Words by Will Bendix
Photos by Alan Van Gysen
The twin-prop plane banks hard to the right as the captain announces that we have begun our descent to Walvis Bay International Airport. Outside the small window lies a sea of undulating yellow, a vast ocean of desert and sand dunes that stretch into the belly of Africa. Most of the passengers have their heads pressed against the window to get a better look but Thomas King stares straight ahead, gripping the armrests of his seat. His palms are sticky with sweat. It's not just the motion of the plane that unnerves him. Somewhere below us lies the ferocious wave known as Skeleton Bay, a mile-long ride that breaks with unmatched speed and power along the edge of the Namib Desert.
A former big-wave surfer, King has dreamed of riding this anomaly since it was unveiled to the world in a 2009 SURFING magazine article. At first he simply wanted to tackle it on a surfboard, but King later hatched an audacious plan: He was going to be the first to ride it on a SUP.
King's background is one of a versatile surfing connoisseur, riding shortboards and longboards in-between his big-wave exploits. It was inevitable he would try standup paddling and as soon as he picked up a paddle, he was hooked. The South African quickly became one of his country's top competitors, winning the trials at the Huntington Beach Pro in 2014 and charging waves like Sapinus in Tahiti. At the same time, he became obsessed with the idea of challenging the endless Namibian barrel on a standup paddleboard. But even the heavy Tahitian reef passes are a more predictable challenge than the malevolent walls of Skeleton Bay.
All the surfers King spoke to told him it wasn't possible. The wave lurches abruptly from deep water onto extremely shallow sand that's packed hard as concrete. The sudden change in depth forces the wave to turn in on itself, contorting wildly as is explodes down the beach at a relentless pace for hundreds of meters. Which is why nobody has bothered to attempt the feat. King was undeterred.
Now, with the endless desert rising up to meet us, he isn't so sure.
"I hope you brought enough boards with you," says Francois Loubser as we all shake hands. "Because this wave, she really likes to eat boards."
Loubser is built like his trusty Land Rover. Tough. Solid. Made to last against the elements with an engine that runs on diesel and guts. A hardcore Namibian fisherman and exploration guide, he has agreed to be our fixer, but we don't even have a single paddle to load onto his hulking vehicle that waits outside the terminal. All our equipment had to be offloaded because the tiny plane from Cape Town was too heavy. After being assured the surf craft would arrive the following day, we pile into Loubser's truck and the engine roars to life and we chug onto the thin vein of tar connecting the airport to the coast.
Loubser steers the vehicle with a meaty fist, pointing out the window at a towering pyramid of sand known as Dune 9. "Many guys remember this dune when they think of hell," he says with a wry smile. "This is where they had an army training camp when it was still South West Africa, before Namibia became independent. They used to make the rekkies run up and down that dune, up and down."
The rest of the desert melts around us like butter, a hot wind pushing through the windows. "We can have four seasons here in one day," continues Loubser, jabbing his finger into the air like a fleshy thermometer. "You'll wake up in the morning and it will be freezing with mist and you can't see anything. Then it gets hot and the wind starts blowing harder and harder. By nighttime it's clear and calm again." He nods at the desert for affirmation. "Ja, the weather does what it wants here, and the ship radars only pick up the sand dunes. There are a lot of skeletons along this coast."
A dense fog hangs over the industrial harbor of Walvis Bay the following morning as we make our way deeper into the desert. Tall cranes poke their heads through the mist like prehistoric beasts before we turn off the highway, onto a dirt road that cuts through a crimson sea.
"Saltpans," says Loubser. "When the water gets too saline it causes an algae bloom and that's why it goes this red color," he explains. "The flamingos eat the algae and they go pink too."
The pans are teeming with the long-legged birds that wade through the shallow water and flood the sky in psychedelic flocks. Our attention shifts back to the road as it crumbles onto an endless beach.
"You have to follow the tracks," says Loubser, indicating the other 4×4 trails that have cut deep fissures into the sand. "But if nobody's been here for a while, you better know where you are going. You see that?" He points to a darker patch of sand running parallel to us. "It looks dry, but you'll lose your car in that. Swallowed right-up."
Eventually the flat expanse gives way to a deep bay where the 4×4 grinds to a halt. Loubser indicates we have arrived by getting out the car and flipping a cigarette into his mouth. A small but perfect wave hits the shoreline in front of us and unravels into the distance.
"I can't believe it," says King, pointing down the beach, shifting unconsciously from foot to foot. "How can a wave be that long?"
We watch as another trio of tiny waves unfolds along the edge of the desert. There are a few other vehicles scattered along the beach, holding surfers who have made their way from around the world, all waiting for the predicted swell to pick up. Just like us. "I hope those boards arrive today," King says anxiously, then asks, "What is that? A dog?"
A small creature scurries between the ocean and a lagoon that stretches behind us. Sensing our gaze, it stops and stares back, nose twitching in the air. It's not a dog but a jackal, come to feed on the hapless seal pups and the odd slow seabird.
"Ja, they love it here," says Loubser. "There's a colony of seals that live around the lagoon mouth. We often take tourists paddling there so they can play with the seals. But if you're an animal, the desert is all about survival."
Slowly, imperceptibly at first, the wind picks up. It gathers strength throughout the morning and blows harder until finally it is scouring our faces, forcing rivulets of sand into our clothes, our noses, our mouths, the grains crunching loudly between our teeth. By the time we head back to the airport to collect our missing equipment it has become a raging sandstorm. Large drifts of sand creep across the highway and a foreboding orange glow hangs in the sky where the sun lies trapped behind a cloud of dust.
"This is what the end of the world would look like," says King.
A flock of surfers whose equipment suffered the same fate is already waiting anxiously at the airport when we arrive. Out of the apocalypse comes a small pickup loaded with boards of all shapes and sizes lashed down to its flatbed. King's boardbag sits on the top of the bulging pile. "I guess there's no turning back now," he laughs as he grabs his gear.
Later that night the sky clears and the air goes still, save for the faint murmur of the ocean in the distance. We arrive on the beach the following morning to a grey band of fog hanging over the sea. Then we realize the grey band is moving. Fast. It's not fog; it's a wave speeding relentlessly down the point. We're driving 30 miles an hour along the beach and are barely keeping up with the wall of water as we pass other cars where figures scramble for wetsuits amongst shouting and hooting. But when we park our vehicle, all we can do is stare in disbelief.
The swell has arrived and the benign waves from the previous day have mutated into powerful eight-foot sets. It's not so much the size of the waves as their girth, lifting and sucking all the water into the lip, which explodes a few meters from the shoreline. The color of the water has changed too, no longer an inviting green but a dark, grey-brown mass filled with foam and grit.
A few shortboarders scurry tentatively into the lineup where the might of the current immediately drags them down the point. Not long after, a skinny kid who masterfully rode his first wave washes up on the embankment, concussed and limping after being smashed into the concrete-hard sand. His ankle is broken and he doesn't know where he is as his friends help him back to their car.
"If I don't paddle out now, I'm never going to," says King. He suits up, grabs his board and starts trudging up the point.
"Are you really going to paddle out on that?" asks Shaun Payne, a pro surfer from South Africa as King walks past. It's not intended as an insult. There is a genuine sense of camaraderie on the shoreline, an unspoken understanding that anyone who is willing to put themselves on these waves is worthy of respect, no matter what craft they ride. King smiles nervously and nods. "I'm going to try."
The water is cold and heavy but King times the paddle out perfectly, slipping into the lineup with a handful of bodyboarders. Fighting the current is pointless and the small pack drifts down the bay, cautiously picking off waves as they go. Then King is stroking hard, moving himself into position for a medium-sized set. He gets in early, makes the drop and sets his line but gets swallowed by the wave, which speeds past him. By the time he washes up on the beach his paddle is already a few hundred yards further down the point.
"I actually got scared and let go of it underwater," he says after retrieving the paddle. "I didn't want it to hit the bottom and break my arm or something. It's so shallow out there."
He slips out again and is drifting down the spit when the horizon goes dark. A chorus of shouts and whistles erupt from the parked cars and King starts paddling furiously. He barely manages to punch over the first wave and is halfway up the face of the next when he swings around, gives a few hard strokes and drops in. He bottom turns and pulls in under the lip but the wave shuts down on him. There is a collective groan from the beach but King manages to hang onto his paddle this time. He throws it under his chest when he surfaces and prone-paddles quickly back into the lineup.
His next wave is a wide, churning barrel. It looks like he has it under control and is deep in the pocket when his rail slides out. In an instant his board is sucked up the face and King is cartwheeling inside the tube, his paddle tumbling like a toothpick behind him.
"Three waves, three beatings," King says, breaking to gulp down some water on the long walk back up the point. He is breathing hard now, the sheer physicality of the wave catching up with him. Luckily the 32-year-old is no stranger to getting flogged.
Growing up amongst the heavy water reefs around Cape Town, beatings were a regular occurrence for King. He was the youngest invitee to the Red Bull Big Wave Africa, an event featuring some of the best watermen in the world that was held at the notorious open ocean reef of Dungeons in the early 2000s. One wave there in particular had blown his eardrum and nearly drowned him. But nothing really compares to the prolonged intensity of Skeleton Bay, says King.
"It's actually OK getting into the wave," he gasps, between gulps of water. "You've got a bit of an advantage because you can see the sets coming and get into position earlier. The hardest part is keeping your rail set and getting enough speed. You can feel all the water pulling off the bottom, just pulling the board up the face. There's nothing at the bottom of some of those waves, it's dropping way below sea level. I've never felt a wave suck out so intensely."
More beatings and half-made attempts follow, interspersed with long walks back to the top of the spit that only get more grueling as the morning wears on. It seems all but certain the mission is doomed, that this was not a good idea after all.
Then King gets the wave of his life. He paddles into a crisp wall and manages to hold his line through two long sections by shifting his weight hard onto his inside rail. He travels hundreds of yards, in and out the barrel, past a sprinkling of surfers and bodyboarders who hoot wildly from the shoulder, watching the impossible made possible. A third section lures him in and just as it looks like he might come out again, the wave wrenches him from his board and he gets pounded.
A doctor will diagnose King with a case of severe whiplash two days later when he is back home and unable to move his neck from side-to-side, but for now there is just numbness and adrenaline. He grabs his paddle and joins the procession of wave riders making their way back up the point, into the endless desert, toward the endless wave, filled with possibility.