Bursting with surf shops, shapers, factory stores and brand HQs, Durban is the surfing capital of South Africa. The weather is warm. The waves are consistent. There is a huge variety of spots – soft sandbars, grinding reefs, dredging beach breaks and, not far away, long tubing point breaks. Surf City mostly lies between the Bluff, a large headland to the south, and the Mgeni River to the north.
Thu, 27 March 2008
WINKELSPRUIT TO THE MGENI RIVER MOUTH
The harbour breakwater is an artificial extension of the Bluff. Oceanside spots on the Bluff get a lot of swell. However, the Durban beachfront – in the lee of the Bluff – picks up less. On a southwest swell, the Bluff can be six feet and cranking, but New Pier is only two feet, and Addington is flat. South swells have to bend around the Bluff to reach the beachfront. As you head north away from the swell shadow caused by the Bluff, the surf gets bigger. However, when an east swell runs, most of the beachfront turns on. The cool thing about Durban is that wherever you live or work, you can be surfing in minutes. The beachfront is in the centre, with the suburbs extending outwards in an arc. The Bluff is around the corner. Otherwise, entry points to highways heading north or south are a short drive away. In an east swell and light land breezes, head for the empty reef/sandbar set-ups of the North Coast on the M4 north. For point break tubes in a south swell and light to moderate west wind, drive south. There is almost always a wave in or near Durban. In summer, endless northeast trades are onshore but keep the windswell coming. Between December and April, cyclones push in a big east swell. In winter, more offshores blow and a south swell kicks in. Barring sporadic cold fronts, Durban is warm – a big incentive even when the waves are sloppy or small. During the rare times when flat or badly onshore, there is lank stuff to do. For good food and buzzing nightlife, visit Florida Road. Get Mexican chow at Taco Zulu, started by local charger Richie Sills who has opened one at New Pier. Sample Italian bistro Spiga do Oro and eateries Butcher Boys and Tribeca. If you want to hit the jorl, try Casablanca and Del la Sol, or a sundowner at Joe Cools on North Beach.
Isipingo Beach ✪
Mediocre beach breaks in an industrialised area south of Durban International Airport.
A legacy of apartheid, this predominantly Indian region lies on the way to Isipingo. The Bluff protects this beach from the northeast. Best in a light northwest wind and small to medium swell. Not surfed often.
Treasure Beach ✪ ✪ ✪
Study area on the Bluff for oceanographic and other marine studies in a former coloured township called Wentworth. A stretch of super-hollow peaks on shallow sandbars and rock slabs. Best at low to mid tides. Short and intense with heavy take-offs. Epic waves at times. Breaks are two to six feet.
Pigs’ Hut ✪ ✪ ✪
Below the police station on the hill, hence ‘Pigs’ Hut’. Classic deep-water reef point on the Bluff that works in land breezes and a solid groundswell. Handles size. Not as sensitive to swell direction and tide as the Rock.
Brighton ✪ ✪ ✪
On a medium, deep-energy east swell, cooking lefts break along interlocking reefs off the Cave Rock tidal pool. Hectically hollow rock slabs. The middle peak is popular, with plenty of barrels. Waves are best in a light northwest wind at four to seven feet. Closes out from about eight feet.
Cave Rock ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
This spot consists of two waves that, legend has it, used to link up. According to locals, the one you see in the photos is Tidal Pool and the proper Cave Rock (the end of the original wave) is in front of the sandstone rock where there is a series of razor sharp rock slabs. Fewer people surf here after the road washed away in the March 2007 storms. You walk from Ansteys, or down a steep path from the Bluff. The reassuring sandbar is gone: you have to take off Indo-style over exposed reef. Ironically (since fewer people were surfing it) the storm also marked an increase in localism. On a wall at the tidal pool is the graffiti cliché: ‘If you don’t live here, don’t surf here’. The Rock is an insane, top-to-bottom tube. Holds a 10-foot swell if spaced evenly and cleanly. Stay away if you don’t have brass balls.
Main Cave ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
Hollow peaks between Ansteys and the tidal pool on sand-covered reef. Needs a three- to six-foot groundswell and light northwest wind.
Ranch ✪ ✪ ✪
The Ranch is part of the Ansteys section of the Bluff. A fickle left-hander breaks on sandbars in front of the Green Dolphin restaurant. Funny deep banks that shift around. A light northwest wind and clean four- to six-foot south swell is good.
Ansteys ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
For townies, the attraction of the Bluff is that it handles the northeast, staying smooth for several hours longer than town. However, as any local will attest, the Bluff is best when the townies are stuck in their urban groove. Best in a light northwest wind and clean four- to six-foot groundswell. Ansteys Corner is the utility wave – a zippy right-hander over a nicely tapered sand-covered reef spit, best in a clean southeast to south groundswell. Handles size and has been ridden at bigger than 12 feet from further back. Gets epic.
Garveys ✪ ✪ ✪
If you walk north from Ansteys for 20 minutes along Sloane Road, you will come across a concrete pipe that sticks out of the sand. Sometimes good sandbar peaks, but plenty of local aggression evident in vitriolic graffiti, such as ‘Surf here and die’. No shark nets – the locals are more dangerous.
Old Cave Rock ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
Did you know that the original Cave Rock was blown up by the Allies during WWII? The remnants of this reef lie in a military reserve heading towards the breakwater. You have to wade around a fence that goes into the water. Nearby right-hand reef breaks get superlative but are guarded by heavy localism, vicious Zambezi sharks and trigger-happy ghost snipers. Shrouded in myth. There are other spots on the northern end of the Bluff but access is restricted by the military. Not surfed often. For a core group of locals only.
Vetch’s Reef ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
Moving around the Bluff into Durban, Vetch’s is a failed breakwater created by Captain James Vetch of the Royal Engineers in the early 1900s. He built it from his London office without even visiting Durban! Built as the main breakwater, the rocks lie submerged, curving out to sea for 500 metres. This provides the perfect trajectory for long but dangerous waves that grind like a mutant point break in a big northeast groundswell from cyclones in the Mozambique Channel. Vetchies is the longest wave in Durban. There are two sections: the outside Block and the inside Urchins reef. They link up when the swell is right, but it sucks over the reef deceptively dangerously. High-tide entry only. Beware the stonefish.
Vetch’s Beach ✪ ✪
Soft peaks along the beach at the bottom of Vetch’s. Mostly a learner wave. Only works when Addington is closing out. Needs a massive swell to break. Otherwise, like Muizenberg on a soft day.101 ✪ ✪
Next to Vetch’s is a bathing beach in front of a café called 101. Again, mostly soft sandbar peaks.
Addington ✪ ✪
Opposite Addington Hospital, the beach hasn’t starting curving north yet, which makes the southwest wind offshore. Best at low tide. Good waves at times, depending on the sand and solid east swell. Very protected from the south swell and mostly flat in winter. Good for learners.
Tramps ✪ ✪
At the northern end of Addington Hospital are left and right peaks sheltered by the Bluff and usually flat. Hobos hang out on the grass at the trampolines after receiving treatment at the outpatients.
South Beach ✪ ✪ ✪
More consistent than Vetch’s and Addington, but still very protected from the south swell when it will be smaller than spots to the north. Handles strong southwest. A huge south swell sees a moderate boost in size. At low tide there are good waves, depending on sand movement. A soft wave good for learners.
Wedge ✪ ✪ ✪
Just in front of the beachfront promenade south of the New Pier is a sandbar that offers respite from the crowds. Best on a broken swell at low tide. In the old days, before longshore drift created by the new piers covered it with sand, the Wedge was a fast, hollow wave that broke on a reef.
Balmoral Bank ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
Right-hander on the south side of New Pier that breaks towards the pier. Sometimes called Frogs. Good in an east swell and light northwest wind.
New Pier ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
This is surf central. New Pier (with North Pier) may have ruined the Bay of Plenty, but it created this spitting right-hander. Although the older guys still shake their heads at how much better Bay used to be, New Pier gets world class. At low tide in a lined up southeast swell with light southwest winds, this wave peels from the back of the pier head and winds all the way down to Dairy. It has been ridden bigger than 10 feet. At best, it is a fast and hollow tube that sucks over sand straight from take-off. Enter by jumping off the end of the pier during lulls. On average days, it’s a consistent hot dog wave.
BAY OF PLENTY
Once there was a winding, sand-bottomed tube that went on forever. When it was six to eight feet, the barrel was longer than Kirra in Australia, and even longer than G-Land in Indo, Shaun Tomson told Craig Jarvis in an interview for Men’s Health magazine. Shaun remembers getting 15-second tubes at the Bay of Plenty – the wave he credits with giving him the tube-riding technique that blew minds overseas. The Bay was the home of the Gunston 500, now the Mr Price Pro, which remains the longest-running professional surf event. Sadly, in the late 1980s, this classic break was ruined. Three piers were built – Bay, North and New – supposedly to prevent longitudinal drift eroding the beachfront, a prime tourist venue. The sand changed irrevocably. Surfers began to hang out at Dairy Beach between New Pier and North Pier. At the turn of this century, the hub shifted to New Pier, notably Bruce’s Coffee Shop, now a Mexican restaurant called Taco Zulu, opened by local charger Richie Sills. The piers overhauled Durban’s surf spots, and from the memory of the sublime waves of the Bay, new spots were born. North Beach and New Pier offer powerful sandbank barrels in big south swells and medium to big cyclone swells. When big east swells arrive, the Dairy Bowl turns on. On rare occasions, the Bay will deliver an epic day that hints at its old self.
Dairy Bowl ✪ ✪ ✪
On the north side of Dairy Beach, heading from New Pier, is the Dairy Bowl, a slow V-shaped peak that works best on a deep tide when it’s cross-onshore north to northeast. However, the real diamonds of Dairy are the lefts that break during clean east swells. Sucky sandbar wedge on the right side of North Pier looking out to sea. Mostly a left, a combination of wave refraction, outgoing rip and shallow sandbar creates a hollow left-hand bowl that breaks off the pier. Short, sharp right-handers can be ridden but you head straight for the pier. The lefts tend to be hollower and longer.
North Beach ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
An incredibly good wave when it’s on. North Beach is more consistent than Bay of Plenty and home to a zillion bodyboarders. A crunching right-hander that barrels its way across a sandbank. Handles up to 10 feet and has been the scene of some epic barrel-riding feats. On the lower tide, stick to the strong-shouldered right that comes off the pier, as these seldom close out or run fat. Anything from one to 10 foot looks good. A pushing tide brings the action closer in with a walling, left-hand bowl that pushes towards the pier. Best conditions are a solid swell and a light westerly breeze. If you’re a hard-board surfer, surf only when the blackball is up, and stay away from the bathing area.
Bay of Plenty ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
The replacement of the solid Patterson groynes with new pylon piers ruined one of the best man-made waves in southern Africa. What remains of this once perfect beach break is still a reasonably consistent wave that peels right on the outside with the occasional left bowl at higher tides. Although not in the same category as North Beach or New Pier, it’s the least crowded of the pier waves in Durban. There are only a few days a year when the wave will link right through. Even for those who know the ins and outs of negotiating the Bay, this can get frustrating. When this wave does link up, it becomes superlative.
Snake Park ✪ ✪ ✪
The utility wave at the Durban Snake Park is the midbreak wave that peels off the shotgun pier (double-barrelled pipes). Further down the beach in front of the wire-frame lighthouse is a dual direction peak that gets good. Unfortunately this peak isn’t always there: the fickle nature of sand means that the bank regularly builds up and gets washed away. In the old days, Snake Park had a reputation for being a hard-core locals-only spot, with many outbursts of aggression. However, over the years the old crew has dissipated or moved on to other parts of the beachfront. The venom of the original Snake Park crew is now a thing of the past.
Battery Beach ✪ ✪ ✪ ✪
This beach break can be found at the northern end of Durban’s beachfront in front of the military base. It gets incredibly powerful at times. When the swell is three to four feet at New Pier, Battery can be a solid six feet. Like all the northern beaches, surf here on low tide for the outer banks, and high tide for the shore breaks.
Country Club ✪ ✪ ✪
Formally known as African Beach, this beach break used to be a blacks-only beach during the apartheid days. Ironically, it now lies in front of the fancy Durban Country Club. Sensitive to tides, it breaks left and right. Goes off when sandbanks are right. Excellent shore break. A ‘shotgun’ pier separates Country Club from Battery – so-named because when you look to shore from the line-up, you see the opening of two large pipes that look like shotgun barrels.
Mgeni River Mouth ✪
Right at the end of Country Club, and Durban’s northernmost break before you hit the North Coast, lies the Mgeni River, with left- and right-breaking sandbars. Gets bigger than the beachfront, but known as a very sharky spot. These days, you see more jetski riders and kiteboarders.