Editor's note: Veteran photographer Peter "Joli" Wilson has had a front-row seat to some of the biggest moments in surf history. Here, he recounts some of his memories from Mundaka, one of the best lefts on the planet.
Mundaka: A Detour On The Hippie Trail
Mundaka was a side stop on the '60s and '70s counter-culture's "Hippie Trail" that stretched halfway across the world from the UK and countries in Western Europe like Holland or Germany, where you could buy a cheap Kombi van or something similar, and follow the sun south.
For surfing hippies, this trail led through Biarritz, in the south of France, down through the Basque Country to Mundaka, then continued on through Portugal, and as it got colder headed to exotic locations like Marrakesh and Anchor Point in Morocco.
There wasn't much more surf on the "Trail" as it continued through cities like Istanbul in Turkey, Kabul in Afghanistan, Goa, Kashmir or Lahore in India before crossing through Kathmandu in Nepal and onto Bangkok or Chang Mi in Thailand before winding up back at another surf spot, Kuta, in Bali.
While the main route for the Hippie Trail was all over land, surfers added a detour down the Atlantic coast, and the wave at Mundaka was more or less discovered as part of this detour in the late '60s. It was first described on the grapevine as a "mystery left" in the Basque Country by surfers who had been hanging around Biarritz's Cote De Basque. They drove for hours trying to find it. It wasn't until a full-blown expose in Surfer Magazine in the mid '70s that the exact location was revealed.
The Classic Mundaka Lineup
The carpark right on the edge of the harbor overlooking the break, in the shadow of village church, would be packed solid with travelers in their vans through surf season autumn surf season. The lifestyle of the crew that lived in their vans around the village waiting for surf clashed with local traditions. The overflow set up an improvised camping ground adjacent to the local cemetery on the hillside, which overlooked the estuary and the surf break. Former ASP Tour Manager Al Hunt was one of those guys that was living in a van near the cemetery during the '70s, and tells the story of being kicked out of the area by armed military police with machine guns.
When the swell hit, the view from the cemetery created the classic lineup view of Mundaka. I shot this image in 1989 sitting on the high stone wall surrounding the cemetery. When the ASP started running events at Mundaka 10 years later I went back up to the cemetery on a big swell hoping to replicate this same image, but the trees had grown and blocked the view.
Could I call him Mr. Mundaka? Probably, but maybe it's a title that wouldn't sit well with him. Craig Sage's name definitely goes hand in hand with surfing in Mundaka for close to four decades. Him and his Basque wife, Itziar, are the couple behind Mundaka Surf Shop, which they set up in 1985. Sage was responsible for the running of the early European Professional Surfing Association (EPSA) events and eventually became the local go-to man for the running of the WCTs.
I first met Craig when we arrived in the village in late October of 1989. Mrs. Joli and I landed in Europe in August, we leased a purple Citron 2CV and drove from Paris to Lisbon, taking in the WCT Events in France before continuing south to Portugal, shooting an EPSA event at Supertubos in Peniche and then the European Championships in Aveiro before heading back North to Mundaka.
These were the days of no Internet or cell phones and a very loose plans. Our round-the-world ticket had us heading to Hawaii for the winter in mid-November and that was our only solid commitment.
We arrived in Mundaka a few days before the first Billabong Pro Am and just in time for an epic swell. I'm pretty sure we ran into Craig on the first day while we were checking the lineup. I can remember him almost jumping out of his skin about a huge low pressure sitting in the North Atlantic in the perfect spot to generate swell for Mundaka. He set us up with some accommodations and a few tips about hanging in the Basque region of Spain, especially where to drive and park in our 2CV, which had French registration plates, and as the Basque Independence movement was in full swing, we needed to take care.
As Craig predicted, the swell arrived just a few days before the contest and so did the surfers, some of whom were there for the Pro Am and some just to free surf. Craig led the charge with guys like Grisha Roberts, Brook Palmateer, Jeremy Byles and Nick Lavery who were there for the competition, but also crew like Tom Curren, Maurice Cole, Gary Elkerton and Wayne Lynch who had driven from France.
All Time Session
1989 all time session with a 960 low pressure sitting and spinning in the perfect swell angle. I know why some of the guys were there when the swell hit. Maurice Cole was living and shaping boards in Hossegor. Tom Curren had a French wife and was living in Anglet. And Gary Elkerton was was living in Lacanau with his French wife. Wayne Lynch was in France to shape some boards for Quiksilver.
Wayne, who had turned his back on contest surfing sometime in the '70s, actually pulled on a contest jersey and surfed in the Billabong Pro Am that ran during this swell. Maurice also competed in the contest. Maybe they just wanted to be in the water with only three other guys. Wayne has recounted that day in the book "Surf to Live, Live to Surf" by Craig Sage.
"There were four surfers in each heat and it was huge, 12- to 15-foot. I went in with Maurice Cole and Francois Payot. The fourth guy didn't show…the waves were as big and as perfect that they could get. I didn't get through to the finals, (but) it was awesome."
Thankfully I've got the pictures to prove all these guys charged the swell. What the photos don't show is that Tom Curren had grabbed a brand new board for the swell and paddled out with virtually no wax on it, which caused some awkward moments for Tom and some hilarious conversations when they were all hanging out in the Los Txopos Tapas Bar post-surf overlooking the Mundaka Harbor.
The concept of mobile ASP events was not new. In the the '90s the Billabong Pro in Hawaii roamed the North Shore running at Sunset, Pipeline and even maxing Waimea Bay. The Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach often had to resort to moving a few hours down the coast to take advantage of different spots when Bells was flat, and some of the early Billabong Pro's on the Gold Coast moved from state to state, Queensland to New South Wales, not geographically far but nothing like what the ASP and Billabong were preposing for their 1999 inaugural event in Europe.
The main contest site was going to be at Anglet in France, just on the south side to the Bayonne River, while the back-up site was going to be in another country at Mundaka in Spain. Technically both sites were in the Basque Country, which had been fighting for Independence for decades, but there was no denying that this event was going to be taking the concept of going mobile to a whole different level by running in two different countries.
In 1998, Kelly Slater, who had dominated the '90s, retired from the Tour just as Occy's comeback, after nearly a 10-year break from pro surfing was gaining momentum. His first tilt at the pro circuit was as a 16-year-old in the '80s. From 1982 to 1988 he'd sat in the Top 5 in the world before walking away from the tour in the middle of 1988, suffering as it's been described as "psychological burnout."
What followed was virtually 10 years on the couch, stacking on the weight and rare public sightings. Waking from hibernation, at 30 years of age he took on the grueling WQS circuit and qualified for the WCT, finishing second in 1997, seventh in 1998.
Through 1999, Occy was fit and healthy, his surfing was sharp and precise. He'd already won two CT events during the year in strong powerful lefts -- the Quiksilver Pro at Cloudbreak and the Gotcha Pro at Teahupo'o. After one of these wins he'd been asked by a newspaper reporter what he thought was his formula for his comeback success.
In typical Occy thought pattern, and with a deadpan look, and I'm paraphrasing, he answered, "Well during the 10 years I was away I really slept a lot and I reckon I'm really not that old."
The reporter sat there with a bemused look on his face while others in the room cracked up. Occy sat there with a straight face, waiting for the next question. We were all left wondering if he was actually serious.
Occy's comeback was serious and as his main rivals, fellow Aussies Mick Campbell and Michael Lowe, who were both in the 1999 Title race. They were knocked out in Round Three of the Mundaka event, Occy nailed a win by defeating fellow goofy-footer Guilherme Herdy in barreling conditions. At the very next event in Brasil, Occy was sitting on the beach when Flavio Padaratz knocked Campbell out of the contest and gave him an unassailable lead in the ratings and the 1999 World Title -- 17 years after he'd first turned pro.
Occy was runner-up in the 2000 Mundaka event, and he was so loved by the locals that the town made him a Mundaka Ambassador in 2008.
The first contests run at Mundaka during the mid '80s were basically local affairs before the EPSA stepped it up in 1988 and again in 1989. I was there for the 1989 event, won by Australian Jeremy Byles, who backed it up again in 1990. Sometime between Byles winning in '89 and Occy winning the first WCT event in '99 a tradition was born where after the winner of the contest was presented with his trophy on stage he was then lifted into the air and carried down the length of the harbor break wall and thrown into the ocean. In '99, when they carried Occy down to the end of the break wall and threw him off into the water, I was caught unaware.
As I was rushing along in amongst the thick of the crowd to capture the traditional dunking, I realized I had the wrong lens on my camera. It was way too tight to capture the whole show properly, but in the following years I didn't make that same mistake. I set Mrs. Joli up across on the other side of the harbor with a long lens so I could be in the middle of the crowd with a wide angle and we were able to capture the traditional dunking from both angles. In 2008, after Kelly clinched his 9th World Title during the running of the event, he was presented with the World Title trophy at the end of the day and consequently thrown into the harbor. CJ Hobgood received the same traditional dunking when he took out the whole event.
The Anglet-Mundaka Billabong Pro is a real mouthful to describe. It must have been a nightmare for not only the beach commentators but also the contest director. As much as Mundaka is probably the best left-hander in Europe, it's probably the most fickle too. The tidal changes through the Mundaka Estuary create havoc with the sand-bottom wave. The surf can go from dead flat to 4- to 6-foot in a matter of an hour as the tide races out. And the opposite can happen as the tide fills back in. I've sat on the cliffs over looking the break at 8:00 in the morning staring at a flat ocean waiting for a "contest call" and told been told, "We'll be starting at 10.30."
Then when you're back at 10.30 there are three-foot sets rolling through and they get bigger as the tide drops. The down side of this is when a contest director will try to squeeze in one more heat on the raising tide only for the heat to be starved of waves.
Combining these fickle conditions over the waiting period with the mobile component of this inaugural event and you were bouncing between countries. Round One of the men at Anglet, then a three-hour road trip to Spain's Basque Country for Round Two. A few heats of Round Three at Mundaka then it's back to Anglet for the complete Women's event -- won by Serena Brooks -- before heading back to Mundaka on the very last day of the waiting period for the Final of the Men.
A logistical nightmare at best, but definitely softened by Occy's win. Billabong persevered with the Anglet-Mundaka mobile set-up in 2000, but finally settled for the whole event to be run at Mundaka in 2001. A decision that didn't make the contest calls any easier with the varying conditions at Mundaka, but definitely made the Joli's stay in Mundaka one of many great Tour memories.