In the early morning, the wind sends bursts of sand across the beach, painting bits of black and shades of brown around the shells and the deep purple seaweed that washed up during the night.
The patterns in the sand elongate and narrow, then blow back a bit over yards and yards of space, because there’s nothing here to stop them.
No palm trees, no umbrellas, no travel resorts.
As the morning progresses, a couple of people will hike over the dunes that separate the shore line from the community of Paradise Beach in South Africa. They don’t bring towels or sunblock or beach toys. They bring their dogs for an early walk, where they can go for miles without seeing anyone else.
Aside from the people who live here, and some hangers-on from nearby communities, the most regular visitors are the whales.
They’re don’t pass by all the time – Southern Rights and humpbacks migrate up from Antarctica from around June, and a handful of others pass the coast year-round. But they’re also exceptional, a bit away from the crowd, returning to a place they know.
Nature and tranquility
“The fact that nobody really knows about Paradise means we are super quiet for almost the entire year except for two weeks over December, but yet we are really close to a big city and an airport,” says photographer and resident Henry Dillon.
“The kind of people that choose to live here all come here for the same reason, because they like nature and tranquility, which means you are surrounded by like-minded people.
“Being a photographer it’s the perfect place for me as there is such a wealth of unspoiled beauty and very few people to ruin my shots by appearing in them.
“And as an added bonus it’s always nice to wake up without the sound of traffic.”
Paradise isn’t on a distant island or a remote stretch of coastline. It’s actually quite accessible, in as much as Africa’s southern coast is accessible to the rest of the world.
It’s about an hour and a half from Port Elizabeth, itself a short flight from Johannesburg or a leisurely road trip from Cape Town along the Garden Route.
A narrow causeway leads to the surfers’ haven of Jeffreys Bay, home to a Billabong colony and part of the global surfing circuit. The surfing at Paradise Beach is good, but not truly exceptional like in J-Bay, so there’s little reason for anyone to venture over just to catch the waves.
Bring your own BBQ
Paradise Beach is simply undiscovered, except by the small community that hugs the dunes in a neighborhood whose expansion is limited by protected park lands.
The few stray bits of litter get picked up by residents who grab the occasional bag of chips or empty bottle that blew off someone’s porch.
The only restaurant as such is the sailing club, where there’s a bar and sometimes an open fire for a “bring-and-braai.” This means that the bar provides wood, and generally speaking matches, and the guests bring everything else needed for a grill out: meat, salads, bread, plates and utensils.
Drinks are, of course, available at the bar, as well as a selection of raw meats wrapped in cellophane into a braai pack (in case anyone forgot to stop by the butcher).
Sport plays on the screens inside, for anyone who’s watching. Everyone else gathers around the fire, sheltered from the wind by the tall fencing, which also keeps the sand dunes from spilling inside.
The only other option for eating out, without making the short drive to Jeffreys Bay or the slightly longer drive to the nearby town of St. Francis Bay, is lucking upon a special occasion like the Happy Hippo events on a farm on the Seekoei River.
This is the kind of place where the address is listed as “on the gravel road en route to St. Francis Bay.”
The drive feels en route to nowhere, but once there, there are rabbits and small farm animals for the kids, live music with local bands and fresh food from sushi to wood-fired pizzas to curries.
The river, especially during the dry season, is more what many might call a broad stream, making it ideal for walking along or across.
Paradise feels quiet partly because some of the homes are used as rentals for holidaymakers, who mainly arrive during the summertime break at Christmas. These houses are the only accommodation, either as bed-and-breakfasts (both Airbnb and more traditional style) or longer-term rentals.
In the off-season, these guesthouses are rarely all full, though they always seem open and inviting.
Middle-class homes in South Africa’s big cities are invisible from the street, hidden behind walls and electric fencing. There’s none of that in Paradise Beach.
Homes open to the street, or look over the ocean. Fences are designed to keep in dogs or protect flower beds, not to electrocute prowlers.
When big-city people arrive, that openness feels foreign, and exhilarating. Not that the urbanites arrive in great numbers, at least not like Cape Town’s or Durban’s manic rush to the shore when millions of visitors flood into town during the holiday season.
Here, the tourists blend in with the locals. Out-of-towners move into houses and go about their business. There’s no hotel or resort complexes, no high-rise towers. The tallest structures around town are the giant white windmills on the new power-generating farms.
That’s much of the reason that Jill Thompson settled in Paradise Beach in 2004, after living in countries across the continent. She founded Mpendulo Savings in 2008, creating a system of pooling savings in nearby townships to support local communities. Here she’s found meaning in her work and in her environment.
“I feel a profound connection with nature,” Thompson says. “Alone on the beach with my dogs early in the morning. Our footprints the only ones on the pristine sand. It feeds my soul like nothing else does.”