Australians influenced Spanish town
through Surf
Four ozis in Tapia beach in 1969: Colin Neilson, Robert Gulley, Peter Gulley and John Ford, together with two locals Four ozis in Tapia beach in 1969: Colin Neilson, Robert Gulley, Peter Gulley and John Ford, together with two locals

Ever since I've heard the story of how two Australians changed the life and future of a small town in Spain four decades ago I was captivated by it. It's a story about how even the simplest action may affect and change permanently the culture of a town or a nation. When you add some romance to that equation it makes it irresistible. Having witnessed it first hand, John Ford kindly helped me find out more about this fascinating tale of passion for surf and for life.

Tapia de Casariego is a small town located in the north coast of Asturias in Spain. This colourful beach town witnessed two young Australians surf its waves for the first time in 1968. Peter and Robert Gulley were travelling around Europe during that summer, driving from town to town in a van with their surfboards. No one along that coast had ever seen surf before. They spent a few days in Tapia de Casariego and continued their journey along the coast towards Portugal. But something about Tapia was enchanting. They decided to leave it to chance and tossed a coin to see if they'll keep going or go back. It was fate; they went back to Tapia and stayed there for the rest of their trip.

Locals were amazed with this novel and risky sport. All the young Asturianos wanted to learn how to master their waves. Foreseeing the importance of this practice for Tapia's tourism industry, the City Council gave the Gulley Brothers accommodation and meals in return of surf lessons for the locals. That is how surf was born in this area. Even the local news reviewed it as a surprising new leisure activity, mentioning where surf comes from, how the surfboard needs to be waxed, and then explaining step by step how surfers enter the ocean and glide on top of the waves while they filmed the Gulley Brothers doing it. But every holiday has to end; they decided to go back to Australia with the promise of coming backthe next year.

On their second trip, they met Colin Neilson and John Ford, and the four of them went to Tapia de Casariego. Friendships with the locals were already established and surf had become part of the town culture.

I talked to John about his experience in Tapia. He first thought he was going to stay there for a week and continue his trip around Spain, but he ended up staying for six months and meeting his wife, Teresa. "It is a beautiful town and I met a beautiful woman there. Teresa's family is from Oviedo and goes every summer to Tapia. My Spanish was very bad but since she was a Spanish teacher she helped me a lot". John and Teresa got married in 1972, moved to Australia and decided to go back to Tapia every summer. "Every year the surf scene got bigger. A few of the children that learnt surf from Peter and Robert started their own companies dedicated to the promotion of surf".

Nowadays, the Goanna Pro surf Championship celebrated every Easter in Tapia de Casariego is an event eagerly awaited for all the competitors. Since 1992 this event has been a memorial to honour Peter Gulley. The City Council also placed a statue of Peter on a cliff, overlooking his beloved beach. When the City Council invited John to celebrate the 40-year anniversary of the introduction of surf in Tapia, he was honoured. "I'm a painter so I took a picture of the four of us from that time and I painted Peter and Robert. Now that painting hangs inside the Town Hall as an homage to the Gulley Brothers."

It is amazing how that little town in Spain is so strongly connected to Australia, with many Asturian-Australian families that flourished from that trip more than forty years ago. "The four of us got married to Spanish women. There are many other examples of these ties: there is a book from a young historian that dedicates a chapter to the connections between the two countries."

John has also made a profitable business from his connection with Spain. He is the Director of Ibertours Travel, a wholesale operator specialised in creative and cultural tourism to the Iberian Triangle, which includes Spain, Portugal and Morocco.

By Carolina González


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