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Environment

Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

In a small coastal village of Taiwan, something special is emerging between the jungle and the ocean.

WRITTEN BY

Alison Watson

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation. It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Zeppelin Wood

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Events

Mar 25, 2019

GritFest 2019: The long-awaited trad climbing event returns

Fueled by a common passion, an assembly of seasoned climbers revive the traditional climbing movement just outside of Delhi, India.

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The wind coming off the rock face felt inhospitable, but the air itself gave off a sense of communal joy. After 33 years in absence, the thrill at the Great Indian Trad Festival, or Gritfest, emerged again for a new generation. 

We stood together in ceremony around Mohit Oberoi, aka Mo, the architect of the Dhauj trad climbing era, whose been climbing in the area since 1983. Mo, who continues to inspire many, briefly underlined the cause behind the Gritfest: a two-day annual trad climbing gathering that finally saw the light of day on February 23rd and 24th 2019. The gathering, although one of its kind, was not the first. The first one took place in 1985 and was put together by Tejvir Khurrana.

Read next: Mohit Oberoi: My History with Dhauj, Delhi’s Real Trad Area

“Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep”

For those of you who might be unfamiliar with the climbing scene in India, Dhauj is where some of the country’s finest climbing began. Located in Faridabad Haryana, Dhauj is roughly between 18 to 20 miles away from Delhi. The region is home to the Aravali Mountains that start in Delhi and pass through southern Haryana to the state of Rajasthan across the west, ending in Gujrat.

The Great Indian Trad Fest was long overdue and brought together by Ashwin Shah, who is the figurative sentinel guard of the Dhauj territory. In addition to being the guy with more gear than you’d ever expect one man to own, he is also often caught headhunting belayers, sometimes even climbers. His never-aging obsession with Dhauj is also very contagious. I’m grateful to start my own climbing journey with Ashwin. In my first attempts at belaying, my simple mistake caused him to drop on a 5-meter whipper. It could have been more.

Rajesh, on the left, getting ready to belay, Ashwin in the middle and Prerna on the right

That whipper, in hindsight, transmuted into a defining moment for me. The primal squeal Ashwin let out while falling made me realize the danger of this new passion I couldn’t help but fall for myself. That being said, had it not been for Ashwin’s impressionable optimism to entrust me with his life, Dhauj wouldn’t have held the same allure that it does for me now. Ashwin started contemplating the Gritfest after his return from Ramanagara Romp in Bangalore: a three-day event that gauged the possibility of climbs undertaken during a two-day window.

Read Next: Why the Aravalli Forest Range is the Most Degraded Zone in India

The idea behind the Gritfest is to celebrate a legacy built over the last four to five decades. A legacy that should be preserved for posterity as it has been thus far. “The objective is to think about the future,” said Mo, as he jogged his memory from back in the days. Furthermore, the fest also aims to encourage and educate aspiring climbers on traditional climbing: a form of climbing that requires climbers to place gear to protect against falls, and remove it when a pitch is complete.

Mo leading Aries at the Prow.

Sadly, the fest also takes place at a time when the government of Haryana seeks to amend an age-old act,  the Punjab Land Preservation Act, 1900 (PLPA), that would put thousands of acres of land in the Aravalli range under threat. India’s Supreme Court, however, has reigned in and we will likely know the outcome in the days to come.

The know-how around trad climbing rests with a handful of members in the community. This also makes the Gritfest ideal for supporting a trad-exploration pivot in the country. Dhauj, also home to the oldest fold mountains in India, has been scoped out with lines that go over 100 feet. The guidebook compiled by Mohit Oberoi documents some fine world-class routes since the early stages of climbing in and around Delhi. With grades ranging between 5.4 to 5.12a, Dhauj has more than 270 promising routes.

The fest kicked off with Mo leading the first pitch on Aries, a 5.6 rating, 60 feet high face at the prow, while the community followed. Seeing Mo repeat some of the climbs he’s been doing for over 30 years was exhilarating to say the least. Amongst the fellow climbers, we also had some professional athletes, including Sandeep Maity, Bharat Bhusan, and Prerna Dangi. The fest also saw participation from the founders of Suru Fest and BoulderBox.

Kira rappelling down from the top of Hysteria with a stengun, 5.10a.

“Trad climbing can be a humbling experience”

While the Gritfest finally came to fruition, I wondered as to why it took so long for it to happen. One of the questions that I particularly had in mind was regarding the popularity of places such as Badami and Hampi over Dhauj. Although the style of climbing varies across all regions, the scope and thrill of climbing in Dhauj remains underestimated. For one reason, I knew that there is a serious dearth of trad climbing skills which makes it partly inaccessible. Whereas the red sandstone crags bolted with possibly the best sports routes in India make the approach to Badami relatively easier.

I reached out to Mo, and asked him to share his perspective on the fest as well as some of the questions I had in mind.

1) Tell us a little about your thoughts on theGritfest?

It’s a great way for climbers to get together and climb, form new partnerships, share information and also solidify the ethic part of climbing, especially in Dhauj, which is purely a trad climbing area.

2) What is it that the current community can learn from Gritfest?

The possibility of climbing in Dhauj is huge and there exists such an amazing playground right on their doorstep, also Dhauj is an amazing place to learn “trad climbing”.

3) Since it was the first installment, where do you see it heading in the future?

I think it will grow to a large number of climbers congregating here as long as we KEEP IT SIMPLE, and climb as much as possible. We should keep the learning workshops “How to climb” type of courses out of this. This should be one event where we just climb at whatever level we feel comfortable with.

4) Why is it that Dhauj isn’t nearly as popular as Badami or Hampi?

I’m not sure why, really. It’s possible that the grades are not “bragging” grades and climbers don’t feel comfortable starting to lead or climb on “trad” at a lower range of grades. “Trad” climbing can be a humbling experience as one has to work up from the lower grades upwards. It is both a mental and physical challenge unlike climbing on bolts. Despite the guidebook, there is a reluctance to going out to Dhauj which surprises me, that Delhi / NCR locals would rather have travelled more times to Badami / Hampi than take a short ride to their local crag.

Perhaps it is about bragging rights. Perhaps it’s about the lack of skills. Whatever the reason might be, Dhauj will continue to inspire generations to come and fests like Gritfest will serve to strengthen our community. Whether you are new to climbing or have been at it for years, there is always something to learn.

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