My alarm wakes me long before the birds do. Way before the light can. I press out a muffled groan into the air and silence the annoying buzzer. This better be worth it. It’s dark outside. A pale but brilliant moonlight is covering the savannah. This better be worth it. I check the time on my watch, 03:15. This is what it takes. It better be worth it.
I pull myself out of the bed, grab a banana on my way to the door, and hoist my surfboard towards the car. It’s a beaten up old Land Rover, guaranteed to break down every third or fourth trip. I hope today isn’t the day. But I don’t have a choice; I know that this is what it takes.
I turn the key with force, jarring the car awake. It replies with a grumbled, and rather pathetic, mechanical shudder. It is as tired as I am. I try again. Again it refuses to start, only whimpering into the early morning dark. I mumble under my breath again, this time it’s a swearword. Pure force of will and nothing else is going to get this thing going. I get out of the car, leave the door open, place my banana on the front seat, and rub my hands together in preparation. The car is parked at the top of a steep downhill for this reason. I drop the handbrake and immediately it rolls. I run next to it, steering it with one hand and stabilizing myself against the door with the other. As it picks up momentum I have to run faster. Nearly there. My legs extended at full stride, I hurtle down the hill next to the rolling metallic mass. If I trip now it’s going to be a mess. The bottom of the road is approaching and I jump in with cat-like agility. I slam the door, pop the clutch in second gear, and listen to the car gracelessly jolt into life, firing into a Zululand dawn. This is what it takes.
My morning drive is not your average one. And even after a year of rehearsing the same route over and over, I haven’t tired of it. There are no tar roads or streetlights. Only stark gravel paths, fever trees, and mysterious eyes, lit from the roadside for brief seconds before they scatter into the bushes. I live in the middle of a forest by myself. The solitude has made me slightly insane, pulling at the fraying ends of my mind like a cat playing with yarn. I need coping mechanisms or I will lose it. After a year of living here, come hell or high water, I know this is what it takes.
The early morning sun begins to light the sky as I get halfway through the forest. Giraffes stand to greet me with trepidation, Kudu bolt into the distance. Once on this very drive I saw a leopard. I salute the warthogs as I do every morning on the way out. I feel alive here. I tap into their wild force and let it surge through me. With no other human company for an hour in either direction, you develop a habit of talking to things that can’t talk back to you. I press on, if I stay too long I will be late. Class starts at 8. It’s a two hour drive from the break. If I want to get a good surf in, I need to be in the water latest by 04:30.
I moved to the heart of Zululand to teach in rural schools. isiZulu is my second language, and literature is my passion. The decision seemed unavoidable, but it doesn’t make it any easier. It’s the silence that gets you. Not for the obvious reasons, but because it is a crowded silence. Packed to the brim with noises from the forest. Noises of a natural communication; one that I can’t take part in. Every chirping bird and upbraiding baboon serve to remind me of my separation from the natural world. Even though I live here among them, I feel distinctly human and unescapably separate from them.
I turn the corner to get to the Mangrove swamps. This is a sign that I am close. It’s the most tropical section of the reserve and undoubtedly the most beautiful. These trees are an odd chimera between land and sea, they require both worlds to survive. I think of them as an appropriate emblem for myself. To live out here you need coping mechanisms. This is mine.
The work is sad. The kids are for the most part amazing, eager to learn, full of energy, very respectful. There is no electricity, there are no roofs on the buildings, cows walk in and out of class. I suspect the headmaster is corrupt, but the other teachers are welcoming and fascinated by my desire to help. It turns out my Masters in Literature isn’t that helpful here. The failure rate is 100%, the AIDS rate is not far off.
I thread passed the last Mangrove and arrive at the sandy base at the bottom of the dune. This portion of coast is the largest forested dune stretch in the world. It’s home to myriads of natural sounds, belonging to the animal society that resides in them. The Samango Monkeys are just starting to wake. I turn off my car and listen to them. They are bothered by the noise of my human machinery. Who can blame them? So am I.
It’s nearly time. The sun is just beginning to peak now. At least in summer you can get into the water while it’s light. In winter you have to do these early morning sessions by moonlight. If there are leopards on the land here, you don’t even want to begin questioning what wilderness lies in the ocean. I stand hesitantly at the base of the dune. Almost unsure of whether I want to climb it or not. I hope it has been worth it. Out here there are no surf reports, no websites to tell you wind direction, no friends living by the beach to phone and see if it’s worth your time. If you want to surf in Zululand you need to commit. I just hope it’s worth it.
I run up the steep incline of the dune, breathing heavily all the way. The anticipation wrenches my stomach. When I get to the viewpoint a humid morning greets me. The bay is alight in its entire splendor. No houses or humans as far as the eye can see in either direction. Just forest and wild ocean. Turquoise, brilliant ocean. Home to unreal coral reefs, teeming with life. The wilderness at its best. I see the waves lining up across both surf spots; the bay and the point. But the wind direction isn’t quite right. Skunked. Again. A crumbly mass of white water mashed potatoes. It took me an hour to get here and I have to drive another two hours to get to work.
I sprint down the dune with a smile on my face still, and run to embrace the ocean. A deranged man by himself galloping across a desolate and untamed beach. Getting to be in and amongst that very palpable wild heart every morning is almost worth it by itself, even if there aren’t waves. Out here you need your coping mechanisms. Wake every morning, pray for waves, and hope it’s worth it.
All Photos by Aaron Chapman