It is something that may slip towards the edge of one’s consciousness after a prolonged explorative period abroad, where sliding easily into warm water occurs on the daily, sand bottom breaks and their consequential barrels littering your memory, sunny skies and general bikini-clad beauty. These experiences are rich, colourful and life changing, but as the saying goes, home is where the heart is and I couldn’t be more stoked to be home. Cape Town, the Southern and West coasts of South Africa sport a little difference in the aforementioned surfing way. Frozen hands and feet, hoods, kelp, sharks, seals and the slight chance of a taking some reef home with you are all art of the experience, urchin removal kit not included. The water has a way of grasping your attention powerfully upon return—an ice cream headache of a lifetime burns deep inside your skull as you dive under the raging, teetering bomb rearing up in front of you. It is the big heads of bull kelp that pull up the handbrake as you set your line, champing at your fins as if intending to gnaw right up to your feet. This is only the beginning of the list of features of South African reefs that set them apart.
Sand bottoms, shifty peaks, the less intrusive yet at times equally forceful entity (think Puerto Escondido) can entice us into a state of acceptance, where, depending on the beach, there may be the odd makeable tube here and a wally section there. The reef, however, has a way of creating a sense of rigidity in a wave, a feeling of consistency that not many of the surfing fraternity find in other spheres of our simple existences. They can be steady workhorses aimed at perfection and repetition, a constant that tickles your fancy in just the most seductive of ways. They do pose a threat and can be ugly as the winds rage and disrupt the surface of the ocean, the take off steppy and insecure, frothing ruts on the face making for a hairy take off or the sometimes overly round barrel that projects itself as if an orb, suspended only momentarily before disallowing your entrance through the backdoor. ‘Thanks for the effort,’ she says, refueling and waiting gleefully for other victims.
You will sit there amongst the fellow renegades, staring endlessly outwards, rubbing your hands together or flailing your arms to maintain circulation. The predictability is frightful as the feathering first wave approaches, a warm up, the ocean doing its stretches. The rise and fall as you peer down into the dip, signed and dated by Pacha Mama herself. As your eyes move, the lines of reflection draw your line of sight downwards towards its strikingly indistinct base, a surreal form, the ultimate curvature and proportion, a heart-stopping realisation that something’s out to get you. Hustle. The critters around you, quiet custodians of the force, heads down and backs arched dig deep, their arms seemingly useless in the face of such strength. This one, however, is yours. Looking down at the colourful myriad of life laying before you, this is the moment of sublime extremity, the instant in your story where those few listening take a short intake of breath as you smile to yourself, the moment your mother thinks the inevitable ‘what if’.
The coral lies before you, a landscape in itself, whittled and colourful, more pockmarked than a teenager’s cheek, a texture and range of organisms incomparable. It is the sleeping giant that lies below, a formidable force that may just end you, yet you continue to poke that giant, prod its eyeballs and tickle its nipples for, while it may hurt you, it will produce. And that, my friends, taking a slow and melodramatic bow, is the clincher. The TSN turning point, if you will. It will produce because the little multicoloured ecosystem leering up at you condescendingly is not going anywhere, the barrel that you may or may not make, lurching its unsurpassable gnar towards your seemingly fragile organ container is most probably going to stay open. You may stick the drop, set your line and come out being tickled by miniature droplets as they explode towards your rear end, emerging victoriously towards the renegades as they hoot you into your first turn enviously. The other option is a more intimate meeting with the not-so-semi-cushioned floor of the ocean—a possible encroachment upon its untainted marine existence may leave it unhappy, angered by this momentary intruder. The reef, however, even in its darker times is always a giver, it never ceases to love and leave you with a little piece of its life—a subtle graze, a gnarly head wound or my personal favourite, urchin spines. Those little bastards will leave you weeping as you sit gouging out the little black spots from the deeper echelons of your poor foot. Some will judge, a call of ‘wear booties’ may be imparted, but they’re like donning a 2mm thick Johnny before getting involved. Hopeless.
I love the reef and for all my nonsensical nattering it has shaped me as a surfer, as it has with many people worldwide. It represents some of the most densely rich life forms, both compact and alive, poisonous and unnerving at times, yet beautiful. Vibrant colours seen through the crystal clear, freezing cold water that creates a film above it is the ultimate life source itself. I enjoy things for their colour and if I were to try paint an image of reef, it would leave me tired, weak and pining for a drink, a good measure of its visual intensity. It is the essence of complexity and while it is indeed something that lies on the edge of our consciousness, it is one of the many elements of intrigue and almost magical wonder that surfing has brought to the table. It lies just beyond the safety of dry land and as much we take it for granted, it is a world worth looking into. Buy a snorkel and try not to rip out the kelp because as many of our FCS fins it may devour, I have a feeling the crayfish won’t be stoked.