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 travelers before they’ve even set foot on the continent’s blood-red soil. Based in Cape Town, a stone’s throw from Kommetjie beach, the 32-year-old has been photographing surfing since the late 1990s. “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 almost 2 miles 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.”
“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 that 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 traveling 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 will forever remain the most timeless aspect of surfing. As a famous surf wear slogan goes: ‘Only a surfer knows the feeling.’”
“Photography has always been about perspective. Whether from above or below, horizontal or vertical, the view is utilized to emphasize 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.”