The Loneliest Planet, with Alan Van Gysen
The Loneliest Planet with Alan Van Gysen, 31 years old and from Cape Town, South Africa. Photos: From Namibia to South Africa, through Mozambique and Madagascar and Angola, Alan captures moments of mysterious unity, on land, and in the sea. Interview by Derek Rielly The great African continent. Does it ring for you? Think about the west […]
The Loneliest Planet with Alan Van Gysen, 31 years old and from Cape Town, South Africa.
Photos: From Namibia to South Africa, through Mozambique and Madagascar and Angola, Alan captures moments of mysterious unity, on land, and in the sea.
Interview by Derek Rielly
The great African continent. Does it ring for you? Think about the west coast: Morocco, Senegal, Liberia, Angola, Namibia. Swing east and you’ll surf from Somalia through Tanzania and Mozambique. Egypt? Yeah, it’s Africa, too.
For the surfer who wants exotic, who wants to tread in sand where few delicate surfer feet have been, who wants the sometimes overt, but often covert, threat of danger, Africa calls you.
Alan van Gysen is a photographer Stab has, lately, grown very fond of. His travels, his angles, his adventures speak of a man whose ambition is less an accumulation of wealth, although that ain’t a bad thing, but a search for great experience.
“A good photo conveys truth and emotion,” he says.
Let’s climb aboard his tan Landcruiser now as it traverses some wild expanse of desert sand and hear of his travels…
First big adventure trip: Asu and Bawa in 2002. My mentor John Callahan, the guy who discovered Cloud 9 in the Philippines and many other great waves, went out on a limb and invited me to shoot water. He worked a lot with South African surfers and had heard about me through a mutual friend. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for a 20-year-old kid. He even lent me his “ultra-cool” fisheye housing which I didn’t have at the time. I owe my career to him and the opportunities that were to follow through him.
The difficulty of adjusting back to normal life after a stint in the wilderness: I actually get nervous when my plane is about to touch down on home soil. It is a combination of excitement to see my wife and kids, but also a little dread that there will be bills, admin and work to catch up on at home and in the office. Life is almost easier when you’re lost in the wild. Definitely simpler. Fewer decisions, fewer responsibilities. I believe that is a major factor drawing people like us back out there. We would go insane if we didn’t have the balance of wild and normal.
Preferred method of travel: Car and foot definitely. I like to slow things down to their simplest, appreciating where you are, where you’ve come from and where you’re going. If I had the time, a couple hundred years, I would walk everywhere, probably even do some crazy walk around Africa. But alas life is hurtling on all around us and it’s all we can do to keep up. So if a plane gets me there then so be it. But put me behind the wheel or sling a pack on my back and I’m a happier soul.
Rules for packing: Simple and effective. The usual necessities plus a few extras that make life a little more pleasurable: Aeropress coffee plunger, coffee, Chia seed and nut bars, my leather hat, wet wipes and an inflatable cushion when my ass be hurtin’. Oh and my Crocs. Yike, did I say that out aloud?
Best trip: Lakshadweep Islands with Craig Anderson, Brendon Gibbens, Trevor Gordon, Chad Konig and Daniel Jones. Remote tropical paradise. What more could you ask for? Close second is Angola. Now that is losing yourself properly.
Number of sharks seen: Ah, probably only about four or five in total. I’m sure 40 or 50 have seen me over the years. Sharks to me are very much “out of sight out of mind.”
Closest encounter: Most chilling encounter was down the Dunes one morning. It’s a 30-minute walk from the closest road down a remote stretch of beach. The lineup was empty save for a good friend David Richards who was willing to charge the 10-foot bombs unloading onto the sand. We paddled out but I instantly felt a vibe and wasn’t enjoying the murky, seaweed-enriched green water. I snapped a few bombs of him and then I felt and saw it. A giant shadow swam slowly under my flippers, the outline unmistakable. The surging movement left in its wake drew me down ever so slightly.
The worst: Waiting for a typhoon and waves in the Philippines 2008. It wasn’t all bad in retrospect. I did surf every day out front of our accommodation at this epic little point. Just frustrating seeing all that potential with no waves of consequence to photograph. It was tiny. My fins scrapping the coral and urchins. We eventually got a small bump and had two days at a new wave we called Jelly Beans. It was hollow and stronger than its name.
Most scared: The all-encompassing nothingness of the deep, dark blue. Being dropped in the middle of the ocean. That would freak me out.
Most amazing place: South Africa. Sure, I’m biased, but I’ve yet to experience a place that is as diverse in everything and as consistent for waves. We don’t have a season really. It works all year round and living in Cape Town with a peninsula you’re guaranteed offshores every day. The food is good, people friendly enough and there are opportunities aplenty.
Most extreme poverty you’ve seen: Madagascar, 2011. Rated as one of the world’s poorest countries, you don’t have to go far to see the truth in the findings. Walking through the capital of Antananarivo I spent an extremely humbling moment on the ground of a busy intersection, eyes locked in contact with a man who had nothing. Hands raised to the heavens, his basket was empty, his eyes looked empty, his heart was empty. And while he stared in desperation at me, shouting in silence, others jostled past, bumping him aside, not noticing he even existed.
Most extreme wealth you’ve seen: Angola and U.A.E. Such extravagance, such disregard and waste of what others would die for.
Most racist thing you’ve seen: A couple of white punks beating up two black petrol attendants one night just around the time Nelson Mandela was made president. Must have been 1994 or ‘95. Just because they were black and the punks had been drinking. Made me sick and deeply saddened to be white.
Most ghetto: The slums of Luanda, Angola.
Best wave you’ve seen: Skeleton Bay, Namibia, hands down. Doesn’t get more perfect than that.
Best surfing you’ve seen: Kelly Slater, Jeffreys Bay freesurfing 2009 after the WCT had moved on. I’ve never seen someone in person thread themselves through tubes like that.
Best instance of “This Is Africa”: Craig Anderson, Skeleton Bay Namibia 2012. Witnessing what went down from above will forever be a highlight memory. Organising a chopper from another country to be relocated onto the sand and taking off above the crowd was truly life-changing.
Moments of surrender: Bursting our third tyre in Angola in 2009 in the middle of nowhere after two days of driving through the desert back to the border of Namibia. It was painstakingly slow progress on one of the world’s worst roads. Two hundred and fifty kilometres at 10 clicks an hour. We tried a repair but our jack broke and all the hydraulic liquid oozed out like the last whispers of air in the shredded tyre. There was nothing we could do but sit and see what the world threw at us. A few Himbe tribespeople emerged from the thorn bushes to see what was up. We shared some long-life milk with them straight out the carton while we sat and discussed our dilemma in sign-language. They were good company but they knew nothing of cars. After a few hours a miracle appeared in the form of a bush ambulance en route to the border town of Ruacana. They had a spare jack for us but no spare tyre. It took us a further six hours to reach the border town and a mechanic, crawling along on a tyre pumped full of tyre sludge and a little air pumped back in every few kilometres with our battery compressor. God we were happy to see a shop and mechanic.
Craziest thing seen: Surf, Grant “Twiggy” Baker skipping down the face of a 70-foot wave at Tafelberg Reef outside of Dungeons in 2008. I’ve never seen the ocean that angry and it went down as the biggest storm to hit Southern Africa in so many years. Greg Long towed Twiggy into one and they called it a day. Life, while refuelling in The Maluku “Spice” islands, northern Indonesia, I went ashore to search for a ride to the opposite side of the island. I was lazily searching for waves and a ride on a scooter but what I found instead will forever chill my blood and cause me to look over my shoulder. While standing within a growing crowd of local islanders, an old man had crept up to inspect me. He looked friendly enough, but as I turned to greet him so too did he. It took every ounce of rational strength I had to stand and shake his hand politely. Looking up his arm and shoulder on one side was a man but on the other was a nightmare of bone, teeth and exposed eyeball. Half his face was missing and all that remained was the skeletal undercarriage of what the flesh-eating mould had yet to take.
Most primitive experience: Mukubal tribe in southern Angola. Unchanged for centuries and sadly dwindling down in numbers as life and drought wreck havoc on their nomadic way of life. The oil-rich government appear to be offering aid, but nothing has changed, and it appears to be little more than a publicity stunt to get votes and better their image. Yet the outside world matters little to these small people. They look after their cattle, rest beneath the family tree at midday, fetch water when needed and prepare their staple meal of crushed corn and milk. It’s an amazingly simple yet beautiful existence. I can’t wait to go back.
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