The N7 is a long, straight single-carriage highway that runs up the west coast of South Africa, through a desolate landscape to the border with Namibia. Sometimes, when you drive the road at night, you’ll see the headlights of an approaching vehicle coming straight for you, even when it’s in fact still many kilometres away. The desert plays with your head. Andre Botha likes this.
Far from the Durban piers where he grew up, Botha staked out the Cape all winter. Watching. Waiting. He especially loves the west coast’s harsh environment and hectic weather, but instead of surfing his favourite wave of consequence, the Devil’s Horn, he drove all the way to Namibia to experience what is regarded as the best wave in the world.
“I had no idea the Donkey was so long,” he says. “It’s like a treadmill. Empty waves seem flawless, but once you’re riding, it’s not as mechanical. The wave fluctuates and you need to pick the right one. When you do, it’s quite easy to claim it as the best wave of your life. It’s not the biggest or most thrilling or heaviest wave, but still, it’s unreal.”
But to truly understand Andre Botha, we need to rewind.
Botha was the bodyboarding grom-phenom who won every local boys’ event, skipped juniors and went straight to the men’s division. At 15 he quit school after being stickered up by sponsors and paid to ride professionally. Two years later, he was the sport’s youngest world champion, an achievement he followed up with a second world title the following year. It was a feat that has never been equalled.
“When I grew up in Durban, there was this competitive element,” says Botha. “I’ve never been big on sports, but it felt amazing to win. I loved competing. I suppose winning changes a lot.”
Jordy Smith can attest to that. A few years younger than Botha, Smith has vivid North Beach memories. “Dre got every wave that broke. From the outside to the inside left bowl. No one stood a chance.”
When Botha first started making it in a sport that was riding the crest of a large and perfect wave, the industry was growing, there was money and the riders were rock stars. “Bodyboarding wasn’t as clean-cut back then,” recalls Botha. “It was much wilder. I remember there always being blood and puke on the floor. Guys were more reckless. Drinking, partying all night, crashing bikes, pulling into big close-outs the next day, more drinking…”
Jared Houston is part of the new guard of South African bodyboarding and is the antithesis of the boogers of old. But the very first bodyboarding magazine that he picked up had Botha on the cover. “He was doing this mad invert. It was the sickest thing I’d ever seen. Dre has had the longest-standing career of any Saffa pro and had a huge part in paving the way for guys like myself, Mark McCarthy, Sacha Specker and now Tristan Roberts. We all believed it could be done because of Dre.”
At the height of his career, Botha was earning about $6,000 a month, cashing in winner’s cheques and saving most of the money as his travel was already paid for. Then, a hiccup. Botha wasn’t riding his sponsor’s board because they weren’t making the boards that he needed – instead he got legendary shaper Nick “Mez” Mesritz to make his boards and then stamp the Wave Rebel logo on.
“When they found out, they were so offended that they wrote me off. I had to start eating into my savings at a time where I didn’t really have a proper concept of money,” says Botha.
Things went from weird to worse when Billabong – who had three surfers in the world’s top five (Andy Irons, Taj Barrow and Joel Parkinson), all of whom earned on an incentive basis – cut Botha’s salary to a fifth of what it had been. Not only was he not being paid properly, but he stopped getting results. Meanwhile, bodyboarding had started its gradual decline. “I was just at the end of that huge spike,” Botha muses. “I got burned out after that. I’d lost my competitive drive. It’s like waves. I’d hit a lull.”
Andre Botha does not look like your average bodyboarder. At 1.91m tall and weighing almost 90kg, his build is more like a rugby player’s than the wiry physique that is best suited to the sport’s high-flying acrobatics. Add a scraggly beard and the kind of clothes you’d expect on the frontman of a psych-rock group, and it’s clear Botha’s non-conformist ways don’t make for the most marketable surfer. Not that Botha wants to fit into any pre-defined box anyway.
“The biggest problem with bodyboarding is its image,” he says. “I don’t want to say it, but bodyboards are viewed as the rollerblades of the ocean. A big part of that comes from watching bodyboarders in small waves, when the sport should be about catching waves that surfers can’t and doing moves on sections that surfers won’t. The ’90s had all those rebellious guys and then all of a sudden there were a bunch of geeks running it. I never found that I fit in. Until I met [bodyboard legend] Eddie Solomon. He was also an outcast and I started travelling with him and charging big waves with him. He was a lot older than me. Into having fun and the party side of things…”
Aged just 22, Botha was living in the States as a functioning alcoholic. Life was a blur that he can revisit by shuffling through some of the hundreds of Polaroids he keeps in a shoebox. Pictures of barflies and the fast friends made while partying. Selfies of himself not looking himself. And girls, lots of girls. Beautiful girls, doing things like kissing him or showing off their cleavage or posing in their underwear on their hands and knees with bottles of beer balanced on their bums.
“My life got a bit reckless and I wasn’t really dealing with reality,” Botha admits. “I wasn’t able to deal with life’s problems. That was my big burnout. And after that, I was always kind of living on the edge, just hopping around from one person’s house to the next and having a jolly old time. I wasn’t surfing. Things kind of spiralled, and eventually I realised that I couldn’t carry on living like I was. That I had to use my parents’ house as a place to kind of… rehabilitate.”
Botha’s parents’ place in La Lucia, Durban is a bright, airy home filled with driftwood and Botha’s art. The garden is lush, the couches are comfortable and it’s little wonder that three of the four Botha children choose to live here still. Botha’s walking around barefoot, carrying his dog, Cheeky, a mutt that, despite its size, still resembles its master. Botha rolls a cigarette, then goes upstairs and through a door with ‘No Entry’ and ‘High Voltage’ signs, pointing out the wiring and circuitry that his dad taught him, before stepping out onto the roof of the house where he shows off the solar panels and grey water collection tanks, proudly describing how the family are feeding electricity back into the grid, and speaking a mile a minute about inverters and hydro systems and climate control rooftop gardens.
On the roof, Botha talks about his epic binges, how he suffered withdrawals when he quit the booze, and the biggest reason for his transformation – the petite, brunette schoolteacher he met in Hawaii. “I was a bit of a disaster before I met my better half. That part of my life is over now. I had good times and don’t regret any of it, but there’s this new, exhilarating feeling that I have now,” he says.
Botha’s wife, Trish, films him surf, edits the clips, supports his art and takes care of social media and travel arrangements. Trish pulls out her laptop and plays a recent clip, Desertic, a trilogy that’s a mix of massive Diaz Beach breaks, perfect Donkey, cooking Caves and some secret west coast spots. The clips feature everything from massive drops to full-rotation air reverses, mesmerising barrels and the type of power-surfing that you just don’t see performed on a piece of 42in foam. “We don’t have the best equipment,” Botha acknowledges. “But we get stuff out there. We have a punk attitude where we don’t hold onto footage. We just get stuff out there and then move on.”
Dan Redman is a pro surfer from Durban who remembers, to the day, when surfers’ traditional perceptions of bodyboarders underwent a sea change. “There was that photo of Dre going head first over the falls on a 12ft beast at Chopes [Teahupoo in Tahiti]. No one had seen waves that thick. There was a fair bit of rivalry between the older Durban surfers and the bodyboarders, but that day, at a surf comp, the surfers were running around claiming this North Beach grom.”
For Botha, bodyboarding has always been about searching for and then flinging himself into the best waves. “It’s about wave knowledge: a perfect flow that’s like a sixth sense. Figure that out and the waves come to you. That’s the ultimate part of wave riding: being in the best position for the best wave and then utilising that wave fully. It’s kind of a metaphor for life.”
Back on Namibia’s long bleak coastline, where the cold ocean fog and fierce winds convinced the San to call it the Skeleton Coast, and the early Portuguese navigators to name it the Gates of Hell, it seems like this is a land that God made in anger. But with the right eye, there is a certain kind of beauty here. And having lived through a storm, and now threading himself through another of the Donkey’s perfect cylindrical tubes, Botha sees only light at the end of this particular tunnel.
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