Sean Doherty: Australian Surfing Had Found Its New Spirit Animal, Gary 'Kong' Elkerton in 1982

16 Aug 2020 6 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: Aitionn/Surfing World

Photo: Aitionn/Surfing World

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY | BOOK EXCERPT

The following is an excerpt from Sean Doherty's new book – Golden Days: The Best Years of Australian Surfing – which tells the story of Australian surfing through the lives of the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame members, one year at a time from 1963 to today. Last week we jump in with the story of our 1990 World Champ, Pam Burridge, when she was a 13-year-old Manly grommet in 1979, this week we meet Kong in 1982.

Australian surfing had found its new spirit animal. Kong.

“Enter the next figurehead of Australian junior surfing. 175lbs of beef ricocheted around the pro circuit pinball machine this year always out on the edge of full-tilt. The Kong projectile lit up all the right specials during inspired games at North Narrabeen, Burleigh Heads Cove and Victoria’s Winkipop, anybody who watched would have to be impressed, the Kong style embodies a polished maturity spiced with out-there on-edge full-blown power. We’d had a few tastes of his surfing in 1981, enough to realise the raw potential, but the marvels of modern transport didn’t bring us the full dose till this year. What more can you say? This new animal blew everyone away.”

This was how Surfing World magazine heralded the arrival on the scene of 17-year-old Sunshine Coaster, Gary Elkerton, who by this stage had ceased answering to that name. In primary school he’d been “uncommonly large and uncommonly hairy” and when one of the girls yelled, “Show us your hairy balls King Kong!” he was typecast for life. In 1982, Australian surfing had found its new spirit animal. Kong.

Kong was living with his parents at 22 Tombarra Street, Alexandra Headland, but spent most of his days either in the surf or out on his father’s prawn trawler. He worked as a deckie for “The Bullfrog” – dad, Keith – as they did runs between North Stradbroke and the southern reaches of the Great Barrier Reef. Kong took a board with him and jumped overboard to surf all sorts of reef passes and empty beaches, surfing alone in waters stalked by tiger sharks. It was a hard life, and one in stark contrast to the other life that was now calling him. “I want to stay with the prawn trawler,” he told Surfing World at the time, “then go all out to be a pro surfer. I’d never give it up because there’s so many things you can learn from the sea and being on a boat is a great way to learn them.”


Photo: Bill McCausland

Photo: Bill McCausland

Kong would fish by night and surf by day, checking the waves as the Miss Bernadette motored back through the heads at first light. He burned daylight. Along with surfing and fishing, Kong also road motorbikes, played tennis and did karate, although, “I only do karate in wintertime because in summer I surf till about a quarter to seven and karate starts at six.” When asked if he lived at a fast pace he replied, “Faster than anyone else.”

Kong went hard, and by this stage had already broken both legs, a collarbone and a wrist. “One afternoon I was going surfing down at Alex and there’s a hill that’s about half a mile down at 45 degrees. I was flying down it on my pushbike with my board under one arm when this wasp happened to get underneath my shirt. It started stinging me so I threw my board toward the grass on the side of the road, but next minute it hit the telegraph pole and breaks in half. After the wasp had stung me seven times in the one spot I fell off and my left leg caught in the pushbike and I went down the hill face first. It took skin off my elbows, my stomach, my legs, my face. I broke my leg in two places. So I got back up to the top of the hill rode my bike home and waited two hours in agony for the doctors to open.”

At 17, Kong surfed like a man. He had the weight to throw around and having grown up at sea was supremely comfortable in most anything it threw at him. He surfed with raw power… and partied with raw power. Only 17, he had all the adult vices already down. He was a regular at the pub, drank longnecks and smoked pot, and as his surfing notoriety spread he just went harder. “It’s been a bit radical,” he said at the time, “too many fights and I’m not into fighting. I like to have a rage, go home, have sex and go to sleep.” It seemed like youthful boasting for the surf magazines who were lapping it up, but Kong lived up to his own billing. The big, boofy Queensland kid in the red and white star trunks was fast becoming a cult hero to every hard living Aussie surfer.

By 1982 he was spending more time on the Gold Coast, tearing through junior contests and presentation parties with boundless reserves of energy. He’d met Rabbit Bartholomew, who took him under his wing. He then met a skinny kid named James Jennings – “Chappy” – who’d moved to the Gold Coast from South Australia and soon became Kong’s cartoon sidekick, the pair inseparable.


Photo: Peter Crawford

Photo: Peter Crawford

Kong soon landed a deal with Hot Stuff surfboards. He loved their airbrushed designs and Rabbit’s Bugs Bunny logo, and soon enough he had his own Kong logo, a giant ape on the rampage through the city. The logo turned out to be prophetic, and Kong did his best to stay in character during 1982 as he travelled the circuit. “I’m probably going to have to do something about it in the end,” he said of his raging, pondering for just a second, “but it’s not holding me back at the moment, so I’m not worrying about it.”

The first big contest of 1982 was the Cue Cola Pro Junior at Narrabeen; the biggest junior event in the land. Kong and Chappy travelled to Sydney and set up a tent in Mark Warren’s Narrabeen backyard and immediately set about getting on it, their party program interrupted only by the occasional heat. Surfing on just two hours sleep, Kong and Chappy made the final and had to surf against each other. Chappy thought the final was 20 minutes. Kong knew it was half an hour. Kong won using his trademark layback tube stance and was handed a thousand dollar winner’s cheque and trophy. “I remember Mark Warren’s cat, and to this day I still want to kill that fucking thing,” offers Kong. “I had my trophy sitting on top of Mark’s fridge with a pair of Mickey Mouse ears sitting on top of it, and the cat has jumped up there and I’m watching it in slow motion as it’s knocked the thing off the fridge and it’s just smashed into a thousand pieces and I’m like… ‘That fucking cat!’ And I’m off after it trying to kill it.”

The pair partied that night and were woken the following morning by Hugh McLeod and Bruce Channon from Surfing World, who spirited them south on a magazine road trip. “We got blind that night after the final,” recalls Kong, “went into the Cross, and were that hungover the next morning when Hugh and Bruce come around really early. They just threw us in the Saab. We passed straight out and next thing we wake up and we’re like, ‘Shit, we’re in Victoria!’”


Photo: Bruce Channon

Photo: Bruce Channon

It was on that trip that Kong was introduced to Quiksilver founder Alan Green down in Torquay. Greeny, with a wild streak himself, took a shine to the kid who he was now paying $750 a month in “expenses”. Kong technically couldn’t be paid on contract, as he had his heart set on winning the World Amateur Title later in the year. He’d turn pro after that. With Quiksilver taking off, Greeny saw the marketing potential of the kid named Kong. It was while they were on that trip that Kong, in a throwaway line while walking into the Apollo Bay pub, had said, “If you can’t rock ‘n’ roll don’t fucken come!” It would become the title of the Surfing World story and later, the slogan for one of the most famous surf industry campaigns ever run.

Kong was Australia’s answer to the clean-cut competitive vibe coming out of America, being led by Tom Curren, who was favourite to win the World Amateurs due to be held on the Gold Coast later in the year. Curren and Kong were already subject to breathless hype on their respective sides of the Pacific, but the match up on the Gold Coast never happened. Warming up for the Aussie Titles in Sydney, Kong speared himself in the leg with the nose of his board which took him out of both the Aussie and the World Titles. Unable to sort the Americans out in the water, he instead did it in print, labelling the new crop of young American surfers “a bunch of soft cocks” in a Tracks interview which went halfway to causing a major diplomatic incident.

Kong and Chappy flew to Bali in the middle of the year, planning to stay and surf at Uluwatu but were met by Made Kasim at the airport who informed them they were heading straight over to Grajagan on the first boat. Kong and Chappy stayed in the jungle at G-Land for a month with just a handful of crew in the camp, the waves barely dropping below eight feet the whole time. On one of the smaller days Kong ventured up to the top section of the reef at G-Land which at that point hadn’t been surfed. The wave today bares his name. While they were there, one of the supply boats from Grajagan village overturned on the reef and a local man drowned, throwing some bad magic over the camp. Kong and Chappy were awoken later that night by camp staff shouting in the dark. The local man’s body, which had been stored under one of the losmens in preparation to be shipped back to the village the following morning, was being dragged into the jungle by a tiger.

Hawaii was next, and while Kong couldn’t wait, those around him were worried. Born wild and with no operational filter, Kong was at short odds to end up in some kind of trouble over there with the Hawaiians. Rabbit, still scarred from the trouble he’d found himself in over there a few years earlier, could see it brewing and kept his distance. “This is what happened,” recalls Kong. “When we first got to Hawaii we went down the beach at Pipe to meet Rabbit, and at the time there was such a big thing about me coming to Hawaii, and Rab goes, ‘That’s great, I’m surfing out here… but you’re surfing down there!’ And we walked down and surfed Log Cabins! He sent me all the way down there! But he was freaked out at the time obviously. We ended up getting on all right with the Hawaiians… just not as well as Chappy.”

To cut off any trouble at the pass, Alan Green had slipped Hawaiian Mickey Neilsen some money to keep an eye on the young Aussies. Mickey was sponsored by Quiksilver, and the Hawaii Kai guys took Kong and Chappy under their wing. The crew got along famously. They showed Kong and Chappy the ropes out at Sunset and Pipe, and they’d head into Honolulu together where they frequented a nightclub called Three Ds. The young Aussies were cut some slack. Driving home one night from town, the car they’d borrowed off Mickey took a detour into the canefields. The car eventually rolled back to the North Shore on its rims the following morning, banged up and missing some hubcaps. The Aussies rendezvoused with Mickey at Banzai Bowls to return his car. Mickey took one look at the car and goes, “Brah, that’s not my car. That’s one of Eddie’s!”

Kong however was welcomed by the Hawaiians. Chappy was fully adopted by them. Bugs was still in limbo, but all was good. The trio were even invited by the Black Shorts to have beers with them on New Year’s Eve. The only trouble they ended up in was with the security out at the Kui Lima resort. With Hurricane Iwa bearing down on the islands, Kong, Chappy and Rabbit embarked on an extended Long Island Ice Tea session. They emerged into the night as the hurricane hit, and Chappy was caught in a gust of wind and blown down the road and into the night. He returned a minute later, surfing on the bonnet of a hotel guest’s car. Hotel security came after them in golf carts and they did the runner onto the golf course. Kong shimmied up a tree, Chappy made it back to the apartment and hid in the bed with Rabbit’s wife, while Rabbit himself was the only one apprehended.


In the surf Kong took an immediate shine to Sunset. Chappy meanwhile took to Pipeline fearlessly. One famous wave, captured by photographer Don King, would make Chappy a cult hero. Gerry Lopez saw the wave and later said to Kong, “I saw this little runt flying past me, and all I could say was, ‘God bless him.’” Kong and Chappy would stay in Hawaii for four months, surfing themselves into the ground and learning how the North Shore worked. Hawaii in time would become a second home for Kong and the setting for his biggest victories.

Once home to Queensland, Kong won the Jesus Pro-Am stoned out of his mind. He can’t remember what he said at the acceptance speech to the assembled group of Christian Surfers, but it didn’t go down well. The trophy, in the shape of a crucifix, would later end up snapped in two. He returned home to Tombarra Street with the two halves and received a swift clip to the ear from his mother Joan. Kong had survived Hawaii intact, but had been shortened up by his mum.

Kong had met Jack McCoy at G-Land the previous year. McCoy and Dick Hoole had just released Storm Riders and Alan Green, seeing a point in time, commissioned Jack to put a short film together starring Kong, Rabbit and Chappy. He met the trio at the Surf Air Hotel on the Sunshine Coast and discussed the project. As they talked, Jack watched waves wrap around an offshore island to the south. Mudjimba Island – Old Woman Island – did indeed have waves. The uninhabited island was actually leased at the time to Peter Troy, who lived nearby. Jack’s mind started spinning, and Mudjimba Island soon became Kong’s Island. Jack exclaimed, “Get me a fucking boat!” The shooting for the movie only took two weeks, with sequences shot at Mudjimba, Lennox, and Spooks Point. It was the comic sequences however of Chappy car surfing, Kong’s Magic Cream Puff Tree and the tribal chant of “Koooonnngggg” that made it an instant cult classic.

“Jack was so ahead of his time,” recalls Kong. “I’d just go along with him but couldn’t visualise what he had in mind. But when it come out, geez, Kong’s Island was huge. We had a premiere down here in Coolangatta at the Jet Club and the whole place erupted when we walked in. The Sunnyboys were playing that night. Chap got called up and was singing Tunnel of Love with them. I didn’t realise the impact that slapstick little fucking movie would have on the world. But when we were doing it, remember, we had no idea it was going to come out like that. I was just smoking bongs, rooting chicks, surfing my brains out and filming Kong’s Island. I was in heaven, mate.”


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