Wednesday, October 7, 2015

“I never promised you a Wave Garden…”
The Surf Snowdonia Phenomenon

I've been watching the hype around the Surf Snowdonia Wave Garden in Wales with piqued interest. I perused the first real edit on ( and was suitably impressed by the wave, the POV shots, ubiquitous drone angles and fresh water fantails of spray but something loomed large; perhaps veiled by the slick marketing drive and a flurry of astutely rationed video posts. It was the marked absence of an essential ingredient, and it's been tugging at my leash like kelp at low tide Elands ever since I watched the first few leaked clips selling an endless Gaelic summer, give or take 364 days of low visibility grey!

Here's the rub, after countless video refreshes, the wave and its environs looked increasingly less appealing with each video refresh, not entirely artificial, but more like a perfect meal lacking a crucial ingredient, as glaringly obvious and simple as salt. The video edits seemed to desaturate to more natural tones, the sky paled and the wave began to look more and more like a pre-Photoshop supermodel. The proportions were perfect; even the wave looked groomed and temptingly ripable, but my Wave Garden fantasy ended with me wishing I was back home and about to suit up for some summer onshore bowls. Admittedly, I've probably made a sizeable contribution to the depletion of our planet's fossil fuels in search of surf, and the destination has often been far more disappointing than the journey. A planet dotted with Wave Gardens should come as a welcome relief but in this case, sadly not! Yes, Wave Garden acolytes wax on that “this green wave (green wave? - This was the first red flag for me!) is a 2m high barrelling wave (This remains to be experienced…). During your free surf (free surf? – Is there such thing?) there will be maximum of 3 surfers, alternating surfing the wave. During this 1 hour free surf you will each catch up to 20 waves." What's more, apparently Surf Snowdonia was built on the site of a former aluminium factory – though it has been decontaminated since, and approved by Welsh environmental regulators, which in terms of possible pollution levels, probably matches most SA urban beaches. 

I must add that their promise of a 'maximum of 3 surfers' and '20 waves' per session brought a wry smile to my face. At the very least it meant no import of any inked-up Hawaiian heavies to bring some semblance of order to the line-up ("Do Wave Gardens have a line-up?) and zero crowd factor brought sweet relief, until of course those wave gardeners realise that the three surfers per session rule is not financially viable. Cue the circus music! No doubt these are mere developmental speed bumps on the road to Wave Garden perfection, amongst others, such as the local weather, on-going financial sustainability and inevitable lawsuits. Then there's that lattice of support poles running adjacent to the wave's face. It looks a leash and kook trap and should have any liability suit lawyer rubbing his hands in glee, but I'm more than likely way off the mark here.

Before you deride me as a party pooper, I would love to give a Surf Snowdonia lip a bash or two with a couple of mates. The experience of "good" waves is a given, the frigid water temps will mean I will have my hoodie and 4/3 at the ready and I'll have more than my fair share of waves; and then a siren will sound and it will all be over - sans any risk of entering the food chain or hope of being consigned to Davy Jones’ Locker. The biggest risk of surfing Snowdonia is to your pocket, or your coronary well-being. The Surf Snowdonia experience will have all the trappings of a theme park, presented in neo-bourgeois hipster friendly hues (judging by the website styling) and probably to the ditties of that fireside musical bore-adour, Jack Johnson, or some or other unplugged beard. Perfectly packaged, sanitised and meeting every last sub-clause of a 500 page odd Health and Safety tome; all driven by complicated hydraulics and hum of a distant generator - nothing we South Africans are unaccustomed to. To boot, there's an Activity Lagoon for the sugared-up kids, complete with obstacles and an array of floatables, a coffee bar, and even a camping site planned for the expected 75 000 visitors. The Activity Lagoon will more than likely be a magnet of misery for surfing parents keeping an eye out for their precious water babies, all the while watching a 20 something rubber person weeding the "cr*p" out of the Wave Garden. Yes, so much for fresh water surfing nirvana!    

But something about the Surf Snowdonia experience continues to irk me. No doubt there will the inevitable traffic jams, weekend crowds, snaking queues, iniquitously priced craft beers and countless sunglasses (despite the sunless gun metal sky) watching you fumble an otherwise effortless take-off you've made a thousand times before in actual salt water, and then there it was, like a rail in the gonads - the Wave Garden experience is entirely fabricated; it's utterly predictable to the height and tideless push of every wave. Besides, driving inland with boards strapped to the roof of a rental should be illegal - full stop. By the way, Surf Snowdonia is eight miles from the Welsh Coast, which brings me to my next point.

For most, surfing is a total sensory experience; it's entirely immersive. There’s the dominating presence of the ocean, the arcing gulls, smell of salt water, those first anticipatory notes of cold as you drop your board in the sea, the slap of fibreglass against the sea, yes the sea, not some chemically treated expanse of fresh water, that possibly served as a water supply to an aluminium plant. I would like to think that surfing is a holistic endeavour; the sea with its many moods and vast array of life is attached to us, it's the sum of all those parts, even the life-threatening parts of reefs, heavy waves and submarine businessmen in grey suits that make our obsession unique and incomparably addictive. Swinging a tennis racquet, golf club or pumping at a clipless pedal simply misses the mark by a light year or two. Surf Snowdonia is special, but not that special, and much like a round of golf, its pleasures are all realised within fabricated and somewhat sterile natural surroundings.

Consider the individual who grows up "surfing" a Wave Garden and then encounters the ocean for the first time. The art of paddling, mastering a well-planned duck-dive, reading the elements - all vital survival skills for any surfer worth the dried salt on his eyebrows, will not be available to our intrepid Wave Gardener. It's more than likely he/she will immediately realise that the Wave Garden back home and the ocean are two vastly different quantum universes, one governed by an unforgiving and relentless set of laws, and the other is more akin to a Xbox game or playpen.

So fellow surfers, don't feel too outdone by all the Surf Snowdonia hype, it's no Forgotten Island of Santosha, Bruces, even onshore Dairy or dare I say Muizenberg ruffled by a light side-shore; it's a golf course for “boards riders”, it's more artifice than wave face. It will quantify your stoke by means of an annual membership card that will guarantee 250 or more waves, and I predict a rather unfathomable loss of boundless fun, compliments of Surf Kookonia, apologies, I meant Surf Snowdonia. Oh yes, kayaks and SUPS are welcome at Wave Gardens. Cue that circus music again…

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