Stab Magazine | An Audience With The Most Prepared Man In Surf

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An Audience With The Most Prepared Man In Surf

There’s a reason why Alan Van Gysen is the first pick for Stab’s international projects.

style // Jan 14, 2019
Words by Stab
Reading Time: 7 minutes

Good natured, worldly, meteorologically adept, extremely handy with his craft.

It would be a gross understatement for one to refer to South African, Alan Van Gysen merely as a lensman Stab adores. 

There’s a reason he’s our guiding light for Stab projects of significance and international expeditions when imagery of the utmost quality is desired. Then there’s his capacity to stand firm in face of hostilities from climate, sea life, or the sometimes harsh aspects of local politics and customs.

He’s wise and adaptable in any continent he visits, and he’s visited a lot more than most.

As expected, over the years AVG has gathered a treasure trove of travel stories from his global wanderings, recounts from the world’s most rewarding and challenging photoshoot venues and so, coinciding with the release of his film “An African Surfing Life”, we got him on the line to extract what we could from him for education and entertainment purposes.

 

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Stick Dane Reynolds in front of Alan’s lens, and with a reasonable amount of wave quality, you’ll have magic.

Stab: When did you first start shooting surf, and what drew you to the form?

AVG: I first started shooting surf photography in high school in 1999, around the same time I was drawn to the form.

As a young boy my days were filled from start to finish with everything from classic music lessons to Judo, art, surf lifesaving, swimming, soccer, waterpolo cricket, tennis… you name it. By the time my final two years of high school came around I had a great mentally creative and physically strong foundation from. I could pursue my new found love for taking photographs of friends bodyboarding and surfing in the cold and rough waters of Cape Town, a short train-ride from the landlocked suburbs to the quiet beaches of both the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

Around the same time I remember walking into a book store looking for anything surf related; I found the local Zigzag Surfing Magazine, read and absorbed every page right there and was instantly committed.

My arrival onto the scene couldn’t have been at a better time as almost no one else was shooting in the cold, sharky waters of Cape Town.

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One of Alan’s preferred subjects.

You’re widely considered the most prepared man in surf. Type of guy you’re very grateful for in a pinch. Where did your seemingly broad talents, which seem very necessary to what you do and the situations you find yourself in, come from?

It’s one of life’s big questions isn’t it; what makes us who we are – nature or nurture?

I believe what makes me and anyone who they are is a combination of both nature and nurture. On the nature side I come from a family equally gifted and talented in music and art and ocean prowess; so you could say creativity and athleticism are in my DNA. But of all the talents and gifts I believe I have been given it’s those from my environment/upbringing/nurturing that has left the biggest mark and shaped me the most; those of faith, perseverance, hard-work, encouragement, fellowship, perspective and social awareness.

When I was two years old my father was diagnosed with primary-progressive Multiple Sclerosis (MS). It’s a physically and psychologically degenerative, life-altering disease which impacts all of those around you – your spouse and children the most. I am the oldest of four with three younger sisters and for the greater part of my childhood and youth as a young man I was impacted by my father’s disease and what it did to us all as a family.

You grow up much quicker in situations like these and you’re forced to learn and figure out a lot of things you otherwise wouldn’t have to as a person. As difficult as it was for all of us then I am thankful for the lessons it taught and the imprint it made on me.

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Mr Anderson dances down Namibia’s iconic sand bar.

You’ve dragged some fairly fresh faces to some very foreign corners. What makes for a capable member of a mission?

Choosing the right travel companion for any adventure in life is one of the most important aspects of planning a trip. You quickly learn what kind of person can or can’t travel to and within remote, seemingly difficult destinations around the globe, especially in Africa. Patience, optimism and compassion are key. They don’t call it “African Time” for nothing, and when things go wrong – and they always do, you need people who can roll with it, add value and solutions, and who can take what others call a problem as an experience and memory.

Guys like Craig Anderson in Namibia during one of the best swells in recent history and the thickest fog imaginable; Dane Gudauskas and Kepa Acero in Angola and an 18-hour “locals only” bus ride; Michael February in North West Africa at one of the worlds best sand points during a flat spell – to name a few.

These guys and others know how to travel and they know we don’t control the ocean and what comes our way. It’s how we act and react when things come our way that makes the difference on any trip.

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Everyone has something to lose, here’s four of Alan’s dearest.

You’re flying fast and loose on the road a lot, but you’re also a proper family man. What’s the most terrified you’ve been that you might not make it home to them?

Of all the adventures and experiences I have had in two decades of surf travel I would have to say that remote, east Madagascar was the one time I wasn’t sure I would get back to the beach in one piece, and possible not home to my family at all.

Regarded as one of the sharkiest places on earth by National Geographic the river-mouths of east Madagascar are teaming with sharks of every kind – so much so that fisherman used to catch up to 100 sharks a night in nets to sell to the Chinese. Signs stand guard on the more populous beaches further south where many swimmers and fisherman are regularly pulled out by Zambezi sharks.

I prayed more pleadingly – begging, than ever before with each arm-stroke that the predator/s following me wouldn’t take me, all alone. I had paddled across from the headland where our tented jungle camp was erected beneath the African jungle to surf a half-moon shaped reef that was barreling with no takers – the crew all resting after a busy morning of shooting another spot.

Half way through the session I started having that nagging, disturbing feeling like I was being watched, followed or hunted after every wave I caught and paddle back to the take-off zone. I started seeing shadows and shapes moving beneath the murky green water and immediately began paddling slowly and protectively back to camp – it was the longest and most terrifying paddle I have ever had to endure. I was never bumped or circled – merely followed, but I’ve never felt more exposed and in danger than then.

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“I have and probably will cop a lot more flack from surfers, but I sincerely hope and pray that my traveling to, documenting of and interacting with local people in the communities where waves are found in Africa will have a positive impact beyond just the stoke it brings those fortunate enough to surf these waves.”

It seems pretty widely accepted that every surf spots been tapped these days, yet you and a handful of others keep scoring new zones. What keeps your faith alive on these less than guaranteed missions?

Despite the globalised, socially-aware and crowded time we live in, I still believe there are places yet to visit, see and experience that few others have seen and not surfed.

Previously politically unstable regions, difficult to get to places and man-altered stretches of coast are certainly still waiting the curious and determined surf traveler in Africa in 2019. My faith in these missions and life in general is based on Promise and my being Lead to these places for a reason beyond my own desire.

I have and probably will cop a lot more flack from surfers, but I sincerely hope and pray that my traveling to, documenting of and interacting with local people in the communities where waves are found in Africa will have a positive impact beyond just the stoke it brings those fortunate enough to surf these waves. And it should not just be for an elite group alone.

One of the problems with Africa – or any unjust government or organisation, is that all the money or support goes to too few at the top who want to control everything. My hope and prayer is that good and just surfers can support the actual people and community directly on the ground without having to go through any corrupt “middle-persons”. 

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More fruits for the daring.

What’s next for AVG? What locales are you hoping to tick off?

If I can continue living a well-balanced life with my family – providing for them and being a good husband and father, while encouraging and enriching the lives of others in the places and people I meet on the road, I will be a happy man.

As far as destinations go I have plans to visit Somalia, Mauritania, Mozambique and Liberia in the near future, but you never know; some trips take years to come together. All I can do is my utmost to follow; choosing to walk through the small gate and along the narrow path set out before me.

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“If I can continue living a well-balanced life with my family – providing for them and being a good husband and father, while encouraging and enriching the lives of others in the places and people I meet on the road, I will be a happy man.”

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