Dungeons: the wild and ruthless South African wave

October 4, 2022 | Surfing
Dungeons: the biggest wave in South African and one of the heaviest in the world | Photo: Harley/WSL

Dungeons is the most ferocious wave in South Africa. It means ice-cold water, thick, undulating kelp beds that cover the inside waters, and abundant sea life, including a few local sharks that prey on the seal colony.

The extreme surfing spot is located half a mile (one kilometer) off Hout Bay in Cape Town.

It's a fickle, highly temperamental, thunderous wave that comes to life near The Sentinel - or Hangberg - at the western end of the mouth of Hout Bay.

The right-hand liquid avalanche reminds us of its Northern Hemisphere counterpart, Mavericks.

The name Dungeons was reportedly given by a local surfer who got pounded by two consecutive 25-foot waves and held underwater.

"It's a deadly prima donna of a wave - not to mention a favorite feeding ground for great whites," surf writer Steve Barilotti once wrote.

Dungeons: a fickle reef break wave that breaks in shark-infested waters | Photo: Rebel Sessions

The Dungeons Pioneers

In the mid-1980s, explorers Pierre de Villiers and Peter Button became the first to ride the infamous South African surf break.

"In 1984, I came here to study. I was a student, and I had no cash, so I got a job at Jonathan's factory. He was at that point making windsurfers and surfboards," says Villiers.

"So, I heard about Sunset from him. Jonathan told us about how heavy it was, he scared the hell out of us, and I think there might have even been guys before them."

"It's a well-known place. But I think what happened was when boards got too short, people kind of lost interest in going surfing there."

"And that's what got me going. And then standing at Long Beach, looking at all those waves on the inside and Sunset barreling off at the back, there was never a question - we wanted to ride it."

However, according to surf historian Matt Warshaw, "it was another ten years before a small group of locals - including Jonathan Paarman, Justin Strong, Ian Armstrong, Cass Collier, Chris Bertish, and Mickey Duffus - began riding the break with any regularity,"

In those days, getting to Dungeons was always difficult.

"Dungeons has always been there. We used to drive up Chapman's Peak, look across, and you could see the waves and the tubes," explains Paarman.

"You had to go up through the back of Hout Bay, and then you'd have to paddle the gauntlet across the channel."

By the mid-2000s, Durban's Grant "Twiggy" Baker was generally regarded as the most accomplished Dungeons surfer.

Dungeons: a monster wave that reminds us of Mavericks | Photo: Rebel Sessions

A Hazardous Wave

The mammoth offshore wave can only be accessed by boat or jet ski.

The ride to the South African surfing prison takes around 15 minutes from Hout Bay Harbour.

The area surrounding the big wave battleground features shallow reefs and majestic headlands.

On top of that, surfers experience cold water, wild sealife, treacherous currents, and weather conditions.

Cape Town's heavy water arena has been considered one of the most challenging and hazardous waves on the planet.

Dungeons is a fast-breaking wave that requires optimal positioning, above-average swell reading skills, fast take-offs, and plenty of surfing speed.

Do not expect a linear behavior - everything around Cape Town is raw and unpredictable.

Its famous double-up drops are often followed by long speed walls that may or not close out.

On 60-foot-plus swells, you'll see a few rogue wave sets breaking in outer peaks randomly.

The best wind conditions for Dungeons is a light northern breeze, and the best tide is low, all powered by a long-period (15-19 seconds) groundswell from the west.

Remember that you'll be facing a spooky, fearsome wave breaking in front of the oldest shoreline in the world.

The best time of the year to surf the South African big wave venue is winter (May-August).

Spectators can witness Nature's breathtaking phenomenon from Karbonkelberg and The Sentinel.

Dungeons: Cass Collier wipes out big time | Photo: Ellis/Red Bull

The Five Sections

Some say Dungeons is the wildest and weirdest wave in Africa.

And because every set comes at different angles, you hardly know what to expect and where to position yourself.

"On a personal level, I went from Dungeons to Mavericks, and I found Mavericks a lot easier to catch and ride," stresses Grant Baker.

The surf spot comprises five main rideable sections.

1. The Slab

The Slab is an inside slab that creates a barrel during small swells and high tides. This deep section often requires a jet ski due to its hard take-off.

2. The Two-Point-Five

The Two-Point-Five is an 8.2-foot (2.5 meters) deep section, also known as Photo Bowl. Dungeons' widest section breaks in front of the media channel and the end of the wave. Most of the pictures are taken here, even though it is not where the biggest waves can be found.

3. Washburn's Peak

Washburn's Peak is a deep, outside take-off zone where some of the biggest and scariest waves break.

4. Outside Photo Bowl

Outside Photo Bowl is a peak that features the biggest waves during XXL swells. They are rare, but when they arrive, they catch everyone inside.

5. The Left

The Left is a peak that rarely roars to life. If you have taken off too deep on Washburn's Peak, ride left, kick out, and paddle for your life if a set starts building.

Dungeons: a raw, unpredictable, powerful right-hand wave | Photo: Red Bull

Dungeons, Cape Town, South Africa | ID and X-Ray

Location: Cape Town, South Africa
Type of Wave: Reef Break
Best Swell Direction: W-SW
Best Wave Size: Triple Overhead + (18+ feet)
Best Wind Direction: NW-NE, Light
Best Tide: Low to Medium
Best Time to Surf: April-September
Best Board: Gun, Tow Board
Skill Level: Advanced and Professional
Crowd: Moderate
Water Quality: Good
Hazards: Wave Hold-Downs, Sharks, Rocks
Bottom: Reef
Water Temperature: 58.3-63.9 °F (14.6-17.7 °C)
Getting There: Boat, Jet-Ski

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