Barbarian Phase

Barbarian Phase

A surfing half-life.

Short edit for Life supplement, Business Day, 27 August 2019. Locals only version below, and also published on Wavescape. Image of Sunset reef by Sean Thompson Surfography.

Thirty-six is no longer young, or promising, and even as a teacher or writer (careers more forgiving of slow starters) it can barely be called emerging. It’s one year too late to be a member of the ANC Youth League, and twenty years too late to start surfing, especially in the wild and freezing waters around Cape Town.

All that lost time weighs on us, Alex and me, as we watch teenagers or outright children paddle onto some heaving Atlantic swell, make the drop, cut back, carve some shapes along the purling, blue-green wall and then kick out like it was the easiest thing in the world.

‘Poets,’ he would say, beard in hand, as we watched from a car park in the depths of winter, when the swells come in, ‘There are poets among us.’

Alex and I both have beards that are beginning to go silver, but I am average height and skinny while he is tall and rangy, muscular. We are both only children, sort of, both loners who like having someone to play with, now and then. We both have outlandish surnames that nobody can spell or pronounce.

After sessions which had gone more than usually badly – when we had fluffed a take-off in front of Coach, or our boards had gone vaulting over the white water, or (worst of all) we had pretended to paddle and miss a wave when in fact we were too chicken to actually take it – Alex could be less philosophical:

‘All those years, doing what? Jerking off in Constantia. When I could’ve been at Long Beach in fifteen minutes.’

His new cold-water hood made him look somehow Nordic, Icelandic. Hooded, bearded, grizzled: he looked, I guess, better than he was. Out in the back line he seemed to get the kind of respect I never do. He looked like the kind of Kommetjie big wave surfer who might get towed onto a hillside of moving, crumpling ocean out by Dungeons or Sunset reef, and then talk about the experience in humble monosyllables: ‘It’s a team effort out there, I rely on my guys.’

But the fact is we were struggling to deal with a mushy two-foot shorebreak off the Milnerton lighthouse carpark, where the water tasted of phosphates and Alex had at one point emerged trailing a nappy from his leash. And this gap was getting to him, to us: the gap between our surfing aspirations and abilities. Between the utter sublimity of what we were seeing – up close at Queen’s Beach, the Gat or the Hoek; online in YouTube clips: Nazaré, Mullaghmore, Mavericks, the endlessly spooling Go Pro barrels of Skeleton Bay – and the prolonged humbling that the middle-aged kook (beginner) must endure.

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A Cold Country Where the Sun Shines

A Cold Country Where the Sun Shines

From Firepool: Experiences in an Abnormal World.

… furthermore, their talk, their excessive talk about how they love South Africa has consistently been directed towards
the land, that is, towards what is least likely to respond to love: mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers.
J. M. Coetzee, 1987.

Your father drove you to the trailhead in the small white bakkie. The Tsitsikamma forest pressed up close to the highway, a lush green tunnel. Then it fell away as you sped across the rivers far below, twists of silver flashing in the sun.

The Opel, which your father always referred to as ‘the light delivery vehicle’, was a little corroded from the salt air. After dropping you he would head onwards to Port Elizabeth and get that seen to, also his computer since viruses were slowing down the hard drive, because the locals weren’t up to scratch, workshy hippie types, lackadaisical, had you noticed that since getting back, and by the way would you mind pulling into the next service station for breakfast? It did a good deal.

‘I’m going to be your waitron this morning. Can I tell you about our special offers?’

‘Thank you, but I think we know what we want. Mega breakfast over here, salad burger there, and two coffees.’

           ‘And for the coffees? Regular, large, or—’


You had long ago given up suggesting organic farm stalls set back in the blue gums and embraced your father’s sudden enthusiasm for roadside Megadeals. Coming after decades in which he had barely touched fast food of any kind, it seemed – along with the forays into local radio and his attempt to memorise the full name of every person he met in the whole bay area – a perplexing but heartening thing.

The 1-Stop’s take on the concept of a salad burger was literal: just wilted lettuce and a smear of mayonnaise between two lobes of damp white roll. Your father looked deeply shocked, as if he had been let down on home turf.

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