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After the Discovery The Evolution of West African Surf Culture


“Why are some countries able, despite their very real and serious problems, to press ahead along the road to reconciliation, recovery, and redevelopment while others cannot? These are critical questions for Africa, and their answers are complex and not always clear. Leadership is crucial.” — Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, President of the Republic of Liberia, and Africa’s first elected female head of state

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journal originals / after the discovery

Contents 5 Introduction By Sean Brody

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6 GALLERY: Surveying Robertsport A local’s-eye-view of the Liberian surf capital

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24 The Deer Hunter On the trail with Benjamin McCrumuda By Sean Brody 26

Resident Shooter Call and response with West Africa’s first surf photographer Alfonso Appleton By Sean Brody

38 VIDEO: Liberia Now After years of civil war, Liberia’s youth finds solace in surfing 40 Armistice Through waves of war and peace in Liberia By Magnus Wolfe Murray From issue 16.2 48 Pre-contact Sao Tome The island’s early surfing tradition By Sam George From issue 16.3 58 Redundant Perfection on the Diamond Coast Camping through Africa’s desolate southwest By Grant Baker From issue 21.3

The Surfer’s Journal pledges at least 1% of our sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment. For info, visit onepercentfortheplanet.org


In 1822 freed American slaves were sailed

back across the Atlantic and resettled along Africa’s west coast. They formed what is present day Liberia. The first surfers are rumored to have appeared in country in the ’70s, a good 150 years later, although I have not been able to confirm those accounts. I first touched down in 2009, four short years after a bloody, 14-year civil war came to a close. The year before I landed in Liberia, Stanford students and freshman filmmakers Britton Caillouette and Nicholai Lidow released their documentary Sliding Liberia. Featuring Dan Malloy, Chris Del Moro, and Crystal Thornburg, the country seemed to momentarily capture the surf world’s attention. But as things go, surf spots come in and out of vogue. One day it’s Uluwatu, the next it’s Desert Point. It’s part of our collective DNA to push into new frontiers. But when it comes to dissecting the effects of our footprint we all too often fail. Liberia has since fallen from the headlines. It seems a trip there today has grown as common as a surf check in Reykjavik. Of course, this isn’t a bad thing. Those that care have stayed to help, most notably through the Kwepunha Retreat and the non-profit Surf Resource Network. The impact of those early travelers helped plant a seed for what is blossoming into a surf community unique unto itself. When the Sliding Liberia crew came through the country they found one surfer, Alfred Lomax. Today the local surfing population numbers 35 strong, consisting of men, women, and children, all but one lives in Robertsport, home to one of the longest left-hand points in Africa. There is a unique and replicable model emerging from Robertsport. Benjamin McCrumuda, one of the founding fathers of surfing in the country, and the Liberian Surfing Federation (LSF) works hand-in-hand with local organizations and businesses to help create positive changes in educational opportunities and community health. The LSF has chosen to prioritize education to ensure that the surfers in the club have an opportunity to go to school by using the funds raised each year. They host regular beach clean-ups and the surfers are quickly rising as role models for their peers, becoming ambassadors for their communities. Important issues such as health, education, job opportunities, sustainable tourism, and preserving local culture are being considered and addressed in the early stages of development. With a myriad of stakeholders and a bounty of experts, Liberia has the opportunity to do things right from the start, versus trying to rewind the negative impacts of surf tourism and surf culture years down the line. Liberia is also serving as a positive model for other developing African countries. Currently the International Surfing Association (ISA) has recognized eight African nations, including Liberia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Morocco, Namibia,

Senegal, Somalia and South Africa. Sierra Leone, Sao Tome, and Principe are also on deck. Surfing in Africa is not only becoming a viable economic driver, supporting many families, but it is also used as a tool for peacekeeping. The youth are glomming on to this positive pastime as an avenue to a brighter future. Take Adama “The Liberian Lopez” Browne. His tiny frame scratches into waves three times his size. He arches into smooth bottom turns with all the style and grace of Mr. Pipeline. Philip “Occhilupo” Banini surfs with power and determination. Armstrong Johnson turns heads in the water and fixes boards on the beach. He’s convinced his small ding repair business will thrive as more surfers visit Liberia. And there’s Alfonso Appleton, the country’s first and only surf photographer. Together they’re not only changing the town of Robertsport, but they’re putting a very authentic and real African spin on the sport as a whole. As Liberia has grappled with profound humanitarian issues such as slavery and civil war, somehow surfing has come to symbolize peace, freedom, and hope. Given the quality of the waves, surf travel has a very solid chance at helping the Liberian tourism industry gain traction. The local population has embraced it to heal so many societal wounds. The people here are learning to harness the opportunities of surfing and translate them into an education and career. Can surfing save Liberia? No, not single handedly. But it’s a good start. — Sean Brody


Surveying Rob


Considered Liberia’s first resident surfer, Alfred Lomax grabs a drainer deep behind the rock.

ertsport

A local’s-eye-view of the Liberian surf capital


The main break at Robertsport is actually a series of left-hand points. Depending on swell-direction and size, when everything comes together it connects into one long wave.


Liberia is the 71st nation to be recognized by the International Surfing Association. With that honor, the Liberian Surfing Federation has been pressing the Liberian Ministry of Youth and Sport to have surfing officially recognized as a sport within the country.


Alfred, Armstrong, Benji and the rest of the surf population in Robersport use riding waves as an opportunity for community building.


Community organizer and activist Benjamin McCrumuda serves as president of the Liberian Surfing Federation, and won the country’s annual contest in 2012.


Lomax with a hook in the pocket that’s earned him comparisons to Occy among local surfers.


Philip Banini is among the first generation in Liberia to grow up with surfing playing a prominent role in the youth culture of his village.


McCrumuda is one of the first Liberian surfers and knows the lineups as well as anyone.


The faces of


Robertsport.


The Deer Hunter On the trail with Benjamin McCrumuda By Sean Brody

B

enjamin’s been tracking a deer for miles through the dense West African rainforest, lingering just far enough away to disguise his presence. He waits in anticipation for the perfect moment to strike, creeping in the shadows and taking each step with precision, making sure not to snap a twig or crunch a leaf. A fresh mountain spring entices the buck with its cool, refreshing water. He puts his guard down for just a moment to steal a drink. Benjamin leaps from the shadows, knife drawn, aiming for the throat. At the last moment the buck rears into action and kicks back wildly, connecting with Benjamin’s left elbow with the force of sledgehammer. His arm is opened, bone exposed. Adrenaline is pumping through his veins. He doesn’t even feel it and springs into a full sprint as he chases the deer through the jungle. The animal has a good head start, but Benjamin knows every part of the forest—every tree, every stone, every trail. Thoughts of his son and his wife flash through his mind as he sees dinner disappearing off into the distance. He’s determined to not come home empty handed again. As the deer scurries through the bush Benjamin cuts down a squirrel trail he hacked out a few months back. A minute goes by before he pops out right on the buck’s tail. He knows the deer is running out of trail and soon the rainforest will spit them out on the beach. The darkness and thick vegetation give way to bright blue skies and a white sand beach. The buck sprints through the hot sand with Benjamin on his heels, scampering into the crashing waves. The first inklings of a smirk form on Benjamin’s lips before he confidently plunges in after the deer; if there is anywhere he is more comfortable than the forest it is the sea. The deer lets out a bellow as a wave overtakes him. The beast kicks for the horizon. His efforts are futile. Benjamin strokes up to the right side of the deer and easily scampers over the drowning animal’s back. With a single slash to the buck’s throat the chase is over. The water turns crimson as Benjamin begins to swim his catch to shore. As he wades in with the 150-pound deer he notices a clean set peeling out the back.


Resident Shooter

Call and response with Alphonso Appleton By Sean Brody


W

hen I first came to Liberia in 2009 to photograph for the television show “On Surfari” I met a community of people who changed my life. One passionate young man in particular who is fueled by enthusiasm and hope, Alphonso “Fonzie” Appleton, was particularly inspiring. When Fonzie was 16 he told me he would like to learn photography and journalism as tools to empower his community. Five years later he is doing just that. He’s picked up a bit of gear here and there, but doesn’t have much in the way of cameras. Today he is scrupulously saving every spare cent to help his dream come into sharper focus. He even aspires to go to the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara to study photography. It makes me smile to think of what he’d make of Rincon, a reversal of his native pointbreaks. I asked Appleton for his perspective as an up-and-coming West African artist, and Liberia’s surf photographer. His enthusiasm for picking up a camera is still evident even after years have passed since our first meeting.


Where would you like your photography to take you? My dream is to become a professional photographer and use photography as a tool to get out in the world and to be able to inspire other young people to pursue their dreams. I want to come back to Robertsport, Liberia, and be an inspiration to other people and show them that if you are courageous and focused, hard work plus dedication equals accomplishment. My dream is to go to a university for photography.


What is your favorite photograph that you have taken? One of my favorite photos I have taken was actually lost when my camera, that you gave me, got stolen. The photo was of a wave breaking and in the foreground there was a kid walking on the beach selling popcorn.


What are your favorite photos to take? I love to shoot action photos. I feel so excited that I can capture a moment that can never be repeated. That fraction of a second when the lens closes on an individual in their prime moment, it fills my heart with love and joy.


Photography’s helped bring us together. Do you think that’s fair to say? Yeah, I got into photography through you, a friend of mine, role model, and brother. We met in 2009 and I told you I was interested in learning photography. You were really surprised to hear that someone from Liberia, West Africa, was interested in becoming a photographer. I started training with you and I began to learn the camera modes and experiment with different angles, just learning this and that.


Where did the inspiration come from? It is so unique to me because it is a path most of my peers have not taken. Photography is a path to beauty and to life. I get excited and inspired when I shoot photographs. I don’t just like it, I love it. I love looking at the work of other great photographers. Someday I hope to be a famous photographer from Liberia.


Kwpeunha Liberia After years of civil war, Liberia’s youth finds solace in surfing

WATCH VIDEO


By Magnus Wolfe Murray

L

ocal bodyboarding legend Arthur de la Cruz, from the Philippines but raised in Liberia in the good days of the ’70s and early ’80s, waxes lyrical about the epic lefthanders in Robertsport. “Man, we used to go there before the war—long, perfect glassy green lines.” “Can we go then?” I urge, trying to keep the anxiety out of my voice. “No way, it’s been cut off for months. Rebel activity near the Clay Junction (20km north of Monrovia). May clear up. We’ll have to see what happens.” The war, as it turns out, is only warming up.…

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Five points and jungle all around, the trauma of the war years still haunts the country.

PHOTOS: JOHN CALLAHAN

A

Norwegian aid worker and his team are attacked and killed by rebel troops, bandits, or government forces —no one knows—on a road in the southeast. He had been carrying cash. Since then, travel to any part of the country outside the 15 percent that the government controls is now seriously dodgy. And “out there,” tens of thousands of people have been forced to flee their villages but can’t quite make it to the capital. It’s just too far to walk for most people. There are no basic services like health care. That’s OK for healthy people. They survive. But it’s heavy for young kids and pregnant women. They get sick a lot and then there are complications. Out in the bush, they die.


Through waves of war and peace in Liberia

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Sand-bottom booya— Robertsport, reeling under summer rains with swell wrapping from the south Atlantic.


Love thy neighbor.

W

ith sickening inevitability, all this comes to pass. In June 2003, Lurd rebels advance from the north and pound mortars upon government troops on the St. Paul River on the northern suburb of Monrovia. The exodus begins. One hundred fifty thousand people are pushed into the town in hours. Foreigners are told to prepare for an emergency evacuation. Almost everyone complies and I am among them with Merlin’s only other expatriate staff member, the medical coordinator, Dr. Clement, a South Sudanese who has to be the coolest colleague for this kind of operation. We hunker down and expect all hell to break loose outside. We picture hoards of wild rebels storming the gates to get us. People are scared. The tension grows. It’s like paddling out on a massive day. Keep it together and you’ll survive. Maybe even get an epic wave. Do something stupid and you’ll go under for a long time. The French helicopters arrive to take us away from all this, and, far from relief, we feel we shouldn’t be leaving but staying behind to help out with those who have been displaced by the fighting. But with no funds or authorization to keep operating,

we don’t have a chance. As I fly out, I can see a new swell coming in. The local beachbreak is going off, lefts and rights all over the place. I ponder on the irony of it: Liberia in full swell and turmoil is beckoning us. So, four days later, Dr. Clement and I fly back on a shaky little two-prop aircraft. The airport is open. Liberia is tranquil, the calm before the storm.Three attacks are coming this summer, three wings of doom descending over the city. And all international agencies have evacuated—the entire United Nations, most international charities, and almost all embassy staff. Our donors rally, and we have funds to put our emergency plan into action: food, fuel, medicines, construction materials, water, shovels, and tools. Anything and everything you need to build emergency shelters, latrines, water supply stands. The ocean swells are coming more often now. A few moments of peace stolen during dawn patrol sessions—Mamba Point Beach is the closest break to our office. It’s also a public toilet, so it’s kind of a minefield, as folks don’t tend to fill in after themselves. On bigger days, Mamba turns on like Supertubes in Portugal: hollow, fast, powerful. A gnarly break. Paddling out as the only surfer in the lineup is one thing—as the only surfer in the country is something else, utterly outrageous. Quite a privilege. But it’s only the lull between sets, so to speak. The second attack arrives, displacing thousands more into the city. This time we are more prepared; we can do a bit more. Merlin grows, gathers just about every available nurse in town to run makeshift clinics in all the major displacement centers. Surfing is again a thing of the past. We are working 16-hour days, 7 days a week. It is intense, immensely rewarding, and a major adrenaline rush. One month later, the third and most gruesome attack hits the town: three weeks of fire. I try to capture a handful of moments and images, and it’s wild, like finding words for the indescribable beauty and turmoil in the hollow chamber of a wave. It’s 6 a.m., not quite dawn but getting there. It’s muggy, overcast, and quiet. A distant rumble sounds. Soon another, slightly closer. Thump. Like thunderheads drawing closer, the distant sound becomes an inferno of explosions that penetrate the very air you’re breathing. Pieces of metal and bits of shrapnel rip through women and children preparing their morning meal, washing their clothes, trying to start a “normal” day. It all happens again Friday, just outside my bedroom. Minutes later, the wounded start arriving at our emergency room in the backyard. Around the corner is a camp of about 20,000 refugees. A shell fell there on Monday killing 22 people outright, again mostly women and children, and wounding over 70. By some miracle, our staff were unhurt. Our camp clinic had been running that day in a makeshift tent made out of local wood and bamboo mats, with tarpaulin roofing. Something more vulnerable would be hard to imagine. Dr Clement, our fearless South Sudanese doc, accustomed to years of shelling and warfare in his own land, picked himself off the floor after the shell landed and got straight back to work to patch up the terrible wounds of the survivors. His terrified Liberian nurses rallied around him and

CALLAHAN

TED GRAMBEAU

These are the people we need to reach. Instead, I am informed that our funding will be “suspended” due to the worsening security situation. I argue, but to no avail. In short, it’s the end of Merlin, the London-based international medical relief organization I’m working for in Liberia. Just as rebels are getting closer to Monrovia, more displaced people are arriving among misery, disease, and death—it seems all wrong. Our staff agrees to stay on as volunteers. We try again. We appeal for emergency funding to emergency donor agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. The cholera season has already started, and the figures have already jumped from 50 to 100 to 400 over the past three weeks. Under the circumstances the epidemic spreads greatly and other diseases appear. Some hospitals close down, unable to cope; the others become completely over-stretched. People die. There is no other option.


The 200-year-old cotton silk tree, a sheltering friend in torrents; with the fighting, logging interests have been stalled and much virgin forest remains.


PHOTOS: GRAMBEAU

within minutes the tent had become a hive of activity: IV lines hanging from every possible place, doctors and nurses racing against time to stop massive bleeding, stitching gaping wounds in the back of a young boy, preparing a patient with intense head injury for ambulance referral to a local hospital. Without medical training, my job was to organize the movement of people that just died or were dead on arrival. Stray bullets spell out more horrors. We try to build “walls of life”—sandbags to protect people against them. This means rallying all available old rice bags in town. We offer ten cents per bag. Soon we have thousands. Then we take an old truck we’d rescued from looters last week and drive down to the surf beach and shovel sand. Even here bullets fall. A lady runs by with her baby bleeding from the face, a bullet just came in through her tin roof. We dig faster. Three people are hit by stray bullets as the sandbag wall is built inside the camp. One is a 12-year-old girl, she dies within the hour. Her family is devastated. I am

“Doctor Livingstone, I presume?”

too. She was a pretty, cheery wee thing. These bullets are just a symptom of the total lack of security around the city. They can find any one of us. We have no flak jackets or helmets. Earlier in the day, a bullet burst through the finance office next door to mine, narrowly missing the accountant and Clement, the good doctor, who happened to be there at the time. They came in laughing, holding the bullet. Maybe we have lost our minds. Our house and office, set up in three apartments, somehow host 450 people, family members of staff from the “other side” of town now under rebel control. We share meagre supplies of water and food. Everyone contributes something. It’s incredible. I find the way to my bed by stepping over arms and legs of people on every available bit of floor, all up the stairwell—they sleep everywhere. By the end of the day we are all exhausted but also inspired and motivated by what we have achieved under such hectic circumstances. There is no one else to do this work now, when it’s most needed. There is no doubt, we save so many people

Crystal Thornburg, balanced.


Regarding the tide influence, Dan Malloy relates: “There were sessions where you were just doing turns and sessions where you were just trying to get barreled.�

Hailing from the North Shore, Thornburg adapts to her present circumstances.


GRAMBEAU

every day we have no way of keeping count. Yesterday, no one had water: we managed to truck some from a well near the beach, the only accessible source. We treat bullet wounds, we ferry critical cases to the hospital, we treat malaria cases by the hundreds, and, today, a small miracle: We deliver a baby girl, and the mother calls her “Merlina.” So, in the middle of this all, life goes on, every step a victory. We hear songs, the haunting African gospel that soars out in defiance of death and aggression. People gather and pray, in rhythms of celebration and dance. One day, this living hell will be over. For now, people just focus on staying alive. Still, we carry on and do what we can, keep our heads down, and hope that with a bit of luck and a fair wind the next round of shelling will miss our house and our neighbors.

Danny Boy on a Fletcher Chouinard-shaped Thruster—just the machine for turning and burning. Other times, the 7'2" Liddle hull, with its magic displacement trim, was the ticket.

P

eacekeepers arrive one month later, and the guns fall silent the very same day. We stay on; there is a lot to do. We travel south of Monrovia to reopen a hospital. We revisit the southern coastline and hike through the jungle to reach a long beachbreak. Solid swell, once you’ve paddled across a river so black from local minerals it makes the skin crawl. Farther south, we reach Greenville, a ghost town scorched and looted, isolated, tormented. I run to the beach at dawn, surfboard under arm, before the grueling drive back to Monrovia. Running alongside is Prince, truck driver, security officer, guide, mate, about twice my height and build, massive, muscular, scary. The rain is pouring in tropical torrential fervor, the sky orangegray and foreboding. Around us the houses are blackened and thatched. The odd face peers out. I see eyes widen with disbelief at this bizarre spectacle; voices hoot in shock; gossip ignites. The sand is black, but clean and soft. The ocean has a strange charcoal color; it’s glassy but small. There’s a point about two miles away to the north and a port to the south. There just has to be some good spots around here, but it’s going to take about a month to properly check the coastline, and a boat would be

a hell of a lot easier. As usual, I am the only surfer along this coast. It’s not until December that the road to Robertsport opens up. Finally, I can go and check those illusive lefts everyone has been banging on about for so long. But, alas, the dry season has kicked in, it’s sunny, hot, and flat most of the time. The enormous winter storms from the south Atlantic don’t start blowing again until April or May, and Liberia’s best waves seem to come from the south. Another few months and Liberia welcomes back the United Nations and the usual bunch of aid agencies, with one or two surfers among their staff. Mark, from Virginia, U.S.A., is one of them. He joins me and Bassam, a Lebanese bodyboarder who worked with me during the war, paid his dues at Mamba Point’s “shitty beach,” and is an eager member of the new post-war search for surf missions. We find some time off between endless days of work, and explore. We find a place we call “Fisher’s Point” just outside Monrovia, a long, head-high and playful left that wraps around a rocky point and into a palm-tree natural harbor filled with local fishermen, kids, and dugout canoes. They are more stoked than we are. Every wave we catch they hoot and cheer like crazy —an impassioned crowd there. I give them my board and a couple of older ones paddle out. They’re used to paddling through this surf in their dugouts to go fishing. These guys aren’t afraid of the sea like many Liberians. Soon, one of them is up on his feet and going. More howls of delight from the crowd. A couple of surfboards could transform their lives. We return to Robertsport late one afternoon, set up camp, find firewood, and later watch the moon rise. A bunch of locals come and hang out round the fire, sharing a barbequed fish. Some mellow waves keep breaking invitingly around the point in the darkness, so I paddle out and catch some silvery shadow shapes illuminated from the moonlight on the shallow sands below. I realized then that this place holds something completely unique in Liberia: incredible point-break lineups, untouched natural beauty, and a tranquillity that seems unaffected by war. The concept of sharing the wave-riding experience with locals is much appreciated here—there are plenty of kids lining up for a shot, and they learn fast. Their enthusiasm and excitement at discovering surf for the first time is inspiring. Now, in mid-2006, exactly three years since my first encounter with war-torn Liberia, I return in peacetime with my son, Nikita, to Robertsport to surf and lay plans to develop a basic eco-camp with tree houses and an education center introducing renewable energy technologies. International volunteers with the right experience and attitude would be great to help train local kids some surf lines, teach in local schools, and share construction design ideas. Alfred is Robertsport’s (and Liberia’s) first surfer who asked me for a quick ride on my board way back and has never looked back. Now he and his prodigies are part of the wave of change and optimism that is sweeping the country from the pit of war to a groundswell of new opportunities. It’s a rare and exciting possibility that the surfing world can be part of this metamorphosis.


CALLAHAN

Dr. Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf is now President, the capital has electricity, Charles Taylor is in the dock at The Hague, and Liberia has a future once again.


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I

t’s been almost seven years now since those extraordinary three days on Sao Tome—the most extraordinary of my surfing life, though I didn’t know it then. I wrote about the trip for Surfer, where I was editor at the time, banged out a short, single-spread piece about traveling with veteran surf explorer Randy Rarick, and at roughly 800 words it was a neat parable of surfing camaraderie and of the enduring friendships that can be formed on surfari. But I didn’t write about what we’d really discovered on Sao Tome, nor of what happened to me there. I’ve never written about it. Until now. My perception of what I’d experienced on Sao Tome— what I liked to think I’d experienced—began to shape a changing relationship with a surfing lifestyle to which I’d wholly committed myself long ago. I wanted to believe that being a surfer was a pretty damn special human condition, a state of being that transcends all the crap we pile up around it.

And I should know, as a surfing magazine editor for over 20 years and now a documentary filmmaker, I’ve piled up more of that crap than almost anyone in the history of the sport. This is why I never wrote about Sao Tome. I didn’t want to add it to the pile. But I also needed to know if it was real, what happened there. I talked Malibu producer/surfer Paul Taublieb in to going back to Sao Tome. He, in turn, talked a TV network into paying for me to go back, ostensibly to produce a documentary film. The pitch was simple: the first account of a completely indigenous surfing culture since Captain James Cook landed in Tahiti in 1777, and definitive proof that surfing is an authentic African tradition. And, to be fair, this was one of my goals. Indeed, examining the roots of African surfing just might make a good film. Never been done before. At least this is what I told Holly Beck and Joe Curren, with whom I’ve shared surf adventures (Joe in northern Scotland, Holly


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in the Andaman Islands) and whose sponsors paid for them to accompany me. What I was really hoping to find…well, that was bit harder to define. What we discovered on this latest trip surpassed anything I could have imagined. The full tale of this adventure will come with the release of The Lost Wave: An African Surfing Story this spring, and is told, in part, with the photos and captions that accompany this feature. But while the film and the photos (taken mostly by Joe Curren) tell an incredible story, they don’t tell the full story—the story I didn’t write seven years ago, the story I’m about to tell now.

T

he year was 2000, and I was in the tiny nation of Sao Tome-Principe, a series of volcanic islands poking out of the Atlantic some 240 miles off the coast of Gabon, West Africa. More accurately I wasn’t on Sao Tome, but

on an even smaller islet separated from Sao Tome’s southern tip by a one-and-a-half-mile channel, deep blue and swept by the prevailing trades. This tuft of forested lava and coral has the impossibly romantic name of Ilheu das Rolas, “Island of the Turtle Doves.” I found myself here with fellow travelers Randy Rarick, John Callahan, and Nuno Jonet, a surfer with Portuguese/Angolan roots. We had come to Sao Tome looking for waves because, so far as we knew, nobody had ever done so before. There is a reasonable explanation why: hardly anyone has ever been here—at least not by choice. The uninhabited island was first discovered in either 1470 or 1471 (the exact date is unclear) by intrepid Portuguese mariners Joao Santarem and Pero Escobar and named for their arrival on December 21, the Feast Day of St. Thomas. Actual settlement didn’t begin for another 20 years, quickly followed by colonization spelled with


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a capital “S”: sugar and slavery. Sao Tome’s fortunes rose and fell throughout the ensuing centuries: cocoa and coffee, Dutch and French occupation, slave revolts and bloody reprisals. At the time of our first visit, the pocket principality that only as recently as 1974 shook off the Portuguese yoke, was then emerging from 25 years of Marxist control and had just begun to open its doors to tourism. They still swing on rusted hinges. Only a handful of tourists had preceded us to this forgotten island that, verdant as it is with hardwood rainforest and gone-feral cacao and copra orchards, still seems to have slipped into an almost pervasive state of decomposition. Wrecked fishing and cargo ships, their hulls furry with oxidation, sleep on broken keels in Baia de Ana Chaves harbor; arid fountains, overgrown promenades, canted and latticed verandas give the capital city

of Sao Tome an abandoned feel, despite the pulsating, vital, Afro-kaleidoscope crush of the marketplace. And on the battered macadam that snakes its way threequarters around Sao Tome’s crenulated coastline—an island some 30 miles long, 20 miles wide, and 6,640 feet high— storehouses, slave quarters, and mansions of the once-expansive plantation, or roca, system now lay in ruin, their distinctive pink bricks strangled in vine, blasted by root, and crumbled stone by stone as if by the aggrieved souls of generations of slave laborers: the filhos das terra, “sons of the land” who once paid for the world’s sweet chocolate and café au lait with their sweat, their blood, and their lives. But the road did lead along the coast, rarely turning inland, and though no Sao Tomeans we encountered had ever seen a surfer before (apparently two French sailboarders had


Six years after first encountering stand-up surfers, Rolas islander Shun (above) had become a point-break specialist, having developed an uncanny ability to turn, trim, and pump down the line on a finless, wooden slab. Holly Beck (below) adapted quickly to the low-volume, neutral buoyancy handling characteristics of the hand-carved oka board. “Discovered” while looking for a place to make a u-turn, the rivermouth (left) became a stage on which the crew performed for the villagers who wondered what sort of men travel to the other side of the world to play like children.

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cruised through town as recently as to be recalled) there was on the map of its southeastern coast a spot with the encouraging name of Praia das Sete Ondas: Beach of the Seven Waves. We needed encouragement. For the first four days, we drove the entire serpentine length of shattered pavement, boards piled high on a battered, sprung-shock, blue Land Rover, checking torpid beaches, trekking under forest canopies in the shadow of giant baobab trees, looking for headlands, points, bays…any quirk of island geography that might produce a rideable wave. We found none. Even the Beach of the Seven Waves was a bust: a flat crescent sandbank, unusable shore break, flotillas of aptly named Portuguese man-o-wars careening on the black berm. Their presence was particularly galling, as the toxic hydrozoas are subject to the whims of the trades,

which in Sao Tome seem to blow continuously from an exasperatingly precise south-west compass point, splitting the island and wrapping it in 360-degree onshores—surfing hell considering what we’ve come to expect from tropical islands. We eventually found our way to the southwestern tip of the island where the ghostly remnants of a plantation known as Porto Alegre sat on the outermost point of a broad, horseshoe bay. Tucked in the lee of the point was a small fishing village typical of the Sao Tome coast: wooden shacks raised up out of the mud on stilts; single log dugout canoes pulled up on the golden sand, their rice-sack sails furled; the smell of rotting fruit and fresh pig shit, cooking oil and raw sewage, dried fish and wet babies. And, in this case, what looked like a decent point break—if not for the devil wind blowing out of the Atlantic.


Purely recreational wave riding on equipment designed specifically for that purpose, with skills passed down from fathers to sons: All of this supports

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I was ready to call it quits, chalk it up as one of those classic misadventures that happen now and then, the kind you hear surfers talking about back home with that peculiar tinge of satisfaction. “Hey, did you hear about Randy and Sam? They went to some island off Africa and got totally skunked! Never even surfed!” Randy, on the other hand, wasn’t ready to concede defeat. Just offshore from Alegre floated an islet, its forested peak plainly visible. The map read “Ilheu das Rolas.” “This wind has to be offshore on at least one side of that island,” theorized Randy, indefatigable. “Let’s see if we can figure out how to get over there and take a look.” We crossed in a big dugout carved from a single oka tree trunk, every ax mark still evident. The canoe, some 25 feet from square stern to upturned bow, had a battened gunwale attached with carved wooden pegs driven through patches of tire rubber for waterproofing. It could have been built 300 years ago, but was now powered by a 25-hp Dihatsu outboard and filled with Sao Tomean day laborers headed over to Rolas to work on construction of a hotel. Here, on this tiny green teardrop squeezed into a forgotten quadrant of the Atlantic, some Portuguese resort consortium had, in its wisdom, decided to build a high-end getaway. Way away. The soul charged with this mission was Tiago, the youngest member of a family of hoteliers, dispatched to this most farflung outpost to prove his manhood, apparently, by carving a four-star out of the jungle. This lone pioneer of progress stood on the squat, concrete jetty as we climbed up the stone steps. His greeting was effusive. As the only European on the island, Tiago was thrilled to have visitors that, by his explanation, required no overseeing. A bit of a dandy, Tiago was a neat young man who wore a crisp, stiff-collared cotton shirt tucked into belted khakis. Slight, with narrow shoulders, creamy complexion, and long eyelashes, he seemed a delicate specimen here in this wild spot. A palpable sense of frustration at the outrageousness

of his task bubbled forth before we’d even gotten off the boat: “Every day they cut it back,” he cried, arms spread wide toward the dark, lush forest that pressed up against the modest storeroom/office and freshly built bungalows. “And every night it grows right back again. What do they expect of me?” We asked about a beach. Tiago told us that the island had what would make a very nice beach, except for the fishing village along its berm. “We don’t go over there much,” he said. While the rest of the surfers moved into the yellow stucco, red-roofed storehouse (we had been invited to stay as “test guests,” Tiago eager to learn if his newly hired chef could actually cook), I took my board for a stroll to the village beach. Rolas was a lovely spot. The future resort’s boundary was marked with painted white stones, fronted by a seawall and the pier that extended out into the calm, lee waters. Common terns, bone white with charcoal head feathers, swooped and dipped their red bills into the blue Atlantic. Everything else was green. To the northwest was a low hill topped with tall, golden, nutladen palms, while densely wooded hills rose precipitously behind. From its verdant acacia cloak, the surrounding forest sprouted even taller trees, gray, bare-trunked oka, their upper branches spread like outstretched arms, looking like ancient survivors of some past cataclysm. Between me and the village— a cluster of dark shacks of hand-milled wood and thatched huts with a glimpse of turquoise sea between—a massive banyan shaded a bare, open patch on which a small stucco chapel stood. Behind, a low white stone tomb crouched in the shrubbery, the inscription faded. I passed the chapel and skirted the village on the open seaside where a wedge of black volcanic rock jutted out into the blue. There were waves. Peaking up regularly and crumbling along the edge of the reef, the surf was small and mushy, but rideable and, in fact, very Waikiki-like. The water was as clear as the air, and a soft wind—God bless Randy Rarick—blew into the wave faces. It was an incredibly picturesque little bay, a sandy beach fringed by 50-foot palms, green fronds waving.


the idea that surfing is an authentic African tradition dating back centuries. But forget the theories—just look at that smile.

Empty, most of the canoe fleet having already put to sea as it was about lunchtime, I took a quick look around. It was quiet— from somewhere behind the huts came the sound of an ax thumping wood, the slight pause as it was twisted free between strokes. With nobody in sight I laid my board in the water and paddled out from the top of the point, careful not to drag my fingertips across the coral bottom carpeted with purple urchins. There’s always a bit of uncertainty paddling out at an isolated village like this. Our friend Nuno, one of the pioneers of Portuguese surfing, told me of the time back in the early 1970s when he and some buddies paddled out at a promising beachbreak only to be pelted with stones by the fishermen and their families. Having never seen surfers before, the stolid fisher-folk were offended by the cavalier hooting and hollering in the same deadly waves that had claimed so many of their kin. Though I have done this thing many times before throughout West Africa, it never fails to produce a moment of doubt. This is, after all, their backyard, their country, their ocean—their whole existence. I’m the alien. So when I looked into the beach and saw a clutch of women and children emerging from the shadows of the thatched huts and gathering on the sand, I gulped with apprehension. But a wave came and I took it, reveling in the simple thrill of just hopping to my feet and sliding down the face. Then it was connecting the sections, trimming down the line, cutting back, climbing, and dropping. It was a neat little wave, and I milked it right up to the beach, where I stepped off into the shallows and where, in the depths of my surfer’s vanity, I stood there waiting for the acclaim. It never came. Instead all the kids, boys and girls, turned, and without a word, fled back into the village, sand flying from beneath their creamy-soled feet. The women followed more slowly, glancing back over their shoulders as if to make sure I hadn’t moved. I felt utterly foolish being dismissed like this; some “Great White Surfer” I was. I grabbed my board and hustled around the flank of the village and back to the ordered world behind the white stones.

The first thing I did was to tell the crew that I had stumbled on some rideable waves—spooked villagers or not, this was surf. Then, while Randy and Nuno took off for the beach, I prepared for a longer session, downing fresh water and slathering on sunscreen. A quick wax-up and I was back under the banyan tree, headed through the thatched huts to the sea. And there was a sight that stopped me mid-stride. The lineup was packed with surfers—at least a half-dozen, paddling in and around Randy and Nuno, with more in the shore break, splashing and laughing. The kids near shore were riding rough-hewn slabs, three feet long, with a rounded nose and square tail—the tambua, or classic West African bellyboard. But the kids outside sat on strange surf craft, the likes of which I’d never seen: wooden rafts, fashioned from three logs hewn from the lightweight goffe tree, each approximately six-and-ahalf feet long and six inches in diameter. The bow, or nose of the raft was planed to a broad point, and the underside scarfed to simulate nose rocker. The riders sat as if on a surf-ski, their feet placed against a small brace, wielding double-ended paddles made of bamboo. These fishermen’s sons had their spot totally wired, catching waves at the peak, turning left and right in the curl, then pulling out and stroking quickly back out to the lineup—this wasn’t idle play. These were surfers, eager to show how they rode their waves, eager to share. Of course! They hadn’t run away from me when I kicked out of that first wave; they had run to get their boards. Imagine what it must have been like, to have grown up seeing very few strangers in their young lives— very few white men, other than Tiago, and never another surfer—and then to suddenly find one riding a wave, at their beach, standing up on some weird piece of plastic. They couldn’t wait to get out there and show us what they knew. We surfed together for three days. One kid in particular, an 11-year-old named Shun, became my favorite. Bolder, more assertive than some of the others, he learned to ride my board in about ten minutes, actually switching stance to match my

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Over the decades, plenty of kids in exotic lands have picked up surfing—once they were exposed to it. What makes the Sao Tome villagers unique is that they were surfing long before any outside surfers visited. Once discovered, however, Shun proved to be a kindred spirit. “I love going to the waves,” he told Sam. “They bring me joy.”

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regular-foot posture in imitation. By the second day he was teaching his friends; I’d leave him with my board during the day and he fashioned a thatched rack on which to store it off the sand. Shun and his crew were too young to join their fathers in the daily ritual of loading and launching their dugout canoes, putting to sea in that pewter hour before sunrise, silently, save for the occasional thump of paddle against gunwale. These watermen would spend their day working the channel between Rolas and the main island, hand-lining mackerel and even sailfish, or purse-seining for schooling fish, then come ghosting back in on the trades, sails made of rice sacks unfurled between two poles. They smiled at us despite their puzzlement. “What sort of men are these,” asked Shun’s father, a lean, muscular fisherman named Chano, “who come all the way from the other side of the world to play with our children?” Chano had directed this question to Tiago during one of the hotelier’s rare visits to the beach—in fact one of the few times I saw him standing in the open sunlight. Until I spotted him standing there with his wilting pant creases and sandy loafers, I never even noticed the faded, torn netting, scattered fish bones, and hairy, split coconut husks littering the golden sand. “You may enjoy this sort of thing,” Tiago told us later, somewhat conspiratorially. “But I doubt the guests of the resort are going to want to share this beach with dirty, naked Africans.” Yet, for now, Shun and his surf mates would join us in the waves, lounge with us on the sand, shimmy to dizzying heights

to fetch us green drinking coconuts, and on the third day guide us out of the village and around a distant point to where they explained through pantomime that the island’s waves grew bigger and more dangerous—too dangerous to ride, at least on their sleds. The six- to eight-foot left we found was one of those memorable surfing discoveries—I don’t have to tell you what that was like, returning us to the more traditional rhythm of surf exploration. Like most surfers, we had experienced this moment many times before: clear, tropical water, blue sky, hot sun, waves that had never seen a surfboard’s track, bent to the will of a coral reef ’s configuration. It’s what we’ve always dreamed of finding, regardless of the latitude—the ultimate goal waiting at the end of our pilgrim’s trail. But as we sat at dinner that night, our last night on Rolas, sun burnished and limp armed, enjoying whatever dish Tiago’s fledgling chef placed down in front of us, I felt a glow of something more than satisfaction. More like awareness, a stirring, the birth of a certainty that what I had experienced on the “Isle of the Turtle Doves” had transcended the pervasive culture of attainment that as a surf magazine editor I have relentlessly fostered for over two decades, and that as a surfer I have been a slave to for most of my life. Then Tiago approached us at the long dining room table: “Sam,” he said, taking the back of my chair in both hands and sighing through a smile. “The children of the village are here. They have a gift for you.”


Indigenous Design

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humb through an 1840 volume of Sir James Edward Alexander’s Narrative of a Voyage of Observations Among the Colonies of West Africa and you’ll come upon utterly English chapter titles like “Native Huts,” “Lander’s Death,” or “Absurdity of the prevailing opinion of the seasoning fever.” But on page 192 is an intriguing subhead called “Surf Game,” in which Alexander recounts a session he witnessed at Ghana’s Cape Coast Castle: “From the beach, meanwhile, might be seen boys swimming onto the sea, with light boards under their stomachs. They waited for a surf and then came rolling in like a cloud on top of it…” Alexander doesn’t describe the light boards these African surfers paddled out on, but I can take a guess what they looked like…carved with an adze, or ax, from a plank of lightweight wood, three- to four-feet in length, approximately 18 inches wide, with a squared-off tail and blunt, rounded nose, rails angled up from bottom to deck. I can give such a detailed description of these surf craft, because after exploring many regions of West African coastline and making first contact with a number of indigenous surfers, I discovered that the design has changed very little in the past 167 years. When last at Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, I found no native surfers (although the waves are still fun). However, on the West African island of Sao Tome, I came across a surf culture that, with the exception of the raft-riding surfers on the islet of Rolas, rode waves on the classic bellyboard they call the tambua. Their approach on the tambua suggests an almost universal style of surfing: paddling out with one hand on the nose, the other arm stroking, aided

by kicking, catching the wave in the pocket, then riding to shore prone, with both hands on the nose to facilitate steering. (Check out The Voyages of Captain James Cook, Vol. II, pg. 134, for very similar description of Hawaiian surfing.) This similarity—Alexander’s description of surfing and surfboards would be just as accurate today, as would Cook’s—also suggests the existence of an organically standardized wave-riding design. Consider, for example, the classic 1897 Frank Davey photo of a Hawaiian surfer posed against Diamond Head (Surfing: Historic Images from Bishop Museum Archives, pg. 25) holding an alaia surfboard virtually identical to the West African tambua I encountered during my last trip to that wild coast. When in 2000 I first visited Ilheu das Rolas, the hand-carved tambua was in use, along with the unique goffe-wood rafts. The rafts actually represented a performance leap, as the increased flotation brought increased maneuverability both in the lineup and on the wave. Yet, following my stay, Rolas islander Shun began hand carving his own interpretation of our modern surfboards. Crafted from lightweight oka wood salvaged from the gunwale sections of scrapped dugout canoes, Shun’s board is a marvel of primitive hydrodynamics, featuring a concave deck, no fin but a pleasing tapered rail, flat to slightly bellied bottom contour, and a kicked, pointed nose. But as much as this native African surfboard reflects the outside influence of my chance visit (the pointed nose is the most obvious modification), each mark of the adze is a visible reminder of the board’s place on surfing’s design tree, rooted deep in what is clearly an authentic —and ancient—African tradition.

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Sam relates: If you ever doubt that there’s a universal surfing aesthetic—that we truly are one ocean tribe—I offer these Sao Tome groms and their story. When we first arrived in Shun’s village, he was off in the capital visiting family. We spent the day surfing with the crew pictured here.

“What?” “Yes,” he continued. “Ordinarily we do not allow the villagers on the property, within the fence. But for this one time we have made an exception.” Tiago seemed uneasy—even here in the glow of the dining room candles he gave the impression that life was a never-ending battle to keep one’s hands clean. He gestured toward the swinging screened doors. I put down my yellow cloth napkin, pushed back my heavy chair, and walked out into the African night. It was warm, not hot, and the salty tang of the ocean mixed with the musty scent of deep foliage. Shun was there, with about six other village kids. They were lined up, backs against the low concrete seawall, the big light on the landing pier giving them brassy halos and making it hard to see their faces. No smiles— they all looked stiff, nervous, formal. This was the first time I had seen any of them off the beach, or wearing clothes for that matter. Shun had on a pair of ragged, elastic-waisted gray shorts, little boys in torn screen-print T-shirts, a six-year-old girl in a red-flowered sackcloth dress, hair in rows of tight, black buttons. Two night watchmen, tall, silent men in brown uniforms and leather belts, towered at either end of their assembled line,

as if escorts. Both smiled indulgently. Tiago stood next to me, nodding his head impatiently at this breach of protocol. The tradewinds pushed silver grape-cluster clouds, polishing a yellow half moon. Small waves hissed beyond the seawall, rattling broken coral. A rhythmic, metallic tinkling echoed in the darkness as a loose halyard tattooed an empty flagpole. Shun stepped forward, still very serious, and motioned for me to sit on the middle step of a small, white stone monument placed in 1921 to commemorate the first crossing of the equator by Portuguese aviators Sacadura and Coutinho. The boy carried a short length of metal pipe and a small stick, whittled smooth as a baton. Two of the other village boys had small cacao-log drums, yellow skin heads fastened with sinew. The little buttonhaired girl stepped forward, joined by a fidgety small boy. Shun took his place, looked up and down his line, then began to tap out a rhythm on his pipe, tink-tink-tink-tink. The drums joined, dum-bum-dum-bum-dum-bum, that deep, rich bass—the voice of Africa, the very sound of adventure—Shun working the high end on his pipe, the drums laying down the pulse. The little girl and boy began a shuffling dance, moving easily to the beat. And then they all began to sing.


Upon his arrival the second day, after our reunion we paddled out for a session. Shun dominated the lineup—the alpha male. But at one point he turned to one of the kids and asked, “How was the surf yesterday?” “You should have been here,” said the grom. “It was so much bigger.”

This was their gift, all that they had to give, these children of fishermen—their voices, small but bright and clear, and a song they obviously knew well and enjoyed singing, comfortable harmonies piping up into the tropical night, a little piece of their world, their peoples’ world. Tiny hands on the drum skins, the shuffling of bare feet on cut stone, the little voices cutting through the sound of the surf; I sat there in the moonlight, my back up against the white stone, and listened to every verse, though I understood none. And when they finished with a flourish of shrill notes and a flurry of drumbeats, I stood up, hooting and clapping my hands. They were bashful now, chins down, their little chests heaving. But happy, you could tell, at my obvious delight. Shun, especially. “Tiago,” I said. “Please translate something for me.” I looked down at Shun, shining with sweat, a smile like new ivory. “Tiago, please thank Shun and all of the kids from the village for this wonderful gift.” Tiago did so in Portuguese. The choir grinned. “And tell Shun that even though we might have different

color skin, and come from different sides of the world, and speak a different language, that even with all these differences… we share something special. And we are brothers.” Tiago turned to me, dark eyebrows pinched. “I cannot tell him this,” he explained with his pedant’s tone. “These people cannot understand something like this. They could not grasp the meaning. He would have no idea what you’re talking about.” Shun was looking right into my face, waiting. “Tiago, please repeat my words, exactly as I spoke them,” I said. Tiago rolled his eyes but did what I asked, rushing through the words in a low monotone, Shun listening gravely. He had not taken his eyes from mine. When Tiago finished Shun smiled again, his eyes shining now. He placed a hand on his bare chest, over his heart. He held it there for a moment then cast it wide, gesturing with a flat palm out over the sea. He then brought the hand back over his heart, and nodded quickly, just once. I nodded back. “He knows exactly what I’m talking about.” I said. That was his gift. The greatest gift.

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he fog is rolling in. Within ten minutes it’ll be whiteout time and impossible to surf, let alone get a ski in the water. We stand here, so far from anything yet staring so closely into one of the best and heaviest left reefs we have ever seen. Over the past week, we’ve played this out nearly every single day, and it’s making us a little weird, a little crazy. I’m a fugitive, a self-imposed exile banished into the wilderness. My partner in crime understands the motivation to be here. We’re just two pro surfers plying our trade, but recently we’ve realized that the real pressures of crowding and humanity might be at odds with this precarious livelihood we’ve crafted. I became a pro surfer late in life, and perhaps naively believed that I could tread sensitively and leave no footprint. I’m not so sure anymore. I happened to be in J-Bay over Easter and was shocked by what I saw: a lineup clogged with visitors with scant regard for the feelings of the locals. Paddle on the inside, catch a wave, paddle back, do it again...greed. I felt claustrophobic just being there, knowing that my presence was contributing to those crowds. I felt awful for the locals. Then a few weeks later in The Mother City, Cape Town, and it became clear to me that the big-wave scene has shifted at places like Dungeons and Sunset. Nowadays there are few local surfers who, unlike in the early days, aren’t so happy to see some pro surfer from Durban arriving at their spots, taking their waves, and putting photos up for the world to see. It’s a difficult line to live, this job of being paid to surf, needing to expose yourself, yet trying to

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Twiggy Baker, Andrew “Roosta” Lange, and photographer Ant Fox spent five months documenting The Lost Coast of Western South Africa during the 2011 winter. All swear it’s among the richest wave zones they’ve ever encountered. Photo evidence like this supports the case.


be sensitive to the scene. Even though I love Cape Town with all my heart, it’s forced us to look elsewhere to ply our trade. I’m not bitter about this. I understand and respect their need to control the area in which they live, surf, work, and raise families. So after dedicating a decade of my life to the amazing waves of Cape Town, it was time to move forward and leave those waves to the guys and girls who live and breathe them, even during the summer months. So where to go from one of the best big-wave zones in the world for a “big-wave” surfer from South Africa like myself? Where could I find a new wave to rival our beloved Dungeons? Well, in the end I looked north, and the farthest north I could find on the map of South Africa was the Orange River mouth. So, after spending a few days catching up with friends and sorting out our equipment, we loaded up my trusty Toyota 4x4 with everything from a 5'8" Wedge to a 9'6" Baron, generator, tents, beer, food, and set off into the sunset. The plan was to scour the coast from Lamberts Bay to as far as the Namibian border, and to neither surf nor document any wave we knew had been ridden before. It was a romantic notion, one born out of immense respect for the very limited number of surfers who’d graced this coast over the years, and one we quickly realized was going to be very difficult to pull off. Up our sleeves, however, was a zone we knew would guarantee waves. We’d been scouting it for the previous two years and had been the first to surf some amazing new spots. For anyone who knows me, this was never going to be

enough, as a few other crews were hot on our heels, leaving the chance they’d find us soon enough. So, in a moment of duress and pain, we decided to head all the way up to Alexander Bay and then work our way down south. After 15 hours of driving, arriving at the great rivermouth, we found the fog wasn’t going to be our only problem. As anyone who’s been up this coast looking for waves will tell you, it’s diamond territory, and our biggest problem wasn’t going to be the hostile environment, but access. No route to the coast? But isn’t this the new South Africa where people are supposed to be able to move about freely and go wherever they want? Not if a massive corporation has anything to say about it. In guarding our secrets, let’s just say we used every connection we’d made over the years, found the right people, and somehow managed to convince some very lofty officials in the diamond world that ours was a noble cause. In a stroke of pure luck, we were presented permits and keys to a coastal zone closed to the public that predates surfing in Africa. So with Google Earth as our guide, we set off into the deep unknown. In the end we needn’t have worried about any particular “zone” of surf, as on this 1,000 km coastline, it would be laughable for another group of surfers to join you in the water—all they’d need to do is drive a few clicks in either direction to, once again, find another new and probably even better wave zone. What we found from day one was mind-blowing setup after setup of incredible

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looking reefs, beachbreaks,slabs, and bombies just waiting to be surfed. But, it felt like something was always missing. Either the wind was wrong, the swell too big or too small, the fog too thick, or we were just too late or too early. It was our “welcome to the northwest, boys!” No one said it was going to be easy. For a month we slogged it out, camping in the dirt, eating Roosta’s fire-cooked “meals,” fixing dodgy generators, and fabricating water hand pumps to shower after day upon day of untouched filth. We found spare tires in one-horse towns and generally survived on the bones of our arses. Along we went, and one by one my hand-drawn maps became pages, essays, and eventually books—studies of where, why, and how every setup would work. Guesses on swell size, wind direction, and tides became our trade. We followed 4x4 dirt tracks slowly south, where right turns every few kilometers became long, painful excursions to the coast, where greeting us once again were fresh, new discoveries screaming to be surfed. Yes, we surfed, but not every day. Yes, we found some great new barreling waves, but in the end, May never gave us a swell over three meters, and it was what was still to come that was so damn exciting. I had been to the West Coast of Australia many times and around each comer we hoped to find our Gnarloo, the Box, or Shipsterns.

It’s out there—you just need time, courage, and lots of patience. When you consider how much coastline South Africa has and the relatively small surfing populace dwelling here, you know there are some gems left to uncover. Roosta reckoned this one alone might do the trick.

Once we finally rolled back into Lamberts Bay and saw the first surfers we’d seen the entire month (except for Wally the diamond diver who was surfing alone exactly as he’d done for the last ten years), we realized the hard graft was done. We now knew where the waves would be and under what conditions they’d work, and we were ready for anything the weather could throw at us. Ultimately, the most important lesson I learned about this area (besides the fact that if you’re averse to very big, extremely heavy waves, it’s not for you) was that it’s the type of place in which you need time to score. It’s not a “hit-and-run” area where you see a swell, charge up for a few days, and hope to see the best of it. Rather, it’s the type of coastline that demands you take a few weeks or months off work and hit the road with a girlfriend or a buddy. With patience, you’ll unravel the delicate intricacies of the area, learn about its nuances and timeworn philosophies, its culture, its quirks, and its secrets. It’s a place to rent a shack for the winter and become a part of the environment, a place to grow a beard and speak Afrikaans; a place to get feral and really lose yourself in a time warp of cold, early mornings, whipping northwest winds, and elusive, yet deeply rewarding sessions. So that’s exactly what we decided to do, and as luck would have it, we are now living in that exact shack for the foreseeable future, a million kilometers from any known


surf break, just waiting for the winter to kick in and thrash us with some juicy Atlantic swell. Still the fog is rolling in. And here in the far northwest of our beloved land, it’s just a plain menace. Days and days of whiteout when you know the waves are cooking can drive any man to drink...and worse. Then just as you are about to crack, out comes the sun, up blows the offshore, and suddenly there are a thousand waves to choose from and a surfer is thrust into his own personal Disneyland. Saying that, we are seeing so many swells passing us by and we know the guys in Cape Town or J-Bay or Durban are getting barreled off their tits while we sit it out in the mist and south winds. We know our purpose out here and are resolute. We want to find new waves, try to alleviate the crowds at spots like Dungeons and Sunset, try to give back to those locals who have been giving us so much over the years. We want to bring young South African chargers up to join us so we can give them back some of the knowledge that people like Johnny Paarman, Davy Stalk, and Mickey Duffus have entrusted in us over the years. We’ve been out here at the edge of our minds and limits of our physical endurance for the past three months, so feral you can’t believe, no hot water all the time, no water some of the time, so cold when the snow falls inland and when it rains.... Fuck when it rains!

Finally we got to the point where we couldn’t sit and wait any longer, and a trip up into Namibia was in order if for any other reason but to get away from the fog. The swell didn’t look great, but we packed the car anyway and after 24 hours of driving arrived at the beach sans sleep to find four-foot waves running down the point. Unfortunately, the bank has changed since I was there last and gone are the 30-second barrels Greg Long and I first discovered many years ago. It’s still an amazing act of nature, but now I find it far more sectiony, super fast, and extremely difficult to surf and even harder to make a barrel. I did get one bomb, however, and straight away it’s all worthwhile. The petrol costs, damage to the car, and time on the road all melt away in 16 seconds of pure joy! Then slowly once again we make our way back down into South Africa with an eye on checking out some diamond mines in our own country as closely as we are allowed. This entails gaining information at ground level by speaking to local people, sneaking into “out of bounds” areas to take the odd sly photo, and just trying to get an idea of what’s really going on up here. What we intend to do is to take a good look at what these guys at De Beers have been doing for the past 100 years and whether or not they intend to use some of the billions of dollars they’ve made from all those diamonds to rehabilitate this beautiful coast and to return it back to its former glory.


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For the modern day surf pioneers the success of finding new waves is determined by how well they utilize GPS apps, Google Earth pushpins, and more traditional swell charts and forecasts. But digital armament only gets you so far. You have to push over the edge and into it. Twig combined all in equal measure in the SA outback.


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This is a little of what we learned along the way: Firstly, De Beers is in the process of trying to sell quite a few of its operations on the coast and in this way defer the responsibility of social and environmental issues plaguing them. On the other side of the fence (literally) is a strong resistance made up of groups such as Bench Mark’s Foundation, HELP, and Conservation South Africa; they need our support in regards to the most important factor affecting us as surfers, that the “Aurora scenario” be avoided at all costs. In this, many of the people we spoke to are calling for regulations and legislature that will make it impossible for mining corporations to sell off environmental and social responsibilities prior to mine closure and completion, and that there must be greater community inclusivity and benefit from all mine operations of the west coast.

Which in our world of waves means an opening up of all these “closed” areas to tourism that will benefit both the environment and local communities, and for us—access to this most incredible coastline. Whatever your reasons, you will be quickly swayed when encountering an “open caste” mine’s total devastation of some of the most pristine environment known to man. It needs to, if not stop, be highly regulated with strict rules in place for the rehabilitation of mined areas. The fight is on right now, and we can all help by showing support and voicing opinions. Is this a noble pursuit? Maybe not. Selfish? Sometimes. But something needs to be done. That’s enough of the serious stuff, because once again we are back in a wave area, and with the coming of a swell Lyle Meek arrives as well on the bus all the way from Jeffrey’s Bay. His sorely lacking surfboard quiver for the


power of this coast is made up for with as much enthusiasm as a man can muster, and for two weeks we surf wherever we see a wave, because that’s our new plan: no more looking, just go surfing! And what a great surfer this guy is, all style and power, and suddenly the lefts are opened up and there are literally thousands on this coast. Rooster and I had been too scared to surf many of them, especially the heavier slabs, but a goofy is a goofy, and Lyle showed us what’s possible while surfing with skill and poise in the grinding left barrels. Unfortunately, Lyle’s time with us was also dogged by a foggy period, and eventually he had work commitments to get back to and bailed once again on the long bus ride home. Commitment. Greg Long was next, and what a replacement. Is he the best big-wave surfer in the world? A Maverick’s, Dungeons, Pico Alto, and Waimea title will contest this even

On such a crystal morning, just cruising in the sunlight fills the bill. Roosta, on exactly that program.


though he’s never been an official world champ, per se. But this is an unforgiving place even for the best, and within two days of arriving he was on his way back to the USA after a medium-size paddle day at one of the heavier slabs we had found. Its shifting lip line smashed him into his board and tore his MCL knee ligament, sending him home for six weeks of recovery. Like I said before, if you don’t like it big and heavy, it’s not the place for you; even the smaller days are treacherous. What now? We needed another hard-hitting permanent. Out of the haze came Josh Redman. He

brought us some good wave tidings as well as some pleasant weather, and straight off the bat we are on the road plowing the 4x4 tracks and scoring some incredible surfs: a ten-foot beachbreak that we surfed for six hours in crazy A-frames, an eight-foot reef that rivals anything I have seen before, a 12-foot slab where we just couldn’t muster the courage to man up and get behind the boils, and a four- to six-foot left as perfect as an Indonesian dream. Things started to move fast, and then suddenly there’s a major swell on the 180-hour charts, the one we have been waiting for, and we were ready.


Although there have been some amazing waves to surf, we came for the big stuff—the huge stuff—and we have seen none of it. But finally it’s there, clear as day on the maps, and you can taste the excitement: Guns are waxed, skis readied, and hearts quelled. But just like that it’s gone, ripped to pieces by the unseasonal SE winds howling off Cape Point. Suddenly bitterness and anxiety start to creep in. I can see eyes shifting to me because I called this one. Miss the Billabong Pro, I said, and score the swell; miss some ached-for creature comforts at Cheron’s house; miss some beers with the boys you haven’t seen all year, and

miss watching Jordy winning again—for what, Twig? Sorry guys, but maybe the next one. Or the following? There’s another swell on the charts, not so much excitement this time, just wait and see, huddling in the cold as snow blankets the entire country. In the end, what are we to do as surfers with this gift thrust upon us of just enough money to live the dream? Keep on the road, keep looking around the next bay, and keep surfing for as long as it lasts. Some will support us and some will loathe us, but right now we have no other choice. ◊ Go Deeper into South Africa at surfersjournal.com.

The farther north you go the more lefts you find. Being two regular-foots from KwaZulu Natal, we were all about the rights. It’s a wild and dangerous diamond coast and the lefts came with heavy consequences. We made do.


though he’s never been an official world champ, per se. But this is an unforgiving place even for the best, and within two days of arriving he was on his way back to the USA after a medium-size paddle day at one of the heavier slabs we had found. Its shifting lip line smashed him into his board and tore his MCL knee ligament, sending him home for six weeks of recovery. Like I said before, if you don’t like it big and heavy, it’s not the place for you; even the smaller days are treacherous. What now? We needed another hard-hitting permanent. Out of the haze came Josh Redman. He

brought us some good wave tidings as well as some pleasant weather, and straight off the bat we are on the road plowing the 4x4 tracks and scoring some incredible surfs: a ten-foot beachbreak that we surfed for six hours in crazy A-frames, an eight-foot reef that rivals anything I have seen before, a 12-foot slab where we just couldn’t muster the courage to man up and get behind the boils, and a four- to six-foot left as perfect as an Indonesian dream. Things started to move fast, and then suddenly there’s a major swell on the 180-hour charts, the one we have been waiting for, and we were ready.

These are the people we need to reach. Instead, I am informed that our funding will be “suspended” due to the worsening security situation. I argue, but to no avail. In short, it’s the end of Merlin, the London-based international medical relief organization I’m working for in Liberia. Just as rebels are getting closer to Monrovia, more displaced people are arriving among misery, disease, and death—it seems all wrong. Our staff agrees to stay on as volunteers. We try again. We appeal for emergency funding to emergency donor agencies in the U.S. and the U.K. The cholera season has already started, and the figures have already jumped from 50 to 100 to 400 over the past three weeks. Under the circumstances the epidemic spreads greatly and other diseases appear. Some hospitals close down, unable to cope; the others become completely over-stretched. People die. There is no other option.

Sam relates: If you ever doubt that there’s a universal surfing aesthetic—that we truly are one ocean tribe—I offer these Sao Tome groms and their story. When we first arrived in Shun’s village, he was off in the capital visiting family. We spent the day surfing with the crew pictured here.

“What?” “Yes,” he continued. “Ordinarily we do not allow the villagers on the property, within the fence. But for this one time we have made an exception.” Tiago seemed uneasy—even here in the glow of the dining room candles he gave the impression that life was a never-ending battle to keep one’s hands clean. He gestured toward the swinging screened doors. I put down my yellow cloth napkin, pushed back my heavy chair, and walked out into the African night. It was warm, not hot, and the salty tang of the ocean mixed with the musty scent of deep foliage. Shun was there, with about six other village kids. They were lined up, backs against the low concrete seawall, the big light on the landing pier giving them brassy halos and making it hard to see their faces. No smiles— they all looked stiff, nervous, formal. This was the first time I had seen any of them off the beach, or wearing clothes for that matter. Shun had on a pair of ragged, elastic-waisted gray shorts, little boys in torn screen-print T-shirts, a six-year-old Love thy sackcloth neighbor. girl in a red-flowered dress, hair in rows of tight, black buttons. Two night watchmen, tall, silent men in brown uniforms and leather belts, towered at either end of their assembled line,

W

If

as if escorts. Both smiled indulgently. Tiago stood next to me, nodding his head impatiently at this breach of protocol. The tradewinds pushed silver grape-cluster clouds, polishing a yellow half moon. Small waves hissed beyond the seawall, rattling broken coral. A rhythmic, metallic tinkling echoed in the darkness as a loose halyard tattooed an empty flagpole. Shun stepped forward, still very serious, and motioned for me to sit on the middle step of a small, white stone monument placed in 1921 to commemorate the first crossing of the equator by Portuguese aviators Sacadura and Coutinho. The boy carried a short length of metal pipe and a small stick, whittled smooth as a baton. Two of the other village boys had small cacao-log drums, yellow skin heads fastened with sinew. The little buttonhaired girl stepped forward, joined by a fidgety small boy. Shun took his place, looked up and down his line, then began to tap out a rhythm on his pipe, tink-tink-tink-tink. The drums joined, dum-bum-dum-bum-dum-bum, that deep, rich bass—the voice of Africa, the very sound of adventure—Shun working the high end on his pipe, the drums laying down the pulse. The little girl and boy began a shuffling dance, moving easily to the beat. And then they all began to sing.

ith sickening inevitability, all this comes to pass. In June 2003, Lurd rebels advance from the north and pound mortars upon government troops on the St. Copyright The Surfer’s Journal 2013. All rights reserved. Paul River on the northern suburb of Monrovia. The exodus begins. One hundred fifty thousand people are pushed into The use of this PDF is strictly for personal use and enjoyment. the town in hours. Foreigners are told to prepare for an you are interested in purchasing the right to reprint these articles, you emergency can do so one atAlmost a time directly evacuation. everyone complies and I am among them Merlin’s Journal only other expatriate staff member, from our website www.surfersjournal.com or in large quantities by calling Thewith Surfer’s at the medical coordinator, Dr. Clement, a South Sudanese who has 949-361-0331. You can also email us at customerservice@surfersjournal.com. to be the coolest colleague for this kind of operation. We hunker down and expect all hell to break loose outside. We picture Thanks, and enjoy! hoards of wild rebels storming the gates to get us. People are scared. The tension grows. It’s like paddling out on a massive day. Keep it together and you’ll survive. Maybe even get an epic wave. Do something stupid and you’ll go under for a long time. The French helicopters arrive to take us away from all this,

TED GRAMBEAU

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After the Discovery