We're excited to announce a new Club of the Waves! View the new site

African Surf Photos

John S Callahan exhibit & interview

Joseph Conrad was wrong. In his famous novel "Heart of Darkness" Conrad mistakenly described Africa as the "Dark Continent". He could not have been more wrong. Africa abounds with light and colour, from the burning sands of the Sahara to the Highveldt of South Africa to the tropical coastline of Moçambique. There is war and poverty in this huge continent, but there is also talent, ingenuity, and an irrepressible joie de vivre that is unstoppable in overcoming the obstacles and setbacks of everyday life in extremely difficult circumstances.

For surfers, Africa has more unridden surf than any other continent. From world-class waves like the famous right points of Morocco and South Africa, to the left points in Liberia and Namibia, to more unridden waves in North, South and East Africa than one could surf in a lifetime of exploration. Local surfers ride their waves on wooden boards in Säo Tomé and Madagascar, and other than surf communities in South Africa, Morocco, Ivory Coast, Senegal, Namibia, and Madagascar, surfing is mostly unknown and unpracticed.

Fishing yes - surfing no. Africans see the sea primarily as a source of food, and secondarily; if at all as a place of recreation. In areas like Morocco, Western Sahara, Mauritania and Senegal, the sea is both a barrier and a means of escape for thousands of migrants, via a perilous and expensive journey in a crowded fishing boat to the Canary Islands of Spain, for the tiny chance of getting a job somehow, somewhere in Europe.

We've made projects in more than ten countries in Africa, and the light, colour, and sheer variety of waves and cultures on the continent continue to inspire plans for more.

What sort of reactions did you get from local villages or residents, in places that are seldom surfed in Africa?

JC: Walking through a village in coastal Africa in the middle of nowhere can be a surreal experience - locals react much as if a flying saucer had landed and glowing green spacemen jumped out and started walking towards the beach with spears under their arms. The little kids are the best, they are super excited to see visitors and lose their fear of the Muzungu faster than the adults. Most locals are simply curious and not hostile - they rarely see visitors of any kind, and want to know: why are you here and what are you doing? These villagers are for the most part, simply trying to survive - they farm and they fish, and no one does anything for them in the western context of government aid or infrastructure development.

You've referred to Jeffrey's Bay as "a magical place" in a past interview - J-Bay is perhaps one of the most famous or well-known places in Africa (to surfers)… But to you, someone who has travelled further afield in Africa in search of waves, is J-Bay still one of your favourite places in Africa?

JC: Yes. We love Jeffrey's Bay. There is nothing quite as inspiring as the early morning view of a solid 6 to 8 foot groundswell coming around the point at Boneyards and lining up for Supertubes with a stiff offshore southwest wind, especially if it has been marginal to flat for a few weeks before. Jeffrey's deserves its fame and reputation as one of the best surfing waves in the world, as some thirty years after surfers first started riding waves at The Point on the inside of the Bay, Supertubes is still one of the most challenging waves for the best surfers on the ASP World Tour. South African surfers complain how crowded it gets with foreign surfers - but J-Bay is a physically challenging place to surf with cool to cold water, very long waves, and longer paddles to get back to the lineup. On a good day, people get tired and the lineup spreads out. After a solid four-day swell, people get very tired! Other Saffas use the popularity of Jeffrey's to score uncrowded waves elsewhere, knowing most people will be surfing Supertubes and other spots will be empty.

You've travelled to Africa a few times now in recent years - Do you try to visit new, un-chartered, un-surfed or places that just aren't photographed that often each time, or are there places you just have to revisit and explore further?

JC: There are places we would love to revisit, but there are too many places we haven't been. Africa is big, with enormous diversity and a huge variety of waves and cultures. Some places are easier than others, some of the most difficult offer the biggest rewards like the right points in Mauritania. It's much harder to visit Mauritania than Morocco, the Mauritanian Government doesn't much care for Western tourists. No visa on arrival, one has to apply and pay for a visa well in advance. The area with the best waves is not officially a part of any country and under the control of the Army, access is by an informal arrangement. If the Commandante likes you, you can surf as much as you want - there is never anyone out. If the Commandante doesn't like you, you won't be able to surf at all. With that kind of visa hassle and vague ambiguity, most surfers would buy a package deal for a week in Agadir in Morocco than make a risky trip to Mauritania.

What do you find most alluring about Africa?

JC: The vast variety of people, cultures, and waves, unequalled anywhere in the world. When traveling in Africa, one has to be quick to improvise - if one plan doesn't work, try another. It's not a place for whingers or complainers, if you and your traveling companions can't have a good laugh about being stuck in the airport at 4am with no plane in sight, nothing to drink, nothing to do, and no place to go, then it's probably better to go somewhere else. The low points are easily counterbalanced by experiences like bumping down the 20th dirt road turnoff to the coast, passing local women with huge plastic containers of water balanced on their heads and driving up to the edge of the village, getting out to a sea of screaming kids and walking to the beach to find a long offshore left point at the rivermouth with no one out. Or driving for hours through the flat featureless dead-boring desert on the edge of the Sahara, looking at the numbers on the GPS and eventually pulling up to the edge of a cliff and seeing a perfect point with a six foot groundswell - and no one out.

A lot of your work is shot in more remote locations. Given that you are originally from Hawaii, what inspired you to explore the 'unknown'?

JC: Hawaii is a small place, tiny islands scattered in the vast immensity of the North Pacific Ocean. Growing up in one of the world's most isolated places, it was an inspiration to see what the rest of the world was like.

You've travelled around South East Asia extensively, your home for several years now, what have been your favourite locations to shoot/visit?

JC: We love Indonesia for the quality and variety of the waves - it has to be the best surfing country in the world for sheer consistent surf. Sure, it's crowded in Bali, but Bali is easy - get on a plane, get off a plane, surf. Anyone can do it, and many, many surfers go to Bali. Other places in Indonesia's 18,000 islands are a lot more difficult to access, and hence much less crowded.

Many Asian locations can be very good on their day, from the wild and remote Pacific coast of the Philippines to the reefs and sandbars of Jeju Island in South Korea. Many Asian locations have never been surfed, so it's very much a new frontier - anyone who says it's all been done, there is no real adventure left in surfing doesn't know what they're taking about!

Bookmark and Share John Callahan & COTW / 2009

Our e-newsletter…

To receive our free e-newsletter, please enter your email address below and we'll keep you updated on new features, artists and photographers…