Know Your Tour Stop: South Africa

South Africa is suffering from high unemployment and crime. J-Bay might be one of the best stops on the tour, but getting there is a curious journey through social decay.
By Jed Smith

Having someone try to rob you in an airport is a good indication that you have landed in a troubled country.  Having it happen twice in thirty minutes suggests you’re in for somewhat unusual sight-seeing.

I arrived at Johannesburg airport on the red-eye flight.  It was 5:45a.m. and I was searching for the domestic terminal for a connecting flight to Port Elizabeth (an hours drive from Jeffrey's Bay).  I was lost, and stopped to examine my ticket when a black man approached me.  He asked where I was going and began pushing my bags away.  I walked with him for awhile, engaging in chit-chat before it twigged that his hospitality was unrealistic.  That and we were headed in the opposite direction of the domestic terminal.  I tried to turn but he pushed on, telling me I should call someone and he would show me to a phone.   I said no, at which point he begged for money.  Then demanded it.  I jetted.  Thirty minutes later, while I stood directly in front of two airport clerks in the check in line, another black man sidled up to me.  He inquired about my boards, stood too close to me, then began running his hands along my bags.  A white guy behind me yelled at him.

"Hey! Get your hands away from him.  Who are you?  Where is your identification?" he demanded.  The thief remained composed, keeping his eyes on me.  The white guy shooed him away.  People began turning and a security guard registered the commotion.  The guard did nothing.  The white guy demanded the thief be arrested.  The guard refused.  Then the thief began abusing the white guy.  "Fuck you, fuck you, fuck you," he repeated with menacing upwards nods.

Apparently, this is common.  Before the airport was renovated for the 2010 FIFA World Cup, it was a lot worse.  To get from the international terminal to the domestic you used to have to leave the airport and walk down a street.  The route was a hive of crimes.  One industry guy told me he once got dragged down an alley before escaping.  Despite assurances that South Africa has improved, it hasn't.  Blacks assume the vast majority of the population (80 per cent black, 10 per cent white), though little of its wealth(whites earn five times as much as blacks).  Their unemployment figures are similarly skewed (28 per cent of blacks don’t have a job, while only 4 per cent of whites are doing the out-of-work shuffle).

From 27,000 feet the land between Johannesburg and Port Elizabeth resembles a shoddy patchwork quilt. Triangular slithers of gray land border vast squares of green and gold.  All of it farm land.Port Elizabeth is an ugly place.  It could be Liverpool or any other English port.  Cone-shaped brick smokestacks and blocks of sooty buildings give it a Dickensian appearance.  Port Elizabeth began as a British colony and brought English influence to South Africa, which also sparked South Africa’s oldest conflict, between the English and the Afrikaans.  The English think the Afrikaans are racist hicks. In return, the Afrikaans think the Poms are liberal fruits.  On the road toward J Bay we pass a block of housing commission units.  They look exactly like the ones in Australia; adorned in graffiti, gang names and, in one case, a giant white marijuana leaf.

Marijuana is popular here.  Cannabis tourism is a genuine source of income for the country.  Durban poison, a strain of the plant, is considered one of the world's best.  Consistent rainfall interspersed with arid winds provides the ideal climate for weed cultivation and large chunks of rural areas, such as J Bay, smell like it (though I am told this smell comes from another local plant).

The road to J Bay is wide, flat and lined by gentle hills coated in green balls of shrub.  The houses are exquisite colonial style abodes and almost never over two stories.  Hitchhikers(all black) line the road, as do signs banning the practice due to a high number of deaths by car every year.  After driving over a crest, J Bay is revealed.  It looks like a terracotta patch of mold on a distant hill.  It's a big town.  A bit over 100,000 people live there.  The actual bay is enormous,though deserted, bar the western point where the town sits.  A series of peaks break along a beach, which does occasionally pump, though is seldom surfed by locals who say it's riddled with whites.

Rustic brick homesteads and manicured lawns accompany the entrance to J Bay.  The contest site here is the best in the world.  The entire top forty-five stay within a 100-meter radius of one another.  Five meters to the left of my patio Taj sits on a second story balcony swilling a Corona.  Across a grass patch I can see into Fanning's kitchen.  Next door to him are Bobby and Barca and behind that is Tim Baker's cave.  The contest scaffolding is a phone's throw from me, and the wave is a minute walk from everyone.  While the beauty of the place is affecting, J Bay has its problems too.  In 2005 (the year of the most recent report I could find) it had 1734 crimes (352 robberies, 18 murders and 23 rapes).  There are slums here and the contest has been plagued by petty thievery and break-ins in the past.  Even the contest director, Snips Parsons, had his room ransacked one year.  On the road back from the supermarket a group of twenty men loiter and pester for money and food.  You never feel threatened, though.  Billabong has succeeded in fortifying the contest zone. Security is rostered on around the clock to patrol the area.  But this is Africa and the precautions are not fail safe. On day one of the waiting period a car in the contest parking lot was done over and Tim Boal claimed his room was fleeced (if it was, all they took was his iPhone).  It would rate close to the best surf destination on the planet, but it's not infallible.