VW ‘Kombi Camper’ goes up the Garden Route
Ihad just left the Beach Hotel in Port Elizabeth en route to East London, when a man in a delivery van pulled up beside me and indicated that I should wind down the window. Instead, I pushed a button and, when the glass was fully depressed, he said to me: “I will bet driving that makes you recall your youth!” What a perceptive fellow! My beard might be snow-white but, hey, even ballies can develop wanderlust and I like to think that in my fellow road-user I had a kindred spirit who would do some serious roadtrippin’ when he reached my age.
I was driving the new Volkswagen California Coast 2.0 TDI, the 2018 sixth generation version of the venerable Volksie Kombi campervan. Say the words “California Coast” and the words have a distinct echo … surf, surf, surf. I picked up the vehicle in Cape Town and my mission (by no means impossible) was to travel the Garden Route to East London visiting some legendary surfing spots, including those where I had learned to fall off a board and scrape myself silly on rocks when I was a teenager.
The top-of-the-line California Coast (with ridiculously expensive Acapulco Blue and Reflex Silver Heritage paint scheme), however, is about as close to the Volksie busses of my youth as boogie-boarding is to surfing. Sure, we slept in them, but the foam mattresses on the floor (the back seats had all been taken out) were just as likely to be shared by boards and wetsuits as wannabe beach-bunnies.
The diesel-powered Volkswagen campervan of today features two double beds – one in a pop-up roof – as well as an integrated glass-topped cooling, cooking, and washing module, a table, and stowage space galore. It has a seven-speed automatic transmission and a top speed of 185 km/h, going from 0-100 km/h in 12.9 seconds (I think the one I travelled in in 1978 would just about be reaching 100 km/h now!).
The fuel tank capacity is 80 litres, which means one can get from Cape Town to Port Elizabeth – with a few excursions thrown in – relatively easily. It drives beautifully, the only downside being that, on anything but the smoothest highways, the interior rattles incorrigibly.
Because I was leaving the vehicle in the Eastern Cape and flying home, I could not use the California as an out and out mobile home, since Flysafair does not encourage you to bring an entire cottage/kitchen aboard its aircraft. I did, though, use the vehicle as an office for the week-long journey (with the odd afternoon nap alongside less populated beaches) and it served admirably.
The California comes with two stowed-away camping chairs and an awning; the former was used often in the late afternoon, the latter not, because it was generally so windy I was afraid it might get damaged. My first stop was the ever-delightful Wilderness Manor of JD Janse van Rensburg and Gerald Hoch, which consistently gets ranked as the top guesthouse in this idyllic Southern Cape village by Tripadvisor, with service, luxury, and attention to detail being beyond compare.
VIC BAY RIGHT-BREAK
Wilderness is situated between two famous surfing spots of very different
character, Victoria or lovingly called “Vic” Bay and Buffels Bay – more commonly known as Buffels. Incidentally, you know you are visiting a noted surf site when the road sign director from the highway (in this case the N2) is so plastered with surfing decals that you can hardly read the name of the destination.
Vic Bay lies between Wilderness and George, and Buffels between Wilderness and Knysna. Just about all they have in common is that there is only one road in and out. Vic Bay comprises a single row of houses and the right-hand break is on the spot, while Buffels is a lockup-and-go holiday village where surfers congregate a kilometre away. The beach is wild, desolate, and rock-strewn and can be quite dangerous for inexperienced and unaccompanied surfers.
Less than three hours’ drive up the N2 is St. Francis Bay which, in turn is just six kilometres from Cape St. Francis – home of the “perfect wave” featured in the seminal 1966 surfing movie Endless
Summer. As luck (or fate) would have it, the surf was absolutely flat when I arrived in the early evening, so I headed straight for The Sands@stfrancis, a luxury boutique hotel in the Port Elizabeth Hotel Group stable. It is perched on a cliff less than 100 m from the Indian Ocean and I could not resist sleeping with my French doors and curtains wide open. The surf noise was deafening yet strangely soporific and I slept well till glorious golden sunrise light filled my room and filled the day with promise.
THE MECCA OF SURFING
Soon after breakfast, I headed to Jeffrey’s Bay … indisputably the Mecca of surfing in South Africa. It’s a far cry from the village where I learned to surf in the ’Seventies but, hey, you can change the town but you cannot change the sea! There are two renowned spots in “J-bay”; Kitchen Window where the laaities learn to surf and Supertubes where they take their craft to the next level or bail out because it is too scary. Supertubes is known throughout the surfing world.
Once again there was very little happening when I arrived, but I was captivated by the sight of a young woman standing on the rocks and staring intently at the sea. It was only when I was going through the photos that I took (at my “desk” in the California) that I noticed she was watching a pod of dolphins surfing the waves.
The final spot, the Nahoon Reef in East London, was scheduled to be the highlight of the trip. Volkswagen SA were part sponsors of the Buffalo City Surf Pro and I looked forward to visiting one of the stomping grounds of my pre-teen years to photograph the sport for the first time. The competition ran over three days: Friday to Sunday. When I got there in the late afternoon on Day 1, it was raining. While it did not rain for more than a few hours on Saturday, the light was appaling and I was beginning to despair of getting any decent shots. Sunday, however, dawned bright and only slightly breezy. Surf’s up!