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‘Everywhere you look, the mountains, the beaches, the animals — everything just moves majestically.'

Gems in this

Photo>>>Ryan Miller & Exceptional Alien


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Feature by Justin Drape

Bursting onto the surfing scene in the late 90s, Mick Fanning turned professional in 2002, beginning a career that would take in three world championships and secure him a place in Australian surfing history.

In 2015, he made headlines for different reasons, surviving a shark attack at the J-Bay Open in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa — but while many would vow never to return to the scene, Mick still holds Jeffreys Bay as one of his favourite places in the world. Now retired from the full-time professional surfing circuit, Mick frequently returns to Jeffreys Bay, and having fallen in love with South Africa in general, he is still in awe of the country’s grandeur. We chat with him about the surfing at J-Bay, going on safari to beat jet lag and his South Africa Travel Playbook.


On your first impressions of South Africa

The first time I went to South Africa was in 1999. I was just a young fresh kid and it was a huge culture shock for me. It was wild. Everything was just raw. Going straight to the beach and having high rises on the beach, but then also just around the corner, you've got the townships and stuff like that. And then from there I got to know the country a little bit more, the nature and the wildlife. I'm not talking about just in the wild parks — you're going down the beach, and there are monkeys trying to steal your food out of your pocket. It’s just so diverse and so different to Australia.

On South Africa’s unique spirit and energy

There’s no place like it. The people are so energetic yet so friendly, and have always got big smiles on their faces, but then there's wild things everywhere around. It feels old to me — it's probably the oldest continent in the world, and it feels that way. There's a certain smell: I don't know if it’s the aloe or the different types of dirt or dust, but it gets in your lungs and it wakes you up. I guess the other thing is you feel like you're always on your toes, especially if you're driving somewhere. You're always looking out the window to see if there's baboons on the road or monkeys. It’s a really unique place and if you close your eyes for a minute while you're driving, you're gonna miss something.

On what inspires you about the country

Everything is big! You’ve got big mountains, big beaches. There's big things lurking around every corner. In the ocean, there are huge sharks — obviously — and whales. And then on the land, I guess it's like when people come to Australia, they think there are snakes and spiders in every nook and cranny, whereas over there it’s like, is there going to be a lion or a deer or an elephant or giraffe? It feels ancient and feels as if life began here.

Production: Exceptional ALIEN (Creative Studio); Dare Content (Production Company); Chris Coetsee (EP); Matt Bouch (Producer); Jared Paisley, Andrew Barratt, Robin Moulang, Elliott Deem (DOPs); Gulshan Khan, Hugh Stewart, Ryan Miller (Photographers); Damon Sheridan (Sound Recording). Post-production: The Editors; Nicolette Rousianos (EP); Liv Reddy (Head of Production); Matt Edwards (Online); Corey-Jay Walker (Online Assist); Shannon Michaelas (Main Offline Editor); Grace Eyre and Grace O’Connell (Offline Editors); Shukry Adams (Stills Clean & Grade); Matt Fezz (Colourist); Bonsta (Sound Design).

‘When you’re up close and personal with a lion or an elephant or giraffe, you see how big they are… you see their power and the way they move, you do feel like you’re pretty insignificant.’

On going on safari to cure jet lag

When you land in South Africa, because it's such a big trip, especially from Australia, jet lag is something that you just can't beat. I always wake up at three or four in the morning, so I figured the best way to fight it is to go to a safari park, because you're up at 5am in the cars searching for animals — just going and getting right in the middle of Africa and seeing the Big Five [lion, leopard, rhino, elephant, buffalo]. Shamwari is an amazing one, at north Gqeberha. And once you get to see all those animals, you start to understand the country a little bit more and then you don't have that anticipation: ‘I've got to get there. I've got to see these things.’ And you can go and do your winery tours or your sightseeing without that in the back of your mind.

On seeing the wildlife for the first time

When you're up close and personal with a lion or an elephant or giraffe, you see how big they are. You see them on a TV screen, and you're like, ‘Oh, they're not that big.’ But then you see them in real life, and you see their power and the way they move, you do feel like you're pretty insignificant. They have the power to just take you out so quickly. It’s an amazing, humbling experience, and you've got to respect that power.


On surfing the waves in South Africa

The power of the ocean is definitely a little bit different. The storms from the South Pole and the Indian Ocean come straight up; you know when swells are coming because it gets a little bit colder and the weather changes. You can go from a beautiful hot, sunny day, even in the middle of winter, and the next thing you feel the temperature drop and you know there's a swell coming. But the water wakes you up, especially down places like Cape Town. It gets really cold but it's really, really refreshing. 

First and second rows of Mick Fanning surfing by Ryan Miller. Third row of J-Bay courtesy of Chris Van Lennep. Fourth and sixth rows of J-Bay by Gulshan Khan for Exceptional ALIEN. Fifth row of J-Bay by Ana Nielsen for Exceptional ALIEN.

On your favourite wave in South Africa

Obviously Jeffreys Bay. J-Bay is top five, if not top three waves in the world for me. I just love the setup, the way the waves roll down the point. Everything I grew up surfing, that epitomises my style or the things I like to do on a wave, is at Jeffreys Bay. But in saying that there's so many incredible waves — there's something for everyone. There are incredible beach breaks, incredible reef breaks, it's just a matter of going and finding them wherever you are. Obviously, we all concentrate on the east coast — everywhere from Durban all the way down to Cape Town, there's waves all the way along. But then north of Cape Town, up the west coast is incredible. It's a little bit more untouched, probably colder too, but totally different: desert-y and a lot more raw.

On favourite South African dishes

The local seafood is incredible. A friend of mine cooks pap, I think it's called, and it's pretty much just flour and water. It's almost like a grain and she'll cook up tomatoes, onions, and just a little bit of herbs and stuff in it. And it's incredible for such a simple meal. It's such a tasty little treat.

On the best places to eat around J-Bay

Kitchen Windows is a big favourite for everyone — go there for an incredible steak. And there's De Viswijf, with a little bit of a more authentic style of South African foods — rich, hearty meals. Die Walskipper is a place you go with a group of friends, sort of camp-style. They cook all the food over hot coals; incredible seafood and an incredible atmosphere. It's really fun. Then you've got Infood, where you’ve got really clean, fresh lunches. They’ve got a great bakery as well. South Africa has some of the best pies ever. If you're looking for a good breakfast or a bit of lunch after a good surf, African Perfection down underneath the hotel there is incredible. Just walk in, get some incredible food and incredible coffee and get back out in the water.


On the best activities when the swell is flat

You’ve got the world's highest bungee jump off Bloukrans Bridge — it's this huge gorge where the bridge just goes over and you jump off. It's the closest thing to skydiving, but you don't get anywhere near the bottom of the gorge. You hang, and this guy comes down and he picks you up and cradles you like a baby, and winches you back up. It's terrifying! When I was younger, I loved it because I was chasing adrenaline. Now I've sort of grown up and I'm a little bit more frightened! Then you can go shark cage diving down in Mossel Bay, which is probably a couple of hours away; that gets the heart racing, obviously. Or another hour away you've got the wildlife parks, so you can go see the Big Five and really immerse yourself in the African jungle.

All images of Die Walskipper by Gulshan Khan for Exceptional ALIEN.

'On tour, I had a whole bunch of friends that had kids and they would love going to the wildlife parks. It's so cool: you're bunking with each other, you're hearing lions roar in the middle of the night…’

On taking the family to South Africa

It's an amazing family destination. On tour, I had a whole bunch of friends that had kids and they would love going to the wildlife parks. It's so cool: you're bunking with each other, you're hearing lions roar in the middle of the night… But then on top of that, the beaches are incredible. The hikes — go to Cape Town and you’ve got Table Mountain to go up and have a look over the edge. I love it.

On golfing in South Africa

I’m a horrible golfer but I like to hit the ball. I find golf really funny: everyone's an expert. Doesn't matter if your mate’s worse than you, he'll start giving you tips! But one of the other amazing things at J-Bay is if the surf goes flat, and you've got a fair few hours to spare, you can go down to Cape St Francis and there's the Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course that is absolutely beautiful. It's so well-groomed and the golf is incredible. And you get to see a whole bunch of Cape St Francis — it’s a little bit elevated so you still get to see the ocean, but then there’s rolling hills behind it.


On a book, TV series or film that sums up South Africa

The one book that’s a must-read if you’re going to South Africa is Long Walk to Freedom. Nelson Mandela was such an incredible person and an incredible force in South Africa; he changed the country. Learning that history and what he went through, and then the compassion he had to move forward and forgive people... I personally admire how he was able to let it go and do what's better for the country rather than just himself. It was really selfless.

Third row left by Jared Paisley. All other images of Shamwari Private Game Reserve by Gulshan Khan for Exceptional ALIEN.

On a window or aisle seat

Definitely window for me. Once I'm on a plane, I sit in my seat and I don't move. If I'm on the aisle you'd be climbing over me and just get grumpy, so yeah, put me in the corner and let me sleep.

On a song that best represents South Africa for you

Anything from The Lion King! You gotta listen to those sorts of songs when you’re driving down to the jungle or whatever. When you get there, you sort of revert back to your childhood of watching kids’ movies.

On South Africa in one word

Majestic. Everywhere you look, the mountains, the beaches, the animals — everything just moves majestically. It's wild. You feel humbled to be there.


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