Nick Carroll On: The Men Who Cracked The Ice On Dungeons

14 Jul 2017 2 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

Peter and a couple of mid ‘80s guns shaped by his mate Pierre.

Peter and a couple of mid ‘80s guns shaped by his mate Pierre.

NICK CARROLL | INTERVIEW

“IT WAS US”

Imagine cracking the ice at a spot like Dungeons. Now meet the bloke who did.

In a small, really nice little old flat in Manly lives an unassuming person who once did something no other surfer had done before him.

He wouldn't put it that way, of course. "It wasn't just me," Peter Button tells me over a cup of tea in his kitchen, as the winter sun strikes down through the northern windows and on to the trees outside. "It was us. That's important. It was us."

By "us", Pete means himself and his surfing mate Pierre de Villiers, who on a rather bloody cold day in 1984, surfed the legendary South African big wave location Dungeons for the first time.

In its own way this is as radical a thing as Jeff Clark pioneering Maverick’s, or Greg Noll and co christening the ledge at Waimea. Dungeons is dark deep water. Breaking off a broad shelf outside a pile of exposed rocks past the entrance to Hout Bay in Cape Town, it briefly and recently flirted with fame in the competitive big wave arena before a very protective local crew shut it down, saying to the WSL Big Wave Tour: thanks, but no thanks.

But none of that stuff was on Pete’s and Pierre’s minds when 33 years ago, they hiked up to the top of the cliff overlooking the spot.

Peter already had a long and unusual connection with surfing — unusual for Cape Town at the time, anyway. His uncle worked in surfboards with the guru of South African boardmaking, John Whitmore. This put a board under Peter’s feet before he turned 10 — far from common in a place where surfers were considered druggie no-hopers. “There would only have been one or two other surfers at my high school,” he says.

Very little information made it into Pete’s world from beyond South Africa, other than the American surf magazines. He recalls a surfing book entitled “Hitting The Lip”, with a pic of famed shaper Gunther Rohn surfing in Cape Town in the mid 1970s. There was the great local surfer Johnny Paarman and Peers Pittard, who would surf a reef break called Sunset across the bay from Dungeons. But there were hardly any travelling surfers, “which was great for us!” Peter laughs. He and a couple of mates had the whole coast all the way up to Jeffreys Bay, where they’d camp by themselves on the point. He has clips of himself surfing excellent six to eight foot J-Bay alone, his mate filming, because they only had one wetsuit between them.

Peter bumped into Pierre while they were doing their regulation army service in Namibia. Hearing Pete’s stories, Pierre decided to move down to Cape Town, where he studied horticulture and landscaping, eventually getting into boardmaking under Johnny Paarman.

The first day they checked Dungeons, it was cloudy, a little bit side-windy, and 15-20 feet. They shot a bit of Super-8 footage — flickery, raw and menacing. To surf it, they just climbed down the cliff and jumped off the rocks and paddled out…on 6’0”s. Pete says they got a couple of waves each, but “we realised very quickly that 6’0” was not enough”. With Paarman’s help, Pierre began building bigger and bigger boards, all the way up to 8’6” — full-on single fin spears.

They surfed it again over the next year or so maybe a half dozen times, basically every time it broke. Still just by themselves. There’s a big seal colony just inside the break, and Hout Bay is notorious for white shark attacks, but they seem to have blown it off. “Sharks were the least of our worries!” Peter says. “For sure there were sharks, for sure it was dangerous. But we were doing it for ourselves…. We didn't train for it or anything. We just went surfing.”

There’s no photos of their Dungeons adventure, mainly because they didn’t have a waterproof camera, but partly because at the time, you didn’t think of it. “Today, you know everything has to be shot to prove it really happened,” Peter says. “But the truth is they still happen, whether there’s a photo or not.”

After a while they switched their attention to Sunset. Johnny and Peers had quit surfing it years before. Peter describes a broad bombie style reef. This time they were able to record some sessions thanks to a borrowed camera. In the photos it looks a fair bit like its Hawaiian namesake, but when Peter eventually got over to Hawaii at the end of the 1980s, he found the tropical Sunset a bit disappointing. “It was easier to ride, and too crowded! Way too crowded for me. At home you could take your time and pick the wave you wanted, not get forced into catching a wave you didn’t want just because it was the only one there.”

By that time, the Cape Town big wave crew was well established. Surfers like Davey Stolk, Cass Collier and co were charging Sunset and Dungeons, and Pete had moved on. He did a Masters in mathematics and statistics, lived in the UK and surfed a lot in Ireland in the early ‘90s, then eventually moved here to Sydney, because as he puts it: “It’s one of the few big cities where you can surf.”

Back in Cape Town, he says, the old surfer drop-out image thing is long gone. Everyone surfs, just like here. You don’t get to ride places like Dungeons for the first time any more, but there’s a flipside. On the wall of his kitchen he has a great pic of his extended family — brothers, cousins, nephews and nieces, maybe 25 people — at a little beachie between Cape Town and JBay, all riding the same wave. “It’s a broad church now.”

(Video below, the guys surfing J-Bay in April 1980.)

A time when you could surf waves like this alone. Peter Button, not far from Cape Town, but miles away at the same time.

A time when you could surf waves like this alone. Peter Button, not far from Cape Town, but miles away at the same time.

Peter Button at “Sunset”. Dungeons is under the conical ridge you can see way off in the background.

Peter Button at “Sunset”. Dungeons is under the conical ridge you can see way off in the background.

Pierre's cool entry at “Sunset”. The spot’s broad takeoff zone meant they got flogged every time they surfed it.

Pierre's cool entry at “Sunset”. The spot’s broad takeoff zone meant they got flogged every time they surfed it.

“Sunset” wedging up. The boys never took water pics at Dungeons because they couldn’t get a waterproof camera.

“Sunset” wedging up. The boys never took water pics at Dungeons because they couldn’t get a waterproof camera.

Mid-eighties wetties and big wave guns. The Cape Town crew: L-R Davey Stolk, Pierre de Villiers, Peter Button & Lance Slabbert

Mid-eighties wetties and big wave guns. The Cape Town crew: L-R Davey Stolk, Pierre de Villiers, Peter Button & Lance Slabbert

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