Cycles South

Posted on July 12, 2014

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We reached Cape Agulhas at the leading edge of a storm and turned north to begin the journey back to the top of Africa along the east Coast of the continent.  With my friend Mike from California having joined me in Cape Town, I would have company on the road all the way to Tanzania. In true feral surf tour fashion, we camped rough when required.

The first stop on this surf tour was a tiny little pocket bay that hosts a rocky righthand pointbreak at one end.  The swell cranked up, creating a good size wave with a messy jacking take-off in a field of rock boils and a short wall that allowed a few turns before it moved near to a deep water channel that turned the wave into a giant pregnant musher.  She was pushing 8 months. After riding lefts most of the way through West Africa, I was just happy to do a bottom turn facing the wave.

At the peak of the swell it was a bit of tricky business to launch off the rocks without getting bounced around like a pinball.

This is winter in South Africa, prime time for big swells, and so far we haven’t been disappointed. After the swell subsided we got on the road knowing that another one was stacked up right behind it and we knew right where we wanted to be when it arrived.   Jefferey’s Bay is a place that looms large in the imagination of surfers the world round.  Arguably the world’s best righthand pointbreak, it ropes in swell energy from storms in the roaring 40’s and turns it into a freak of nature: a kilometer long stretch of coast with perfect reeling walls of water for surfers to race along.  The black volcanic reef is oriented such that it holds the sand delivered from up-current securely in place to create the perfectly the groomed walls that this place is famous for.  It has been surfed since the mid-1960’s and since then has become a Mecca-like pilgrimage for traveling surfers, in the same league with treks to Hawaii and Indonesia.

The waves at J-bay lend themselves to high-line speed runs, deep bottom turns, arcing carves, and midface snaps in the pocket. The star of the show is the chunk of reef called Supertubes, where multiple tube sections pitch out as you speed along. Its super duper.

You can ride a barrel with your buddy right behind you riding a barrel.

Sometimes when you pull into a tube a rainbow appears overhead with unicorns flying around and magical flowers sprout on the beach.

Unfortunately unicorns cannot be photographed.

To my taste, Supers is just about the perfect wave to ride with its perfectly groomed walls and tube sections.  There are even nice little keyhole channels of deep water in the reef to help you get in and out of the break.   A down-side it is that sharks prowl the lineup from time to time. South Africa has got to be the sharkiest place on the planet to be a surfer.  Nearly every South African surfer that you meet has a shark story of one sort or another.  The last time I was here, surfing a place called Nahoon Reef, a week after I’d left a surfer was filmed being grabbed by a shark on the arm just as he was taking off on a wave.  The eerie footage of the shark silhouetted in the wall of the wave as he makes for the surfer became a hit on Youtube. This time around, the day before we arrived in J-bay, a great white briefly appeared and scared everyone out of the water for a few hours.  I’ll be happy to get my waves in South Africa without a shark story of my own.

The day that we arrived it was too small to surf Supers, but Mike and I rode some really fun waves further down the point, where the waves break a bit easier and slower. The next morning the swell cranked up and we rolled out of our beds to find offshore winds and Supers doing its thing at about 6 foot. I scrambled into the lineup and began to find my feet, remembering what this wave is like. The last time I rode it was 14 years ago when I was a rambling surfer hopping on and off of buses in Africa.  Some of the surroundings have changed since then, but I was happy to find that the wave hasn’t changed one bit. A photographer called Ross Turner generously shared some of his fantastic shots from the week, which you’ll see throughout this post.

 

The crowd was mellow and per local parlance, ‘the waves were cooking bru’.  It always takes me a while to get used to surfing a wave like this.  You don’t have to be super quick to surf it well, but you do have to be smooth and read the wave correctly. On my second wave, I did a fast carving top turn then layed into a deep bottom turn, waiting for the next barrel section to stand up in front of me.  Here it comes, get back up on the face and get on the gas.  I did a half snap two thirds of the way up the wave face as the lip started to pitch above my head and I held steady in the pocket. The lip charged ahead as I looked through the almond shaped window of the tube. Stay high, drive through to the opening.  I was buffeted by a few chunks of the lip collapsing on me I watched the opening recede away from me and I knew that I wasn’t going to make this one.  I didn’t care very much.  It felt fantastic anyway.

I surfed all day in light offshore winds and a sparse crowd and managed a few good carves, snaps and tube rides. By my own personal standards (ego-cushioningly low), I was ripping. Surfing J-bay is all about finding your line, a path that suits both the wave and rider.  I suppose that all of surfing is this way, its just that the waves in J-bay make it strikingly obvious. I believe that it was the former world champion and J-bay resident Derek Hynd who once commented that Surpertubes isn’t actually a hard wave to ride, but it is a hard wave to ride well.  It feels like a surfing analog to Michelangelo’s perspective on sculpture: the figure already exits within the marble; you just have to remove the unnecessary bits. There are endless possible lines on such a perfect watery canvas and you just have to find the one you want to draw and leave out anything that doesn’t add to the ride.

People were stoked.

photo by Ross Turner

As the storm grew nearer, the swell boosted and the wind strengthened.  It rained during the night and in the morning the waves were 8-10 feet and with a nasty strong cross-offshore wind.  The ‘devil wind’ they call it. The wind made getting into waves difficult and created warbles in the lip that would cause unmakable sections to throw over here and there.  Picking the right one was key.  Grant ‘Twiggy’ Baker was killing it. The guy shows up in my hometown to win the Mavericks big wave contest and then shows us how it’s done at  Supers. Legend.

photo by Ross Turner

We watched for most of the morning, hoping that the wind would mellow out.  When it didn’t, it was time to charge out anyway. I stood at the keyhole channel at the top of Supers for 20 minutes behind a local guy holding a seven-foot gun waiting for some sort of break in the sets, but there was hardly anything.  My rationale was that this guy knows the place better than I do, when he goes, I’ll go.  But he never did.  So I jumped in at a moment when it looked slightly less punishing.  The current swept me way down the point before I made it out the back, making for a long paddle back to the top of Supers. By the time it was starting to get dark, I’d only caught one wave.  Something manageable looking marched towards me and I swung around.  The offshore had me hung up in the lip, but I was already committed.  I free fell midway down the face and got whipped over by the lip giving my neck a good wrenching.  After that sad display, all I felt like doing was drifting down towards the point and finding something to ride in before it was dark

The next day the storm had moved eastward away from the coast and the swell and wind mellowed out leaving us with 2 more days of perfect 6-foot waves to ride. I earned some redemption from my flogging the previous day snagging a couple of the big sets, finding a few tube rides and laying down some decent carves.

photo by Ross Turner

Had enough of the epic lineup and tube photos?  One more.

Ok, just one more.

photo by Ross Turner

After a final surf at Supers it was time to pack up and leave the legend behind.  Our timing couldn’t have been perfect really as the Billabong Pro World Championship Tour  (WCT) was about to descend onto J-bay turning the shoreline into a circus and filling the water with the best surfers in the world.  While it would have been a blast to watch the show, given the choice I’ll take our 5 days of relatively uncrowded waves any day.  I would spend the next week feeling my stiff neck that resulted from my flogging on the big day and replaying a number rides over again in my head.

photo by Ross Turner

From J-bay, Mike and I rode into the rolling grassy hills dotted with traditional roundel huts of the Transkei Region where life moves slowly and people live simply. We wound along a strip of rough asphalt approaching the Wild Coast of South Africa where we passed one hilltop village after another with no shortage of kids waving and smiling as we rode past.

 

We ripped down rocky dirt tracks that paralleled the coast jutting out towards the ocean and then arcing back inland to traverse a river valley.

We found a number of pocket bays to surf with plenty of size but decidedly mediocre shape.  It was the landscape and people that that captivated us here more than anything else. We probably had the best campsites of anywhere yet in South Africa, perched atop trimmed grassy hills and looking right down on the surf.

South of the industrial center of Durban, I finally got to take the wetsuit off again to ride an easy, rippable righthander breaking along a small rocky headland.  I surfed all day long in crystal blue water and never even got cold. We found some punchy quick waves at Balito Bay, which, like J-bay was also gearing up for contest season.  A World Qualifying Series (WQS) prime event (highest level event below the WCT) was starting in 2 days time, and the lineup was already full of wave hungry competitors.

Mike and I have had a blast ripping through South Africa surfing.  The waves have been truly fantastic, but I think we’re both ready to leave behind the perfect roads, comfortable accommodation, and general high level of civilization found here. It’s time to head north to the wild spaces of the continent where everything feels a bit less predictable.

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What Others Are Saying

  1. Chris July 14, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    Gary – love it! Bringing back memories of when I visited SA oh so many years ago. The unicorn statement had me laughing out loud!

  2. Jeremy August 1, 2014 at 11:45 pm

    Yeah Mike! Cool stories to share with your students! Keep Gary sane!


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