Several elephants around a watering hole.
The Dispatch

Conveyor Belt Nose Rides

Two friends on the hunt for the perfect waves off the southern tip of Africa find inspiration in the past

  • Photography — Mackenzie Duncan
  • Words — Drew Graham

Had it not been for that feeling every surfer gets when they have an amazing session, of wanting nothing but more of the same thing.

Drew Graham
Shot through the rearview mirror of someone reading a book, lying in the back of a campervan.

Conveyor Belt Nose Rides — Mackenzie Duncan

When Mackenzie and I were discussing plans for a surf trip across the world, we knew we would document the journey extensively, so we wanted to make sure we did not just rent a car and drive to the first surf break that had waves. We tried to stay true to those timeless aesthetics, those classic designs where form perfectly meets function, those flickering surf films with the broadcast-announcer-type voice explaining the basics to the viewer, the faded color tones, denim jacket, wool cap, worn leather boots—you know the look.

As much as we are drawn to those classic designs ourselves, those styles or looks—whatever you want to call them—were also what inspired the surfers and adventurers way back in the day who went tromping around in search of empty waves all over the world. Those same guys that inspired us to book flights across the globe in the first place. So, in their honor, we wanted to do whatever we could and not get sucked into the neon boardshorts, big logo, everyday-business that has been associated with surfing for too long.

Keeping all that in mind, we filled our bags with more analog cameras and film than clothes, more books than computers, and jumped on a plane to South Africa.

A few days after landing in Cape Town, Mackenzie and I walked into one of the oldest surf shops in South Africa and walked out with three boards, the result of a deal worked with the son of one of South Africa’s founding shapers. Each board was the outcome of decades of experience and inherited knowledge combined with a fusion of modern design. We got our hands on some vintage logs and a single fin that made us squirm, dreaming about the right-hand point breaks we were about to discover up the coast. We walked out of the shop like little boys given free rein in a toy store.

Often a new board might sit around for a few days, a week, maybe longer, before the conditions line up to give you that first paddle out, but for us it was only a few minutes. Delayed only by the time it took to wax the boards, snap a few photos, bolt in some fins, and jump into our suits, we were out in the lineup, the jet lag finally wearing off with every wave. Laughing as we passed one another, paddling back out from our latest ride and purposely getting in each other’s way when we went to paddle into a new wave, always trying to keep the wave count even.

A surfer making his way back up a grassy bank from the beach, carrying his board.

Soon the car horns and angry yells from cab drivers were endlessly cutting us off in traffic, we got the fear of driving down the wrong side of the road, but the heat of the city faded in the distance as we bounced along the coast, braking only for baboons and gas station ice creams. We’d gotten a hint back in Cape Town about a must-stop logging wave to check out before we got to the legendary Jeffery’s Bay. Following the Google Maps pin we pulled into an empty parking lot with not a wave in sight. We sat around for a few minutes, figuring “Ahh well, we drove by a cool-looking brewery just down the road, might as well go have a pint and find a place to park the van for the night.” As we were discussing the risks of camping on the street in a deserted holiday town, a single surfer paddled out from a point just down the beach, sat for a few minutes, and then caught a 500-meter, perfectly-peeling, waist-high ride along the rocks and out of sight around the next point. The intel was right after all—we had just been looking in the wrong direction!

If there were ever a record for getting suited up and into the water, we would have beaten the frothiest surfers on the planet that night. Finally finding the waves we had flown across the world for, if we hesitated it was only to wonder why only one other surfer was out there, as it was well past quitting-time and this wave was working perfectly for laid-back summer nose rides.

Conveyor Belt Nose Rides — Mackenzie Duncan

Catching conveyor belt nose rides until it was too dark to see the rocks that had started to stick up with the receding tide, we probably could have driven back to the airport that evening and gone home satisfied, our trip a success. Had it not been for that feeling every surfer gets when they have an extraordinary session, of wanting nothing but more of the same thing.

It did not take long as we bumped down the road in an old VW van to remind us of our original inspiration—feeling nostalgic for our own vans as much as for the bygone surf trip glory South Africa must have been like 50 years before. While making breakfast in the parking lot one morning, a self-described “old salt” came up to us and asked out of pure confusion, “Why are you two young guys driving around in a beat-up old van with a couple of logs strapped to the roof?”—only to fillus full of Endless Summer-era stories for a few hours (Bruce Brown once kicked him out of the water during the filming of the movie at his home break). While we discussed the intricacies of fin designs and cross-stepping techniques, he discovered we were as passionate about slow waves and sound design as he was.

Then off we went, down the slow, dusty roads, passing old Land Cruisers bouncing through mud puddles and modern cafés tucked around the corner from the beach. South Africa equally filled us with our yearnings for the old, rough and rugged adventure we were looking for, as much as its euro-inspired cities reminded us of how those classic styles are right at home in the most contemporary setting. We’re already planning our next hunt for conveyor belt nose rides.

Wide angle shot of empty seats, arranged around two campfires, with people mingling and talking in small groups, with large trees forming a canopy in the background.

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