The Rock of Ages
Words Will Bendix, pics Greg Ewing
The wall lies in a crumpled heap on the sand, a blanket of brick and cement folded over the crushed words that used to adorn its surface: “If you don’t live here, don’t surf here.” A trail of rubble leaks down the beach on to the foot of the tidal pool that has framed the coveted waves of Cave Rock for decades.
You know Cave Rock. The Rock. South Africa’s answer to Backdoor Pipe. Its wide-open tubes and perfect backdrop made it the poster child for surfing magazines the world over. Lavish spreads were dedicated to its carnivorous barrels with the pro of the day stuffed deep inside its belly. But beyond the sheet of sandstone reef and lush green hill that has framed so many of those perfect photo opportunities lies a very different picture.
Cave Rock sits on the Bluff, a finger of land that juts out into the Indian Ocean before curving abruptly into the deep bay that makes up Durban. The British immediately recognized the strategic potential of this natural harbor when, it’s claimed, they were given the land by Shaka in 1824. Today it is the largest port in southern Africa and the bustling harbour drives a wedge between the Bluff and the gentrified suburbs of Durban proper. On the leeward side are the “townies” or “town clowns” as Bluff surfers have long called locals from the stretch of piers that dot Durban’s beaches. And on the other side, facing directly into the brunt of the southwesterly swells are the surfers who hail, as the saying goes, “Rough ‘n tough and from the Bluff”.
“The Bluff’s always been the wrong side of the tracks,” says lifelong local, Ross Solomon. “The guys grow up a bit harder here. A lot of the older guys were total nutcases back in the day. Localism was really heavy back then and they demanded respect. This has just been passed on from generation to generation. I think the waves we have, this place…it breeds these extreme personalities.”
37-year-old Solomon lives in a modest cottage on the beach with his wife, child, a few surfboards and their dog. He works as a freelance building contractor, taking jobs mostly overseas where the money is good and the schedule allows him to be home for winter to surf Cave Rock without distraction. He never got shoved in ‘the hole’ when he was younger, an initiation rite where older locals would catch, strip and bury a grommet in the sand and then “piss and shit and do whatever vile things they could think of with your head”. But he has paid his dues and nowadays enjoys his share of set waves out front.
A kay or two inland from the honey-coloured beach where Solomon spent his youth is a sprawling artery of factories and railway lines, oil refineries and smokestacks that power the industrial heart of Durban. And the manpower to run this colossus has historically come from the Bluff.
“There are a lot of railway houses just over the hill and there was always a strong blue collar community on the Bluff,” says Solomon. “There still is, and a lot of guys who surfed came from this background too.”
As Durban boomed in the middle of the 20th century, the Bluff evolved from a quiet residential outpost to include a railway village servicing the port and the whaling station located on its northern flank. Huge sperm whales were slaughtered and hoisted up the beach along the concrete slipways well into the 1970s. Around the same time, across the bloodstained channel, the legendary Bay of Plenty was laying the blueprint for professional surfing in South Africa. Future world champions like Shaun Tomson and later Martin Potter were bred in the shadow of the piers where competitiveness was encouraged and rewarded. But on the other side of the harbour, the Bluff was breeding the archetypal anti-hero. The isolation and raw power of the waves, along with its working class roots, nurtured a tight-knit crew where localism became the norm. Surfing contests or hanging out in town was deemed uncool at best, and a betrayal at worst.
“They were town clowns, and you just did not want to be associated with them in any way,” recalls Clyde Martin, who grew up surfing the Bluff’s most notorious peak, Garvies, during the early 1980s.
Although Cave Rock has always taken centre stage, the Bluff is home to a series of formidable waves that sit shoulder-to-shoulder, much like the North Shore. The most well known of these is Cave Rock and then Garvies, with Ansteys – or ‘Corner’ – wedged in the middle.
“The first locals at Garvies were a pretty core bunch of guys. And then there were the guys at Corner, we used to call them the ‘Corner Skates’,” says Martin. “They used to hang out on the grass by the toilets and smoke joints and pop Mandrax tablets. They were just a mean fucking bunch of guys that used to hang out there. They wouldn’t feel anything to get into a fight. At Garvies it was the same and that’s just what we learnt from day one. There was a rivalry between Ansteys and Garvies as well, a huge rivalry, although if there was any ever problem from the outside, we’d all stick together.”
Martin is blunt when asked where the fierce territorialism came from. “I’ve got no idea. It’s just something we grew up with,” he replies. “But I do know for a fact that my group of locals, we took the localism thing to another level completely. We pushed it way out of control.”
He recalls a few facebrick duplexes that still line the dunes at Garvies, the last one standing next to the carpark. “Originally there were going to be 21 of those houses going right down the beach towards Cave Rock,” he says. “Things started to get really gnarly when they started to build those houses. I was still in high school and we decided that we just couldn’t have this at our beach and we literally stopped them building those houses. Every single night we’d go in and rip all the stuff out. We’d saw out the rafters and make bonfires with the wood. They’d get security guards and we’d beat the security guards up and when they got to the last house, the one in the carpark, the guy behind the development decided he just couldn’t do it anymore.”
By the time Martin finished school, his crew owned the beach, but South Africa was in a state of emergency. Everyone was soon called up for compulsory military service. “People don’t understand how heavy the situation in the country was,” he says. “When I finished the army in 1986, a lot of my friends worked for private security companies and then we were all pretty much armed and dangerous. People would come to the beach with shotguns and 9 mils and baseball bats and just cause shit. That’s when Garvies was just absolutely out of bounds.”
By this stage the Bluff’s reputation preceded itself and anyone coming from the outside knew to tread very lightly. Yet, somehow, Cave Rock avoided the brunt of this vicious closed-door policy.
“The locals at Garvies were always pretty gnarly, and at Ansteys. But the Rock was different,” says Martin. “The road goes right past the Rock and there were always town guys out, so it was never as localised as Corner and definitely not as localised as Garvies. They’d come to the Rock, surf the Rock and they’d go. It was kinda just accepted.”
Martin and friends would even begrudgingly watch the ‘townies’ trade barrels with standout locals like Gavin Spowart and Rudy Palmboom at the end of the road. “We just sat there and bit our lips going, ‘These guys are good’. You learn from watching better surfers. And we learnt a lot.”
This didn’t stop them, however, from going out on “bashes” where they’d load into a couple of VW kombis with baseball bats on the weekend and head into town and look for fights.
Ironically, it was competitive surfing that changed the course of Martin’s life.
“I was in my twenties when I realised surfing was a way of getting out of the downward spiral I saw all my other friends in – the drugs and the violence and the fighting. Some of those people just never got out of that. I saw surfing as an excuse to get off the Bluff in a way, and at the time there was a nice, healthy competitive scene in South Africa.”
Martin began competing on the ASP, did well, and later found himself in Europe where he was offered the job as Director of ASP Europe - a position he held for nearly 15 years after he relocated to Spain. Nowadays he is candidly trying to come to terms with his roots and “the stupid shit we did”.
“I never really took drugs, but if you didn’t take drugs or drink or fight, you didn’t fit in, so you were almost forced into that lifestyle on the Bluff,” he says. “That’s just the way it was.”
Rudy Palmboom has different recollections. At 54 years of age Palmboom is built like a sailor, barrel chested with arms like two oars. To witness him surf Cave Rock is to watch an intimate dance that has been refined over decades of devotion to this stretch of reef. Like Lopez and Pipeline, he is synonymous with the wave and can still be found fading deep, snapping under the lip and getting more tube time than most pros half his age.
“I was oblivious to heavy violence, but there were definitely a few self-inflicted fatalities due to drugs and alcohol,” he recalls of the time.
Palmboom’s memory of localism is far more amicable. Policing the lineup was deemed necessary and transgressors were dealt with, preferably in a non-violent way, but if you minded your manners and paid your dues, you’d be okay.
“Cave Rock’s similarity to Backdoor Pipe always attracted lots of visiting surfers and foreign pros,” he says. “Especially the pros, when they would escape the contest scene at the Gunston 500 to come sample the Rock. It was also a cool show for the Bluff locals.”
Palmboom revelled in the competitive rivalry that developed between the Cave Rock locals and visitors. Contests helped break the ice and laid the foundation for competitive friendships. His fondest memory remains a week in the early winter of 1978. “It was six to eight foot and on fire for a solid week, just barrel after barrel. It was cool surfing the whole swell with Shaun Tomson, who was training for Hawaii at the time.”
Unlike the more localised corners of the Bluff, Palmboom says the heaviest threat at Cave Rock has always come from the waves. Swells generated by the Roaring Forties strike Cape Town with unimpeded force. As they scrape up the east coast of South Africa they decay in size but grow in power. The shallow reef that fringes the tidal pool sucks up these long period swells from deep water and folds them into concrete-lipped tubes.
“Just the paddle out through the impact zone on low tide is sketchy at best,” he says. “When it’s six foot plus, the wave is purely barrel and breaks below sea level.”
As with any wave of this magnitude, there are consequences. There have been fatalities, severe injuries and countless near-death experiences.
“If you surf out here, it’s just a matter of time. You’re going to get beaten properly,” says Ricky Basnett. “It’s the closest thing to Hawaii, the power behind it. When the Rock is on, it rivals anything in that league.”
Basnett grew up with a bird’s eye view of the wave from his family home on the hill. He admits he had it easy compared to the generations before him but still took a lot of flak from both sides when he started to compete at an early age. “It was hard because town always had its own clique, so you were always an outcast,” he says. “It made you surf a hell of a lot better though, competing against the town guys.”
Even before Basnett qualified for the World Tour in 2006 he had a constant procession of fellow pros coming to stay with him every winter during the Mr Price Pro. Since the contest moved to Ballito an hour north, however, the stream of celebs coming to surf Cave Rock has dried up, ending a decades-long tradition that started when the event was still the Gunston 500. Which suits Basnett just fine. “I get to surf Cave Rock with fewer pros out now,” he laughs. “And the Rock will always be the Rock.”
He points out the crumpled wall with its cautionary message that lies slumped on the sand. “The Bluff is not really what it used to be localism-wise. But it still garners that respect because of the people who surf here. It’s a weird place. You drive through this shitty industrial area, past the matchbox houses, and then you’re on Marine Drive and you see mansions the size of those in Orange County. Rich, poor, there’s all kinds of people here. But it doesn’t matter which side you’re from, people here are proud to be from the Bluff.”