In Durban I crash on the couch at Marcello’s. A tall, dark Brazilian who shares in the wave addiction. He came here a few years ago and never left. His spot is in Scottburgh, a kief little coastal town about 80km south of Durbs with a nice reef point that runs into a sandy bay with the railway running along it. The coast here is punctuated by a series of right point breaks that are always about two feet bigger than the piers in Durban, which is naturally protected from the brunt of big swells by a chunk of land known as The Bluff. Inland it’s another mish-mash of motley Zulu huts interspersed with huge sugar cane fields set at odd angles in the short-wavelength hills. The majority of people in KwaZulu, although well fed, are poor, with areas of electric-fenced, white affluence dotted along the coast. 1st world islands in a 3rd world sea.
On this sunny day in winter there was a clean and heaving 6 foot swell, hardly a breath of wind and we were surfing a grinding point called Mfazazana. A few days earlier, a surf photographer was mugged there, but after an appeal to the local chief all his equipment was returned and the perpetrator slapped on the wrist by the tribal council. That’s how it works in rural KwaZulu. Despite the horror stories and intensely afro-pessimistic attitudes held by some old school whiteys, the overwhelming majority of people in South Africa are decent, if not downright friendly and hospitable. I have always received more charity from the poor in Africa than on the streets of London or New York. More smiles too. The atmosphere tends to be very laid back and casual, just be sure not to flash your cash. Don’t arrive at an intensely rural spot like Mfazazana or the Kei with new Etnies, cameras, minidiscs, a Merrick swallowtail fresh out the bag and an Elasto wetsuit you haven’t even pissed in yet. It’s like bling-blinging in the ghetto. You won’t make it two blocks. Local kids always gather on the beach to watch you surf and maybe scrounge some bucks, food, booze, and any other things of interest that you are sure to be carrying with you. It’s a full on cultural exchange. After surfing the solid and glassy waves at Mfazazana, Marcello chose to share his Brazilian culture, walking around naked, while the locals giggled and pointed at his shlong, dangling in the sunlight. He then changed into a very old and loose pair of y-fronts and tried to teach the local kids the South African national anthem, which they knew perfectly, but he did not. The sight of him stumbling through the words and clapping his hands like some parody of a retarded nursery school teacher, or a Springbok rugby player was too much. The little kids bought into it, but the older ones folded their arms standoffishly and wanted no part of his kookiness. The nice thing about Marcello is that he doesn’t care either way.
Jonny is best described by a line from a Sublime song, ‘stolen from an African land and chased out with a knife, with a face like Bob Marley and a mouth like a motorbike…’ Jonny lives on a farm in rural KwaZulu with a Xhosa mother and an Israeli father, 20 Minutes from Scottburgh. He is home schooled and bored out of his skull, mostly. A trip to Cape Town, surfing all the way is, like, his wildest dream. I was happy for the company on the 1900km drive, and more importantly, I now had someone I could charge for petrol. On the road out of Durban we laughed hard at Marcello’s eccentricities. Jon told me about a time when Marcello had been stung by a jellyfish while they were surfing. When he got back to the car, he rustled through the cubbyhole and pulled out this mug from J-bay with a mural of the waves on the side, then immediately pisses into it, in clear view of what was confirmed by Jon to be a very fit babe, in a thong. Then he looks up all dissappointed and goes ‘Oooh no Jonny it’s too light! It needs to be darker. The darker it is the more pain relieving it is, because of the toxins...’ Explained Marcello, oblivious.
Immediately on hearing this story, I laugh but don’t feel too good. For the past week or so I have been drinking my coffee in a mug with a mural of the J-Bay waves on the side.
Straight down from Durban on the N2 all the way to Port Shepstone, ignoring loads of cooking waves, reeling unridden to the shore. And then right, inland to Kokstad, up the hills, through the cane and swinging left through the mean urban Xhosa epicentre of Umtata. Hard left onto the pot holed piece of shit road to Coffee Bay. The distance is only about 300 kilometers from Durban, as the vulture flies, but in my car, on these roads, it took us about 6 hours. Long after sunset, we were camped on someone’s lawn on the edge of a river at the mouth of a beautiful cliff-lined bay in a land without shops and petrol stations, where all the houses are built round out of mud with thatched roofs, where goats, pigs and cattle roam free and the only blight on the landscape is your car. But we didn’t know that yet because it was dark. The landscape was nothing more than inky blackness and two shafts of light from the jeep barely illuminating the potholes. Soon we found ourselves at a bar surrounded by nubile young tourists and an expressive old man, with long white hair and an unquenchable thirst. The old man rambled on in Zulu, spewing swear words liberally (the only bits I could understand) and plying everyone with drinks. He was like some colonial ghost who got lost here 300 years ago and had been assimilated. Many drinks and a particularly long Zulu diatribe later, I could have slept anywhere.
‘Young man.’ he stopped me while I was looking for my feet.
‘Yes Madala’ I slur.
‘I wish you well, and hope that when you are 70 years old you can still perform… mentally,’ he taps his head. ‘Physically.’ He points at his body. ‘And sexually!’ He pokes me in the ribs.
Cut Feet in the Kei
It’s always good waking up in a new place you’ve never seen. Even with a hangover so bad it feels like a baboon crapped inside your cranium. Mdumbe is another right handed point break, which is a hardcore jewel of a wave about 30km from Coffee Bay. On it’s day it can run for 500 to 800 meters and holds up to about 12 feet. It’s also notoriously sharky. Let’s not kid, South Africa’s coastline, especially the East, has a reputation for being ‘shark infested’. It would be lies to deny that they are there, but it would also be foolish to arrive at a spot like Mdumbe, see it cranking and not go surfing for fear of sharks. Surf addiction runs stronger than the fear of mutilation and death in the razor sharp jaws of the ocean’s finest predator. The Transkei has the worst shark attack fatality rate in South Africa, simply because medical attention is so damn far away. On this day it was too big and messy to surf, but there would be waves tomorrow. Another danger of the Kei is widely known as Pondoland Fever, and is directly related to not surfing. It’s a type of bad craziness that takes hold during extended flatspells, when the overall isolation and ruralness of the place, mixed with copious marijuana, magic mushroom and alcohol abuse turns normal people into dangerous psychopaths. Late that night, at the end of day one, I could feel the dreaded Pondo Fever sneaking upon me as I danced on the bar in a lacy thong, dripping hot wax into an English woman’s beard, while the other tourists crowded around beating djembes in tune with the Jack Johnson CD being piped out of the bar’s tinny speakers. There would have to be waves tomorrow or I would be firmly in the grip of the fever…
Praise god hallelujah! To wake up to sunny skies and heaving seas is salvation. Our eleven o’clock start meant that it was too late for a dawnie. While making coffee with my hoodie pulled low over my head and dark sunglasses on, in case anyone should recognise me from the previous night’s revelries, this feral looking blonde kid in a Burton snowboarding jacket ambles in and asks if anyone is going surfing. It was hard to deny with Jonny hugging three boards and a bucket full of wetsuits. And it was from that moment on that Dave, a forward leaning young Briton, was stuck to us like a limpet. He scrounged a kooky looking mini-mal from the backpackers and an ill-fitting wetsuit and climbed into the already overloaded jeep, sitting on Jonny’s lap. I was too hung over to object and just shrugged and drove. At least he wasn’t sitting on my lap. Mdumbe was still out of control. After several sketchy rock jumps, 8 foot sets on the head, cut feet and a broken skeg; we were back in the car looking South.
‘Hey what’s your name again.’ Jonny asked Dave as we drove back to Coffee Bay. And from then on Dave became Devo, Dane, Darryl or whatever name Jon could think of.
The idea was to move on down the coast to meet the swell as it pushed up from the South. Chances are, with the power and consistency it was breaking in the Kei, it would get cleaner and more manageable the further down we drove. Devo put on this lost puppy look and kept on repeating how much he’d love to come with us. I looked at the baggage/space situation and it didn’t look feasible. Eventually Jonny relented and said Devo could share the front seat with him. The dude nearly licked us he was so happy. This was Devo’s last week in Africa before returning to start university in Edinburgh, and he wanted to get in as much surfing as he could. The previous night he had spent in Umtata, which is a dangerously impoverished urban center and no place for a 19 year old English kid to arrive in the dead of night and sleep on his backpack at the station, while waiting for the first taxi to Coffee Bay. But ignorance is bliss, and he survived without even knowing that he might have been in danger. Sometimes travelling blind is best.
‘So have you scored any chicks, while you’ve been here.’ Jonny asked.
‘Yeh, a few actually.’ Replied Devo with a blushing smile.
‘Any hotties?’ Probed Jon
‘Yeh one or two.’
‘Did you… uh… like… do it.’
Devo nods. This conversation was starting to worry me because Devo is practically sitting on Jonny’s lap.
‘What was she like?’ Asked Jonny
‘She wasn’t bad.’
‘Niiiiice!’ said Jonny. ‘Did you use a condom?’
At this Devo shifted uncomfortably.
‘You mean you never used a condom! Devo that’s so fucking stupid.’
‘You must always use a condom.’ Insisted Jonny the grom.
‘She said she was on the pill.’ Pleaded Devo.
‘The pill is not going to stop you from getting Aids, bru.’ Jonny said, very correctly.
‘That was fucking stupid.’ He capped it off. ‘I can’t believe you could be so stupid!’
‘Yes I know, I know, but what can I do?’ Devo was almost on his knees.
‘You can never do it again!’
‘Just get tested in about three months.’ I said. ‘If you are infected it will only show up then, anyway.’
‘You always wear a condom, bru!’ continued Jonny the virgin.
‘Make no fucking mistake, Aids is a big problem down here.’ I concluded.
The Witches Barrel
Another night, another perfect right handed point break running into a river mouth bay, with a campsite right on the beach, known as Yellowsands. Devo, without sleeping bag and camping equipment persuaded us to drop him off at a backpackers called the Buccaneer’s Retreat about 20km away. To our delight we found they had hot food, a bar, a pool table, a festive atmosphere and the standard motley crew of foreign tourists. Just one drink turned into three or four and all of a sudden Jonny pulls out a handful of mushrooms. I look at Devo, Devo looks at the mushrooms. Jonny smiles nervously. I share them out between us. Devo shoves his handful in his mouth immediately and starts chewing. They could have been poison, cow dung or mopani worms, but fearless Devo just dived in. He gags and knocks them back with a swig of beer. Jonny and I watch him close to make sure he doesn’t vrek. When he does not immediately keel over and start convulsing we ingest our portion of the hallucinogens. What follows is a floating, sharply coloured, vibrating game of pool that we only just lose. Jonny has found the cute, petite manageress of the backpackers and is trying to chat her up, and surprisingly, does quite well. Later in the night he insults her long, blonde-haired boyfriend by repeatedly calling him Kurt Cobain and crowing ‘An albino, my libido… yeah!’ while strumming an air guitar. Later he nudges me in my ribs and shouts, ‘hey look it’s John Lennon.’ I look up from my swirling beer and it is fucking John Lennon. I lean in to look closer. No it’s just a guy who looks like John Lennon. I spontaneously burst out laughing and elbow Jonny back in the ribs. John Lennon is getting fidgety, not digging all the attention. Jonny oblivious, starts pestering John Lennon to sing us a song. ‘Imagine all the people… ‘ I can’t stop laughing. Eventually I decide that I am sober enough to drive and try and get Jonny into the car and back to the campsite.
The road was more like the sea that night, it never stopped heaving and morphing into the darkness with patterns and colours dancing on the peripheries. Jonny was adamant that he saw a witch in the cactuses alongside the road and pressed me: ‘Go faster bru, I’m scared’. I drive fast the wrong way and it takes us ages to find the campsite.
Later Jonny lies and tells me that the mushrooms had no effect on him.
In the morning Jonny is curled up, asleep in my boardbag. I stumble out of the trees to get a look at the beach and am greeted by the most beautiful sight I have ever seen, ever. 5 foot peeling waves. Clean and serene, just running for ages. I rub my eyes in disbelief. Get on it, the thought breaks through my clouded mind. I run back and kick Jon.
‘It’s cooking bru.’
There’s two guys out already, but they welcome me with a big wave and a ‘Howzit!’ We exchange pleasantries and trade waves for a while in the warm water. The wave is reforming off a shallow sandbank, standing up with a bowling take off and a long, seamless 200 meter run to the beach.
Jonny finally makes it out with a hoot and washes the sleep out of his eyes with tubing salt water.
Overstoked and greedy, I turn into the surfpig and burn one of the locals on the ‘wave of the day’. When paddling back I am sure that retribution will be swift and painful. To my absolute surprise the guy hoots me and gives me this huge grin.
‘Jeez you were completely shacked on that one.’ He enthuses.
‘Ja, I’m sorry I dropped in on you.’
‘Hey no problem, bru. This is your first time here and I’m just stoked you had such a good wave.’
I cannot believe it. I pinch myself. Talk about irie locals.
Two hours and loads of waves later, Devo stumbles out of the bushes, white and sweaty, he has walked 20km to find us and maybe catch a surf. He is too late, and stands watching the cranking waves while we pack the jeep, then Devo stuffs himself onto Jon’s lap for the final approach to East London.
Days blur together as the swell cleans up and rolls in. Most of the time is spent chasing the curling blue at the notoriously sharky Nahoon reef and corner. Another world class right hander. Devo manages to purchase one of Greg Emslie’s old sticks at a local surf shop for a ridiculously cheap price, and from that moment on he progresses from flailing kook to competent stand-up artist, and by the end of the swell he is turning on and riding waves with confidence.
When the swell peters out the road beckons. The further south you go, the more consistent and bigger the waves. Devo caught a bus to Jo’burg for his flight to London the next day.
The J-Bay Blues
Stiff shoulders and long roads. There are so many excellent waves between Durban and Cape Town that it is near impossible to surf them all. Any trip down the coast is going to bypass more excellent spots than one can possibly entertain. But if you just take it easy and surf what you are presented with, you’re bound to hit the jackpot sometime. We had already missed the unbridled perfection of Pondoland spots like Mbotyi, Mzimpuni, Port St Johns and Mpande. We didn’t get to surf Notlanyane, Mazeppa Bay or Q-bay and now we made a move straight to surf city South Africa without checking the bowling lefts of Port Alfred, the A-frames of Kowie Mouth and a million un-named spots.
J-Bay isn’t even really part of South Africa. It belongs to global surf culture, along with Kuta, Bali and Hawaii’s North Shore. While J-Bay is always worth checking out, because when it is on, it is unparalleled. But be sure that in getting firing J-Bay you will have to put up with the worst in backpacking hell, sharks, crowds, kooks, groms, moody locals, out-performing pros and hard drinking, short tempered chokka fishermen. J-Bay is like surf culture on speed, full on, fired up and in your face, filled with an international crowd and more surf shops than you can wave a fistful of Pounds at. The waves were average to shitty while we staked out J-Bay – but the memory of having it good kept Jonny and I lingering. J-Bay like Coffee Bay, without waves, is prone to inducing the fever. Luckily the Supertubes set-up turns sideshore, and even onshore, 3 foot slop into something that bowls and runs, miraculously. Which meant there was always surf, and that averted the fever. But it’s good to remember while waiting for waves in J-Bay that there are loads of other waves of similar perfection elsewhere in South Africa, and chances are they are working and uncrowded. After two days in surf purgatory it looked like the next day was going to be all time J-Bay magic. The wind had backed off and a new swell was starting to show. The whole town was abuzz with anticipation. The next day would be epic. Then my phone rang.
‘Andy where the fuck are you?’ Not where I should have been. I had squashed the tomatoes, a forgotten meeting for a particularly large commission. The money was sitting around a table in Cape Town, and I was 700km away in J-Bay with no intention of coming home.
‘Uh… I’m a bit tied up, can we reschedule for next week?’ Fingers crossed.
‘No. Tomorrow is the only time available.’
Eish! Trust reality to kick down the door and drag you back to the real world. The endless bummer. Basic calculations, distance over speed, meant we would have to leave soon.
On the road again, cursing fate’s filthy ass. And pressing the jeep hard against my nature, all the way back to Cape Town. Straight passed the similar but more consistent St Francis, whistling passed Keurbooms and Buffels Bay. Eventually Jonny, fuelled by stoke and dissappointment forced me to pull over at Vic Bay and we paddled out for a quick sunset session in the four foot pre-frontal crackers. Then it was straight through and passed the cranking options of Mossel Bay (Inner Pool, Outer Pool, Dingdangs). Passed Still Bay’s long walling right pointbreak. Passed Jongensfontein and the sharky sharky Southern Cape spots like Vleesbaai, and right over the mountain and through the wet, darkness to Cape Town. As I say, South Africa’s coastline offers the surfer incredible odds, given enough time, you will score big. And we haven’t even begun to talk about the other half of the smile, the West Coast.