Best place for surf
We sent Daniel Fahey to the very cusp of the known world to catch some Chinese monsters. Here’s how he got on.
So this is it: the long-thought Gate of Hell; once the very edge of the known world, now the threshold to a very new one. As a turnstile to an eternal inferno, it’s not what I had envisioned.
Sure, the heat blisters. The sun, as a pre-curser to the Gate opening, is doing its blazing best as a warm up act. Yawning from a night shift, my watch is stretching its hands out at 0915, and already I’m in shorts.
Perhaps I expected something more apocalyptic than a rum-dark South China Sea; maybe someone more prophetic than the ocean goddess, Mazu, who busily kneads six foot waves into the soft, butter-blonde sands of Riyue Bay.
Whatever I’d conceived, it didn’t include a beret-bearing, oak-skinned Californian surfer called Brendan and an all but abandoned paradisiacal beach. Yet at Hainan Island, the most southerly point of China, that’s exactly what I’ve found.
Brendan has been shacked up here for around seven years. His Riyue Bay Surf Club on the southeast of the island has all the indicia of a self-shaped surf spot: the hand painted driftwood signs (“No Sharks”, “No Limitations”); an acoustic guitar; a bar made from a surfboard, serving imported beer; year-round waves.
It’s the kind of sacred setting you yearn to find as you roll along in a rust-dusted campervan, board roped on top. A few intrepid surfers from Australia and the US have tempered these uncharted swells, now it’s the first generation of Chinese boarders who are starting to find their feet.
For centuries, Hainan was the end of China’s civilised world. The island was a real-life Diyu (Chinese purgatory), where banished Dynasty dissents were left abandoned between the fruits of the Forbidden City and an imminently impending afterlife.
In the 800s, Tang Dynasty prime minister and aspirant poet, Li Deyu, coloured Hainan as the “Gate of Hell”, but as a consequence of China’s ever-quickening evolution, it’s an island still finding its identity. It swirls together the synchronised chaos of classic China (neon lights, noisy bikes and exotic street food) whilst alluding towards a future of homogeneous modernity (deluxe hotel chains, beach weddings and Western menus). Its lost coves, rainforest-rimmed mountains and deserted volcanic villages await rediscovery.
As my surf lesson with Brendan progresses from practising in the sand to lolloping upon grumbling tides, a school of local children ride waves further up the coast. They’re in the water wearing wetsuits and wilting straw hats. Face-kinis are also a regular sight on the beach.
“The locals don’t like to tan,” Brendan explains. “If they’re tanned, it means they work outside and people will think they’re poor. That’s why beaches are often empty in the day and get busier around five.”