We follow the storm up from Cape Town, through the bends of Sir Lowry’s Pass, and onto South Africa’s N2 national highway. Rain washes across the windshield as the car is hit with southwest gusts, and a sheet-metal sky presses down on the horizon. But it’s a good omen: The dirtier the preceding front, the more likely there will be waves at Jeffreys Bay.
I learned long ago that swells in South Africa follow a fairly predictable pattern once high-pressure systems shift north in winter, when Roaring Forties cold fronts strike the tip of the continent head-on. Resultant pulses get progressively smoother as they refract and bend up the country’s eastern flank. It’s theoretically possible to surf the same swell event from Mossel Bay all the way up to the Mozambique border in the north, a stretch of more than a thousand miles that’s home to a succession of right-hand points.
Here and now, that’s precisely our plan.
Michael February is riding shotgun. It’s been ten years since we’ve been on a road trip together. If you’d told me back then that the timid high school kid who lived down the road would go on to become one of surfing’s household names, I would’ve found it hard to believe. Not that he wasn’t talented or determined. His surfing was just a bit unorthodox, and it lacked real heft. A lot’s changed.
We arrive on the outskirts of Jeffreys Bay in the early afternoon, turning off the highway and onto a double-lane feeder road. I can’t help but imagine what it must’ve been like for the surfers who first showed up here in the 1960s, when the town was still just a remote farming outpost—blindly navigating dirt roads and asking farmers for directions to the beach, then camping in the dunes for as long as their supplies and stamina lasted.
Today, J-Bay is one of the fastest-expanding urban areas in the country, and the last remaining tracts of farmland recently have been converted into a dense residential area called Wavecrest. Approaching from the east, we pass through a concentration of strip malls and factories before hitting a sprawling patch of suburbia and, finally, Da Gama Road, the town’s main artery. Billboards urge us to “Invest off-plan!” or “Buy your dream home for as little as R1 million!” before a final turn takes us onto Pepper Street, the famed cul-de-sac that leads to the Supertubes car park and, beyond, the vast expanse of the bay.
I can vividly recall the first time, nearly two decades ago, I experienced a solid swell sweeping across the point’s numerous sections: Boneyards on the outside, through Supertubes, into Impossibles, and farther down to Tubes, the biggest sets even reaching The Point. Giant wind turbines have sprouted up on the landscape across the bay since then, but otherwise the view over the arc of sand and rock is much the same when the wave is on.
Its sheer scale still takes me by surprise.In person, the wave’s power is stretched out in a way that photos and videos can’t fully convey. It’s difficult to learn its speed. Despite its reputation as the fastest wave in the world, J-Bay requires knowing how to slow down. Shaun Tomson once summed it up as an easy wave to ride, but an extremely difficult wave to ride well. You have to set your pace, which comes from understanding where to turn, when to let the wave run past you, and when to put your foot back on the gas. It’s a wave with strict rules. But when you abide by those rules, Tomson said, the broad expanse of water ahead of you allows for unbridled creativity.
The following morning, Mikey unpacks a 6’8″ with a big box fin and chunky rails. The board looks unwieldy as he trots up the beach to the keyhole against the stiff offshore. Like any good flat-hulled craft, it projects sublimely down the line at Supers, but appears cumbersome through turns that necessitate burying the rail. A lesser surfer would be confined to going straight.
“You’ve got to step back and stand right on the tail,” he tells me, describing the ride as a constant shuffle up and down the deck. It seems like unnecessarily hard work, until a wave opens up and the board locks in under the lip before being flung down the line.
Late that afternoon, as the swell continues to fill in, Mikey takes out a short and sleek yellow twin-fin with a rounded pintail. By now the waves are well-muscled and overhead as the deep-period swell spills into the bay. The sets march in like windswept ribbons as they feather out at
Boneyards before feeling their way down the grooves of the point.
Through the squalls, I catch flashes of a yellow streak driving high along the lip line for interminable seconds, dropping down to the trough, then cutting deep arcs across the face.
Off the Pavement
Veering off the highway just outside the regional capital of Mthatha (pronounced Mmm-ta-ta), my grip on the wheel loosens. Also known as “the highway to hell,” the N2 between here and East London is considered the deadliest road in the country.
After a three-day run of swell at J-Bay, we’ve decided to take our chances farther north. The crazed drivers and patches of roadkill are replaced by rolling fields and herds of cows. It’s slow going on the potholed tracks, though every so often we catch a glimpse of the Indian Ocean in the distance, stretched out like a blue rubber band between the hills.
Lying roughly halfway up South Africa, the Wild Coast is a 200-mile-long stretch of undeveloped shoreline that was once a part of the former Transkei, an “independent homeland” created by the apartheid government in 1976. While the government claimed this gave those in the homeland the right to self-determination, it was effectively a move to strip millions of Black South Africans of their citizenship and force them into a new country-within-a-country. While the Transkei was officially dissolved in 1990, the region has found itself in a prolonged stasis of little development.
Geographically, the continental shelf runs just offshore, rising abruptly from the ocean into high cliffs. The coastline is punctuated by deep bays and impenetrable headlands. Viewed from above, it looks like a series of primordial knuckles thrust into the sea. The combination of topography and inaccessibility has created a surf-rich zone spanning roughly the same distance as San Diego to Santa Barbara that, for the most part, goes unridden.
After making our way to the backpacker enclave of Coffee Bay, we surf a series of clean pointbreaks before heading northward again. The terrain gets more dramatic and rugged as we drive, the narrow trails threatening to rip off the car’s undercarriage.
Eventually we land at a cove with a right-hander that supposedly reels when the sand fills in. The sand is here, but each morning we find it small and lightly onshore. It’s surfable, though, and the water is clear enough to see undulating patterns of sand on the bottom. The only deterrent is the cove’s name, Sharks Point. The spot is renowned for its shark fishing.
“You get some big buggers off the rocks,” a stocky Afrikaans fisherman tells me. “But don’t worry, they don’t bother with skraal [skinny] guys like you lot.”
Mikey surfs alone while I shoot. Cows graze on the steep hills above us, and women pry mussels off the sharp rocks at low tide. The sky above is clear and unobstructed as far as I can see.
The remote nature of this coastline soon may change. Mining companies, hoping to dig up the titanium-rich dunes, have been in a protracted battle with local communities. And the government is taking renewed interest in the region thanks to the global demand for cannabis products, including everything from CBD oil to housing bricks made from hemp. The Wild Coast has long produced a potent variety of the plant, known locally as intsangu. Families desperate to supplement their meager income grow crops they harvest and sell for a relative pittance to bulk buyers from big cities like Johannesburg and Cape Town.
Until recently, the police would indiscriminately spray vast tracts of land with herbicide from helicopters during harvesting season, often dousing people and their livestock in the process. But Eastern Cape Premier Oscar Mabuyane just announced that his government would be trying to “aggressively attract” investors for cannabis production in the province, with special provisions made for a Wild Coast Economic Development Zone to drive the initiative.
At our camp, a day quickly melts into a week. One afternoon, an acquaintance takes us to meet the chief of the area. We’re told on the way that the AmaMpondo, the local people of this region, have an intimate relationship with the ocean and are expert fishermen and foragers, something we’ve witnessed firsthand.
Chief Diko welcomes us through his interpreter, Cameron Mziwamadoda, but wants to know why we have come to this remote part of the country. We unsuccessfully try to explain, until Mikey takes out his phone and shows the chief a clip of him surfing.
The chief stares at the phone and begins to laugh.
South by North
I wake early to the steady percussion of the ocean. It’s not the crisp, cracking sound of a small shorebreak hitting dry sand that sometimes fools you into thinking a swell is big. It’s a heavy rumble that seems to emanate from far out to sea.
For most of our trip, we’ve been surfing what might be best described as “fun” waves. But here on the South Coast, the swell is pouring in at a 23-second period. It’s too washed out for most of the points, the wider sets are shouldering off into deeper water, and the double-ups hitting the sandbar are mostly closeouts. Still, there are a few keepers to be had.
The swell also has solved the crowd problem. While this length of coast has always been known for its empty lineups, recent crowds have been stifling. As the sun rises and the waves wrap in and detonate, there’s only a handful of surfers trotting down to make the jump off.
After skirting inland through the final stretch of the Transkei a few days prior, we’ve slipped back down to the ocean on the N2, where the highway runs parallel to a stretch of sand-bottom points that make up the length of the South Coast before you reach Durban.
Lush fields of sugarcane squeeze up against the road on the inland side, while groves of wild banana trees sprout up between clusters of houses, shanties, and looks at the ocean on the other. The hard angles of the Eastern Cape’s points soften here into rocky outcrops that help trap the sand at favorable angles to southerly swells. In the mornings, the land breeze is laden with the scent of molasses as it blows over burning cane fields into the lineup.
The subtropical flavor comes with a tradeoff, however. Most setups in the area are blown out before noon, and the tide can suffocate a spot within an hour. It’s a strictly low-tide, early morning affair. Swells are typically smaller by the time they reach this far upcountry, seldom topping 8 feet. A 23-second period at 3 meters is unheard of.
Mikey joins the handful of locals in the water and waits patiently, taking his cue whenever he gets the nod. The area’s surfers, for the most part, possess an intuitively smooth, no-frills approach and a penchant for tube riding that these types of waves tend to breed.
The surf isn’t huge, but it packs mass. What strikes me most about Mikey’s surfing is not how his relatively tiny board, a 6’0″ variation of the twin-fin pintail, manages to hold a clean line amongst all that water moving around. Rather, it’s how comfortable he is picking and holding those lines on waves of such bulk. His turns are powerful and committed—a far cry from the skinny kid I watched grinding out scrappy contest wins growing up in Cape Town.
The conditions deteriorate quickly and soon the swell drops right down. Then Mikey falls ill. A dull headache develops into a full-blown fever as he lies dry-docked and delirious on the couch. A tick bite on the inside of his thigh—picked up during our stint on the Wild Coast—has swollen to the size of a golf ball.
The fever subsides after a couple of days, though Mikey is left weak. We decide to pull the pin and head home. As we pack, we check the charts, just to see if there’s anything coming where we’re going. A fresh series of orange swirls are swinging in from far out in the Atlantic. We roll back onto the N2 and point the car toward the source.