Living the bitter-sweet dream on Réunion Island
Words Andy Davis, pics Greg Ewing
I just want to state, for the record, before we even get started, I’ve been working in surf media for over 10 years now and I’ve never been on a sponsored surf trip. Which kind of negates the whole reason I got into surf journalism in the first place. So I was both surprised and nervous when Zag editor Big Willy Bendix phoned me up and asked if I’d like to accompany Davey Weare, Dan Redman and Dale Staples on a (mostly) all expenses paid surf trip to Réunion Island. My initial suspicion was that he was trying to rope me into something illegal. Probably wanted to use me as a drug mule, or harvest my organs. Surf magazine editing is a thankless task, always flirting with the poverty line while trying to make meaning out of our meaningless compulsion to ride waves as they ripple across the ocean. They have to be creative in order to make ends meet. It was certainly just a matter of time before he was gonna try persuade me to stuff pellets of contraband up my ass, or worse yet, just give me a cocaine-glassed surfboard to deliver for “a friend”. I had visions of waking up in a bathtub full of ice without my kidneys and surrounded by empty poo-stained pellets, or worse yet, bunking down with Jean-Pierre and Renaud in a French Island prison…
A few weeks later I’m sitting in the Air France business class lounge with Davey Weare and Dale Staples. We’re flying Air Austral, but have managed to sneak our way into the lounge by bribing the girls at the desk with an assortment of food and drink from their very own hospitality buffet. It was a tidy scam. I’m surprised we pulled it off, but Davey Weare has that quiet confident world traveller vibe that comes from many years lumping surfboards around the globe on the World Tour. Dale somehow wound up with a business class ticket and I have that kinky deviant journalist knack for scamming free lunches.
This trip was starting well, I thought to myself as I stuffed some croissant with cheese in my mouth and piled my plate with canapés, slipping a few extra beers and other assorted snacks into my bag for later. I might be in jail in a few hours. Several coffees, whiskeys, sandwiches, chips, pies, chocolates later, it was time to board.
Réunion is for lovers
After a scant four hours suspended in a steel tube traveling at 900km per hour, we touch down in French tropical island paradise. Dan Redman’s boards are lost. I still have my kidneys. Score! We manage to crush all the other gear into our rented Hyundai kombi and set off on the winding road to St Leu.
It’s funny that we, as South African surfers, don’t know much about the island of Réunion. Our volcanic neighbour collects most of the swell pushing up into the Indian Ocean from the Antarctic. The waves are incredible, the water is clean, warm and tropical, the women are both attractive and friendly, and it’s the closest first world country to South Africa, in the sense that the island is a French “department”. This is an old-school French colonial ploy to hang onto some of the finest tropical surf real estate on the planet. Hossegor is nice, but it’s not St Leu or French Polynesia. The French know what’s important.
Thing is, despite its proximity to the Republic, you don’t bump into a lot of South Africans on Réunion. But everyone on the island knows at least one Saffa, and his name is Davey Stolk.
Take for example the lifeguard at St Pierre; his name too, is Pierre, and he sidles up to me while I’m trying to work out if I should go for a paddle or not. This is what a journalist does on a surf trip. While the photographer and videographer spend hours peering into their cameras, looking for angles, framing shots and being professional and, thus, unable to surf, the journalist just needs to hang about, surf, soak up the experience and take notes. In my case, I take my notes mentally. Anyway, back to the lifeguard - dark tanned, big nose, balding, he pumps me for the usual tourist information. Where are you from, what are you doing here? When he learns we are South African he asks if we know Davey Stolk?
“Legende!” He swears. Davey is the island’s patron saint of South African surfers.
“Fearless, Davey will surf any seeng. He ees my friend. Legende!” Pierre says it again and smiles. He’s missing a few teeth in there.
“Do you surf?” I ask.
“Not me.” He shakes his head. “I bodyboard, but iss ze same sing, non?” he asks rhetorically. I nod my head and lie. “Zees place can get very beeg,” he tells me. “Picks up a lot, how you say, la houle, zee swell.” He points to his teeth. “I was surfing very beeg. And I get poosh on ze rocks and, klah!” He karate chops towards his mouth. Then he points to a scar on his brow and some more on his legs. He also shows me a lump on his foot where he kicked an urchin. “Very bad.” He shakes his head.
Eventually I decide to get wet. Another friendly local advises me on how best to pick my way down the slippery rocks and across the super shallow, urchin scabbed reef. I catch a few fast, one-turn bowls before smashing my foot open on the reef duckdiving. Réunion is for lovers, at least. While I’m out there slicing my beautiful feet, several of St Pierre’s young lovers cuddle and canoodle on the jetty in front of the wave. A group of teenage school girls and boys run around each other dancing, smoking and listening to that nasty Waka Waka song on their cellphone speakers.
The Three Ds
We’re staying at a place called The Big Bird Lodge, it’s directly opposite the hallowed curl of St Leu, the epicentre of Reunion’s surfing universe. It’s surfing real estate in the same mould as G-Land and Uluwatu. The wave dominates the town. There’s a whole network of legends, kooks and freaks orbiting this perfectly shaped reef. Their sole purpose, it would seem, just to ride it, and live the rest of their lives on it’s fringes, waiting to do so. It’s that good. The village has distinctive Catholic and Creole influences and plods along at a chilled island pace, but you can get whatever you want on the main drag, from chemists to supermarkets and an assortment of fine restaurants. Most importantly, you can drink coffee and eat fresh croissants each morning as you go check the surf.
Out of the water everyone is friendly and accommodating, sharing knowledge and retelling tales of glory and misfortune. They buy you drinks, invite you to parties and introduce you to their sisters. But the water washes all that away. There’s a strict hierarchy in the St Leu lineup: legends, locals, almost-locals, actual hardmen, pseudo-hardmen, wahines, travellers, groms and kooks. When it’s firing, it can have 50 people paddling all over it. Other times it will be cranking with only a handful. The crowd ebbs and flows like the tide. You have to pick your moment, watch, and strike when you see it’s on.
But for the first few days of our trip St Leu barely gurgles. So we spend our time on that jetty in St Pierre, talking to Pierre, the boys boosting while I get sunburnt.
It’s also becoming increasingly clear that this pro surfing lark is actually a job. It’s not only about scoring the best, most uncrowded waves as I imagined these lucky bastards are paid to do. It’s also about scoring the best pictures and videos for us media-hungry freaks. Every day they’re in the water under the camera’s orders, looking for a canvas to expose their talent. If the waves don’t oblige, the pressure mounts. They can’t just catch a couple of waves, do some nice turns, and drink a beer later. They need to be burying rails, getting tubed and boosting their radness high into the sky, lit up for all to see. Because you need good light to get the money shot, even if the waves might be better elsewhere. The light is good at St Pierre.
From a previous trip and some inside info from Mr Stolk, I had heard about a seldom ridden right-point that’d probably be going tits on this East swell, but there’s work to be done and it’s hard to motivate the whole crew for a mission that might yield nothing. Besides, they’re clocking more air miles at choppy St Pierre than our Air Austral flight over here. I resign myself to sitting in a café and drinking pastis while sobbing gently to myself over missed opportunities, like the other bar bergies. C’est la vie. At least I have my kidneys.
Our wave choice might be questionable, but you can’t find fault with our collection of surfers. Davey is your classic, seasoned professional. He’s been through the mill. He knows what works. But at the age of 29, and back slugging on the QS, he’s approaching a crossroads. He’s totally candid about this. But he still wants to surf competitively, to win heats, so he keeps going. The thing you notice about Davey is that he has grom-like enthusiasm. He gets so much joy out of surfing, that it’s hard to see him retiring any time soon. He is always the first one in the water and the last one out. On the other side of that spectrum is Daniel Redman. As Maggot, the Iggy Pop of St Leu’s local surfing community puts it, he’s “a truly special goofy footer”. Dan’s also been through the pro surfing machine, just on a different trajectory. You get the feeling that despite his obvious talent, he’s rocking this cynical “I just don’t give a shit anymore” thing that he rolls out for laughs, but it’s kind of serious too. It highlights his frustration with the pro surfing game. He knows he’s “living the dream”, but he’s starting to question what that actually means. Yes he’s won major 6 Star surfing competitions before, but it’s obvious that he hasn’t really found his niche in the competitive mix and might just be starting to get a bit disillusioned. Change is as good as a holiday. It’s hard to describe how good he surfs though without using clichés like “freak”.
Then, at just 19 years old with a fresh tattoo on his forearm saying “1 Life Live It”, Dale Staples is just soaking up the experience. He’s on a photo trip with two of his heroes. He’s got all the pro junior qualifications to say that a career in competitive surfing is possible, but it’s hard to know which way he’ll go. What kind of success or hard knocks he’ll receive at the hands of the dream machine.
Réunion is for retired legends
Davey Stolk has amassed quite a crew of connections. There’s Maggot, the hard living Iggy Pop of St Leu. He first came to Réunion in the early 80s from Durban where he was working at the Caltex plant to pay for surf trips. An Aussie told him a secret about a perfect left-hander on this island in the Indian Ocean. He arrived a few months later with his girlfriend, a famous Durban stripper and Scope magazine model. They camped on the beach with Randy Rarick, Rabbit Bartholomew and that first wave of 70s legends. He liked it and decided to stay.
Joe is an Australian who arrived in Réunion with the same wave of dharma bums. He’s perhaps not as gregarious as Maggot, but just as insightful. In their company, over a few Dodo beers at the snack bar on the beach overlooking St Leu, you’ll hear some of the finest surf stories, steeped in legend and experience. These guys collectively have ridden more perfect, uncrowded waves than you could even dream of. They’re the original pioneers of the attitude that surfing is life. They typify the search. These guys have lived the dream, been chewed up, spat out, and washed up on the beach in St Leu still basking in the afterglow. Their memories could fill surf magazines and videos with the halcyon days that defined our sport. Sometimes Davey comes down and introduces the transient South African surfers to everyone who matters. From Tarzan, the heaviest local (who still surfs in a Speedo, but now rides an SUP), to all the other heavies and competitive watermen who call St Leu their local. It’s like a fast track way of paying your dues. It’s also your ticket to being invited to the best parties on the island. The island literally rocks. Just hang out with Davey and go with the flow, you’ll see.
Réunion is for boogers
The swell finally starts pushing. It’s too big for St Pierre and the wind is wrong for St Leu, so we head north to l’Hermitage, a small reef pass with a grinding left and right peeling into it. There’s even a weird fence-like contraption of dangling chains in the water to help surfers pull themselves back in against the savage rip. Réunion is kiff like that. Helpful. Socialist. Suburban. It doesn’t bode well for crowds, however.
The wind is rare, straight east and the waves are heavy and perfect. Finally these ous are going to get pitted like olives. The left is looking better than the right, but both look mean as hell. Soon the three Ds are circulating around the left, but there are about seven boogers already on it, and despite the fact that they’re not really making it out of any of the pits, they’re taking off as deep as possible and not giving the Saffas a look in. Eventually our crew of Saffas paddle across to the right, which is not as perfect, but has no surfers on it. Dan Redman manages to get inside one and travels a good long while before being hocked like a loogie onto the shoulder. Nothing wrong with that, and a few more waves are traded. But the conditions soon get ropey. The offshore is swinging sideshore and puffing, the swell is kicking-in causing frequent closeouts. Davey gets T-boned on the inside and it turns into a dog show. Soon enough everyone is on the beach, cursing the mean-spirited gutsliders and we’re looking for somewhere else to surf.
One thing that soon becomes apparent in Réunion is just how much surf there actually is for such a small island. The main waves attract the crowds like bees to honey, or flies to shit, depending on how bad you got burned, but if you aren’t afraid of sharks, shallow reef, some size or surfing alone, there are certainly other pickings.
On the way home we stop to look at Turtles, a shallow, double-barrelling left around the corner from St Leu. It’s solid, double overhead, holding the wind quite well and Dan starts frothing like a warm beer. Now that it’s big, there are only a few surfers out. Across the bay is a right breaking over shallow, shallow coral, with just enough room to squeeze out of the barrel. I’ve heard Davey Stolk claim the wave, and saw it breaking the last time I was on the island in 2007, but it only really works when it gets solid. It’s directly opposite the Turtle Farm and Research Centre and even though it’s just 200 metres across the bay, it’s in a restricted marine reserve and the Réunion cops like to hand out 1000 Euro fines for flouting their rules.
While Dan scratches for the lefts, Davey and Dale sit, watch and twitch as set after set jacks and reels across the “restricted zone”. The swell is building all the time and as each bigger set unfolds, it makes the right look more makeable and realistic. Before long they’re paddling.
Davey makes some big drops, throwing down huge bottom turns before racing down the line into the barrel and travelling as far as possible, either pulling through the doggy door or out the back to avoid the pristine but barely concealed fire coral beneath. Dale seems to excel in the solid conditions, looking super comfortable and relaxed as he pulls in deep, sets his rail and looks to the light. He snags the biggest one yet, pulls in and from our vantage point you can see how far back he is. He travels inside the guts of the wave before the whole thing pile-drives him down. He’s smiling, but when he comes up his board is also broken and he has a long swim against the current.
In the meantime the waves are getting serious on the left and Daniel is the last one in the line-up. He’s taking off deep and alternating between getting slotted and trying to boost the most audacious airs possible. His last wave has a kinky bowl in the middle, which most would be happy to just stand up in and get barrelled through, but Dan launches off the lip just before this and manages to touch down right in the middle of the face, at that critical part where it heaves and sucks over, and rides it out perfectly. By this stage I’m howling in the carpark. The Frenchies are all in their cars watching the spectacle, some of them rolling afternoon spliffs on their laps while listening to Daft Punk on their stereos.
The next day our crew decide to wait for the sun to rise before they hit St Leu. I decide to sleep in too. Peer pressure. Big mistake. By the time we’re out the weekend crowds have pulled in. The waves are a classic four to six-foot. There is no wind. I should’ve been on it from first light. The long, winding wall unleashes the talents of Davey Weare and Dan Redman. Dale is being too courteous to the swarm of boogers clogging up the intervals between the locals and the hardmen, but he’s still getting a few. Romain Cloitre, a friend of Davey’s, is literally shredding the place apart. Local knowledge here means knowing all the locals.
Still, surfing St Leu is an incredible experience. You take off at the top and it’s a racy left. You can get two, maybe three turns in before it suddenly starts to bend around the reef and jack at the same time. Then it’s like dropping in on a wave twice the size as the one you’ve been surfing as it swings and bowls around a 90-degree corner and just unloads over lurking coral. There are good barrels, but it’s not a tube machine. St Leu is about smashing the lip, as hard as you can, and it’s unique bowl actually pushes you from one turn into the next, going faster each time. It’ll make you scream either way. You’ll also scream a little every time you have to clean your wounds. Fire coral burns.
At the end of the day, there are no altercations. Except for me. I managed to get tuned by a booger for looking at his wave the wrong way. I swear, we wouldn’t tolerate that kak in the Republic. All the boogers I know approach the line-up with the same bedraggled sense of defeat, half apologetic for their choice of wave-riding vehicle. In South Africa, bogeys know their place. In Réunion they seem to think what they do is respectable. Normal. Legitimate. You get boogies with attitude. I got tuned by one of them. I’ll never live that down.
Islands have their own rhythm
Soon I can’t remember how long I’ve been here. All my clothes are dirty, so I just wear the same boardies I surf in. At least they get washed once, maybe twice a day in the sea. You can’t fathom wearing jeans or closed shoes ever again. You’re tanned as deep brown as Pierre the lifeguard at St Pierre. The daily ritual of waking up and looking at the surf, walking down to the café for coffee and croissants, has become habitual. Waves and sessions meld into one long tropical memory. As do meals, beers and the people you share them with. You begin to feel at home. Accustomed. The competition for waves recedes as you figure it out, piece by piece. You look forward to the post surf baguette with ham and cheese lunchtime ritual. That ice cold Dodo on the plastic chairs in front of the snack bar overlooking the break. The things that were once new and strange have become comfortable.
Too quick, it’s time to pack our bags and drive to the airport. As we squash into the overloaded van and rev the ol’ Hyundai into the morning traffic flow, I pat my kidneys, massage my fat liver and cast one last lazy look over the St Leu line-up. A one-foot set is peeling in perfection over that mechanical geography, and I am in no hurry to leave.
Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine