What’s It Like To Travel The World As A Surfer & Writer?

We chat to freelance journalist and surfer Thea McDonald-Lee about travelling the world as a surfer, writer and adventurer

Photo: John Barton

Freelance journalist and surfer Thea McDonald-Lee chats surf culture, keeping things in perspective, the radness of combining surf with study and why we should at least make the effort to give a little something back when we travel


I grew up in North Shore suburban Sydney, with lots of family trips to the Northern Beaches on the weekends and in the holidays. 

Along with my brother and sister, we were the quintessential Aussie kids of yuppie parents, who played Milo cricket and bashed about in the shore breaks from Manly to Mona on bodyboards we had found in the trash.

It wasn’t until I was 17 and away from home for the first time that my life changed, and I fell in love with surfing.

I was living and working as an English teacher on the south coast of Sri Lanka.

Every weekend after school finished, my friend and I would wait on the main road for half an hour, desperately trying to hail down a Sri Lankan bus driver.

Most just screeched by shaking their heads and gawking with laughter at two white girls flailing their arms, but eventually one would stop.

After haggling over our 20 rupee ticket we were on our way to Hikkaduwa, the heart of surfing on the beautiful Indian Ocean island.


For a country that was so horrendously damaged by the 2004 tsunami, the Sri Lankan people sure know how to pick themselves up.

Every year during the monsoons, the beachfront resorts are bombarded with ugly swells and big tides. As soon as they stop, every man, woman and child of each resort is put to work building up their livelihood better than last year (and better than the resorts next door!)

I saw one resort build a restaurant and balcony extension in the time it took me to have a morning surf! The resilience of the Sri Lankan people is something I feel I always carry with me.

Having lived with a family who literally had to pick up their deceased neighbours up off the street after the tsunami, I know I can get through anything if they could get through that!


Surfing for me has always been about the culture.

I’ve been lucky enough to live and work in a variety of surf subcultures around the globe, each totally unique yet utterly resonate with the surfing psyche.

The people are different yet the behaviours are the same. I’ve seen a young Mentawais island boy, surfing on a broken board left behind by a tourist, feeling the same stoke as he pulls off a wave as the 9-5 ‘Weekend Warrior’ in an absurdly crowded Bondi line-up.

I know a 60 year old who surfs Yallingup every morning on everything from stumpy fish-style boards to SUPs, and he always has a smile on his face! To share waves with people like this is the essence of surfing for me.


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