Wild waves in West Africa

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

Saturday 20 March 2010 01:00

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; airfrance.co.uk). The writer flew from Heathrow via Nairobi with Kenya Airways (020-8283 1818;

kenya-airways.com). Other carriers include Royal Air Maroc (020 7307 5800; royalair maroc.com) via Casablanca; Ethiopian Airlines (020-8745 4236; ethiopianairlines.com) via Addis Ababa.

Package trips

*The writer travelled with Xoxxi Surf (001 928 227 3002; xoxxi surf.com). 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.

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