For more than a decade, Amy Thom has been wandering around this great blue planet of ours on a solo search for waves and adventure. ‘Surf Gypsy in Africa’ is her story and an entry into ‘Write to Surf‘ – our surf journo competition with some epic prizes up for grabs (see below for details).
SURF GYPSY IN AFRICA – by: Amy Thom
When it all began, I don’t think I truly realised what I was getting myself into. A few off-road missions into Baja California to camp above remote desert points. A solo surfari to Costa Rica, wild macaws like rainbows flying in front of barrelling jungle-fringed black sand beachbreaks. Hiking a silent trail at dawn through the early autumn forest to surf big Anglet in southwest France. But the pivotal moment: the first time I threw my board into the open ocean in Indonesia and jumped in after it. As the outrigger sped away from the heaving reef, I watched it crest the swell and disappear, taking with it all possibility of a stable, stationary life.
Surf gypsy. Nothing shapes my life more fundamentally than that well-worn and much-loved identity. Loosely defined: one whose surf-orientated wandering compels them to cross continents and oceans, exploring foreign coastlines, paddling unfamiliar waves. Far from aimless but undeniably rootless, it’s a salty, sandy existence characterised by adventure and solitude and, more often than not, a more intimate long-term relationship with a board than with any human being. Minimalist in philosophy and boundless in geography, surf gypsyhood is my chosen state of being. It’s the purpose underlying my path, offering a depth of joy and breadth of experience unmatched by anything else I’ve done so far in three decades on the planet.
I’m a California girl who’s been in South Africa, on and off, for the past three years. My introduction to this country’s beautiful coastlines began in the frigid Atlantic waters of the Western Cape, but at the moment, I’m living on the far south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, surfing the warm Indian Ocean and working in the Transkei. Despite finding myself on the southern tip of Africa, I’ve still managed to add a few stamps to my (second) passport while living here: Morocco, mainland Mexico, the Canaries, Ecuador, New Zealand, Australia, Mozambique. In the ten years prior to my SA arrival, I surfed in Peru, England, Costa Rica, France, Baja, Ecuador, Hawaii, Honduras, Indonesia. When my current work permit expires next year, I’m considering a round-the-world surf trek, ending somewhere close to the equator and west-facing, so I can savour ocean sunsets again.
Lots of folks surf and lots of those surfers travel. But among us is a smaller tribe, willing to repeatedly give away all unnecessary possessions, say goodbye to people we love, uproot our lives, and start over again (…and again…) along coastlines in parts unknown. We who subsist by choice on modest budgets, patiently squirrelling away cash so we can disappear for months or years at a time, barefoot and incommunicado in some remote foreign locale with little more than a break and a boardbag. An insatiable need for waves coexisting alongside an incurable need for adventure – dual cravings only satiated by the thrill and challenge of the surf gypsy life. Buy a ticket, pack a bag, get on a plane, surf (lather, rinse, repeat). So easy and every time I do it, I go further from home, each new wave paddled fanning the flame of my increasingly surf-obsessed wanderlust. Drunk on the dizzying buzz of unfamiliar surf, fresh landscapes, undecipherable languages in my ears, people living lives I know nothing about: these are my addictions.
And there are infinite ways to get my fix. The machine-like perfection of the point at Noosa Head, polka-dotted with blue jellies. The plane-bus-ferry-bus-taxi-hitch journey to Santa Teresa on the Nicoya Peninsula, anticipation building with every new mode of transport. Paddling out in cold, kak summertime surf in Cornwall on principle. Catching left after left at that muddy-water, locals-only reef on Kauai, grinning stupidly with each paddle back out. That first magical glimpse of Dunes working when the southeaster’s blowing. Eyes so glued to the wave at Anchor Point on arrival that I put all three fins on backwards in my hurry to squeeze in a sunset sesh (I relived that public hilarity in the lineup for a week). Charging Middles in Bali after a winter of solid surf in California. Learning to swallow my fear and focus on timing for hectic jumps off big points in season. So many waves… and so many stories, too many to tell in 2000 words. I’ve had enough of those moments on surf travel – in and out of the water – to be convinced beyond all doubt that there are more out there, just waiting for me to find them.
In the past decade, I’ve been insanely lucky to have surfed in more than a dozen countries and half as many oceans around the world, but in all those thousands of kilometres travelled, I still haven’t found that place, that community, that wave: the wave, the one I love enough to give up movement and be stationary. I want to find the wave that seduces me daily, that’s consistently beautiful, that I can’t get enough of. I want to become deeply acquainted with its moods, its seasons. I want a wave that challenges me to be better, and I want to surf it so much that its taste becomes familiar, its salt in my skin, my sinuses, my blood, essential to my body’s biochemistry. But I haven’t found it yet, this soulmate wave. It’s the crux of my dilemma, the thought that throws petrol on the coals in my surf gypsy hearth: if not this place and this wave – then what next? I’ve got enough faith (or is it blind hope?) to know that eventually I’ll find a wave and a place that’ll capture my attention, but until that happens, I’m sure as hell going to have an amazing time along the way. Because if I can do a few weeks in Costa Rica, then I can do a few months in Indo or in Peru… And if I can do that, then surely I can live in South Africa… And if I can live in South Africa, then… well, who knows? There are still countless countries and coastlines my surf-scarred feet have never touched.
I’ve made sacrifices to lead this life though. A fat bank account, for starters, and with it the likelihood that I’ll own any substantial assets in the foreseeable future. I’m the oldest of five kids from a working-class family, and I have no idea what it’s like to have a trust fund. I’ve supported myself since I was 18 years old, including working my way through uni and post-grad. I’m a clever, capable woman who could probably do well in most any field I choose, but I’ve shied away from making life choices based on how much money will end up in my retirement fund, how quitting yet another job might look on my CV, whether taking months off work for travel will be good for my “career”. Because once you’ve tasted the hedonistic indulgence of long stretches of surf travel, of speaking foreign languages, of filling another passport, how can you ignore the siren song of far-flung waves unpaddled? This girl can’t, especially when the unappealing alternative involves bland concepts like job security and asset accumulation and some socially-acceptable version of success that doesn’t align with my value system anyway. I’ve battled to reconcile the juxtaposed needs of my surf gypsy heart with a grown-up sense of obligation to “do something with my life” (whatever the hell that means), but time and time again, I’ve chosen waves over wealth, and I hope that never changes.
Harder to give up is the proximity to family and friends, the closeness only fostered through frequent face-to-face contact, history with people or places that extends beyond a few months or years. And several romantic relationships, because when push comes to shove, even those potential partners who are genuinely intrigued by the idea of this life aren’t always willing to take the leap when the path beckons. I’ve said many goodbyes in the course of my rambling surf travels, and they never get easier, no matter how many times you say them to people you love; they only build inexorably in frequency and intensity as your date of departure gets closer, until suddenly you’re strapping on a backpack and dragging a board bag into another airport, leaving people at the curb. As those departures have piled up, I’ve gained a deeper sense of what I’m willingly walking away from every time I leave a place behind, and how difficult starting over again might be. Like it or not, hunting for surf alone is part of this life, and there’s sometimes a bittersweet loneliness that accompanies surf gypsyhood.
At one point last year, someone pressed me to explain why I was so willing to leave my home, to start over again, to do it alone, to risk being lonely in a foreign place. In the moment, I struggled to fully articulate what drives me to keep uprooting myself. I’ve found the logic behind it to be completely inexplicable to non-surfers; outside the tribe, the visceral need for surf seems frivolous, juvenile even. But it’s real, this drive to see as much of the planet as possible, to paddle every wave-producing ocean and sea, to befriend people whose lives differ greatly from my own. And if it’s merely a question of whether to go alone or not go at all? No hesitation – I’m all in.
There’s a unique freedom in being the solo female surf gypsy. More often than not, I’m the only woman in the water, and over the years I’ve learned the importance of catching the first wave I paddle for and riding it well; as long as I pull that off, my right to waves is as legit as anyone else’s out there, local or not. And because I paddle out alone, I’m granted a (sometimes grudging) spot in lineups where I’ve seen non-local guys literally get socked in the face just for showing up. Being a girl on a solo mission brings with it an unexpected credibility in foreign waters, solidified by the fact that I’m a decent enough surfer (not great mind you, but I hold my own). Despite its occasional loneliness, solo surf gypsyhood has opened more doors – and lineups – than ever would have been possible if I’d travelled with mates or partners.
I wouldn’t give up this existence for anything, because in life and in surf, the reward is equal in size to the challenge taken on, inspiration begets inspiration, and real growth only comes from tackling adversity. This path suits me beautifully, and it’s filling my personal history with more stories than I can remember, more waves than I can count. It’s made me a vastly better surfer than I’d ever have been if I stayed in one place. It’s taught me the value of prioritising, showed me what’s necessary in life and what’s not, made me less inhibited and more likely to say yes when an opportunity comes my way. It’s shaped who I am: intrepid, resourceful, independent, flexible, adaptable. I’ve learned the importance of choosing carefully and intentionally – whether friends, jobs, how I spend my time, or what I do with my money. It’s opened me to connections, to people, to opportunities, to the scope of what’s possible in life. It’s made me interesting (in my opinion, the best of all adjectives and highest of aspirations). And above all, it’s made me happy. Really, really happy.
I ran down the hill to Saints one recent evening, the road busy with people heading home from work. I could feel their eyes on me as I ran, and I imagined what they were seeing: long hair streaming out behind, shoulders strong and square, my board tucked against my body with practiced familiarity. I grinned at being this woman who runs barefoot to the sea, who will throw herself off the rocks and paddle out alone. So grateful to have found this surf gypsy’s life, and so stoked to be living it in Africa…for now, anyway.
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For the next three issues the Billabong prize hamper includes: 1 x Billabong Wetsuit; 1 x Billabong Boardies; 1 x Billabong Cap; 1 x Von Zipper Sunnies; 1 x Set of Kinetic Racing (KR) fins. After which the hamper will get a shake-up with new product of equal value for the following three issues.