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What’s the use of a fine house if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?

- Henry David Thoreau


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Nov 02, 2017

Black Hawaii

In São Tomé, a small African country, a surfer witnesses the growth of one of the youngest modern, alternative surf scenes in the world—an indigenous surf-riding culture called “corre-barra” by the locals.

WRITTEN BY

Franz Orsi

I am sitting on a steep ground overlooking a nicely shaped right-hander rolling in shallow pristine waters over a slab punctuated by sea urchins and corals. Around me, a bunch of local kids approximately eight or nine years old screaming for every wave coming in and talking to me in Portuguese, commenting on how they could have caught that wave as any surf dude from any other place on Earth would do. I suddenly realized then that I just happened to arrive in one of the liveliest surf community I ever met in my life.
As we speak about the surf, a bunch of other kids appear from behind the cliffs, paddling through the channel on some very special boards. Those boards look very flat and thin. As they get closer I understand that what they’re riding is actually a local version of a bodyboard made of wood. “Corre barra! Corre barra!” the kids around me started to shout. I ask what it means. They explain it to me by pointing at the young surfers in the water. As we keep on watching the scene we see a bunch of young kids dropping on every wave with their rudimentary boards. It is surfing at his very infancy—I thought.

The surf scene on remote São Tomé is as extraordinary as its setting is exotic. I spent part of my summer surfing the perfect point breaks of São Tomé together with a small bunch of local surfers who grew up catching waves on their wooden tàbuas and are now ripping on regular but usually obsolete foam boards, mostly left behind by the few Portuguese surfers that happened to pass there.

The island is a former Portuguese colony. It’s now half of the tiny twin-island African republic of São Tomé and Príncipe, the smallest country in Africa after Seychelles, sitting some 300km off the coast of Gabon. The islands present themselves to the traveller as a small African version of Hawaii, which to some extent they are, with volcanos, lush green vegetation and shallow point breaks. The only difference is that the roads are terrible and the electricity is scarce. Here tourism remains an afterthought, which made it all the more intriguing to me.

I was there not only because the waves in São Tomé were so good but also because I wanted to witness with my own eyes the vibe of this tiny African Hawaii where the invention of surfing, as I later learned, happened independently from anywhere else in the world. Yes, São Tomé as Hawaii has been one of the cradles of surfing. As for many other inventions in the history of civilization, similar discoveries happened independently in different parts of the world.

It was Sam George who first witnessed this independent invention of surfing in São Tomé. When he visited the island in 2000, the Californian surfer intended to “pioneer” its waves; what he found instead was an indigenous surf-riding culture—well and thriving—“corre-barra” as the locals call it. “Corre-barra” as I later learned literally means “ride-wave”. Wave riding, as we know it. And it has a long history on the island. No one knows when this tradition started, but kids on São Tomé had ridden hand-carved bodyboards on their bellies for as long as anyone could remember. It is just part of the local culture as much as fishing or dancing.

After that first visit to São Tomé, Sam George returned to the island in 2006 to make a film about this incredible discovery: The Lost Wave: An African Surf Story. What he found during his second visit was a small bunch of locals that started to carve their own surfboards out of wood and learned to ride on their feet. As he and his film crew left modern boards behind, a small stand-up surf community on São Tomé emerged. Surely it can be considered one of the youngest modern surf scenes in the world, but with a very long history coming from decades or even centuries of “corre-barra” tradition.

Such state of transition (or coexistence) between “corre-barra” and modern surfing created an interesting dynamic within the local community. As kids learn to ride waves on the traditional wooden boards, using them almost as bodyboards and then trying to stand up from time to time, they also climb the ladder of the local surfing community. A certain hierarchy applies here: as kids evolve in their “corre-barra” skills they also start to be entitled to use more regularly one of the few modern surf boards spread over the local surf community. The foam boards stock is limited so it is carefully managed within the community. Sharing is key in São Tomé.

Witnessing the growth—and the stoke—of one of the youngest modern surf scenes in the world it was for sure some of the most interesting experiences in my life. As my days on the island were running by, I got to know virtually everybody involved in this lively surfing community. From the pioneers, like Chum, the king of the point break of Porto Alegre in the South, to the boys of Santana, who grew up riding waves on their wooden planks and now became progressive young surfers with no less talent or style than any Californian or European young gun. Their names are Jejé, Danilk, Zezito, Ailton, Assis and Edu. I started to spend my days with them, inside and outside the water, getting more and more interested in their stories and ultimately witnessing their growth as surfers and young men.

While I was there with the boys of Santana I got to know that they were granted the chance to participate at the ISA Junior World Surfing Championships to be held in Azores, Portugal later in the year. A few surfers from Portugal who came across the surf scene of Santana – the surf capital of São Tomé – and got to know the local young guns impressed by the pool of talent and stoke decided to raise money and find sponsors to help these guys live their dream and bring them to compete at the World Championships. You can just imagine how excited these boys were about that. This was the first time travelling outside the country for them, and of course the first international surfing competition. And that was definitely what they dreamt about for all their lives. As for myself, I ended up booking a flight to Azores as well to meet them again in a few weeks’ time and to be a first-hand testimony of this modern surf fairy tale of the boys who learn to surf on some wood planks that were now going to the World Championships. That was a historic moment for surfing and a touching one for me and for all the people who helped to make it possible.

It’s not important to talk about the Championship here. History was made. And I believe that surfing benefited from getting in touch with the youngest modern surf scene in the world and for sure the one with more stoke. And vibes.

Long live the “corre-barra” tradition and to the history of an alternative surfing culture in Africa. I got back to my place with my mind full of images of stoke, happiness and loud laughs on and off the water. Long live the “corre-barra” because at the end of the day, we may find out that surfing was indeed first discovered in the Black Continent and that indeed “the best surfer out there is the one having the most fun”.

Images: Franz Orsi and Vania Marques

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Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation.

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WRITTEN BY

Alison Watson

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 Dr Alison Watson

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