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Jan 15, 2020
Fast-forward to today, and the concept of surf travel has become a multi-million dollar a year global business, and a lot of it is traced to the roots, right to the exploits of Hynson and August. I’ve been bitten awfully hard by the travel bug, and its stoke-filled infection has guided me mostly successfully through a handful of wild years. And while I’d been lucky enough to check out a few far-flung locales, I’d yet to visit what in many minds is the surf travel Mecca: the spinning points buried on the bottom of the vast African continent. The best airfare I could find was still a financial disaster for my credit card scenario, but hey, what’re ya gonna do?
Once twin ten-hour flights to Johannesburg via London dropped me off in South Africa, it was but a short hop, skip, and jump to the final destination, the one I’d dreamed about ever since seeing the Endless summer, the one . . . not actually in the film. Shortly after the film became a hit in the mid 60’s, it was discovered that a better, more consistent wave lay just a couple dozen miles east of the jewel of a wave in the Endless Summer that’s since been dubbed Bruce’s Beauties. This better wave is the one that every North America West Coast-ian feebly tries to compare their local pointbreak to on its best day.
“Oh man, did you see Rincon the other day?! It looked just like J-Bay!”
“Yeah, well I was just up at Seaside, and it was like J-Bay in reverse!”
So finally I’d made it to the real deal, Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa, the more consistent and, well, just better version of Bruce’s Beauties. And speaking of the latter, no matter what you heard in the film, it DOESN’T break like that 300 days a year and DOESN’T break for minutes on end when at it’s best. And sadly, since a housing complex was built on the fabled dunes overlooking Bruce’s Beauties and thereby cutting off shore-bound sand flow, it tends not to break much at all like in the film anymore. But her sister down the coast seems to have no problems in perfectly handling Indian Ocean roaring-40’s juice, and I was eager to give it a go.
Having spent a ton of not-my-money on the flight, I opted to hole up at one of the many affordable hostels in the town of Jeffrey’s Bay. I found a great little place called the Ubuntu Lodge a few blocks back from the surf, where I basically stayed for 3 weeks straight. The first morning I awoke and heard a few of the other guests – Brazilians, Aussies, Americans – getting ready for a dawn patrol. A new swell was rumored to be hitting, and so I too jumped on the bandwagon, gulped some instant coffee and got suited up. As I made my way down the street that runs towards the beach, one of the realities of South African life hit home. On many street corners were groups of between 5 and 10 black South Africans, waiting for work, desperately looking for some kind of temporary employment. It was much like back home with freshly transplanted migrant Latinos, only the unemployed folks in J-Bay were much more ubiquitous.
South Africa still has a lot of problems to contend with, and this was a stark example of one such issue. Apartheid was only “resolved” roughly three decades back, and in many ways it’s the black Africans that still find themselves on the short end of the stick. Millions of them live in what are dubbed “townships”, sprawling shantytowns that in some cases lay adjacent or at least very nearby the major, proper towns where the money and, largely speaking, white people are. HIV and AIDS are still huge concerns amongst black South Africans with several million being infected. Race relations are still dubious between some of the older whites and blacks, even though the younger white crowd, having grown up towards the end – or after – Apartheid, tends to get on much better with blacks. And crime, given the dire economic situation among large segments of the black population, plagues the social situation in general, with Johannesburg being one of the most dangerous cities in the world for various types of crime.
And yet, as I strolled down the street for a surf, quite a few of the black South Africans, wearing heavy burdens on their shoulders, still flashed big smiles and friendly hand gestures and seemed stoked at least with what they had and happy to emanate some good vibes to some weird white dude with a surfboard and sporting a creepy skin-tight rubber wetsuit. Which was something that, understandably, some of the older, core J-Bay locals aren’t so keen to do given their wave’s status as “The World’s Best Pointbreak,” a moniker that lures surfers from around the world to the occasional ire of some of the local scene.
I felt out the lineup for a few days, just getting scraps and sort of sitting inside and away from the main Alpha-Male local scene. A few decent swells came and went during my time there, but one day of relentless sets had yet to arrive. I took a few days off from the area and explored the nearby countryside a little, venturing as far as Cape Town to the west, a city with one of the most stunning, mountainous backdrops of any I’ve ever seen. The drive back to J-Bay is comprised of incredibly beautiful, bucolic farmland, more sky-piercing mountains, and a wild array of wildlife both of the land-locked and sea-bound varieties, like Whales and Dolphins and Lions and Elephants all living in a relatively close proximity to each other in the diverse landscape of Southern South Africa.
I returned to J-Bay for the final five days of my trip. The first four were great for sipping local brews on the warm sunny beaches, but not so hot for surfing as the flatness continued. Of course when it rains it pours, and so on my final day where I’d have to go rent a car and drive to the airport an hour and a half away for an early afternoon flight, the swell began to absolutely pump. Seemingly endless sets rifled down the point, some connecting all the way through the bay’s hardest to beat sections. I just sat inside, patiently, until the local crew was battling their way back up the point against the current after long rides, and then snuck up into the main peak of a part of the wave called Supertubes. About three or four times in a row this worked as a new 6-8 foot set would follow on the heels of the one carrying the local crew far down the point. And each time these sets got a little bigger until finally I caught one right at the peak that took me straight through Supers, all the way past the second section, a ride of around a minute, an overhead offshore facsimile of what a couple guys named Hynson and August did about 45 years ago. It had to be my last wave as time was running short and I had to get to the airport immediately. My last wave of the trip was my best wave, and as I made my way over the vicious lava rock bottom lining the shore to walk back up the point, all I could do was grin with the knowledge that I’d finally made it to the Mecca.
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