South Africa is a country that has a lot going for it. Despite the international press sometimes highlighting negativity out of the southernmost tip of Africa, there is, and always has been, a powerful vibe of positivity around it. And there's also a whole load of world-class waves to full your boots with. Yeah, JBay may be the darling of them all -- but there's so much more to this wave-rich wonderland that we decided to package it all up into one, neat, essential guide for all of you.
THE THREE ZONES
South Africa is really divided into three main surfing chunks; Cape Town, Durban, and JBay. There are literally hundreds of little areas, zones, nooks, and crannies in between sure, but that would take up thousands and thousands of words and images so let's focus on the core three.
A great indicator of wave quality is to see how many good surfers emerge from a particular area. Durban has a fair share of top surfers who consistently emerge from its waters. Still, the other leading region to produce champions is actually East London. Surfers like Wendy Botha, Greg Emslie and Royden Bryson all perfected their skills in EL, along with David Malherbe and Rosy Hodge.
WHEN TO GO
South Africa receives the bulk of its swell during the southern hemisphere winter. That's June through August. Those cold fronts lash Cape Town and send south westerly swells up the coast to JBay. However, the autumn and spring period can also bring incredible long-distance swells and often produce sublime days. March through May is an excellent window for surfing in South Africa. At the same time, September into November can also have some wonderful surfing days.
Big swells that smash into the Cape Of Storms can produce wonders. Many sheltered spots block the wind and refract giant waves into perfectly groomed lines. Cape Town also has two coastlines. Generally referred to as 'the warm side' and 'the cold side', it has the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean. So those hidden nooks and crannies can handle the fiercest weather conditions, while the open ocean beaches are ripped to pieces by the storms.
In Durban, it is slightly different, with the best surfing window being when the land breeze kicks in, and the coasts are perpetually offshore in the morning. February is when this happens, and when it joins up with a cyclone, the early months of the year can produce some of the best beachbreak surfs in town. So naturally, New Pier and North Beach become the epicentre of attention during these times.
The best place to learn to surf in Cape Town, possibly worldwide, is Muizenberg Beach. It has an extremely gentle, friendly wave, populated with surf schools, surf shops, rentals, coaches, and clinics.
Young kids can learn to surf here and just about anyone else. The only problem here is the constant overcrowding and that many people in the crowds are absolute beginners. There is also a continuous shark presence at Muizenberg. Still, the shark spotters have it under control. There is a system of flags and sirens alerting everyone of the current situation.
Surf school? Xpression On The Beach surf and SUP lessons and rentals.
Where to eat? Empire Cafe, Muizenberg
The most popular intermediate wave in Cape Town is Long Beach. Unfortunately, it can also get crowded. The main peak is a rolling left and a fading right, and they both lure you into a kamikaze shorebreak that can break boards and bodies.
However, just to the side of the main break, the shorebreak stretch called Crans can turn into some of the thickest, sweetest little nugget barrels on the high tide. Lefts and rights with steep take-offs and good tube rides, this is where surfers upgrade to when they are over the soft main peak.
Surf School and rentals: Kom Surf
Easy Eats: Kom Pizzeria
Due to the nature of the coastline in Cape Town, there are many reef breaks, and some of them have absolutely horrendous take-offs. They are for the advanced surfer only, those who know how to take off of a corner of reef or how to backdoor a long section.
Kalk Bay Reef is one such spot. It breaks on the warm Indian ocean side of the coastline in front of a train line. Patrons of the local bar and eatery, The Brass Bell, have the best seats in the world, watching surfers get barrelled (and drilled) while they tuck into their calamari and draught beers.
Easy Eats: The Brass Bell
Cape Town is renowned for big waves. Sunset Reef is the most accessible and produces some of the biggest waves in the country. It is an intense wave for advanced big wave surfers only, and there usually are quite a few chargers on it.
Nearby Accommodation: Sunset Reef Guesthouse
Kitchen Windows is the name of the western break in JBay, and it attracts surf schools and beginners. It is actually an enjoyable wave, and it has loads of sections for all sorts of moves. With a very soft take-off and usually relatively uncrowded, it is the most obvious place for beginners to learn the ropes of the pop-up and how to get up and riding.
Learn to surf: JBay Surf School at Dolphin Beach, a Blue Flag Beach.
Campsite: JBay Caravan Site
Easy Eats: Infood
Lower Point. Like a baby sister to the ferocity that can be Supertubes, the Lower Point is a perfect point-break that is easy to negotiate. Still, it can throw the odd section on a bigger day. It is frequented by beginners, kids and longboarders and can get a little crowded, but there is usually plenty of room to move through. Lower Point is also home to longboarding and junior surfing events.
Accommodation at Lower Point: Point Surf Loft
Supertubes. While many know Supertubes, or Supers, as one of the best right-hand point-break waves in the world, it is also a wave with severe consequences. When it gets to a certain size, the paddle out can be terrifying, and wiping out in a tube in front of one of those big-stacked-up sets can be quite a scary experience.
Supers also breaks very close to the rocks down the point, apart from the size. It has a powerful sweep that is hard to paddle against, and the odd sharks are cruising through the lineup. It was the spot that saw Mick Fanning get bumped by a curious Great White shark on live television, and there have been other encounters. Supers is also very crowded, and it is hard to get a good wave count there. Still, you only need one wave at Supers to invigorate the soul.
Accommodation: African Perfection
Easy Eats: African Perfection Restaurant
South Beach is home to many surf schools, and there are board hire options on the beachfront as well. The waves are soft and slow, loads of fun for beginners and safe to learn to surf on. If the swell in the bay gets really big, beginner surfers can just carry on walking down the beach at South beach until they come to a spot that is small enough to surf.
Surf School and rentals: Xpression On the Beach
Easy Eats: California Dreaming
The best beachbreak barrels in Durban and sometimes in the country can be found at New Pier. It is a perfectly-shaped sandbank that peels between the New Pier and the North Pier on smaller days. Still, when it hits six foot and low tides with a light offshore blowing, it becomes a dredging beast that can blow minds but hurt bodies. This is where the best surfers in Durban learn how to barrel ride. Many top surfers have been blown out of these barrels.
Surf School: Living The Dream Surf School
Easy Eats: Joe Cools
Around the corner from Durban town beaches lies the Bluff. The jewel in the crown of the Bluff is Cave Rock. It is a thick, barreling right-hand reef break that throws incredibly wide barrels. Consequences at Cave Rock are more severe than the beach breaks of town. A wipeout here usually means that you will be connecting with some rock, and surfers wear helmets here at times. There are a few other waves on the Bluff stretch, but cave Rock is the one that will be the most enticing.
Surf lessons: Surf Lessons Durban
Accommodation: Ansteys Beach Backpackers
Easy Eats: Heidie's Cafe
If there is one place with a diverse culture, that place is South Africa, there's 11 national languages and times of greatness alongside utter despair. Over time, the surfing community has seen more and more people of colour joining the family, and surfing has a way of connecting any cultural gaps that possibly exist.
The surfers in South Africa are a hardy crew, with east coast sharks, west coast ruggedness, the cape of storms and massive surf the norm every season. Yet, they are embracing visitors. Except for maybe at the really crowded spots like JBay and some areas in Durban.
South African surfers like to travel and often work at foreign surf destinations to get waves. There is quite radical crime in South Africa, but crime is worldwide. Like you would in Mexico or any other country with a crime situation, using a bit of common sense goes a long way. Similarly to the shark situation, South Africa has a solid shark spotter program at several busy spots in and around the peninsula.
SHARKS AND THEIR SPOTTERS
South Africa has plenty of sharks, and they cruise both coastlines. However, there are still relatively few attacks. Like the publicised Mick Fanning encounter with a white shark at JBay, these encounters are often mistaken identities.
General procedures apply – don't surf too early or too late, and don't surf in murky river mouths. Also, don't surf alone, and be aware of your surroundings, birds' movements, bait balls, take note of everything. Here's a handy site about shark spotting and more information about the process.
The currency is the South African Rand ZAR, and if you're travelling on GBP, it's R19.55 to the pound and R16,64 to the Euro. R15,87 to the US$. Talking about currency, if you want to stay at a nice hotel at the beach in front of a perfect wave, even the expensive options won't be too much on foreign money. Grab a penthouse accommodation option at Supertubes, and it won't break the bank.
TIME TO DINE
When it comes to South African food, you're in for a treat, especially if you're a meat-lover. South Africans eat a lot of meat, more often than not prepared over a wooden fire. These barbecue meals are called braais, and they are more of a social gathering than just a meal. A lot goes into a braai, including certain drinks (brandy and coke) and small talk.
When a few drinks have been consumed, it's time for the pre-pre snacks, usually biltong. Biltong is a South African food made from dried beef and game meat. The world itself is Dutch. "Bil" means buttock, and "tong" means strip. The treat is very similar to the more primitive Dutch tassal. In short, it is just a strip of dried meat.
Brandy (usually local Klipdrift Brandy) and coke. Also known as 'the easiest way to eat 2kg of meat,' you either love it or hate it. Most people love it, and foreign surfers can be seen coveting the stuff in little brown bags at the beach.
IMPACT ON SURF CULTURE
Gotcha, Instinct, and when Gotcha became too big More Core Division. Mike Tomson made a large fortune out of Gotcha, and Shaun Tomson was the person behind Instinct. Shaun also won a world title, and Wendy Botha from East London won four.
Jordy won the world juniors, and Stevie Sawyer won the world longboards. Spider Murphy shaped winning boards for Shaun and British-born South African / Australian and 1989 world champion Martin Potter. Currently, the World Surf League has Grahame Stapelberg, Kelly Cestari, Travis Logie, Gigs Cilliers and the Corona Open JBay. It also has Jordy Smith and Matt McGillivray. So there is an African force out there.
*Travelling through and surfing in South Africa is a very enriching experience. There are some essential tips, however. The foreign exchange is very favourable for a visitor. It's not a bad idea to buy quite a bit of your equipment in South Africa as the boards, wetsuits and other hard goods are generally cheaper here.
*Crime is everywhere and nowhere. You might not see anything, just use common sense, and listen to the locals.
*A cold front hits Cape Town and then moves past the coast, so you can follow a swell up the coast up to JBay, and even as far as east London.
*Durban is warm the whole year-round.
*AIDS is still something to be aware of, as is COVID. Check what the testing requirements are before arriving.
*International Drivers Licence.
*Smoking weed is generally ok, but Durban Poison is strong, Malawi Gold can be really expensive, and Swazi Gold relieves anxiety in a big way.
*Drinking and driving is a no-no. Get caught, and you'll spend a night or longer in the cells, and you do not want that.
*There are crowds in the water and on the land. Be zen with the traffic, as many people are making a living driving taxis and can be pretty aggressive in traffic. The saying is, 'no rush in Africa.' If it's crowded in the water, be calm, because tomorrow you'll find somewhere uncrowded. It's South Africa. There's lots of space.
Cover shot by Deon Lategan.
Spot guide: South Africa