Surfing in Senegal | An African Wave Safari
We found empty waves and perfect peeling sets in the last place you'd expect
Where can you go for ten days in August to surf good waves in warm water and no crowds, whilst remaining on speaking terms with your bank manager?
Europe: unreliable and the whole continent is on holiday. Central America: long, pricey flight; Americans. Indonesia: even further away and awash with Australians. Africa? Surely not...
Or perhaps you can. Senegal’s Almadies Peninsula, Africa’s most westerly point, is exposed to swell originating anywhere from Iceland to Antartica, and is easily reached from Europe. Ngor Island is five minutes from the airport and right in the heart of the action. The average temperature of the water is 29 degrees. Winner.
I hadn’t done the surfcamp thing before on previous surf trips, but with limited time and little information available on where to stay, where and when to surf or how to get around, checking into Ngor Island Surfcamp was a no-brainer.
Crossing the 500 metre channel to the island is done by boat with, it seems, half of Dakar. Welcome to Africa.
It was the summer holiday, and despite most not knowing how to swim, the Senegalese commitment to spending all day every day at the beach, whatever the weather, was unwavering.
The wave that put Senegal on the map is Ngor right, which the surfcamp overlooks. It was featured in Bruce Brown’s 1964 classic The Endless Summer and on its day is about as good a righthand point break as you’re likely to find anywhere.
It tends to break better in winter with a long-period north swell, but even in summer when it mostly gets shorter period windswell it is rarely flat, and we enjoyed a few days of choice head-high righthanders running down the boulder point, just a stone’s throw from where we had breakfast.
Jesper, originally from Denmark, set up the camp in 2009 and now surfs more than just about anyone on the planet. He’s also an enthusiastic poker player, but loses to his guests without fail- just one of the many ways he ensures they enjoy their time in Senegal.
"The original surfcamp property was owned by US-Senegalese crooner Akon."
It turns out the original surfcamp property (it’s since moved to new premises overlooking Ngor right) was owned by US-Senegalese crooner Akon, he of “Lonely", “Locked up" and “Right Now (Na Na Na)" hall-of-famers.
On learning this stranger-than-fiction factoid, I was dismayed to learn that he wouldn’t be stopping by to serenade us with an impromptu sunset session and all-time selfie opportunity. Next time...
While the island and the north side of the peninsula enjoys fun windswell in summer, the south side is the real deal, facing straight into clean south swells marching up the west coast of Africa. Club Med is a thumping right-hander breaking over urchin-covered boulders and on its day is a wave of the highest class.
The chart on this day read 2.5 feet at 14 seconds. When we arrived we wondered if the Senegalese had a scale of measuring wave height that underplayed it even more than the Hawaiian scale (wave height measured from the back rather than on the face). Either way, 2.5 feet (Senegalese) was plenty.
There was a solitary local gentleman enjoying himself enormously when the three of us paddled out. At most other places I’ve been as a travelling surfer, a 300 per cent increase in the number of surfers in the water in the space of 30 seconds would have resulted in outright hostility or dismayed mutterings at the very least.
On this occasion however, the incumbent- who soon introduced himself, fittingly, as Happy, was delighted to have some comrades to share his session with.
Before long we were taking turns hooting each other into tropical shapes usually reserved for the pages of the school textbooks of imaginative groms.
I’d never been to a Muslim country before and was curious. Senegal is one of the Africa’s most liberal Muslim countries and I found its people, by some distance, the friendliest of any country I’ve ever visited.
It would be unusual to pass a complete stranger on a path without at least a “bonjour" (French is the official language), “Salaamaalekum" (approximation of the Arabic “peace be with you") or “Na Nga Def" (Wolof for “how are you").
Unsurprisingly, football is the national sport of Senegal. Despite playing on or rough dirt pitch in 35 degree midday sun, the quality of football on display was on a par with, or superior to, the majority of Premier League games.
If I had to be specific, I’d say better than Tottenham, but not as good as Arsenal.
The jelly shoe is ubiquitous in Senegal. And given its combination of style, performance and durability it’s easy to see why.
The midfield enforcer in jellies pictured here is about to go over the ball and into his opponent’s leg half-way up, like Roy Keane on Alf-Inge Håland in 2001. Sort of.
I think the little chap in the grey shorts overlapping on the left is the diminutive Chelsea/Brazil midfielder Ramires, although he wouldn’t give me his autograph so this is unverified.
Yoff is a long white sand beach to the north of the island and an ideal spot for learning to surf. Goats are prevalent all over Dakar, and their owners take them into the sea for a weekly bath.
It’s not unusual to have to paddle through a herd of goats on your way to the lineup.
This would be a typical scene at Yoff. At one point I saw a horse and cart on the wet sand overtaken by a 125cc scooter, which was itself taken on the outside by a BMW 3-series.
Who were they, where were they going and why were had they all chosen the beach over the road running parallel to reach their destination?
I never found out the answers, but these are the kinds of questions one ponders on a day at the beach in Senegal.
Despite its name - and appearances here - Secrets is the least secret spot in Senegal. It’s where the local kids learn to surf, and where travelling learners try their hand on a soft wave over boulders and sea urchins.
"There are sea urchins aplenty. But the guy that grills your fish for lunch will also dig black spines out of your paw."
It isn’t a gimme though - there are sea urchins aplenty, and the guy that serves you an Orangina and grills your fish for lunch will also dig black spines out of your paw with the precision of a Harley-street surgeon.
The locals surf with scant regard for these spiky brutes lurking beneath the surface though. So while the travelling beginner wraps his feet in reef booties and the thinking man kicks out halfway through his wave, the local pumps like a madman for maximum speed to punt the end section in 6 inches of water.
Gabriel Medina's old man stands on the beach shouting advice and encouragement to his son, the reigning world champ, in the lineup.
This Senegalese chap approaches his son's bodyboarding career a little differently.
August is the wet season in Senegal, which means that every few days a rain-storm of biblical proportions will come out of nowhere.
It does mean that surfing becomes a less appealing proposition as the water goes from emerald to chocolate in a matter of minutes.
No biggie: post up in a hammock in the beach shack for a bit with a good book or a plate of fish and wait it out.
Ngor Island is partly given over to the military. In the colonial era the French had a naval base on the island, and now the Senegalese marines are taught to swim here.
The military base plays another key role: it’s the only place on the island where you can buy a beer. The first time you knock on the door which says “Military only, access forbidden" and ask to buy a beer is quite the surreal experience.
If you’re at the beach in Dakar, you’re never more than 30 yards away from a BBQ with fish on it.
A plate furnished with a whole tuna or monkfish with rice and vegetables will set you back about €1.50, and is the ideal post-surf refill.
Despite having only been surfing for a few years and doing so on old and battered boards - or bits of boards - some of the locals are expert sliders.
Mour, one of the surf instructors at the camp, has a splendid all-around attack, and rude words written on his board.
Vivier is another typical Senegalese setup: Fun, rippable and perilously close to zillions of urchins if you make a mess of the takeoff.
This wave is rarely surfed. On this day it was small, perfectly formed and empty.
Possibly as a result of having been designed by a Romanian architect and built by a North Korean contractor, the 49 metre high African Renaissance Monument in Dakar is a bit silly.
"Built by a North Korean contractor, the 49 metre high African Renaissance Monument is a bit silly."
It was unveiled in 2010 and was so unpopular that riot police had to be deployed to maintain order. Its critics call it Stalinist in appearance and bemoan the fact that it cost $27 million in a time of economic crisis. It dominates the skyline west of Dakar.
In the shadow beneath the monument is Ouakam. Although fickle, it is probably Senegal’s classiest wave.
It’s really two different waves breaking in front of one a huge mosque, making it the African equivalent of Mundaka in Spain or Uluwatu in Bali, both of which break in front of equally imposing religious shrines.
The right - shown here - only breaks in big north swells wrapping around the peninsula, making it a predominantly winter spot.
The left only breaks on a big south swell. It wasn’t classic Ouakam on this day, with the wind a little side-shore, but it was still a super-fun left.
In addition to being a place of worship, both for surfers and Muslims, Ouakam is also a fishing village and home to several pelicans.
The local fishermen have developed an ingenious working relationship with these birds.
They put a collar on the pelican so it can’t swallow big fish. The pelican catches the big fish anyway, and delivers it intact in its bill to the fishermen, who in turn give the pelican a small fish in return that it can swallow. Everyone wins!
In addition to the righthander, Ngor Island is also home to Ngor left- a classy lefthand point on the north of the island, and Philippines (pictured here), a treacherous, urchin-infested but sometimes-perfect a-frame between the two.
It also rarely gets surfed, but it did provide an enticing mind-surf spectacle whilst enjoying a morning coffee.
The Almadies Peninsula is a sure thing, but if you’ve enthusiasm for adventure the coasts north to Saint Louis and south to The Gambia are ripe for exploring.
A sturdy vehicle and some time on Google Earth could yield deserted waves without another surfer for miles.
My one regret was that, having surfed almost all day every day, I didn’t explore much of Dakar’s reportedly-excellent nightlife.
Whilst devouring a hearty dinner washed down by a local beer (Gazelle, terrific), swapping stories and crashing out at 9:30pm at the end of a long day in the water is pretty much the dream scenario on any surf trip, Dakar has one of the liveliest music scenes in Africa.
A good travelling mantra is always to leave wanting more, so dancing in Dakar can be on the list for next time.
Given the relatively scarce information available online, Senegal seemed like a bit of a dice-roll for a surf-trip. It turned out to be anything but, boasting a rich diversity of waves, a delicious daily staple of fresh fish and a warm and friendly people.
Many thanks to Jesper, his family and the crew at Ngor Island Surfcamp for their hospitality.