Sand on the Wind
A Tall Tale from Africa’s Longest Left
By Simon Nicholson
It’s not often you’re disappointed when faced with the best waves you have ever seen. Minute-long barrels stretched across the horizon and faded into the marine layer. But they were useless to me. I was standing on the beach taking a mental inventory of my body’s critical systems. Adrenaline: depleted. Muscles: seized. Nerves: shot. The only thing I knew for certain was that I was exhausted and ready to give up. And the surf was only four feet.
Something that nobody ever mentions about the Skeleton Coast—about that left—is how unbelievably fucking heavy it is. Try and imagine thousands of miles of desert sand meeting the Atlantic Ocean. The Agulhas current carving out the perfect curve from South to North. The open-ocean swells needing to be in excess of 18 feet before it even starts breaking. Imagine all that ocean moving, nothing slowing it down until it hits that concrete compacted desert sand bank and explodes down the point. I couldn’t imagine it—not before I saw it with my own eyes.
The waves of my life were right here for the taking, and trust me, some were being taken, but not by me. When Ian Walsh and Grant “Twiggy” Baker are pulling back on four footers, you know something is not right. The wave was alive, angry, charging north and eating anything in it path—no compassion here. It’s a wave reserved only for the brave, and even then it’s a waste of time without the skills to back it up.
Just then, Ian commits to an upside down takeoff, he clings to his rail as he shuttles down the point in a subway train of a wave—4 tubes, 5 tubes, all ridiculously long and seemingly unreal. He later claims it as the wave of his life, a fact I already knew just by watching it.
My personal in-flight dreams of sliding into perfect left barrels had been exploded into the thrashing wind and sand on my first wave. It had ended so quickly after free-falling from top to bottom in a panicked scramble to grab my rail. Again on wave number two and three. This was not my idea of perfection. The current by now had dragged me over a mile down the point, still the waves stampeded in exploding and eating everything in their path without mercy.
To fully appreciate the experience that is the African desert, you need embrace this land of extremes. For instance, there is no need to drive at 120km an hour on the sand, but that is how my mate Paul drives, straight from the airport to the point. At least we shaved an hour or so off the drive I tell myself, until he hits the e-brake at full speed and snaps the exhaust off the manifold, turning the V8 engine into something that sounds like a monster truck. He loves it, he can fix it but chooses to drive the car like that for the rest of the weekend, because he likes the sound.
We pull up at the point and battle the ocean for the last three hours of light. They are the most incredible barrels I have ever seen…if you have the guts to go over the ledge and the concentration to stay inside one until it lets you out. Like early treasure hunters, we work more than we are rewarded. It’s brutal. A broken foot, two broken collar bones, dozens of snapped boards, and a near broken neck are just some of the casualties of the desert. When the sun finally sets, the beers start flowing and the temperature drops rapidly. But Twiggy shows his true animal commitment, he refuses to let go. He has his equally committed girlfriend drive him to the top of the point well into the twilight, he is the last man standing, threading his way through the mist, the sharks, the seals, and the endless pits. He thrives in this harsh environment.
We drive back at 130 km an hour in the dark, in the sand, I am terrified, but I cant fight it, I have nothing left.
At 5am the alarm rings and Paul is making us sandwiches for the day, we are sore from head to toe. Coffee, eggs on toast, and it’s still black outside. We pile in and head off into the desert. Jackals howl in the distance, hoping for something to go wrong, a killer whale washes up on the beach. I have never seen a killer whale, I feel vulnerable, a small part of the food chain.
The morning session is dominated by the goofy footers, it’s too fast for the backsiders as the tide drops. When the tide bottoms out, the wave still looks as beautiful as ever but it’s almost unridable. To prove me wrong, South African goofyfoot, Dan Redman gets a 20 second tube, kicks out and hugs me. Best wave of his life, he says. Of course I knew that, just by looking at it. (maybe just leave it at “he says”.?)
Then the desert sun attacks us. Hours ago we were blowing smoke rings in the ice cold air getting into our suits. Now we’re baking, our skin turning the color of the desert.
Dave Weare snags a clean entry and quickly drops into the basement, he is gone. When he emerges from the spit he looks confused, that’s never happened before, not that long anyway. Kiron Jibour and Artiz Arinburu have travelled from the opposite ends of the earth to try their hand, and they make the most of it. Both have tube-riding techniques that need to be seen to be believed: Jibour lays back and feels the roof of the barrel at the same time, I have never seen a backside tube ridden this way. Aritz makes it through everything he backdoors, and lets go and stands tall when it counts. He rides the wave of the swell, it looks like he is knee boarding, but it’s a adapted stall designed ingeniously for this wave, without changing his line he dumps half his body over the rail, and as the wave swallows him, he rises over his board, lets go of the rail, the wave thunders down the point, well overhead and well below sea-level, it s just a run away wave, until 20 seconds later he comes out, only to disappear again, and again and again. Jason Hearne who is filming the final chapter of his three-years-in-the-making epic “The Africa Project” is jumping up and down in the back of a truck.
The wave is changing before our eyes, it wasn’t here 20 years ago, and every swell is having an impact on its future. It’s already less makeable than the famous Cory session. Less secret too. Twiggy cringes, two years ago you would be lucky to find someone to paddle out with you, today there are 30 trucks lined up. It’s a scene. Still the crowd is not really an issue. I see a friend for the first time in two days, we have been surfing the same point the entire time. The two mile conveyor belt, the mist, all the rubber we wrap ourselves in and the pulsing sets keeps us anonymous and the crowd spread out. The locals have yet to snap. Seals are the real locals and we are told not look them in the face, they are in culling season now, thousands are being killed, and they are not happy.
The wind swings hard cross-offshore as the tide fills in, the swell surges and I stand shivering at the top of the point, ready to commit to the experience again. The current pulling at my legs as I wait for a gap in the sets. My feet are aching from the cold—booties are not solving the problem of the icy Atlantic. When its time to commit, I drift with the current, scrambling to make the back before the next set of guillotines come marching in, a seal pops up next to me, scares me half to death, and bares its teeth in a sign of aggression, I keep my head down and push on. The lines start to show, my heart climbs into my throat, this is it, I’m going no matter what. The wave is a beast and I scramble to get wide and paddle hard to try and match the speed of the wave as it charges down the point. I’m In. The roar becomes deafening as the pit snatches at my back and I grab my rail. Shaun Tomson once said time slows down in the barrel, but this wave breaks all the rules—time in the tube is too common, holding my concentration becomes the necessary skill. My line changes several times through the 220-yard tube, I have time to adjust, time to think, time to laugh out loud and throw a hand jive at the hooded soldier paddling over. Who cares how long it was, five times longer than anything I have ever had.
From the bottom of the point I survey the carnage. Still the waves roll in, but I’m done. I have bruises all over my body, and I’m dehydrated and sunburned in a bad way. I exit the ocean and join a procession of rubber-clad comrades shuffling back up the point, each exhausted from their last diamond ride through the desert.
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