When thinking of surfing, Africa isn't exactly the first place that jumps to mind... outside of The Endless Summer. Africa conjures up images of lions and elephants, the Congo jungle, and Sahara desert… Not much surfing in the Sahara last time we checked....
Well, Alan Van Gysen is here to prove us wrong. The South African native is an incredible photographer, worldwide traveler, contributing author at Surfer Magazine, and the foremost expert on where the best surf spots are all over the continent and world (hint: none are in the Sahara desert).
In our interview with him below, he explains the allure and diversity of Africa, some of his favorite places/eats around the continent, and how his itch for travel, which began as a child, led him to this point in his life.
Alan embodies the lifestyle of a Barefoot King.
BFK: How did you get interested in photography and travel? Have you always had a taste for adventure?
Alan: For as long as I can remember I've wanted to travel. Maybe it was the old globe on my father's desk growing up, maybe it's inside all of us, or maybe it's a combination of influences growing up.
Whichever, I used to pray from a young age for a job that would allow me to see the world. And here we are! Photography was born from two quite different parts of my life growing up - music, art and culture, and sports. My parents, and mom especially, made sure we had every opportunity to do everything we wanted or could, and spent her whole life driving us between swimming in the dark early hours, to school, on to classical music lessons, back to school for waterpolo, lifesaving on weekends etc.
It didn't seem busy at the time, but looking back I feel tired just thinking about all the things we did as kids, but unknowingly it was everything artistic and everything athletic that moulded and prepared me for surfing and surf photography.
Was there an "aha!" moment when you knew photography and surfing were how you wanted to spend your career?
I don't recall there ever being a eureka moment. It was more a guided path towards enlightenment, haha! One inspiring moment led to meeting the right person which led to the next step in experience and growth. I have always felt this was what I was meant to do - serve and work for and with people while taking photographs.
What are some of your favorite places you have been in Africa for both surf travel and adventure? How come?
My favorite places in Africa are the relatively unchanged and untouched corners where people and places are still unique, genuine and welcoming. It's places like Gambia, Angola, Madagascar, and Western Sahara that have produced some of my favorite moments because they are off the beaten track and remain uninfluenced.
What's it like going from one town or country in Africa where surfing is a huge cultural way of life to a place where surfing doesn't exist?
There aren't too many places in Africa where surfing is the norm or culturally "big". Besides South Africa, Morocco and pockets of West Africa you're quite often all alone in the lineup with empty beaches or alone in the lineup with a crowd stunned by the act of gliding across the water. I've experienced crowds in Angola, for example, where villages erupted into almost hysterical theatrics every time a surfer got barrel, turned, or did an air. The feeling is very humbling and refreshing, and always grounds you.
What have been some unexpected, "happy accidents" while traveling around Africa and the world?
Things that weren't planned... but ended up making for a memorable experience.
Some of the best memories and moments are definitely the accidental, unexpected ones. Times when you are sailing out to score a well-known reef break only to find it small, while around the corner just cruising you stumble upon an idyllic and seemingly "lost" piece of paradise that no one else has ever documented - a perfect right wedge exploding off an island and running to the pearly white sand strip on the inside. It all comes down to expectation. If you're expecting to find something, you're never nearly as amazed when you find it than had you not been expecting anything at all.
You posted a quote on Instagram, does this tie into any specific memories while on the road, or your life in general?
“Our happiest moments as travelers always seem to come when we stumble upon one thing while in pursuit of something else.”— Lawrence Block
That quote ties in with the above. Wonder and awe is all the greater when stumbling over something unexpected, as opposed to knowing about something and finding it.
Can you describe some of the most interesting cultures you've encountered during your travels?
I've been fortunate enough to have encountered some pretty diverse and incredible cultures during my relatively short time as a traveling photographer.
One that stands out clearly though is the Mukubal tribe in southern Angola. Dwindling in numbers, the 5,000 strong ethnic group is struggling to survive in the new world. Drought, oil pressure and "civilization" are among their biggest threats. I spent some quality time with them two years ago with the aid of a translator and learnt so much about their seemingly peaceful and slow-paced existence.
What are your favorite go-to meals in Africa that the rest of the world might not be familiar with? Do you make a point of eating local cuisines when you are in traveling in new cultures?
I thoroughly enjoy immersing myself in my environment when I travel which includes eating locally and interestingly enough getting a haircut from a local barber whenever I'm leaving a place. There is something about sitting down quietly and just listening to the local people around you go about their daily routines.
I'd have to say that one of my favorite styles of food is the eating of Tajines in Morocco and Western Sahara. Sitting down on the floor around a steaming clay pot of freshly cooked food and flat breads is an amazing experience. All the better if it's on the beach after an epic surf!
What are your top 3 items you always travel with?
My top three travel items would have to be my camera, AeroPress coffee filter and Superfood mix.
Do you have a specific diet or workout routine you follow for such a physically demanding job?
I've always been very active and as I get older I am becoming more and more aware of fitness and cross-training for my work.
Living near the beach and below the mountains is one of my greatest blessings, and I use these daily for my training routines - trail running mornings with my dog, swimming across the bay and back, some SUP paddling, surfing and my own personal mix of yoga and stretching. Nutrition is even more important and it's become something my family and I have embraced without even thinking too much about it now.
Mostly raw, all natural products with little to no processed foods of any kind. No specific diet, I don't like to label good eating.
When you aren't swimming or finding a great point of view for a surf shoot on location - what are some of your favorite things to do while traveling in a new area? What are some of the more memorable experiences?
If I am not shooting or focusing on the activity, I try slow down and just be in the moment. Spending time and sharing a meal with my fellow travelers and the people we have met, or just sitting back and letting it all soak in.
"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive. Because what the world needs most is more people who have come alive." How do you embrace this quote in your life you've put up on social media?
I've never been one for following what other people are doing or want you to do necessarily, nor strive for anything materialistic.
I prefer to be Spirit led and serve where I can while doing what I believe I was called to do. Being alive and having my eyes truly open is important to me. And I hope that through my work I can positively help others.
What's next in store for you and your family?
What's next? Nothing major I hope. You spend a lot of time as a young person getting to where you want to be in life, when you finally feel like you get there, you just want to slow down a bit and take it all in. My wife and I have three beautiful children and our immediate family is complete. But having said that we'll see what The Lord has in store for us all.