Learning to surf at The Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay

Posted by Rachel Robinson on 11 August 2015

Surfing has always held an allure for me, but not having grown up by the ocean, I didn’t have the luxury of learning this sport from a young age. So in my middle-age years I decided to give it a go, with some amusing consequences.

If there was anybody out there who was going to get me standing, it was The Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay. They proved that you are never too old to learn, no matter how unfit you are or how bad you look in a wetsuit, and showed me just how much fun one can have in the ocean.

Coffee Shack
Growing up on a farm in Zimbabwe, surfing was not something your dad taught you. While 10-year old kids in Cape Town and Durban were donning their wetsuits, my dad was teaching me other useful skills – like fishing and how to drive a tractor. So when I came to Cape Town I was in awe of my new friends who hit the waves any chance they got, knew exactly which way the wind was blowing and talked about foreign things like rip tides and point breaks. Above all that, surfing just looks sexy. Fit bodies in sleek wetsuits, surfboards with cool designs, sun-bleached hair, a carefree attitude… So finally, a few months ago, I decided to give this surfing thing a go.

My visions of becoming a sexy sun-bleached surfer were quickly squashed with my first lesson at Roxy Surf School in Muizenberg. After struggling to get into a wetsuit for 15 minutes I headed out the door with a long-board that was twice my length. The wind was howling and I could barely get the board over the road to the beach! Eventually a local bergie helped me carry it, saving me paying a lot of money for damage to various cars, and possibly people. Once at the beach I turned to one of my fellow students and asked her to zip up my wetsuit.

“You do know it’s inside out?” she said, with what looked like a somewhat sympathetic smile.

The next two hours were spent having my sinuses cleared and dodging other surfers while attempting to actually get onto the gigantic board, along with keeping a cautionary eye out for sharks. I emerged slightly defeated, with red eyes and a dribbling nose – not quite the look I had envisioned, but at least I hadn’t become shark bait.

Not being one to give up easily, I perservered and over the next few weeks things improved, but not much. I was almost ready to throw in the towel and buy a fishing rod instead, but then I won a competition! At a Travel Massive event one evening I sent a tweet about my rather embarrassing first surf lesson, which won me a 5-day surfing package at The Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay. A few friends were rounded up, a road trip planned, and before I knew it, I was heading to the Eastern Cape for round two of surfing lessons. I decided that if I couldn’t surf after five straight days, then there was no hope for me at all!

Coffee Bay, Eastern Cape

Day One

We arrived at The Coffee Shack in the late afternoon, having successfully avoided numerous potholes, and the cows, pigs, chickens, geese and goats known as The Transkei Big Five. We were shown around the backpackers and after a welcome drink (I liked this place already) we headed to our hut across the river. The package included dorm accommodation, but at my age, dorm rooms are not for me, so we upgraded to a private room. (I have some recent experience with dorms and private rooms – have a look at the 15 backpackers in Cape Town that got my stamp of approval.) Hut number 5 had the best view and we even had our own shared kitchen and ablution block. It was like being on our own little island and hard to believe that we were at a backpackers.

Then it was back across the river to meet my surfing instructors, Neil and Oscar. Neil, who has taught hundreds of people to surf, from ages six to sixty, assured me that he would have me standing in no time and after signing an indemnity form I was good to go, my first lesson scheduled with Oscar the next day. I also met my fellow surfing crew, two girls from Denmark who had also signed up for the surfing package. After a huge 3-course dinner we spent the rest of the evening meeting other backpackers while going through the R10 shots at the bar. Not a bad start to my new life as a surfer!

Coffee Shack Backpackers

Day Two

Mild hangover aside, it was a beautiful day for ‘Beach Day’, where anyone staying at The Coffee Shack could spend the day at the beach basking in the sun while scoffing toasted cheese and tomato sandwiches from the braai, along with playing volleyball and learning to surf. At R50 per person, these could be the cheapest surf lessons in Africa!

I proudly donned a wetsuit that a friend had given me and Oscar was suitably impressed with this “retro wetsuit”. Turns out that wetsuits from the 80s are not particularly comfortable and I quickly changed into one of theirs with a bit more lycra in it! After learning the five steps to standing on land, it was time to take our new found skills to the ocean. The sea wasn’t being very kind that day so I spent most of my time getting salt water smashed in my face and trying to avoid falling down holes. After catching a wave or two (with Oscar’s assistance), I gave up and went to investigate rock pools instead, followed by a walk around the cliff face, a snooze in the sun and a sandwich. I was still not entirely sure about this surfing thing, but my sinuses had never been clearer!

Back at the backpackers we all signed up for the next day’s three-hour Hole In The Wall Hike (R70) which I intended to do in-between my two 2-hour surfing lessons. Over a dinner of burgers and wedges, I told Oscar that I planned to do the hike. He just laughed and said “Tomorrow you are going to be quiche by 6pm.”

Coffee Shack Beach Day

Day Three

My friends were still sleeping when I got up at 07:00 for my 07:30 lesson. So much for being on holiday! However, overnight I had come to my senses – the thought of having jelly legs and “being quiche by 6pm” had me quickly scrubbing my name off the board and cancelling the hike.

That day, the ocean was kinder and after two hours of very patient coaching by Neil and many spectacular bails, I had assumed the squatting position on my board. I kept being told to “slow down”, to which my answer was always, “but what if the wave runs out?” I had visions of ending up head-first on the beach, but miraculously this never happened. Some progress had been made and it was time for a shower and breakfast.

After breakfast we had a theory lesson where we learnt about wetsuits and wetsuit care (don’t leave them to dry in the sun – which had me running back to my hut to take mine out of the sun), surfboards and surfboard care (I now know how to wax on and wax off). Then I drove, rather than hiked, to meet my friends at the Hole In The Wall. The road from Coffee Bay to the Hole In The Wall was in pretty bad shape, so the 9km drive took over half an hour! If it wasn’t for the robust Volkswagen Cross Caddy, I would never had made it!

I got back in time for afternoon surf lesson which involved more theory, including beach analysis, sandbanks, breaks, tides, wind direction and surf etiquette (no stealing other surfers’ waves!). There was also some paddling in the lagoon – as a beginner you don’t go out to the back line, but at some point you are going to need to get there so paddling skills are very important. Then back into the sea where my tired arms failed to lift me off the board at all. Most of the time was spent, literally, sliding off it.

By far the most momentous occasion of the afternoon was when I a saw a shadow. Cue Jaws music, stopped heart and wide-eyed panic. Turns out it was my own shadow and thankfully the only near-death experience I had on the trip. But it was also enough for me to call it a day and head back for a much-need drink!


Day Four

I finally managed a lie-in as the lesson was only at 11:00. Yay! Cows were grazing contentedly outside our gate and local fishermen were selling ready-to-braai fish for R60. The sun was shining and all you could hear was the ocean. I was starting to get into this life – surfing, exploring, eating hearty meals, drinking cheap beers and shots and meeting fellow travelers. The thought of leaving soon was not a happy one.

That day I waxed my own board, aced my beach analysis, got the wind direction correct and caught waves on my own. I had a great time with the body-boarding exercise and I even stood up! I was starting to feel like a true surfer at last.


Day Five

My wetsuit had become my second skin and I was easing in and out of it like a professional. In fact I had come to rather like it! I now also sported a tan and I was sure my hair had become blonder too…

It was another Beach Day and it was fun to watch all the newbies going through their five steps to standing, while I waxed my board, then casually strapped my leash to my ankle before heading out into the waves to practice my new-found skills. How far I had come in four days!


Day Six

By now I had no problem being out of bed at 07:00 and being in the ocean by 07:30, when the rest of the backpackers were still in bed. I was starting to think that there’s nothing like having a surf before breakfast. Who would’ve thought!

I was really looking forward to my final lesson where I would be surfing like a pro, but unfortunately there was a spring tide which meant the water was too shallow for us to surf. I’ll admit to being a bit disappointed, but mused on how far I had come – from someone who found any excuse to get out of the water rather than be in it. We left our boards on the beach and swam out at the back line. The waves were huge, but I was no longer worried about shadows and the Jaws theme that used to play in my head every time I got into the sea had finally ceased. Things had definitely changed.

It was a sad farewell to my ever-patient surfing instructors and I promised to keep practising. However, winter and the cold Atlantic ocean here in Cape Town is not holding much appeal at the moment so that promise has already been broken. Perhaps I will give it a go again in summer. But I also promised to be back in Coffee Bay: and that is a promise I will definitely keep!

Coffee Shack Surfing

About the Coffee Shack 5-Day Surf Package

The aim of this package is not to turn you into a world-class surfer (that takes years), but rather to get a taste of surfing, become a better surfer, have more knowledge about the ocean and anything to do with surfing. It’s also about having heaps of fun!

The package costs R2200 and includes five nights dorm accommodation (you can upgrade like I did and pay the difference), five dinners and five breakfasts, shuttles between Coffee Bay and Mthatha, six 2-hour surf lessons, three theory lessons, beach days, half day board hire and a Coffee Shack T-shirt. You also get the use of a wetsuit and a board for all lessons, so you don’t need to have your own.

Coffee Shack Backpackers

About The Coffee Shack in Coffee Bay

They are consistently voted one of the best backpackers in South Africa and once you’ve stayed there, you’ll see why. They cater for every backpacker’s need – and they know what backpackers need!

There are meals available every day to suit all budgets, including breakfast, lunch and a two-course dinner, with massive servings. You definitely won’t starve here.

The bar serves very reasonably priced drinks (including a selection of R10 shots) and they have themed evenings where participants get free punch. Every full moon they host sundowners with free drinks, oysters and mussels.

There’s an organised day trip each day (R50 to R70), including hikes, beach days and dinners with the locals, so you can explore the area. They are also perfectly situated for walking to restaurants and other backpackers nearby if you feel like a change of scenery.


Contact The Coffee Shack

Tel 047 575 2048, email [email protected], www.coffeeshack.co.za


What to do in Coffee Bay

Coffee Bay is wonderfully rural, making it a perfect place to get away from it all and do nothing but relax… and surf! There are a sprinkling of shops, drumming lessons at JAH Drums, delicious pizza with a view at Papazela’s, and the weekly fish buffet at Friends Café is definitely worth going to. According to the locals, they also have the best chocolate cake. Sugerloaf Backpackers Lodge is another festive spot to hang out and meet other travellers.

Coffee Bay, Eastern Cape


Other places to learn to surf

There are plenty of places that offer surfing lessons, from Cape Town to Mossel Bay, Port Elizabeth and Durban. A good start is LEARN 2 SURF that has surf schools in eight towns and cities in South Africa.

yoast-primary -
tcat - Things to do
tcat_slug - things-to-do
tcat2 -
tcat2_slug -
tcat_final - travel