No agenda was the only way this trip was going to work. There's myriad setups across the 2,000 plus kilometres from Denmark's capital city of Copenhagen, through France and into the jewel of Spain's ancient Basque Country, Mundaka. And sometimes, when there's swell, you've got to put pedal to floor, across dozens of toll roads to arrive as the waves peak– well, scooting as quick as you can in an 18-year-old motorhome.
West Aus photographer Tom Pearsell recently spent some time on the Old Continent. His girlfriend, and adventuring partner in crime, Amelia is originally from Denmark and a few months back, the couple decided it's time to trade the heaving waters of Margaret River for a stint in bombing shorebreaks, excellent vino and a Mundaka session to cap it all out.
Region guide: France
Their steed of choice was a 2000 Fiat Ducato Hymer Swing, lovingly named Margaret after Tom's home at Margaret River, offering some of the comforts of home, a full tank and nothing but a loose idea and tarmac to pave the way. Everyone thinks about taking a month off the grind, scraping together enough coin to do so and flinging whim to fancy for a life on the road. But reality soon sets in; mortgage, family ties, work commitments. So here's a little snippet for you to live vicariously in the shoes of a travelling lensman.
We touched base with Tom to talk about the journey, sampling the delights of France and Spain and how his first trip to Euro shores differed from that of the comforts of West Aus.
How long did you go for?
One month. We had no real plan and just kept an eye on the MSW forecast. Thankfully there's a lot of spots featured. as I had no idea where to go at all, let alone on what conditions - and went with the flow. In the end I don't think we could've planned it better.
That's perfect. So where did you start and finish, how many miles did you stack up?
We started in Copenhagen and finished in Copenhagen. Leading into the trip to Spain (we originally intended to drive to Portugal) I didn't think much of the drive. Coming from west Australia, I thought it was going to be mellow compared to a lot of the drives we do there.
But we spent two groundhog days on a highway, sleeping in the carpark of service stations with the sound of thousands of cars and trucks lulling us to sleep. It was pretty hectic negotiating cities like Hamburg and Paris driving on the other side of the road in an RV. It was especially hectic when I wrongly navigated us off the highway and into the middle of Paris at peak hour. I've honestly never been so terrified.
And you went with your girlfriend right, just the two of you and miles of tarmac...
Yeah, my girlfriend Amalie has been with me on some epic adventures before. She is from Copenhagen so we were staying with her family there.
She bought a 2000 Fiat Ducato Hymer Swing, which we fondly named Margaret to pay homage to our home, Margaret River, in west Aus, a few months before so we were styling.
Big bed, full kitchen, a fridge, freezer, shower, toilet, solar power... It was a cut above the usual west Aus accommodation, a swag on the red dirt. It was a great sense of freedom to pull up and have a fully functional apartment wherever we stopped.
When to go: Hossegor
Luxury van life! How was it?
I think RV life is a little different to van life (though I'd never experienced either before this trip). Although Margaret is a relatively small RV it is still is a lot harder than a van to navigate through the small streets of Spain for example, and a nightmare if you have to go up or down steep switchbacks, it's also kind of gnarly emptying the toilet and stands out like dogs' balls if you're trying to sneak a free night in a carpark.
We got told "no auto caravana" a couple of times by the local polici. But we got in the rhythm of it after a few days and by the end we didn't want to stop and we're actually currently living in Margaret out the front of Amalie's parents place in Copenhagen.
Although Margaret is a relatively small RV it is still is a lot harder than a van to navigate through the small streets of Spain
Though it cost a bit more in fuel and had the pace of a speeding tortoise it was a pleasure to be super comfortable wherever we went. We could shower whenever, crack a cold beer from the fridge whenever and even had a stash of ice cream sandwiches in the freezer when the time called for one.
Ducted heating and a hot shower where a godsend after a day in the freezing ocean. So I guess it was a mixture of glamping and van life or RV life if that's a thing.
We've since driven up through Norway on a recent trip which was stunning and scored some really fun waves. Having solar panels meant that we had a lot more freedom to camp wherever we wanted without having to plug in anywhere. Next goal is to get a 4x4 Margaret in west Aus so we can do the same there.
Spot guide: Mundaka
The big question, why choose a trip across Europe rather than west Aus?
I met Amalie in the surf in West Aus when she was there on a solo trip. We hit it off straight away and she ended up staying there for two years so it was time to visit her home, Copenhagen.
We had a great time with her family there trying smørrebrød (open faced sandwiches), gammel dansk (herb liqueur, a very acquired taste) and the craft beers that I'd argue are as good as anywhere in the world.
I was really keen to check out some of the European setups I'd always dreamed and read about, especially Mundaka and Hossegor. It looked like good conditions for the mother of all rivermouth waves a few days out so the opportunity and timing of this road trip was perfect.
What's different about west Aus and Europe?
The biggest thing for me was the history and concentration of humans. You can be 10 minutes from town in WA and there won't be another human for kilometres. It really highlighted how isolated and how much space we have at home.
And, though we have one of the oldest human histories on the planet with the traditional landowners of Australia, the Aborigines, the history of the cities and towns of Europe is something we just don't have at all. One of the few nights we didn't cook up in the camper we ate at a restaurant in Saint Émilion, a town in France that is ten times older than the first European settlement.
Sounds idyllic but we all know when talking story there's got to be some missives. Any negatives along the way, broken boards?
The first place we arrived after a long couple of days in the saddle (albeit a comfortable saddle) was Mundaka.
We saw a potential swell on the MSW radar a few days before, hence the bolt down the highways, and it looked like a few windows of good-epic conditions at this famous yet fickle left hander.
I was driving late in the afternoon as we pulled around the corner and got the the first glimpse down the river, greeting our travel weary eyes with corduroy lines steaming in from the Bay of Biscay and reeling down a seemingly endless bank.
I instantly lost my mind. I hadn't surfed for weeks in Copenhagen, been stuffed in the RV too long and all I could think about was getting in the water before it got dark. I raced through the tiny cobbled streets - literally a two way street that's only big enough for one - scaring the la cagada out of Amalie and the Mundakans, desperately trying to find where you park to get access the wave.
Finally I found a spot by the side of the road lined with the nubbed Burgos trees that line many streets of Spain, whipped in and "screeeeeeeee!". The nearest tree had acted like a can opener, peeling back part of the roof.
Being a novice RV driver I'd underestimated Margaret's height. It's enough to say I didn't get to surf that afternoon.
Oh that's a sure way to empty the pockets of saved coin. So, where else did you surf?
I was a bit underwhelmed on the drive down to Spain, I'd envisaged seeing all these countries and landscapes as we travelled through them but we pretty much just saw highway, highway and more highway.
Then we went across the border from France to Spain and it all changed instantly. We were so excited for a change of scenery as we drove through the stunning mountains - where I'm from, anything bigger than a hill is a mountain - and Spanish countryside I'd only seen in travel magazines.
It was a big relief for me to be surrounded by nature again. The first morning we spent in Mundaka we woke up at sunup. It was freezing cold, overcast and grey. I'd heard it got very crowded when it was working so I was surprised to see only two black dots bobbing in the grey-green water.
It was a little wonky but pumping, dark lines reeling off into the gloomy fog spilling out from the mouth of the estuary of the Oka river. The surfers weren't getting many waves so it was hard to gauge the size, but I was frothing to get out there.
I said to Amalie, about the minimal crowd, as we got the mornings line up shots: "It's either no good or way bigger than it looks.”
I suited up in a 5/4 and gloves and walked past the 19th Century chapel and fort, the Chapel of Catalina, and through the fishing port surrounded by ancient colourful apartments, to the town's port walls where you access the wave.
The water completely took my breath away regardless of the thick rubber but I was finally in the ocean. I thought I was out far enough as I paddled around the take off zone to the lineup gazing with wonder at the stunning surrounds of a place so steeped in history. Then, the horizon went black. I hadn't paddled far enough out. An 8ft lump of cold Basque ocean was going to greet me on my first delve.
There's a lot to be said of cold water surfers, it's harder to paddle, it's harder to hold your breath and the water feels heavier. I spent the next few hours dodging close out sets and was happy to have a lot of volume in my Von Dresselt 7'3” single fin.
I would have had no hope paddling in on a conventional surfboard. The local Spanish guys were on legit guns and obviously weathered chargers, taking off deep under the lip and expertly weaving through the heaving sections to disappear into the distance. I surfed until I got washed in and couldn't paddle out again. The Pintxos and San Miguel for lunch never tasted so good!
Apart from the usual, what was your favourite part of the trip?
Funnily enough the lack of people. We were there on the shoulder season so it was pretty much desolate at all the surf towns.
From lots of people to not very many in Spain, you mean?
Yes. Most of the cafes, shops and caravan parks in the areas of Spain we went to were closed. We had huge beach carparks with just us and Margaret. It was magic.
I surfed with nearly no one at 8ft Mundaka, very few at 6-8ft Hossegor and surfed a pumping river mouth in the North of Spain by myself. Amalie even scored some super fun waves in the north of Spain in beaming sunshine.
No agenda turned out to be the best agenda for this trip and I'm actually really happy with how the shots turned out
To be able to just walk back to the RV for a hot shower and relax in comfort while looking out the window at the lineup you'd just come from was very special. It was great to just photograph when I wanted and surf when I wanted, not to have pressure of really needing to get images or get up crazy early everyday.
No agenda turned out to be the best agenda for this trip and I'm actually really happy with how the shots turned out.
Was this your first time doing that mission?
Yes, and it's definitely not going to be the last. I was really impressed with the quality and power of the waves we visited. The diverse culture, food and history that surrounds these surf hubs is fascinating.
I'm not usually one for cities or stereotypical tourist hotspots but one of the absolute highlights was simply walking around Paris all day and night. I was wide eyed all day at the variety and volume of humans, historic buildings and cuisine. I can't wait to experience more of what Europe has to offer, it's crazy coming from Australia how much diversity of culture, language and unique environments are crammed into such a comparatively small area.
Next on the radar is Portugal and Morocco I think. Or maybe Ireland and Scotland. Or Iceland and Faroe Islands... the list goes on....