In Episode 3 of Made In South Africa, filmmaker Jason Hearn finishes his exploration of his home country with one of surfing’s greatest characters, Frankie Oberholzer. Hearn revisits the story of Oberholzer’s rise to fame after Derek Hynd put him on Rip Curl’s The Search alongside Tom Curren. Today, Oberholzer leads a quiet, contented life near Durban, where he fishes and surfs, along with his son Koby, whenever possible. The Search might have been a long time ago, but Oberholzer’s style in the water has not faded a bit. He was, and remains, one of the best free surfers on the planet.
Mick and Mase find more than just perfect waves on their voyage into the great expanse.
Words Vaughan Blakey Photos Courtesy Ripcurl
Mick Fanning is jumping out of his skin. It’s taken four days to get here and waking to the sight of six-to-eight foot A-frames unloading right in front of the camp has got the three-time world champ’s blood at maximum fizz. He suits up, skips down the boulders, jumps in a rip and is swept towards the impact zone just as the first true set of the morning begins stampeding over the horizon. Collision is inevitable. Line after line of unimpeded ocean power aims to unload directly onto the famous blond cranium of Kirra’s favourite son. As we watch Mick get obliterated, Mason Ho stops waxing his 6’4”, returns it to his board bag and picks up a knifey looking 6’8” pintail. “It’s a lot bigger than it looks out there, huh,” he says with a smile that’s all eyebrows. “Brah… the Search has delivered again!” Where are we exactly? Ha! As if we’d tell. This is the Search after all. It ain’t for sharing secrets, it’s for inspiring you and your mates to get out into the wild and score your own little corner of perfection. Looking around, though, we could be in any of a million places. Giant scrubby plateaus stretch for miles softened only by the familiar pink hue of the soon-to-be-rising sun. It could be West Oz. It could be Chile. It could be the moon… (if the moon had blue sky, pumping waves and a little lizard doing push ups on a nearby rock). This is the desert and, like any desert, it doesn’t take long venturing into one to quickly discover an overwhelming sense of complete isolation – a feeling that’s becoming more and more absent as modern life invades ever deeper into our personal space… but sheez, let’s not go there just yet.
This ragged coastline we’ll call our home for the next week is lighting up with double-overhead tube after spewing tube for as far as the eye can see.
The tremendous expanse of the heavens above us and the nothingness of the surrounding landscape have nothing on today’s ocean, at least not during the daylight hours. This ragged coastline we’ll call our home for the next week is lighting up with double-overhead tube after spewing tube for as far as the eye can see. With the wind expected to be offshore for the whole week, with not another soul around for miles and with absolutely no contact to the outside world, it feels as if this might all be a giant prank of the imagination, but if something can’t exist without nothing… then right now the nothing is where it’s at. Mick plays cat and mouse with the shifting A-frames for a good 20 minutes before he finally picks a plum. Taking off behind the peak, he knifes hard off the bottom, rips the handbrake and casually stands bolt upright as the entire world spins around him. It’s goosebumps stuff to watch, and not just because the wind is 18 knots and cold enough to freeze the nipples off a penguin. This is all Mick, the kind of line and surfing we’ve clearly missed since he hung up the comp rashie back at Bells, and as he exits the tube and flies into a deep and flawless down carve you remember that the style, precision and power of a true surfing master are marvellous things to witness in the flesh. Mase reaches the line-up and Mick has to be happy for the company. There are seals jumping around all over the place and while there are no polar bears or killer whales in these parts, there is another apex predator with a fondness for seal meat and world champs born in Penrith. After trading a few clean ones with Mick and feeling out the extra length in his board, Mase snags an absolute bomb. Freefalling down the face he finds rail off the bottom and drives up into the maw before being spat into the channel like a sour villager from the mouth of a fire-breathing dragon – a creature Mase says he would like to be one day, so he can fly to the top of mountains and check the surf before torching villages on the way back home. It’s just one of the many things we’ll learn about Mason over the coming week, he’s a man who approaches every conversation like he does his surfing – an opportunity to fire up the imagination and create something magical – and he knows how to get in the hole.
The two friends share barrels for the entire day. They stay in their wetsuits from morning till night. As the sun sets and the campfire crackles to life, they are beat to the point of total exhaustion. The elements and the day’s surfing have taken their toll, and tonight they’ll sleep like the dead in tents flapping so hard in the offshore they may as well be pitched at Everest Base Camp. This is what Searching is all about. “My great grandfather was Chinese. He escaped persecution in China by fleeing to Hawaii. He was a good fisherman and I guess my great grandma was into that a whole lot because they ended up having 14 kids and one of them was my dad’s dad, but maybe I shouldn’t tell you that in case they’re still out to get us.” Mason Ho is sitting by the fire telling us the origin of his famous last name, a name of absolute legend in surfing circles. His dad, Mike, is one of the few surfers to have won all three Triple Crown events of Haleiwa, Sunset and Pipe. His baby sister, Coco, is on the Women’s WSL Championship Tour. His uncle, Derek, is of course Hawaii’s first World Champ and a Pipeline Master. The Ho family are out of this world stokers and a case could be made that Mase is the most stoked of them all, that is until you hear the story of the only time he ever saw his dad cry. “I’d seen his eyes go watery when someone in the family died and stuff like that, but when his boards got stolen in France one year, I swear that was the only time I saw actual tears.” Maybe the only thing the Ho’s love more than surfing is their surfboards.
It’s our fourth night out in the desert and the fire has dragged out all manner of conversation since night one. With the wind having backed off and with everyone being surfed out of their brains, desert life is in full swing. Lobsters have been pulled from their nooks no more than 30 feet from where we sit and are devoured by the bagful like bowls of pub peanuts. Our skin hasn’t touched fresh water since we arrived and everyone’s eyelids have that much salt crust caked on them you’d swear they’d been deep fried. The days are for surfing, but the nights are for tales tall and true. In these surrounds the relationship between Mick and Mase, brothers of the Search, is something to behold. Mick, the youngest of five, inhabits the role of big brother with ease. Mase, who has been but never had a big bro (he’s had 10,000 uncles, but never a brother) views Mick in wide-eyed awe. The two bounce off one another with an affection that’s genuinely heartfelt, right down to Mick hassling Mase to put his seat belt on whenever they jump in the car. At the heart of their dynamic are similar values, a deep love of family and friends, and a mutual respect for the very different approach the other brings to their surfing. With every trip they learn from each other, both in the water and out. And they enjoy each other’s company to no end.
It’s when Mick talks world titles, the QS, tour life and winning, that Mase’s ears really prick up. The Hawaiian loves competition fiercely and wants a piece of that tour life so bad it makes his body twitch at the mere mention of it. When Mick is asked at what moment does winning the world title feel best, Mason is leaning so far forward to get every piece of the answer he nearly falls in the fire. “In the shower after you get home from the heat that decided it,” says Mick, by the way. “Once you’ve dealt with the adrenalin of the moment and all the energy of the beach and the well wishes and stuff, getting home and into the shower is the first time you’re truly alone, and that’s when all the hard work and the personal sacrifice you made to get that achievement hits you… and you just fucking ROAR!” Mase leans back shaking his head and offers a closed fist. Mick obliges and bumps it with his own. “That’s pretty much as good as it gets right there,” continues Mick. “When Joel won the World Title, he asked me after a week or so, ‘Is that it?’ And I was like, ‘Yep, that’s it, mate!’” Mick laughs and Mase offers the closed fist again and Mick gives it bump. “Brah,” says Mase. “I would do anything to feel that moment. You World Champions are like gods to me!” Mick laughs. “Not even, we’re just another bare bum in the shower at the end of the day, mate,” he says.
he two friends share barrels for the entire day. They stay in their wetsuits from morning till night. As the sun sets and the campfire crackles to life, they are beat to the point of total exhaustion.
There’s a moment of silence as everyone’s gaze turns to the stars. Unaffected by light pollution, the Milky Way is in full splendour. The moment lingers with calm contentment as we quietly ponder our place in the universe. Mase suddenly breaks the silence by telling us he was conceived during a macking Pipe swell. “There’s a good chance that the morning of the night my mum got pregnant, I was getting barrelled out at Pipe with Pops. Ho! That’s the strain right there, brah!” The camp erupts in laughter and this time it’s Mick offering Mase the closed fist of appreciation. Mase can’t bump it quick enough. There comes a point after long surfs in cold water where your thumbs cease working. The veins contract and the blood flow halts and no amount of hot breath can thaw the bastards out. Thumbs are what separate us from primates and the rest of animal kind, so when ours fail to work, especially after a week in the deep wild, it’s easy to feel like you’re regressing into some sort of primitive hominid. Simple tasks such as the removal of a bootie, complete with grunting vocalisation, could easily be misinterpreted as some sort of ritualist courting display, chopping wood becomes an exercise of absolute folly. With Mick and Mase both suffering the debilitating effects of prolonged digit exposure to the cold, the camp has taken on a very primal mood, and it would be no great surprise to discover a giant black monolith sticking from our fire while the score to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey echoes over the plains. Things are getting seriously sci-fi, alright, but man or ape or whatever it is we’re turning into, it’s all worth it because the surf has not stopped.
At the risk of sounding ridiculously obvious, it’s ridiculously obvious how good searching out, finding and riding perfect waves makes you feel. With the camp packed up, we feel a sense of foreboding at returning to the real world, but it’s overwhelmed by gratitude for the experience we’ve all shared. Despite the aching muscles, cracked lips, cooked eyes and useless thumbs, none of us have felt better. “This is living!” has become the tagline of the the trip as the Search for perfect waves delivers life lessons that stretch far beyond the shoreline. It begs the question: Why don’t we do this more often? Everything about fire and stars and being outside and endless tubes screams at you to simplify the way you live. Sharing it all with friends only reinforces that feeling. The space of the desert allows for the space of the soul to stretch out. Things you may never hear in normal conversation become the norm. Everything is up for discussion and to be explored. That’s the thing about space, isn’t it? The final frontier, it’s as infinite outwards as it is inwards, and you cannot venture to the outer limits without also expanding your inner perceptions. It’s in the outer inner space where you truly learn what you’re capable of and who you want to be. This is where surfing has brought Mick and Mason today, and there are more adventures to be had in the great out there. It’s a place you can easily visit, too. Are you up for it? When will your Search for outer inner space begin?
Over the years, Rip Curl’s flagship Search boat the Quest 1 had been a home away from home to the Rip Curl girls, but alas, she is no more. Earlier this year she unfortunately sunk – just a week before the girls were due to go on a Search trip…
The Rip Curl Search team show the peaks and troughs of travel from airports to cars, boats and planes, ferry and by foot – its all worth it when you get there and it’s pumping.
Sonny Miller recounts the tale of Tom Currens first wave at J Bay. It was another moment that blew the surfing world away when it came out on video. Sonny was there to capture it all