I sat in the water feeling uneasy. I couldn’t say exactly why, but I felt anxious, like something wasn’t right out here. The spot was a no name break as far as I was concerned. I’d found it near a small town named “George” on the Wild Coast of South Africa. My father had dropped me off after a long day and night together traveling from his home in Cape Town. That had been trying. I hardly knew my father and we were as different as we could be. I, an 18 year old surf kid from the beaches of San Diego and he a 56 year old renegade plastic surgeon with two small children and a nagging second wife. We chatted amicably during the drive but hadn’t really done anything on the way. I arrived only 6 months before at his doorstep in one of the toniest parts of the Cape unannounced. I wrote a letter telling him I was coming, but apparently it hadn’t made it before I did. Mail from the States took a month to travel the 14,000 miles across two continents. He hadn’t recognized me at first. At 6 feet with long blonde hair I bore little resemblance to the 5 year old he had left behind. They found a place for me in the servant quarters a few yards away from the main house. His second wife was friendly and their 2 small kids at 6 and 8 loved their new brother. I taught the younger boy how to ride a bike, drew pictures for them and basically loved them and mentored them as if I were their father. My own father was a disappointment to all of us. A washed up surgeon who had lost his license to practice in California then run to Canada with his new wife and then Africa to stay one step in front of the law. He was an alcoholic and his new wife severely codependent. I found a job working in a local steak house and would come home late at night. Many times he would be waiting for me with an open bottle of Cabernet, clearly not his first. He would offer me a glass and after it was poured begin his long tedious drunken lamentations of mistakes made and excuses for abandoning myself and my 3 brothers with a mother dying of breast cancer. Needless to say I began to avoid these encounters as much as possible. The next morning his new wife would dig up the bottles from wherever my father had tried to stash them and confront me frantically recounting their odyssey across Africa with two small children as my father lost job after job when he botched surgeries or was caught drinking by hospital staff.
We spent the night in a nearby seedy hotel. George was a small farming town in a Dutch or “Boer” part of the country. The English and Dutch had come to an uneasy truce after the Boer War ended at the beginning of the 20th century. Comparable in many ways to the Civil War in the U.S. but fought between the British and Dutch settlers. The Dutch generally occupied the interior or farm lands and were strong supporters of the racial segregation system known as “apartheid” while the British were more for equality, educated, progressive and usually found in the cities. The bitterness and animosity between the two groups had remained even now after nearly 80 years. English travelers could encounter unfriendly locals in this area, but once they discovered my father and I were “Yanks” they warmed considerably. South Africans love their meat and you’re never far from a good steak. Blood rare steak was the only thing my father ever ate other then a baked potato with nothing on it and hand-fulls of vitamins so he fit right in. We dined in the local restaurant last night each of us ordering one of the large barbecued cuts the locals were know for.
This morning we woke at dawn. My father did his 50 push ups as was his custom as I watched from the bed next to his. We dressed and went out the door. He offered my 50 Rand about $100, but I refused. I knew I could use it but wasn’t in the habit of getting help from a parent since my mother passed away 4 years earlier. I was used to taking care of myself and waved goodbye as he got in his silver volkswagen and drove off. I turned towards the ocean with my 6’6″ Faith surfboard under my arm, my wetsuit and some clothes in a backpack. I purchased the board in Capetown at a small surf shop I found in the yellow pages. After taking a bus and train into town I had found the store. The guy at the counter seemed happy to see a Yank and confided that this particular board had belonged to the South African champion Shaun Tomson. I wasn’t sure if he was bull-shitting me but I liked the shape and the color. It was white with light green resin swirls in the gloss coat. On the center of the deck in large curvy green script was the word “Faith.” He said it was a one of a kind and I bought it for 200 Rand. I couldn’t argue that it was a great board. I had surfed it all over Cape Town and then met some people while working in the restaurant that I later began traveling with.
They were a fun group of college age kids a bit older than myself. There was Simon the strawberry blonde bruiser who had been fighting up on the border with the Communist guerillas and had his right bicep partially blown off. Murray a student at Cape Town University who drove a 1971 VW Bus with a rainbow stripe running around it. Murray always had weed even though it was highly illegal here and could be counted on for a ride even on the wildest adventures. John who was the dashing blond leading man of the group and his equally stunning girlfriend Yvonne also both students. They had the polished good manners of British aristocracy and found me endless entertainment as a shabby Californian with the lovely Hollywood accent. The one I hung out with the most though was Kevin. Kevin was also a student, very British and polished but with a love for trouble. He enjoyed nothing better then to get very pissed or drunk as I called it and drive recklessly through the streets in his Mini Cooper. He had crashed it many times although fortunately and miraculously not with me in it. His wealthy family would pay to repair whatever damage he did and he’d be off again on his self destructive way. Since the drinking age was 18 in South Africa it was perfectly legal for me to go to a pub and drink with my friends. This was an entirely new experience for me and I found myself drinking far more at times than I knew how to handle. One memorable night at a pub called “The Pig and Whistle” we had all been drinking Castle lager in bottles at a table near a fireplace. All of a sudden Kevin stood up and threw his bottle into the fireplace, glass shattering everywhere. He shoved me and said, “C’mon Yank, throw it in.” With my judgment somewhat impaired, I followed suit throwing my bottle into the roaring hearth. No sooner had I done it then a large man in a military uniform grabbed me by the collar yanking me off my feet. Simon, Murray and John stood up at our table with Simon grabbing the guy’s arm and stepping in between us. “He’s just a lightee and from America. He didn’t mean anythin’ mate.” Simon advised. The military man thought better after taking a look at Simon, Murray and John all glaring in his direction and released me back to my feet. At 18 I was 6 feet and 150 lbs. so was very thankful for the reprieve as I had no doubt who would have prevailed in the encounter.
This was the group who I was to rendezvous with here in George later but had 5 or 6 hours to kill before we met up at the restaurant again. The ocean was nearby and I had a surfboard so I began the mile or so walk down the paved rural road lined with grassy farmland on both sides. I could see a couple of Zebra and a group of Springbok, a large local antelope, grazing in the distance. After about 30 minutes I crested the slope that led down to the ocean. I could see a rocky beach and what looked to be head high surf coming in. As I got nearer and found a trail leading from the grassy slope to the sand and noticed African fishermen with long poles out on the rocks. It looked as if they were doing a primitive version of surf casting. I walked onto the pristine white sand sat down and looked out. Sure enough there were waves. As I had thought they were about head high and peeling both right and left. I began to undress and then put my wetsuit on. The water in Cape Town was cold. About the same as Northern California but usually even colder because of the constant wind. I put my clothes away in my pack, gathered my board and walked into the ocean. It was slightly warmer than I expected but we were up the coast quite a ways now on the Indian Ocean side of the Cape. It would get warmer and warmer now as we went North towards Jeffreys Bay which was our ultimate destination. Jeffreys was one of the best known waves in the world and had been featured in the movie, “Endless Summer.” I had always wanted to go there and had saved the $1500 for my plane ticket by working as a busboy in a restaurant back in San Diego. It had taken me more than a year to save it, but I had finally enough and walked into a travel agency and lay down the cash mostly in ones out of a shoebox I had stashed in my bedroom.
I paddled out through the surf and immediately began to feel uneasy. I wasn’t sure what I felt uneasy about but reasoned it might be that there was no one else in the water as far as the eye could see. I finally made it outside the breaking waves and sat waiting for a set. The feeling of unease was strong and my mind wandered thinking of some of the stories about gigantic sharks I’d heard about in these waters. Cape Town was known for having enormous Great Whites. A 2400 lb. beast had been caught off the rocks at a break I’d surfed ominously named “Danger Reef.” My friends had filled me in on local mythology regarding two specimens fisherman referred to as “Spot” and “The Sub.” Both were theoretically more than 25 feet in length. There was no shortage of these tales and they were all playing in my head as a wave finally came toward me. It peaked up behind me and I easily slid into it taking a few nice turns going left before kicking out and paddling back. Looking down through the clear water I could see sand plumes coming off the bottom about 6 feet below me. I rationalized it must be surf action causing it but couldn’t correlate the sand plumes with the waves no matter how I tried. I sat again looking out towards the horizon but began to feel a sense of impending and immediate danger. I tried to calm myself, thinking I was letting my mind run away with me but my anxiety wouldn’t leave. I decided to pull my feet up onto my board. As I waited for the set my attention was drawn towards the sandy bottom again as another plume of sand rose and then began to settle. For some reason this time I couldn’t take my eyes off of the plume now only four or five feet beneath me in the clear temperate water. The shape slowly began to form. It was the stuff of nightmares. The long tapered cylinder of a very large fish extending out in front and behind me slowly became undeniably a large shark. As I stared I could see the gills working and the broad green-brown stripes running across its back. “Tiger” was the word that formed in my mind and a cold fear like I’d never known gripped me suddenly feeling every inch of my digestive tract pucker from stem to stern. I had no doubt it knew I was there and felt like a mouse watching a cat waiting for that moment when one would move and the chase would start. I was obviously at an extreme disadvantage compared to the mouse because as a human I was the slowest creature in the ocean and no match for the reaction time of the 15 foot predator beneath me.
In that moment I saw my entire short life play out before me and read the headlines of the kid from California who had been dropped off by his father along the Wild Coast never to be seen again. I doubted anyone would figure it out unless my board and belongings were found on the beach. “The Beach!” The thought exploded like a single bright ray in a dark room. “Paddle.” I said to myself. “Carefully.” I told myself. “Quietly.” I put my hands in the water very gently trying not to make a ripple. I pushed forward toward the nose causing the board to move slowly backward. I felt sure the beast would attack any second but miraculously it just lay there, its gills working, coldly indifferent to the puny creature only a few feet above. I pushed the water again this time slowly turning to face the shore. It terrified me to take my eyes from the monster but there was no other way to get in. As soon as it was out of sight my imagination began to run wild, knowing it was about to grab a leg or drag me and my board down whole at any moment. A small wave rose up behind me and I took two strong strokes catching the swell in what seemed like a gift from the Gods. I didn’t attempt to stand wanting only to make it to a shore that seemed a mile away. As I rode the broken wave in the last few yards to the sand I imagined a large fin following close behind me like something out of a cartoon. In a few seconds my board hit the sand and I scrambled frantically up the shore like a castaway who had been marooned on a raft for months. I practically kissed the ground gasping for breath on my hands and knees I turned and sat in the wet sand looking back at the sea behind me. No fin, no shark, not a sign that anything had happened.
I gathered my board and walked back to where I had deposited my clothes only 20 minutes earlier feeling like I had just survived a near death experience. I looked around. The 100 yard wide beach was absolutely empty. The fishermen still stood on the rocks casting their long poles into the water from the nearby rocks but none seemed aware of what had just transpired. After I gathered myself and got dressed I wandered over to the rocks to see what the fishermen were catching. I saw one tall lean dark man of about 45 holding what looked like a short stick under a tidal rock. He jiggled it and then quickly yanked it out. As the end came out I could see long writhing tentacles clutching and coiling at the hooked stick and the mans weathered hands. It was a large octopus. He unceremoniously grabbed the legs and in one quick motion swung it against the rocks over and over, blood and ink splattering around. I watched as he unhooked the slimy carcass from the long gaff and lay the limp 4 foot body across a rock and began cutting it up into bait size chunks. He threw the whole mess in a red bucket he had nearby then walked closer to the water’s edge. He hooked a tentacle chunk onto a large treble hook and cast out into the ocean. I stood a few yards off as he sat down and lit a hand rolled cigarette and leaned back. I walked over to within a few feet trying not to surprise him. I was impressed with his obvious knowledge and skill and had plenty of time left so thought I would find out what he was fishing for. He looked up from under his hat. “hello suh.” He said tipping his brim. He clearly thought I was a local Dutchman. I wasn’t fond or comfortable with the South African system and it always bothered me when I was addressed as if I were a superior. “Oh sorry,” I said. “I was just wondering what you’re fishing for?” “Oh, you’re from America!” he said with a thick Dutch accent sitting up now smiling openly. “Yes.” I said. “What are you trying to catch here?” I said now pointing out to the water. “Why shark my son!” He said cheerily. “Beeg Shark!”