I find myself here, on the West Coast of Africa, alone in search of something different. With the predicted swell I could have gone east; J-Bay, Billabong country. I could have stayed in Durban, watched the Quick pro and surfed the piers with the rest of them, too, but I wanted out, away from the brands, away from the pros, away from the hub and into the sticks.
So here I am, heavy collar turned up against a brisk morning offshore as a thin winter sun ushers the weary dawn through a stubborn sea mist. The swell is all wrong, too big, too south. There’s nobody here but me, with only a 6’1”, so confident was I that the web charts would translate to some perfect reeling 3-5ft lefts. But it feels too small for the raw unchecked swell charging in from the deep open ocean, missing the point and heading to the rugged reefs and slabs up north. It’s cold, really cold. The water brown and cloaked with heavy foam. Standing alone on the point, huddled over a cup of tea for warmth, I feel small and lost on a vast and unfamiliar coast. Far from home and ill prepared, more than I bargained for and in a moment of doubt.
It’s early; I could bail, head home to the familiar comforts of Cape Town with my tail between my legs and score a late afternoon session. Swallow my ego and admit defeat, make a weak vow to return one day and make the long drive home, plenty of time to spin a story to explain why I ran when the going got tough; dodgy tides, too foggy, it would have been irresponsible to surf alone…. Or I could get on with it, face up to my decision to head west, ditch the romance and face up to the reality. If it was easy it wouldn’t be empty.
I’d been told of a dirt track that winds north yielding countless slabs and reefs when the swell is from the South. With a westerly swell predicted I hadn’t paid much attention, not even packing a road map for this stretch of coast. Cursing myself I pull up to the gate of the only dirt road around, a gravel toll road headed north skirting a railway. The toll is 25 Rand but the gate is unguarded and the toll station seemingly empty; two crumbling concrete huts in the desert flanked by a large steel rails; it’s like a Mad Max movie. I get out of the car and walk to the second hut, its windows clogged with condensation. Inside is the guard, fast asleep and wrapped in a heavy blue jacked and woollen hat. Above his head, daubed graffiti reads: “Love is all but trust is no.1”. Nothing like early morning heartbreak to ease my trepidation.
I pay the toll and push on through the barrier. The road hugs the beach, criss-crossing the railway as the dunes dictate the passage. The coastline is rugged and the ocean looks heavy, strewn with kelp and churning rips marked by the ever-present dark brown foam. After 10km’s I’ve passed several spots, all empty, all far out beyond the kelp beds, and there’s no sign of a surfer anywhere. Every now and then I spot a fisherman, a lonely rod visable above a low dune; a sign of life at least, but not the assurance of company I now crave in the empty waves. Rounding a corner, I spot a red camper idling on the side of the road. I approach slowly and pass, craning and praying for any sign of a surfboard. Inside are two men in their late 30’s. In the back I make out the silohuette of fins. They don’t see me pass, their gaze is set on a perfect a-frame heaving off a small outcrop of rocks by the road. I swing round and pull in next to them. They smile—relief.
Both are from Cape Town, one works in IT and the other in banking. They’ve been coming here since the early 80’s and assure me that this is the best spot for the conditions before grabbing their boards and paddling out. On a 6’10” and 7’2”, respectively, I feel a little foolish as I follow behind on a 6’1”.
From the beach the wave looks manageable, not more than 5 feet or so with a solid take off and a good wall that tapers into a channel. From the water, however, the wave is more challenging. The swell horseshoes onto the reef, compressing into a thick lip and a heavy wall. I paddle hard into my first wave, making the drop as the wall curves towards me. The section throws and I tuck for a barrel but my line is too high. I pearl and go over, cold water flushing my suit as I pitch and roll, the violence of the wipeout catching me off guard and stretching my leash to breaking point somewhere over head. I eventually surface in the channel, far from the peak and alone.
Gathering my board, I look back to the beach to spot my markers and re-orientate my spinning senses, and then I see it. The white sands and baked brown dirt road, the railway glinting in the sun, the mountains visible through the haze on the horizon, midday sun rising over the vast plains before them and deep blue-sky overhead. No people, no houses, no blot on the landscape other than our two cars parked in the bush. Not a single soul in sight, solitude and perfect waves.