Beyond the Thunderdome

In the worldwide battle of the wave pools, there’s one in particular that, frankly, looked like the figment of someone’s hyper-active imagination when it first went viral across global surf media channels. “Surely this can’t be real?” was the standard reaction. But it turns out it is, and when former Surfing Magazine Editor Jesse Faen found a (legitimate) way in, he was determined to be the first to foil it…

Words: Jesse Faen
Photos: Andrew Shield (unless specified) 

Man-made waves in Yeppoon sparked attention years ago. Nothing else had pulled me back to this small country town where my surfing life began. Queensland’s central coast isn’t really on the radar of most surfers, given swells there are blocked by the Barrier Reef, but thanks to Surf Lakes establishing their business in the nearby bush, returning and participating became important, like some sort of birthright or salmon-swimming-upstream destiny.

I’m old, referencing Mad Max 3 in the title, but regardless if you know the movie or not (which, coincidently, I played an extra in), the images here will give you some idea – a massive central plunger device, welded together from rusty steel, juxtaposed against a vast Australian landscape. Similarly, the 1985 post-apocalyptic film starring Mel Gibson and Tina Turner, set in blazing Aussie desert heat, had its main metal structure, aka the Thunderdome, core to the drama.

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Surf Lakes is incredibly picturesque, with panoramic mountain ranges surrounding a calm reservoir of water. So misleading is this serene environment, grazing cows, kangaroos and even emus are drawn to the watering hole for an occasional drink. Driving into the property past ‘security’ cattle gates, along a dusty dirt road, and up alongside a few caravans and tents – to what basically appears to be a modest campsite – hides the prospect of a prime surfing destination. Boards laying around the grass offering the only hint of what’s to come.

“Surf Lakes is incredibly picturesque, with panoramic mountain ranges surrounding a calm reservoir of water.”

Circular swells created by the ‘CWD’ (central wave device) – or the afore-mentioned plunger going up and down – is what makes this place so special. Thanks to a variety of ‘reefs’ specifically designed around the bottom of the lake, a multitude of waves break simultaneously in all directions when activated. Meaning more options for more people. Or in my mind at least, the possibility of connecting multiple rides on a foil, if given the chance….

In the weeks leading up to this experience I’d traveled back home from Los Angeles, reached out numerous times to the founders, hoping for a sample of their goods, but never felt sure it would happen. Surf Lakes Yeppoon is their R&D site, established in 2018 to prove engineering concepts, develop programs and ultimately promote the possibilities they envisaged. Given it’s not open to the public though, or operational often – especially post COVID – gaining access really was going to be the golden ticket.


My best bet was Dean ‘Dingo’ Morrison, one of the most stylish surfers on the planet and an incredible foil enthusiast, plus, helpfully, an ambassador to Surf Lakes. We’d traveled together for years while he successfully competed on the ASP World Tour, and recently reconnected for some epic foil sessions around his home on the Gold Coast. He then announced a weekend trip was happening to Yeppoon, and got me on his guest list. Thankfully, my gracious girlfriend encouraged the nine-hour drive north. And just like that, we found ourselves among a small group gathered around this billabong-like oasis in the bush.

1999 world surfing champion Mark Occhilupo was on-site, together with three-time world bodyboard champ Ben Player, as well as Dingo, his mate and novelty wave enthusiast Dylan Graves, plus key staff, a few investors, some lucky kids, and my foil board hidden in the truck… I didn’t actually know if this would be allowed at Surf Lakes, nor want to blow any chance of maybe being gifted a wave, so initially I just pulled out a surfboard and joined the crew on the shore.

Wearing full-suits, due to an unexpected winter chill, these legends paddled out towards the plunger and waited. Surreal sight, seeing them sitting in a lake with this bushland backdrop. Finally, the diesel air-compressor puffed out billows of smoke and simultaneously let out a grunt-like sound. Anticipation grew as seconds ticked by, with everyone’s eyes glued to the plunger anxiously eager to see some action. Then, magically on cue, swells begin to form and the smaller first one breaks smoothly and goes untouched. Beautiful torture in a way. Three consecutive ‘real’ waves then manifest, head-high sized, completely mesmerizing us all.




Picture perfect A-frame peaks explode in front, barreling in both directions with surfers slotted in-sync. A slabbing righthander is going unridden 90 degrees away, giving onlookers direct view into the pit. Meanwhile, on the opposite side, 180 degrees away, another mellower peak is being split by less experienced surfers, and those hoping to gain access to ‘Occy’s Peak’ later. The backside peak behind the plunger isn’t operational now, but still, it’s impossible to soak up all the surfing happening at once, or grasp how insane future production sites will be, with four full peaks in unison and even bigger waves promised.

They invite me in, and needless to say, I’m a happy camper. Pristine tubes all afternoon, and the kind of stoke which only comes from sharing this kind of experience with other grinning ‘groms’. We all soak up an incredible sunset together, warm our bodies by campfire, feast on great food, listen to some live acoustic music, and retire under a big sky starry night.

Early next morning I ask about my foiling prospects, and surprisingly get a positive green light. They were stoked at the idea, explaining no-one had tried yet, and offered up the first smaller swell in the sets. This breaks further inside, is a softer option, and wouldn’t hinder others getting their fix of main waves either.

The plan was to catch it, get up on foil and glide over to the far-right side, pump back out to the mellower peak and hopefully reconnect with another swell and ride this too.

First attempt was a complete failure, as I’d expected more energy comparable to the bigger waves I’d experienced surfing there, and fell over as soon as I tried to stand up on my 4’4 foil board. But next two rides were a dream. Number two allowed me to whip into an oncoming lefthander from the adjacent peak, and basically return to where I’d initially started. My third and final attempt had a faster take off, so helped encourage pumping all the way round the outer peak of the next section and snag the tail end of the fourth swell, then ride this righthander all the way until it faded. In essence, finishing on shore of the opposite side of the lake from where I had paddled into the first of the two waves I’d just ridden.

With more time to practice and less people in the lineup, especially if all four peaks were functioning, you could literally do circles connecting waves around this CWD technology. This was way beyond any initial impression of just another wave pool… This was a taste of a future I cannot wait to see play out, and hopefully I experience more of soon.   

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