Emerging from the arrivals hall into the cloying heat of the inky Dakar night unnerved me. Not because of the tropical climate, nor the sensory assault of smoke, sewers and spices that pervades the air. No, it’s the cage that does it.
A corridor of rusting green mesh there to funnel us new arrivals through the baying crowds pressed against it. Hawkers, drivers, urchins, guides, beggars and somewhere amid the human mayhem my contact Samba and safe transport to the tiny island of N’gor.
“You Dooncan?” a smiling face among many calls at me through the cage. “What’s the password?” I ask. “Maiden. Oh, an’ I know you fren’ Toby. Funny guy.” Good enough for me. Within seconds Samba steers me to the sanctuary of a rusting, rattling van and the attentions of the crowd turn to the other arrivals blinking hopefully into the melee. Made it.
The Republic of Senegal lies on the west coast of sub-Saharan Africa, bordered on three sides by Mauritania, Mali, Guinea and Guinea Bissau, with its left flank subject to the whims of the ferocious Atlantic. Sitting exposed on a pointing finger of land jutting into the ocean, Dakar is often referred to as the capital of West Africa.
With its independence won in 1960, Senegal has become one of the most politically stable and accessible countries in this turbulent region of Africa, and as such has a healthy influx of travellers and tourists. I was here to sample its culture, history and mayhem of course. But more than that I was keen to travel in the sandy footsteps of two much more intrepid adventurers than I – Mike Hynson and Robert August, who stopped here on their epic round-the-world surf trip that was documented in Bruce Brown’s 1966 cult classic, The Endless Summer.
Logically then, my digs for this adventure would be the N’gor Island Surf Camp, an Endless Summer-styled retreat run by perpetually stoked Dane Jesper, his French-Tunisian wife Soraya and their mermaid-in-training daughter, Mia. And their dogs, of course. But there are always dogs.
Set on the western tip of tiny N’gor Island, a 300m ferry from the mainland, Jesper’s slice of surf paradise is a 30-second walk from the wave that makes this place viable. A shuddering right hand reef break, it attracts surfers from all corners of life. On my first morning I lucked into a manageable swell creating three-to-four-foot waves and shared the dawn lineup with a smattering of other guests (German, Moroccan, Dutch, South African), a couple of American Airlines pilots who’d boated in for a quick session before their afternoon flight, and Mour and Kouka, two of Senegal’s best surfers – and instructors at Jesper’s surf school.
Around us, local kids snaffled waves on anything that floated, from broken bodyboards to polystyrene packaging, their screams of stoke the only sounds loud enough to break the rhythm of rollers crashing onto the reef.
N’gor Island is a curious place. Small enough to circumnavigate in 15 minutes, there are no roads, no cars – just rocky and sandy tracts between dilapidated houses that look empty, abandoned even.
In the week it’s populated by listless if friendly local men – the island artist Mamadou to whom a purchase of some sort of trinket feels like an inevitability (I came away with a wooden elephant “hand carved by my father”); the questionably named Black Alkaline whose fist bumps and hugs become a daily ritual lest he chastise you for not being friendly enough.
There’s an easy apathy to life on the island – a resignation among locals looking for money in trade but not expecting to find it. “Alcoholism is a problem for many of them,” Jesper tells me. “Buy something and they’ll spend the money on drink. Then you’ll hear them drunkenly shouting each other – and us – down.” Everyone here knows Jesper and despite his friendly stoicism towards the vagabond element, they all recognise and respect the tourism and trade he’s brought to N’gor Island. “Ah, you stay with Jesper!” soon becomes the soundtrack to every stroll.
Come the weekend though, it’s all change. A favoured retreat for N’gor and Dakar’s wealthy, from Friday to Sunday the beaches and abandoned houses throb with dance music and heave with muscled ebony bodies. Men indulge in press-up competitions and brutal looking wrestling matches (known as Lutte, it’s the Senegalese national sport where professionals become superstars who can earn hundreds of thousands annually). Women strut in colourful bikinis, furiously tapping bejewelled mobile phones.
And together in tight embrace they bounce and flounce in the shallows – not too deep mind, as very few can swim. The rumour, other visitors tell me, is that they’re quietly shagging – a huge aquatic orgy gyrating to an invisible rhythm that parts only to let the boats ferry more people to shore.
On our island sanctuary life moves at an unreal pace. Surf, eat, sleep. You could do it forever and I quickly see how Jesper has fallen in love with it – and how a trip here ten years previous resulted in him forsaking a life in frozen Aarhus for sand between his toes and a watchful eye on the horizon.
But sprawling out before us was Dakar – a vast, tangled metropolis.
Our guide was Happy. A strong, intimidating polyglot who couldn’t look more native with his wild dreads, bloodshot yellow eyes (a common concentration of melanin in the sclera, apparently) and chaotic teeth, he knows as much as anyone about local life and could recount stories in more languages than any of us knew.
Under his watchful eye we navigated the teeming streets of Dakar. Rusting traffic, bleating goats, enquiring faces and that pulsing sense of life only the great cities create. From filthy main street to aromatic market, a hidden left took us into a dingy tailor’s where rows of men, young and old, sewed suits on ancient Singers. A tiny passage led to a smoke-filled concrete bunker where women in fabulous robes ate barbequed meats and glowered
at our cameras.
I’ve never visited anywhere where the people were so virulently against having their picture taken, and it highlighted the divide against the established tourism of Asia and the Americas where an easy smile is usually permission enough to snap away. But Happy pervaded, shooing away the urchins, greeting friendly traders, calming angrily gesturing passers-by, and deftly dealing with a taxi driver who refused to return our change, and who’ll think twice before doing so again.
But even Happy was surprised when one chancer leant through our taxi window intent on selling us a handgun hanging from the inner lining of his overcoat like the watches of some post-war east London wide-boy. As we marvelled at his audacity, Dakar’s most controversial landmark hove into view – the extraordinary, awful, awesome African Renaissance Monument.
Built for just shy of £17m under the auspices of president Abdoulaye Wade (who insists he’s personally due 35% of all profits under ‘intellectual property rights’ as this public endeavour was his idea), this bastion of African ingenuity was designed by a
Romanian and built by the North Koreans. Really. It’s a monument to the corruption and misplacement of money in the face of the extraordinary poverty of those who live in its shadow, and portrays an African family erupting from a mountaintop and striving heroically (many would say comically, offensively, ridiculously) towards the sea. Love it or loathe it, you certainly can’t miss it.
The mainland isn’t just about the city though. And along with N’gor Right, this varied coastline throws up numerous other accessible surf spots. Over the weeks we tackle small beachy waves at Yoff, dodge freedivers at N’gor Left, scare ourselves witless at a sunset session in the vast expanse and dredging barrels of Club Med, and have a near-death experience at the inappropriately named Secret Spot.
It’s here the urchins exact their revenge – not the street urchins mind, but their spiky underwater namesakes who send more than half our surf crew to the medics wincing in pain as their spines are pulled from shin, calf and foot.
But it’s the storm that nearly does us in. From calm skies we’re suddenly lashed with sideways rain. A lone surfer standing on the shore is mere metres from a lightning strike that has him howling in pain and clutching his ears, and flash floods erupt from behind us to wash away both the roads and the beach as well.
We retreat to safety, drink beer and marvel at the carnage before realising we’ll be walking home through rough, unknown streets – barefoot, many openly bleeding from those urchin injuries, and carrying our boards on our heads.
This meandering motley crew of surfers stumbling through knee-deep storm water makes for a strange sight and brings the locals out in their droves to point, watch and laugh. But what started as a serious concern soon turned to a sense of adventure and we revelled in the unknown, in being the exotic outsiders rather than tourists regarding the locals as such.
We made it back to N’gor Island in one piece tired but exhilarated, conspiratorial in our shared experience. It may be 50 years since Hynson and August first brought surfing to these shores, but half a century later this wild slice of West Africa still has an adventure or two up its sleeve.