Cape Town is the perfect studio for surf photography

With its towering mountains and dramatic coastline, Cape Town is one of the most photogenic cities in the world, making it the perfect studio for surf photography. Local resident and world-renowned surf photographer Alan van Gysen lends his insights for capturing the moment.

Cape Town appeals to me as a surf photographer because it is so rich and diverse. I love the fact that we have two oceans within comfortable driving distance from each other, a peninsula with offshore winds every day of the year and a daily sunrise and sunset over the sea. The weather’s also hard to beat. Photographically it’s a pot filled to the brim with opportunity and variety.

My favourite spots to shoot are the Cape beach breaks with their hollow barrels and crystal clear water and the big waves at the outer reefs like Dungeons and Sunset. There is something very special about capturing the raw power of the Atlantic Ocean.

In this respect, Cape Town is best photographed from both land and water. For the recreational photographer I would suggest a GoPro for shooting from the water and an entry-level DSLR with a 70-200mm or similarly long lens for a creative land perspective that allows you to include the surroundings. You don’t have to spend much to get good quality these days. For advanced photographers a professional DSLR and water housing with a variety of lens port options will yield an array of unique results in the water. From the land I would suggest a pro quality 70-200mm lens or a 500mm lens if you like a tight crop.

Besides photographic equipment, you need a good wetsuit if you want to shoot from the water around Cape Town. A 4/3mm with a built-in hood is a must for the Atlantic coast especially, along with strong, short fins for swimming.

Just the same as surfing, it is important to conduct yourself in a respectful manner if you’re taking surf photos. Ease your way into the lineup if you’re shooting from the water. Try chat to the locals first in the car park and go for a surf before you whip out the camera. This not only earns you respect but really gives you a sense of the crowd and wave itself. Land or water, if there are other resident photographers shooting, stand or swim behind them, giving them priority. And avoid photographing a place and posting photographs online the same day with names and locations – this could seriously increase crowds the next day.

Go beyond the surf at Wavescape’s outdoor film festivals

Every December, the Wavescape Surf Film Festival brings a medley of surf films, art, music and ocean conservation education to Cape Town. Organiser Steve Pike tells all about these popular film events.

Wavescape is not just a surf film festival: our focus is on ocean sustainability and conservation. Although surfing was originally the central thread that held the festival together we’ve evolved to include events that are more about the ocean. So you don’t have to be a surfer to enjoy Wavescape’s screenings.

The film festival component is mostly surf films, but surf films are eminently watchable, even from a non-surfing point of view, with very beautiful shots of line-ups of waves and coasts. Sometimes they’re documentaries that tell interesting stories, for example we featured one about a Chilean big wave surfer called Ramón Navarro who was trying to save a small fishing community from development.  Another interesting feature was a film about a group of guys who camped in a remote place in the fjords of Norway.

We chose Clifton Fourth beach as the outdoor venue for our annual film screenings because it is probably the most sheltered beach in Cape Town in terms of the wind, and it’s also a beautiful location. The beach itself is big enough to hold a crowd of a couple of thousand people.

As part of the festival we host Slide Night, which features various speakers who have in-depth knowledge of the ocean. Slide Night brings a scientific, educational and activist element to the festival. It gives scientists and people who might otherwise not have a platform the opportunity to show what they do and tell stories about their connection with the ocean.

We’ve hosted talks by a shark scientist, a sailor who has circumnavigated the globe, a big wave surfer an expert on orca whales in False Bay and an expert on climate change on the role of the Southern Ocean in regulating atmospheric pressure.

So there’s definitely a lot more to Wavescape than just surfing movies.

Muizenberg’s the perfect learn to surf beach

Welcome to beginner’s paradise, also known as Muizenberg beach in Cape Town. Muizenberg offers a long stretch of sandy beach with slow-rolling waves, a number of surf schools and a cool beachfront vibe that make it the perfect location to learn how to surf.

The magic ingredient that makes Muizenberg’s waves ideal for beginners starts far out to sea. This is where the gently sloping continental shelf slows the swell down and makes the waves break relatively far out, then reform a number of times before they finally hit the sand, giving you ample chance to find your feet.

Muizenberg can hold a big crowd, but most surfers tend to congregate on the southern end of the beach at the world famous Surfers Corner. It’s believed this is where the fist waves were ever ridden in South Africa when two American marines stationed in Cape Town after World War I brought their wooden ‘Hawaiian style’ surfboards with them.

Surfers Corner can get really congested, especially on weekends, but it’s easy to spread out down the beach. Despite the crowds, the vibe in the water is usually very friendly with all kinds of surfers riding all kinds of craft. There are always people learning to surf, so you will never feel alone or out of your depth.

The beach is well serviced by a number of Learn to Surf schools, including the original Gary’s Surf School, the Surfshack Surfschool, Roxy Surf School and Learn2Surf.  All these surf schools offer surf lessons as well as surfboard and wetsuit hire. The Shark Spotters are also on duty every day to give you extra piece of mind.

Ten years ago Muizenberg was a bit down and out, but since then the neighbourhood has undergone a massive facelift, thanks in no small part to the learn-to-surf boom. There are plenty of coffee shops and restaurants to relax at after a session while keeping an eye on the waves.

The biggest wave ridden in Cape Town… ever

Every winter huge storms smash into Cape Town on the southern tip of Africa, creating monstrous waves that have made the city famous for big wave surfing. Over the years there have been many memorable rides, but one particular behemoth still stands out as the biggest documented wave ever ridden along these shores.

On 9 August 2008, a massive swell was unfolding over Dungeons, the notorious big-wave reef the lies at the bottom of the Sentinel mountain in Hout Bay. The waves were so huge that it was physically impossible to paddle into them.

Instead, Durbanite Grant “Twiggy” Baker and good friend Greg Long from California were among the few surfers towing each other into the gigantic waves, using jet-skis to “whip” each other into the oncoming swells – a technique where the surfer being towed behind the ski holds onto a rope, then let goes once they are on the wave.

After a few hours of towing in at Dungeons on the rising swell, Baker and Long ventured out to Tafelberg, an offshore reef that lies a kilometre beyond Dungeons. It was the first time anyone had attempted to ride the ominous break. Before Baker could have any second thoughts, Long towed him into an approaching swell and a ride that would go down in the record books.

“The waves were definitely the biggest I’ve ever seen in South Africa and possibly the biggest anywhere,” Baker told Transworld Surf shortly after the session. “Greg towed me into one giant wave that was so big I was terrified and started hyper-ventilating. Later, when we saw the photos taken by Craig Kolesky with a large lens from Chapman’s Peak, we realised that those were possibly the biggest waves ever recorded.”
The wave went on to win Baker the Biggest Wave Award at the 2008/9 Billabong XXL Big Wave Awards, beating out other rides from all over the globe, including Hawaii and California. The wall of water he rode was estimated to be over 70 foot and to this day remains unmatched for sheer size in South African waters. Fittingly, Baker went on to become the 2013/2014 Big Wave World Champ.

Where to surf in Cape Town: False Bay

False Bay is protected from the predominant southwest swells that roll in from the Atlantic Ocean and usually has small waves, but it can get big on southerly or southeast swells. Muizenberg, with its perfect waves for longboarding or learning how to surf, is the hub of the surf scene in False Bay and there’s almost always something to ride here.

From Muizenberg the scenic main road heading south runs next to the ocean all the way to Cape Point and is ideal for checking out the waves, most of which work best on west to northwest winds. Danger Beach next to Saint James beach offers a shallow left and right reef break and a thumping shorebreak. It’s a great beach to hang out on even if there is no surf. A little further south is Kalk Bay Reef, which has been described as a miniature version of the famous Pipeline in Hawaii. Kalk Bay offers mechanical lefts over a very shallow reef and is for experienced surfers only. It’s a short wave and gets extremely crowded, but offers some of the best tubes in the whole of Cape Town if you manage to snag one. Around the corner from Kalk Bay lies Fish Hoek, which has okay waves sometimes but is better known for being a bit sharky. There are a few other breaks along False Bay on the way to Cape Point but they rarely work, because the swell has to bend in at an extreme angle.

Across False Bay lies Strand, which has a strong surf community and consistent beachbreak waves. Heading east from Strand you drive past Gordon’s Bay which occasionally hosts a nice left point break at Bikini Beach on huge swells. The spectacular road then hugs the cliffs and takes you around to Koel Bay, a stunning beach with excellent waves below the caves on the western end. You can park above the surf and look down to check it out. The water is often crystal clear and warmer than anywhere else in the whole of Cape Town, but the wave requires specific conditions to work – namely, a very small swell, light winds and low tide. Beware of the strong rip currents that are found up and down the beach.

Where to surf in Cape Town: Table Bay

Table Bay lies at the foot of Cape Town’s city centre or “city bowl” as it’s called, and is home to the Cape Town harbour. You won’t find any waves here, just fishing boats and shopping galore at the V&A Waterfront. The waves only start again when you get to Milnerton, on the southeastern side of Table Bay.

Milnerton is a long stretch of beach with lots of different swells that merge into Tableview. The wave quality can range from average to excellent, depending on the shape of the sandbanks. The further north you head, the more swell these spots pick up. This stretch of coast is particularly exposed to the southeast wind and is popular with Cape Town’s kiteboarders and windsurfers. On the upside, there is lots of space to find a good wave and spread out the crowd.

Next up is Blouberg, a beach break flanked by rocky outcrops on either side that gets very busy with surfers, kiteboarders and all other types of watercraft. There are a number of surf shops in the Table Bay area and a dedicated local surf community.

Heading north from Blouberg, Table Bay ends and the coastline straightens out into a series of beach breaks called Eerste Steen, Tweede Steen and Derde Steen, which can all produce great waves in the right conditions – light easterly winds and small- to medium-sized swell.

The small town of Melkbos is home to a couple of good waves, the most popular of which is called Tubewave – a fast right hander which can offer good barrels and handles the southeast wind.

Melkbos is the start of a long stretch of arid coastline called the West Coast. The crown jewel of the West Coast is Elands Bay, which lies approximately two hours away and is a favourite weekend getaway for Cape Town surfers. Elands is a long, fast point break that will turn your legs to jelly when it’s working properly. It has the advantage of handling strong winds from any southerly direction, but needs a solid west to southwest swell to be decent.

The West Coast stretch between Melkbos and Elands Bay is home to a number of good waves and a great place to explore and escape the crowds.

Where to surf in Cape Town: Kommetjie

Kommetjie is located on the Atlantic coast and is the hub of surfing in Cape Town. The area offers a wide variety of beach break and reef waves, with Long Beach at its centre.

Long Beach is a very consistent right and left beach break that works on all tides and suits all levels of surfers. However, it is also extremely crowded and can be chaotic on weekends. Try to time your session around the crowds or early in the mornings on weekdays if possible. Further along the beach is a shore break called Crons, which occasionally produces good barrels but is most of the time a dumping close-out (when the entire wave breaks at once). You’re more likely to eat sand than actually make the wave, but it can still be loads of fun for intermediate to advanced surfers.

If the swell is big around Kommetjie you will start to see Sunset Reef breaking, a kilometre out to sea. This is a big wave spot for experienced surfers only.

Heading south around the corner from Long Beach towards Cape Point are a series of reefs that produce excellent waves when the right conditions come together. The best bet is light northerly winds or glassy, no-wind conditions and a large swell. Outer Kom is well known for its heaving lefts, while Crayfish Factory breaks right and is easy to identify – it sits at the foot of an old crayfish factory. Both these spots only start breaking when the swell is over six foot – they are demanding waves that can produce monstrous walls. A step-up surfboard or big wave surfboard are essential when the surf gets serious here.

The sweeping beach south of Crayfish Factory is called Witsands and offers a series of beach break peaks suitable for all surfers. It has the advantage of being offshore in northeast to northwest winds, which is unusual for beachbreaks on the Atlantic coast – they typically prefer southeast winds. Witsands marks the end of Kommetjie and gives way to Misty Cliffs, which can have good waves when the swell is small and the wind is light. The last spot before the Cape Point Nature Reserve begins is Scarborough, which has a good beachbreak and a left point that only works at high tide with the right swell.

There are a number of waves in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to explore, and it’s a fantastic place to spend the day.

Where to surf in Cape Town: Hout Bay to Sea Point

North of Kommetjie is Noordhoek beach, home to a long series of beach break waves that ends in the rocky northern corner known as The Hoek. All these waves can be excellent in moderate southeast winds. The road then takes you to Hout Bay along the spectacular Chapmans Peak drive, where sheer cliffs plunge into the ocean.

Hout Bay itself has very marginal surf, but at the western tip of the bay lies Dungeons, the world-famous reef that is capable of producing some of the biggest waves on the planet.

Heading north over the mountain pass from Hout Bay is Llandudno, a hollow beach break that serves up good barrels, but competition for waves can be fierce. Regardless, it’s a beautiful beach to spend the day on and enjoy a sundowner, the other favourite Llandudno activity aside from surfing. The road then continues north. Once you hit the trendy Camps Bay strip with its bars and clubs, you are in close proximity to the city centre, which lies just over the mountain pass called Kloof Nek. Camps Bay itself has marginal surf but Glen Beach, in the northern corner, can be good but has protective locals.

If you continue following the coastal road you will pass Bantry Bay and Clifton’s First to Fourth Beach, which are all stunning but better suited for suntanning than surfing. Once you hit Sea Point the waves begin again and this stretch of coast is characterised by powerful lefts breaking over jagged rock. There are a number of good quality waves in Sea Point that can handle strong southeast winds but need a relatively large swell to get going. The environment is more urban here, made up of tall apartment buildings and the Sea Point promenade, which runs all the way to Green Point, where you will find the mythical wave of Thermopylae. The wave takes its name from the hull of the sunken ship that sticks out above the take-off zone. When it works, “Thermos” produces a long ride that seems to go on forever, but it is very rare and requires a gigantic swell.