MUIZENBERG - Same as it ever was
Words by Andy Davis, pics by Alan van Gysen
Suddenly the board broke free of the foam and started to glide along the face. The boy, using a bit too much knee, got unsteadily to his feet, crouched and leaned slightly into it, directing the old Safari single fin down the line. That release from the foam, the sudden acceleration. You know the feeling. The wave left him in the shallows, tripping all his switches: ctrl-alt-delete. Goodbye old world. He picked up the board, noticing for the first time the glow of the late afternoon sun, the people walking their dogs, the other waveriders on the beach, some coming, others going. Time suspended. Floating. Whatever just happened, he wanted more. He smiled broadly and took it all in, then lumped the single fin from the Corner back to the Davis holiday flat in Maynard Road, Muizenberg.
It was the late 80s and I’d lug that thing down to the Corner, too uncoordinated to carry the board and ride my Southwind skateboard at the same time. I remember being terrified of the waves at backline. I remember being told that if you wore anything other than white zinc on your nose and cheeks, you’d get beaten up by ‘the locals’. Because only real surfers were allowed to wear the neon pink and yellow. Beginners were confined to white. I believed and followed this rule, dreaming of the day I could wear pink.
This corny surf genesis interlude could just as easily have been the story of Davey Stolk or Simone Robb. It may as well have been Mikey February or Chris Bertish. Amateur or professional, famous or infamous, any surfer coming out of the Mother City is likely to have cut their teeth at Muizenberg at some point in time.
She was South African surfing’s first love, before that dick went and fell for the warmer waters of the Durban beachfront and the long shapely walls of J-Bay. Poor, slow, oft-maligned Muizenberg. But if you look deep down into that hard, barnacled heart of yours, you know you still love the old girl. She’s fun, brash, always generous: a little bit Kalk Bay and a little bit Cape Flats. She’s been around for a long while now. Ups and downs. Ebbs and flows. And ever since her most recent facelift, she’s looking hotter than ever.
But let’s rewind way back, all the way to 1742, when the Dutch East India Company built a tollhouse to tax Cape Town’s farmers heading to Simon’s Town to sell their produce to ships parked in the bay. Sergeant Muys was one of the first officials to run the tollbooth and the area took its name from him and the adjacent mountain, hence Muys Zijn Bergh. In 1795 there was some kak in Europe and the British chased the Dutch Company out of Muizenberg in a famous but rather tame fight known as the Battle of Muizenberg. The area began to boom again when the railway arrived in 1882 and Cecil John Rhodes, the original colonial master, built himself a little beach cottage where he ended up living until he died in 1902. Another mining magnate and ‘Randlord’, Abe Bailey, followed suit and built himself a cottage right on the rocks. It’s unlikely Bailey moved there for the shallow reef ledge in front of his porzie, but the area soon became known as a fine destination for wealthy Joburgers to spend their summer holidays. Many of these families happened to be Jewish and it wasn’t long before it was self-reflexively referred to as Jewzenberg. The place boomed some more. At one stage there were seven hotels and if you were Joburg money, you had to have a little holiday spot in the Berg. Today you can still see fine examples of both Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the village and the slow, gentle waves were no doubt part of the early holiday appeal.
There are pictures of people riding prone on old wooden planks as far back as the late 1800s. One of them was George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish playwright, looking like a randy old pirate. But the earliest record of someone riding a surfboard at the Berg belongs to a woman named Heather Price, the great aunt of big wave charger Ross Lindsay’s wife, Kay.
In 1919 Heather befriended two US marines stationed in Cape Town after World War I, who happened to be in possession of two ‘Hawaiian style’ solid wood surfboards. As Ross puts it, “When you’re a good looking young woman, adventure and excitement will find you.”
The marines taught Heather to surf ‘standing up’ at the Corner. And as far back as anyone has any proof, surfing in South Africa had its cherry popped by a woman from Zimbabwe. True story.
After the horror of World War II everyone seemed primed for pointless but exciting ocean-based leisure activity. Thanks to the Duke and his beach boys, surfing really caught on in the US and started its first global push in the media. Local boy Tony Bowman had re-introduced surfing in Muizenberg during the 1920s and by the 1960s, local boomers were regularly riding waves at the Corner on all kinds of improvised craft. Much of the nascent South African surf industry (all 30 of them) ended up following Bruce Brown around the country while he was filming The Endless Summer circa 1964. J-Bay was soon discovered and Durban jumped ahead, producing the first wave riding stars in Doc van den Heuvel and Max Wetteland. South Beach became the home of a fledgling surf industry but in Cape Town, Muizenberg was the epicentre of this new age surfing vibe.
Then around 1970 a young man by the name of Peter Wright resigned from his job as a clerk at a shipping company to start his dream job building surfboards with a guy known as ‘Chemical’ Clive Barber. But Clive went out of business before Peter could even begin, forcing him to start his own surfboard enterprise in his parents’ garage in Kommetjie. Not having a job in those days was considered ‘suspect’ and produced a fair amount of friction with his father, so he rented a space near the beach in Muizenberg to peddle his boards and other surf related products. The Corner Surf Shop was born.
If you’ve spent enough time in Muizenberg you’ll know Peter, the tall, friendly white-haired godfather of Cape Town surf retail. Tich Paul set up shop a few years later (in-between Peter’s spot and the beach) and there’s been a longstanding feud between Cape Town’s two oldest surf shops ever since, that seems to have mellowed to a low nostalgic grumble over the years.
“What was business like back then?” I ask Peter over coffees at the Empire Café.
“There was very little,” he answers. “The parents of the day had to tolerate that their kids wanted to surf. And this is the bit you want to write down,” he tells me. “Surfing was banned here in Muizenberg! For about two years the ratepayers association decided that surfers were a bad element and that they were not to be encouraged. And they said they didn’t want any bather to be hit by a surfboard. So they banned it from 6am to 6pm. That ban was in place from about 1970 to 1972.”
The ban was eventually overturned thanks to local surfer John Wylie, who pulled together a group of surfers and had a kind of protest down at the beach. Soon the Corner became a designated wave-riding spot. Business started to pick up.
“My big break was when Zero wetsuits decided to open a shop in the city and they hired me to build surfboards every day,” says Peter. “Suddenly with the opening of a new big surf shop in Cape Town, the whole scene just boomed. We were doing 14 boards a week at one stage. Which was huge.”
Peter takes a big sip of coffee and continues. “I was able to keep my shop full of boards and with the money I earned at Zero I stocked the shop. There weren’t many surf labels, just Hang Ten – and they were even dodgy back then. But we also had brands like Rich Rags and Emme, and they did incredibly well. We used to sell those real short shorts for chicks, with the split up the side and we had all the cool models wearing this shit and we sold it in Muizenberg.”
“What’s always been the better line,” I ask. “The fashion or the hardware?”
“You got to look at it like a café in the old days,” says Peter. “They made no money from the bread but it brings all the people to the store. And you make money from the chocolate and the cigarettes.”
“So what was it like back here in the late 60s and 70s?”
“If you remember, you weren’t here!” laughs Peter. “I guess it was just a real cross-section of life. This guy,” he says pointing to Dave Jones the owner and resident chef at the Empire Café. “He was the first guy to moon me, in front of his mother.”
“The thing that I only realised recently,” Dave jumps in, “Is that back in those days, in terms of surfing and especially skating, we were right on the leading edge.” He says this emphatically while Peter nods. “I always thought we were about a decade behind America, but that’s not the case, we were right up there. When you compare the style of South African skaters in the 1970s and 80s, we were seriously in touch. Right on par with what was happening in Dogtown in terms of translating surf style to skateboards. This was a little pocket of excellence.” Dave smiles as he puts plates of Asian pork belly stirfry in front of us. “Surf culture quickly became ubiquitous,” he adds.
It’s not just Dave who has a nostalgic soft spot for Muizies. “Back in the day, being the full street urchin and growing up there was a really special time,” reminisces Davey Stolk. “I mean, the Corner used to be quite the in-scene in the 70s. You had a full hippy music scene and when the waves were good and glassy, everybody would just hang out playing music, smoking pipes and surfing. There was a lot of surfing talent in Gavin Rudolph, Peers Pittard, Tich Paul, Howie Gold, amongst others. Then just further down the beach you had all the alcoholics and bums who would regularly get into punch-ups on the weekend. It was full on. Winter was a different vibe with the kombis parked and everybody huddling out of the cold northwest in-between sessions. Yes, I have the fondest memories of the Berg.”
Today Muizenberg’s beachfront boasts three surf shops, four surf schools and a couple of backpackers in a 100 metre stretch. You can eat fish ‘n chips, pizza, falafel and ice cream at dedicated stores on the beachfront and then of course there are institutions like The Empire Café and Knead Bakery. There’s an ad agency in the old post office, the long-suffering bottle shop, a few artisanal bakeries and a number of new developments under construction. In terms of retail it pretty much dwarfs that other popular stretch of South African surf real estate, the Durban Beachfront. Craig Paul from Lifestyle Surf Shop goes as far as to claim it’s “the heart of the South African surf industry right now.”
But it wasn’t always like this. In fact a few years back Muizenberg was kind of touch and go. It was in the grips of a major ebb and the flow had not yet begun.
“What was this place like back in the day?” I ask new school, old time Berg local Josh Salie.
“Pretty dodgy,” he reckons. “I moved here when I was 12. About 15 years ago. There was a serious gangster element back then. The beachfront has always been cool, but if you stepped over Beach Road it was like another world. There were guys who were dealers, running their business from the houses. Heavy Cape Flats gangs.”
“At the time there was also a big influx of Congolese refugees,” Josh goes on. “Lots of drinking, drugs, people getting robbed. Then the residents had a protest. We marched through Church Street with the cops and banged down the doors. They barricaded up all those houses.”
“The Muizies slum days!” laughs Craig Paul when I ask him about these bad ‘ol days. Having grown up in his father Tich’s surf shop, Craig knows the recent history of the Berg better than most. “Surfing went through that whole thing where you didn’t want your kids to surf. Back then they didn’t want to be Justin Bieber, they wanted to be rebellious, smoke dope and have fun on the beach. But only the real surfers really saw that through. The fad passed and Muizenberg took a bit of a dive. It couldn’t have just been the proximity to the Cape Flats because that’s always been there,” Craig reckons. “Probably the biggest thing to bring the whole area back was when girls’ surfing became popular with Blue Crush, and that was before the refurbishment of the Empire (building). Just to give you an indication, we went from making about 25 boards for girls, since the shop opened, to making 150 boards for girls in one month. So our business skyrocketed. And girls like to shop,” he says emphatically. “Suddenly surfing became a family thing, all these dads who used to be into surfing or wanted to get into it, would come down and get in the water. And maybe mom pulls in too and grabs a coffee while the family is surfing and all of a sudden you’ve got a thing happening here.”
“It’s by far the number one learn-to-surf beach in South Africa,” agrees Josh. “Just come on a Saturday and check it out,” he smiles. “And Muizenberg always forces you to find a little something extra. As a wave, it’s slow. You have a lot of time to find your feet and get your board moving. At the same time it’s also quite flat so it forces you to find something in a wave you wouldn’t normally look for.”
There’s an underlying truth in this that transcends the lineup. “What’s cool about Muizenberg,” Josh continues, “Is all these kids who come from the community. Some of them may not come from the best backgrounds, but this beach has given them all opportunities. They all work in the surf schools and get some sort of income. I know Roger Vuanza, he’s now living by himself, paying rent, he’s feeding himself and he’s doing that by working on the beach, teaching surfing. Which is pretty cool. He was a refugee when he arrived here.”
This community ethos has been hard-earned and made possible by pioneers like Gary Kleynhans, who started the first learn to surf operation back in 1989 and nurtured SA’s first black longboard champ, Kwezi Qika. Since then the beachfront has built many successes, experienced plenty of failures and had its fair share of politics. But no matter who you talk to, the resounding sentiment is the same. The Berg is a squishy glue that binds all surfers together, warts and all. Twenty-something local Brian Hope sums it up the most eloquently: “I love paddling out at Muizenberg with the multi-cultural crowd in the water, riding all sorts of craft from fishes to SUPs. Young and old, whites and blacks, English, Afrikaans, Xhosa… South Africans. It’s amazing to see everyone in the water, all with the common goal of getting stoked.”
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Muizenberg is still a pap snoek of a wave, even if it has provided the training wheels for some serious talent.
“Look, I grew up here” says Craig Paul, slowing things down. We’re standing in the shaping bay at the back of the shop while he puts the final touches on a board. “I love Muizenberg, it’s a fantastic place to have a shop and the people here are amazing. But surfing in Muizenberg is not what it used to be. To go surf out here is to join the circus. It’s beginners, it’s surf schools, it’s people ripping. It’s everyone. The only reason to go surfing here on the weekend is to be social. And that’s the difference. It’s a family thing. It’s all about fun. Anywhere else in the world five people take off on a wave and there’s a fistfight at the end. At Muizenberg five people take off on a wave and give each other high fives. And if you’re going to paddle out there thinking ‘I’m going to get some waves’, that’s wrong. You’re not.”
He smiles and looks up from the board he’s spraying. “I know we need competitive surfing to raise the bar and push the level and get everyone excited, and we all strive to surf like Kelly and we’ll never get there, but I understand the desire and you need that to push surfing. But then I see Kelly Slater drop in on Joel Parkinson in a competition, when they’re the only two dudes out, and I think in essence what is surfing? Is it a contest? Or is it Muizenberg? Is it scoring a 10, or is it the guy who gets his first wave on the open face and it’s like he’s just been blown out of a tube at Teahupoo? Because that’s surfing too. And the real question is, how do we carry that vibe from Muizenberg further?”
Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine