I stood staring at my motorbike lying upside down in a massive hole with no idea how I was going to get it out. Thankfully, my board had been thrown free of the carnage and seemed to have escaped unscathed. It’s amazing that the thing is still in one piece, really, given my inability to keep a motorbike upright. It had taken me 8 hours to cover the last 80 miles of muddy track. Gas was leaking out of the tank through the breather hose and sweat was pouring off of my face as I heaved ineffectually at the side rack of the bike. The sky turned ominously dark as a storm gathered overhead and I tried to remind myself what on earth I was doing on a motorbike with my surfboard in the middle of the Congo.
The seed for this trip originated 14 years ago while having a terribly difficult time getting around surfing in Namibia, where I mostly resorted to thumbing rides up and down the coast from Swakopmund. I dreamed of returning to the west coast of Africa under my own power, and a motorbike seemed like the ultimate way reach hard to get to places that were bound to hold some good waves. Granted, I was no longer 24, had never owned a motorbike, barely knew how to ride one, didn’t know the first thing about how to repair one, and strapping on my surfboard on pretty much seemed like a creative way to destroy it. But never mind all that. I quit my job as an environmental scientist in Santa Cruz, California (which I loved), sold or gave away everything that didn’t fit into my Toyota pickup (with most of the space occupied by 6 surfboards), kissed the girlfriend goodbye (loved even more than the job), assured family and friends that I still had all my marbles (debatable), put my motorbike on a boat to London and followed close behind.
Things on the road had gone pretty well in the 6 months that preceded my sorry riding performance in the Congo mud pit. The plan was to blaze across Europe and then hug the west coast of Africa all the way to Cape Town, catching the swell season in both the north and the south of the continent, and try to miss most of the rains through the middle. Morocco and the Sahara Desert offered up gorgeous mountain vistas, endless desert tracks, captivating cliff-side villages, and righthand pointbreaks aplenty; while on the Dakar peninsula I found tubes reeling over urchin-encrusted reefs in between visits to various embassies for visas.
More often than not in West Africa, you find a unique surfing experience of some kind. I pitched my tent right in front of empty, world-class lefts in Liberia. In Ghana I found waves peeling in the shadow of castles that were historically at the center of the West African slave trade, and in Mauritania waves whizzed alongside the ghostly hull of a massive grounded ship. In Cameroon, the single native local native surfer serves as surf ambassador to travelers like myself. Down a long dusty road in Gabon, I discovered surfing hippos and some other equatorial legends. Reeling empty lineups can be found all over the place if you have the patience to look.
With all its charms, traveling overland in West Africa can be a right pain in the ass. You spend plenty of time trying to get visas that consulates don’t want to give you, hustling your way through borders, and being detained by police. You get into the habit of simply ignoring anyone in a uniform trying to get you to stop. I was detained for 7 hours by the military in Mauritania, squeaked by Kalashnikov wielding bandits in Ivory Coast, arrested in Nigeria, and was nearly not allowed to enter the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) at all. Roads have truck-sized puddles that can swallow your bike whole or can turn into a single track trails, sand dunes, or dead end at a gigantic river to leave you looking for a boat. On the tarmac, traffic rules are absent and it pretty much seems that people are trying to kill you most of the time. Gear generally can’t be replaced before reaching South Africa, so when your tent is stuffed, you cuddle up with creepy crawlies; when your sleep mat explodes, you sleep on your board bag; and when your bike breaks you’d better have the tools and spares needed on hand.
West Africa is still a wild place and it gets under your skin. Every day feels like adventure and help often appears from strangers when you need it most. Places like Sierra Leone, Ivory Coast, and Liberia are still recovering from decades of brutal civil war and the people and cities still bear the scars of the conflicts. Even in capitals, like Sierra Leone’s Freetown, there is no electricity grid and often no running water. Anyone with lights on is running a diesel generator. People are good at making things work with what they have on hand.
Surfing is still young in this part of the world and most of the few surfers here have only been riding waves for a few years. In Sierra Leone, I found the most stoked and welcoming surfers I’ve ever met even though they barely had boards to ride. Despite the hardships of living they endure, an ethos of hope and excitement for new beginnings pervades the beaches of the Freetown peninsula. For a month I camped on their beach and shared waves and meals with the surfers of Bureh Beach. Their kindness to a stranger like me was humbling. When I told their story on the web, people put up cash to help build a well in a nearby mountain village and sent the Bureh surfers a box of surf wax and board repair supplies, neither of which that can be found anywhere in Sierra Leone.
Covered head to heel in red the red mud of the Congo, the good times of Bureh Beach felt far distant. I was at the crux of the entire west coast journey, and wasn’t winning any style points. The surf rich coasts of Angola, Namibia, and South Africa lay ahead, if I could just get there. After an hour of heaving and grunting, I managed to get my bike upright and out of its hole, just in time for the sky to open up and turn the road I was riding into a river. High in the hills with the rain coming down in sheets and darkness falling, I didn’t like my prospects for the night. A man flagged me down amidst the torrent and led me underneath the overhang of a wonderfully solid feeling brick building. I’d ridden into a remote Catholic mission and the English teacher named Vincent said that they were happy to provide me shelter from the storm.
The surfing frontier of West Africa holds more magic than I imagined and more trials than I bargained for. But it’s kind of a package deal–you just have to take it all as it comes.