Cactus, down in the Great Australian Bight, is arguably the most underground surf zone in the world. Since the ‘70s the dusty campground at Point Sinclair and the waves out front have become sacrosanct to Australian surfing. Remote, revered, enthusiastically protected by locals for decades. Travelling surfers now pretty much know the rules: no photos, no exploitation, no dickheads.
So what happens then when a multi-million UK fast-fashion label turns up in the dunes behind Cactus with plans to live stream a fashion show to millions of people around the world, completely unaware of the area’s surfing significance?
The idea for the show was hatched when fast-fashion e-tailer Pretty Little Thing partnered up with the South Australian Tourism Commission to shoot a campaign featuring some of the state’s natural wonders. Lake McDonnell sits just behind the Point Sinclair campground, and in recent times has become Insta-famous as the “fairy-floss-hued lake”.
The pink lake is part of the local salt works and is split by a single-lane causeway that also serves as the only road into Point Sinclair. In recent time locals have witnessed a strange phenomenon. Tourist cars – not the kind loaded with boards and fishing rods – stop halfway across, their occupants get out, hold their phones up in the air and start blazing away. The pink lake has become an Instagram thing and it’s been causing chaos.
“It’s dangerous,” said one local surfer, whose been watching the events of the past few weeks with a mix of bemusement and anger. “You drive down and there’s people in the middle of the road standing there, hands in the air twirling, waiting to be hit by a car. They’ve got no idea there’s actually a place beyond that and they don’t care that traffic wants to go past. ‘This is the middle of nowhere and we can just stop our bus here and block the road.’”
This kind of Instagram phenomenon is a special kind of madness not unique to Lake McDonnell. My old street in Byron Bay had a heart-shaped pothole that had somehow become an Instagram sensation in Korea. From my place you could hear the screeching of tyres and car horns as a car would round a blind corner doing 80 and have to lock-up to avoid a Korean tourist lying in the middle of the road with his phone.
South Australian Tourism meanwhile sensed an opportunity. They billed Lake McDonnell as one of “nature’s strawberry milkshakes” and erected a sign out on the highway directing tourists to it. There was one catch. “The sign tells people to turn off and see the pink lake and for most of the year it’s not pink… and it’s not even a lake. For most of the year the lake is a dried-up white salt pan. Why would you drive down the worst road in Australia to see a dry lake?”
South Australian Tourism have seemed oblivious to the cultural value of Cactus to surfers and the local community. They have recent form here. The sign they erected pointing tourists to the wave at Cummings Monument further east lasted about a week before it was brought down by an angle grinder.
Back in Penong, locals knew little about the fashion show. The progress association reportedly received a Letter of Intent eight weeks beforehand, but it provided no details about what was planned. It wasn’t until the fashion brand started promoting the event on their own social media that local residents realised what was happening. The guy running the salt works – which includes the lake – apparently didn’t know about it until the week before.
The plan for the shoot was to turn the road through the salt lake into “Australia’s longest catwalk” with models and DJs, the show live-streamed globally on November 19. As the date neared they hauled in generators, fencing, scaffolding, camera crews, lights and PA. Anyone driving from Penong out to Point Sinclair had to negotiate the construction.
It was more than the inconvenience… it was the fact that their quiet corner of the world was suddenly being turned into a giant, global selfie. “The whole ethos of this place is the exact opposite of what these guys are trying to do,” said the same local surfer. Local sentiment was that the place was being sold out. They’ve spent decades brokering an unspoken agreement with visiting surfers and travellers where this corner of the coast is respected.
The sight of models walking around the salt lakes in hot pink was too surreal for locals to adequately comprehend, so they saved their strongest criticism for SA Tourism. “Even if you’re into that there’s a million better ways to advertise this coast than with a fast fashion bullshit company. It’s not about that here. There’s so many better ways to promote this joint that bring in a crew who don’t understand it, erect a giant monstrosity, beam it to the world, then fuck off. If you want to support tourism find a better way of doing it than pissing everybody off who lives here.”
But if “Pretty Little Thing” and “Cactus” intersecting in a news story seemed weird enough, it got even weirder. The day before the show was supposed to happen the whole of South Australia was shut down by a Covid outbreak, including the fashion show. This was Peak 2020, and a bit of divine intervention for local surfers.
With the border closure imminent, organisers scrambled to shoot what assets they could before they bailed. To do so, the road was closed. Campers from Point Sinclair, scrambling to get out of the campground were blocked from getting through. You could probably imagine the scene.
The South Australian lockdown only lasted two days, but it appears that was enough to force the cancellation of the show. Something so bizarre could only have happened in 2020, but the fashion giant has hinted it’s planning on returning in 2021. “We had an amazing show planned for you all and we’re very excited to bring this to life again in the near future.”