“The guys on the jet skis were screaming at me to get out of there,” the blonde stranger says, flashing a weak smile. “I felt that second wave roll over me before I made it to the surface. It was 30ft out there and I got caught by a set, getting held down for two waves. My lower body was numb when I got to the surface, I think my organs were shutting down.” The stranger is resting heavily on the bonnet of his pick up and is staring vacantly out at the boiling ocean that has just tried to drown him. It’s August 2013.
The salt shepherd had driven half a day to catch a four day run of swell. Over the first three days he’d put on quite a show. He'd fallen off on the first wave of the set in spectacular fashion and then got absolutely flogged by everything that come behind it. It was flawless 18-20ft surf and the blonde stranger was going on anything and everything. His work rate was prolific because he was so determined. He'd get pitched and bounce down the face, almost as if he was made of rubber. But somehow, amongst the horrific wipeouts and flying boards… he managed to ride the biggest and best waves of the day. After his first session at Sunset, everyone was asking the same question, “Who is that guy?”
Jason Hayes is the thick set Afrikaans carpenter from Kommetjie who first introduced the salt shepherd to Cape Town’s steep water reefs. “I met him up the east coast,” says Hayes, in an accent that closely echoes that of his friend. “He’s like a cat with nine lives, he has that way about him; he goes at the waves with all guns blazing.” Hayes’ tone changes slightly and he says with brotherly affection. "He's an absolute gem. He has lots of time for everybody. I absolutely adore the guy. Whether he’s just had a 20ft wave land on him or if he’s just driven four hours for big waves. He’s always smiling!"
Yuriah Muller lives and breathes the land that his family has farmed for 150 years. His house sleeps on the blunt rim of a sweeping valley that looks out over an African plain. In the distance, the blue mountain range looks like waves on an ocean. “We get a lot of visitors," he’ll tell you proudly. “There’s always people here. We had ten friends staying over just a few days ago. I’ve met so many people through surfing. I love it.” We’re standing in his shaping bay now. He’s set it up in an old building a short distance off from his farmhouse. “My ambition is to ride my own boards in big waves," he says running a calloused hand over the pristine rails of the single fin.
My eyes are feeling dusty and tired, we’ve been up since dawn herding sheep with his four dogs. Yuriah fondly strokes the head of the nearest dog standing loyally by his side. “He's getting old now and struggles to get into the pick up on his own, soon he won’t be able to come out with me anymore,” he says sadly. The sun rises warm and slow over the rolling ocean of distant blue mountains as it starts to thaw the icy ground. Yuriah whistles and calls out to his dogs in a high pitched voice. The four animals surgically and methodically round up the huge flock of sheep, bringing them right to where their shepherd now stands. Yuriah grabs the closest sheep, expertly flipping the bewildered looking animal onto it’s back.
As we drive off, Yuriah trots alongside, grinning from ear to ear. He looks as comfortable as one of the sheep dogs running on either side of him. “He just loves to run. He used to be a triathlete and before that a provincial runner,” says his wife Gellika. As we bump along the road with Yuriah bobbing along beside us, I wonder what the odds are that a shepherd, hundreds of kilometers from big waves, would become a big wave surfer.
A few weeks have passed and the salt shepherd and I are staring into the flames of a low burning fire. We’d chased a booming swell up the coast and in the near distance we can hear the dull roar of tomorrows surf. “When I was a kid on the farm, my dad taught us to ride horses. We had this one horse that that kept throwing me off. I’d get really hurt and cry, but my father kept making me get back on it. Then one day, I found that I could suddenly ride it. I think that’s my approach to riding big waves.” Gellika’s gentle voice breaks the contemplative silence that hangs between us. She’s come outside to see if the meat is ready. She's a city girl who runs a catering company that takes care of the bizarre eating whims of famous musicians and actors who pass through South Africa. “We met at Afrika Burn a few years ago," she says, leaning against him. "I asked him what his name was and he said “Yuriah.”’ The shepherd laughs and shrugs his shoulders. “She was so pretty and had such an interesting name and I didn’t want to sound boring, so I told her my name was Yuriah. It just came to me in that moment." She’s laughing now too. "So the name stuck and he’s been Yuriah ever since.” The salt shepherd smiles broadly and puts an arm around her shoulders. “I like it better," he says simply.
This was never going to be a story about a great surfer. It was always going to be about someone who was on a journey to becoming a great surfer. As I was finishing up this piece, I began to see the invisible threads that connected the seemingly unconnected two stories of Yuriah’s life. Farming the land that has been in his family for eight generations and chasing giant waves. Farming is a long, slow journey. The seasons come and go. The years come and go. Entire generations come and go. Knowledge and love for the land is passed on from father to son to daughter to son to daughter. Our baby girl grows up to be the bride, who grows old to become the grandmother. It’s the circle of life; the innate understanding that even the tallest tree starts its life as the smallest seed.
I can see now why the salt shepherd attacks those giant waves with such abandon. He does it out of curiosity. He does it with the furious patience of someone who has lived an entire life with a front row seat to the great spectacle of nature. I think that somehow Yuriah’s curiosity is a curiosity that is common to us all, a longing that we all feel. To know what it would be like to slide the surfboard that is our lives, through the distant blue mountains of our dreams.
Words by Dougal Paterson.
Photography by David Gray, James Bowden & Alan Van Gysen.