Grumpy OLD MAN AND THE SEA

Finding waves sans the bullshit. Photo: Lachlan Hill

I had to say something to stop the argument. The two blokes arguing were never going to stop.

We were sitting at the top of the line at Mozambique’s most popular wave, Tofinho. An elderly South African man and a young, dark-skinned, Mozambican man were debating almost fucking nothing. The old boy felt like the young man was getting too many waves. The young man was upset because the old boy caved the tube in on his last one.

“Ya catching too many waves,” the old boy says.

“I’m getting the inside ones nobody wants.”

“Other people would go them if you weren’t snaking them.”

“Doesn’t give you the right to cave in my tube.”

“You weren’t going to make it anyway.” And so on and so forth until sparks were shooting from my ears and smoke was rising from the top of my head.

“Guys, there are plenty of waves around,” I say, putting a stop to their petty nonsense.

They both turn to me, shrug and roll their eyes at me like, ‘I know right, what a freakin’ jerk.’

Later on, the same old boy dropped in on a young, pale-skinned, Mozambican man. This incident was a clear-cut violation of surf etiquette. Another argument ensued. The old boy, bafflingly, did not feel he had done wrong. I didn’t stop this one, I caught a wave in instead.

Why did the old South African man have such a shit attitude? He was paddling around like he owned the joint. Odd thing for a South African to be doing in Mozambique.

When it comes to surfing and localism, lines can be blurry. On this occasion, the line was clear as day. The old man had come and gone from the area for the past 10 or so years. He owned an eco resort about a kilometer from the wave. Setting up shop in a small community, taking what you can and giving back the bare minimum does not make you a local. Especially when compared with the two younger lads who were born and raised in Tofinho.

I was trying to figure out the whole scene when an idea grabbed me by the shorts and pulled them down to my ankles. I had seen this happening over and over again. I’d seen it in Indonesia, Central America, parts of Asia and now Africa. All over the world there are old white men sitting at the head of a peak snarling at anyone who tries to get a good one. In their mind, all it takes is starting a surf school, hiring a gardener or blowing a cop to be granted status in a lineup.

Well fuck that. There is a pecking order. At the top of that pecking order are surfers who cut their teeth surfing the area. Guys who put in the work and make a meaningful contribution to a community, regardless of how small that community is. Next in line are guys who have integrated so well people forget they weren’t born there. After that, nobody gives a damn. If you own a business or some property but piss all over the place then that puts you in with the rest of us. Taking advantage of a burgeoning surf community does not make you the man. It makes you a deplorable sycophant. The world needs less of you.

So many people take surfing so damn seriously. Relax a little bit, have some fun, unfurl your eyebrows. At the end of the day, it is just surfing.

With love,

H F Peniston

Killicranckie STREAM

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This might be the Killicranckie Stream.

Another beautiful day ahead it seems. Today’s hike is quite long, we start early after a no-nonsense breakfast. What will I think about today?

Ahead is yet another clear cobblestone stream. I am getting a bit sick of the things. A swinging bridge crosses it. A sign instructs the reader not to rock the bridge. We rock the bridge. Luckily for us the wood and wire structure holds up. Next we scale Little Bamboo Mountain. Why did they name it that? I have no fucken’ idea, there is no bamboo in sight.

Today my mind is relaxed. Thoughts flutter in and out like butterflies searching through a field of flowers. Most of the butterflies are black and purple, thoughts without emotion attached. These butterflies are thoughts like, “there is not much wind right now, it is blowing from the west,” or “left foot, right foot,” or “I wonder what sort of dinosaurs I would be looking at right now if it were 70,000 years ago.” Two more come along, “Oh wait, dinosaurs never existed,” “well… maybe they did but I certainly could not have existed at the same time to be looking at them.” A bunch of separate black and purple butterflies coming and going. A Monarch butterfly passes across the field, “Hang on, why did we spend so much time learning about dinosaurs at school, and so little learning about Aboriginal history?” And then, a yellow, black and white spotted butterfly comes into the foreground, “That’s okay, I promise to teach myself more about Aboriginal culture soon.” Then another black and purple butterfly comes along. And so on my thoughts meander a little more innocently than usual. This pattern of calm thoughts and the pure surroundings render my face with stupid glee. The sea is placid, sailing is smooth. A gigantic wave would have to appear from nothing and strike the bow for me to be knocked from my blissful crow’s nest.

Steadily we pass a mountain lake surrounded by burnt grass. Forestry have been conducting controlled burns to manage the landscape so we cross strips of burnt land quite regularly. These strips disrupt a mountain like a shaved patch on a dog’s neck post-surgery.

For lunch we stop by a pool in the Killicranckie Stream. A peanut butter sandwich, an orange and some nuts. We dip our feet in the almost icy water and read our books with our shirts off again. I would like to lie in the sun for the rest of the day. Tom reminds me we still have a long way to go before we get to the huts.

The trail goes in a different direction to what the guide book instructs. This is not the first time the trail and the book have had different opinions, but it is by far the most their opinions have differed. There are no farmhouses where it says there should be. There is no stile across any fence. There is no dam in a trout stream. Nor is there a second dam in a second trout stream. After some self-doubt and speculation, we decide on the best and only course of action… Keep walking. Clambering down a steep, rocky section we slip and gather several times each, the loose surface threatening to send us to the bottom of the mountain in seconds. First comes the ripping sound of a foot skidding on the dirt. Second, relief in the form of a high-pitched “woop!” Lastly, a chuckle. Repeat, all the way down.

We have been walking for a couple of hours since the guide book last made sense. Still there are none of the features we should have seen by now. I do not think worrying thoughts. Only butterflies.

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Just keep following the trail.

You know, out here with one other human bean there are only a handful of things to busy oneself with. There are the essentials; walk, rest, eat, collect wood, cook, and sleep. There are the few available leisures; play cabo, read, drink scotch, maybe roll a little spliff. Now, at the pace of normal life one could get through the essentials and get bored of the fun stuff with still four hours left in the day and nothing else to do.

At any one time, there are only a couple of options ahead so I tend to do a thorough, focused job. Then I spend some time staring into space, maybe reflecting, maybe watching flames, maybe wondering how long I could live this way. The next task that requires an action will surface and when it does, I will approach it steadily and clearly.

In this way, the few things at hand take up the whole day just as normally 100 things would take up the whole day. Only I have been spending a lot more time with my mouth open looking at the air in front of my face. Genius, I know.

Finally the track leads us across a road and over a hill to the Winterhoek Huts. We are elated to find mattresses on the bunk bed frames. After gradually getting through the evening routine we load a rusty wheelbarrow with bricks we had put by the fire and wheel it into the hut.

The small room warms quickly.

Along THE RIDGE

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The Crane Tarn mountain lake.

“Be in the moment,” I’m thinking to myself, “Today is only nine kilometres. You can just go slow, take it all in.” The same grass fire from yesterday still burns. It covers the mountains in a light smoke so they appear a stack of all different shades of bluish-grey, lightening and losing detail the further away they are. We climb quite high to a ridge overlooking many peaks and valleys. Some of this climb I’m thinking of ways to describe this experience to friends but for most of it my attention is grabbed. Grabbed by small flowers, a bounding roebuck, a few baboons, fungi growing on rocks in strange patterns, spiderwebs in the half-dead grass, animal poo and then for a few seconds I admire the broader scene. Tom spends a solid chunk of his time thinking about his future bakery. Stone countertops and tables, white tiles, enough wall space for rotating artworks, all hopefully in a store on the corner of two tree-lined streets.

My thoughts are mostly right where I want them. Paying attention to little details in the immediate environment. Asking and answering soft questions with myself. Questions like, what creature is making these tiny little holes on the edge of the trail? Maybe snakes. But how would a snake dig the hole? It does not have the appropriate apparatus. Must be a little marsupial, maybe a bush rat or maybe a dassie.

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Tom getting his tan on.

Sitting on a giant boulder with a panoramic view of valleys and streams I meditate watching a slowly migrating troop of baboons.

By the time I look up, the wider scene has changed. Ten minutes of daydreaming the  some peaks that were there before are now hidden by other peaks. Did someone move them? It is possible that I’m not actually going anywhere. That I’m on an earth treadmill and when I am not paying attention some giant thing is shuffling the landmarks around. Perhaps to confuse me or perhaps there is a good reason. It could be a vital task.

As the trail curves around a mountain a lone tree sticks out from the trail’s edge. The path is not visible beyond the tree, only more mountains higher than the one we are on now. Down the mountain to our left is an oak woodland by a large reflective lake. Among the woodland lies a cluster of round white huts. The oaks’ leaves are purple and black, some look orange from the sun. Smoke drifts up from one of the huts. It does not feel like winter in South Africa. It feels like Autumn in Oregon. A little bit of Arizona too. Funnily enough, I’m basing those claims on what I have seen on TV. I have never actually been to either of those places and can not for at least another nine-and-a-half years.

We cross yet another stream and arrive at Mzimkhulwana hut. Even though we had a relatively short distance to traverse today we have reached our destination quite late. We underestimated the distance and have spent a lot of time not walking but sitting or standing still. The sun will go behind a mountain before the end of an hour. None of the bunks in the hut have mattresses. There is no place to have a fire. There is no firewood. Despite this, we collect as much dead wood as we can find in the little patch of bushland between the hut and the stream. Once broken up and stacked, it looks like enough fuel to last us tonight with a little left over for tea and breakfast in the morning.

No mattresses and nothing to substitute them with we keep the fire going as long as possible. We drink scotch and play cabo (good two player card game) and stare at the fire until the last logs are fading into ash. I hope I am drunk enough to get to sleep on the wooden bed frame.

“What THE FUCK JUST HAPPENED?”

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Peak hour traffic.

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.

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Men waiting for the wind to die and the moon to rise.

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.

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See those bushes at the top of the hill on the left? Our tent is in there.

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.

Yours,

H F Peniston

 

Jeffrey’s TIME CAPSULE OF SURF

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“Couple waves out there ai.” Photo: Johan Evert

Cape Town turned out to be quite the vortex. After two weeks spiralling closer and closer to the eye, Johan pulled us out of the water and into his Freelander 2. From there we made it along the coast to Jeffrey’s Bay without a scratch. Or a stab wound, as so many were sure we would acquire. Then again, it is early days. We may be stabbed thoroughly yet.

The wave at Jeffrey’s has been so heavily mythologised the place no longer seems real. Though I can assure you, it is real. As real as an abandoned water park. As real as salty dreadlocks. As real as Billabong jeans slipping over cracked heels. As real as Fox hat beanies and surfboard letterboxes. At a time when the surf industry is supposedly floundering, there are no signs of struggle in Jeffrey’s. In fact, this place might be single-handedly keeping surf brands alive.

One does not have to look hard to find a scaly sea dog smoking a scoobie. Some of the locals here would smoke Nimbin folk under the bong-covered coffee table. “My eyes are stained red from the stiff south-easterlies,” they say as they slide their mull tin under the car seat.

Some of the locals are placid. Some are aggressively territorial. Tom had a run-in with some disgruntled men on our second day here.

“I jumped off the point, paddled straight out to where everyone was sitting,” he said

“I didn’t really barge in, just sat at the back of the pack and was going to wait my turn and just instantly got bailed up by like three guys who told me to get the fuck down the point.

“Who did I think I was? Sitting up there with them. A bit of localism.”

Tom and Hugh share a wave at J-Bay. Photo: Johan Evert

Nobody warned us about any localism before we came here but it is clearly present.

How many people warned us about sharks before we came? Many, yet the only sharks we’ve heard of have been at home.

No stabbings, no shark attacks, no water shortage. Safe to say we are immune to Africa’s deadly threats.

Then again, it is early days.

Yours,

H.F. Peniston

Lombok BANGKO BANGKO

SCN_0114The air’s warm, still. A light waft of smoke enters my sleepy nostrils as I lie under the mosquito net staring at the Birds of Paradise in the front yard, letting my brain stir. It doesn’t take me long to get ready. I pack most of the things I’ll need into my small backpack. A notebook, camera, trunks, sarong, medical stuff for my leg wound, a packet of chips, bottle of water, cigarettes, weed, sunscreen, my Swiss-army knife, a pen and enough money for the two day expedition. I’ve got to pick up a book from Alice and Stew’s villa after breakfast and buy a block of wax.

The directions to Bangko-Bangko (Westerners call it ‘Desert Point’) are written down in my notebook. The trip should take two to two-and-a-half hours on my bike, if everything runs smoothly. Supposedly it takes an hour-and-a-half in a car. There are 17 steps to follow: from Kuta, past the airport, across the island, through jungle and steep hills then around an inlet to the western tip of Lombok.

45 minutes in heading west on a highway I stop for petrol and to refresh my memory on the next few steps of the journey.

Driving behind a military police Jeep I remember I’ve got a few grams of East Lombok’s finest dope in the middle pocket of my bag and remind myself not to do anything too bold. I wouldn’t want them to pull me over for a traffic offence, check my bag and find the packet. The middle pocket isn’t obvious, and the packet itself is underneath a book and a bottle of sunscreen. If there were a place they would miss, it’d be where it rests right now. Still, better to just sit a few scooters back from them like a good little tourist. Damn it’s hot. Why are we going so slowly? I hope they turn off soon so I can get back to full speed. We drive past a pulled-over police car, then another on the other side of the road. We’re stopping. I realise I’ve ridden straight into a police checkpoint, seconds later a cop is waving me off the road. I pull over and look up at his face.

“You speaking Indonecian?” he asks me. I shake my head. He points at it and says something I don’t understand, then points to the place where my left mirror should be only it isn’t there. I turn the bike off and look up at him again, wondering what he wants me to do, trying not to think about the little brown paper packet in my bag so as not to give anything away on my face. I look around and see that everybody else is wearing helmets. The policeman takes my keys out of the ignition,

“You have lissen?” he asks, obviously unsure of his English pronunciation.

“What?”

“You have lissens? Lissens,” he asks again, tone rising.

“Oh license, yes but not here.”

Internasonal lissens, regishration papers?” he adds. I shake my head. He motions for me to go with him, takes me across the road and hands me over to an officer with an offence pad and a plump, kind round head. The new cop tells me to wait a few minutes.

“Can I smoke a cigarette?”

“Yes sure.” I wander a few meters away to assess the situation. There are pigs everywhere, in both directions. Escape is off the cards. I didn’t bring enough money to pay bribes but I don’t really have a choice. The new cop calls me over and asks if I speak Indonesian. I say a little bit, “sedikit”, and he asks where I’m from. He says I have to wear a helmet.

“You no hab helmet?” he speaks English more comfortably than the first guy.

“No, in Kuta nobody wears helmet so I didn’t think I had to.” My mind thinks back to the packet of weed but I quickly flick the thought away. The cop puts his pad on a car’s bonnet and asks my name. I tell him. He suppresses an embarrassed smile, hands me the pen and shows where to write it. Looking into my dumb eyes he warns me to wear a helmet next time, says I can go.

“Thankyou sir, what’s your name?”

“Me? My name Putu,” he answers. I look into his big brown eyes,

“Thankyou Putu, thankyou,” then walk back to my bike and get the hell out of there.

“Once you’re on the dirt road, you’ll come to a junction. You don’t turn right like you think, you go left up and around a hill and then you’ll come down to Deserts,” words Josh said to me the other night spring back into my head as I hit the shocking, rocky, dusty path. It all happens just like he said it would and I pull up to the famous lefthander feeling falsely like some sort of pioneer, there’s no one else around. I wonder how long it took me to get here, feels like around two hours. The waves are small, waist high. A very slight wind blows from behind the waves, ruffling their lips. A few young local boys are surfing the end section.

After a late lunch I walk out onto the now-dry reef up at the take-off spot to smoke a spliff. It should be about low tide now. I’m sitting on a rock only twenty meters in from where the waves start, a couple of nice ones run by but a few crumbling sections are separating the clean, tubing sections. The long chain the waves form across the barrier reef is broken in some places. I stand up to walk back, but stop to watch a set of three waves, slightly bigger than the others I’ve seen. They break cleanly, hollow tubes uninterrupted for a hundred meters. With a life of its own my mouth opens and twists up in the corners, freezes in an expression of wonder and disbelief. The three waves I just watched were only small, maybe chest height, but they were beautiful. Watching the second and third waves was like watching the first wave on repeat. I’m standing on dry reef, a little stoned, on the edge of an Indonesian island staring at a wave that has defined perfection for surfers since its discovery 25-odd years ago. No more waves immediately after them I turn and walk lightly over the reef to the sand. When I get to the beach I face the ocean to watch a head high wave running along in the reef shelf. For 15 seconds I keep my unblinking eyes on the wave and it doesn’t stop barrelling once. She’s starting to wake up.

I paddle out for an afternoon surf, there are only a few guys out and conditions are stellar. The big waves are a decent size but most waves are small, not worth looking at. My first wave is juicy, sweet looking, not working too far away from me so with gusto I stroke in and spring to my feet early. A short section steepens up ahead. I go to it with speed, a little too much, and whizz by ahead of the barrel. To lose speed I draw a high line and come out of it pointing down. An almost identical section to the last presents itself, I turn up from the bottom of the wave to the middle and get shot along ahead of the tube again. The next section is far too long so I push up and off the back of the wave. A bit nervous and a little jittery, I’ve made a mess of my first wave out here. Was a gem too. Back at the top of the reef I swim down for a look at the bottom. Even out past where the waves start to break it’s only a meter and half, two meters deep. The tide is still quite low but it’s on the way up, the waves are less frequent than an hour ago.

The ocean almost stops. I get to know a couple of young guys from Adelaide and an older guy who is also from Margaret River. I sort of recognise his face. I don’t get another shot at redemption, there are one or two more waves but it’s not my turn. I paddle in while the sun dives.

According to the forecast the swell will fill in tomorrow morning.