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SALT WATER OF SENEGAL | SAM BLEAKLEY

Ambassador Sam Bleakley is a well-travelled surfer.

As a former European Longboard champion, Sam's professional career has seen him compete around the globe as one of the most respected in his trade. In more recent years however, Sam with longboard in tow, uses surfing and travel for reasons beyond the podium; to get under the skin of the coastlines he visits, showcasing emerging surf cultures and capturing the power of surfing for social good through his t.v. series, 'Brilliant Corners'. 

In-between time in the editing suite, commentary commitments for the WSL (world surfing league) and other writing obligations, Sam managed to shuffle a few dates in his calendar to join us on the West Coast of Africa in Senegal. As a brilliant corner that had eluded Sam until now, and one that holds significance for many a surfer, we believe this may have been one of his easiest travel decisions to date. 

 

Travelling to the Atlantic coast of Senegal was a chance to connect with a childhood dream: to surf N’Gor right ridden by Californians Mike Hynson and Robert August for the opening travel sequence of Bruce Brown’s mid 1960s trailblazing The Endless Summer, as the trio set out on a three month long around the world trip in ‘search for the perfect wave’ through Africa, Australasia, North America and the Pacific. They arrived at LA airport for the flight to Dakar wearing suits and ties. That’s how you travelled then. Air flights were like going out to a fancy restaurant. They scored sizzling Senegal, blistering bluewater sections bouncing over shallow boulders, and refracting around N’Gor island, a short boat ride from Dakar on the mainland. Back then it was dotted with just a handful of buildings. Today N’Gor is a tourism hub and a labyrinth of bougainvillea-lined guesthouses. But the lure to explore coastlines and connect with their communities so brilliantly showcased in The Endless Summer is as strong as ever. Even if you don’t travel abroad, the gravitational pull of the sea is an antidote to the anxiety of work: an opportunity for escape.

I arrived a day before the rest of the crew to surf at N’Gor right on the very western tip of Africa, danced my way across a series of easy to ride sets, acquainted myself with the so-called ‘papi’ and ‘mami’ boulders at low tide as the spot got too shallow, and watched the fisherman bring in a fresh catch on their narrow pirogues. Back on land I met a handful of local Senegalese surfers eager to share information on board design. But I wasn’t the first from the Finisterre family to arrive: filmmaker Luke Pilbeam and his partner Sophie Bradford (secondary school languages teacher and model) had already spent a week on the island. We traded stories about skirting the urchin-infested reef breaks, then met up with Jesper Mouritzen, the owner of N’Gor Island Surf Camp, and were ferried back to the mainland to meet the rest of the crew, while Sophie flew home for the new school term.

Our team united in downtown Dakar - South African Apish Tshethsa, Australian Noah Lane and British septet David Gray, Sophie Kelly, Suzi Winter, Amy Brock-Morgan, Danielle McDonald, Jack Johns and Luke. Jesper helped us organise a Toyota HiAce with an ice-cool driver called Modo, and guide Gabriel. Both are ethnic Lebou from the fishing cultures of the Dakar peninsula. There are 38 languages spoken in Senegal, and Modo and Gabriel speak Wolof, tracing back to the mighty Jolof Empire that ruled West Africa from the 13th to the mid 16th century, before European colonialists introduced French into the fabric of the community. Today most Senegalese speak excellent French, so this is a lingua franca for travellers. Throw in your best Français, and you’ll be greeted by one of the friendliest countries in the continent.

Senegal is known as the ‘land of teranga’, which is the Wolof word for hospitality. This is the great gift of travel, the exchange of trust through hospitality and sharing. You are a guest, sometimes uninvited, of those who already live here. You enter a circle of hospitality that must be honoured and not broken. The host invites, the guest reciprocates in the terms that the host sets. ‘Hospitality’ has the same root as ‘hospital’ - You are symbolically sick and cared for as guest. But as a travelling guest, you can help the host to offer hospitality simply by being tolerant of difference, aware that there is much to be learned through suspending one’s own baggage and celebrating cultural exchange. When experiencing new places you need to be fully grounded in your senses. Do not challenge, but adapt. Stick with your animal instincts and keep cool. Then relax into the place as invited guest, not the new owner.

Gabriel revealed a broad smile that lit up every conversation, and applied his lanky frame to help us load our boards onto the roof, while driver Modo subtly readjusted his sunglasses, unruffled his lapa fabric patterned shirt, and we set off into the steaming streets of Dakar: a feast for the senses. The Republic of Senegal nests on the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa, surrounded by Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Guinea Bissau, and a 700 km long stretch of convoluted Atlantic Ocean, cold-watered in the winter, and warm-watered in the summer. The capital has a population of four million bursting at the seams. As we zigzagged through the traffic the city appeared to pulse with the sound of the national mbalax music, old Peugeot taxi stereos and street bars blasting out infectious rhythms that have sacred origins in ancient initiation ceremonies, now layered with frenetic, stuttering drums, and lyrics so luscious that they would sooth any sore throat. Thirst now quenched, Modo turned up his radio as Youssou N’Dour was played, the great champion of the mbalax genre. In the last jam of traffic we passed vendors selling peanuts (the iconic cash crop of Senegal), sipping sugary attaya tea, and wearing fabrics so bright and brilliant they are near-blinding. Then the city limits ended and the road opened out seamlessly all the way to Toubab Dialaw and our rented apartment.

We awoke to a bone-dry morning, the Harmattan northeast wind reigning supreme, filtering the sunrise with Saharan sand. The apartment looks out over a limewater Atlantic, and the titanium light was bouncing off the drumhead of a rising swell. The so-called Petite Cote is a contrast to the windswept Grande Cote to the north (where the Dakar peninsula is situated). It feels more Mediterranean than Atlantic, but the bridge was a rapidly building northwest swell linking Europe and the Atlantic in a huge halo of saltwater spray.

We walked down to the butter-yellow beach where the red sandstone was stirred into a lime cocktail of a shorebreak. We all dived in for a swim, washed around in the charged ions of turbulent water, rushed through with adrenalin, immediately feeling the physical and psychological benefits of ‘stoke’. The salinity here is incredible and felt like a seal-skin on our bodies, a mark of the tide.

Taking advantage of the cooler morning air, local men trained for the Senegalese wrestling (and national sport) known as lutte, while groups played football, proudly wearing the national flag colours of green, yellow and red. Fresh from Cape Town, football loving Apish was straight into the cauldron of keepie-ups and one-touch-passes. “It’s my first trip to another African country, so I want to meet the locals,” he said as he joined the action. After a solid kickabout Apish explained that it was through football that he found surfing and became one of the founders of the ground-breaking Waves for Change program that uses waveriding to provide therapy for young South Africans from violent communities. “I came from a troubled background in the township of Masiphumelele, and started teaching other kids football when I was 15 to help stay positive. Surfer Tim Conibear had just moved to Muizenberg and wanted to use surfing as a form of therapy. He saw that I was passionate about using sport to help kids, so invited me to surf. I was hooked. Learning to surf was an opportunity to build confidence, and I love sharing this with others.” Apish’s passion for people is infectious. He is a bridge builder, connecting communities through play, and he’s now starting a degree in Sociology at Cape Town University to lay further foundations.

Toubab is a bohemian beach town peppered with painters, creatives and dance schools. There is an elegance to the neighbourhood, and Dani, who is also an actor, engaged with the local fruit sellers and art makers in flawless French. She spent a decade in Paris, bringing a joie de vivre to the group that made us feel closer to the community through good communication. While the models skirted the cobbled streets, Jack, David and Luke clicked in harmony with the light changes. Then, as afternoon set in, some of the crew travelled with Modo and Gabriel in the van to explore shooting locations for the coming days, while the rest of us strapped our boards onto an old Peugeot 505 taxi and headed south to find a sheltered pointbreak that could hold the restless swell.

We meticulously inspected every headland and look out point, sashaying through fishing communities who all seemed to have a clothing maker working outdoors with local fabric, some tie-dyed using mahogany, acacia and kola nut to produce vivid prints. Amy runs the repairs workshop at Finisterre, and also hand-crafts beach kit using re-purposed materials, working with fabric not only aesthetically and functionally, but also as a form of therapy, often through community workshops for women to express emotion and develop resilience. Amy also speaks great French, and quickly connected with the local artisans, who also not only make things to sell, but as a form of meditation, a fabric for life.

Fuelled with these creative threads, Amy was first into her swimsuit and outback at a fold of the coast that stitched a playful right and long left point. She trimmed elegantly on the longboard as if born for water. A little later, the rest of the crew joined us, so we feasted on the evening light, lit a bonfire on the beach, and surfed again until the sun poured whole into the citrus coloured water and planned the dawn patrol around the dying embers. But this was just the lemon next to the pie: the swell was set to peak in the morning.

We travelled north as twelve wave sets marched down the coastline at colossal force. Everywhere was closed out, until one particular bend in the beach revealed a heaving close-to-shore muddy-water barrel that caused Noah and Jack to panic with excitement. Photographer Jack didn’t come on the trip to surf, but he is one of the best bodyboarders in the world, his slab riding documented from The Canaries to Ireland. The knowledge Jack has of the inner most limits of the tube translate easily to standing up, so when I loaned him my six six egg, he joined Noah in a flash as the crowd gathered in awe at the bravery of the two surfers. This is an active fishing community, the day’s work prevented by huge swell, so they immediately recognised the danger. And West Africa also has a rich history of ocean savvy coastal culture. While we think of pre-colonial surfing as a Polynesian pursuit, look at the earliest European reports from West Africa from the 1600s, and you’ll find descriptions of locals ‘swimming like fish’ and riding prone with expertise on small pieces of wood and in canoes. Perhaps under different economic opportunities following post-colonial independence, these coastlines could have already fostered our world champions. Maybe they will in the future. Dakar finally has an emerging local surf culture (backed up by surf tourism), but further south, close to Toubab, subsistence fishing is still the norm.

Of course this was the last thing on the minds of Noah and Jack as they timed the sets and scratched through the immense shore break. The rest of us watched from the beach, cameras at the ready, as kids gathered in huge wheeling groups, eager to witness the first ride, the anticipation building like an electric storm. Noah was deepest as a set rose up violently, and he dropped into a bomb, the take-off appearing in slow motion as he angled back up into the boiling cauldron mid face and was in the ominous shadow of a huge barrel. For a moment time stood even slower as he stood tall, and we ran further down the beach to look back up into the barrel, and he then flexed his knees working his twin fin channel bottom to perfection, snaking deep inside the pit, then emerging underneath a furious blast of spit, to straighten out in front of the now thunderous closeout. The entire beach erupted with joy. As Noah walked back up the sand to avoid the longer paddle and brutal current, he was mobbed by the kids and fishing families, who heralded him as a hero, and a troubadour. And after that tube ride, it was worthy praise. We’ve come to know the skillset of Noah surfing in Ireland at sledgehammer sections in Mullaghmore and behind the curtain ledges at Aliens, but this was magnified by the joy of riding in front of kids who had never seen stand-up surfing before, possibly at a never-before-surfed-spot (because all the locals and travellers are based up in Dakar, and on big swells like this they have some go-to spots currently not crowded enough to inspire anyone to need to venture elsewhere).

Jack waited patiently for the next set, which came minutes later with full velocity. He leaned into a high, tight line, disappearing behind a daunting brown-water curtain, re-appearing, dropping down low, carving up high again, then trimming through a far more menacing barrel than the first, skating onto the shoulder, kicking out and collapsing with joy as the beach once again exploded as if Senegal had won the World Cup. And the show went on. The duo clawed into more elevator-drops, followed by precise bottom-turns where timing was essential. Lips engulfed them whole and they sat in the eye of the storm, in a still patch of ocean, the screen gone white, sometimes getting swallowed, and safely coming up for air, and a few more times emerging into the brutal shore break where sheets of sand were raked by a foam-salt apron that rushed up and sucked back. Every single ride was operating like a pressure cooker, trapping air and spitting it back out.

That night, exhausted, the Harmattan wind blew at gale force, and the next morning we travelled south to refresh in a landscape of low baobab studded hills close to Popenguine. Despite the now near searing heat of late morning, we all embraced the opportunity to be close to the wise old baobabs. Lasting thousands of years, the baobab is able to endure seemingly endless periods without water. And when they do die, they simply rot from the inside and suddenly collapses into a heap of fibres. No wonder in African folklore they don’t die, but simply disappear, like magic.

Popenguine is a magical place, home to a huge nature reserve managed by a collective of women’s groups. For the past thirty years they have revitalised what was once a denuded patch of land, planting thousands of trees and mangroves, and consequently been awarded the Equator Prize for excellence in community based poverty reduction through conservation and sustainable management of biodiversity. And the protected zone stretches out two kilometres into the Atlantic, like a rainbow bridge between land and water, that will now hopefully leave pots of untouched gold for generations to come.

Although now peaked, the swell was still serious, but we swam in the booming baseline of the shore break, then walked to a wall of sparkling sandstone cliffs that rise into the sky like prehistoric stone animals. As the cooler afternoon set in, the landscape gave off a wonderful scent - tangerine groves, resinous pine and fir trees, meeting mica in the sand that made the sea a cola colour. The local restaurants burned intoxicating thiouraye incense made from papyrus and vetiver, and we ate barbequed fish before driving back to Toubab late into the night, trading stories, the sky now studded with cats’ eyes.

The swell continued to pump as we drove north the next morning towards the Almadies peninsula to surf Oukham, a world class ruler edge right and bowling left framed by a white-walled mosque. In no time, Jack clambered up the hillside to get his take on this iconic break. The water here is a deep indigo due to the change in geology from soft sedimentary rocks to hard igneous, causing no suspended sediment in the shoreline. It’s shallow and fast, and the temperature is slightly cooler than down south, so we scrambled into summer suits and met the local fisherman with the ubiquitous, “Asalaa maalekum (Peace be upon you),” followed by, “Maalekum salaam (Peace with you also),” and paddled out as the mosque speakers announced the call to prayer. Senegal has long been the homeland of both Sunni and Sufi Muslims. Sufism is a more mystical practise noted for its attention to the reading of religious poetry, comparable to Zen Buddhism, Yoga in Hinduism or Kabbalah in Judaism, where a spiritual master, or sheikh, guides a group through the rollercoaster of life.

Amy guided us into the ledging lefts, hurtling into a slab of saltwater joy on her mint green shortboard. Apish paddled like lightning into the next wave, a deep smile etched on his face as he catapulted to the safety of the channel. It was solid enough to get the heart pumping. But for Noah this was a cakewalk. He nonchalantly ducked under the curtain on take-off, slicing into the open face, then cranking a billowing bottom-turn, followed by a classy hook under the lip and then a poised stall before he gracefully stepped forward to pull into a sneaky tube on the inside. Amy was on the next cascade, blaring out of a tube, trimming at triple time and just making the shoulder with a flourish of cymbals over the rock bottom. After trading licks on the lefts, we paddled over to the rights, stretched out to breaking point like elastic, then offering open walls for carving turns. And it’s on these sea-scores where the local crew stood out, improvising against this fast-moving Atlantic pulse as it raced to dump its energy onto the urchin-covered reef.

After the surf we headed through Dakar for N’Gor island, past trees on fire with smoking orange-red flowers, past the African Renaissance Monument that shows a family rising up from a mountaintop and ambitiously heading towards the sea, and into the streets of the city, teeming with life, senses invaded by smoke, sewers and spices, khaki coloured dogs hanging outside tinfoil houses, sun-drenched windows filled with three suns looking out, bright faces born from the house shade, then markets and music fizzing over like a shaken soda.

We took a boat to N’Gor where the swell was seismic. It never goes flat here due to the 260 degrees exposure from the southeast to the north-northeast. The island was shaking from the shock waves, so we swam around the more sheltered lee, aside the bright-painted pirogues with red-yellow-blue-green patterns. The waves had turned even the lee into an ion charged whirlpool. The immersion immediately triggered a release of endorphins, serotonin and oxygen through our bodies. This is the power of moving water, now used worldwide to treat psychological health conditions through a sea healing that can boost self-esteem and provide a new life-blood.

After the swim we walked into the rabbit warren alleyways of N’Gor island to find the Surf Camp, where the owner Jesper introduced us to his French-Tunisian wife Soraya and their daughter Mia. Jesper is from Denmark, but fell in love with N’Gor when he arrived a decade ago, took over the dishevelled camp and injected new life into it. He has been a driving force for a much needed financial lifeline of international tourism. The camp now hosts about 1,000 surfers a year and is a leader in the new wave of surf tourism providers on the Almadies Peninsula - a six-mile stretch back on the mainland with 15 quality surf spots.

Mour Mbengue and Kouka Ba, two of Senegal’s best surfers, are instructors at N’Gor Island Surf Camp. They are at the forefront of a thriving local crew, all inspired by Omar Seye, Senegal’s first pro surfer, who started aged 13, and now at nearly 40, owns the Rip Curl Surf Camp. Arguably the most talented in the scene is Cherif Fall, a trendsetter in the loose, electric and light-footed style of this crew, influenced by the cultural vibrancy that surrounds them. Khardiata ‘Khadjou’ Sambe is breaking new ground as Senegal’s best female surfer. She was taught by her uncle Pape Samba Ndiaye, and now works for Malika Surf Camp in nearby Yoff, run by Marta Imarisio. The future is bright for Senegalese surfing, with a buzzing scene now backed up by international contests and sponsorship opportunities.

In the salt-stain of the cliff edge at N’Gor island, we watched in awe as out-of-control sets cracked the reef and crashed awkwardly into the channel. It looked very different to a week ago when I surfed it under small conditions, similar to the enticing The Endless Summer sequence. Of course watching that film today, the white imperialism leaps out, but when Bruce Brown made the film in the grip of the socio-political tensions of the Cold War, 1960s world leaders could have learned a lot from this social icebreaker as surf travel was used to build bridges. No false diplomacy, just the universal language of journeys, shorelines, laughter and shared adventure. Here surfing transcended politics in a search for a simple, often healing, cultural exchange. And these themes remain a respite from the haze of life-stress, offering a vital vitamin sea. 

We said our farewells and took a boat back to the mainland, where we met jubilation as it was announced Macky Sall had won the presidential elections. It is testament to the stability of Senegal that there was no social unrest (in a region with exceptionally rough neighbours) during the campaigning and voting. Senegal remains politically stable and progressive. This is in many ways thanks to the very first president following independence from French colonial rule in 1960. Leopold Sedar Senghour was a poet and politician, and established state funding for art that fed into the great flowering of music. Like Mali, Senegal already had a long history of griots - storytellers, poets, praise singers and troubadours who played the West African 22 string harp known as the kora. As a new generation of post-independence artists were inspired by Cuban music, they mixed this with their sabra dance rhythms, and mbalax flourished. This was a sound of freedom where liberation from European colonialism allowed identities to be reclaimed. Fusing indigenous drumming templates with jazz, soul and funk, musicians developed a signature style of ringing guitars over rich horn riffs. Innovative cross-rhythms were added. The music was infectious and uplifting, embodying the characteristic optimism of independent Africa. But for Senegal’s neighbours the legacy of the colonial period had created terrible burdens. As the tide of independence receded, so previously masked ethnic rivalries flared up. Instead of peaceful progress, bitter conflicts blazed. Many places became war-torn. The beat froze or morphed into the hammers of war. Drumheads were cruelly torn, snares snapped in two, bass pedals crushed. Many African capitals fell apart for decades to come. But not Senegal. It remained a beacon of hope for the continent, politically stable and culturally vibrant. And we’ll be back to sample the nightlife. And within this rich tapestry I hope that more West Africans can experience the healing of the sea through playing in the water, where the clamour of life dissolves, and you connect out to the bigger beat of the community, to an extended and shared environment, now suddenly in the present.