29 Jul 2021

Hayden Richards, recognisable as @sa_rips on Instagram and Richo to everyone else, is one of the world’s most enigmatic surf and ocean photographers. 

He famously scales the towering cliffs of the Great Australian Bight where self-installed ropes and ladders aid his perilous launch into the Southern Ocean’s engine room of huge swells. It’s inaccessible and inhospitable, but his obsession is nature’s raw and rugged beauty. Colloquially referred to as the White Highway, these waters are some of Australia’s sharkiest, but Richo’s dedication is driven by the images in his mind’s eye, and he’s enticed into this dangerously beautiful playground every day. He admits it’s equally "the most heavenly and scariest place on earth".

Caption: Richo at his home near Elliston preparing for a surf near Blackfellas: a haunting surf break with a dark cultural history and a deep channel called Shark Alley (for good reason) where he often swims to photograph the surf and its riders.

It's hard to believe Richo was phoneless before 2014, but it’s true. It probably explains his awkward humility when talking about the (almost) 70,000 people now following him on Instagram. World-famous surfers Mick Fanning and Craig Anderson, A-lister Chris Hemsworth and award-winning photographers follow and chat with him through the platform. Despite all this, Richo lives a humble and private existence where nature, his family, the ocean, surfing and photography orbit his every move. His lifestyle is fully funded by nature; his kicks are provided by swimming the gauntlet of shark alley, his home is powered by the elements, and the ocean his muse.

Caption: Left: Richo photographing surfer, Craig Anderson in silken waves. Right: A composition he saw when looking back at the approaching waves. He wanted the surfer in frame, so quickly grabbed an esky for extra height, timing the frame perfectly. Both images from @sa_rips' Instagram.

Richo stumbled into the world of photography quite literally by accident – he now refers to his initiation as the “three-wave hold down”. This mishap, as he so casually calls it, was both life-threatening and life-changing. He was trapped beneath the ocean’s surface for forty-five seconds as three big slab-like waves broke consecutively on top of him, contorting his body and pinning him to a shallow reef. “Before I got into photography, I had this surfing accident,” he recalls. “I fell out of the lip for about six-to-eight foot onto a shallow reef and it just slammed me so hard into a cave that I dislocated my elbow. I came up to the surface and my forearm wasn’t attached at all. It was around the wrong way.” He was ordered to start swimming during his six-month rehabilitation, and for most people, a trip to the local swimming pool would suffice. But not Richo. He grabbed his wetsuit and flippers and dived headfirst into his front yard – the Southern Ocean.

Caption: Left: One of Richo's calmer entry points and a regular surf spot. Right: Richo's scaling the limestone cliffs in his uniform - a 3mm wetsuit, hoodie, long hair, flippers and his underwater housing.

The Great Australian Bight has been shaped by Antarctic winds, rolling across the ocean, whipping up powerful swells and finally crashing into the coastline. During one of his daily ocean swims, Richo thought to himself “Why don’t I take a camera out and capture a few of the things that I’m seeing?” When he peered through the camera’s viewfinder for the first time at 35, he was hooked for life. A decade of dedication later, Richo believes there is still a lifetime’s worth of discovery to be had on the Eyre Peninsula. “I’ve only just scratched the surface,” he says, as his eyes glaze over in thought. “If only I could live 1,000 years – to be able to find the time to get to all these areas.” Richo’s wonder for the natural world is inspirational. He has an admiration for organic detail most would unconsciously overlook, and his wandering soul has gifted him the patience and artistry to capture this landscape unlike anyone before him.

Caption: Looking up, Richo will often see kangaroos standing atop of the cliffs looking down at him.

He’s not a commandeer of this coastline by any means. He does his own thing. He shies away from localism and surf politics, and will only shoot pro surfers whose values align with his – in his words, “kind people that only leave their footprints in the sand.” When his toes aren’t being tickled by Kelly Slater as he sleeps in the back of his car, he’s on a single-minded hunt to capture an image he’s been patiently obsessing over for three years. He calls it The Fan. “It’s when a wave crashes and rolls up the cliff and then it forms another wave as it’s coming back out to the ocean.” He sculpts the air with his hands, then continues. “It collides with another incoming wave and when the two impact perfectly, it creates a huge fan-like wave sometimes shooting 50 feet high into the air, almost like a whale tail sprouting out of the ocean,” he says, disappearing for a moment to re-live the scene. “The sound, when they collide, is so thunderous and scary and amazing all at the same time.” He found The Fan by accident when he was hooking down the coast on his jet ski years ago. But when he sold it to pay for school fees, he had to find a new way to access the area from land. “It took me days of hiking up and down the area to try and find a spot where I could actually get down. I eventually did – I needed three ladders and 20-30 feet of rope for safety to get down.” He replays the adventure as though he’s there: “So off I went on my merry way, and you know, week-by-week I started collecting and adding and building the steps to get down to The Fan. The cliffs are 35-40 metres. It’s pretty fragile: limestone, crumbly, sketchy but I’m doing whatever it takes to get down to this area because it’s phenomenal.”

Caption: Left: Timing his entry into the ocean is a delicate maneuver. Right: The only image Richo has ever shared of The Fan. Copyright sarips.com.au

The water is black and eerie, but he’ll wait and observe for however long it takes, plotting a path to get out behind the break. He likens this part of the process to entering a battle, but being seriously fit and conserving his energy for Mother Nature’s turbulence is his game plan. “Sometimes if it’s relentless and I’ve got 15 waves in a set continuously breaking, I’m forever diving under them, coming up gasping for some air and going back down again, kicking my little legs like crazy to get out behind the breaks to safety.” Anecdotes from his younger years prove he’s mellowed (a lot) over the last decade, and although there’s still a loveable kook to his character, he’s measured. “Never do I ask myself ‘Why are you doing this? Why are you down 35 metres on this ledge with no reception, standing with the crabs, hundreds of kilometres from civilisation just out amongst the elements ready to plunge off into the sea?’” The one and only image Richo has shared from The Fan reflects his obsession within. But while his nonchalance about the conditions may seem chilling, he knows what he’s (quite literally) diving into. “When I’m swimming The Fan, it’s the scariest place on earth really. It’s alive with sea life, it’s dangerous, it’s sharky, it’s shallow, the rocks are sharp and there’s rip.”

Caption: Left: The more haunting of Richo's images seen on his Instagram, which he actually prefers to the classic barrel surf shots. Right: Kelly Slater with Richo's late dog, Scooby.

There’s an undeniable connection between Richo and the ocean. He knows how to read the wind, the waves, the colour of the water, and he’s honed his sixth sense to keep him safe from the often clear and ever-present danger that lurks beneath. “It must be intuition I reckon – when it doesn’t’ feel right. Overcast days when the water looks really oily and spooky, I’ll assess things a little bit longer and decide whether it’s safe to go out.” He has a gentle respect for the ocean’s unpredictability and over the years has lost too many friends to shark attacks.

“Sometimes I can be out amongst it, swimming and shooting and suddenly, a seal will just launch one to two metres in the air past me flying a hundred mile an hour looking back at me, not stopping, making a b-line straight for the cliff. It gets up wherever it can to safety. It looks terrified and just stares at whatever it’s seen out there. I see stuff like that. It’s like ‘Whoa, what are you doing up there little fella?’ So, when I see signs like that, I don’t really take the risk and say put.”

Caption: Menacing skies and blistering Arctic winds bring big waves and heavy swells; Richo looks out to his muse, the Southern Ocean.

Unquestionably, it’s these vulnerable experiences from his wild and untamed water world that correlate to @sa_rips’ photography. His images are evocative and visceral. They are sobering and hauntingly beautiful, but confronting. They beckon you to find out what was happening right before he pulled the trigger. Sometimes he’ll share a fin in foggy black water, and at other times, a surfer in freeze-frame, tumbling through a galaxy of foamy droplets. But if you ask him to tell you more, you’ll unlikely get further than his one-worded or un-captioned posts. “My images speak for themselves. I really love sharing more than the actual selling of the prints. I’m not going out there to prove anything. I just love to capture what I see and to share that moment and experience. It intrigues and excites me.” He might be choosy with his words and who he works with, but he’s kind, fascinating and generous. He’s been described to talk in ‘clipped sentences with a contemplative breeze blowing between them’ (Doherty, "West of Pointerville", Para 5).

Caption: One of Richo's favourite photographs he calls Australia. Available as a print on sarips.com.au

There’s a child-like wonder to Richo’s thirst for adventure, too. One day, he could be going off-grid for a week-long solo camp-out and the next, jet skiing 150km to somewhere special, accompanied by nothing but extra fuel and his Nikon. He oscillates between being exceptionally modest or blissfully naïve. It’s refreshing. There’s absolutely no ego to him. He’s a lone wolf who is happiest exploring this desolate but striking part of the country and he sees the beauty in it every day. “Some days can be huge and angry, and some days can be peaceful and calm. It doesn’t matter – it’s all good and beautiful and I love all conditions.” The pursuit and discovery of sand dunes that fold like silken sheets into the ocean bring him the most joy. “They’re out there, but they’re a rare thing. I’m starting to find these beautiful locations just now.” Richo will commit to the effort of heaving and hurling over two-to-four metre swells on his unreliable jet ski for days, and even then, he might only be happy with just one shot. “When I finally discover these areas where the sand dunes are cascading down into the ocean, it’s like ‘oh my god – this is heaven on earth where I am right now.’ I’ll position myself behind the waves at a safe distance and I’ll just start staring through the view finder of my camera.” Unintentionally, he’s using the natural mathematics of nature to frame his next shot. “I’m trying to get the swell lines in the frame with the sand dunes in the background all in the one. I can sit and just look through that view finder for half an hour – even more – until the right wave and the light and everything comes together, and I’ll just push that trigger. I’ll look at the photo straight after and think ‘yep that’s the one, that’s just beautiful’”.

This is nearly always the moment that Richo won’t (ever) register his talent. What he has just frozen in time is remarkably and abnormally brilliant. In fact, it’ll probably sit on his SD card for weeks before he makes an edit, and you can guarantee it won’t be backed up on a hard drive. He doesn’t own any. Instead, he’s caught up in a blissful euphoria because these experiences are never lost on him. He’ll park the jet ski, turn it off and lay back. “I’ll fully embrace the moment, staring up at the cliffs and I feel like I’m the only person on planet Earth. It’s a good feeling.” Much of the Eyre Peninsula is only accessible by boat, jet ski or on foot. And of course, Richo does all three. “Everything is a challenge. It’s not easy to get to these spots. It requires planning and motivation.” But for every enviable day of Richo’s lifestyle spent swimming, surfing and exploring, he has unintentionally photographed his canvas of the Great Australian Bight into a series of digital masterpieces.

Caption: Left top and bottom: Richo playing in the sand dunes on a recent photoshoot. Right: His photograph Moon Dune, from one of the Eyre Peninsula's sand dunes, copyright sarips.com.au

His lesser-known account @thedarkslideofthemoon is an experimental journey in search of moonlight, using his analogue Hasselblad camera. Ironically or not, this was the first camera to be sent to the moon on Apollo 11. He lost his first one to the ocean – likely a rite of passage for any serious photographer willing to stand still for a 30-minute midnight exposure; waves crashing and electricity bolting out of the black sky. But the moon-illuminated dunescapes of the Eyre Peninsula provide a softer environment to the days he’s surrendering to the ocean’s power. “Sand dunes by night are the best when the moon is rising," he says. "The patterns and shadows are more vivid. I’ve got the warm fuzzies the whole time when I’m in there. The shapes and curves in the dunes fascinate me when I’m walking through them. It’s like a maze to me. A corridor of beauty.” His monthly rituals of photographing the full moon are a night-long affair, and there’s a lifetime’s supply of these sandy formations for him to romance. “There are hundreds, aye, and when you think you’ve seen them all, another little pocket appears around the corner and it’s game on again.”

Hayden's prints are available for sale on sarips.com.au.

A LITTLE MORE

Want more Stories from the South? Watch episode one, Outback Aviator, with Doug Sprigg or episode two White Shark Whisperer with Rodney Fox.

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