During the busy summer period, sleepy coastal towns across the country are overrun by visitors and holiday-makers. In the town where I grew up, the visitors are predominantly from Canberra, and we call them ‘yogies’. I have since left this town for a bustling, tourist hotspot on the north coast, becoming accustomed to crowds on a whole new level. But it’s all relative, and over Christmas I returned to my old stomping ground, where I witnessed the locals grappling with their burgeoning summertime population. The beaches were packed, and everyone was on edge.

“No point going to the beach, won’t be able to get a park,”

they’d prophesise.

“No use going to the cafe for breakfast, there won’t be any tables. We’ll have to eat standing up !”

To the locals, the few weeks over Christmas and New Years was a doomed time. A chapter they would suffer through each year, until the home they knew and loved was theirs again. We are a territorial lot, us humans. We feel a strong sense of entitlement over the land and water alike.

I arrived at Sand Mines early one morning – it was one of the only banks working along the small stretch of coast I once called home. A left and right running into a rip. A small crew on each side. The older surfers still know me around there, and it felt good to throw around a few greetings on the beach track and in the water. The younger surfers think I’m a blow-in. A yogie, even.

In the dusty beach car park, I ran into Grubb, a local surfer in his mid-fifties.

“I’ve been surfing this bank for the past three days by meself,’ he declared, ‘and now every man and his dog’s turned up!”

Grubb was here first, and he wanted everyone to know it.

We are all guilty of these kinds of demonstrations. As surfers, we play out small scenes of discovery, occupation and fierce territorialism on a daily basis. We spy an empty peak up the beach, and paddle towards it greedily. Uncharted territory. When another surfer follows, we scowl and paddle a little deeper. We routinely search out and name waves. Brugman’s secret rights. Smithy’s left. In so doing we plant our metaphorical flag, claiming ownership over the break, if only in our mind’s eye.

The search for empty waves remains at the forefront of our collective imaginations, and for a surfer, there is nothing more exhilarating than being part of the first wave of visitors to an untapped surf destination. Often, we regard those who come later with at least a small amount of disdain. Because above all, we fear the other. We fear our latest discovery – and its limited resources – being overrun by other surfers who are looking for the same thing we are.

Surf journo Lewis Samuels says, “Surf spots, particularly localised ones, act as a microcosm for any group of striving, struggling humans, offering practical insights into social dynamics.”

That particular claim of originality – ‘I got here first’ – goes straight to the heart of our animal nature. The lineup might be understood as an example of natural selection in action. At localised zones, surfers can climb up and drop down the pecking order for a number of reasons. We are primates after all, and often the alphas get their pick of the waves. But there are other ways of maintaining our status. By demonstrating insider knowledge, as Grubb did, we show our competitors that we’ve paid our dues, that we know the lay of the land inside and out, and in so doing we reaffirm our place at the top-end of the surfing food chain. Naturally I’ve dropped a few rungs at Sand Mines and surrounding beaches, having left the area and returned only in brief spells during the holiday season. No longer a true local, my knowledge of current water and sand flow is limited, and as such, I’m always a little behind the eight-ball.

On Boxing Day, I made the stressful pilgrimage down to the local beach, hoping and praying there would be a car park available for a hapless, kind-of-local like me.   

“How is it?” I asked Grubb, who was getting changed by his ute.

“You shoulda’ been here an hour ago!”