Monday, November 23, 2009

N'Gor Right

About 45 years ago, two Californians and a film crew flew to Dakar and introduced surfing to West Africa . The first spot they tried was a right wave breaking along the edge of N’Gor Island, visible from their room at the Hotel Meridien on Dakar ’s mainland. The fishermen in their trademark Senegalese boats paddled to the channel to watch the never-before-seen spectacle. The moment, immortalized in the classic surf film Endless Summer, is widely believed to have kicked off the new age of modern surf travel.

After six weeks in Dakar , I finally made it out to N’Gor with my surfboard yesterday. Instead of paddling, as my Californian predecessors had done, there are now 30-foot motorized pirogues ferrying tourists to and fro between the island and the peninsula nearly for free. There are also a handful of smaller, slightly more expensive boats catering specifically to surfer travelers that will drop you off right in the channel next to the wave.

I picked the giant pirogue, which, after a surprisingly smooth ride, dropped me off on a quiet beach lined with palms and a couple of quaint restaurants commanding an incredible view of the bay and the northern edge of Dakar . The streets are narrow, cobble and sand alleyways between stone buildings with flowering vines. A five minute walk through the very pleasant maze brings you past private homes, seaside restaurants and a guesthouse before placing you on a low wall stretching toward the inside of the N’Gor reef.

The water is clear and turquoise like the Caribbean . The waves crash as white as bone over the reef, wrapping for a hundred yards around the point. This is a very small day for N’Gor, the locals tell me, but the swells are well overhead, and the surfers look like small black dots as they drop in. I try to imagine what it must have been like for the first surfers on this point in 1964 – big waves, unknown land, gawking fishermen, huge long boards without leashes.

The boys from Endless Summer got some great waves, but didn’t stay long due to a pressing round-the-world itinerary. But they clearly made a lasting impression. Here in West Africa – not exactly the first place that comes to mind when you mention ‘surfing’ – the water is filled with their legacy.

I watch as a local surfer, a kid of about 18 from the village of N’Gor across the bay, paddles out beyond the pack to the peak,, clearly the alpha dog out here. Whitewater swirls all around him and the tip of a jagged rock dubbed ‘Mami’ protrudes a few feet away, sending chills down my spine. A set comes in on cue and he spins around, stroking into the steepest part of the wave and dropping down the face as it curls over him, his buddies from the village shouting encouragement in Wolof from the channel. This is pure joy, a gift perhaps from the good old USA .

A fisherman slows his boat to watch.

(Here’s some footage from the spot I found on Youtube: )

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