It was the part of the tour I had been most excited about and most dreading in equal measure. My journey down the Eastern coast of Australia was coming to an end and I had arrived at Surf Camp, just a few hours drive south of Byron Bay.
I have never been a natural in the ocean. It took me 27 years just to learn how to tread water and even then I was unsure if I was not still sinking, just at a slower rate. So the idea of squeezing into a wetsuit and spending the day trying to balance on a plank of wood in deep water was more than a little intimidating. But this was Australia - how could I not give surfing a go?
Our group was unusually small with only 6 of us on the bus including our driver, Dale, himself a former surfing instructing. There were also two instructors at camp. I forget their names, so let's just call them Sheila and Bruce. Sheila was obviously in charge, and of all the orders she doled out during the course there was one that kept cropping up again and again, though it was never explained - "don't piss in your wetsuit" she would say, as regular as the tides.
The first session did not go too badly. I did not manage to stand up on the board, but the most important thing was that I did not drown and the experience was still fun, largely due to Dale entertaining us with his headstands performed mid wave. By the time we got back to camp for drinks around the fire, everyone was in high spirits. Everyone that is, except for Sheila and Bruce.
Bruce had only just returned from an extended vacation in the 'Top End' and I caught the tail of a conversation he shared with Sheila when they thought none of us backpackers were within earshot.
'Are those two dolphins still hanging around?' asked Bruce. 'There's no better feeling than sharing a wave with nature's best swimmers snapping at your heels.'
Sheila went pale. It was the first time I'd seen spirit dip all day.
'They've gone,' she told him. 'They left when the pointer moved in. I haven't seen them since.'
Bruce's eyes widened.
'You've told them about the wetsuits, haven't you?'
'It was the first thing I told them,' she replied.
'Well, we better remind them. You know, to be safe.'
They then both turned to the 5 of us gathered around the campfire and said in unison; 'Guys, whatever you do, don't piss in your wetsuits.'
The next morning I was sat on my board about 20 metres from shore with Sheila next to me. I desperately needed to relieve myself. I was tempted to defy the rule just go then and there, but something about that conversation I overhead the night before was niggling at my brain.
'What's a pointer?' I asked. The term was completely alien to me. I thought maybe it was a type of boat. If fishermen were throwing down nets close by, I could understand why the dolphins weren't hanging around.
'Why do you ask?' replied Shelia, glancing nervously over her shoulder.
'It's something I heard you and Bruce talking about last night. Just before you reminded us for the one hundredth time not to piss in our wetsuits. I should warn you that I may be close to breaking that rule if a wave doesn't come along soon.'
I laughed. Sheila didn't.
'DO NOT PISS IN YOUR WETSUIT,' she said, much more firmly than usual. 'I cannot stress how important this is.'
'Are you that worried about hygiene?' I asked, 'because we're in the water and we rinse the suits thoroughly when we get back anyway.'
'A pointer is what you will know as a Great White Shark,' she said.
This time I was the one looking nervously over my shoulder, searching the depths below for that tell tale shadow. The shore had never seemed further away.
'There's a great white shark here?' I asked, incredulously.
'Yes, and it can detect just one drop of bodily fluid in the ocean from miles away. Blood or piss, it really doesn't matter.'
I felt like throwing up. No doubt it would smell that too. Why had they let us put ourselves in such danger? It seemed that dolphins really are smarter than humans.
'Where's this shark now?' My biggest fear was that it was between myself and the shore. If that was the case, I had no chance.
'Sleeping,' said Sheila. 'It's feeding territory stretches out about 30km along the cost and it's unlikely to come in closer than 3km to the shore. Best not to tempt it though. It could cover that distance quicker than you could swim to the beach.'
Thirty seconds later, the wave came and I rode it all the way to the sand standing on my feet.
If there is a moral to this tale, then I guess it is to never ignore advice that has been given. You do not necessarily have to follow said advice, but always find out the reason for the advice before deciding if it is worth following. That and never, under any circumstances, should you ever piss in your wetsuit.