Let’s rewind way back, all the way to 1742, when the Dutch East India Company built a tollhouse to tax Cape Town’s farmers heading to Simon’s Town to sell their produce to ships parked in the bay. Sergeant Muys was one of the first officials to run the tollbooth and the area took its name from him and the adjacent mountain, hence Muys Zijn Bergh.
In 1795 there was some kak in Europe and the British chased the Dutch Company out of Muizenberg in a famous but rather tame fight known as the Battle of Muizenberg. The area began to boom again when the railway arrived in 1882 and Cecil John Rhodes, the original colonial master, built himself a little beach cottage where he ended up living until he died in 1902. Another mining magnate and ‘Randlord’, Abe Bailey, followed suit and built himself a cottage right on the rocks. It’s unlikely Bailey moved there for the shallow reef ledge in front of his porzie, but the area soon became known as a fine destination for wealthy Joburgers to spend their summer holidays.
Many of these families happened to be Jewish and it wasn’t long before it was self-reflexively referred to as Jewzenberg. The place boomed some more. At one stage there were seven hotels and if you were Joburg money, you had to have a little holiday spot in the Berg. Today you can still see fine examples of both Victorian and Edwardian architecture in the village and the slow, gentle waves were no doubt part of the early holiday appeal. There are pictures of people riding prone on old wooden planks as far back as the late 1800s. One of them was George Bernard Shaw, the famous Irish playwright, looking like a randy old pirate. But the earliest record of someone riding a surfboard at the Berg belongs to a woman named Heather Price, the great aunt of big wave charger Ross Lindsay’s wife, Kay.
In 1919 Heather befriended two US marines stationed in Cape Town after World War I, who happened to be in possession of two ‘Hawaiian style’ solid wood surfboards. As Ross puts it, “When you’re a good looking young woman, adventure and excitement will find you.”
The marines taught Heather to surf ‘standing up’ at the Corner. And as far back as anyone has any proof, surfing in South Africa had its cherry popped by a woman from Zimbabwe. True story.
After the horror of World War II everyone seemed primed for pointless but exciting ocean-based leisure activity. Thanks to the Duke and his beach boys, surfing really caught on in the US and started its first global push in the media. Local boy Tony Bowman had re-introduced surfing in Muizenberg during the 1920s and by the 1960s, local boomers were regularly riding waves at the Corner on all kinds of improvised craft. Much of the nascent South African surf industry (all 30 of them) ended up following Bruce Brown around the country while he was filming The Endless Summer circa 1964. J-Bay was soon discovered and Durban jumped ahead, producing the first wave riding stars in Doc van den Heuvel and Max Wetteland. South Beach became the home of a fledgling surf industry but in Cape Town, Muizenberg was the epicentre of this new age surfing vibe.
Then around 1970 a young man by the name of Peter Wright resigned from his job as a clerk at a shipping company to start his dream job building surfboards with a guy known as ‘Chemical’ Clive Barber. But Clive went out of business before Peter could even begin, forcing him to start his own surfboard enterprise in his parents’ garage in Kommetjie. Not having a job in those days was considered ‘suspect’ and produced a fair amount of friction with his father, so he rented a space near the beach in Muizenberg to peddle his boards and other surf related products. The Corner Surf Shop was born.
If you’ve spent enough time in Muizenberg you’ll know Peter, the tall, friendly white-haired godfather of Cape Town surf retail. Tich Paul set up shop a few years later (in-between Peter’s spot and the beach) and there’s been a longstanding feud between Cape Town’s two oldest surf shops ever since, that seems to have mellowed to a low nostalgic grumble over the years.
“What was business like back then?” I ask Peter over coffees at the Empire Café.
“There was very little,” he answers. “The parents of the day had to tolerate that their kids wanted to surf. And this is the bit you want to write down,” he tells me. “Surfing was banned here in Muizenberg! For about two years the ratepayers association decided that surfers were a bad element and that they were not to be encouraged. And they said they didn’t want any bather to be hit by a surfboard. So they banned it from 6am to 6pm. That ban was in place from about 1970 to 1972.”
The ban was eventually overturned thanks to local surfer John Wylie, who pulled together a group of surfers and had a kind of protest down at the beach. Soon the Corner became a designated wave-riding spot. Business started to pick up.
“My big break was when Zero wetsuits decided to open a shop in the city and they hired me to build surfboards every day,” says Peter. “Suddenly with the opening of a new big surf shop in Cape Town, the whole scene just boomed. We were doing 14 boards a week at one stage. Which was huge.”
Peter takes a big sip of coffee and continues. “I was able to keep my shop full of boards and with the money I earned at Zero I stocked the shop. There weren’t many surf labels, just Hang Ten – and they were even dodgy back then. But we also had brands like Rich Rags and Emme, and they did incredibly well. We used to sell those real short shorts for chicks, with the split up the side and we had all the cool models wearing this shit and we sold it in Muizenberg.”
“What’s always been the better line,” I ask. “The fashion or the hardware?”
“You got to look at it like a café in the old days,” says Peter. “They made no money from the bread but it brings all the people to the store. And you make money from the chocolate and the cigarettes.”
“So what was it like back here in the late 60s and 70s?”
“If you remember, you weren’t here!” laughs Peter. “I guess it was just a real cross-section of life. This guy,” he says pointing to Dave Jones the owner and resident chef at the Empire Café. “He was the first guy to moon me, in front of his mother.”
“The thing that I only realised recently,” Dave jumps in, “Is that back in those days, in terms of surfing and especially skating, we were right on the leading edge.” He says this emphatically while Peter nods.
“I always thought we were about a decade behind America, but that’s not the case, we were right up there. When you compare the style of South African skaters in the 1970s and 80s, we were seriously in touch. Right on par with what was happening in Dogtown in terms of translating surf style to skateboards. This was a little pocket of excellence.” Dave smiles as he puts plates of Asian pork belly stirfry in front of us. “Surf culture quickly became ubiquitous,” he adds.
It’s not just Dave who has a nostalgic soft spot for Muizies. “Back in the day, being the full street urchin and growing up there was a really special time,” reminisces Davey Stolk. “I mean, the Corner used to be quite the in-scene in the 70s. You had a full hippy music scene and when the waves were good and glassy, everybody would just hang out playing music, smoking pipes and surfing.
There was a lot of surfing talent in Gavin Rudolph, Peers Pittard, Tich Paul, Howie Gold, amongst others. Then just further down the beach you had all the alcoholics and bums who would regularly get into punch-ups on the weekend. It was full on. Winter was a different vibe with the kombis parked and everybody huddling out of the cold northwest in-between sessions. Yes, I have the fondest memories of the Berg.”