Being a UK surfer is a tricky business. It’s ruddy freezing, inconsistent, and not exactly world class a lot of the time. If it was as simple as rocking up to the beach in your boardshorts like those softies in the tropics it wouldn’t be the same. The wild weather, diverse coastline and capricious nature of our waves make it fun. Character building even. The chase is always on.
Figuring out what’s going on is key. Weather charts are always being assessed. When there’s swell on tap the issue is wind. A kink in the angle this way or that makes a huge difference. The British are widely regarded as being obsessed with the weather and it’s true. Surfers even more so. Making the call for a dawny is tricky. Today was one of those ‘do I drag myself out of bed in the dark or not’ days. Some folks did and were rewarded with what can only be described as a fun session. Not epic but definitely worth fighting in to the damp wetsuit for. Hell it was even sunny from mid-morning onwards with some actual warmth in the air. Roll on spring… And it looks like we’ve got waves for days. A rare treat.
We’re rolling down the spine of an ancient volcano, tumbling down to the sea. Outside the window it’s the colour of deep earth, the colour of an island that’s been turned inside out, exposing its fertile guts and dark green belly. Giant palm fronds high five the car as we twist around the jungle track with 50 Cent and Lucky Dube riding shotgun. Lucky’s crooning right now, telling us, ‘Good things come to those, who go out and make them happen.’
Clearly Lucky never tried finding a road to the beach on the west coast of São Tomé.
‘I think it’s here,’ says John Micheletti. ‘The bay we saw on the map.’ He’s pointing out the window but all we can see is the same thick ribbon of jungle that’s hemmed us in for the past hour as we’ve unsuccessfully tried to poke the nose of the Toyota Prada towards the beach. John turns off the road into a narrow trail that cuts into the bush. Branches claw the doors as he nudges the car further down the footpath, barely wide enough for two people to walk side by side.
‘I don’t think this is a road,’ quips Beyrick de Vries from the backseat. There’s a hollow thud as the chassis connects a hump of rock, followed by a grinding sound that slows the car down, but it’s impossible to turn around. John pushes harder on the accelerator. The car breaks free and is catapulted into a clearing. Ahead of us lies the beach where impossibly tall palms dip down to the shoreline. Beyond that, an onshore breeze licks the back of a wedging beachbreak.
‘Ramps!’ shouts Beyrick, and we start taking the boards off the roof.
São Tomé is located off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea, a dark speck that rises abruptly from the sea. Along with its smaller twin, Príncipe, the islands form part of the Cameroon Line, a 900-mile chain of volcanoes that stretch from the hinterlands of Nigeria into the depths of the Atlantic Ocean.
The entire island is in fact a volcano, formed by hot spot that has steadily bubbled up lava from the Earth’s mantle over millennia. The same type of volcanic activity forged the islands of Hawaii and has imbued São Tomé with its dark soil and wrinkled coastline. A coastline that, for the most part, remains unexplored.
The exception is along the east coast, where our eclectic crew had convened like the start of a bad joke: William Aliotti, a Frenchman raised in the Caribbean Islands, Beyrick de Vries from South Africa and John Micheletti from Nigeria. We were hardly the first surfers to visit this former Portuguese colony, however.
Back in 2001, Sam George and Randy Rarick had made their way here with legendary photographer John Callahan. George wrote that he thought they were pioneering the fun right point breaks they found, until he was joined in the water by a gaggle of São Toméan kids, riding boards fashioned from wood. It was a startling discovery.
São Tomé is isolated, lying 200 miles from the mainland, yet here was a wave-riding culture that George hypothesised had evolved independently of the Polynesians’ influence. He claimed the island holds definitive proof that surfing is an authentic African tradition. Proof like the board 12-year-old Jardel Félix holds under his arm when we meet him on the first day of our trip.
The board is four foot long with thin, pinched rails and a rolled bottom deck that ends in a sharp squaretail. The wide nose is rounded and mostly symmetrical, except for a kink on the left rail where the axe used to carve it had splintered the solid piece of wood.
‘Este é meu tambua,’ says Jardel proudly. This is my board.
It’s late afternoon and the tropical sun has unclenched its boiling fist. The air is warm but pleasant. We are still wet from surfing a zippy point break in front of the village of Santana where a group of kids on a flotilla of surf craft had joined us, riding the snapped halves of a thruster, an old bodyboard and even a block of Styrofoam. But mostly they were on tambuas, the rough-hewn boards made from the acacia tree.
We had heard about São Tomé’s homegrown surf scene and expected to find these local surfers in the water. We had not expected to find them busting airs.
Unlike the young kids on the inside, Jéjé Camblé was riding a fresh 6’0 Chili. Every time he did a big turn or hucked a frontside reverse, the small pack erupted in cheers. His face stretched into a broad grin when he paddled up to us and introduced himself in Portuguese.
Jéjé later tells us that he started surfing on a tambua after seeing an expat named Peter riding waves outside his village. ‘When I saw surfing for the first time I thought it was some kind of magic,’ he says. ‘Like walking on water.’
He soon discovered São Tomé had its own wave riders and, with their help, carved his own board. He started bellyboarding the whitewash, then catching open faces. Before long he was at backline.
‘For a long time I thought our generation were the first ones to surf using wooden boards in São Tomé’,’ says the 17-year old. ‘But then I started asking the adults. One of them told me no, we were surfing these boards long ago, when I was seven. Then I asked a man who was 50, and he said the same. He said when they were kids, they were surfing with wooden boards already. Then I asked my grandmother, she is 77, and she said back in the days when she was my age, younger people surfed with wooden boards. They rode waves just for fun.’
Aside from a trickle of tourists, São Tomé remains largely cut off from the outside world. Swathes of the island have no electricity and the economy relies on fishing and cash crops. The few scraps of modern surf equipment come by way of the occasional airline pilot who surfs and a handful of Portuguese expats. But São Tomé is the landing point for a deep-sea fibre optic cable linking Africa to Europe, and has excellent connectivity.
The following morning we spot the Santana crew hanging out on the wall of an old whitewashed church that sits on the water’s edge. They aren’t drawn there solely by their piousness. The wall offers the perfect vantage point to check the waves and pick up free Wi-Fi signal from the church. With thumbs scrolling, they sit glued to their phones, connected to their heroes around the world courtesy of the good Lord.
‘If I want to train my rail, I watch Tom Curren, or Mick Fanning,’ says Jéjé , looking up from his phone. ‘If I want to progress in surf, I watch videos of Julian Wilson and Gabriel Medina. If I want to be inspired, I watch Andy Irons.’
He pronounces Irons’ name with reverence, his Portuguese accent drawing the syllables out in a long shhh.
From Santana the road hugs the coastline heading south, giving way to impenetrable bays that we circumnavigate by driving inland. We had scoured the same coastline on Google Earth before arriving, marking off potential setups, logging GPS co-ordinates. But on the ground, amongst the crush of thick foliage, we are quickly disorientated.
John takes command, matching up the maps with his phone GPS, guiding the car west along the twisting dirt roads until we find a path to the beach or can drive no further. Then we get out and hike.
‘Are you kidding me?’ says Beyrick at the end of a sortie on foot. The band of dense bush we have just trekked through gives way to a crescent shaped bay. To our left is a rocky outcrop where a blowhole shoots plumes of water into the air as swells hit the headland, then refract into a left bowl. The wind is onshore but the waves are surprisingly well formed and powerful.
‘This reminds me so much of the setups in Costa Rica,’ says William out in the lineup, in-between sky-high punts. ‘Except there’s nobody here.’
That night back in Santana we tell Joao, a Portuguese expat who occasionally guides visiting surfers around the island, that we found the wave at the blowhole. He looks at us quizzically and shrugs, ‘I don’t know this wave.’
The next day we’re loading the car when William asks, ‘Who’s got music?’ But our iPhones are useless on the Prada’s old sound system, a frontloader and tape deck combo. Instead we make our way to the market where we find bootlegged copies of 50 Cent and Lucky Dube amongst piles of fruit and fish. The duo become the soundtrack to which we navigate São Tomé’s hidden coast, finding our way to beaches and bays where we are unsure if we are the first to ride these waves on our modern tambuas. We wonder what the punchy wedges would do in the dry season offshores and contemplate the slabs we’d heard about further north. But mostly we just surf and hunt fish along the reefs. Reefs that are dark and rich like the jungle, forged from the same volcanic basalt that the island is built upon.
‘I’m the diamond in the dirt, that ain’t been found,’ Fiddy spits out the speakers as we climb higher into the interior. The sea has gone flat so we are making our way inland, cutting deep into the belly of the island, throwing faux gangsta shakas as we go.
Eventually we reach Pico Cão Grande, the highest peak on the island. The needle of rock twisting into the sky was formed when a volcanic plug exploded abruptly, hinting at the powerful forces bubbling just beneath the surface. On the way back to the coast John points out the cacao plants that grow along the sides of the road, their bulging orange pods dangling on thin stalks.
Cacao makes up 95 per cent of São Tomé’s exports, a throwback from its colonial past when it was cultivated on large plantations that remain dotted around the island. The seeds are plucked from the pod and shipped around the world where they are processed into chocolate and other delights. But here in the jungle, the plants grow wild and free.
When the swell rises again we head to Radiation Point north of Santana, where George and Rarick found the loping righthander that would come to define São Tomé’s surf potential. The tarred road disintegrates the closer we get, until we are bumping along a rutted track where wooden clapboard houses lie squashed against one another, piled up in a settlement that runs down to the sea. The bad road forces us to drive slowly, a few miles an hour. A stream of kids run out the houses as we pass by, pushing their homemade skateboards behind the car.
When we come to a stop they gather round, showing us the boards. The deck of the ‘rolling car’ or trote is a block of wood joined to trucks made from smoothed-out branches. Old wheel bearings have been fitted onto each end of the branch, which has to be carefully selected: too thin, and the branch will snap or the makeshift wheels will wiggle off. Too thick, and the wheels won’t be able to turn around on the wooden trucks.
The kids squeal with laughter as Beyrick and William give the boards a go, jerking stiffly from side to side down the road. ‘Oleo, oleo!’ shouts a tiny boy, no older than eight. He whips a small plastic bottle out his shorts and grabs one of the boards, squeezing a few drops of used motor oil onto the bearings, then flips it over and skates expertly round in circles, the steel wheels hammering the ground loudly.
Radiation Point gets its name from the towering radio beacon that dominates the peninsula and sits perched on undeveloped government land. We duck under a dilapidated fence and make the 20-minute walk through tall yellow grass the colour of wheat, catching glimpses of the wave until we get to the shoreline.
‘No, no!’ shouts one of the local surfers as we start walking over the rocks to paddle out. He points down to a fat clump of urchins wedged between the boulders, then motions for us to follow him to a gully where we slip easily into deeper water.
A handful of São Toméan surfers are at backline, riding hand-me-down surfboards, some with no fins that they still manage to rip gracefully. The wave runs for a hundred meters from the outside to the inside, a mellow pocket that accommodates noserides as much as big turns, much like an African version of Malibu.
‘How good is this?’ says John, sweeping his hand to indicate the waves, the bay, the entire island.
Back in the water in Santana, Jéjé tells us surfers from his village and Radiation Point rarely surf together. The long hour-and-a-half walk between the two spots makes it difficult. None of them has a car. But when one of them does make the trek, the local surfers are stoked to see each other.
‘There are not many surfers in São Tomé,’ he says. ‘Modern surfing is just beginning here. We see each other, we learn together.’
A set rolls in and Beyrick takes off, races down the line and launches a frontside air. Jéjé lets out a loud whoop before stroking into the next wave and attempts a huge alley-oop, almost landing it but he comes unstuck in the flats.
The kids on the inside go wild as they watch this tit-for-tat unfold, then go back to bellyboarding the reforms. But one of them starts nudging further up the point, eyes fixed on Jéjé and Beyrick. His little arms are paddling hard, legs kicking off the back of his wooden tambua, as the past and the present draw closer.
The Thurso Surf Festival at the back end of 2016 saw big swells and changing winds for days resulting in a pretty epic event with pumping waves at Thurso and Sandside. Despite making the final, Jayce Robinson still found time to search the north coast of Scotland for tubes. So with an abundance of swell, favourable winds, and perfect, heavy, slabbing reefs around every corner, here’s what happened Between Heats… and a few Qs with JR and filmmaker Mr B.
There seems to be a lot of different spots on this video, how long were you there?
Jayce: Yeah we were lucky, we stayed were there for a week and managed to score all those epic little slabs and also a few other waves that didn’t feature in the clip. Whilst Mr.B was shooting the Juniors in the contest there were a couple of other cheeky sessions at secret spots (as seen in the current issue of the mag).
Some of those waves look fairly shallow, any heavy wipeouts, close calls, bumps or bruises?
Jayce: They are all very shallow, I had a few falls which I thought for sure i’m going to hurt myself, but as fate has it we all came away with no broken bones or even bruises. It does help having all that rubber on mind, if I were surfing in board shorts I think it would be a different story .
What’s your favourite thing about surfing in Scotland?
Jayce: I still never know what to expect from Scotland, every time I go there i find myself surprised with how changeable the waves can be on different swell directions etc. Theres also a loads of spots that I haven’t surfed up there yet, so it adds to the excitement factor of surfing new waves.
There’s a lot of water footage in this clip – any reason?
Mr B: The waves are perfect for shooting water and I pretty much jump in whatever chance I can. Plus you can’t beat Scottish Winter light, the sun’s always quite low in the sky making great colours in the water (when it’s out that is!).
What was the funniest, scariest and most annoying moment of the trip?
Mr B: Funniest may have been the morning we got there, we drove through the night to get in the water at dawn, the sun was just getting up, they were paddled out just before me as I got my housing ready, then the car locked itself with the key in there! Luckily I had all my wetsuit and cam gear out, so swam out to shoot, but had to tell Jayce I’d just locked us all out of the car! After a couple hours surfing it took us about 45 minutes to break back into the car!
Scariest was possibly on a small day at a shallow little slab, there’s one clip in the film where Jayce gets taken out by a bit of a thick lip, I was stood in about ankle deep water and had to run and dive through the back of the wave, nothing too bad but wasn’t sure how bad Jayce had been hit cos he copped it to the head and went down awkward, was also pretty funny.
Annoying moment – probably when the waves are pumping and the sun sets and you know it’s still pumping all night!
The much anticipated swell hit overnight and it’s been solid. Tide was funky first thing but it’s getting better as the day goes on. It’s going to be pumping all over the west coast this week for sure…
We featured this rad trip to New Zealand’s Remote Fiordland in issue 173 of the mag. Jackson Coffey, Jordy Lawler and Cooper Chapman went where the wild things are and the roads aren’t.
Journey To The End Of The Earth
Jackson Coffey, Jordy Lawler and Cooper Chapman go where the wild things are.
By Alex Workman / All photos Matt Dunbar / Intro by Warrick Mitchell
When you’ve got to stop for a wee break you’ve really got to stop…
The far southern edge of the world is a beautiful place. The snow capped Southern Alps of New Zealand tower high along multiple miles of remote coastline boarding the Tasman Ocean. These mountains provide the backdrop for the 2.6 million hectare world heritage Fiordland National Park – one of the great natural areas of the world.
Two of the world’s largest tectonic plates, the Australian Indonesian Plate, which stretches as far a field as the Himalayas and Pacific Ocean (which border California) collide in the Fiordland.
Heli line up
These two plates grind together with gigantic pressure creating the worlds most active fault line a mere six kilometres behind our home. They’ve forced the mountains high into the air, which have then been shaped by glacial ice ages and tens of thousands of years of weather and corrosion. These dramatic snow capped mountains have created a geographic barrier leaving the southwest corner of New Zealand largely untouched.
Despite the isolation the human history is surprisingly rich in this corner of New Zealand wilderness. Maori visited here in ‘whaka’ on huge voyages in search of prized jade or greenstone. The first sailors and whalers to visit New Zealand’s shores based themselves on this coastline due to its deep fjords and rich wildlife. The first sailing ship, the first house and the first beer brewed in New Zealand all occurred along these wild coasts.
My father came here as the next wave of explorers. His goal was to spend a year or two in the wilderness chasing his dream. Our Mum graduated from Melbourne University and visited with friends for the famous hiking trails. They met on these trails and later applied to the government to build a house in 1968. They worked thirty years along these remote coastlines with the mountains on their back doorstep, and the ocean on their front. During those times the hills were alive with helicopters hunting for wild venison. Our family home would often have three or four helicopters on our front lawn.
Fun in the Fiordland
I’d never even seen anyone surfing until I visited my cousins in Australia. Afterwards I began chasing some mellower spots on an old single fin. Years later some surfers landed on the beach while I was walking home with my board. We talked about waves and I invited them to come back and stay on another visit. It turned out my favourite fishing spot was indeed a great wave and a new era of pioneering and surf hosting begun.
My brother and I kept the family home while I spent many years working abroad. However my mind and heart always drifted back to our remote coastline and the rugged landscape of the Fiordlands. Eventually we put our hosting into a more structured set up and opened the doors to those looking for a true wilderness adventure. Despite how many times you experience it the shear backdrop and natural beauty of this place never grows old.
Speed blur goodness.
I thought that we would be staying at a place with other people for a start. [Laughs]. The first thing that came to mind was that the water was going to be really cold. I knew that the waves had potential but like anywhere didn’t expect to score the whole time … but we did big time!
The landscape is like nowhere else in the world. There are mountains everywhere and just so much land with massive waterfalls, lakes and glaciers. It was incredible. When we flew in we landed on a massive glacier, which was a once in a lifetime experience. What really stood out for me was just how untouched the place was! It was amazing to experience especially coming from a busy place like Sydney.
The region is pretty much the total opposite of where a surfer would go for a surf trip. It wasn’t like just jumping off a boat and you’re at a wave like Indo. We had to trek through shitloads of bush, mud and rocks whilst sand flies are eating you alive.
One of the waves we surfed was the best beach break I have ever seen. This wave was like my dream wave. Out the back you could do some turns and it was really playful then on the inside it drains to about a foot of water and just barrels for about 5-6 seconds into a channel. I honestly thought I was dreaming at one point.
Our tour guide Warwick [Mitchell] was the man! He grew up in the same house we were staying at and had the whole place absolutely wired. I don’t know if we would of survived if it wasn’t for him. [Laughs]. He’s a man of many trades and did everything from hunting, cooking and guiding us to the best waves. There is heaps of wildlife in the area and every day Warwick would hunt or dive to put food on the table for us. We were having so much lobster and eating like kings!
The whole time over there I felt like Bear Grylls. We were pretty much were dropped in the middle of the Fiordland and survived off hunting and gathering. The experience of being so far from civilisation was like nothing that any of us were used to. As hard as it was adjusting it was very rewarding. I’ll never forget scoring the some of the best waves without anyone out other than some of my best mates in such a wild place. It doesn’t get any better than that.
The whole place was like something out of Game of Thrones. I’d never seen snow before and it was snowing on and off the whole time we were there. Flying over in the helicopter and landing on a glacier was one of the wildest things I’ve ever experienced. I got to touch snow for the first time. Needless to say I was pretty stoked!
That was the coldest water I’ve ever been in. All the trips I’ve ever been on have always been in warm water like Indonesia. I’ve never done any real cold water trips. I was wearing a 4mm wetsuit and it was freezing cold with the stiff offshore winds.
That left was one of the best sand bottom bars I’ve ever surfed. It had a river running out which made this triangular shaped wave and we had one day that was just pumping. Everyone was frothing. The set up is just amazing. I want to go back and surf it again. To surf A-Frames we had to walk 3km in, deal with the sand flies, then 3km out, again with sand flies as company. After treks like that we’d come back to the accommodation, have a few drinks, cook some food and play cards.
We had no idea what to expect when it came to food because we were so isolated. But every night we would be eating the best home cooked meals you could ever have. They would shoot deer, dive for lobsters and other than a few staples they had at our shack they went and hunted for.
I was super blown away by how well Warrick [Mitchell] could live so far away from society. He would collect his own water and the whole house was set up to preserve his own food. He has his own boat and all these pumping waves right on his doorstep. The whole time we were just tripping out looking at the mountains and feeling so small in this wild place.
It was the perfect ‘get away from your phone’ week and back to what many of us felt when we were younger. It was amazing. It reminded me of when I was younger growing up in the caravan traveling around Australia.
Warrick’s house was on the side of a riverbank and he had a tinny that could fit eight people and he would ride this boat through the river to get out to the waves. You had to be such a good driver to navigate the crossing because you could flip the boat so easily crossing the bar. I was in awe of his ability out there. He’s a total character.
‘You sure there’s a wave around here?’
I had never heard of where the Fiordlands were before we headed out there. When I looked it up on the map I knew it was going to be freezing. Once we go there it was so much wilder than what I expected. We flew right over the Fiordland National Park and I think Jordy, Jacko and me were just in awe of what we were seeing because there was hardly a word spoken.
It was something that you would see in National Geographic. It’s hard to describe just how beautiful it was. There wasn’t another soul around and it was simply untouched. It was such a contrast coming from a crazy place like Sydney.
When we first saw this rivermouth we came in from behind the break on the boat and it really looked like nothing. We thought, ‘Ok here we go, this is going to be a bit of a stitch up’. But from land we saw its potential and realised that this wave could get pretty good with a bit of swell. We surfed it back to back days as the swell started filling in and on the final day it was just pumping. That was the session that stood out the most.
Getting to the waves was always a big deal. We were only able to surf once a day or twice max. It’d either be a forty-minute boat ride to a wave or a hike over sharp rocks in booties for a few k’s each way. We’d also have to factor in the tides. So you really picked the sessions you were going to put in for. It was all part of the adventure though and it all came together in the end.
When we went diving for crays Jacko and I couldn’t find anything but Warrick would just pop up with seven crays in half an hour. We were just baffled! [Laughs]. I didn’t even see one underwater.
Warrick was so dialled in. The way he could read the land, get around on a boat, hunt and adapt to everything in the environment was pretty amazing. It just came so natural.
I think all of us enjoyed living off the land. A lot of my time traveling is spent going to events so I don’t really get many opportunities to have experiences like that. I really tried to make the most of it and adapt to the elements. There’s no point in not having a good time. It was probably a trip that I might not ever experience again. It wasn’t your run of the mill surf trip and I appreciated that for a change.
*A huge thanks to Warrick Mitchell and his team from Awarua Guides
Nothing says ‘Welcome to Japan’ more than the Shibuya Crossing. Follow O’Neill team rider Jordy Smith on his latest adventure as he navigates the world’s busiest intersection in Toyko, and shares waves with the local groms, Riki Horikoshi and Yuji Mori, in Chiba.
From in-store signings and samurai swords to turtle dragons and the 2020 Olympics, Jordy embarks on a promo tour that has him reminiscing about the days he would chase autographs at just seven years old.
Embracing the non-stop culture and happy vibes, Jordy discovers the magic of Japan and its people.