Despite a genuine love of the job I do, I suffer from an almost unrelenting desire to leave the narrow confines of my daily routine and explore some distant place, whether real or imaginary.
Due to the reality of training as a doctor, the latter is usually the case, and I find myself lying in bed at night reliving the adventures of some of the gifted explorers and of past two centuries through their books. The likes of Jack London, Freya Stark, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen, William Finnegan and whomever else I stumble across.
The world they inhabited is so far removed from the world around most of us now, that it seems a Paradise Lost, preserved as a nostalgic idea in our minds, but nothing more. As the great Italian climber Walter Bonatti said "adventure cannot survive if we alter or destroy uncertainty, risk, courage, exaltation, solitude, and isolation. We must preserve the sense of exploration and discovery of the impossible, of improvisation, of putting ourselves to the test using only our own resources. Nowadays, all these are either repressed or abolished from our day-to-day lives. Adventure involves our whole being: it draws out all that is best and most human in us."
So is there still any true adventure to be found? Where on this increasingly connected and exploited planet can you find real isolation, uncertainty and risk? Are there any waves waiting out there to be discovered?
Well, two-years-ago my brother and I thought the most likely answer to that question was the 16,000km west coast of Africa. So we quit our jobs, pooled our savings to buy a 4x4, and set off from home in England with a stack of boards on the roof, two fishing rods, a pile of books and a map of every surf spot we could find between Cadiz and Cape Town.
And the going was great. We were traversing one of the least explored stretches of coastline in the world, transitioning from northern hemisphere winter into southern hemisphere winter, enjoying a seemingly endless series of empty, pumping waves.
We settled into a rhythm, rising at dawn with the sun, surfing all day, living off fresh fish and rice, disconnected completely from the outside world for weeks at a time. With only sporadic surf forecasts and vague information on potential spots we would follow dirt tracks through the desert and the jungle, camping for days on isolated beaches waiting for surf to come, often in vain.
In Morocco, we met a worldly English surfer called Keith, who was living with his wife in a camper van. His kind and sun-weathered face lit up when he heard about our plans, and he told us with boyish enthusiasm how he had driven down to Morocco in the early 70’s and surfed Anchor point alone.
“Of course it wasn’t called Anchor point then, no one even thought you could surf it. Look at it now,” he said as he gesticulated to the hundred strong crowd fighting for waves in front. "Africa is one of the last frontiers, I would love to be doing your trip!"
I tried to remember his words when a spot disappointed us, when a border crossing took six hours or some armed policeman was asking for money. As safe as we felt for most of the trip, as overwhelmingly friendly as everyone was, there is no getting away from the fact that we were searching for waves in some of the least functional countries on earth, and we really had to work for it. But the rewards are immeasurable; a daily uplifting of the soul at the sight of people dancing, chatting, smiling, cooking and laughing, and of course the chief reward; surfing world class waves alone for almost all the trip.
But the rewards are immeasurable; a daily uplifting of the soul at the sight of people dancing, chatting, smiling, cooking and laughing, and of course the chief reward; surfing world class waves alone for almost all the trip.
We fled the madding crowd of Morocco to the solitude of the Western Saharan desert, a thousand kilometre stretch of barren coast blessed with several epic right hand pointbreaks nestled among windswept fishing villages.
After days of frustration battling the howling northerly wind, we headed for a bay, that, based on Google Earth, offered the promise of shelter and a wave. We could immediately see from the top of the cliffs that it was something special. Perfectly groomed lines wrapped around the headland, protected from the raging northerly, and peeled perfectly down the point. We found an access road past a military checkpoint, and as we approached we saw a surfer come out of a heaving barrel. This was it. Uncharted perfection in the heart of the desert.
We pulled in and were suiting up with hoots of excitement when two local Western Saharan men rolled up and told us we could not surf here. We laughed, pointed at the three surfers in the water and said “says who?” Next thing we know they handed Stuart a phone, and on the other end of the line, with a French dialling code, was an angry man with a thick accent.
He shouted down the phone that this spot is his private spot and we were not welcome. We pointed out the absurdity of a Frenchman telling us over the phone that we could not surf a spot two thousand miles away, and that we were going to surf. He told us he would get his cronies to ‘fuck us up’. I stayed, worried for our car, and Stu paddled out to join what he presumed were fellow travelling surfers.
They were not. It turns out they were three of this guy’s mates, who had flown from Paris to Dakhla the day before, rented a car and driven the few hours north. They aggressively forced Stu out of the water, and we left, shell-shocked. We were in the middle of the desert, hundreds of kilometres away from the nearest town. What just happened? On the way out we checked with the head of the local military, who control the area. It is public land, and we have every right to surf there.
From subsequent conversations with Moroccan and other European pros we established that the man in question is the son of a wealthy French/Moroccan construction magnet. I can accept a degree of localism in your own back yard, but the arrogance of paying people to guard a spot thousands of miles from your home, in a different country, is astounding. It is a complete antithesis to the spirit of surfing and surf exploration. We left with a bitter taste in our mouths but continued on.
We eventually discovered the small fishing village of N’Tireft, home to a stunning right hand pointbreak. As the sun rose in the morning and a pink light filled the bay, we would wipe away the condensation from the car window and see lines rolling into the bay. A few scoops of peanut butter whilst throwing on our wetsuits and we would be in the water, surfing alone until the sun set over the vast expanse of ocean, the silhouettes of thousands of sea birds swirling above us in a hypnotic dance.
We crossed into Mauritania with mild apprehension, as Mauritania was the only country on our route that the foreign office advised against all travel to, owing to Islamist militants in the east.
In reality our biggest problem was corrupt officials, and after an expensive border crossing we learnt the valuable lesson that just because someone is an official policeman, it doesn’t make their request for money legitimate. It was in fact the first (and last) time we were going to give in to demands for money on the entire trip.
After a day of driving we arrived in the capital, Nouakchott, and headed straight to the beach, where we were greeted with the sight of a mechanical barrel peeling off an abandoned jetty. Not quite believing our eyes, we put our car into 4x4 for the first time of the trip and blasted onto the sand towards this vision of perfection.
We made it about a hundred metres before coming to an unceremonious halt, and spent the remaining hours of daylight digging ourselves backwards with sand ladders with the help of some amused locals, while the barrels went unridden in front of us. Sat in traffic the next morning heading back to Le Wharf, as the jetty wave is known, I suddenly heard someone shouting my name.
Naturally I was rather confused, as it definitely wasn’t my brother Stuart speaking, and I don’t have that many acquaintances in Mauritania, so I was delighted when I looked around to see the beaming face of Sam Bleakley [British surfer and explorer] behind the wheel of a 4x4 next to us. I first met Sam in Liberia five-years-ago, and it turned out he was on a filming trip to Mauritania, so we enjoyed a fun days surfing together before they headed north to explore, leaving us to surf alone for a few days.
As we crossed into Senegal the desolate expanse of the Sahara gave way to the Baobab trees of the Sahel, our forced abstinence from beer came to a glorious end and the sound of music and the smells of grilled fish filled the air.
Lead after independence by the wise hand of their poet-president Léopold Senghor, who’s melancholic and deeply moving poetry can still be found in street side book stores, Senegal stands above its West African neighbours as a shining example of a country embracing the benefits of globalisation, and the accompanying economic development, whilst still retaining a deep sense of cultural identity and African spirit.
After a few days in the crumbling colonial town of Saint-Louis, famous for its international jazz festival, we headed to Dakar, the heaving capital which is surrounded almost entirely by surf scattered coast, including the rocky point Ngor right, immortalised by Mike Hynson in The Endless Summer.
From Senegal we made our way south to Guinea-Bissau, where we arrived on the final and most raucous day of their annual carnival to find the streets thronging with topless dancers and drummers amongst the smoke of hundreds of street side barbecues, serving fresh poisson grillé and icy cold beer.
A comical border crossing later, consisting of a small mud hut and a friendly man with a baby in one hand and a stamp in the other, and we were driving through Guinea and into Sierra Leone. After a week of camping in the beautiful Bureh beach we headed with four of the local surfers to the remote Turtle islands, a small archipelago rumoured to have exceptional surf, where the people live in small fishing villages nestled among the coconut trees and go about their daily life in much the same way as they have for time immemorial.
We were a bit too early in the season for surf unfortunately, but enjoyed exploring the islands by pirogue during the day, and at night we sat around roasting fish on a campfire on our own little island, hearing John, KK, Alisan and Kebo tell stories of their childhood, the war, surfing, girls and village gossip. On the last night they told us of a man who used to live on the islands who had been kidnapping people and selling their body parts for muti medicine, “but don’t worry, no one has gone missing off the islands for many years”.
In Liberia we headed to the village of Robertsport, which hasn’t changed a bit in the five years since we were last there, and we made camp in our old spot underneath the ancient cotton tree, directly in front of the last of four left hand pointbreaks.
I lost my heart to that place, and after finishing the trip I flew straight back and spent a year working in a hospital in Monrovia and surfing Robertsport at every available opportunity
We surfed the impossibly fun inside left alone for a week, stopping only for a brief lunch, and in the evenings as the fisherman came past in their dugout canoes with the days' catch we would buy a yellow fin tuna off them for a few soggy dollars, and paddle back to shore with it in our mouths to roast on the fire.
When we were too exhausted to surf, we would give our boards to one of the many frothing groms and watch them doing laps of the point until darkness. It’s hard to imagine ever being more utterly content with life than we were then. I lost my heart to that place, and after finishing the trip I flew straight back and spent a year working in a hospital in Monrovia and surfing Robertsport at every available opportunity.
We arrived in Cote D’Iviore after an exhausting three-day drive on an almost impassable road through the jungle of the Liberian interior, and after devouring a poisson grillé and several chilled beers, Stu proceeded to snap my board in the powerful beachbreak barrels in front.
Heading east into Ghana we found a surprising number of fun point breaks and beachies, especially around the Busua beach area where there is a thriving local surf scene. Through the voodoo markets of Togo and the stilt villages of Benin we arrived in Nigeria, and what it lacked in surf it more than made up for on the music front. We were treated to three days of mind blowing jazz, highlife and afrobeat in the overflowing capital Lagos, culminating in a night spent watching Fela Kuti’s son Seun play at the iconic New Africa Shrine, a beacon of hope and resistance in a country corroded by endemic corruption and gross inequality.
The suffering and injustice of the people simmers close to the surface in Nigerian society, and in the Shrine Femi and Seun, like their father, provide a channel for these emotions to erupt through their music. The result is something I have never experienced before; sorrowful and euphoric in equal measure, sweat streaming down their faces as the song’s climax in a riot of trumpets, saxophones, gyrating bodies and cheers.
We headed south once more, and after reaching the summit of the four-thousand-meter active volcano Mt. Cameroon, we made our way into Gabon, where a long range south Atlantic swell was due to meet us and light up the coast. Sam Bleakley had told us about a quality left hand point break in the village of Mayumba, so we headed there and found a long rifling sand spit nestled in an Edenic stretch of coast, home to one of the worlds largest colonies of nesting leather back turtles, pods of dolphins and even a herd of wild elephants that walked through a nearby camp like clockwork every day.
From there we crossed the Angolan enclave Cabinda, before entering the DRC, where we spent our first night watching the sun set over the mystical Congo river, sipping beers on the bank of the river next to the rusting hulk of an old steam boat
The wave was super fast and hollow, and whilst it was often hard to make the section, some would open up and I would wonder where Stu had gone, only to see him jogging up the beach hundreds of meters away.
We surfed our fill and when the swell subsided we headed for the Congo, where we found a surprisingly fun beachie in Point Noire, complete with a well established local surf scene. From there we crossed the Angolan enclave Cabinda, before entering the DRC, where we spent our first night watching the sun set over the mystical Congo river, sipping beers on the bank of the river next to the rusting hulk of an old steam boat, Marlow’s perhaps.
After 200kms of ragged driving through the north of Angola, we heard a slight ticking in the engine, which soon turned into a knocking, and by the time we had limped into the next village we had a strong feeling poor Horace was in trouble. A short time later the local mechanic confirmed our suspicions, shaking his head and pointing to an old crankshaft he had on the floor saying ‘cambota no good.’
And thus began our Angolan nightmare, stuck in the middle of nowhere in one of the most expensive countries in the world, due to artificial government control of foreign exchange, and not able to speak a word of Portuguese. After a thousand-dollar quote for a tow truck to Luanda we opted instead for a six-foot slack rope behind a maniac of a driver, who towed us at 80kmp for five terrifying hours to the capital.
There we found the only place we could afford to stay; a motel where we were the only customers not paying by the hour, and I spent the remainder of my 28th birthday sat next to my brother on our double bed watching the Titanic on a tiny TV, with a warm beer in one hand, a sardine sandwich in the other, and the rhythmical thumping from next door room wafting through the paper thin walls.
After two weeks and two missed swells, we were sans cash, no closer to having a working car, and reaching the end of our tether. So we sold our broken car for a 1,000,000 Kwanza, converted the bundles of cash into USD on the black market (it’s impossible to change Kwanza in banks), and packed our bags and boards onto a 27 hour bus to the Namibian border.
There we picked up a cheap rental car and drove to Walvis bay, completely ignorant of the fact that a huge long range swell and a heap of the world's top barrel hounds were heading there as well. On the morning of the second day we paddled out at Skeleton bay, and I caught the longest, fastest most mesmerising barrel of my life, and all the troubles in Angola melted into irrelevance. Running up the beach I thought of Byron: "one of those rare moments of absolute peace, when the body is loose, the mind asks no questions, and the world is a triumph, was mine."
That to me is where the irresistible draw of riding waves lies; the ability to be released for a few hours from the concerns and pressures of life and be carried back to an almost childlike state of boundless happiness and exhilaration.
That feeling is what drove us to spend our last penny driving across Africa, it's what drove our friend Stephan to be excited about getting back in the water after nearly paralysing himself, it’s what kept our friend Matt warm for two weeks sleeping in his board bag amongst the jackals and seals of Skeleton bay, and it’s the same happiness we saw on the faces of the innumerable kids along the way who, completely oblivious to the sport of surfing, pick up a broken plank of wood and ride it to shore on their bellies with a grin on their faces and joy in their hearts.