Drive Thru South Africa

The Dark Highway

Pondering Life and Death on the Drive Thru South Africa.

There I was in a shuddering tin can, hurtling at 1,000 miles an hour some 33,000 feet above the hard, green surface of the Indian Ocean, and possibly the very last thoughts of my entire life were gonna be: “Geez, I hate frickin’ turbulence.” What an idiot.

I guess you don’t know what your brain’s gonna come up with when you’re faced with the prospect of dying. I looked around the flight at that moment, and it was white-knuckle city-boney hinges connecting frightened bodies to fingers that were clawing into armrests as if life depended on it. And maybe it did for a while, until we hit smooth air and everyone instantly went back to their movie or magazine or gin and tonic as if nothing had even happened. Who wants to think about dying when there’s living to be done?

During the turbulence, I saw one set of hands not clutching for anything-no panic, no fear, no nothing. Truth of the matter was the owner of these hands had already been thinking long and hard about life and death, and the risks he’d be facing once this plane landed in South Africa. It had been twenty years since he’d been back to the country of his childhood, spare for a brief surf trip over a decade ago, and if his prior knowledge of the place was anything to go by, turbulence was the absolute least of his worries. This man’s name? Martin Potter.

“I learned that courage was not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”

“Mate, I don’t think I’ll be able to do the whole thing, mainly because there are places I refuse to go,” Potter said. “If we’re driving through the Transkei, for example, I want an armed guard carrying a loaded gun the whole time. It’s so dangerous, it’s f-ked up. I’m not joking. I want his gun to have real f-kin’ bullets.”

Pottz wasn’t actually panicking, but he was far from joking. The ’89 world champ knew the deal. He’d watched the Drive Thrus in Japan, South America, and Australia and enjoyed the behind-the-scenes pranks and high jinks that come with squeezing a bunch of pro surfers into a stinking vehicle for two weeks straight. He knew for Drive Thru South Africa he’d be joining a stellar cast, including regular road trippers Donavon Frankenreiter, Benji Weatherley, and Pat O’Connell, as well as new dudes Mike Losness and Nathan “Nudes” Webster. But Pottz also knew that the laid-back, carefree shenanigans the boys enjoyed in other countries may not necessarily slot right in with the ways of life on the dark continent.

On night one, he sat down with some crew in front of an open fire to air his concerns. “There’ll be no going off at night, no wandering too far from the cars, no silly shit like that at all,” he warned. “The place is heavy. It’s got a heavy history. We’re gonna have two brand-new vans, boards on the roof, a heap of camera gear, computers, iPods, and all that shit, and we’re gonna look like tourists and be easy targets. In poor areas, there are scouts who see where you park, and car jackings happen all the time … But if we can get around all of that, we should be able to have some fun.”

Upon hearing this, Benji stood up, nervously scratched the back of his head and joked, “Jesus, it sounds like the safest place in South Africa is in the f-kin’ shark cages.”

“As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

I don’t know how many times you’ve ever picked up your local newspaper and read “Umtata Woman Gored By Rhinoceros,” but in South Africa it’s page-six news, and the heading size suggests it’s the kind of thing that happens more regularly than you’d like to imagine.

A few pages farther, warranting even less space, is the story of a Durban bag snatcher whose just received a 25-year jail sentence for his crimes against unsuspecting tourists strolling the beachside promenade at dusk. The ad of police, a white guy, says he’s happy with the judge’s penalty as it sends a powerful message to other criminals (i.e., don’t get caught). Down by the long grass next to the house we’d infested at Jeffrey’s Bay, a sign warned: Beware of Cobras. It was if the entire country could kill you the moment you stepped outside, which was bizarre because by the end of the first week, the only danger we’d encountered on the Drive Thru came in the form of a slightly peeved ostrich …

For the sake of good television, Nudes, Pat O, Losness, and Pottz had all signed up to race the giant flightless birds across the mighty Serengeti, or at least across a little paddock a couple of hundred miles to the south. The big boys of the Drive Thru, Donnie and Benji, politely passed. Donnie had to prepare for a two-show concert during downtime of the Billabong Pro (an all-time double-sell-out performance featuring Tom Curren on drums, guest vocals with Slater and Occy, and the totally shredding Eddie Vance Halen-Burrow-Taj’s Dad-on lead), while Benji unfortunately tipped the scales slightly too heavy for Big Bird to handle.

An ostrich can run at 45 miles an hour, which makes it the second fastest of any land animal (the fastest is the cheetah). Contrary to popular belief, they do not stick their heads in the sand, though that doesn’t stop them from doing it with the heads of others. Struggling to stay on his magnificent feathery steed in the first heat, Pottz found himself slipping sideways off the bird, momentarily riding completely horizontal to the ground before getting whipped into the dust. A giant talon thumped the earth only inches from his skull before clumping off at high speed into the desert.

“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

If hunting down the wild animals of South Africa was good sport, then hunting the waves was even better.

From Capetown to J-Bay, up to Durban, then down through the Transkei, it was just one epic right point after another. Some had barrel sections that started from behind a clutch of rocks like Snapper, others had peak sections that ran like Lennox on a junky swell. Some were fat and fun, others were racy with air sections and steep walls that begged for full rail demolition. The one crowded surf we did encounter at Durban was still a glassy, rippable four-foot beachbreak. Despite the fact they scored a couple of super-deep, below-sea-level pits dodging fishing lines off the end of the pier, Donnie and Pottz were over it. In fact, the only person not concerned was Losness, who finally got a few lefts and reasoned that it was still better than the best day of the year at Salt Creek with 200 fewer guys out.

The five natural-footers on board certainly weren’t complaining about the lack of lefts once out of town, and Losness, the sole goofy, had more than enough spunk to hold his own backside. Interestingly, the level of competition between the surfers was unusually high. I figured these trips were a chance for the lads to let their hair down a bit, but with thirteen episodes for Fuel TV needing to be filled over thirteen days, nobody wanted to look like the kook dragging the chain.

From the early surf at The Hook (a crystal-clear, two-foot session at the base of a 2,000-foot cliff in Capetown) to the last waves of the day at smoking six-to-eight-foot J-Bay, the boys took the blades straight to each other’s throats, and over the course of the two weeks it wasn’t unusual to hear comments like:

“Oh Nudes, that stand-up today, that was the one. I owe you for that, you c-ksucker.”

“Benji, I’m gonna get you back for that air, asshole.”

“Pat got the clip today. That happy little f-ker got the clip.”

I can think of only three occasions where some feeling of rivalry wasn’t in the water. The first, ironically, was during a contest-the Martin Potter Classic-where everyone had to ride a four-foot super-disk, twin-fin copy of Pottz’ grommet-hood board we found in the rack at a backpackers’ hostel. The second was out at J-Bay on the epic last day, when everyone frothed on sharing the best waves of their lives. The third was deep in the heart of the infamous Transkei, where a crumbly, three-foot right point set the scene for one of the best days of the Drive Thru.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Driving through the Transkei was a mind-boggling experience. It was the first time we fully got to appreciate and experience the magnitude of the country we were in. The variety of different geographical conditions-from tropical rainforests to rocky deserts, mountain ranges, and coastal regions-was incredible, but it was the wide-open, rolling grasslands that drifted like giant swells of land to the horizon that really captured your imagination.

It was in such an environment that we passed through a small town called Qunu, the childhood home of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela lived there, the population of the village was probably no more than a few hundred people. They lived in beehive-shaped huts made of mud brick with a single pole in the middle that helped support a peaked grass roof. The floors of the dwellings were usually built on the remains of an ant heap and were kept smooth and hard with regular smearings of cow turd. While the population of Qunu has expanded considerably, many modern variations of the same huts exist. In fact, it’s easy to picture what life on the plains might have been like for Mandela as a boy, but a whole lot harder to figure out how he survived 27 years in putrid little prison cells for wanting to share that freedom with his people. No wonder his new house overlooks the entire region.

The Transkei’s dangerous reputation is also not without reason. It’s one of the poorest areas outside of the major cities, and with long distances between any sort of numbered municipal law enforcement, policing the area can be somewhat of a task. But the armed guard turned out to be completely unnecessary, and the thousands of people we passed lining the roads on their walks to or from school, church, or work were more than happy to wave and share a smile.

One morning at yet another flawless right point, some local kids walked up looking slightly puzzled by the happenings in the water. Without a moment of hesitation, Donnie grabbed the pair of them, paddled them out, and pushed them onto the first waves. They kicked and screamed and had a blast. Within half an hour they were catching whitewash without his help. Donnie was frothing: “Can you believe it? I pushed that kid onto one wave and now he’s gonna surf for the rest of his life.” When the kid came up to return the board a few hours later, Donnie shook his head. “That’s yours,” he said with a laugh. “Now get out there and catch some waves, grommet!”

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

A grommet. That’s all Pottz was when he first left South Africa to chase the world tour. Fifteen years old, full of explosive talent, and well ready to get the hell out.

Before that, he used to ditch school to surf the piers in Durban. To get better waves he befriended older locals with cars who’d take him out of the city on weekend camping trips up or down the coast. Being the grom on these sojourns meant doing all the shit-kicker jobs, but the one he hated most was washing the pots and pans after every post-surf cook-up. He hated it so bad that the guys started calling him “Pots And Pans” just to rub it in. The nickname eventually shortened and soon became his moniker for life: Pots.

At least three countries claim ownership of Pottz. His passport and birth certificate say he’s from the United Kingdom, while he happily calls Australia his home. But his unmistakable accent, his surfing heritage, and even his nickn copy of Pottz’ grommet-hood board we found in the rack at a backpackers’ hostel. The second was out at J-Bay on the epic last day, when everyone frothed on sharing the best waves of their lives. The third was deep in the heart of the infamous Transkei, where a crumbly, three-foot right point set the scene for one of the best days of the Drive Thru.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”

Driving through the Transkei was a mind-boggling experience. It was the first time we fully got to appreciate and experience the magnitude of the country we were in. The variety of different geographical conditions-from tropical rainforests to rocky deserts, mountain ranges, and coastal regions-was incredible, but it was the wide-open, rolling grasslands that drifted like giant swells of land to the horizon that really captured your imagination.

It was in such an environment that we passed through a small town called Qunu, the childhood home of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela lived there, the population of the village was probably no more than a few hundred people. They lived in beehive-shaped huts made of mud brick with a single pole in the middle that helped support a peaked grass roof. The floors of the dwellings were usually built on the remains of an ant heap and were kept smooth and hard with regular smearings of cow turd. While the population of Qunu has expanded considerably, many modern variations of the same huts exist. In fact, it’s easy to picture what life on the plains might have been like for Mandela as a boy, but a whole lot harder to figure out how he survived 27 years in putrid little prison cells for wanting to share that freedom with his people. No wonder his new house overlooks the entire region.

The Transkei’s dangerous reputation is also not without reason. It’s one of the poorest areas outside of the major cities, and with long distances between any sort of numbered municipal law enforcement, policing the area can be somewhat of a task. But the armed guard turned out to be completely unnecessary, and the thousands of people we passed lining the roads on their walks to or from school, church, or work were more than happy to wave and share a smile.

One morning at yet another flawless right point, some local kids walked up looking slightly puzzled by the happenings in the water. Without a moment of hesitation, Donnie grabbed the pair of them, paddled them out, and pushed them onto the first waves. They kicked and screamed and had a blast. Within half an hour they were catching whitewash without his help. Donnie was frothing: “Can you believe it? I pushed that kid onto one wave and now he’s gonna surf for the rest of his life.” When the kid came up to return the board a few hours later, Donnie shook his head. “That’s yours,” he said with a laugh. “Now get out there and catch some waves, grommet!”

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.”

A grommet. That’s all Pottz was when he first left South Africa to chase the world tour. Fifteen years old, full of explosive talent, and well ready to get the hell out.

Before that, he used to ditch school to surf the piers in Durban. To get better waves he befriended older locals with cars who’d take him out of the city on weekend camping trips up or down the coast. Being the grom on these sojourns meant doing all the shit-kicker jobs, but the one he hated most was washing the pots and pans after every post-surf cook-up. He hated it so bad that the guys started calling him “Pots And Pans” just to rub it in. The nickname eventually shortened and soon became his moniker for life: Pots.

At least three countries claim ownership of Pottz. His passport and birth certificate say he’s from the United Kingdom, while he happily calls Australia his home. But his unmistakable accent, his surfing heritage, and even his nickname are undoubtedly South African, so for everyone on the Drive Thru, sharing his return was all the more memorable an experience.

“Man, I can’t believe we’re surfing with Pottz,” frothed Benji who paid homage to the legend with a retro, custom Potter red-and-green bull’s-eye sprayed on one of his sticks.

For his part, Potter was just as happy to be mixing it up with the boys. He dug on the camaraderie, the endless surf conversations, and of course dishing out the odd lesson about what it really is to blow the back out of a wave. But it wasn’t all gold. Pots And Pans is a grom no more, and he definitely didn’t dig on the fourteen-man entourage, or sitting in the car waiting for laggers when he could be on the road or out in the water. Mind you, he wasn’t the only one prone to a bit of barking.

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Pat O’Connell is one of the most thoughtful people you’re ever likely to meet. His whole deal is making sure everyone is as stoked as he is. Even when he’s trying to disagree with you, he agrees first: “You know what? I totally agree with what you’re saying, but I think that maybe, and I don’t want to disagree here, but … ” You get the picture. So when Pat O’Connell starts losing it, you realize pretty quickly that shit is starting to go sour.

The problem was J-Bay, or rather the fact that we were a two-day drive away from J-Bay and an epic swell was just about to smash into the joint. Sitting at the airport, group meetings were called to decide the best course of action. Airline strikes meant long delays and no guarantees of securing flights. If we started driving, we could make it in time for the best day. Every cook threw his two cents into the mix, until finally Pat boiled over.

This was the aspect of the Drive Thru I’d been looking most forward to: the surfers hitting breaking point. It was bound to happen. Drive Thru Producers Greg Browning and Taylor Steele have a lot riding on these little babies. As well as the stand-alone movie, there’s a TV show a day to produce, and that means getting up at dawn, driving like a maniac, surfing a new break every single time you paddle out, fitting in activities like lion parks, ostrich racing, mountain climbing, flow-riding, etc., until you go to bed at night scared to death that someone is gonna wake you up before you fall sleep. Throw in tight seating, airline strikes, piss breaks, Benji’s farts, fruitless surf checks, hotel check-ins and check-outs, food stops, and flat tires, and you begin to understand the heavy work ethic required to keep the Drive Thru wheels in motion. “I’ve never worked this much in my life. This is the hardest I’ve ever worked as a pro surfer, hands down,” said Nudes, a twelve-year veteran of both the WQS and WCT, one morning.

Once fatigue set in, the mind snap was never far behind. The boys dealt with it in different ways. Donnie would turn to his guitar, Nudes would turn to his cell phone and text message love with his girl in L.A., Mike would transform into Ekim (a demented alter-ego who pretty much tore strips off anyone who walked within sledging distance), Pottz would growl, and Benji would say something like, “Hey, you know what, it’s like I’ve been kicked in the balls seventeen times and then been kicked in the balls again while I had balls on my chin.” Pat dealt with this particular brain explosion by getting in the car and driving south.

“When the water starts boiling, it is foolish to turn off the heat.”

J-Bay is everything you’ve ever heard but better, and then at six to eight foot, even better than that. Roll out all the clichà‡s here: speed, length, tubes, steep walls fanned by light offshores, and that crazy afternoon light that has photographers wishing they could make love to the sky.

On the last day of Drive Thru South Africa, J-Bay was absolutely flawless. Even the considerable crowd (still a line at a Mariah Carey moviie compared to the Superbank) couldn’t dim the enthusiasm of the boys. The lineup was like a walk down J-Bay’s surfing Hall of Fame. Shaun Tomson, Pottz, and Shaun Holmes sat deepest and easily scored the sets of the day. Slater, still in town after winning the Billabong Pro, got typically barreled off his dial. Donnie rode a variety of craft to great effect-a short brown twin, then a 6’8″ five-fin mini gun, fading open face and cheater-lining deep-pocket rides on both. Benji got into a carving groove. Nudes and Pat didn’t get out of the water for seven hours, trading rail-slicing hacks and speedy shacks through Supers. Losness drew some of the best lines of the day with fully extended, horizontal high-line backside carves, which he whipped out of with speed to burn.

Right at dusk even Greg snuck out from behind the camera to get just one little pearl for himself. On a wave that Slater bombed out the back, the mastermind of the Drive Thru concept snagged one of the best tubes of the trip and, let me tell ya, he deserved it. For a bloke who surfs as good as Greg does, it must be a quiet torture filming all your mates getting the waves of their lives, but for two weeks that’s exactly what he did. Not once did he ever complain about his work; rather, he saw it as the blessing that allowed him to continue enjoying the delights of the surfing world. And what a world.

Late in the afternoon, as I took in the surrounding beauty of the bay, I thought about the past two weeks-the waves we’d found, the friendships we’d forged, and more than anything, the land we’d been so privileged to experience. As I sat there, I suddenly noticed Shaun Tomson sitting next to me in the lineup.

“Great country you got here, mate,” I said to him.

He gave me a knowing smile, nodded, and replied, “Spectacular.”

are undoubtedly South African, so for everyone on the Drive Thru, sharing his return was all the more memorable an experience.

“Man, I can’t believe we’re surfing with Pottz,” frothed Benji who paid homage to the legend with a retro, custom Potter red-and-green bull’s-eye sprayed on one of his sticks.

For his part, Potter was just as happy to be mixing it up with the boys. He dug on the camaraderie, the endless surf conversations, and of course dishing out the odd lesson about what it really is to blow the back out of a wave. But it wasn’t all gold. Pots And Pans is a grom no more, and he definitely didn’t dig on the fourteen-man entourage, or sitting in the car waiting for laggers when he could be on the road or out in the water. Mind you, he wasn’t the only one prone to a bit of barking.

“The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”

Pat O’Connell is one of the most thoughtful people you’re ever likely to meet. His whole deal is making sure everyone is as stoked as he is. Even when he’s trying to disagree with you, he agrees first: “You know what? I totally agree with what you’re saying, but I think that maybe, and I don’t want to disagree here, but … ” You get the picture. So when Pat O’Connell starts losing it, you realize pretty quickly that shit is starting to go sour.

The problem was J-Bay, or rather the fact that we were a two-day drive away from J-Bay and an epic swell was just about to smash into the joint. Sitting at the airport, group meetings were called to decide the best course of action. Airline strikes meant long delays and no guarantees of securing flights. If we started driving, we could make it in time for the best day. Every cook threw his two cents into the mix, until finally Pat boiled over.

This was the aspect of the Drive Thru I’d been looking most forward to: the surfers hitting breaking point. It was bound to happen. Drive Thru Producers Greg Browning and Taylor Steele have a lot riding on these little babies. As well as the stand-alone movie, there’s a TV show a day to produce, and that means getting up at dawn, driving like a maniac, surfing a new break every single time you paddle out, fitting in activities like lion parks, ostrich racing, mountain climbing, flow-riding, etc., until you go to bed at night scared to death that someone is gonna wake you up before you fall sleep. Throw in tight seating, airline strikes, piss breaks, Benji’s farts, fruitless surf checks, hotel check-ins and check-outs, food stops, and flat tires, and you begin to understand the heavy work ethic required to keep the Drive Thru wheels in motion. “I’ve never worked this much in my life. This is the hardest I’ve ever worked as a pro surfer, hands down,” said Nudes, a twelve-year veteran of both the WQS and WCT, one morning.

Once fatigue set in, the mind snap was never far behind. The boys dealt with it in different ways. Donnie would turn to his guitar, Nudes would turn to his cell phone and text message love with his girl in L.A., Mike would transform into Ekim (a demented alter-ego who pretty much tore strips off anyone who walked within sledging distance), Pottz would growl, and Benji would say something like, “Hey, you know what, it’s like I’ve been kicked in the balls seventeen times and then been kicked in the balls again while I had balls on my chin.” Pat dealt with this particular brain explosion by getting in the car and driving south.

“When the water starts boiling, it is foolish to turn off the heat.”

J-Bay is everything you’ve ever heard but better, and then at six to eight foot, even better than that. Roll out all the clichà‡s here: speed, length, tubes, steep walls fanned by light offshores, and that crazy afternoon light that has photographers wishing they could make love to the sky.

On the last day of Drive Thru South Africa, J-Bay was absolutely flawless. Even the considerable crowd (still a line at a Mariah Carey movie compared to the Superbank) couldn’t dim the enthusiasm of the boys. The lineup was like a walk down J-Bay’s surfing Hall of Fame. Shaun Tomson, Pottz, and Shaun Holmes sat deepest and easily scored the sets of the day. Slater, still in town after winning the Billabong Pro, got typically barreled off his dial. Donnie rode a variety of craft to great effect-a short brown twin, then a 6’8″ five-fin mini gun, fading open face and cheater-lining deep-pocket rides on both. Benji got into a carving groove. Nudes and Pat didn’t get out of the water for seven hours, trading rail-slicing hacks and speedy shacks through Supers. Losness drew some of the best lines of the day with fully extended, horizontal high-line backside carves, which he whipped out of with speed to burn.

Right at dusk even Greg snuck out from behind the camera to get just one little pearl for himself. On a wave that Slater bombed out the back, the mastermind of the Drive Thru concept snagged one of the best tubes of the trip and, let me tell ya, he deserved it. For a bloke who surfs as good as Greg does, it must be a quiet torture filming all your mates getting the waves of their lives, but for two weeks that’s exactly what he did. Not once did he ever complain about his work; rather, he saw it as the blessing that allowed him to continue enjoying the delights of the surfing world. And what a world.

Late in the afternoon, as I took in the surrounding beauty of the bay, I thought about the past two weeks-the waves we’d found, the friendships we’d forged, and more than anything, the land we’d been so privileged to experience. As I sat there, I suddenly noticed Shaun Tomson sitting next to me in the lineup.

“Great country you got here, mate,” I said to him.

He gave me a knowing smile, nodded, and replied, “Spectacular.”

rey movie compared to the Superbank) couldn’t dim the enthusiasm of the boys. The lineup was like a walk down J-Bay’s surfing Hall of Fame. Shaun Tomson, Pottz, and Shaun Holmes sat deepest and easily scored the sets of the day. Slater, still in town after winning the Billabong Pro, got typically barreled off his dial. Donnie rode a variety of craft to great effect-a short brown twin, then a 6’8″ five-fin mini gun, fading open face and cheater-lining deep-pocket rides on both. Benji got into a carving groove. Nudes and Pat didn’t get out of the water for seven hours, trading rail-slicing hacks and speedy shacks through Supers. Losness drew some of the best lines of the day with fully extended, horizontal high-line backside carves, which he whipped out of with speed to burn.

Right at dusk even Greg snuck out from behind the camera to get just one little pearl for himself. On a wave that Slater bombed out the back, the mastermind of the Drive Thru concept snagged one of the best tubes of the trip and, let me tell ya, he deserved it. For a bloke who surfs as good as Greg does, it must be a quiet torture filming all your mates getting the waves of their lives, but for two weeks that’s exactly what he did. Not once did he ever complain about his work; rather, he saw it as the blessing that allowed him to continue enjoying the delights of the surfing world. And what a world.

Late in the afternoon, as I took in the surrounding beauty of the bay, I thought about the past two weeks-the waves we’d found, the friendships we’d forged, and more than anything, the land we’d been so privileged to experience. As I sat there, I suddenly noticed Shaun Tomson sitting next to me in the lineup.

“Great country you got here, mate,” I said to him.

He gave me a knowing smile, nodded, and replied, “Spectacular.”