Progress is slow. Bumping along potholed gravel roads with small ravines carved out by rain, the fastest we travel is 30km/h. At times we have to stop while shepherds guide cattle off the road. Chickens, dogs, and pigs move off themselves. It’s a fine morning. Light winds ruffle the long grass on the short, steep hills of which there are so many the landscape mimics a rough sea.
We have the windows down, the air is warm. Johan lights a cigarette every 15 minutes. Round huts with thatched roofs speckle the otherwise green landscape. These huts are called rondavels, they are made with stones bound by mud and cow poo. Inside a rondavel is enough room for a bed, a cupboard, a table and chairs and a cat. Women are busy washing clothes or laughing or carrying faggots. Kids are busy walking to school. They wear more uniform than I did. Everything outside the car appears to be happening in slow motion. The slow motion scenes rolling by have sent me into a state of languor. Soft guitar strings coming through the car speakers and the mellow rocking of the car add to the effect.
We are heading for a river. At the mouth of this river, we have heard, a wave breaks from the point to the middle of the bay, over 150 meters. Our fingers are crossed but our expectations are in check, South African surfers tend to get a little… overexcited, especially when they are talking about the Wild Coast.
The Wild Coast is a region on the eastern side of South Africa. It is the remote home of the impoverished Xhosa people. Nelson Mandela was born here. Many villages do not have running water or electricity. Locals smoke joints as if they are cigarettes. You can buy a litre bottle of beer for $2, making it almost as cheap as petrol. Or you can buy a sack of powder for $1.50 that turns into 5L of beer when you add water and leave it overnight. I tried this but it came out looking like porridge and tasting like sour milk. I only managed to drink one cup.
A few hippies started surfing the Wild Coast in the 80s. Much of the coastline is riddled with bad access, a lack of facilities, aggressive sharks and an abundance of rarely surfed, high quality waves. These factors combine to give the Wild Coast mystique we could not resist.
At last the ocean comes into view, just a few kilometers away. After an hour of driving at a crawl, gazing out the windows, we arrive at a small gravel carpark tucked inside a headland. A parked tractor is the only other vehicle. As soon as we get out of the car, two perfect waves steam past a crop of rocks and out onto the open sand where they continue to run as far as the eye can see. Without discussion Tom and I take our boards down from the roof, insert fins, apply wax and slip into wetsuits.
What follows is four hours of surfing immaculate waves in warm, crystal blue waters until our arms are exhausted and the wind comes in.
Back on land I feel intoxicated. Tom and I keep staring at each other in wonderment, “what the fuck just happened?” A man approaches, asks if I want to buy weed or hash. I don’t, but I’m feeling so good I want him to feel some. His name is Benny. Has one of the best laughs I’ve heard. It is a trumpeting, stomach-grabbing laugh. While we are talking about diving for crayfish I try to use hand gestures to explain that it is hard to grab the crayfish’s feelers. You can imagine me standing in my wetsuit pulling imaginary feelers atop my head. How does Benny react? He thinks it is the funniest thing he has ever seen, almost turns inside out. We are laughing too.
The decision is made to stay right by the rivermouth so we can be as close to the wave as possible everyday. First we have to stock up on groceries. The closest thing to a supermarket is a dusty, warehouse-sized shed a couple of hours away. Need 20kg of rice? You got it. How about a 3kg tin of coffee? Aisle seven. We don’t need either of those things but we do need fruit, vegetables, meat and a half a dozen tins of assorted non-perishables.
From where we are camping we can see across the bay to the wave. A short bandy down the hill, a paddle across the river and a giddy jog along the beach and we are in a rip getting shot out to the start of the wave. When we are not surfing we are making food, reading books or taking naps. One day I walk into a village searching for crayfish but instead get stoned in a hut. When the guys roll joints they drop buds on the floor and don’t flinch. Weed is that abundant.
Nearby there breaks another, slightly better wave but I cannot write about it because I am sworn to secrecy. A few days turn into a week, then two. The winds are almost always offshore and the surf seldom flat. I can see two weeks turning into two months, two years and then the rest of my life.
Anyway, I would love to stay and chat but I fear you will get sick of me. Take care, I will write again soon.
H F Peniston