My South African Gap Year AdventureI was 18 and decided to take a gap year...

2 years ago in Gap Year

I was 18 and decided to take a gap year before uni and being rather driven chose to do an entrepreneurship course. I started the course in September 2010 and after 5 weeks in I was bored as hell.

Essays were starting to pile up and whilst my course mates were typing figures furiously into Excel I was looking up surfing gap years around the world, which is where I found Ticket to Ride and the South Africa Surf Instructor Course. I thought it would be a good escape to go travelling, get a surf instructor qualification and work the dream job as an instructor down in Cornwall (bear in mind I could barely stand on a surfboard at this point).

Five months later, after having worked as a pool lifeguard, a barman at the local pub and in a chocolate factory, I had paid for my course and was flying out to South Africa, first stop Jeffrey’s Bay.

As soon as I walked out of the terminal I was warmly welcomed by our Trip Leader Chris, a lanky South African dude that turned out to be the best surf coach ever and an all round legend. A short ride later and we were at the surf camp Island Vibe ready to meet the rest of the group for dinner, a few evening vuvuzela drinks and a dance.

Island VIBES

A little bleary eyed in the morning, and after a great breakfast, I was whisked off with Chris to the local surf shop to buy my first South African surfboard. With some great advice I bought a 6’2 JBay Shapes Fish with Thruster set up, one of my favourite boards in the world. (Top advice from the trip leaders)

What a commute

We went from Jeffreys Bay to Cinsta, East London where we stayed in jungle huts and surfed all day with our coaches Chris and Steve. My surfing was pretty shocking and I hadn’t been the best with my fitness either, so the first time we jumped in the water I was flapping around like a seal. But after a few days of great coaching, I started getting up and catching some waves.

Fast forward a week to Coffee Bay, one of the most remote destinations on the trip, three hours down a dirt road and we arrived at the Coffee Shack, a backpackers nestled on its own in the Transkei. This is where my surfing really started to improve. After a couple of weeks paddling around I was surprised how much easier it was to paddle into waves and how much more natural it was standing and doing S Turns down the face, albeit not always so gracefully. Surfing everyday, even for a couple of weeks, really made a massive difference.

The daily pilgrimage to Coffee Bay

As well as the surf there were lots of extra activities to do in Coffee Bay. We did a cliff walk to a natural pool with cliff jumping, went to the ‘hole in the wall’ a cliff with a massive hole in it where waves would storm through and into an inner lagoon – great fun for a little wave. We enjoyed sundowners on the clifftop with gin & tonic and fresh oysters, fishing with the local lads, pool in the bar with fancy dress Wednesdays and buffalo rules and finally of course, lots and lots of surfing.

We had a lesson from the owner of the Coffee Shack, Dave Malherbe (South African Masters Champion who actually went on to take bronze in the World Masters the year after). He went through theory and technical tips for paddling and catching waves, enforcing good habits that I still have today. We then climbed across the rocks and caught some beautiful glassy waves on the point afterwards. To say we were all completely stoked would be an understatement. We had some great team bonding here and our whole group got on like a house on fire. We got up to all sorts of shenanigans and really built some friendships for life.

After Coffee Bay we whizzed off up the coast towards Durban, with a quick stop for a waffle and waves in Umtentweni, we were on our way to the Palmblooms in Ansteys, The Bluff. By this point we were doing a lot more training for our Surf Instructor and Lifeguard Qualifications, some timed swims in the pools, and really getting rather fit. We surfed New Pier, walking to the end, jumping off into the back and then surfing the waves in. The perfect wave for the lazy surfer.

And we are fully qualified!

In Durban we did our Surf Instructor Exam and Beach Lifeguard course along with our timed swim. I was dreading the timed swim as my first attempt early on in the trip I could barely make the 400m let along in under 9 mins. But after surfing everyday, and doing some training, I absolutely smashed it and swam it in 5 min 50 secs. Even beat Coach Chris in a sprint in the pool, which he probably won’t admit now.

As well as the stop in Ansteys we went up the coast to Ballito, just above Durban. We had some fun waves, did a little trip to a secret spot with the hostel owner Mike down some sand roads and then onto a perfect wave with absolutely no-one out, apart from a couple of dolphins. Along with the epic waves we went on the flow rider (man made wave) where we spent an afternoon in the sun laughing at wipeouts, trying to stand on this thing and having an absolute ball. We also went for a tour round the FCS factory (got some super discounted fins) and the Clayton Surfboard Factory (got to purchase a cheap and epic stick to take back to the UK).

Me killing it (and myself) on the flowrider

I was also fortunate enough in Durban to shape my own board in the last accommodation that we stayed. Mike had a shaping bay and gave us the opportunity to learn from him and do everything from choosing blanks, sanding down the board and helping with the glassing.

I will never forget that and there is nothing like shaping and surfing your own board.

After an epic trip we were down to the last night with a few drinks, a brilliant dinner and little party to finish. I had a wicked time, got my surfing instructor qualification, made some great mates, had basically a private tour of an amazing country, learnt a lot, became much more confident and independent as a person, and of course surfed my socks off. Time to head back to the UK for some English waves and start the season as a surf instructor.

Shaping and surfing your own board is a special feeling

All in all, South Africa is sick!

What to expect

There was a group of 10 of us, 5 girls and 5 boys. Everyone was from a lot of different walks of life but we all managed to get along like a house on fire. We were all there learning to surf, seeing a new country and getting our surfing qualifications. I still see some of these guys to this day and can call some of them my best friends.

AMAZING … Jeffreys Bay, Cinsta, Coffee Bay Point, Ansteys, Cave Rock, New Pier along with a load of secret spots, no crowds in tropical waters and great waves. It was my first taste of proper surfing on different waves and away from the fat sloppy mush of a lot of crowded UK beach break that I was used to seeing. I started to really being able to hold my own and be confident into paddling into most waves and there is nothing like surfing with a group of mates.

Training & Qualifications
The coaching that we got was far more in-depth and substantial than I thought it was going to be. We went through everything from practicing S turns on the sand to the way you should paddle to reading the water and using rips to get you out back. All very important lessons that I can remember to this day. The lessons and guiding never really stopped. There were designated coaching sessions but when we were free-surfing the trip leaders were always watching and would chip in tips here and there. Honestly the coaching couldn’t have been better.

The qualifications were a lot of fun as well. There was a lot of laughs in the water doing rescues with the lifeguard boards, first aid training, timed pool swims and then a theory assessment. I ended up getting my Surf Instructor Qualification and my Beach Safety Qualification, setting me up to teach around the world.

The trip is just jam packed full of different excursions from Bungee Jumps to Climbing Table Mountain to riding the Flow Rider to Surfboard Factory tours. My favourite of all would have to be the safari though. We left Durban and headed out into the wild to the Hluhluwe–Imfolozi Game Reserve. I had never been to anything like it so was very excited! We drove through the park, seeing some small animals, then a few zebras, a few ants and beetles and then… around the corner came this huge giraffe casually strolling down the road. It was amazing, I didn’t want to bus to carry on.

Anyone fancy jumping off the highest bridge bungee jump in the World?

Further up the road we spot a couple of rhinos and drove right up close, I could nearly smell their breath. We carried on, saw some wildebeest on our way to the watering hole, a small pond with a hut for us to stand in that usually gathered a lot of wildlife including some big cats! After about 30 mins of standing in a warm hut, and not seeing much apart from dust and evaporating water, we got back in the car and started to head back to the entrance. Really wanting to see some elephants and lions I was a little disappointed, until…. We spot a massive herd of elephants from the top of a hill in the distance crossing a river and into a field. Just so happens that was on our way back! Amaaaazing!

Casual Zebra

We were driving along the side of the field, opened the side door slightly and watched these amazing animals casually stroll alongside. Safe to say that we were all absolutely gobsmacked. We were about 20m away from these beasts! All very happy we shut the door, put the van back into first gear and started to head on up the road, but before we had gone more than 50 yards the breaks were on and Chris points out of the lefthand side of the van. A pack of lions were right beside the track chilling out in the shade. My god this couldn’t get any better, Steve took a great picture on his camera of the moment. Very satisfied, and completely stoked, we headed back to Ballito for some homemade pizza, a dip in the pool and an good night’s sleep.

I got in touch with a surf school in Polzeath, Cornwall (where I had spent several summer holidays) around November time the year before I went to South Africa, asking for a job. I spoke to a nice chap called Tom (Wiggzy) who was the manager (and also did the Ticket to Ride South Africa trip a few years before!). He organised for me to pop down and meet him and the boss Andy. After a little chin wag and a handshake I had my summer surf instructor job sorted. All I needed to do now was head out to South Africa, slay some waves and get my surf instructor and Beach Safety Qualifications.

Coming back from South Africa with my Surf Instructor Qualification and Beach Lifeguard Qualification, I was straight down to Polzeath to work for 6 months over Easter and the Summer season living the dream in a little camper.

Living the dream

Little did I know that 4 of the other 9 people on my trip had also managed to get jobs as surf instructors in Polzeath!!! So my summer was just a continuation of our South Africa Adventure in the UK, teaching, surfing and having a great time.

For a chat to see if South Africa is right for you, call me on 0208 788 8668 of sling me an email at [email protected].

Always happy to chat!