South Africa in the 80’s was a turbulent place. Going through high school, all us white boys all had the looming specter of two years compulsory National Service, and possible shipping off to Angola, to serve in the border war for the South Africa Defence Force. Older kids, some of them surfers, left school, were conscripted, and a few of them ended fighting in the border war.
As kids, we would always hear ‘Angola’ and ‘war’ mentioned at the same time. We had little understanding of what it all meant, most of us had very little understanding of the true and ghastly meanings of apartheid, but we knew that we were going to be trained to become soldiers, and then go to Angola.
Spot guide: Angola
A favourite bumper sticker at the time was ‘ Join the army, travel to different countries, meet new people, and kill them...’ The End Conscription Campaign in South Africa was in full swing.
While I was still at school a surfer from our town died on the border, and a girl in my school’s older brother was in the air force and his plane was shot down on the border somewhere, and he was never seen again. Another great up-and-coming surfer from a coastal town in Cape Town was involved in one of the biggest contacts of the time, with massive casualties on both sides. He came back altered, and never surfed again. During this time there was nothing nice about the word ‘Angola.’ It was just a dark and scary name.
When the war was over, and people started venturing back, all we knew was that there were waves, but that there were landmines everywhere, and corruption was rife. The only way to get anywhere was to stay on the corridor from Luanda to the coast, and to not travel along the shoreline. The biggest worry was that so many people who had planted landmines and arms caches during the war had died, and there was no record of where they were hidden. To this day there are unexploded landmines and hidden caches along the border area.
Hawaiian legend and hardcore surf discoverer Randy Rarick had been in before the war hit in full, surfing the waves of the area in 1974. That would have been a different trip altogether. The Border war lasted from 1966 until 1990, but the Angolan Civil war only kicked off in 1975. So Randy was there during strife, but not the civil strife that took the lives of so many civilians.
Long time ago. What was Angola like back then?
RR: There were very few surfers around in the early 70’s and thus, not really much demand for traveling outside of the established surf areas in South Africa, let alone going up to SW Africa and on to Angola. A few months before I went, I had heard that movie maker, Bob Evans of Australia was making a movie of Peter Drouyn and they had just crossed over from the border and surfed in southern Angola, but just for the day and then headed back very shortly, so only tapped into the very south. Other than that, I had heard of no one surfing in Angola.
Was there fighting? Did you experience anything like that?
No, they were leading up to the start of the civil war, (1975) so there was a lot of uncertainty as to who was in control and you had to travel in military convoys through portions of the country. Luckily, not much was going on down at the coast, as most of the hostilities were inland. So, while you had to be careful, generally we didn’t encounter too many problems.
What was the biggest challenge?
In the south, it was probably just accessibility to the coast, as there were not coastal roads in a lot of places and had to four by four to get to a lot of the surf. Also, finding decent food was challenging, as most people were subsistence living.
What was the best thing about visiting Angola in 1974?
We were the only surfers in the entire country! No one knew about surfing then and everywhere we went people were amazed to see us ride waves.
What was the heaviest situation you encountered in Angola?
I drove the entire coastline in about three months. When I got to the Congo River, I saw a dead body floating down river and decided, it wouldn’t be too smart to go up river to see what was going on! That and hiding under our vehicle when in the military convoy’s and they told us to watch out for machine gun fire!
Tell us some more about the waves.
If you look at a map, or Google Earth, you’ll see that the coast of Angola has long stretches of beach breaks, broken up by headlands. If the headlands aren’t too rocky, there are some really good left point breaks that you can find, with long waves. South of Luanda is the easiest to get to, with the best return, and nowadays with surfers living in Luanda, it’s an easy access to surf. Expensive to live there, with no middle class and most people with money associated with the mining or oil industry and on expense accounts. Still, if you wanted an adventure and were equipped and had plenty of time, there are great waves to be had.
If the headlands aren’t too rocky, there are some really good left point breaks that you can find, with long waves
Which all sounds rather jolly, and rather enticing, but then Benji Brand and his brother Davey, came upon a place that forever changed how we would view Angola from a surfers point of view.
Donkey Bay had been discovered, and although many called it the best left in the world, she is a heavy beast and many surfers have attempted their best efforts at Donkey, only to suffer endless beat downs and broken board. Some broken bones, many injured egos. Donkey is perfect, if you are an above average skilled surfer on the right side of 40 and the right side of bravery, otherwise she could come across as a bit fearsome.
The bros Brand discovery however, redefined the perfection concept altogether. The wave discovered was more user friendly than Donkey, possibly longer, just as many barrel sections (arguable) but definitely looked a whole lot more fun to the average punter. It was however, a real ball-ache of a mission to get to, with three days of hard travel in four-by-four vehicles, consistent break-downs due to the incredibly demanding terrain, roadblocks and bribery everywhere, and a lot more luck than knowledge getting you to the place. Then when you got there it was hard ground to camp on, and the only supplies those that you brought in. Scavenging fearless predators, freezing cold winds that blow for weeks and blazing sun added to the Mars-like picture described by those that had been there, to those that wanted to go there. ‘Sure, the waves are good, but the endeavor was just too hard, and out of whack with the rewards.’
This might not necessarily have been the case, and even if it was, Angola on the whole is becoming way more accessible by the day. The only real challenges these days are that the roads are still abysmal, there still is a lot of bribery (gazozas), and that it is ridiculously expensive everywhere you go. So… if you know your way around greasing palms, and your Diners Club is looking fat and healthy, then this could just be your next adventure.
Cover shot from John Callahan as part of this story HERE.