The Octopus and the Penguin: A Great South African Surfing Battle

Cover Photo: Early Morning on the West Coast. Credit: Steve Benjamin.

 

*Due to the sensitive nature of surfing tradition and localism no specific information about spots can, or will, be provided.

There is a question that has plagued society since time immemorial. It has been a dichotomy in most avenues of human existence; from religion and architecture, to politics and philosophy, right down to cuisine and table manners.  East versus West. Buddhism or Christianity, Confucius or Walter Scott, Communism or Capitalism, Ayurveda or Paracetamol, Palates or Yoga… even Pasta or Noodles. These two worlds have formed a polarity against one another over the course of history, with each side fighting for dominance within innumerable contexts and battlegrounds. But there is perhaps no place where this skirmish is most intensely and fervently played out than amongst South African surfers. In January 2017, unwilling to hear the argument secondhand any more, I set out with my girlfriend, a surfboard, and my big colourful truck to truly settle this debate once and for all.

Land breeze, sweetened by sugarcane, avocado, papaya and passion fruit for breakfast, no rush just the tides and your own timing.
— Rooster, East Coast Big Wave Legend

The Gist

South Africa is one country, but it is in fact two severely different worlds. The East Coast is a lush and tropical utopia, consisting of seemingly endless coastal dune forests, bordered by a turquoise Indian Ocean. It hosts pristine reefs, myriads of colourful oceanic creatures and, most importantly, waves. The East Coast of South Africa is kilometers upon kilometers of waves. Many of them secret, some of them unsurfed, a lot of them passionately locally defended. It is an accumulative heaven of point breaks, beachies, and reefs. If you have seen an image of a bikini clad, coconut sipping, floral lathe wearing lady, knee deep in a translucent blue ocean, with a perfectly peeling South African right hand point break running in the background… then you were looking at a picture of the East Coast.

Then there is the West. If the East is all of the above, then the West is the complete opposite. It is a stark land that yields little. The harsh terrain supports mainly lizards, small bugs, and shrubs. While there are also good looking women in the West, they are not in their bikinis sipping on coconuts, they are fully clad in neoprene nibbling at bokkoms[1]. But something that the West has in spades is, you guessed it, waves. Some of South Africa’s heaviest and most adventurous surf happens on the West Coast. The land is a desert of sorts and because of the harshness of the environment you may often find yourself the only one out in the lineup. But the severity of West is not only found on the land, it is also reflected in the ocean. Sporting breaks with names like Famous Last Words and Teeth (because the take off spot is in front of a boulder that has claimed more than a few pearlies). And this too is something that Westerners often boast over their less-hardened Eastern counterparts: the West is the home of the countries most infamous big waves.

The West Coast is a special place for me. It’s where I escape civilization; camp, cook mental feeds on the flame and share empty barrels with mates. It’s cold, rugged and unpredictable with the winds, but so epic when it all comes together.
— Matt Bromley, West Coast Big Wave legend

The difference between these two coastlines actually comes down to a rather interesting oceanographic phenomenon. The Benguela current runs up the West Coast of South Africa. The current pulls water in a Northerly direction, but the rotation of the earth causes the surface waters to move away from the shore. When this couples with the notoriously strong off-shore winds, the top layers of water are blasted far out into the ocean. When this happens, cold water from deep down (sometimes as far as 300m down) is pulled up to replace the surface waters[2]. This water has never seen the sun before and, as a result, is absolutely freezing. It is also heavily imbedded with nutrients that only bloom when they touch the sun’s rays. When this nutrient rich water is pulled up to the sunny surface, an explosion of life occurs. This phenomenon is called an upwelling. It causes the West Coast’s ocean to be both highly productive and almost unbearably cold. The upwelling attracts lots of sea life, much food, and many predators (the Great White Shark being one of them). The Benguela current lines the sea with Kelp forests and makes the arid land suitable only for shrubs. Conversely, the East Coast is visited by a tropical current called the Agulhas. Under the guidance of this far warmer current, Kelp forests are replaced by Mangrove forests, and instead of small sparse shrubs, you might find vast temperate jungles. And sharks. The East Coast has those too.

They are two completely different locations with their own unique things. I love the West Coast for its desolation, harshness and solitude. The East Coast is green, abundant, playful and inviting. Go to the one if you feel like getting away, the other if you feel like being social and fun.
— Steve Benjamin, Cape Town Surfer.

The Adventure

Being South African means that you are sandwiched between the Eastern Indian Ocean and the Western Atlantic. Seeking to find an answer to the raging internal debate of the country over which has the better surf, we packed our things and headed East to begin the adventure.

The East Coast technically starts in Mozambique. So we drove right to the border to start the trip. The further you head up the East Coast, the wilder it becomes. Typical back roads snake their way through dense jungle thicket, clothed by chandeliers of vines and towering tree canopies. There are places in the East Coast where the stereotypes of the South African surf road trip being an adventure in dodging wild animals in the road (perpetuated as early as The Endless Summer, 1966 and as recently as Blue Crush II, 2011) are actually true. As you move further up the coast you head into South Africa’s national park territory, which means fewer people. This is both a good and a bad thing. On a deeply wild surf very close to the Mozambique border I shared an immaculate right hand point break with only a turtle and clumsy octopus. A few hours down the road a friend of mine was rudely bumped by a curious young bull shark. This portion of the country is untamed in all senses of the word. The roads are largely untarred, animals range on both land and ocean, and every person you pass seems ready to send a smile your way.

If the East Coast and the West Coast can be understood as extreme opposites, then this is most accurate the further you drive up in either direction. The borders with Mozambique and Namibia typify this polarity in an extreme measure. The closer you head to Cape Town, however, the less pronounced the differences become. The mood of the land changes drastically as you head steadily downwards, but the only way to truly appreciate this is to do the journey slowly and laboriously.

If you look at our country it is right on the tip of Africa. When the swell comes from a southerly direction, I like to think of it as a massive continental A – Frame peak. The East Coast provides countless right hand point breaks, the West Coast does the same on the left. Like an A-frame, all that matters is your preference. I’m a regular footer, so I prefer the East.
— Beyrick De Vries, professional South African surfer.

Because of the budget restrictions that a career in freelance writing had imposed on me, we could not pay for accommodation. So we slept in the back of my truck every night. In the evening we would scout the break we wanted to surf, find a secluded place nearby to park, sleep through the night, walk out to the break in the morning, surf, drive to the next break and repeat again. This also meant that we slept in some adventurous places; a golf course, a hospital lobby, and a brothel to name a few. This experience gave us an intimate connection to the land, which helped us better understand the surf. It is uncanny how often an idiosyncrasy in the cultural or geographical layout of a place is reflected in its surf. Heavy East Coast towns with high industry, alcoholism, and locals with missing teeth seemed more often to boast heavy, unfriendly surfing breaks. Yet tropical paradises, complete with warm handshakes and frequent smiles tended to contain long, lazy, blissful surf. This forced me to question whether it was not the surf that created the surfer; whether our external passions may have a formative role in our internal dispositions, to such an extent that the shape of a wave may actually shape our personalities… Either that, or I’m desperately searching to draw conclusions where there are none. I leave that to you to answer. 

I’ve always wanted to go to the West Coast, but I’m a bit intimidated by all of the neoprene and stark nothingness.
— Tom Keet, East Coast Surfer.

It is easy to see why this portion of the country is so special to so many people. Its beauty is instantly obvious. Vast forested cliffs and dunes cascade into a plentiful ocean, and the frequency of point breaks is hard to argue with. And among these is a wave that some consider to be the best in the world: the almighty J Bay. To have surfed down the East Coast is one of the greatest adventures, and privileges, I have ever experienced in my life. Carving warm water waves to the consistent backdrop of lush tropical beauty was always going to be difficult to beat.

But what is East without West? A common misconception about beauty is that it is a fixed observable attribute that belongs to Valentine’s Day cards, magazine covers, and Coca-Cola adverts. It is actually a multifaceted beast and not a single static image. It has many forms, versions, and manifestations. While some of its guises are immediately obvious to the majority spectator, there are those that find appeal in its more nuanced expressions. These are the people of the West. Those that prefer the rugged exterior to the soft gooey middle. In the candy store dichotomy, the people who prefer the West are most likely the ones who would pick sour worms over pez dispensers. But, just because the West Coast’s endearing features are less obvious, does not make them in any way less beautiful.

It’s hot, it’s dry, it’s windy as hell. But the Weskus doesn’t take long to infiltrate the soul. It feels comfortably uncomfortable, like a permanently over-exposed photograph. A kind of re-awakening. When the pressures of the city get too much you head West. The Weskus removes the clutter and distills life to its essence.
— Jeremy Shelton, West Coast Surfer

Eager to see the great counter-argument, we rolled our big colourful truck into the haybail desolation of the West. The awakening was a rude one. I opened my door slightly to peer out at the deserted break and a powerful off-shore dust storm wrenched it from may hand, slamming it ajar. I protected my face and went to get my board from the back of the car. I surveyed my gloves, wetsuit, booties, and hoodie with much trepidation. These had remained comfortably out of sight and out of mind for a month. Re-entering the cold was going to be a shock. In addition, the waves were being decapitated by powerful sandy gusts. Donning the neoprene, I charged to the stormy grey mass. When you venture into the West you do so with the understanding that it’s appeal lies in its wilderness. Many of South Africa’s wild places have been colonised by human beings, but the West Coast remains untamed. This for a simple reason: it is untameable. It is a wild unruly landscaped reserved for surfers, hardened fishermen, and lizards. And this natural hostility is precisely the thing that has preserved it. If it were as easy to live here, it would no doubt look like certain sections of the Garden Route[3]: monotonous, homogenous pine plantations, bordered by fancy houses and crowded surf breaks. But very little can grow here, so those that venture to the west generally do so for appreciation and not exploitation. And that is what makes the west beautiful.

Camping on the West was cold and often misty. The Benguela Current (explained above) ensures that the ocean nearest the land is frigid. Further out to sea, however, the water is warm again. When the wind swings on-shore (as it no doubt will do during your stay) the air above the warm water far out into the ocean is forced to collide abruptly with the belt of cold air surrounding the land. This clashing of two opposing thermal climates creates an inscrutable fog (caused in a similar way that a kettle creates steam when it boils). But this plaguing feature is also the only reason that anything on the West can survive. Some studies show that the plants of the West Coast absorb three times as much moisture from the fog as they do from the rain[4]. The mist is a necessary persecution; it feeds everything whilst also clothing it in a spooky blanket. And this is another thing that preserves the sanctity of the Western wave; sometimes you can’t even see the break or what you are paddling for. You will be sitting nervously in the backline when a monster set will appear from just behind you, and so you must always be ready to turn, burn, and make a drop. Surfing on a foggy day is a truly invigorating experience.

Both coasts are very different and very special to me. They are beautiful in their own ways, and I have shared many memories with family and friends along both. I just prefer being able to see my penis after a surf, so the far warmer East Coast water has captured my heart.
— Graham Kennedy, East Coast Surfer

On the East Coast you might share a surf with an octopus and a turtle. In the West I surfed with not one but two penguins. Did I mention that it was cold? But this for me sums up my opinions about the East and the West, who is to say whether an octopus is more beautiful than a penguin? They are both spectacular and remarkable in their own ways. The real privilege is living in a country where both of these options are open to you. Whether it be vast, desolate, character building lefts or warm, inviting, soul recharging rights. These two coasts are different in many ways, but they do share some things. Both require a sense of adventure to be enjoyed. Neither can really be understood by living in a single place; you must drive, read swell charts, and be prepared for disappointment to get them right. Both have an ability to bring friends together in an endless search to find and recreate the illusive perfection they sometimes relinquish. And both stand as constant reminders that of all the things we should cherish and protect on this planet, our oceans and the creatures that inhabit them stand on the forefront. Only those who have shared a lineup with a seal, dolphin, or turtle know what a special experience it is. The South African coastline is still a natural one, and nowhere is this truer than in the surf, no matter which side you prefer.


[1] A West Coast delicacy of sorts, consisting of small strips of withered, sun dried fish. Kind of like a “Fish Biltong”, for those who know what biltong is.

[2] Peschak. Thomas P.  2005. Currents of Contrast. Cape Town: Struik Publishers. 16

[3] A mountainous region on the East coastline consisting of immense temperate forests; well-famed for its manicured, yet natural beauty.

[4] Helme Nick and Desmet Philip. Veld & Flora, June 2015 Issue 10(2) – Journal of the Botanical Society of South Afriva. Ed Lee Jones: 68