Aaron, a lifelong surfer and mining engineer, it was a lightbulb moment. How big a pebble and how large a body of water would he need to produce waves that could be surfed? That thought proved unshakeable and launched what has been a near-decade long journey, involving countless hours of toil and millions of dollars to arrive where we are today.
Where we are is a 15-hectare property leased from a beef cattle farm on the outskirts of the Central Queensland coastal town of Yeppoon, watching what looks like a huge, upside down steel mushroom repeatedly plunging into the sheet glass waters of a large man-made lake.
These ripples radiate out from their unlikely epicentre on to a series of carefully sculpted surfing “reefs” placed strategically around the lake to produce not just surfable waves, but jaw-dropping, perfect, peeling, spitting barrels that represent the most authentic man-made surfing experience to date.
Welcome to Surf Lakes’ research and development facility, and the first full-scale prototype of the patented “5 Waves” technology they hope to export around the world. The numbers alone are eye-popping. The Lake contains 80 million litres of water. It costs $150,000 just to fill it. The plunger weighs around 1400 tonnes, about 100 times heavier than the anchor of a cruise ship. At full capacity, it can produce 2000 waves per hour, or deliver 10 waves each to 200 surfers an hour, making it by far the most productive wave pool in the world. So far, Surf Lakes has raised $22 million in investment and has commercial agreements to build eight more wave pools, in the US, UK and Australia.
But in doing so, its creators are fully testing the limits of the far-fetched contraption they have built out here in a large paddock with a kind of missionary zeal that has seen them overcome all kinds of setbacks. Which is just as well because the setbacks just seem to keep coming. If the Kelly Slater Surf Ranch and the Wave Garden have successfully domesticated the wave for our surfing pleasure, Surf Lakes is striving to deliver a wild wave in captivity and in the process they are discovering the awesome power of the forces they are working with.
While the results have been stunning, they’ve been beset by technical and mechanical issues, as they wrestle with the mercurial nature of the wave-making machine they’ve created. At one point, the concrete bottom of the lake cracked and the force of the swells generated by the plunger lifted whole sections and tossed them up on the shore of the lake like oversized seashells. A mesh lining has had to be added to the lake-bed to reinforce it. Running repairs and trouble-shooting have become a constant and expensive part of the R&D process. If Kelly’s Surf Ranch represents the slick, safe and conservative American approach to wave pools, Surf Lakes stands as the wild, untamed, Australian version – held together with pure passion and super glue.
We arrive late on a Thursday afternoon after a 10-hour drive from the Gold Coast, slowed by roadworks and several roadhouse stops for dubious sustenance. We pass the turn offs to more customary surf destinations like the Sunshine Coast beaches, Noosa Heads, and eventually Agnes Waters, commonly regarded as the most northerly surf spot on the east coast, before the splendour of the Great Barrier Reef blocks swell reaching the mainland. Surf trips rarely involve travelling this far north. When we finally turn off the highway onto a potholed dirt road and bounce through the gum trees, past old weatherboard farm houses and arrive at a farm gate, for the first time, this starts to feel like a surf trip. Once through the gate, a long gravel drive-way leads us to our first glimpse of Surf Lakes.