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This article was first published on 5 September 2016 and was updated by Leigh Hermon on 15 November 2018.
Okay so the Mexicans are not the only ones with a famous wave. Chris du Plessis headed for Jeffreys Bay and found excitement beyond Supertubes…
“That one’s called Kitchen Window,” says veteran wave-addict Adrian du Toit, pointing excitedly to a seemingly insignificant little swelling in the Indian Ocean. It trundles along obediently before breaking into a froth and finally sinking back undramatically into obscurity.
Despite the mix of excitement and childlike awe on Adrian’s face, I struggle helplessly to fathom why this apparently paltry ripple is a world-famous natural phenomenon – one of the five most coveted surfing surfaces on Earth. But it is partly this so-called ‘right-hand point break’ to which the hamlet some 100 kilometres west of Port Elizabeth owes its very existence. And what turned the erstwhile little fishing village into a maze of shrieking day-glo and neon, promoting a myriad commercial watersport concerns, as host of the annual Pro ASP World Tour surfing event.
Of the seven other adjacent swells alternatively known as Magna Tubes, Boneyards, Supertubes, Impossibles, Tubes, The Point and Albatross, Supertubes is widely regarded as the best sector and can break for more than 300m. Boneyards can on occasion link all the way to The Point for a ride of more than a kilometre.
Long before they started amalgamating along this shore, the Khoi and the San must have stood there gazing at this amazing aquatic distension, subconsciously yearning for a long-board. After that, however, the haven’s history is as vague as the stereotypical Hollywood surfers’ thought-train after sunset.
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For a start, no one is quite certain whether Jay Bay (also JBay, Jbay, JayBay) was named after Captain Jeffrey of a certain cargo ship who was forced to land in the vicinity during the 1840s, after an outbreak of scurvy on board – or if its name is derived from a senior partner of the firm Jeffrey & Glendinnings, who opened a store near the main beach in 1849 and became the first person to settle there.
Ignoring the lesser romantic version, we must thus presume the hapless captain survived the scurvy, because in 1850 he built a double-storey mansion called the White House, from the timber of his beached vessel. Perched on the corner of what is today Woltemade and Jeffreys streets opposite the police station, it was eventually bought by one John Reilly in 1928. Reilly also bought the land stretching down to the beachfront where the landmark Wimpy Bar was opened in the 1960s – once a solitary beacon for fun-in-the-sun seekers but now swamped by the influx of industry.
It is a place fondly remembered by Adrian, a former Eastern Cape provincial surfer who has just returned to his homeland after 18 years in Thailand. Forever the lanky, laid-back surfer-boy with a perpetual wry smile and three-day-old stubble, he first came to Jay Bay as a 16-year-old in the mid-1970s. His bright blonde locks have acquired a silver-grey sheen but there’s no loss of mischief in his eyes. “I think the old Spur was also around here if I’m not mistaken,” he says later, seated in Barbarella’s, an oceanfront eatery still settling into its new identity as art-haven for local folk.
“We want this to be home for all the creative people in town,” owner Elize Breytenbach explains over piercing feedback from the PA, as two youngsters attempt a sound check and the black leather-clad interior strains to reflect something of the venue’s concupiscent namesake played by Jane Fonda.
After a couple of decades in Mpumalanga, Elize uprooted some months ago and emigrated to Jay Bay with her sister. She bears the familiar combination of bewildered entrancement and nervous anticipation common among freshly landed inland émigrés to the coast. Asked why this particular beachfront was selected from the myriad along our coastline, she shakes her head slowly before offering a measured, “I have no idea.”
The fact that it’s a buyers’ market might have had something to do with it. Homes here often stay on the market for months on end with 90% of sellers forced to drop their asking price by up to 13%, if property strategist John Loos’s statement in the JBay News is anything to go by. “Prices have declined by no less than 17% percent in real terms since 2008,” he remarked.
The boom might be over but it’s left some scars on a town that has come a long way from dusty outpost with only a smattering of buildings. Peter Richmond certainly maintains this view when I find him tucked away at the far end of an arcane arcade, safely ensconced in what looks like the inside of a marshmallow.
Peter and his brother have been around for 27 years and their pink and powder-white ice cream parlour could fit just as cosily in any other crowded, sweaty seaside resort from Santa Barbara to Brighton. Together with a neighbouring 43-year-old seashell shop, it represents a fraction of what’s left of the old Jay Bay. “In those days,” he informs me, “I could leave my bicycle unlocked outside the Wimpy for three days.”
That evening after dinner, Adrian drags us off for a post-prandial excursion of his old nocturnal stomping ground. The old Jeffreys Bay Hotel was renamed The Savoy in 1937, and demolished before the present awkwardly angular version was erected in 1968.
We enter via two massive medieval barn doors that open into a brightly lit hall with beige tiled floors. A bar counter lines the entire left side of the vault and huge glass doors open to the street, near the stage manned by a bespectacled, bearded DJ. Families having dinner surround an open dance floor in the centre. Directly in front of us, a table of 12 to 15 women who look like you shouldn’t mess with them seems to be staging a ladies night coup. It looks very much like fertile langarm land.
All the more incongruous when the aural backdrop comprises traditional surfer-fare like The Doors. But just as I start thinking Jim Morrison was sounding suspiciously good doing Roadhouse Blues, the DJ says, “Thank you,” the audience claps and a balding man emerges from behind a face brick pillar that seems strategically placed to obscure karaoke performers. “Lekker Dawie, lekker,” some patrons shout as he reclaims his place by the bar.
“It’s a fluke,” I muse, “no-one can do Morrison better than Morrison.” Moments later a sturdy woman with short blonde hair downs her culinary tools at the table she is sharing with her husband and young daughter, and strides up to the stage to make Celine Dion sound second-hand. Next was another woman in a nondescript outfit who miraculously turns an Afrikaans schlager-hit into something perfectly acceptable. Then a young man with dark glasses and a Himalaya shirt barely obscuring a tattoo on his neck, excellently gives it his all, as the stage-lights bounce off his gleaming pate.
It’s as if some renegade nightingale gene has made its way into the local breeding pool and, as we step into the evening to further our bar crawl, we are left pondering why surfing, and not singing, has placed this neck of the woods on the map.
The next day I meet Nico van der Westhuizen for lunch on the boardwalk. Nico left Pretoria years ago after his wife was hijacked and he was robbed at an ATM in rapid succession. A former owner of a building equipment hiring concern, he’s relaxed into a sort of semi-retirement and loves that he can stroll around at night without fretting.
“Lots of locals hate the summer season,” he explains as he leads me up the stairs to the Jolly Dolphin. “I like the contrast. Quiet most of the year and then suddenly this place explodes. For the past two years Jay Bay has become the most popular School’s Out destination after Margate and Plettenberg Bay.”
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The stairwell opens onto to a massive uncovered deck that spans the entire block, complete with a separate section under roof for serious young sakkie-sakkiers. “This place has won five SAB national awards for the most beer sold in a month over the past seven years,” Nico imparts proudly. There’s not a soul in sight but a mental snapshot flashes into focus. I see a teeming mass of thousands of alcohol-fuelled youngsters swept up in an endless wave of free-floating sexual anxiety.
I turn my head towards the main beach – the sweeping stretch of sand leading up to the lighthouse and the broad expanse of water to the south. It’s a clear blue day and the seagulls float over a group of young volleyball players on the beach across the road. The dull slapping of hands on the ball is the primary auditory intrusion. It is the silence before the storm…
Non-surfers can also eat and play in Jay Bay
- SANDSURFING: Yesss, yes, yes we know – but not everybody likes being wet. And it’s a lot easier. If you fall anywhere between the age of 6 and 60, you can head up to the top of an ever-changing sand-dune and glide down at your leisure – or not. Some of the rides are described as heart-stopping. Sandboarding Jeffreys Bay, Aston Bay, Marina Martinique, +27 (0) 83 661 5393
- SURF MUSEUM: It might seem like second-best but if you still don’t know why Jay Bay’s waves are world-class, this is where you can find out. As well as more on local surfing legends and the progression of surfboards, from the heavy wooden long-boards of yore to today’s ultra-light options. It might just inspire you to try it out. Above the Wax Cafe and Quicksilver shop in Da Gama Road, +27 (0) 84 240 1741
- LIVE MUSIC: An institution in town, Potter’s Place, is one of the liveliest music/theatre venues in the Eastern Cape. Take a seat at a lamp-lit table for a meal with a strong focus on hearty and home-cooked – everything from Kaapse beeskerrie to a special Babbelas Brekfis. The musical menu offers everything from Chris Chameleon, Dozi, Piet Botha, Arno Carstens, Stef Bos and Mean Mr Mustard to Eddie Ecksteen and the Bats. Corner Oosterland and St Francis streets, +27 (0) 42 293 0398
- GET OUT OF TOWN: Kabeljous Nature Reserve north of Jay Bay is a 250ha reserve with vast wetlands around the Kabeljous River estuary, and dune thickets, valley bushveld, a euphorbia forest and a 2.5km coastline. It’s a hiker’s haven that offers 3 to 7km walks where you cross paths with bushbuck, blue duiker, bushpig, grysbok, caracal, mongoose, and more than 100 species of birds. The Lombardini Game Farm in the beautiful Seekoei River Valley south of Jeffreys Bay hosts white rhino, buffalo and 17 species of antelope, including sable and eland. Birders can expect to see Secretary Birds, Fish-Eagles and many smaller species. From Jeffreys Bay, you’ll find the entrance across the Kabeljous bridge heading towards Port Elizabeth, +27 (0)42 292-0339
- EAT OUT: A favourite local haunt for fresh-roasted espresso, ground and served with a sense of urgency is Infood Coffee Shop. Also get some fresh crusty breads or chocolate croissants there for your beach-side picnic basket. Corner Schelde and Jeffreys streets, +27 (0) 42 293 1880. Alternatively, Die Walskipper offers food on the beach. It’s set in the dunes, with buckets for lampshades, you can drive your toes into the sand while you wait for some of the best seafood in town, and wine in tin mugs. The clay ovens and open wood-burning fireplaces help keep you warm in winter. Clapton Beach, Marina Martinique, +27 (0) 42 292 0005
Words and Photography Chris du Plessis