Alan van Gysen

Out of Africa

Photography: Alan van Gysen 

Being a surfer in Africa means being committed. It means braving the wilderness of a rich and diverse surf frontier, and being prepared for everything that is sent your way. South African surf photographer Alan van Gysen opens his portfolio of breathtaking images for The Red Bulletin
Alan van Gysen

When Alan van Gysen first felt the tug of adventure 15 years ago, rather than spending his savings on travelling, he decided to make a living by sharing the surfing stories of his journey. A background in competitive swimming combined with studying classical music and art at school was the ideal preparation for the physical art form of surf photography. “I prefer to shoot from the water,” he says, “feeding off the energy and perspective of a moment and trying to encapsulate and share the beauty of the subject and location.”

“It’s difficult not to fall in love with Africa,” says Alan van Gysen, describing the mystery and opportunity that beckons to travellers before they’ve even set foot on the continent’s blood-red soil. “Africa is surrounded by a sea and three oceans that produce waves of every kind, most of which are unexplored throughout 38 countries,” he says. “That’s the attraction: there is something for everyone. An adventure for everyone. First World, Third World, in-between worlds: Africa holds the key to the door of your choosing. For instance, one of the world’s best waves right now, at Skeleton Bay in Namibia, has only been surfed regularly since 2011. And last year, an even newer wave appeared – this time in Angola, and it’s 3km long. Imagine what else is out there.

“What I love about Africa is that it offers a sense of freedom unknown to many living in the First World. Sure, that freedom often comes at a price, usually in the form of challenges to overcome. But isn’t that how the best discoveries are made? Like cultural discoveries on 24-hour bus rides. Or self-discoveries when your car breaks down in the desert. Or discovering a never-before-surfed wave when your ferry is cancelled and you have to take an alternative route. That’s what the journey and lifestyle of surfing is all about, and often you only appreciate it when your worn-out feet touch the wet sand for the first time at a wave you’ve never surfed before.”

South African freesurfer Craig Anderson finds himself and lets it all sink in at one of the world’s most perfect waves, the sand point at Skeleton Bay, Namibia

Alan van Gysen

American surfer Dane Gudauskas revels in the isolated perfection of this secret spot in Southern Angola. Free to experiment and surf for himself after a lengthy lay-off with a hand injury, it was everything that his soul needed

“Freesurfing, or soul surfing, is in every surfer’s heart. From weekend warriors to grizzled tour campaigners, the search is always on for an empty wave, free of ego and hustle. Surfing purity and the satisfaction of heart and soul. Surfers call it ‘stoke’, and it’s what fuels the surf addiction. Few places offer as much of it as Africa.”

“North and West Africa see big swells at places like Morocco, Senegal and the Canary Islands, but few places offer bigger and more powerful waves than South Africa,” “Open to the full force of deep Atlantic swells generated in the Roaring Forties, South Africa gets hammered by giant surf during the southern hemisphere’s winter months. “Cape Town has a growing big-wave surfing community, and South Africans are becoming known for fearless and composed big-wave charging. And while some spots may not offer giant walls of water to tackle, there are many smaller, protected spots that light up when big swells wrap around the continent’s southern tip.”

Unlike Australia, Hawaii and Indonesia, Africa doesn’t have much surfing culture,” says Van Gysen. “There are still communities which have no idea what surfing is. It’s a completely foreign concept, as alien as humans flying. People often go wild on the beach, imitating surf movements and looking at surfboards like they’ve fallen from the sky. One of the great gifts of travelling in Africa is the opportunity to immerse yourself in these communities and their cultures.”

“The beauty of an empty, crystal-blue wave is what has driven surfers to surf since the birth of it all. To be able to stand inside and within a moving body of water is the ultimate feeling for any surfer and willf orever remain the most timeless aspect of surfing. As a famous surf wear slogan goes: ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling’”

Alan van Gysen

Tracking a surfer on a 2km-long wave in the middle of the desert is no mean feat. “Flying in from a neighbouring country, the helicopter had to wait hours for the thick Namibian fog to clear before landing on the sand in front of this wave,” says Van Gysen. “The beauty here is in how the wave breaks: the crushing curve, the explosion of white water, the shadowy tube and the churned-up sand. Craig Anderson is amid the chaos and driving for the exit”  

“Photography has always been about perspective. Whether from above or below, horizontal or vertical, the view is utilised to emphasise the moment. But how do you photograph one of the world’s longest waves, in the middle of the Namib desert with no vantage point? At the mighty Skeleton Bay – where there is no elevation for observation, just sea and sand stretching as far as the eye can see – a bird’s-eye-view from the clouds is the answer.”

Alan van Gysen

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