In the Hall of the Mountain King

South Africa’s Sunset Reef is ready for a close-up.

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A briny stench of kelp rises up to the viewing deck at Long Beach in Kommetjie, a small village located on the outskirts of Cape Town. Pronounced “kom-a-key,” the old Afrikaans word means “small basin,” mirroring the shape of the coastline here that holds a plethora of waves. 

A flotilla of assorted craft vies for the playful lefts and rights that break over the sand-covered boulders out front. Directly across the bay lies the towering peak of the Sentinel, the mountain that overlooks Dungeons. On large swells, you can see the mist from gigantic waves juxtaposed against the brooding cliffs. 

Halfway between these two worlds, in the middle of the ocean, a lump of water is catching a southeasterly breeze and throwing up plumes of spray as it grabs the contours of an offshore reef. The wave rises up, then cascades in slow motion as it barrels toward the channel, exhaling a lungful of spit before it dissipates amongst the kelp beds. Another wave follows suit—bigger, rounder—before the ocean gradually settles until it once again becomes just a vast expanse of water between Dungeons and Long Beach.

“Everybody knows about Dungeons, and how big and heavy it can get,” says Matt Bromley. He then points to the windswept space far out to sea. “But Sunset is probably the better wave. It’s definitely more perfect.”

An overview of the village of Kommetjie and the open-ocean playing field of Sunset. Follow a 45-degree path from the peak to the mountain behind it, and you’d be square in the lineup at Dungeons. Photograph by Alan van Gysen.

Standing well over 6 feet tall, Bromley has long outgrown his childhood nickname of “the Pterodactyl,” when he was all gangly limbs and awkward angles. Today, he’s built more like an Olympic swimmer. And over the past few years, Bromley has become known for his exploits at heavy water locations around the globe, a journey he traces directly back to the ethereal wave in front of us.

The deck we’re standing on is a couple hundred yards away from the house where he grew up. When he was 12 years old, Bromley’s parents left the suburbs and moved the family to Kommetjie. Fortuitously, their balcony looked straight into the barrel at Sunset. 

“I’d come home from school and see guys towing in with a rubber-duck inflatable. They were pioneering tow-in surfing around the same time that Laird [Hamilton] first started doing it at Jaws, and I was just in awe. They’d be towing these huge waves, and I’d be sitting there saying to myself, ‘I want to be a part of that one day.’”

The surfers Bromley was watching were Glenn Bee, Nico Johnson, and Pierre du Plessis, a trio of friends who belonged to Cape Town’s underground big-wave fraternity. Unbeknownst to Bromley at the time, he was witnessing a turning point in South African surfing.  

Before Dungeons was ridden regularly, Sunset was the benchmark against which the country’s big-wave exploits were measured. Jonathan Paarman, a godfather of South African surfing, recalls paddling out at the spot when he was barely a teenager, not wanting to be left behind by the older crew. 

“There wasn’t such a thing as ‘big-wave surfing’ back then,” he says. “Guys in Cape Town just rode bigger waves, and Sunset was ridden as far back as the 1960s. Being a youngster, I always had to go with the older guys. They would ride those waves, and I wasn’t going to just sit on the beach. So I’d paddle out too.”

Paarman and Peers Pittard became the defining force at Sunset, eventually passing the baton to a handful of other surfers in the decades that followed—most notably Peter Button, Pierre de Villiers, and David Stolk. That group would later dial in surfers like Mickey Duffus and Cass Collier at the wave. Eventually Button and de Villiers would go on to pioneer Dungeons, but the number of takers at all of the area’s big-wave spots remained minimal during that period. 

“Many of these waves just weren’t on other surfers’ radars,” says de Villiers. “And if they did want to ride them, they didn’t have the equipment back then.”

Duffus recalls coming back home in 1991 after three years of living in Hawaii and paddling out at South African Sunset for the first time.

“I came back from Hawaii with an 8’10” Brewer shaped by Owl Chapman, which was my North Shore big-wave board. When Sunset Beach was macking, I’d ride the 8’10” at the back reefs,” he says. “But when I paddled out here, I realized the board was too small. The wave was in a different league.”

Duffus scaled up the length and volume of his board accordingly, but that still left the other problem. “My first few times surfing out there, I surfed alone,” he says. 

Located a half-mile offshore, inside a deep and expansive bay, the reef at Sunset is exposed to heavy winds and currents. The southeast offshore is amplified as it blows across the Fish Hoek Valley and out to sea, where the reef is flanked by deep open ocean on either side. The wave was initially deemed surfable only when huge, clean swells coincided with glassy conditions—a meteorological rarity along the Cape Peninsula. More often than not, Sunset went unridden. 

“There was always just so much water moving around out there,” says Bee. “We used to watch these peaks breaking from my lounge, and thought it was just too big and too windy. But eventually we said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a boat and we’ve got a rope.’ And we ended up just hacking it.”

The boat was a small water-ski vessel that Bee had originally bought to go crayfishing around Kommetjie. Out at Sunset, he and du Plessis used it to start towing each other in on a 7’2″ pintail gun that had originally been shaped for a trip to Indonesia.

“All we had was a regular ski rope, and we kind of just evolved with the little 7’2″ and the ski boat,” says Bee, recalling how they later bought their own inflatable vessel and 40-horsepower engine, which was quickly upgraded to a 50-horsepower outboard. 

Not long afterward, they were joined by Johnson, who, Bee jokes, had the advantage of being built like an ox. “He was great to have, because his weight in the front kept the nose of the duck down,” he says. 

A turning point came when Craig Leseter, a friend of Bee’s and a national windsurfing champion, returned from a trip to Hawaii and handed over a video he said the three had to watch. 

That movie was Strapped, which saw Laird Hamilton, Pete Cabrinha, and Dave Kalama among an ensemble of Maui’s finest watermen riding Jaws in much the same way that Bee and company had been tackling Sunset: by motor and rope.

“We watched it and said, ‘We’re doing this already!’” laughs Bee. “But they had a better boat than us and were using shorter ropes. We learned from that. By following Laird’s thinking, we progressed. Right from the start, we were hunting to get behind the peak.”

The trio was soon joined by another group, made up of Duffus, Simon Lowe, and Ross Lindsey, who were tired of watching the original crew “having all the fun” on the days that were deemed too unruly to paddle. Before long, there were a few different teams exploring the new possibilities that towing had opened up at Sunset and across the bay at Dungeons. 

“Pierre always wanted it the most, though,” says Bee. “He always wanted to be in the meat of it. He had a serious heart problem, but that never stopped him.”

Due to the break’s position in the bay, the wind is often one of the most challenging factors at Sunset. Dougal Paterson, contending with the elements. Photograph by Alan van Gysen.

Du Plessis suffered from ventricular fibrillation, a condition that causes the heart to beat rapidly and irregularly, which can ultimately lead to loss of consciousness and cardiac arrest. Bee recalls how du Plessis would sometimes seize up mid-drop, with disastrous consequences. 

“He was so excited to be taking the drop, but spooking at the same time, that his heart would beat at irregular periods and make his balance disorientated,” he says, recounting how on one occasion du Plessis went down and was recovered three waves later, barely alive, amongst the kelp. 

Despite the limitations of his condition, du Plessis is largely credited with helping set the bar for how the wave could be ridden, coming from deep behind the peak and doing arcing turns in the pocket. In 2010, he died tragically when his heart finally gave out while he was training in a swimming pool. 

“That kind of broke me,” says Bee.

“By then, there were a lot of people bent on getting out there and proving themselves. But I stopped surfing for a while.”

Spurred on by events like the Red Bull Big Wave Africa and advances in big-wave equipment, paddle-in surfing had organically gained more traction around Cape Town by that stage.

“Tow surfing laid the groundwork for us to realize where you could be on a wave, what you could do, and what you could survive when paddling,” says Duffus. “When the Dungeons event came along, it was a huge factor in advancing paddle-in surfing in South Africa, especially in Cape Town. Suddenly, we had the top guys from around the country and the world riding Dungeons and Sunset. It showed us what to aim for. It was a huge catalyst for progression.” 

By the time Bromley first paddled out at Sunset, when he was 15, Duffus, Lowe, and other surfers like Andrew Marr and James Taylor were regularly paddling it on the bigger days.

“There was this shift from towing to paddling, and they were leading the paddle charge,” says Bromley. “Their ocean knowledge was incredible. They’d always be in the perfect spot and rode it with this beautiful style.” 

Located on the southwestern edge of the Cape Peninsula, Kommetjie offers a series of breaks that Bromley describes as the ideal stepping-stones for familiarizing yourself with waves of consequence. Most kids start out at Long Beach. Around the corner are the deepwater points of Outer Kom and Crayfish Factory. Those spots ultimately open the door to waves like Sunset and Dungeons. 

Though Bromley was influenced by the older crew, and even embraced by them once he made the paddle out to Sunset, his approach was also shaped by his early career as an aspiring professional and his natural affinity for slabs—the latter being something in surprisingly short supply in Cape Town waters.  

“I went to Hawaii from when I was really young and focused on steep waves,” he says. “I loved that feeling you get at places like Backdoor on a big and vertical barrel, where you’re so far forward, leaning on the rail, and it’s the only thing keeping you gripped to the face of the wave before it bites and slingshots you up into the barrel. I really enjoyed that high-performance dynamic and wanted to bring that to Sunset: paddle in behind the peak, set your line, and ride through the barrel. You can’t really do that at Dungeons.”

Despite their geographic proximity and ability to hold size, the two waves offer an entirely different experience, explains Bromley.  

“The takeoff area at Dungeons is literally the size of two rugby fields. You’ve got two outside reefs, and when it’s big the sets cap out there. I’ve actually seen the entire horizon close out on those indicator reefs.”

The result, says Bromley, is that Dungeons is essentially a reform, especially when it’s massive.

“The energy refracts so much coming in, which makes the wave really unpredictable. Every single wave is totally different. It can be a mushy, flat wave or it can hit a part of the reef and stand up while you’re going down the face before bottoming out into a huge barrel. You never know what you’re going to get there. Whereas Sunset is this giant, beautiful A-frame that’s fairly predictable.”

The key to Sunset’s symmetry lies in the structure of its V-shaped reef, which starts off the eastern tip of Long Beach and runs for close to a mile out to sea. 

“It comes out of really deep water and hits this finger of reef,” says Bromley. “And because it’s a peak, all the energy converges towards the center. If you get caught in the middle of that V, it can be a lot worse than Dungeons.”

Bee, who has dived both reefs to document the bottom topography, says this is because the reef runs in a continuous line from shallow to deep water. 

Photographs from the shoulder often make the wave look deceptively inviting. But the perspective from across the channel offers a more accurate gauge of the Sunset experience. James Lowe, negotiating a drop that is anything but soft. Photograph by Alan van Gysen. 

“The crazy thing about Sunset is that it breaks a lot harder than Dungeons,” Bee claims. “At Dungeons, you take a hell of a beating for one or two waves, but then it goes into deeper water and lets you go. Not at Sunset.”

To position himself in the right place and pick off the waves he was after, Bromley developed a highly analytical approach to surfing Sunset.

“I’d study and write down what different swells would do out there at different sizes, directions, and periods. I’d look at how that affects the lineup markers and constantly analyze them when I’m in the water so that I know exactly where I’m sitting on the reef at all times.”  

Through a process of costly trial and error, Bromley has discovered that the waves he wants are the ones that look like they’re going to close out. 

“It goes against your instinct to paddle into a wave that looks like it’s closing out, but the reef is so perfectly shaped that it grabs all that energy and pulls it into the center of the V. Those are the ones that end up throwing wide-open barrels.”

Inevitably, there are also consequences. 

“A lot of the Cape Town crew have had near-death experiences out there,” says Bromley. “I’ve been caught inside and compressed on the reef. I felt like I was stuck in a vacuum: I was trying to swim, but I couldn’t move, and my vest wouldn’t inflate. You don’t usually hit the bottom on those outer reefs, let alone get pinned to the bottom.”

It’s the sum of these efforts—learning to deal with the wild unpredictability of Dungeons, coupled with the highly calculated approach he employs at Sunset—that Bromley says has allowed him to feel comfortable in, or at least rapidly acclimatize to, other heavy water locations around the world. 

His feats over the past few years bear this out, from nabbing what’s been called one of the biggest waves ever ridden in Indonesia at a shifty outer reef, to XXL-nominated performances at Maverick’s, Puerto Escondido, and Jaws.

Bromley, charting a trek that began when he first moved to Kommetjie and saw Sunset breaking from his window. Photograph by Alan van Gysen.

“The thing about Cape Town is, even on the best days, when the swells come in, it’s never perfect,” he says. “It’s a lot of work to get one good wave out there, and you take a lot of beatings to get it. So you really have to learn how to read the ocean. Taking all that knowledge to waves like Jaws or Maverick’s gives you an advantage, because even though those waves are often bigger, they are so perfect and predictable in comparison. Cape Town pretty much prepares you for anything.” 

Still, Bromley believes Sunset hasn’t been surfed to its full potential. 

“I don’t think anyone’s paddled a truly massive wave out there yet,” he says, before recalling one particular day in September 2018 when he became aware of how far they still have to go at his home break. “We went and watched Sunset from the hill. These huge waves were barreling for hundreds of meters and then spitting their guts out. We had no idea how big it actually was, but I decided to give it a try.”

Once he made it outside, however, the wind had come up and rivers of water were flowing through the lineup.

“Simon Lowe motored over to us on the ski and said, ‘Today’s not a paddle day.’ I had my 9’6″ on the back of our ski, but there was just so much water dragging us towards the impact zone. There was no way I would have been able to stay in position if I was paddling.”

Despite Sunset serving as Cape Town’s big-wave entry spot since the 1960s, those who know it best feel that its heaviest has yet to be ridden. Photograph by Alan van Gysen.

Lowe ended up towing Bromley into the biggest wave of his life, a 300-yard wall that broke farther out than any wave he’s ever seen at Sunset and that held its form all the way through to the inside.   

“Most of the time, Sunset is just an entry-level, beautiful big-wave spot,” says Bromley. “But when it hits the 20-foot mark, it becomes one of the best big-wave spots in the world. There were 30-foot-plus barrels rolling through top to bottom that day. Maybe if there was just a little less wind…” 

He trails off, again looking at that space out to sea. 

“Those waves are out there, and it’s possible to paddle them. We just need to pluck up the courage now and send it.”