When the Rip Curl Search Tactical Unit said to: "Standby, you're going … anywhere," it sounded like carte blanch, an open cheque to find waves planet wide. The fact that the swell we were targeting had come and gone by the time we left Australia was more a matter of logistical friction than lack of planning. My histrionic ‘‘dag nabbit’’ type exclamation was a thin attempt at disguising the fact that I wasn’t fazed about our failed rendezvous with a done and dusted swell. For mine, surgical strikes are clinical and soul-less anyway. They aren't real travel at all, they lack romance; they're like paying for sex. I much prefer going out and just hunting for surf, the more so for the sake of story telling. Besides, if it’s guaranteed, it’s hardly ‘Searching’, is it? That we'd be camping in a desert wilderness, many hours drive from food, water, anything, would also be great story fodder, I thought, a touch nervously.

As the sole Aussies, Louie Hynd and me would be thrown into the desert with a crew of Americans, the plan being to first stockpile enough life support to see us through a couple of weeks in one of the most isolated, desolate and unforgiving ecosystems on earth. Dillon Perillo and Noah Wegrich were the other surfers, and our gang would be rounded off by Rip Curl staffers Matt Myers and Steve 'Chimpsy' Morrisette, videographer Rory Pringle and our local guide, Vicente. We had an RV and two 4WD's, and enough camping gear, food and fuel to make Bear Grylls eat a bowl of spiders' arseholes in disgust. We seemed prepared, but really it was all just trinkets, a facsimile of protection against an environment that could take us out with a wink of its unfeeling eye. We could hold out for a while, but it would be a war of attrition.

We drove in convoy for what seemed like forever, the highway's narrow lanes, murderous oncoming trucks and numerous destroyed guard rails - with accompanying crosses, flowers and memorials - the first indicators that life burns fast here. And these were only the man made threats. As we headed farther south, the verdant landscape faded to earthy ochres and siennas, desert slowly prevailing until it was all you could see; we were entering the realm of natural dangers. It was rarely devoid of life, though. Tough, spiky, drought resistant life. Cacti run the show here, cacti of every possible shape and size. There are at least 120 species in this region, including the awesome Cardon, the world's largest. It can attain heights of 20 metres, and weigh up to 40 tons after rain, its highly adapted water retention systems ensuring it drinks hard and fast during its rare chances. And it can live for over 200 years, a true testament to this prickly old grandfather's mastery of hell.

Within this now parched region, there were a great variety of landscapes. Undulating plains dominated by single agave species, and mountainous slopes punctuated with the bizarre, Dr Suess type trees, creating a truly alien impression. There were also bouldered zones, transformed into stunning compositions by artfully placed verticals, in the form of the archetypal Saguaro cacti, growing majestically amongst the house-sized boulders. It looked like some sensitive giant's lovingly created rock garden. Vicente quelled my gushing over this sculptural wonderland somewhat with his warnings about rattlesnakes, which apparently adore it as much as I do:

"The young ones are the worst," he counselled. "They are silent, as they do not yet have a warning rattle, and their inexperience also means they usually deliver a full dose of venom. The adults learn to conserve their weapons, but the youngsters … they're excitable."

I calmed down a bit, reflecting that some things are best admired from a distance anyway.

The RV performed incredibly well during the last few hours of the drive down. Some of the evil off road trails we submitted it to verged on impassable, but it just kept crawling over them. Of course, on cue, our confidence high, we bogged it convincingly in powdery sand within a few hundred metres of our first camp. Vicente was mortified. His guiding credibility compromised in his mind, he compensated by grabbing the bull by the horns and attacking the problem. Chimpsy caught his energy like a virus, and they threw everything at the RV, which at this point was looking more like a home than a mobile home. It was bottomed out, 2 tons of cubic metal sitting flush on the sand like a shipping container. Despite our preparations, we had no tow rope. On a thin hope Chimpsy drove one of the 4WD's on to our proposed camp site to see if anyone was around, and incredibly returned half an hour later with a borrowed tow strap from some better prepared campers. Thankfully one of our 4WD's was a powerful beast, an F350 that had the balls to pull the RV out.

"We finally got it out with the bigger 4WD, with everyone digging on their hands and knees for a couple of hours. It was pretty hectic; but it was our first bonding experience!" Noah said.

Our elation at escaping our first encounter with the desert's claws was only tempered by the fact that we still had to set up camp, late at night after a very big day. Still, we were mobile again, and tomorrow was another day.

Vicente had delivered us to a right point break, and morning revealed mellow 4 footers running lazily down a cobblestone peninsula. I thought the waves looked fun, in a fishy sort of way, but I knew the surfers wouldn't think much of them. As a rinse from the first night's sandy debacle however, they did the job.

The ocean held more obvious signs of life than the land. Pelicans, gulls, ospreys, terns, sandpipers, sea lions, whales and dolphins wheeled and dealed around the coastline, plying their trades and seemingly doing very well in an environment that was so opposite to the one it lay adjacent to. But as you had to look harder at the desert to realise how much life it supported, so you also had to really observe the ocean to see its unforgiving side. We regularly saw whale bones, some of them the size of builder’s planks; dolphin skulls; dead sea lions and desiccated leopard sharks. Life burns here all right, on land and in the sea.

Our camp resembled a shanty town. The RV was the community hall, and scruffy tents formed brave little suburbs around it. It took awhile to settle into any sort of order with cooking and the like; with 8 people and a huge pile of miscellaneous stuff, you need military type discipline to organise even basic things like meals. Since we were far from disciplined - I wouldn't quite call us useless – we initially resorted to snacks, fruit and other easy pickings as a kind of buffer before we had to face any actual cooking.

The loose plan was to relocate every few days, since the wave potential in the region was spread over a fairly large area. We would thus leave the RV at various base camps and strike out in the 4WD's to look for surf. In this country, we were free to set up camp anywhere we liked, and one memorable night we bivouacked on a headland overlooking a fun right-hander with no one in sight, a rare treat in camping circles.

One afternoon we stumbled onto a deserted little bluff that held a nice looking right-hander, reeling off towards a rocky coastline that was all rich, golden earth tones in the late warm sunlight. The coastal terrain was reminiscent of Streaky Bay in South Australia, and I wondered what swam in the ocean here. It didn't have a sharky vibe, but who knows? Vicente hadn't been aware of this wave, and no one could say whether it had been surfed before. It was an inviting set up, and the boys flared out there in the last of the day's rays, Louie's patented backhand fin blows lighting up in a shower of gold sparks before sunset turned them to muted purples.

"Surfing alone with your friends is one of the most pure experiences in the world, at least it is for me,” Noah said. “You look around and you're just in the middle of nowhere, you don't see a person around, it’s just surf, your friends, the landscape. That's as good as it gets. That's a little bit of heaven right there." We never did see another soul at this wave.

The cool water temperature demanded steamers, and the land wasn't far behind once the sun had set. That is typical of a desert environment, which only adds to the demands of surviving in arid zones. This fluctuating temperature had us going from fully fleeced, rugged up beanie wearers at night, competing for the least smokey campfire position, to board short wearing, dehydrated rats during the heat of the day. It was relentless.

"Camping with a lot of people isn't very easy," Dillon reflected. "I have a lot of social imperfections; I'm pretty sure I got mad at everyone at some point. Its easy to get me annoyed - for reasons I won't state - but camping with 8 people in close proximity, looking for surf that isn't always there, can be really frustrating. People can tend to blame things on other people rather than themselves! It was a struggle. Every meal we made was a struggle; you're just trying to get by. A lot of people think: 'Why camp?' But when there's a good reason to camp it makes it more real, because it's the only way you can travel to certain places; there're no hotels. There's a genuine purpose to it. It's almost rare now; hotels are everywhere. I'm pretty sure I've never been on a surf trip before where I've had to camp, with no other option. Especially with Air B&B nowadays, you can get accommodation almost anywhere."

One of the less glamorous quirks of camping in the wilderness is turd management. With 8 people, and other intrepid travellers to consider, these things need to be planned. Hence the creation of our little kit, consisting of paper, mini shovel and lighter. Privacy is only attainable in this open desert by means of distance, so off you would trek, with kit in hand, to find solitude to do what you had to; the Search never ends. The shovel was for burying, the lighter for burning the paper, and any night time emissions were melodramatically punctuated by fiery little exclamation marks in the distant night.

The indigenous people of this land, the Pericu', added an unexpected touch to this essential process. In season, the endemic organ pipe cactus will produce a tennis ball fruit that was much prized, and inspired feasts and festivals where it would be devoured in what was known as the 'First Harvest'. Some time later, the droppings from this gorging would be collected, and the seeds of the fruit sifted out. This would be made in to a rich (no doubt) pozole, or soup, known as the 'Second Harvest'. One of the secrets of survival in this brutal land is, clearly, a mastery of recycling.

Dillon is very different to the standard pro surfer model. His intelligence sneaks up on you; he never misses even the driest one-liners from anyone, and throws a few out himself. You can't get away with any bullshit either; he is like a walking fact checker, and any vague statistics or wobbly general knowledge you offer - which I can usually get away with - will be crushed by him relentlessly. Sometimes he almost seems embarrassed to be a pro surfer, not in a way that implies he thinks he's above it, more that he has something more profound to offer sometime down the track. In the meantime, his surfing is always on the edge of what is progressive and stylish. At one session at a shallow cove, where thick racetrack rights had changed up their previously sluggish roll down a long headland with an encore of sudden grunt and real power, he was arcing into turns and fin wafts at lightning speed, a performance of precision and class.

As an area to Search for surf in, this region is textbook. There are few people here, and endless headlands, promontories and bays to explore. But they all demand effort to get too, and mostly it is a mission to check any likely looking prospects … and there are many. The desert is punctuated by difficult to negotiate mountainous zones, rocky hills and dry valleys alternating in a constant, dust bowl battle of will. This ruthless acid test means even the vehicles do it tough, let alone our feeble selves. We really feel outclassed by the native flora and fauna, which have earned their right to local status through countless generations of trial and error.

The unsettlingly regular appearance of the bones and bodies of better adapted species than us, maybe more worthy candidates than us, remind us constantly of our artificial and interim status of survival here. We are temporarily stumbling our way around, an ignorant approach propped up by our machines and the knowledge that we are but brief visitors. Long term survival here is a smarter, more elegant ask. Coyotes, for example, smaller, of finer physique and sleeker than I’d imagined – based on my extensive knowledge of the Roadrunner cartoons - use cunning and patience, as well as an omnivorous and no fuss diet. Like most animals here, they time their activity with the hours of the day, optimising their energy expenditure to food consumption ratio. Like most everything else here, they also pack a counter punch in the form of almost certain delivery of rabies, and very certain infection, from any bite. Louie agrees it's tough:

"I was expecting a hot, dry, desolate location …and that’s pretty much what it is, except it's freezing cold at night. It's pretty much just a barren wasteland with cactus and rocks and sharp things everywhere. But I wanted to come here because it's so different. I haven't stopped walking around amazed, shooting the wildest stuff with my camera. I can't get over how different the landscape is from back home in east coast Australia. It's an interesting environment to be in, and challenging too."

This place grows on us as the days roll by. Almost imperceptibly, its subtle beauty emerges from our initial impressions of a dusty wasteland. It has an understated magic that gradually washes over you like a slow tide, an increasing feeling of a pared back existence, all superfluous frills long since burned away by the sun and the stone and the sharp and spiky edges. Speaking of which, it feels like everything is sharp here. Every blade of grass, every ground cover plant, every bush or shrub or anything alive, from spiders, snakes and scorpions to the ubiquitous cacti. It is as if, within their own spartan act of survival, they hold up their swords in defiance against the elements, ready to go down fighting to the pointy end. You don’t go barefoot much here.

But it is mesmerising, too. There are occasional, spectacular groves of cacti holding dozens of different species, like thorny rainforests. The diversity in these is astonishing: tall, fat, flat, spiral, spherical, every shade of green and every gauge of thorn, from hair-like to daggers as thick as sharpened pencils. They are punctuated with saturated, multi-coloured blossoms, and look like the work of a sinister artist with a malignant sense of humour, but a brilliant eye for design.

In one of these seemingly inaccessible gardens I noticed a beautiful little hummingbird, barely the size of a moth, buzzing around and feeding nonchalantly from the apparently impregnable flowers. His skillful control and delicate hovering gave him access to even the most thornily recessed blooms, a master of adaptation to rival, and even outwit, the recurring hazards of this ecosystem.

After a couple of camp pack ups and set ups, we were getting pretty good at it. We could usually mobilise within the hour, from bare ground to full campsite, complete with raging fire and food on the cook. Everyone has a crack at cooking, with varied success. The approach is minimal, and the goal is to finish and get settled around the fire with a beer - kept cold for the first week at least via a couple of huge eskies and some large blocks of ice, the theory being that they melt slower than small cubes due to their decreased surface area to volume ratio.

In ancient times, the campfire was the focus of a family's attention, before radio, television and all the rest of the electronic chewing gum options lobotomised our social brains. Fire was the original colour TV, a crackling and non-verbal model that elicited conversation rather than discouraged it, and in between anecdotes and jokes it is an ever changing and hypnotic oracle.

Some of the campfire story telling was pretty hectic. 8 males in the wilderness will always get ribald and raucous, and unfortunately the best stories must remain untold, or at least anonymous. One - featuring a threesome and a dancing, in-situ tapeworm who was apparently intoxicated by a psychotropic alkaloid and acting in a very un-tapeworm like way - will probably not make it to print. It did however cause some of us to almost choke on our beers through sheer hilarity and laughter induced semi-asphyxia.

"Some of my favourite moments were sitting around the campfire getting to know some of the guys on the trip better, revealing past experiences… there were some pretty interesting characters on this trip, it wouldn't have been the same without 'em. It was fun telling crazed sex stories and talking about a bunch of other weird shit going on in our lives," Noah said. Louie concurred: "For sure, it's nice to just cruise and appreciate nature, sit around the fire talking shit and laughing our heads off! Take it back a few notches. I love the times when no one is talking too, just staring at the fire thinking private thoughts."

Everyone has their own theories on when certain waves might work. We have scoped out several point breaks that look to have much potential, but the complex variables of wind, tide, sand and swell direction elicit wildly diverse suggestions as to when to check what. There are enough right hand point breaks here to quicken the pulse of any natural footer, but they are many miles apart, and every check becomes a gamble in which the stakes are possibly missing another break which might be much better - or maybe not even breaking.

The waves here feel as protected by the filter of distance, the harshness of travel, the isolation and inaccessibility of the landscape, as the wise cacti are by their spines. And, too, some of the line ups that looked so nice from afar turned out to be not so great up close, yet another subtle gambit in this intriguing and demanding game of desert chess.

“We always came in saying 'if only this, if only that'. The set ups were so perfect …it’s just the old case of not enough swell, wrong wind, or sand not quite right. It really seems like the sand is really affected by swells, I guess you need a small swell just pushing the sand into the bays, then a solid swell to break perfectly,” Louie thought.

Dillon added: "We can't always expect surf, so … my new mantra for travelling is always have the lowest expectations possible, even to the point of planning to not even get in the water, so if you do, you're satisfied. Where I'm from, everyone seems to have this high expectation mentality. They always think that it's the worst thing in the world to miss out. But this place is so sand dependent, and swell direction is crucial, it seems. I get the feeling you could really miss out because of the sand being in the wrong place.”

The swell had kicked a bit overnight, and seemed to still be on the rise. I was delighted at not knowing what was coming … at all. The lack of phone reception or any other communication had been a godsend in my eyes; we were supposed to be on the Search, and it seemed like better sport to be truly on our own, making decisions based on what we saw and felt, not based on some Internet swell guru directing us like imbeciles to go here or there. That seems more like following than Searching.

"It's good not having any contact with the outside world; having no signal was a relief. People are so fixated by their phones these days, half the time you'll be bored with your phone after a minute anyway, and just sit there staring at it for no reason," Louie added.

We had contemplated going off to look at another spot while we waited for the tide, but before that happened the sandbar right started to flare a bit. Within the time it took 8 people to reassess another basic decision, which was always painfully dragged out, the call was made easy by the arrival of a set of chest to head high screamers. These waves were so exquisitely formed, and ran down that gun barrel bank with such wondrous symmetry, you'd have to be insane or insanely fussy to not grow an instant beard of froth, toss it over your shoulder like a musketeer, and charge out there.

I was running around like a blue-arsed fly, working angles and trying to portray this gorgeous line up in as inviting a way as possible. Rory was gone again, as was his way. He would be completely out of sight within minutes of us checking anywhere. We'd stop, start to suss out a break, and before you knew it he would be on top of some distant mountain, his tripod already set up as he ripped into another clip. I began to suspect he could teleport himself, because at times he covered hundreds of metres in about 4 seconds. He is a tricky little bastard, and his work ethic is amazing.

The sets began to fire in, and the session would have been close to all time if there'd been a touch more size. I still thought it looked incredibly fun, but I had to concede it was definitely a bit of an 'If only' moment. Noah really flared out this session. The down the line nature of the little peelers demanded moves with lateral projection, and his flat rockered board seemed to suit the waves and his speed lined backhand attack.

A couple of his pig dog, cheater five nose ride combos oozed style and 'don't take yourself too seriously' sheer fun. Noah is the classic Santa Cruz type, always happy, slightly crazy and usually nursing a beer, and was great energy on a trip like this where hard yards can make people eggy at times.

In the afterglow of this session, someone suggested we go and have a look at another point, which had showed potential a few days prior. On that day, it had only been about 2 foot, but long, clean walls arced into a beautiful stony cove dotted with big green agaves. The setting was sublime, and with this increase in swell, who knew? It was a good hour's drive, but with quenching beers and a feeling of no rush we moseyed on down there in the late afternoon, arriving near sunset to find it maxed out and lacking its previous mojo. In fact the whole bay looked strangely malevolent, hardly recognisable from the other day. Having driven out along the beach to the cove, we watched for a while, decided to head back to our current camping site, and then the day suddenly turned very sour.

Chimpsy was driving the big F350, and as he began to turn it around, hit a seam of hidden clay and sunk that big boy to the chassis in about a second. What we'd thought was easy sand had hidden treacherous clay, but with spinning wheels we could now see it was worse than quicksand. The car was close to the surf, and with an incoming tide only about halfway up, and the sun halfway down, things looked grim.

We began to go through all the standard procedures: air out of the tyres; everyone pushing; digging around the wheels. It was worse than useless. The tyres were spinning in baths of pure, wet clay, the heavy vehicle was utterly bottomed out, and waves were beginning to wash up past the doors. Help was a world away.

There was a semi abandoned fishing village here, and there were also several seams of football sized rocks around the shore. In amongst the fishing shacks, there were scattered old planks, ripped up bolts of old carpet, even a few shovels. It was as if some omnipotent puppeteer had left clues and miscellanea to help us escape, like a set up out of ‘Hunger Games’ or ‘The Truman Show’. Despite the props, it seemed futile. 'Oh well', I thought, a bit disloyally, 'It'll make for a good story, and it's only an insured hire car'. I started taking some photos while the others kept busy at a task as insurmountable as hitting the moon with a slingshot, and at this point Dillon remembered seeing another big 4WD and caravan on the track on our way in. He carefully backed our other, smaller 4WD off the beach, avoiding the clay, and soon returned with Tony. Poor, dear Tony.

From British Columbia, Tony is about 70, and had been quietly minding his own business when he was roped into our nightmare. He offered to try and pull us out with his powerful vehicle, and within seconds he was bogged, too. The dynamic of the situation changed in an instant. Instead of a crew of self-destructing morons, splashing around in the mud with our oversized Tonka toys, we were suddenly racked with the guilt of this poor guy's life being ruined. With his only lifeline to the outside world sitting in an increasingly rising shore break of foam and surf, the sight of him, bad back and all, feebly trying to dig around his sunken tyres and $50,000 vehicle was heartbreaking. The feeling of helplessness was overwhelming. I could just make out the silhouette of Noah down there in the near darkness, trying to help him.

"Getting bogged is just one of the things people do down here. They get stuck, they run out of petrol, food, coffee or beer … what’s the other one? Oh yeah, they die. For me, our truck was a rental, so I was happy to just leave it in the surf and move on, let the locals salvage some parts," Dillon said drily. "We happened to bring a helpless old man into it though, and managed to help him get his truck stuck too. It was an unfortunate situation. He was an innocent bystander who spent the next 7 hours digging, trying to get his truck out of the shore break."

What could we do? Chimpsy and Vicente drove off in our little 4WD, in some faint hope of finding a distant town with tow trucks and winches and bringing them back here … it was hopeless. It was pretty much dark now, and we had some scraps of food and had lit a fire. We persuaded Tony to leave his car and come up to get warm. His calm acceptance and lack of temper almost made us feel worse. I wanted him to scream at us, to abuse us, throw something at us. No. His friendly manner in the face of this calamity was unbelievable. And the tide just kept coming.

A couple of hours later, Chimpsy and Vicente returned . . . with reinforcements. Before committing to find help from afar, they’d stopped in out of desperation at our latest camping spot, an hour down the road, where there had been some other campers. To our incredible good fortune, they turned out to be total 'can do' types, with big car jacks and chains and ridiculously positive attitudes. They looked like they'd just come from MacGyver auditions. They had lights, and plans, and orders to shout at us, and we did everything they told us to. We dug and battled and crawled in the mud, and endured waves washing halfway up the cars, and motivated by Tony’s predicament we worked like maniacs. We jacked the cars at both ends, dug out tracks in line with the wheels, front and back, and extending for about 3 metres past the clay zone, and filled them with rocks. It took until about 1am, but finally both cars were free and clear. The look on Tony's face as he drove off, free, made life seem very special indeed. We could now leave here not only alive, but with our guilt appeased. It felt like time to go home.

We’d found a bit of surf, but discovered a lot about ourselves. The extremes of that environment mean that only the most perfect adaptations will survive, and our own survival was due more to the brevity of our exposure than any real skills. With our clumsy negotiation of that scorched place, our crude bludgeoning of the cruel elements there, our tools paled into insignificance compared to those who have truly paid their dues of adaptation.

As an analogy for our lives, our short stint in the desert was appropriate. As in life, all we could do was marvel at the rugged beauty, the stark and surreal country that was ours to enjoy for the briefest time, before getting turfed out like the temporary lodgers we were. In geological time, our residence on earth is similarly brief, as we are summoned from stardust like lottery winners to cling as long as we can to the beauty of life. The best we can do with those winning tickets is to make it a dance, as artful and elegant as possible. Like that clever hummingbird, who fluttered and finessed his way between the spines, so must we read between the lines, and burn bright like they do in the desert, like the incandescent beings that we are, before taking our bows and making our dignified retreat into the ether, raw materials ready for the next guest on this wonderful planet. – Dave Sparks

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