Midnight by the coast in a holiday town where spired fencing and the lights of hotel rooms are a mob of pitchforks and torches in the sky. Whitewater claws up the steep shore then dragged back to sea. The perimeter alarm has sounded. Security men arrive and conduct a search for shadows. “It was probably just a palm tree hanging over the wall.” It could be, I think. A symbol of paradise. Or is it just another day in South Africa? Through cold louvres I watch strange shapes manifest in the pretty darkness. The perimeter alarm sounds again. And again the alarm sounds and I believe it wants to help us. Quiet. Only the ringing of our alarmed hearts. Whitewater climbing and falling. Wind with palm tree fingers waving us to sleep.
The waves have settled come morning through the louvres. Small and clean. I squint up the beach at what appears to be a small group of longboarders. I walk diagonally past the persistent fishermen and continue north along the sloped shore. My eyes are right. There are one or two guys logging the little swell. I didn’t bring my 9’8” on the trip from Australia for obvious reasons. It’s a heavy old thing and I’ve never seen the conditions small or clean enough for logging Natal’s Dolphin Coast. I figured I’d be waiting to hire a board around Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, two places where traditional surfing and surf culture is burgeoning.
I’m sitting in the coarse sand watching a man walk up and down the water. He drops knee. He hangs toes. He loses his board. I stand up and walk down to the shore and collect it for him. I have no idea what I’m about to say but I rehearse a few things in my head while he bodysurfs in. I start awkwardly with a mandatory surf sentiment: “Nice board.” The words are gone. Out there.
“Cheers.” He examines me.
“Hey, do you mind if I get a wave on it when you’re done?”
“Ya, sure.” The man extends his hand to shake mine. His name is Scott. “Bru, I live just up there. I gotta get to work. Once you’re done just drop it over the fence.”
We stand around talking surf for a while longer. I say that I’m Mark’s son-in-law and he says, “No way,” with excitement. Being the small town that Salt Rock is, of course he knows my father-in-law.
I paddle out on Scott’s 9’2” with a Midget Farrelly fin and surf for hours more with some of his friends. I make the most of it knowing it could be weeks until I get another log under my feet.
My wife and I take our time down the coast along a people-lined highway on their commute from townships to cities and family homes. Through game reserves where hyenas waltzing through our camp laugh on our chalet doorstep. A male giant eland watching you shower outdoors the next morning. The measure of its manhood marked by its spiral, V-shaped horns.
We visit and stay with our friend, George, a man born in the moment and currently living a poetic life alone in the bush while teaching English at a rural school. The sun is setting and we’re sitting on George’s deck stoking a coal-fired braai in the starry night while baboons bark on the purple ridges in the distance.
“I’ve heard the hands of baboons are strong enough to rip your face off.” I’m a fascinated tourist in my wife’s homeland, in George’s heartland.
“Ya. I’ve had one or two encounters with them out here.”
“What do you do? What did you do?” My heart caves with the echo of another baboon bark. I like my face.
“You have to show them that you’re a man. Well, usually I don’t have guests and I’m out here cooking dinner for myself, naked. Being naked makes it a lot easier.” George pushes the covered potatoes further into the white coals.
I clear my throat for a deeper octave. “What do you mean?”
“The baboons smell the food and come running down through the valley and when the rustling bushes get closer you have to start roaring, barking louder than them while beating life into your chest. You start throwing whatever you can get your hands on. If you don’t man up, they won’t back down. And it’s a lot easier to tap into your own primal instinct when you’re free of clothing.” George laughs. I laugh a little less nervously knowing that if we’re to undergo a baboon ambush tonight, at least we have George. Deep, deep South Africa.
The spired fencing desists further down the south coast. We arrive in Jeffrey’s Bay, a surfing mecca and a bucket list item. A place laced with history. Houses courted by red aloe plants have short walls and beach vibes. It’s a surfing town and I feel the calm. I feel the anger in the onshore wind, too. There’s not a soul in the water at Supertubes. There’s not a soul in sight. We watch the grey day howl from the boardwalk.
“You’re never gonna be here again.” My wife looks at me with a wide-eyed reiteration.
“That’s the worst surf I’ve ever seen.”
“C’mon. Just catch a wave to tick it off.”
I fight every image of Mick Fanning. I fight every image of every ‘Shark Week’ on Discovery. Home on the east coast of Australia has just as many sharks. I tell myself that and it doesn’t help.
“I wouldn’t paddle out in this at home.” One more attempt at getting out of it.
I enter the water and begin getting swept down the point. I paddle up, fighting the current into Supertubes, the only place where I might get a wave I can do a turn on. Don’t look behind you. There’s a fin for sure. A wave rises and I turn my board toward my wife watching from the rocks. I take the tiny wind-chopped drop and muster a backhand snap. I did it. I surfed J-Bay. And that’s enough. With board beneath belly, I head straight over the rocks to shore. Tick.
Down the Garden Route and past a place called Wilderness. Through the Cape flats and a world of shantytowns. Into Cape Town. Into the cold summer water in a 3/2 wetsuit on a hired hi-performance longboard. The shark alarm sounded maybe only an hour ago but the Muizenberg waters are again packed with surfers and holidaymakers. I sit in between people just in case, still shaken by the solo session at J-Bay. The shark spotter sits on the hill with his flags, looking down on us like Table Mountain spots the city.
I return my hire board and begin the road back to Natal and into the branches and warm jaundice of fever trees and family. Another Zulu summer. South Africa often receives bad press for violence, political turmoil and prevalence of sharks. But this corner of the earth is gifted with waves, wildlife and people wearing suits and traditional headdresses. They carry suitcases and woven baskets. They’ve carried themselves through adversity time and time again. Hear the tribal drum in beat with the African spirit. Borrow a longboard from a stranger at the beach and return it to his house when you’re done. Let the vervet monkeys hijack your high tea. Maybe don’t surf J-Bay alone, but take yourself into a Lion King sunrise where the only architecture is a safari tent. Know the temperament of an African elephant. Know your own primitive self in South Africa and don’t bother trying to tame the hunger to be wild at heart.