Bells Beach Brouhaha

3 Apr 2012 0

Surfers check conditions on the opening day of the 2012 Rip Curl Pro.

Surfers check conditions on the opening day of the 2012 Rip Curl Pro.

Report by Tim Baker

Council puts tourist buses before surfers, claim locals

Imagine pulling into your local beach car park to a spot where you’ve parked for 30 years, going for a surf and coming in to discover you’ve been fined?

Bells locals are seething after the Surf Coast Shire Council installed a major tourist bus hub in the middle of the Bells car park, took out about 30 car parking spaces and installed double yellow lines where surfers have been parking for decades. And they claim parking officers have been targeting surfers’ cars to enforce the new measures.

Carparking: at a premium when the surf's this good.

Carparking: at a premium when the surf's this good.


It is the latest in a long running saga that pits council plans and tourism interests against the rights of local surfers.

“This has been the biggest change in the history of Bells Beach,” says local surfer Jack Perry. “With the amount of surfers coming to surf in this area it has meant that there are limited spaces for people to park and crew have been getting fined for parking in areas where they have parked for 30 years. The council have turned Bells car park into a city mall car park, filled with 17 new additional signs in the lower Bells car park and yellow lines spread throughout.”


Long-time local surfer/shaper Maurice Cole has been leading the charge, highlighting a range of issues of concern to local surfers – including bus traffic, sewage, drainage, erosion, parking, litter and human waste in the surrounding vegetation and the impact of Easter crowds. He has formed the Bells Beach Preservation Society to push the cause after the breakdown of a Bells Beach Advisory Committee that fell out with council.

The new bus hub was a quick fix solution to a damning traffic management report which highlighted the risk to pedestrians posed by the increasing bus and coach traffic in the Bells car park. Maurice claims the traffic report was conducted over three days when there was no surf, and didn’t take into account the 200 or so surfers’ vehicles which might be in the car park when the waves are good.

Maurice Cole's update on the bus situation, from Save Bells Beach:

The current, natural setting at Bells.

The current, natural setting at Bells.

The view through the bushland over Winki.

The view through the bushland over Winki.


Newspaper reports have painted the surfers as lawless, self-interested vigilantes, out to intimidate tourists and sabotage council’s worthy initiatives.

In a recent article in the Sunday Age Surf Coast Shire mayor Brian McKiterick claimed:

''It's clear there is a fringe minority group of people intent on trying to intimidate people at Bells, issuing misleading statements and damaging infrastructure that's there to protect the reserve's natural environment and manage the impacts of growing visitation.”

Bells Beach, in relation to the proposed alternative bus stopover in Torquay, approximately five kilometres away.

Bells Beach, in relation to the proposed alternative bus stopover in Torquay, approximately five kilometres away.


The statement only furthered strained relations between surfers and council. “This has angered locals who surf in the area and do everything we can to conserve and protect this amazing area,” says Jack Perry. “In all my years surfing in the area I have never seen any local surfers damaging infrastructure at Bells Beach. To me it seems like the Surf Coast Shire are not listening to the local community and they want all the buses they can squeeze into Bells car park. Due to the massive numbers visiting Bells Beach each day there is also major rubbish issues which need to be addressed. We as surfers don't own Bells Beach but we do feel as though we are caretakers of the area, doing everything we can to look after the area, unlike the tourists buses that come to Bells Beach and add no economic value to the community.”

Neil Ridgway is Group Advertising and Marketing Chairman for Rip Curl, and a former member of the Bells Beach Advisory Committee. As such, he has to balance the needs of running a major sporting event, working with various levels of government and respecting the interests of local surfers.

“Australia is a free country. If you want to see Bells Beach and how remarkable it is you should be able to.  The tourists love getting their picture taken with the Bowl as a back drop and it stokes them out,” he says. “But enjoying Bells for it's beauty and meaning is different to tour operators stopping off at Bells for morning tea, use the dunny and fill the garbage bins because it's a geographically convenient stop-over on their loop from Melbourne to the 12 Apostles. That's not real tourism for the Surf Coast Shire and that's what's really turning people off at the moment. It's a parking and usage issue. Moving the buses outside of the Reserve and introducing a Licensing fee would see many divert to the Torquay town precinct, which in turn would benefit local business, and take a huge amount of the stress away.”

A call by community groups to declare a moratorium on the issuing of bus licenses in the Bells reserve was rejected at a recent council meeting. The Surfrider Foundation is lobbying for all bus traffic to be diverted to Torquay, where local businesses could benefit from the increased trade.

“The more buses that go through Torquay the more jobs for locals. It is hard to understand why the Surf Coast Shire supports commercial bus operations that do not support local small business and local jobs,” says Surfrider’s Richard Bennett. “Bells Reserve is the Uluru of the Australian surfing coastline and so its pristine environment and rich indigenous and surfing heritage must be preserved. We now have over 2000 people from the Surf Coast and around the world who have called for the Surf Coast Shire to stop licensing buses at Bells and engage the local community in true collaborations so we can come up with a better plan for the future.”


Aaron Neighbour is a graduate architect who recently completed a 12-month study of the Bells Beach Surfing Reserve for his thesis.  His suggestion is to build a designated, gravel, bus parking bay where the existing overflow parking is for the Rip Curl Pro, north of Winki Pop.

“As an impartial party, I found that when you looked beyond a surfer’s emotional ties to the site, and the council’s legislative agendas, there are some pretty clear solutions that start to surface,” he says. “One of these that seems to have gone unnoticed is to adapt the temporary Rip Curl Pro car park to an all-year (gravel) visitor car park. This would relieve the strain on current parking facilities, providing the opportunity to decrease the asphalt footprint of the existing car park and re-vegetate, as it no longer needs to cater for tourist traffic.”

His proposal would see a pedestrian tunnel under the existing road, so tourists could safely walking from the bus parking to viewing platforms overlooking Bells.

Neighbour's proposal:


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The Surf Coast Shire Council has developed a master plan for the ongoing management of the Bells Surfing Reserve, which seeks to balance competing interests. Surfers would argue they have the balance wrong.

Ironically, it was only in 2010 that Surfers Appreciating the Natural Environment (SANE) were joint winners of the Victorian Coastal Awards for Excellence in recognition of their work at Bells.

SANE was honoured as “a dedicated group of surfers working to protect the natural values of the Bells Beach Surfing Reserve. Through partnerships with Surf Coast Shire, local surfing company Rip Curl and various local community groups and networks they have enabled the highly successful management of this iconic site for both conservation and recreation. The Group has raised awareness of local indigenous culture through partnerships with the Wathaurong Cooperative and has contributed to social outcomes through teaching the surfing community about safe and respectful surfing habits and appreciation of the land, water and traditional cultures.”

Only two years on, it seems that partnerships has gone sour.

Read more:

The Age - Battle in pipeline as waves of tourists hit Bells Beach

Save Bells Beach

Bells_Beach_Surfing_Recreation_Reserve

Tags: Australia , Victoria , Bells , Torquay , environment , tourism (create Alert from these tags)

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