Many shy away from West Africa due to its recent erosion from Ebola and Boko Haram. But what most don’t know is that Senegal is one of the most stable countries in the region sporting a huge heart and world class waves.
1. Chase the Endless Summer dream
If you were born post the 1960s and happen to be a surfer, chances are you’ve dreamt of packing your boards, saying adios to the 9–5 life and following the paths of Robert August and his friends.
One balmy evening in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, Robert August had told us about their young and reckless adventures in Senegal, Africa. Only one concrete hotel towered from amidst the huts and fishing nets of the NGor fishing village in Dakar. But it worked more than fine. NGor right break was only a paddle away and it was firing.
This vision of surfing in Africa stayed with me until I found my self paddling out exactly in their footsteps. The break receives the north swell head on making the wave is strong and powerful. Drops can be fun with enough wave face to play with. The reef gets sketchy at low tide with rocks famously named ‘papi’ and ‘mami’ exposing themselves exactly where you’re about to take off. Local surfers sport their scars from these two infamous rocks while also mentioning how their grandfathers still recall August and his buddies rip it up back in the day.
2. World class breaks that pick up both the north and south swells
Due to its location on the Cap-Vert peninsula, the Dakar area is exposed to both the southern and northern swells, so its pretty safe to say you will get some swell, big or small 365 days of the year. When N’Gor Right is pumping you probably will not venture far. Your safest bet is to shack up at the Ngor Island Surf Camp so you can roll off the bed, straight into the waves. The crashing waves you hear from your bed is enough of a sign to tell you what kind of session you are in for. But when the swell is low and the wind is playing a bad date, you’ll want to head to the other side and see if you can pick up some of the south swell.
The southern coast of Dakar, Les Almadies is spotted with numerous reef breaks and consistent offshore conditions. Le Vivier, Club Med and Secret all pick up the southern swell. Vivier has a left that works in high tide but can get dangerous in low tide. If you’re trying to up your barrel count, this is a good spot. Club Med is gnarly, reefy break that is difficult to access. This fast powerful wave breaks close to shore and has almost no bottom in low tide. Secret, sandwiched between Le Vivier and Club Med is probably most popular spot with front row seats to the action in the water. Slightly less intimidating, it offers up a fast right and left.
The ‘Secret’ leaked a while ago and today it is a busy break and hangout spot for locals, expats and visitors alike.
And what of the most famous and gnarly break of Senegal — Ouakam? My Senegalese friend Thibaut de Longeville who grew up on these breaks jokingly calls it the “Pipeline of West Africa”. This spot works mostly in winter when the South coast picks up a considerate swell. Towering cliffs and a skyscraper mosque on the beach will give you grand company as you tuck into powerful barreling A frames.
3. Did anyone say empty line ups?
Although the breaks facing the southern coast on the mainland can tend to get crowded with locals, expats and their kids, Ngor island is a boat ride away from the city and typically sees less people on the line up. If you hit dawn patrol, you are likely to be amidst the 3–5 surfers. There’s something incredible about the unspoken camaraderie that’s often felt when there are a few people in the line up.
While most of these beaches are plotted on the Windgurus and Magic Seaweeds of the world, our local surf guides from Ngor Island Surf Camp are still discovering new breaks. During our visit, when the North swell hit Ngor at double overhead, we packed into a van and headed south to a tiny fishing village in the middle of nowhere. Shoulder high sets, empty line ups and strong offshore winds greeted us as we rolled on to the beach break, while the locals went about their business.
Village children found us amusing and hung out with us in between sessions, curiously watching our moves in the ocean. Not many had seen a surfboard before.
4. Embrace reef breaks
Most breaks in Senegal are reef breaks. The local surfers talk about how different the NGor right was back when Robert August and his mates hit it. They tell us there are a lot more rocks today than before. You’d think its mother nature doing her thing. But it’s not. Over the years, N’gor has seen its share of new houses come up, all of which required sand to be built. A lot of the sand was taken from the beach and unwanted building rocks dumped back instead leaving behind a more exposed beach.
These days you have to negotiate rocks, reef and sea urchins as part of your session. I hadn’t thought about it when planning the trip, but on hindsight it certainly pushed me outside my comfort zone, taught me some lessons and grew me as a surfer. Wear those booties, you’ll thank yourself later. Don’t take out your favorite board, you may come back with dinks. Instead experiment with a different board. And locate the menacing rocks, making sure to navigate around them.
5. Trouble free in West Africa?
Where there is ocean, surfers will go. But the last few years have seen terror storm into West Africa, causing many to shy away. It has taken the form of Ebola in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia and Boko Haram and other militant groups in Nigeria, Niger and Cameroon. What many don’t know is that Senegal is one of the most stable, trouble-free and forward thinking countries of West Africa.
Dakar is a bustling city with immigrants from Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania living in harmony with the friendly, big-hearted Senegalese people and a small fraction of expats. People here speak in Wolof, the local language along with French and some English.
The fishing villages of Senegal may not have much but are rich in simple happiness with loads to share.
6. Catch of the day
Low key beach fish shacks stand proudly alongside the odd high-end restaurant. What to eat? Fish. Fish. Fish. The shacks sell the best brochette lotte, local monkfish kebabs that will give any restaurant a run for their money.
There’s another local favorite that you should get your hands on, Senegalese pastels are samosa-like, with the onion relish and you never seem to have enough of it. Do not return home without tasting the infamous cafe touba. This native concoction of cafe and pepper is sure to get you revved up and ready for the waves.
7. Sounds of Africa
When the heat and dust settles down for the day, Dakar turns into a melting pot of music. African beats blend with reggae, jazz and blues, turning venues and rooftops into explorations of sound that make you sway from within.
Sounds from Senegalese and Malinese artists like Youssou N’Dour, Dieuf Dieul, Ali Farka, Sali Sidibe and Mariama Kouyate play from every car, bus and rooftop. Dakar awakens most in the late night clubs such as Thiossane, where artists come together to perform and jam, making the soul of mama Africa come alive.