Barefoot In The Foodland Carpark
SURFING WORLD MAGAZINE | Issue 371 On Sale Now
After a lifetime of dreaming about it, Jock Serong finally makes the pilgrimage to Oahu’s North Shore.
I wasn’t going. A group of friends had hired a luxe pad directly in front of the west peak at Sunset and were sending cruel photos. A cold beer with a plus-size righthander in the background. Swaying palms over an empty beach. Etcetera. Then a few things fell together and at the last moment, I found myself on a plane. There had been no chance to line up interviews, no agenda, no chance even to pack the most basic of equipment. One minute you’re in the nosebleed section of the Tulla departure gates: the next, you’re in The Cauldron. With no thongs.
At first, the lack of footwear was infuriating and I resolved to buy myself some double pluggers, even if I had to ask for ‘flip flops’. But before I could find them for sale I’d got used to the feel of the ground again, and secretly started to enjoy the extra feed of information that bare feet bring when you’re studying a new place.
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Not being a fan of the grass-skirt-and-ukulele version of Hawaiian tourism, getting out of Honolulu was something of a priority. The distance from there to the North Shore is surprisingly small - about the same as Sydney to Palm Beach - but it can descend into a gridlocked nightmare if you muck it up. Nearly three in ten Hawaiians are employed by the government: “government” here being a byword for the military. And twice a day, all those people and a burgeoning tourist sector workforce make their way to and from Honolulu to the bases and the resorts. It’s a migration you don’t want to get caught up in.
Answer: “The Bus”, a democratic, dirt cheap and efficient service that places you, the tourist, on vinyl benches among everyday Americans going about their business, for the princely sum of two bucks. In my case I had the pleasure of listening to two old boys with fishing rods and buckets talking about the coming swell and the soaring price of pineapples, all the way over the big hill in the middle of the island at Wahiawa, and down into the flats around Haleiwa.
The pineapple thing has an ongoing resonance for Hawaiians. The Hawaiian Pineapple Company, founded in 1901 by the Dole family, was one of the bastions of colonial control once the Americans deposed the Hawaiian royal family. It later became the Dole Food Company, and grew into a huge multinational agribusiness, trading in pineapples, bananas, vegetables and other tropical staples. The company has been the subject of litigation over its use of pesticides and its labour practices in places like Colombia and Nicaragua. These days, Dole’s corporate HQ is in Delaware, but the public face is a cheery floral display at its tourist centre in Wahiawa.
You enter Haleiwa by crossing the Anahulu Stream on a structure called the Rainbow Bridge, which is not colourful at all but vaguely echoes the design of the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbour. A giant mural of Jimi Hendrix suggests some sort of spliff-devouring reggae nirvana, but the truth is a little more white bread. The major food franchises are heavily represented, and a hive of small stores has built up flogging trinkets to mugs like me. The legendary Campbell Brothers operate a showroom here which is partially a bottle shop selling hundreds of fascinating craft beers, and partially a board store selling Bonzers, surely the world’s coolest (and weirdest) surfboards. The boat harbour evokes Jimmy (Buffett), not Jimi (Hendrix). Decaying boats propped up on 44-gallon drums, an atmosphere of rum and deckchair entropy.
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Stepping off the bus at Sunset (“Yo buddy, this is Sunset”), the mythology and reality of the seven-mile miracle collided. From Haleiwa at the southern end to Turtle Bay Resort in the north, the land of surfing dreams is not much more than a stretch of country road. Admittedly overcrowded, but a country road nonetheless. I’d heard this said many times but never quite believed it: how could something so obsessively discussed, so iconic to so many people, be so under-developed, the legendary breaks so obscured and unremarked upon? Is it a deliberate outcome of the ‘keep the country country’ movement? Or is it just island life? It seems improbable that no ageing surf mogul has ever tried to build a resort here, or even just a bar.
There are few signs of any kind of infrastructure on the North Shore, the sprawling grounds of the Sunset Beach Elementary School being the notable exception. The word ‘Sunset’ recurs frequently: it’s a school, a bus stop, a mark on the tourist map. ‘Waimea’ also evokes a place as much as a wave, so it gets a good run. Yet the word ‘Pipeline’ is nowhere to be seen – not even at the carpark that vaguely indicates its position. From the Kam Highway, it’s impossible to tell when you’ve passed it unless you know what you’re looking for. Could you drive past Bells or Snapper in blissful ignorance of their location?
There are no clubs on the fabled stretch, no restaurants either, and only one supermarket. But the solitary active building site is adorned with a banner that says “Support Your Local Hells Angels Chapter” (what do they want us to do, donate money?), so it looks like there’s a club of sorts coming.
Oahuans are relaxed about most things, but are surprisingly insistent that you take your shoes off when you enter their homes. (On visiting Mark Healey at his home above Pupukea he took it one step further and hosed off my muddy bare feet before allowing me entry). There are chickens everywhere, coconut husks and even cane toads (the stock that were introduced to Australia came from here in 1935, so Bustin Down the Door was a form of overdue revenge). When it rains at night, giant African land snails (also introduced) wander over the paths. Stepping on one barefoot is like putting your heel through a turd in a helmet.
There’s life going on behind the walls of foliage, out beyond the muddy margins of the Kam, but it’s hard to discern. Somewhere there are kids riding trikes. Somewhere the elder statesmen of Waimea turn their milky irises to the sea. Somewhere Owl Chapman cackles in his lair, stroking the rails of a giant red single fin.
House numbers have five digits. The Hawaiian alphabet has only thirteen letters, twelve of which seem to be vowels. And these are clues to the inner nature of the place: nowhere else in surfing is as dependent on specialised knowledge as the North Shore. You have to build up smarts through repeat visits. The bewildering array of reefs and beaches, each with its own intricate sets of permutations relating to swell size and direction, local preferences, board selection and so on. The suddenly changeable weather, even in the ‘stable’ winter months. The lack of obvious gathering places for people – except of course, Foodland.
Directly across the road from the beach at Sharks Cove and around the corner from Waimea, this sprawling temple of middle-American consumption has been voted five times as Hawaii’s best grocery store. There’s a who’s who of the world tour wandering the aisles, and chickens in the carpark. I met a writer who’d long ago reported for supermarket trade mags and actually covered the opening of the store in the early eighties. Prior to that point, you’d have to wonder what everyone did for sushi and giant trays of ahi poke. When you google “foodland North Shore oahu”, you get an auto-suggestion “what time does foodland close”, a sure sign that these auto-suggests are created by stoned people.
The experience inside is much like a fluoro-lit bowling alley, with piped music and speckles of brilliant colour down the aisles, an Aladdin’s Cave of sugar and hydrolysed vegetable gum. As a souvenir for the kids I selected cheese snacks shaped like goldfish, sold in a miniature milk carton. Obviously. My unshod feet soaked up the chill off the lino as I wandered past the dairy section and tried to decipher which one was the normal milk. The sheer abundance is disconcerting: the flipside is that more than 14% of Hawaii’s population (one in seven, in other words) receives emergency food assistance.
The staff are friendly – eccentric even. You get accustomed to American Customer Service™ in Hawaii. American customer service is polite and deferential, but if it could be faulted, it’s on the side of lacking personal warmth. (“Okay, so lemme get that for you right there.”) Not so at Foodland. The checkout ladies are actually looking for a laugh, and if it’s at the sight of overwhelmed Australians struggling with three hundred varieties of potato chip, then that’s just fine. If you give them a phone number – your phone number, your mum’s phone number, any phone number, they give you a discount. (No, I don’t know what they do with the phone numbers. Mum says no-one’s rung.)
On the subject of food more generally, it’s likely that we all absorb certain stereotypes about Hawaii from consuming years of surf media. In my case, I imagined platters piled with ribs and giant cups of Pepsi, so big that you could wear them on your head if you ever got through the frightening quantity of soft drink. Maybe I ate in the wrong places, but this vision didn’t really play out. Merchandising, on the other hand - every food outlet, from Cholos Mexican to the burger joint to the juice bar, does its own T-shirt and hat, and alongside your trucker cap you can get wicked donuts from Ted’s Bakery, a fifty-year institution disguised as a besser-brick toilet block behind Sunset Beach. But most takeaway food comes from candlelit trucks and stands parked in the empty lots near Foodland: tacos, Thai and the ubiquitous garlic shrimp (Haleiwa reeks of it). It was affordable, healthy food.
Buying fuel is not so Zen. It’s called ‘gas’ for starters, despite patently arriving in liquid form. If, just for example, you’re not wearing any shoes, you may be called upon to pre-pay. Now the bliss-out ends and the serious maths begins. You’re buying in imperial gallons, not metric litres, using the world’s most inefficient currency – note after note after identical green note, and then silver and even copper coins with no rounding off so you have to get it down to the last cent. Driving a rented hatchback on the wrong side of the road with a giant V8 pickup bearing down on you is the easy part of the equation compared to putting fuel in the damn thing.
America’s abiding love of gasoline ties into another dimension of the place: its crucial military role. Reading Simon Winchester’s thumping history book Pacific is a reminder of just how strategically important, and therefore how militarised, the Hawaiian Islands are. Soldiers are sent to the Middle East from the bases here. Schofield Barracks in particular, which is home to somewhere north of 15,000 people, has been the staging post for American military engagements for over a century. The film version of Jones’s From Here to Eternity, with its famous shorebreak snogging scene, featured soldiers based at Schofield. The place provides a heavy counterpoint to the idyllic vibe of the North Shore.
Huge satellite dishes listen to the night sky from Oahu’s mountain ridges. And there’s a constant procession of military aircraft droning from west to east above Sunset. Chinooks and other heavy helicopters, big transports, rumbling the air in a way that’s entirely different to the photographers’ choppers that buzz close over the breaks. The biggest of the war machines leave a dirty exhaust plume behind them. One memorable morning a squadron of them flew past with heavy troop vehicles suspended on giant cables under them like storks carrying armoured babies.
Ten minutes’ drive out of Haleiwa, the country soul of the place coalesces in the Waialua sugar mill, a scar in the landscape, visible from a distance by the dramatic rusting steel of a chimney and kiln rising out of the greenery. Waialua Sugar Company was a subsidiary of Doles, another commercial beast that fed itself on cheap labour and seized land. The business outlasted all the other sugar mills on Oahu, but ultimately closed in 1996. Nowadays, Haleiwa Surfboard, Pyzel, Third Stone, John “JC” Carper, Eric Arakawa and a host of independent glassers, fin makers, photographers, artists, a farmer's co-op and even a coffee business have all made their homes here in the abandoned sheds, set in a blasted post-industrial landscape with the Waianae mountains in the background.
It’s a curious hub of creativity amongst the thorns, the broken concrete, the mud, dead cars and ever-present chickens and dogs, a kind of rustic beauty. According to Duncan Campbell, the shapers used to work just inland of the Kam Highway at Sunset, and were making a hell of a mess up there, dumping acetone in the ground and worse. There was pressure for them to move on. So they got together and formed a little collective and got things happening at the old sugar mill site. Nobody minded too much about this smelly new industry moving in: according to Campbell “sugar refining’s about the only thing that’s more toxic than surfboard shaping”.
There’s a gripping sense of authenticity about the place. Here, the North Shore seems to live and breathe in the rusting Pontiac, the plain white curves of an Arakawa pintail and a palm tree as foreground to a breathtaking tropical escarpment in the distance. The circus has pitched its tents on the beach, but in the quieter places there’s a community going about its business.
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