Pursuit of the perfect wave

Best on board ... Surfing at Jeffreys.
Best on board ... Surfing at Jeffreys. Photo: Getty Images

Sam Vincent experiences legendary surf breaks and epic bungee-jumping in South Africa's Eastern Cape.

It's a famous surf film scene: four strapping lads, armed with surfboards and dressed in shorts even Warwick Capper might deem too tight, trudge across vast sand dunes to the Indian Ocean. Tired and thirsty under a beating sun, they are about to end their search for surf when beyond one last dune they discover what the film's narrator says "we call a perfect wave".

Since it was immortalised in Bruce Brown's 1966 classic The Endless Summer, South Africa's Garden Route has held an air of mystique for surfers. The film pioneered the concept of the surf safari and the Garden Route scenes most epitomised this spirit of adventure: remote area, great waves, dirt roads and dangerous wildlife on and offshore.

But if the "perfect wave" was the longboard-friendly Cape St Francis those mid-'60s protagonists encountered, it is a neighbouring break that is considered perfect by modern standards. Fast, hollow, powerful and consistent, nearby Jeffreys Bay, about an hour's drive south-west of Port Elizabeth in South Africa's Eastern Cape, is the dream place of the shortboard generation.

"It's your classic doodle wave," says Etienne Venter, a man whose galaxy of freckles and sun-bleached hair testify to a life spent in the ocean. "When you were bored at school doodling your perfect wave on a desk, it wasn't a huge wave with you as a little guy; it was head-high, barrelling and a perfect shape - it was Jeffreys Bay."

It's midday at Supertubes, a famous section of Jeffreys Bay, and Venter, an instructor and South African junior team coach, explains the appeal of his home break. "This is a world-class wave, but it's never crowded," he says. "It's not like Bali, where there are 40 guys in the surf; here it's more like four."

Despite hosting the Billabong Pro world tour event each July and being the most legendary right-hand point break on Earth, Jeffreys Bay - J-Bay to its friends - is surprisingly bereft of surfers. I visit in midwinter when a cold front is lashing the Garden Route, bringing chilly weather and ideal surfing conditions. An offshore wind is howling like a banshee as I follow Venter's lead and paddle to the line-up between sets. At the impact zone, three-foot barrels break with such intensity that the resulting icy back-spray rains down on us for five seconds after each wave has disappeared; it feels more like Deadliest Catch than The Endless Summer.

I am by no means an accomplished surfer, but with Venter calling me on to waves and only five other wetsuit-wearing surfers out, I get my share of the long, fast waves the break is famous for during a two-hour session.

J-Bay's relative lack of surfers may be explained in part by the region's history. At first glance, this is a typical surfing town: the same surf-clothing outlet stores you'll find in Torquay, Kuta or Biarritz; the same types of skateboarders you see in Hawaii, their long blond hair held by trucker caps. But J-Bay wasn't built for surfers - it was built for racist retirees. In apartheid-era South Africa, Jeffreys Bay, an erstwhile trading post named after its 1849 founder Joseph Jeffreys, was developed in the 1960s and marketed to retirees for its location far from black townships.

"The surf was discovered by accident," Venter tells me. "Travelling surfers looking for Bruce's Beauties [a spot featured in The Endless Summer and named after Brown] discovered that just down the coast was an even better wave - Jeffreys."

The builders of the apartheid era weren't known for their architectural skills, and many houses here still have the look of a 1960s nursing home, all brown-coloured brick and concrete gardens. The town's contemporary demographic is still reflective of that period: retirees vastly outnumber surfers and the town is overwhelming white, especially in the water.

This last element is something Venter is trying to change. After lunch we paddle out for a session at a section known simply as "the point", this time accompanied by 21-year-old Bertie Stuurman, a Venter protege and one of South Africa's most promising coloured surfers. Surfing has traditionally been a white sport here. But the coloured community - mixed-race descendants of indigenous Khoisan people, Dutch settlers and the Indonesian, Malagasy and Malay slaves they brought with them - were fishing these parts long before the arrival of Joseph Jeffreys. Now, some are swapping boats for boards.

"Part of the vision for my surf school was to get more coloured kids into surfing," Venter says. "When I started the school [in 2000], Bertie was hanging around on the beach. I invited him in and now he's one of the best surfers in J-Bay. The next generation will be even better than him."

The shy Stuurman declines my request for an interview, preferring to let his surfing do the talking. As the afternoon sun silhouettes the mountains behind J-Bay a deep indigo, Stuurman mesmerises a line-up of 15 or so surfers with his aerial manoeuvres and aggressive turning.

We surf the point until just before sunset, when, unsurprisingly, the water quickly becomes deserted: this is "shark o'clock" in a part of the world famous for its great whites.

It's not a shark that has me scared the next day; it's the prospect of leaping off a 216-metre bridge. An hour's drive from Jeffreys Bay and increasingly a must-visit destination for surfers and travellers alike is Bloukrans Bridge, the world's highest bungee bridge. As expected, my heart beats like a hummingbird's wings as I free-fall for what seems like a minute (even the first bounce is higher than Zimbabwe's Victoria Falls). But entirely unexpected is what I notice when I eventually come to a halt. Hanging upside down like a bat as I wait for a bungee employee to abseil down and winch me back to the bridge, I glimpse the ocean at the end of the gorge, a kilometre behind me. Perhaps it's the blood rushing to my head, but even from this vantage I can see that the swell surging in is forming a neat, fast and hollow surf break - and what's more, no one is riding it.

In the words of Bruce Brown, "it's what we call a perfect wave".

Sam Vincent travelled courtesy of South African Tourism.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

South African Airways has a fare to Port Elizabeth from Sydney and Melbourne for about $2200 low-season return, including tax. Fly with Qantas to Perth (about 4hr), then to Johannesburg (11hr 30min), then to Port Elizabeth (1hr 40min); see flysaa.com. Jeffreys Bay is 77 kilometres, or about an hour's drive, from Port Elizabeth via the N2 highway.

Surfing there

Surf-Jbay has lessons from beginner to advanced levels and can arrange transfers between Jeffreys Bay and Port Elizabeth International Airport; see surf-jbay.co.za.

More information

See southafrica.net.

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