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Kong: The Life And Times Of A Surfing Legend
Kong: The Life And Times Of A Surfing Legend
Kong: The Life And Times Of A Surfing Legend
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Kong: The Life And Times Of A Surfing Legend

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A no-holds barred memoir by Gary 'Kong' Elkerton: champion surfer, world class party animal, and, in his own words, 'a half-mad ball of pure aggression'.
In the world of pro-surfing, personalities don't come any bigger than Gary 'Kong' Elkerton. Born in Ballina and brought up on a prawn trawler, Gary took to surfing when school, discipline and other conventions failed him. Cutting a swathe through the industry, living the life, getting the girls, taking the drugs - it all added up to a very good time until he woke up one day and found his nickname and reputation had become the 100-pound gorilla on his back, one which it was going to be very tough to rid himself of. What do you do when everything around you, including the industry you're in, encourages your bad behaviour and then punishes you for it?An eye-opening wild ride and a great Australian story.
Release dateOct 1, 2012
Kong: The Life And Times Of A Surfing Legend
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    Kong - P McGuinness


    Kong was a larger-than-life character when I was a kid. Already a legend before he turned pro, and touted to win the World Amateurs in California in ’84 (I just narrowly missed qualifying at twelve years old), I met him on the beach when he came up and asked me for a pretzel from the bag I was holding. He was larger than life and not even twenty years old. He didn’t win that event but he went on to be one of Curren’s few real challengers and to hold the line with power surfing when our generation of aerialists and new-school surfers came along. Elko took it as his personal task to take on each of us and quiet the noise we were making. He himself would not go quietly, and we had numerous classic and personal battles between us. I beat him at Bells, he got me back at G-land the day my daughter was born! And there were a whole bunch between those. We ultimately hugged it out. Elko is an epic, legendary figure in pro surfing. I’m glad it’s all in the past and I can enjoy the memories now! Ha, ha!

    – Kelly Slater



    One perfect summer’s afternoon in 2000 on France’s Côte Basque, I emerged from Lafitenia’s surging shore break, walked a couple of steps, then staggered and fell to the sand. I’d just won my first world professional surfing title – the Masters. At last, I was World Champion. In my mind I would charge up the beach at this point with fists pumping jubilantly, embrace my inner circle of true supporters, fly through the media rounds on a wave of pure joy and then celebrate very long and very hard. I knew myself well. I knew what I’d do in this peak moment. Or so I thought.

    In fact, once I hit the beach the thousands of faces in front of me swirled psychedelically, the rumble of the surf fell weirdly silent and I was sweating profusely, despite the chilly breeze. ‘Surely you’re not gonna faint, for fuck’s sake!’ I remember trying to talk myself out of it but it was too late.

    I was only on my knees for a few seconds, to all appearances immersed in triumph and relief. Athletes do this often enough after big wins in football, tennis and so on. A lovely moment, captured in a memorable photo and immortalised in Quiksilver promotions for the selling season.

    But it wasn’t a celebration, and it wasn’t an expression of relief or of triumph.

    Sports pundits reckon that being separated from a deserved Association of Surfing Professionals World Title by a mere couple waves, a few shitty judging calls and some plain bad luck not once but three times put a monkey on my back. They don’t know the half of it. They really don’t.

    I collapsed because I finally felt the full weight of the one-tonne gorilla I had on my back – not a monkey but a roaring, raging gorilla. I had no idea how heavy he was until I let him go. Until I saw that I was hanging onto him, not the other way around. I’d been carrying the big bastard around since I was twelve years old, loving him and ignoring him equally, but always feeding him. And second-place finishes feed the beast like nothing else.

    So, for those few moments on the sand, as I tearfully opened myself to the rawness of the day’s events, way more poured out of me than I was prepared for. Right then and there it became crystal clear that my marathon journey with the gorilla on my back had changed course forever. I no longer needed to keep thinking about him, living up to his legend in the water and out, or wrestling him kicking and screaming into the background.

    I collected myself and sprang to my feet feeling … free. This wasn’t a finale – it was a beginning. Not just to a career, but to life. I walked toward the approaching throng of wellwishers and beyond them into a brand-new and much improved relationship.

    With a gorilla called Kong.



    At the peak of my pro surfing career, in the heat of a man-on-man battle, I thrived on the fact that my opponents struggled to figure me out. To most of them I was a half-mad ball of pure aggression. They perceived my style of surfing and my personality were one and the same thing. While it’s true that I didn’t go out of my way to be all cosy with my rivals on tour, I also didn’t hide who I was.

    Out of the water, the hard charging, big drinking and general debauchery that so characterised public coverage of my early career were simply who I was as a young man. I wasn’t after any leadership role as a party animal, I just loved a good time and I was highly competitive. As things turned out, that combination proved a nice fit with my surfing style in the making of a reputation as a wild bastard. Of course, having a nickname like ‘Kong’ and being a large chunk of a lad in a sport dominated by jockey types contributed to the persona.

    I’ll admit to being a bit indelicate with people’s feelings at times too. Okay, lots of times. But speaking one’s mind without engaging a social etiquette filter isn’t unusual. There’s no Swiss finishing school for young, uncouth arseholes where I come from.

    I know it’s human nature to be curious about ‘different’ people and I’m happy that people have always looked on my surfing as being out of the ordinary. Great! That’s the objective of a pro surfer’s career, because successful surfers need to find a point of difference for themselves in the water. However, it took some time for me to accept that the world viewed me as being somewhat apart from the norm as a person too.

    Aside from my surfing, I’ve never deliberately tried to set myself apart – I’ve just always done things my own way. Not in a ‘look at my radical hairdo and armful of tatts’ sense, but out of a deeply ingrained and strict self-reliance.

    I hate imposed limits and regulations with a furious passion, yet I’ve often fucked myself up trying to follow my own set of rigid rules. Maybe that’s why I don’t see myself as particularly out of the ordinary. I follow rules too, albeit not obvious ones.

    Like most blokes finally do, I’ve started to reflect more deeply on life now that it occurs to me that I’ve got more yesterdays than tomorrows. I suppose that I am a little different and people can be forgiven for being curious about me. I also now realise that I’ve actually been growing more conventional, more ‘mainstream’, since the day I was born. Yes, more. Which says a hell of a lot about my truly unusual childhood, one that I loved and considered totally normal.

    After all, how many kids have their family home at sea on a prawn trawler?

    I’m glad my old man got out of prawn trawling before blokes who’d get crook in the guts on the Manly ferry applied their prissy intellectual arrogance to ruining it as an iconic Aussie industry.

    My dad lived on the Tasman and Coral seas at a time when people with good intentions but no idea whatsoever about prawn trawling were contenting themselves with smoking poor-quality dope in university toilets and protesting furiously over other matters about which they had no idea. Somewhere along the line we must have finally rid ourselves of every last war-mongering, animal-testing, tree-felling, V8-driving, burger-chewing, child-vaccinating, gene-manipulating, gun-toting, whale-spearing, imperialistic, materialistic, chauvinistic, homophobic, ozone-wrecking, carbon-belching bastard on earth. Because at some stage the humble, scraggy old Australian prawn trawlerman made it onto the shit-list of the anti-everything establishment. The do-gooders must have run out of other enemies.

    Apparently, despite what veteran professionals observe with their own eyes every day, the whole Australian east coast prawn fishery is stuffed. It follows then that Australian prawn trawlermen need the guiding hand of politicians and academics, who’ve never trawled in their lives, to tell them how to care for their own livelihoods. Therefore all manner of restrictions, surveillance, electronic limitations and prohibitions regulate every aspect of a way of life which was once as free – and as wild – as the sea itself.

    And if history ever requires a personification of that life, it could start and end its search with Keith ‘Bullfrog’ Elkerton. If prawn trawling was as ingrained a part of modern global culture as is surfing, then the Elkerton family member performing the unlikely task of writing his life’s story would definitely be ‘Bull’, not ‘Kong’. Any stature I’ve been fortunate enough to develop over the years as a surfer pales in comparison to the well-earned legend of my father in the world of Australian trawler fishing, from Port Macquarie to the Gulf of Carpentaria to Perth and all points in between.

    Bull seems for all the world to have been created overnight as a fully developed crusty sea captain, standing tough as nails in the wheelhouse and roaring through the maelstrom of heaving northern New South Wales river bars. But he was, at one time, a child. So I’m told, anyway.

    In fact, Keith was born on 17 March 1939 to Barney and Jean Elkerton, the second boy of four children. The Elkertons split their work efforts between a small farm in Grafton, northern New South Wales, and beach or net fishing nearby from Minnie Water to Wooli. In keeping with the general tone of Elkerton family life for generations, most of Keith’s upbringing happened under the flat tin roof of a beach shack in the pristine wilderness of the dunes at Minnie Water. Barney taught Dad just about all there was to know about the gruelling and usually dangerous art of beach mullet netting by the time his little feet could touch the bottom of a rowboat. They fished for both the family table and for wholesale using rods on the beach, and they trapped lobsters and crabs to sell back in the big smoke of Grafton.

    By the time Jean convinced old Barne to move the brood up the coast to the naturally protected north-facing trawler anchorage of Evans Head, thirteen-year-old Keith was already built like a brick shithouse and had salt water for blood.

    The Bullfrog – or just Bull, as he became known – learnt prawning on Barney’s trawler and by crewing for any other skipper who needed a strong pair of hands and an extra set of eyes, with an instinct for the sea. In his late teens an interest beyond a growing devotion to beer and ciggies emerged. Ted Lowe, a towering, patriarchal figure amongst Ballina’s hard-bitten trawlermen, had a daughter who was a really good sort. Dad figured that a sheila who’d grown up with half a footy team of brothers in the rough and tumble of the Richmond River prawn fleet would likely forgive him for not owning a complete suite of delicate fine manners.

    Not that Joan Lowe didn’t have high standards – far from it. Mum was a very observant Catholic who forgave a little colourful language and rough-housing in the men around her, but heaven bloody help you if you were blasphemous or disrespectful.

    It took a lot of gumption for Dad to pursue Mum early in the piece. Ballina was a very difficult thirty-five kilometres up the coast from Evans Head on a very shitty road, for a start. Bull took to riding his old Ariel motorcycle up the long, straight beach instead, so he was a pretty sandblasted, dishevelled Romeo by the time he got to see his sweetheart. And Dad isn’t the greatest talker at the best of times, let alone when you throw in a dose of romantic nerves.

    Then there was Mum’s dad, Ted. To say that Ted was tough is a bit like saying that a Bentley is a good car, or that Sunset Beach breaks nicely. Grandad Ted used to run a boat off the old Byron Bay jetty before the big cyclone in ’54 shattered it and half the whaling station like toothpicks. He and his family lived behind the dunes at Belongil Beach, right near what is now the millionaire’s row made famous by the likes of Paul Hogan.

    It’s folklore that Ted once had a trawler sink beneath his feet in massive pre-dawn seas some fifteen kilometres off Ballina. There was no GPS, EPIRB, radar, mobiles or even decent radio in Dad’s time, let alone Ted’s. Therefore the first anyone knew of his mishap was when he swam ashore in boots and overalls, eight hours later and twenty kilometres north at Lennox Head. The one great slice of good fortune he had going for him was that the pub stood all of a hundred metres from his landing spot. So, with profuse apologies for his ‘damp’ money, he was able to eulogise his trusty boat with a dozen beers before hitching a ride home for dinner.

    Suffice to say that Dad’s degree of difficulty in courting Mum was ratcheted up considerably by the dead certainty that Ted Lowe would rearrange his face (and probably a fair bit of the rest of him) if the boofy kid from Evans put a foot wrong with his Joany.

    In the end, Bull needn’t have worried. The official merging of the Elkerton and Lowe prawn-trawling clans on 9 April 1960 was as close to a royal wedding as northern New South Wales is ever likely to see, if a touch less posh.

    Initially, Mum and Dad lived with either the Elkertons or the Lowes – at Evans He