Tourism in West Africa is at an all-time low. The presence of Boko Haram and 2014’s Ebola scare have torn the region apart, but one stretch of West African coast is still pumping out waves, good music, good food, and a stable environment for its visitors and its people. So here are seven reasons why you should add Senegal to your surf trip bucket list:
1. Live the Endless Summer
Chances are you’ve dreamed of packing your boards, saying adios to the 9-5 life and following the paths of Robert August and his friends at least once thanks to the famed movie by Bruce Brown. One balmy evening in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, Robert August told us about a spree of young and reckless adventures in Senegal, Africa. Only one concrete hotel stood amidst the huts and fishing nets of the NGor fishing village in Dakar. NGor’s right was only a paddle away, and it was firing.
That vision of surfing in Africa stayed with me until I found myself paddling out to the same lineup. The break receives north swells head on, making the wave strong and powerful. Drops can be fun with enough wave face to play with. The reef gets sketchy at low tide with the infamous boulders “papi” and “mami” exposing themselves exactly where you’re about to take off. Local surfers will sport their scars from the two unforgiving rocks one minute, then remind you of their grandfathers recalling August and his buddies ripping it up the next.
2. World class breaks that pick up both north and south swells.
Thanks to its location on the Cabo Verde Peninsula, the Dakar area is exposed to both southern and northern hemi swells. It’s pretty safe to say you will get some waves, big or small, 365 days of the year. When NGor Right is pumping you probably won’t need to venture far. The safest bet is to shack up at the Ngor Island Surf camp so you can roll out of bed and straight into waves. The sounds of the crashing waves you hear from your bed is enough of a sign to tell you what kind of session you are in for. And when it’s slow and the wind is howling you’ll want to head to the other side and see if you can pick up some of the south swell.
The southern coast of Dakar, Les Almadies, is spotted with numerous reef breaks and consistent offshore conditions. Le Vivier, Club Med and Secret all pick up the southern hemis. Vivier has a left that works in high tide but can get dangerous in low tide. If you’re trying to up your barrel count, this is a good spot. Club Med is gnarly, reefy break that is difficult to access. This fast powerful wave breaks close to shore and has almost no bottom in low tide. Secret, sandwiched between Le Vivier and Club Med is probably the most popular, with front row seats to the action in the water. Slightly less intimidating, it offers up a fast right and a left. The secret leaked a while ago, and today it is a busy break and hangout spot for locals, expats and visitors alike.
And what of the most famous and gnarly break of Senegal: Ouakam? My Senegalese friend Thibaut de Longeville, who grew up on these breaks, jokingly calls it the “Pipeline of West Africa.” This spot works mostly in winter when the south coast picks up. Towering cliffs and a skyscraper mosque on the beach will give you grand company as you tuck into powerful, barreling A frames.
3. Did someone say empty line ups?
Although the breaks facing the southern coast on the mainland can get crowded, NGor Island is a boat ride away from the city and typically sees less people on the line up. If you hit dawn patrol, you are likely to share a session with less than half a dozen surfers. It’s pretty incredible to feel the unspoken camaraderie with few people in the line up.
While most of these beaches are plotted on the Windgurus, Surflines and Magic Seaweeds of the world, our local surf guides from NGor Island Surf Camp are still discovering new breaks. During our visit, NGor was hit with a double overhead swell, so we packed into a van and headed south to a tiny fishing village. Shoulder high sets, empty line ups and strong offshore winds awaited as we rolled on to the beach. Village children loved it and hung out with us in between sessions.
4. Embrace reef breaks
Most waves in Senegal are reef breaks. The local surfers talk about how different the NGor right was back when Robert August and his mates hit it. They tell us there are a lot more rocks today than before. You’d think its Mother Nature doing her thing, but it’s not. Over the years, NGor has seen its share of new houses come up, all of which required sand to be built. A lot of the sand was taken from the beach, and the unwanted building rocks were dumped in their place, instead leaving behind a more exposed beach.
These days, you have to negotiate rocks, reef and sea urchins as part of your session. I hadn’t thought about it when planning the trip, but in hindsight it certainly pushed me outside my comfort zone, taught me some lessons and helped me grow as a surfer. Just wear booties and thank me later. But don’t always take out your favorite board. Instead, experiment with a different board, preferably something you’re not so scared to ding. And of course, learn to navigate those rocks.
5. Trouble free in West Africa?
Where there is ocean, surfers will go. But the last few years have seen terror storm through West Africa, causing many to shy away. From last year’s headlining spread of the Ebola virus through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia to Boko Haram’s pressence in Nigeria, there has been unrest in much of the region. Senegal, however, is one of the most stable, trouble-free and forward thinking countries of West Africa. Dakar is a bustling city with immigrants from Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania living in harmony with the friendly, big-hearted Senegalese people and a small fraction of expats. People here speak Wolof, the local language, French and English, offering light to area’s diversity. The fishing villages of Senegal are rich in clean air and simple happiness with loads to pass around and share amongst the diverse crowds.
6. Catch of the day
Speaking of fishing, low key beach fish shacks stand proudly alongside the odd high-end restaurant. So here’s what you can eat: Fish, fish, and more fish. The shacks sell the best brochette lotte, local monkfish kebabs that will give any restaurant a run for their money. It’s a taste of the real culture here. The Senegalese pastels are samosa-like, with onion relish that you can never seem to get enough of. Don’t leave Senegal without tasting the infamous cafe touba. This native concoction of cafe and pepper is sure to get you revved up and ready for the waves.
7. Sounds of Africa
When the heat and dust settle down for the day, Dakar turns into a melting pot of music. African beats blend with reggae, jazz and blues, turning venues and rooftops into explorations of sound that make you sway from within. Songs from Youssou N’Dour and Dieuf Dieul play from every car, bus and rooftop. Dakar awakens most in the late night clubs, where artists come together to perform and jam, making the soul of mama Africa come alive.