Two world-class point breaks, minutes apart at Tofo Beach, Mozambique. Why hadn’t someone established a dedicated surf shop here years ago, rather than in 2014?
I first met Arjen Pennekamp, 30, when I returned broken to The Surf Shack after hiring a 6’4″ fish from Anna, his Australian staff member the day before. At dawn, I’d snapped a fin and shredded my foot in a botched Tofino rock-jump.
Three stripes of flesh had gone from the sole of my foot; it looked like I’d stepped on Wolverine. My African surf trip now over before it began, I consoled myself by hanging out with Arjen.
Originally from Westzaan, Holland, Arjen began surfing at 14, in the North Sea, and did his first mission to Indo, at 18. “It was just after the bomb, no one was around. And at that time, no one stayed on the Mentawi mainland.”
After his father died, Arjen worked hard to run a successful interior building company in Amsterdam. But the day after a serious three-car pile-up, his whole world changed.
Arjen decided life was too short.
“The next day I was in Northern France at Oz-lines surf camp.”
In 2012 Arjen arrived at Tofo Beach. His first foray into the local surf biz was a rack of boards and an offer for surf lessons at Blend Restaurant. A friend introduced him to Jose, his current landlord, whose wife had a beachfront clothes shop.
Initially, Arjen leased half the shop, and as board rental increased, dresses gave way to rash-shirts and the whole shop became his to rent, along with the apartment next door. Now, he will manage the newly refurbished hostel accommodation above the shop, too.
Impressive. But what were Arjen’s lessons along the way?
The reason that Tofo didn’t have a dedicated surf store (Tofo dive shops do hire ancient, waterlogged longboards) was that most travelers who become staff members may stay a month or two, but would always move on, making it hard for any surf shop to gain a foothold. Arjen learnt the hard way, when his business partner left for Finland to borrow money to develop the shop. He never returned.
It also helps to speak the local language.
“I got a friend to do the Portugese paperwork,” Arjen said, over our pancakes. “But now, I’d save the time and do it myself.”
And most of Arjen’s customers are travelers, not surfers. “I wish I bought rental-proof, epoxy boards. I wanted a surf shop for surfers, but 85% of people are travelers who damage the boards.”
The staff don’t draw a salary, but are provided with room and board and have the chance to earn commission on sales in the high season. The Surf Shack has diversified and also hire bikes for M500 for a half day and M800 for a whole day, a bit more than a board which is M200 for an hour, M500 for a half day and M700 for a whole day, with a M300 deposit.
Arjen doesn’t have an ultimate goal. He’d like to be rent-free. He’d like to be able to leave the store to his staff and continue to travel while pursuing his Ghanaian tribal photography project.
I pressed him on this, skeptical that he could have his wave and surf it too, the business and the travel, without working hard on site at Tofo Beach. Arjen, with typical optimism, believed that with the right staff, he could have his cake and munch it, too.
Friedel, 30, from Austria, might just be the man.
He’d rocked up to the store one day to buy a local grommet a leash and ended up walking out with a job and cancelled his flights for the next day.
Anna, 21, from Bells Beach, Australia, has been at The Surf Shack two months and will return home in December.
“She’s very skilled,” Arjen said, as we watched Anna walk up the beach with a gaggle of kids, fresh from a surf lesson. “You should come to the kids’ play tonight,” Anna said. “They’re performing The Jungle Book!”
Talking to Arjen, it seemed that teaching was his real passion.
“An Italian girl I taught, she had been dreaming about surfing since she was a 10-year-old, finally got to surf at age 23, you should have seen the look on her face. People open up, the water does something to you, it’s not about the surf, it’s the tides, the wildlife, everything around you. It’ll change your life in a day.”
In the end, I didn’t feel like such a kook, as Arjen had blown the Tolfino rock jump, too. “I got sucked under the rock-jump once too, held under for one wave, cut up my face and smashed my board.”
If you come to Tofo, check out The Surf Shack, and bring ya rock jumpin’ booties.