By Stef Terblanche
Who among us that were around back then or watched it later, can forget the magic of The Endless Summer, that seminal 1966 surf movie in which filmmaker/narrator Bruce Brown follows two surfers, Mike Hynson and Robert August, in search of the perfect wave on a surfing trip around the world that included South Africa?
The movie set the scene for a worldwide surfing explosion that would follow. For many who saw the movie, it triggered a lifelong quest to share in the thrill, a lifestyle really, and to find and ride that perfect wave. Some will never stop searching.
With our own summer coming up, we decided to embark on an endless summer of our own…a journey in search of the best surfing spots in South Africa, and of course that perfect wave. And we do have many awesome surfing locations, with a variety of some of the most superb conditions and waves in the world…set against a backdrop of magnificent beauty and surrounded by many other attractions and activities to be enjoyed at the same time.
You need not be a surfer to follow the trail, but it is a trail that will take you to some of the most beautiful locations along the South African coastline, quite often way off the beaten track. Along the way you will discover beautiful hidden coastal coves and bays, towering cliffs, white sandy beaches, hidden-away little villages, coastal forests, beachside eateries and pubs, rustic lodges and more. The scenery changes from the rugged and sometimes barren West Coast to cityscapes, lagoons, river estuaries, endless white beaches with rolling waves, friendly small towns, palm-fringed, semi-tropical hideaways, the rolling, grass-covered hills of the Eastern Coast and so much more.
Romance too is also always in the air. If you are not a surfer yourself, simply find a perch on the beach or rocks and be entertained for hours watching those bronzed, athletic young bodies with their sun-bleached hair paddling out to catch the next wave and do their acrobatic magic…a kind of fast-moving ballet on water.
Surfing is also no longer confined only to the surfboard variety, whether a long or short board. These days they are joined by bodyboarders, kite surfers, wind surfers, surf kayakers, paddle-skiers and stand-up paddle boarders, among others.
Today’s surfers are an eclectic lot drawn from all walks of life, a far cry from the diehard surf junkies of the Sixties, although many like them are still around. You can join them camping in tents along the coast, living in vans, lazing in hammocks in rustic backpacker establishments, or join the more well-heeled surfers in upmarket B&Bs and hotels. The same goes for transport: some jet in from all over the world; others drive brand new SUVs and 4WD pickup trucks that can get them to the most remote spots. But the classic mode of transport for the blue-blooded surfer is still the trusted old VW, whether a Kombi or a Beetle, with surfboards stacked up on the rooftop.
The West Coast
We start our journey on the beautiful West Coast, at a small fishing village called Elands Bay, tucked in between a bread-shaped mountain, the largest estuary on the West Coast, and a beautiful beach with white sands that stretch on forever.
The journey from Cape Town to Elands Bay takes approximately 2 to 3 hours depending on your vehicle, how you drive and the condition of the roads at any given time. It is truly a bit of out-of-the way heaven. Its isolation has spared the quaint little village the agony of developers moving in and changing its character forever, but locals would probably welcome the business it would have brought.
Nonetheless, the drive will reward ardent surfers with much sought-after left-breaking waves perhaps best suited for experienced surfers. In a corner, at the southern end of the beach, near the fishing processing plant, where the mountain forms a point in the sea, waves peak around the point on a kelp-covered, rocky shelf, providing a cylindrical ride that continues for up to 150 meters. Called E-Bay by surfers, it is J-Bay (Jeffrey’s Bay) without the crowds and the sharks.
The village only has one hotel, a shop, liquor store, a guest house or two, and a scattering of local homes and holiday houses. The bar at the hotel, however, is an interesting and lively meeting place for locals and visitors, and many highly entertaining and interesting characters will be found there. On weekends dancing sometimes takes place in the hotel hall. There is a grassless, sandy camping site right in front of the hotel on the edge of the beach, but wind-breaks offer good protection.
The surrounding area offers awesome, long beach hikes; unparalleled crayfish diving (if you have a permit and it’s in-season); superb salt- and fresh-water fishing; stunning views and 232 species of birdlife, including flamingos and pelicans, at Verlorenvlei, the large estuary on the approach to Elands Bay; and climbing the Bobbejaanberg (Baboon Mountain) to the Baboon Point cliffs and the Bobbejaanberg cave, a wonderful spot from which to get a panoramic view of the entire area.
Further south, closer to Cape Town, there are more excellent West Coast surfing spots at Grotto Bay, Ganzekraal, Silverstream Strand, Melbosstrand, Big Bay and Table View. Surfing spots at the first three are quite isolated and set within some stunning coastal scenery. The beaches and the surfing spots at the latter three are a lot more crowded, however, and close to the city with views of Table Mountain, Cape Town and Robben Island across the bay. Here surfers will be competing for space with kite surfers, windsurfers, kayak and stand-up board paddlers and bathers. But on a good day the waves will be most rewarding. So are the surrounding areas, with plenty to do and see.
Big Bay is a popular sundowner and night-time entertainment area, with many bars, restaurants, surf shops, supermarket and luxury apartments lining the Eden on the Bay development on the beachfront. The Table View beachfront is also a popular nightlife area where you can let your hair down after a hard day’s surfing or surf-watching. A number of B&Bs and lodges cater for kite surfers, surfers and other water-sports enthusiasts, as well as non-aquatic visitors. And Cape Town with its many attractions is just a stone’s throw away.
The Cape Peninsula
From Table View it’s a short drive around Table Bay to the many surfing spots along Cape Town’s Atlantic Seaboard, where beautiful beaches with turquoise waters are set against a backdrop of high-rise urban jungle, luxury apartment blocks and houses clinging to steep cliff sides, the ‘bungalows’ of Clifton clustered around its famous beaches, and the upmarket millionaires’ village that is Llandudno. And all the while, the mountain towers over it all with a formidable presence.
Our next stop is a place called Dungeons at the sea-and-mountain village of Hout Bay behind Table Mountain. It is a legendary Big Wave destination, meant only for the very brave and very experienced surfer. The spot is around the corner from the fishing harbour at the foot of a leaning mountain known as The Sentinel. On your way there pick up some of Hout Bay harbour’s world-famous fish and chips.
At Dungeons, once a year in winter giant swells come rolling in all the way from the South Atlantic, rising to an awesome wave that trashes everything in its way when it comes crashing down. While the more common waves average 3 to 4 meters, waves of up to 14 meters have been recorded. Dungeons is renowned as one of the world’s famous Big Wave spots and has also been selected for a leg of the annual worldwide Red Bull Wave Competition.
Mad men who like to ride monster mountains of water are towed out to the wave by a variety of fast watercraft, unleashed and sent on their way down the towering water face of the wave, mostly to disappear in a giant whirlpool of swirling and churning white water. Called a wipe-out in surfing jargon, this probably could be called the perfect, super total wipe-out. Observers on land hold their breath as they wait for what seems like many minutes for the surfer to reappear above water, wondering if he will ‘make it’. When he eventually pops up gasping for breath, rescue boats rush out to pluck him from the water before the next wave comes crashing down. The world’s top big wave surfers have listed Dungeons among the ten deadliest waves in the world, right up there with California’s Mavericks and Hawaii’s Banzai Pipeline.
After Hout Bay, following the beautiful coastal drive around the Peninsula, you are spoilt for choice with awesome surfing spots and scenery at Noordhoek, Long Beach, Kommetjie, Misty Cliffs, Scarborough, Cape Point, Simon’s Town and on to the family surfing beach of Muizenberg, where old and young, beginner and expert all participate in the fun. A word of warning though: watch out for the shark spotter’s signal flags, as there have been some tragic shark attacks along this part of the coast.
In-between surfing or watching the action from a safe distance, you can relax at one of literally hundreds of buzzing pubs and restaurants, browse around a variety of interesting shops and art galleries, visit a diversity of museums, go on some scenic hikes and drives, visit the Cape of Good Hope Nature Reserve, and mix with the crowds in the charming streets of some of Cape Town’s oldest holiday locations where famous personalities like mining magnate Cecil John Rhodes and Italian Count Natale Labia once had their seaside homes. Famous authors Agatha Christie and George Bernard Shaw both went surfing at Muizenberg.
Southwestern Cape Coast
From Muizenberg another awesome coastal drive takes us around the edge of False Bay to popular surfing spots at the Strand, the nature reserve of Kogel Bay, Pringle Bay around the corner from Cape Hangklip, Bokbaai or Moonshine Bay next to Cape Hangklip and various spots around Betty’s Bay and on to Kleinmond, Onrus, Hermanus, De Kelders and Gansbaai.
There are numerous other hidden-away surfing spots along the way, with colourful names like Kokkerot (cockroach), Hardebaai, the Cave, Sandbaai, Voelklip, the Computer, the Toilet, Uilenkraalsmond (owl village/kraal mouth), Pearly Beach, Struisbaai, Arniston, Waenhuiskrans, and many more. These offer a variety of wave types that are either left- or right-breaking, some being big wave rides.
The coast here can be very rocky and filled with kelp, while sharks lurk around. But the surrounding scenery will enthral anyone, while you will be passing through a variety of charming holiday and fishing villages and towns with plenty to do apart from surfing. Along the way you will also pass the southernmost tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas with its iconic lighthouse.
Garden Route Coast
On the Garden Route part of our journey, we stop first at the holiday towns of Stilbaai and Vleesbaai, both popular surfing spots, but strictly-speaking not yet part of the Garden Route. Then it’s on to Mossel Bay, South Africa’s ‘oldest town’ in the sense that it is the first place where Europeans – explorer Bartolomeu Dias from Portugal – set foot on South African soil in 1488. Here you will still find the old Post Office Tree, a milkwood tree where passing seafarers left letters in a shoe to be picked up by other passing ships.
However, this bustling and charming harbour town on the edge of a bay with majestic mountain views across the waters, has a history that goes back more than 164,000 years when it was settled by Khoi people. Archaeological excavations in the caves and cliffs along a stunning hike above the sea, can be visited for a peek back across thousands of years.
From these cliffs the ancient Khoi people who lived here would have watched the very same waves now treasured by surfers at two spots called Inner and Outer Pool, the Point. Mossel Bay is a fascinating town with much to offer tourists of every variety, as do all the towns that follow along the Garden Route.
The name Garden Route could not be more apt: the entire coastal region is blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery in South Africa, ranging from an ever-changing seashore to mountains, forests, lakes, and rivers, with charming villages and towns, all with something unique to offer, along the way. Other Garden Route towns that are very popular with surfers from around the world include Victoria Bay, or Vic Bay among surfers, near the major Southern Cape centre of George, as well as Plettenberg Bay and Jeffrey’s Bay. There are, however, many other worthwhile surfing spots in-between.
Jeffrey’s Bay, further east and an hour’s drive from the major port city of Port Elizabeth, together with nearby Cape St Francis, is perhaps best-known as one of the competition venues of the Billabong Pro surfing world tour. Known among surfers as J-Bay, it has been a premier surfing location since the 1960s, ranked in one survey as the second best surfing spot in the world. Cape St Francis also featured in The Endless Summer.
In fact, it was the discovery and riding of the ‘perfect wave’ at Cape St Francis by Hynson, one of the two surfers in the movie, which conferred upon him a kind of enduring super stardom. Hynson turned 72 in June this year after a colourful life, to say the least…sort of the Keith Richards of surfing. Back in 1964, Hynson and August were picked up hitch-hiking from Cape Town to Durban with their surfboards by a maverick South African snake-catcher called Terence Bullen, and taken to the then isolated, largely undiscovered Cape St Francis.
It was Hynson who first discovered the wave. What they saw, had them in complete awe: perfect consecutive sets of pipe-shaped right-breaking waves, point break rippers like they had never seen before. The off-shore breeze sculpted the perfect curl, while the combination of point and reef let the waves role on endlessly. The waves of Cape St Francis became world-famous, and it was that scene that made the movie The Endless Summer into the cult hit it became. Before them no-one had ever surfed those perfect waves; since then, thousands upon thousands have done so, many trekking halfway around the world for the privilege.
In the late sixties a surfing hippie commune set up camp in the sand dunes in the J-Bay/St Francis area, their only daily mission to ride the best waves possible. Some of them were still around forty years later, but by now these colourful characters have probably and sadly all left.
Other popular surfing spots in this area include Magnatubes, Kitchen Window, Impossibles, Boneyards, Salad Bowls, Coins, Tubes, Supertubes, The Point, and Albatross. Jeffrey’s Bay itself is a busy hive of activity with surfing and fishing tackle shops, handcrafted clothing stores, handmade leather shoes and bags (a remnant from the hippie days), holiday homes, restaurants, pubs, lodges, hotels and B&Bs. Here too you will find some of the best calamari in South Africa, locally referred to as ‘white gold’.
Going East Along the Wild Coast to KZN
From Jeffrey’s Bay, as we follow our own endless summer, the road takes us to Nelson Mandela Bay and the City of Port Elizabeth. This busy port city has much to offer, not least of all its many superb beaches and surfing spots that include the Fence, Lookout with its reef break, Millers with a point break and Pipe with its beach break. While in the city you can visit the Boardwalk Casino, go horse-riding on the beaches, visit the aquarium and its dolphin show, go sand boarding, or just enjoy the many shops, pubs, restaurants and museums. You can also fit in a visit to the nearby Addo Elephant Park.
From Port Elizabeth the road takes you northeast to East London, passing more wonderful coastal scenery and magnificent surfing spots along the way. A feature of this region is the many picturesque holiday villages clustered around the estuaries of many of the impressive rivers of the Eastern Cape. You will also pass through Port Alfred, built along the banks of the Kowie River and boasting a superb marina.
East London itself has a number of good surfing spots, while you can also indulge in its many other offerings, not least of all its rich colonial history as a military frontiers town where several wars were fought between the local Xhosa people and the colonising British armies.
It is, however, when you get to the village of Cintsa at the mouth of the river with the same name some 28km northeast of East London, that you enter the truly mind-blowing stretch of coast known as the Wild Coast…one of the last great, unspoilt natural wonders of the world. It stretches for 278km up some of the most beautiful coastline in the world all the way to the Mtamvuna River on the border between the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
Along the way you will pass pristine forests, endless beaches, cliffs, waterfalls, rolling hills and grassland, traditional villages, a rock in the ocean with a giant hole through which the sea blows, river estuaries, friendly locals, and their cattle lazing on the beaches. For some excellent surfing you can stop off at Cintsa, Ntlonyane or Breezy Point, and Second Beach at Port St Johns. Sharks, however, can be a problem around here, so be alert. Tucked away along this coast between sea, cliffs and forests, are many backpackers’ lodges that cater for surfers and remind one of another cult movie…The Beach.
Crossing into KwaZulu-Natal, known by locals simply as KZN, you enter another surfers’ paradise, with locals vigorously competing with their counterparts around Cape Town to proclaim their turf as the surfing mecca of South Africa. This is truly endless summer country, as the region never really experiences winter or cold weather. Sea temperatures remain warm all-year round, and in most locations shark nets will keep you safe.
The KZN South Coast is packed with excellent surfing and holidaying locations, and is the holiday playground each year for thousands of South Africans. Good surfing is to be enjoyed at places such as Port Edward, Amanzimtoti, Uvongo, Margate and Warner Beach, but there are many more. After an active day of catching waves, there is plenty to do around here.
Next we head into Durban, also known as Surf City among the locals. There’s good surfing, eating and entertainment to be had around the Bluff area in the south, around Ansteys, Cave Rock or Brighton beaches. Along the beach front area known to locals as the Golden Mile, or simply the Mile, high-rise luxury hotels overlook several kilometres of beaches from South Beach to North Beach. Piers separate the beaches that are home to outstanding surfing spots such as uShaka Beach, Dairy Beach, Addington, Bay of Plenty and Pirates. Going further north you will find a good wave to ride at Blue Lagoon, or head on up to Umhlanga.
From Umhlanga you can head up the North Coast to discover many hidden away surfing spots, romantic beaches, seaside resorts, nature reserves and much else, until you come to a place called ‘Magic Waters’, officially known as the World Heritage Site, iSimangaliso Wetland Park. Here you can dive with whales and sharks, paddle across beautiful estuaries, go horse-riding or on guided game-viewing drives or hikes, and simply just lose yourself in the beauty of nature. And catch another wave to ride.
Let the summer never end.