Active Traveller

Wild waves in West Africa

Emily Dugan dons her wetsuit and confronts her fears in the face of the Ngor 'right'

Aline of wetsuited figures bobbing on boards cheers as a man drops two metres down the face of an enormous wave and slots inside its hollow green tube. This is not Hawaii, Queensland or even chilly Cornwall, but Dakar in Senegal. West Africa may not be the first place you think of for waves, but it has a serious surf pedigree.

Thanks are due to The Endless Summer. This is a cult 1966 surf movie that followed two men on a round-the-world search for un-surfed waves and perpetual sun, which bestowed the tiny island of Ngor with legendary status among surfers. As the first stop on the film's surfing grand tour, their arrival in Africa prompts questions as catastrophically dated as the surfers' skin-tight swimming trunks. "Would they find surf? Would they catch malaria? Would they be speared by a native?" drawls the narrator.

But while the attitudes of most Western visitors towards Senegal have become more enlightened, and surf shorts have got baggier, one thing hasn't changed: the waves. They still roll out in perfect lines from the rocky west of the island – even if the boys in the film made them look a lot easier to ride.

I had come to Senegal to conquer the Ngor "right": surfers' jargon for a wave that breaks to the right when its rider is facing the shore. It is renowned for being fast, hollow and heavy. I knew my chances of doing anything other than flailing beneath this wave were slight. But I wanted to try.

To increase my chances, I signed up Mour Mbengue as my surf guide; he is Senegal's number-two surfer and bases himself at the camp. Even so, within minutes of arriving on the island I re-evaluated my plan of surfing it on the first day. For a start, it was the height of two people. Then there was the fact that it had been three months since I had put a toe in the sea. From a distance, the wave looked relatively innocuous, but just beneath the surface is a slab of solid rock, constantly pounded by a spine-breaking volume of water. So I spent my first day surfing a beach break on the mainland.

The capital, Dakar, is just a five-minute boat ride from Ngor island. You cross the channel by pirogue, one of the multicoloured wooden fishing boats that pepper the coast of Senegal. Mour took me to Virage beach, a brief taxi ride away. But even Virage, which Mour had assured me was "like, totally the easiest wave ever", managed to put me through several washing-machine cycles before I actually stood on a wave.

Back on the island that night, I was the only person in the surf camp not to have spent the day getting spat out by the Ngor right. The camp, one of a handful of places to stay on the island, has been set up in the former holiday home of the Senegalese-American rapper Akon. Thanks to its previous owner, it still has some unlikely "bling" touches, including throne-sized garden chairs. But compared with most places surfers end up resting their heads, it is excellently turned out, with well-kept double and twin rooms.

My fellow guests for the week were two Italians, two Danes, a Swede and a French couple. With only one other woman for company, and no common language, dinner-time became a slightly repetitive experience, as the only topic requiring little or no vocabulary was the day's surfing at Ngor. This gave me all the more reason to find common ground: I had to at least try the wave I had come to tackle.

For my first attempt, I was accompanied by the surf camp's owner, Jesper Mouritzen. To make the paddle round to the wave, you have to leap from a rocky outcrop. This was supposed to be a "small" day, but the men in the water seem dwarfed by the rollers they stood beneath. Jesper signalled for me to follow him, as his arms motored at full speed through a choppy channel towards the calmer safe zone away from the breaking wave. Pointing at the barrel, he showed me "Mami and Papi": two enormous spiky rocks along the line of the breaking wave that appear out of nowhere and have been known to split boards and surfers alike.

At the sight of Papi, I said "You go ahead", sitting on my board in the safe zone to the left of the wave. An hour later, I hadn't attempted a single wave. Shamefaced, I paddled back to shore.

For the next few days, I enjoyed unchallenging surf at the sandy-bottomed Virage beach. But by my penultimate day, I realised I hadn't so much as paddled into the wave I had come to try.

"You can't go home without at least one more go," Jesper said, as we watched Mour pull off an effortless trick on the speeding water from the clifftop. Once out on dry land, Mour agreed, and persuaded me to meet him early the next day for one final attempt.

The waves were bigger than the first day I'd tried, but, with the sun out, the right looked less menacing. I paddled back to the safe spot. Turning my board to face the mainland, I paddled furiously as the wave jacked up behind me and forced me downwards. For a second, I thought I was heading for a spiky end on Mami and Papi, but moved ahead just in time. The wave I rode was one of the smallest that day, but I was finally standing on it. And in the great tradition of surf tales, that night at dinner I finally had my own Ngor story to exaggerate to my heart's content.

Travel essentials Senegal

Getting there

*The usual approach to Dakar is via Paris on Air France (0871 663 3777; The writer flew from Heathrow via Nairobi with Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818; Other carriers include Royal Air Maroc (020 7307 5800; royalair via Casablanca; Ethiopian Airlines (020-8745 4236; via Addis Ababa.

Package trips

*The writer travelled with Xoxxi Surf (001 928 227 3002; xoxxi A week in a twin or double room at Surf Camp N'Gor costs US$340 (£227). This includes breakfast and one cooked meal daily, return airport transfers, transfer to daily surf and surf guiding.

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Suggested Topics
Club legend Paul Scholes is scared United could disappear into 'the wilderness'
A model of a Neanderthal man on display at the National Museum of Prehistory in Dordogne, France
Dawkins: 'There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it's statistically too improbable'
newsThat's Richard Dawkins on babies with Down Syndrome
Arts and Entertainment
Eye of the beholder? 'Concrete lasagne' Preston bus station
architectureWhich monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Dinosaurs Unleashed at the Eden Project
Arts and Entertainment
Life and Style
This month marks the 20th anniversary of the first online sale
techDespite a host of other online auction sites and fierce competition from Amazon, eBay is still the most popular e-commerce site in the UK
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Oracle 11g SQL 2008 DBA (Unix, Oracle RAC, Mirroring, Replicati

    £6000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Oracle 11...

    Recruitment Consultant (Graduate Trainee), Finchley Central

    £17K OTE £30K: Charter Selection: Highly successful and innovative specialist...

    SQL DBA/ C# Developer - T-SQL, C#.Net

    £45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Working with an exciting ...

    Sales and Office Administrator – Sports Media

    £23,000: Sauce Recruitment: A global leader in sports and entertainment is now...

    Day In a Page

    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape
    eBay's enduring appeal: Online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce retailer

    eBay's enduring appeal

    The online auction site is still the UK's most popular e-commerce site
    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey: ‘lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird’

    'Lack of ethnic minority and black faces on TV is weird'

    Culture Minister Ed Vaizey calls for immediate action to address the problem
    Artist Olafur Eliasson's latest large-scale works are inspired by the paintings of JMW Turner

    Magic circles: Artist Olafur Eliasson

    Eliasson's works will go alongside a new exhibition of JMW Turner at Tate Britain. He tells Jay Merrick why the paintings of his hero are ripe for reinvention
    Josephine Dickinson: 'A cochlear implant helped me to discover a new world of sound'

    Josephine Dickinson: 'How I discovered a new world of sound'

    After going deaf as a child, musician and poet Josephine Dickinson made do with a hearing aid for five decades. Then she had a cochlear implant - and everything changed
    Greggs Google fail: Was the bakery's response to its logo mishap a stroke of marketing genius?

    Greggs gives lesson in crisis management

    After a mishap with their logo, high street staple Greggs went viral this week. But, as Simon Usborne discovers, their social media response was anything but half baked
    Matthew McConaughey has been singing the praises of bumbags (shame he doesn't know how to wear one)

    Matthew McConaughey sings the praises of bumbags

    Shame he doesn't know how to wear one. Harriet Walker explains the dos and don'ts of fanny packs
    7 best quadcopters and drones

    Flying fun: 7 best quadcopters and drones

    From state of the art devices with stabilised cameras to mini gadgets that can soar around the home, we take some flying objects for a spin
    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    Joey Barton: ‘I’ve been guilty of getting a bit irate’

    The midfielder returned to the Premier League after two years last weekend. The controversial character had much to discuss after his first game back
    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    Andy Murray: I quit while I’m ahead too often

    British No 1 knows his consistency as well as his fitness needs working on as he prepares for the US Open after a ‘very, very up and down’ year
    Ferguson: In the heartlands of America, a descent into madness

    A descent into madness in America's heartlands

    David Usborne arrived in Ferguson, Missouri to be greeted by a scene more redolent of Gaza and Afghanistan
    BBC’s filming of raid at Sir Cliff’s home ‘may be result of corruption’

    BBC faces corruption allegation over its Sir Cliff police raid coverage

    Reporter’s relationship with police under scrutiny as DG is summoned by MPs to explain extensive live broadcast of swoop on singer’s home