Life has changed for me a lot in the last decade or two.
Once I was a flaming ball of tumbleweed careering through life’s Wild West; travelling, partying and surfing wherever and whenever I could. I had energy, light and life. I had hair.
These days I’m more of a small patch of fuzzy moss hugging a comfortable-looking rock. It hasn’t been a difficult transition, far from it. As most of the choices to get here have been exactly that: choices. But you can get too comfortable, sinking into that shabby-chic couch watching the Travel channel. You can convince yourself that you don’t need to visit new lands and new cultures or risk deep vein thrombosis flying to long-haul exotic destinations filled with danger and excitement. You can make do with your ‘à la carte’ vacation list: Christmas in suburbia chit-chatting with one side of the family, summer in the country playing petanque with the other. Maybe the odd trip to the Algarve? Drink some chilled vinho verde and catch a few small waves on a big foamy longboard?
And yet somehow I ended up standing in the middle of N’gor village just outside Dakar, surrounded by chaos, up to my knees in muddy water and holding nothing but a beaten up twin fin and a pair of man sandals.
The idea wasn’t mine. I’d like to make that clear. The last time I went somewhere that stretched my comfort zone I ended up in post-tsunami Sri Lanka during a civil war eating ‘festival’ cake at gunpoint and surfing Arugum Bay with only three people out. We saw a dozen white faces in a month and most of them were looking like they wanted to go home…
Sri Lanka was my choice but Africa was definitely Toby’s fault. Toby is my neighbour, friend and bodyboarder. He and Duncan (his oldest mate from school days and fellow ‘sponger’) were in their 40th year on this planet and wanted a trip to remember (coincidentally that’s how old I was when I went to Sri Lanka). The location had to be somewhere new and since Duncan is a travel writer his map of unchartered territory was becoming quite small. This, cross-referenced with surf viability (presumably with some kind of colour-coded venn diagram), resulted in a shortlist of Taiwan, Senegal and North Korea. After some scant political research (and an in-depth assessment of ‘death-to-fun’ probability ratio) Dakar was our final choice.
It’s a surprisingly short flight from Lisbon (I’m lucky enough to live in the hills of Central Portugal) just four hours due south and only a one hour time difference. Just before landing we had inspected the somewhat scary instruction sheet from our future host:
“Find Samba, the right Samba, DO NOT go with the wrong Samba. If someone says they are a friend of Samba he is lying.
SAMBA HAS NO FRIENDS!”
This of course instigated many queries in our heads, mainly: Why does Samba have no friends? What happened to them all…..?
Having just left a heatwave behind at home, I was confident that the ‘cool’ 30 degrees of Senegal would be a breeze. But, as it always does, the hot, wet air seemed to slap us in the face as we descended from the air-conditioned plane and plunged into the African night.
Our first mission (after perspiring our way through customs, wrangling our bags through security and finally making it outdoors) was to find Samba. So, armed with a terrible photo and an incredible sense of doom we stepped out into the hot, unfamiliar darkness of Dakar.
Immediately we were bombarded by a barrage of greetings from the local taxi drivers lined up along the outside of the caged walkway that we were passing through.
“Hey friend! Where are you going?”
“Taxi my friend?”
Still no Samba. Everybody was very ‘friendly’ but still no Samba until, right at the end, just before we got spat out into the car park:
“Toby? Mark? I’m Samba!”
We cross-checked the ‘password’, shook hands and then bundled into a beaten up yellow taxi. Unfamiliar scenes, smells and noises flashed past. We stopped in a dusty car park, got out and stumbled after our guide down dark alleys in a seemingly forgotten part of town. Moments later we were on a small, dirty beach, followed by a small boat crossing in the pitch black sea towards our island destination.
Jumping out on a tiny strip of sand, we followed Samba through more alleys, then a gate, past a huge barking dog. Samba fumbled for matches and candles. We pushed through mosquito screens, ran up some winding stairs and finally ended up in a tiny, twin bedroom.
“Er… we booked two rooms!” we wailed quietly.
Samba told us the other room was “not ready yet” and then disappeared into the night. We assumed he meant that the bed wasn’t made or the towels needed changing or they hadn’t put a tiny mint on the pillow yet. It wasn’t until the following morning we realized that my room actually had no bed. Or any furniture at all. Or paint on the walls…
Everything in Dakar is intense. The heat, the humidity, the sounds and smells. Each journey seems to be an event; whether it’s clinging onto the boat taxis to and from the island (our chosen accommodation was the Isle de N’gor surf camp), jumping into one of the many yellow cabs (available in the full range of condition: from ‘brand new and sparkling to ‘probably should be in a landfill site’) or squeezing far too many hot, sweaty people and battered surfboards into the camp’s hot, battered van. The rain is intense. The streets of N’gor flood fairly regularly at which point being ejected from the relative comfort of the van and told “you have to walk now” is a definite possibility. I had no idea where we were or certainly how to get to the taxi boat ‘station’. All I knew was that it was hot and wet. I followed everybody else whilst telling myself that the very surreal moment when a group of extremely white looking surfers are wading through an African backstreet carrying an array of surf craft should never come as a surprise.
Everywhere you go and look, everybody is busy either making, cooking or creating and then passing it on for someone to sell, to you, to me or to anybody just driving past. But amidst the hustle and fervour to make a living, everybody will take the time to smile, say hello and ask you how you are doing and where you’re from.
Several times in the first few days the onslaught on my senses caused me to struggle with my decision to come to Senegal. Lack of sleep, home comforts and a decent frothy cappuccino all seemed like an extreme sacrifice. The camp had no mains power during the day (a 12-volt system took care of basic needs), a hot shower was a rare commodity and a tin of Nescafé provided the caffeine. That, and being thrust into a social scenario in which I was by far the oldest (even our host was 10 years my junior), was also making me question the move. The majority of the residents were twenty-something surfers, full of confidence and testosterone. An eclectic blend of nationalities: American, German, Dutch, Moroccan, South African and a couple of Spaniards thrown in for some Iberian flavour. Quite intimidating at first: this was a world I hadn’t been in for a while. But the energy that surrounded me started to permeate my leathery, aging shell.
I was surfing for longer each day than I have done in years, being more sociable and definitely starting to talk untold quantities of rubbish with people half my age. And I was loving every moment. Looking back, maybe I even imparted some pearls of worldly wisdom summoned from my many years of experience that somehow helped to shape and nurture their growing minds. A serenely aging guru sent to shine a light in the overwhelmingly dark tunnels of the intricate maze of life.
Or maybe they just thought, “Why doesn’t this old git just bugger off…?”
Most days we got a chance to head out onto the mainland en masse, either searching for more surf or to shop for supplies, gifts and souvenirs. Each time we turned round one of our group was being led by a friendly face into a shop or stall adding to his or her growing collection of gifts to take home. Having undergone a massive shift in economic and social desires, Dakar has become a city of extremes. The 5-star Sheraton, a haven of serenity and calm nestles in the cliffs just a short stroll from the stench and chaos of the fishing harbour. Jaguar showrooms sit next to tin shacks. Goats are parked next to Mercedes saloons. All elements of society rubbing shoulders and sharing in the energy of Dakar.
Our host (a perpetually smiling blonde, bearded Dane called Jesper) provides the travelling surf community with a welcome port in which to shelter from the storm of the outside world. With good food, good company, clean beds and just a stone’s throw from that famous right from the opening scene in ‘The Endless Summer’. We surfed it nearly every day and although it never quite roared to life (we were too early in the season) it definitely showed its potential. The inside section provided the bodyboarders and local rippers with plenty of wall to play with and the wider (fatter) sets gave the old farts like me a chance to get a few nice waves.
The peninsula of Dakar caters to every wind and swell direction, from the beginner’s playground of Yoff beach (miles of white sand and friendly banks) to the peanut gallery of ‘Secrets’ Bar (a left and right that finish right in front of the bar terrace for all to see and judge). For the more daring is the choice of ‘Club-Med’ (a right point that lights up on a south swell), ‘Razorblades’ (a fast, barely makable shallow left that breaks onto volcanic boulders) and a little further south there was Oukam (Dakar’s ‘Pipe’) which, unfortunately, never bared it’s teeth.
Virtually all breaks (apart from Yoff) are over rock and very often covered in urchins. So booties and some tweezers might be a wise investment before coming. Of course UV protection is a must, especially when one is gracefully balding. Luckily we had Jacob (an American film student) to remind us:
“Sunscreen! Where you at bro…?” was a conversation Jacob seemed to have with himself fairly regularly.
The locals were, of course, ripping every break apart (especially Secrets) and riding anything they could get their hands on: old windsurfers, broken boards or just bits of old polystyrene. Snaking, dropping in. Popping airs and wrapping 360s. One guy standing up on an old boogie board doing pirouettes – I guess nobody had told him he couldn’t. Everybody just having fun and smiling all day. Never any bad vibes or cross words. The message from Senegal is to have fun and be friendly, both in the water and out.
On the rare occasion that there is no surf it’s easy to arrange day trips to some local tourist attractions. The so-called ‘pink lake’ just north of the city is a short drive through open fields and small, rural villages with a great chance to see some incredible baobab trees. The lake itself is a remarkable salt lagoon that changes colour with the seasons. Naturally, on our arrival the famous ‘rosy hue’ was more of a dark brown (with perhaps a hint of pink if you squinted?). It’s nearly as buoyant as the Dead Sea with the temperature of a hot bath. In seconds we had stripped off and piled into the hot, saturated waters, bobbing around like big, pink corks with sunglasses. The brief advice from our driver was “do not rub your eyes” and definitely “do not pee underwater”. Apparently both result in extreme pain.
The stunning Isle de Gorée is a small island, a half hour ferry ride from the industrial port of Dakar. One of our Spanish companions wasn’t quite so fascinated by the journey and had to be rousted from a solid sleep on the top deck upon our arrival. He was soon won over by the beautifully fading opulence of this tiny enclave that was built during French colonial days with once grand town buildings surrounding a peaceful square shaded by majestic aging trees. The rest is a maze of winding alleyways and streets between colourful, peeling houses and broken buildings. Much of the island was built on the back of the slave trade which used this now harmonious island as a holding station before the ships headed to the Americas. The whole place now serves as a dedication to the memory of those horrific days.
Above the town on a small hill is a strange concrete memorial, shaped like a ship’s sail to emulate the journey of the slaves. It sits alongside the rather incongruous ‘Guns of Navarone’ which are massive metal canons placed by the French during World War II (since made famous by the movie which was filmed there). Our timing was perfect to take in the last beautiful moments of the African sunset. As the dusk faded we made our way back through the darkening streets towards a quiet bar to ruminate over the day’s events and drink cool Gazelles (and ‘un peu du vin’) until the ferry came back to fetch us home.
During the whole trip I’d had my eye on surfing at the N’gor left, a slightly more fickle brother to the right found at the far end of the island. The videos I’d watched online were very enticing to a goofy footer knocking fifty and on the last day it finally perked up. Clear blue skies and a twinkling, turquoise ocean heralded a new swell emanating from the north. Clean lines were lifting up over the reef and peeling towards the corner of the island. I hadn’t paddled out into overhead surf for a while but the confidence and ease of a fellow camp-dweller helped me quell the urge to turn round and scuttle back to base. I only caught a couple of waves: one an “in and out” to get my booties firmly set into my wax but on the next slightly larger set I made it round the fast first section. The wave walled up perfectly and peeled all the way to the channel. Top to bottom all the way, one of the nicest waves I’ve had this year. More than enough to cover the price of admission to this surf trip…
Sitting in the peace and calm of my office, typing this, obviously I’m glad to be home. I’ve missed my wife and my son hugely. My house seems huge and opulent (which I’m fairly sure it is not). I had a hot shower and a nice cup of coffee this morning and this chair feels really comfortable right now. But I also miss the chaotic beauty of Senegal and sharing a banquet every night with a table full of smart, adventurous young people that reminded me very much of myself back when I was a flaming ball of tumbleweed.
Maybe there’s still a tiny bit of fire left in this small patch of moss…?
Words and photos by Mark Crockett
You can see more of Mark’s photography here: http://www.markcrockett.photography/
His personal blog is here: http://www.papersurfer.com/
Accommodation at N’Gor Island in Dakar can be found here: http://www.gosurf.dk/