You can travel across the world for empty waves. But you might have to go further still
A massive event scaffold loomed above the white-sand beach and EDM beats washed over a crowd of teens busy scribbling things like “free hugs” on each other with Sharpies. Luxurious beachfront hotels overlooked a lineup occupied by world-class competitive surfers struggling to ride dribbling 2-foot waves. It felt as if I had fallen through a crack in the Earth, straight through the core, and somehow emerged at the U.S. Open.
Kauaian Alex Smith bobbed around in a listless ocean while his fellow competitors tried to conjure scores out of ripples. In years past, the Ballito event had been pummeled by waves barreling so hard that their lips pitched out at 90-degree angles. This year, it was hard to tell if the event was even at a surf spot.
I was in Ballito with Alex and Koa Smith, Californian Luke Davis, and photographer Ryan Craig, and things weren’t exactly going according to plan. Every foreign surfer comes to South Africa expecting to find empty, flawless pointbreaks. In fact, the country’s whole surf-media persona hinges on the idea that you can’t even turn a corner without tripping over a sand dune and finding the best right-hander you’ve ever seen. But more than that, South Africa seems like a conduit for experiencing something exotic, untamed, and unexpected, like playing fetch with a hyena on the beach while perfect lines wrap into shore.
The country’s whole surf-media persona hinges on the idea that you can’t even turn a corner without tripping over a sand dune and finding the best right-hander you’ve ever seen.
That’s the problem with traveling to iconic coastlines: You approach them with unrealistic expectations. You see perfect waves, unique cultures, and exotic wildlife, but you never see the condo developments and international fast-food chains just out of frame. In 2015, famous surf destinations don’t exist in a vacuum, and it’s harder than ever to truly get off the beaten path and escape our expanding global monoculture.
On the sand, beach vendors pushed carts stocked with energy drinks and spectators stopped contestants to take selfies on their iPhones. Whatever we were hoping to find, it was clear that we wouldn’t find it in Ballito. Alex lost his heat that day, and even he didn’t seem to mind. Sure, he wouldn’t get to stand on a podium holding an oversized check, but at least he would be getting away from this furthest-reaching Orange County sprawl.
We met up with South African big-wave surfer Frank Solomon, who had an escape route in mind. Solomon was born and raised in Cape Town, roughly 1,000 miles from Durban, so he wasn’t exactly an expert on the country’s eastern coastline, but when it comes to crossing your fingers and winging it, few are more experienced.
Growing up in Hout Bay, Solomon cut his teeth surfing the ridiculously sharky and all-around terrifying right at Dungeons. A few years later he started scraping together money for annual migrations to Mavericks in the winter and has traveled extensively since. He once sailed from Durban across the Indian Ocean to Thailand, getting battered by 30-foot storm surf off Madagascar, evading pirates near the Seychelles, and surfing perfect waves in the Maldives along the way. On his better days, Solomon makes Dos Equis’ “Most Interesting Man” look like someone who stands around a park feeding pigeons.
According to Solomon, our best shot at finding our African ideal was to go south into a rural stretch of country known as the Wild Coast. He knew a former South African surfing champion named Justin Saunders who had gone off the grid and set up a surf camp there, sandwiched between a series of perfect points on tribal land. If our goal was to escape Western homogeny, and score some waves in the process, there seemed only one way to go.
Ballito’s suburban sprawl quickly gave way to rolling sugarcane plantations dotted with knotted acacia trees. The N2 skirted around Durban and made its way toward Umzumbe, where we found ourselves at a small backpackers’ hostel called Mantis and Moon.
We had traveled only three hours, but were already worlds away from Ballito’s chaotic beach party. The south coast of KwaZulu-Natal looks almost prehistoric, with thick jungle fronted by long stretches of desolate beaches occasionally punctuated by long fingers of rock catching sediment flowing up the coast and creating perfect sandbars. Walking down the sand, watching dolphins chase fish while large seabirds wheel above, you feel lost in the natural order, like a trespasser in a place where people never belonged.
In certain popular beach areas in South Africa, like Ballito and Durban, the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board has installed nets to keep big predators away from surfers and swimmers. The nets give everyone peace of mind, even though most South African surfers will tell you the nets often catch more sharks coming back out from nearshore waters than they catch coming in. South of Durban, however, there are no nets, and just days earlier there had been two attacks in the Eastern Cape: one in Buffels Bay, where a 19-year-old surfer lost a leg, and the other in Plettenberg Bay, where a 23-year-old surfer was bitten on his side. Both attacks were suspected to be by great whites.
This was at the front of my mind one afternoon when Solomon and I prepared to paddle out at an Umzumbe beach break.
“Bru, should we have some kind of signal?” Solomon asked as we stood at the water’s edge. “You know, in case one of us gets attacked?”
I told him I already had one: I would scream really loudly and splash around a lot. No need for subtlety, I thought.
We slowly waded into the water and crept toward a windswept, backwashy peak. The ocean was alive, and the currents were tearing up sandbars and reassembling them in a continuous flow. A rip cut a swath through the lineup, creating a few grinding, shoulder-high barrels and mixing the sand into milky clouds. Solomon and I traded a few steep, wonky rides, kicked out, and paddled back to the peak using just the tips of our fingers.
Surfing in tame waters, like those found in Southern California, the idea of a lineup feeling “sharky” can seem strange. After all, it’s doubtful that humans could perceive a shark swimming under their board any more than they can perceive the Earth spinning under their feet. But in the lineups of Umzumbe, your senses are cranked up to 11, and you become a slave to your base instincts. Your head snaps toward the splash of a jumping fish, and your hackles stand with every boil you see. Back on the beach we saw something that we hadn’t noticed on the way down. It was a big blue sign with white letters spelling out two words: “Sharks Bay.”
There is no coastal route along the Wild Coast, only miles of grassy hills and wide rivers feeding into pristine saltwater. The only way to access surf is to travel far inland and then snake back down dirt tracks and cattle roads to the coast. One of these roads could lead to a perfect mile-long pointbreak; another might take you to an unsurfable stretch of craggy rock being pummeled by swell. At either outcome, you’re all alone on the African fringe.
As the odometer ticked over, swaying palms and dense jungle gave way to rolling hills blanketed by spindly blue gum trees stretching hundreds of feet skyward. At a certain point, the trees and bushes disappeared completely, as if a line had been drawn in the soil, and the landscape became barren. We had entered the Transkei.
The word “Transkei” means “area beyond the river” in Xhosa, which is spoken by the local people who have inhabited the area for centuries or more. Before the end of apartheid in 1994, the Transkei had been a “Bantustan,” an area of land designated for black inhabitants. The ultimate goal of instituting Bantustans had been to isolate certain ethnic groups and grant them independence, essentially removing them from South Africa’s political process. In the end, they had mostly succeeded in creating pockets of extreme poverty and disenfranchised Africans.
Today, small villages are scattered across the hillsides of the Transkei, but most of the area is completely undeveloped. The rural communities are cut off from all amenities, with the native Xhosa people existing independently much like they always have: living in mud huts and relying mostly on their livestock for survival. Many of the people there live their whole lives without going as far as a neighboring village.
In the space between, fields of brown grass stretch endlessly in every direction, and the clear blue sky hangs enormous over the desolate landscape, not too dissimilar to how the whole world may have looked millions of years ago, when Earth was little more than a barren rock spinning through space.
Before we could reach the coast, we’d have to drive through Mthatha, the biggest city in the Transkei and the birthplace of Nelson Mandela. We’d been told that it was a dangerous place and warned never to drive through it at night, but by the time we reached the edge of the city, the sun was already at the horizon.
“This is not good,” Solomon said as we topped off at a gas station overlooking the city. It was the first time on our journey that he’d shown a crack in his usual calm confidence. “I’m gonna try to figure something out. Keep an eye on the cars.”
Solomon disappeared, leaving the rest of us to ponder our fates. We hadn’t passed a hotel in hundreds of miles, so turning back wasn’t an option. Shiny rental cars with surfboards on the roof stand out in the Transkei, and the locals were taking notice. In the twilight, a group of kids pointed at us and laughed as they walked past, likely wondering what the hell we were doing on their turf. We didn’t belong here, and everybody knew it.
Many of these people were destitute, living hand to mouth in a place where opportunity is scarce. We were a group of coddled white surfers driving a rental car worth more money than many locals could ever hope to make. It made sense that they didn’t like us. In that moment, I didn’t either.
Solomon returned with a man wearing a tucked-in shirt carrying a holstered handgun on his hip. Solomon had somehow struck a deal with a gas-station attendant who had a friend who worked in private security. He would escort us through Mthatha if we gave him 1000 rand (a little less than $100). Considering the alternatives, it was a bargain. We’d move as a caravan through the chaotic streets, staying close, even if it meant running a red light or two. Criminals are brazen in Mthatha, and surfers have stopped at a light and looked in their rearview to find their board bag unzipped and half its contents gone. In traffic, thieves will lean in through open windows and snatch a backpack, cell phone, or camera in the blink of an eye. If this happens to a Mthatha resident, people honk to draw attention, and some will even get out of their cars to help corral the thief. Tourists, on the other hand, are on their own.
Coming down the hill into the city was a descent into madness. The streets were clogged with traffic, and a sea of pedestrians flooded any gaps between cars, parting only as we carefully inched forward, and staring bullets at us as we did. Many of these people were destitute, living hand to mouth in a place where opportunity is scarce. We were a group of coddled white surfers driving a rental car worth more money than many locals could ever hope to make. It made sense that they didn’t like us. In that moment, I didn’t either.
We turned onto a side street that was quiet and nearly vacant. It was dark under broken streetlamps, and plastic bags drifted across the road like tumbleweeds. On the sidewalk, there was a middle-aged man standing in his underwear next to a burning trashcan. It seemed surreal—a McCarthyesque scene set against an African twilight. He looked up as we drove past, but not with any animosity. He seemed too tired for that.
Daybreak on the Wild Coast. The sun rises over the hills, painting the sky with a palette of hazy pinks and reds. The air is still cool and the grass is soggy with dew. Horses and sheep graze for miles in every direction, unimpeded by fences or pens. From the rondavels at the Swell Eco Lodge, you can see the massive point at Umdumbi to the southwest. It was more than a mile away, down the dirt road and across a wide river, but small lines were clearly visible as they wrapped around the tip of the point and ran along the sand.
The owner of the Eco Lodge, Justin Saunders, grew up in the suburbs just outside Durban, but started taking trips to explore the Wild Coast some 20 years ago. He was drawn back to the same area year after year—a small community with the impossible-to-pronounce name “Mngcibe”—and he eventually fell in with the locals and even started speaking a little Xhosa.
Saunders saw something special in the natural land, the unique culture, and the pristine waves of the Wild Coast. Unlike Durban and the surrounding areas, this was a place seemingly frozen in time, utterly impervious to outside influence. Every year when he returned, the same beautiful expanse dotted with mud-brick rondavels and roaming livestock was there waiting for him. With the support of the community, Saunders bought a small piece of land and built a tiny cottage for himself.
When he decided to expand into a full-blown surf camp, South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs stepped in and put a stop to it. But in the Transkei, tribal laws often trump those of the South African government. Saunders’ neighbor is a headman, or local tribal leader, and he ran Saunders’ case up the chain of command to the chief, who recommended Saunders take it to the Xhosa king. Next thing he knew, Saunders was in the royal rondavel, taking a knee before the king, who told him to stand up and stop making such a scene. Truth is, the king had been educated in private schools outside of Durban, played rugby, and reminded Saunders of a lot of his friends back home.
Today, the majority of the construction is finished. The water for the Eco Lodge is sourced from an underground well on the property, which Saunders shares with the local community, and he’s finishing work on a solar grid that will keep the lodge completely green and self-sufficient.
The points in the area are world class under the right conditions, but it had been months without rain and they were in need of sand replenishment. Across the village, however, there was a spot called Secrets that didn’t need sand to make decent waves.
The village of Mngcibe was a far cry from Mthatha, the only commonality being the impoverished inhabitants. But they live simply and happily in balance with their land and livestock. They were curious about our group and ran up to the car as we drove past, smiling and waving. They’re part of a tight-knit community and crime is almost nonexistent in the village. When a young man broke into Saunders’ car while he was surfing a few years ago, the headman caught wind of it, called a meeting with the young man and the village elders, and they beat him senseless with long wooden sticks. It was much quicker than driving hours back to Mthatha in search of a policeman, and its effectiveness can be gauged by how many windows the man has smashed since.
At the edge of the village, the dirt track ends at a grassy hill that serves as a favorite hangout for grazing sheep. Below sits a long, rocky point where swell peels across a shallow shelf. We saw a perfect overhead right tearing down the headland and were in our wetsuits before the car was even parked.
The water was cooler than it had been in the north, and clear enough to see barnacles on the rocky shelf beneath. The Wild Coast is notoriously sharky, but it’s amazing how easily those fears can be muted when face to face with clean overhead walls. Davis was the first in the lineup, and his lines were as smooth as vintage wine with stylish carves and high-line barrels. Alex took a different approach, delaying his bottom turns until the last moment and then jamming tight arcs in the pocket, looking very much like a student of the A.I. school of power and flow.
As the tide hit bottom, the floor fell out of the rippable walls and the bigger sets started barreling along the rock shelf. The goofyfooters of the group, Solomon and Koa, waited out back for the bombs and laid into the faces to stall as the glassy cylinders curled around them.
The Wild Coast is notoriously sharky, but it’s amazing how easily those fears can be muted when face to face with clean overhead walls.
Eventually a pod of dolphins appeared at the top of the point, with some swimming mere feet under our boards and others outright burning us on waves. But we’d had our fill and were happy to give up the peak.
Back at the lodge, Saunders arranged for us to meet the local headman, whom the villagers simply call “Fly.” We were nervous about the introduction and asked Saunders if we should bring a gift. Maybe he would be interested in a pair of boardshorts, or a six-pack of beer, we thought. Saunders explained that Fly didn’t drink and wouldn’t be caught dead in the ocean. But he did have a sweet tooth.
Fly’s rondavel was a simple room, crafted in the traditional way with mud-brick walls, a dried-grass roof, and a floor made from hard-packed cow dung. It wasn’t Fly’s home, but more of a place to hold court and deal with community issues, and it was mostly empty besides a half dozen chairs lining the wall and a small cooking stove. If there was a dispute between neighbors, or problems within a family, they turned to Fly. He was the most respected man in the village, so I felt sheepish handing him our gift, which was a two-liter of Coke and a sleeve of Oreos. He looked at the Oreos, then looked up at me and said something in Xhosa.
“Fly is honored by your gift,” said Fly’s confidante, acting as translator.
I waited for signs of sarcasm, but found none. We were off to a good start.
Through his translator, Fly explained that he had lived here overlooking Umdumbi for most of his life, and that he might be as old as 80, but he didn’t know for sure. In these rural areas, facts aren’t kept in written documents that can be easily referenced. Instead, they survive at the whims of oral tradition, with some details changing over the years and others simply being forgotten. According to Fly, the Xhosa people had lived in the area “since always,” and very little has changed over time. But nothing exists in a vacuum. If the area’s natural beauty was enough to attract Saunders from Durban, to attract us from the other side of the world, then it will be enough for others as well. In Ballito, it was difficult to deduce exactly where Orange County ended and South Africa began, but not too long ago it, too, was a pristine coastline enjoyed by only a handful of surfers.
That evening, Fly came to the lodge with a few local children, leading a sheep into a clearing by the horns. He told us that because we had paid him respect with our visit, he would do the same. Right on cue, a light rain began to fall, and the children held the sheep down while another villager unsheathed a large blade. In these rural communities, livestock is a great asset. It was hard to believe that our Oreos and Coke would cost this sheep so dearly.
What came next was hard to watch. Americans have trouble reconciling the processed meat we consume with its origins to begin with. As a vegetarian, I felt ill watching blade meet flesh, but the 12-year-olds pinning the sheep to the ground were unfazed. They went to work on the carcass, removing the skin and organs with casual indifference. To them, there was no emotion attached to slaughtering an animal. It was simply a task that needed doing, and because they did it, they would be eating sheep that night. We would all be eating sheep that night, in fact. Even me, lest I dishonor Fly.
And how could we not? You don’t meet tribal leaders in Southern California willing to sacrifice a sheep in your honor. Odds are you won’t find one in Ballito, either. You have to go farther than you’d think to set foot in truly unfamiliar territory, and we had just barely gone far enough. Who knows how long the Wild Coast will remain wild? Globalization may get lost on a lonesome dirt road through the Transkei and never find its way to Mngcibe. But it may not. It’s easy to envision a future where an event scaffold is erected on the point at Umdumbi. If that were the case, at least our sacrificial sheep can rest easy, knowing that he got to see the best of it.