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The Drifter Journals

Mono | In Perspective

Interview by Thomas Alexander

Having perspective is paradoxical.

We can believe we have it, but it’s not until our life is reflected in polarity that we realise the perspective we thought we had was, in fact, desperately myopic. We may think, for example, that we are poor. True, based on our surroundings, our lifestyle and our peers, this could be valid. But a brief glimpse at any Third World news story will have us rapidly reassessing. Even within our community, likely as not, there will be many people in more dire situations than ourselves.

And it’s not always to the negative that perspectives can be misinterpreted.

Bali - our tropical paradise - a land of warm smiles, abundant hospitality, cheap living and those perfect, endless waves; it’s a breathtaking gift to we who call it home and an addictive destination for surfers and tourists alike.

Yet in perspective, what we see today is barely a whisper of what our island was 35 years ago.

“The first trip I did there was in ‘85,” says Mark ‘Mono’ Stewart across the crystal-clear Zoom network from his home in Byron Bay, Australia. “There wasn’t much there back then. There were only two warungs up at Ulus and it still had the old bamboo ladder into the cave. It was a trek to get in there too. You’d have to park your bike down the road, the local kids would carry your board for a few rupiah and you’d have to hike in along a dirt road with cactus on either side. It was a long walk!

“It was pretty scary surfing Ulus, because there would only be about 20 or 30 people around in the two warungs and almost no one in the water. We’d heard about this ‘mysterious’ break called Bingin. From what I know now, I guess we parked out the back of Dreamlands somewhere and walked through the bush down onto the beach at low tide and around in front of the cliffs.

“We finally got there and there was one tiny warung on the beach and no one out. It was just unreal.”

Back in the day: Mono at the original Bingin warung

‘Unreal’ is a word Mono uses frequently. Part Australian colloquialism, part sheer enthusiasm for so many aspects of his life, when he says it, in the smooth, unabrasive drawl of his Byron born-and-bred accent, it envelops you like the warmth of the sun on a perfect, three-foot day.

Mono’s Bali recollections abound with tales of perfect surf, zero trash and water so clear you can barely tell it’s there. We think we have it good now - and in so many ways we do - but back then it must have been mindblowing. That’s perspective.

Most of his memories instil envy in the listener, but some induce a nervous chuckle, that kind of “should I really be laughing at this?” reaction to a story only given humour by hindsight.

Like the time four nervous Aussie kids, Mono amongst them, were driving an open-top VW 181 through Legian, cautious of the yarns of police corruption they had been fed, only to see a crazy Brazilian on a scooter rip through an intersection and promptly be gunned down by the local traffic cop (thankfully, he survived).

The mid-'80s view from the Ulu clifftop

Then there was the time he and his mates were almost lynched by a bunch of angry priests in the middle of the night, like some recreation combination of a National Geographic documentary and an Indiana Jones movie. Mono takes up the story:

“The next year [1986] we stayed on Nusa Lembongan for a couple of weeks. We’d wait for high tide each day and, before paddling out, the locals would point to a chicken and a pig. Whichever you chose, that’s what you’d be eating for dinner. There was nothing to do but surf, and we started going troppo [crazy] after a few weeks. The six of us ended up buying a fighting cock that we called Rocky. We’d heard of a tournament coming up over on Nusa Penida, so we bought him, trained him up and fed him toast and Vegemite ready for his big fight.

Rocky "The Mauler" with Mono & friends - Nusa Lembongan, 1986

“The night of the tournament, a local fisherman took us over to Nusa Penida and we walked up this big hill, through the jungle to a temple. We got up there and there were hundreds of Balinese men - when we walked in, the whole crowd turned to look at us and everything went quiet.

“The fisherman had instructed us; he told us to be really humble and to stay on the outskirts of this big amphitheatre where the tournament was happening. He took Rocky down into the centre and we’re putting on bets with the locals using sign language. They dropped the birds into the ring and they fought, but then they came to a stalemate where they wouldn’t fight anymore. What they do is turn them back to back and drop a basket over them, which encourages them to fight again.

“By this stage, we’d forgotten about our manners in the excitement and we’re standing there chanting, ‘Rocky, Rocky, Rocky!’ The whole place was erupting, and when they lifted the basket off, Rocky had won!

“One of our mates was so excited he was jumping up and down and bumped into one of the temple’s statues, which fell and smashed on the ground. Oh mate, the place turned instantly on us. They’re yelling stuff at us that we donn’t understand and our fisherman mate is still in the thick of it, and he’s waving and yelling at us, ‘go, go!’ So we took off with a few of them chasing us. We made it down the mountain and were sitting on his boat waiting for him to turn up and we could still hear all the noise coming from the temple. Then here he comes sprinting down the mountain as fast as he could with Rocky in one hand and a fistful of money in the other, running towards the boat with dozens of guys running down behind him!

“We made it off the beach and out into the lagoon, but they could have easily killed us and no one would have known. It was straight out of National Geographic - it was unreal.”

Told you many things in Mono’s life are unreal…

Mono - peacing @ Ulus

Jump to the present, and Mono is now married to his wonderful wife of 21 years, Deb, to whom he contributes so much of his life’s happiness, the children he once thought he could never father and an unending flood of support in all he does. He wears a beaming, youthful grin that belies his 58 years. In turn, those almost six decades contradict his status as twice world champion surfer and current world number two. Mono has spent the last five years bouncing across oceans to different continents, competing against surfers sometimes less than half his age, claiming an unprecedented three US Open titles among numerous other accolades.

His intention was to retire after this year, making the most of his final season by hitting as many of the tour’s events as possible...until a couple of rogue virus cells threw the planet into turmoil.

“Last year was one of my better ones,” he says of the 2019 season. “I won the US Open for the third time in a row, which has never been done before, I won in England, Spain, Wales, Hawaii - I got a lot of titles last year. And I was going to go back and do the full circuit through everywhere - Japan, Portugal, Costa Rica - on top of the other events and we were going to make it my final year, but then this Covid thing came along and just screwed everything up.”

Mono’s fellow competitors average between 20 and 30, Mono - by his own admittance - being the old man of the tour at 58, turning 59 later this year. But perspectives come back around again.

Short-cropped hair silvering around the temples, endearing crow’s feet wrinkling the corners of his ever-smiling eyes from a lifetime of squinting into the sun across the ocean, and stubble charmingly peppered with grey, Mono looks a decade younger than his age, but there’s no hiding that he’s no spring chicken. His surfing abilities must have been dismissed numerous times throughout his life, not least over the last five years of his professional career, but as soon as he sets foot in the ocean, the age simply falls away and it becomes immediately evident why he is one of the best surfers in the world.

Modern-day Bali sojourns

Were it not for his name and the reputation that goes along with it, his fellow competitors may well have pitched him as an easy mark, given their advantage of fewer miles on the clock. But humility would cascade upon them once Mono joined them in the lineup and proceed to decimate every wave he claimed.

“I think the progression of my equipment has been a real help for me too,” he respectfully suggests. “Dave Parkes is shaping me boards now and there’s nothing we could do to improve them. They’ve just been amazing and really helped my style of surfing.”

Mono is a kneeboarder, which is probably why you haven’t heard his name before, even given his lofty accomplishments in the surfing world. Some of the more narrow-minded boardriders of our global community may consider kneeboarding an outdated fad that went out of fashion with Global Hypercolor t-shirts and Pop Swatches, but the more open-minded amongst us know that surfing is surfing, however you ride the wave. Kneeboarding is coming back, and a younger generation is kneeling down where George Greenough and others left off. 

Off the bottom @ Bingin - still one of Mono's favourite waves in the world

But Mono has remained adamantly low-profile with his surfing style from his early migrations off Morey boogie boards, which he received in DIY kit form from the US in the mid-70s.

“I rode a boogie board for a fair while. Back then, there was only Tracks magazine. I’d seen an ad for Morey Boogie Boards, but when you bought them in Australia, they came in a kit. You had to actually build them, you had to glue them together yourself!”

But having been a surfer as a kid, and with friends riding stand-up, Mono soon tired of the sponge and made the transition to kneeboards, attracting the attention of two local doyens of surfing’s sovereignty.

“I remember sitting on the shore one day and George Greenough came up to me. Once you get talking to George he never shuts up, and he’s always thinking… he came up with this idea of asymmetrical boards and all this stuff. And then he teamed up with Bob McTavish and they collaborated on my first ever brand new board. It was an amazing board. I stuck with the asymmetrical boards for a while, I guess around the late ‘70s to early ‘80s, but I started to find they were too limiting; they went great in lefts, or they went great in rights, but not both.”

When Friar Tuck Kneeboards moved up to Byron Bay in the mid-80s, Mono’s surfing took a leap. With a world-class shaper in John Ware along with his glasser brother, Peter, both exceptional kneeboarders in their own right, Friar Tuck attracted some of the best surfers of the time right to Mono’s doorstep including Albert Whiteman and Dale Ponsford. At a time when kneeboarding was thriving up and down the East Coast of Australia, Mono was living at Ground Zero.

Mono had found his niche, his ideal connection to the ocean, the place that made him feel whole and complete… except he wasn’t.

No front foot to weight onto - hands down for acceleration

When Mono was in his early teens, growing up on a dairy farm in the Northern New South Wales hinterland, he had two passions: surfing and soccer. At the age of 15, on the eve of the Tasman Cup inter-school soccer tour, Mono’s knee started playing up. He’d taken a crash into a goal post a few weeks before and put it down to that, just some muscular bruising or other superficial injury. But as he returned to the pitch and struggled to run on his damaged knee, his coach suspected there was more to it and encouraged him to see a doctor.

Within 48 hours, Mono was missing half a leg and facing 18 months of chemotherapy.

Every week, in those formative years both of his life and the cancer treatment, Mono would travel to Sydney, receive chemo for three weeks and return to Byron for a few days’ respite and recovery.

“I’d lay in hospital,” Mono recalls, “and read Tracks magazine and think to myself, ‘I can’t play football, I can’t play soccer, the only thing I might be able to do is get back in the ocean’.

“I’d be in hospital for three weeks getting drugs pumped into me and when I’d come home, I’d be violently, physically ill for the first day or two, then I’d feel okay, so I’d get into the water. I’d surf flatout for four or five days, and then two days before I was due to head back to Sydney, I’d be physically sick again, just knowing what I was about to endure for the next three weeks. That went on for 18 months. Half way through, I was ready to chuck it in. I told my mum, ‘I’m not going back’, but she put the heavies on me and made me go. But at the end of it, I got a clean bill of health, although they did tell me I’d likely never have kids.

“Once I got back in the ocean, it was just so healing. Most people didn’t even realise I had one leg as I paddled past them. It wasn’t until they saw me getting in or out of the water that they even realised. So it was a real equaliser for me. And my mates were probably one of the biggest reasons that I did what I’ve done, because they pushed me and just treated me like one of the boys - they never showed me any mercy!

“Sometimes when it would be big, I’d leave my crutches at Main Beach and hop all the way round to the Pass (around 400 metres... on one leg… on sand). The guys never volunteered to give me a hand or bring my crutches to me. They’d just say, ‘nah, ya mongrel - hop!’ It was tough love, but it’s what really helped me through.”

Legend: Mono has returned to Noosa for many years, more recently as an honorary legend for the Noosa Festival of Surfing, alongside the likes of Tom Carroll, Taylor Jensen, Layne Beachley, Bob McTavish and Mark Cunningham

17 is an age of anxiety at the best of times. Pimples, body odour, the first tantalising, fumbling steps into romance - but to go through that being so distinctly different was exponentially worse.

“When you’re a young teenager, you’re so conscious of what people think you look like and all those sorts of things, but in the water that didn’t happen.”

Mono had a secret weapon: perspective.

That perspective was unforgivingly forced upon him by his mates, lovingly instilled in him by his family, diligently scrutinised amongst the pages of Track and passionately adopted by himself. It began at the first diagnosis and continues to this day.

Mono was incredibly lucky that his local family doctor, Peter Stewart, happened to have been to a seminar on osteosarcoma [an aggressive form of cancer that forms, most commonly, in the knees of people under the age of 25]. Inspecting Mono’s knee x-ray, Dr Stewart recognised the symptoms and possibility for osteosarcoma. He rushed Mono to Sydney, to visit the German specialist who had given the seminar and happened to still be in the county. He immediately diagnosed the cancer, prescribing Mono’s immediate leg amputation. Had a lesser-experienced doctor tried to open or operate on Mono’s injury, the cancer would have likely spread swiftly and ended his life.

Mono knew how close he had been to losing far more than ‘just’ half a leg.

Today, he confesses that when he used to see other people with any form of disability, loss of limb or anything even remotely relating to his own circumstances, he would go so far as to cross the street to avoid them, never allowing himself to admit his own situation.

So adamant was he on his lack of disability that he refused for many years to claim a disabled driver’s certificate. It was only when he realised that all the best, usually empty car parks at many of the surf breaks he visited were reserved for disabled permit holders that he chose to cash in on his missing limb.

In the shadow of Uluwatu

“I didn’t get my disabled car parking sticker until after we’d had kids, and now I kick myself for not having got it earlier! At all the good surf spots, particularly at Snapper Rocks, the best parks are the disabled ones! Noosa’s the same - the really prime parks are the disabled ones. I’ve been booked in Noosa twice. I’d park up, go and surf, and I’d have all my spare boards in the car. When I’d come in I’d be booked, even though I had the sticker in the car window! They thought I was just some bloke who’d pinched grandma’s disabled sticker. I’d go into the council chambers and they’d take one look at me and tear the tickets up!

“You’ve got to make fun of these things,” says Mono with a chuckle. “Going through airports is unreal - I know all the shortcuts! Mates love travelling with me because they get to tag along and jump all the queues!”

Mono has never been a disabled surfer. Though their work is exceptionally admirable and equally as valid, the Disabled Surfers Association is all but irrelevant to him as a participant - though perhaps not as a mentor.

Where many who have faced physical challenge have compromised, Mono simply adapted. He could no longer stand on a board, so he would kneel instead. Besides, as he freely admits, he never was much good at the stand-up stuff anyway. Likewise, his equipment has adapted. With an extra 60 or so centimetres of leg on one side, a flat board would throw him off balance, so a knee well has been carved into to his board to accommodate his remaining leg. Almost ironically, the adaptation has been for what remains, not what was taken away.

Returning from a competition in the US, Mono recognised the need in Australia for a proactive mentorship and training program for surfers who are less complete - though no less talented - than others. Paralympians are every bit as accomplished as their able-bodied counterparts, at the top of their game, abled-bodied or not and regardless of what perspective others may have of their physical appearance. Mono envisaged a program that could train adaptive surfers to reclaim their surfing, prove to them it was possible, empower them to adapt and, potentially, escalate them to Olympian levels.

Establishing Adaptive Surfers of Australia [ASA] with the Surfing Australia organisation, Mono is providing the shortcut he never had, and all the advice, coaching and inspiration he can possibly offer.

“The Disabled Surfers Association, which started many years ago, is often for the mentally challenged. It’s a real entry-level thing and they just want people to get back in the ocean.

“The adaptive movement is focussed on improving people’s surfing, getting them onto the right equipment, getting them the right wetsuits, just shortcutting what I never had when I was young. We fast-track it so they don’t get frustrated with the sport or with the simple things that people take for granted, like getting down the beach. Next time you’re walking down the beach and it’s really soft sand, try hopping on it - it’s physically demanding. We want them back in the ocean. It’s such a healing thing for them. Like I said before, every time they get back into the ocean they are at peace; they forget about their mental issues, they forget about the problems in their life and they just enjoy the moment. That’s why it’s so important to get people out there.

“Going next level to that, [the ASA] helps people to travel around the world to compete. It definitely will be in the Paralympics. Probably not until 2028, but that’s a goal for young people.”

Mono passes on his advice, his passion of the ocean, even dozens of his own surfboards. He knows how perspectives change from the land to the water, and how healing and empowering the sea and the surf can be.

“[The ocean] can give you freedom - that’s probably the best aspect of it. It gives you freedom, it gives you challenges… it’s hard to explain the feeling after you’ve had a good surf; your body, your mind… your soul feels at peace.”

2020 has forced everyone’s perspectives to change. What was going to be his final competitive year is now a year of indulging in the breaks on his doorstep, the waves of his childhood. Without the ability for overseas travel or large gatherings, the ISA Adaptive Surfing Championships have moved online, surfers submitting a series of videos for judging, taking local wave quality and availability into account, in order to find an overall winner come year’s end.

Bummed, of course, he’s still living his best life - a life provided by salt water, swell and the love of a good woman - a life that is, quite simply, unreal.

“If it wasn’t for the ocean, I don’t know where I’d be, what I would have done, or the person I’d be now. The ocean’s given me everything - it’s given me my whole life. Through all the twists and turns of my life, they’ve all been tied up with the ocean.”

Mono’s not disabled - he never has been, and it would be condescending to suggest otherwise. He’s not a good surfer for someone with only one leg - he is a world-class surfer who can navigate the hollowest barrels, hack a rooster-tail cutback and knock the back out of almost anything the ocean can throw at him. Period.

We can have perspective of every aspect of our lives, both positively and negatively, but more often than not the reverse is true: we don’t have perspective, our perspectives have us. They cage us, blinker us, shut us off to a world of possibility.

Mono has never lost perspective, just as he has never allowed perspective to hinder him. It has been at once expansive and simple. He defined his life beyond the challenges that beset his path, and all by the simple act of riding waves.

More from the Mono archives: Racetracks (above) and Uluwatu from two perspectives (below)

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