One Step Beyond in Gabon

An epic tale of determination, grit, and adventure as the surfEXPLORE team once more seek unridden, empty waves—this time in the most remote and inaccessible National Park in Africa.

West Africa’s giant umbrella of forest canopy shade runs out to a rim on the Atlantic Ocean, where the restless body of water exhausts itself along hundreds of empty pointbreaks.

But the first forest you have to encounter is the tangle of bureaucracy you have to hack through before obtaining visas. The fire in your belly for travel can be reduced in an instant to cold embers through such bureaucracy. After months of carefully planning a trip to Gabon, John Callahan, Emi Cataldi, Erwan Simon, Randy Rarick and I eventually find a clearing where our applications see light and reason.
At long last the paperwork descends upon us like a blessing and paves our way to cement city — Libreville.

Mont-Bouet Market, Libreville

Vegetables of sale in CFA, Libreville

Woman and Child in Libreville


Gabon’s capital is an unashamedly ugly and outrageously expensive show of steel and concrete, where oil barons bargain in ostentatious glass-fronted offices. We feel something is out of kilter the moment we arrive, and, predictably, we hear the disheartening news that our contact and planned guide for the gruelling 500 miles long trip south to Mayumba has written off his four-by-four. He has also broken his arm.
The airport in Mayumba is totally defunct, so we must track down another four-by-four. Hiring one proves to be extortionate. Our spirits are temporarily crushed as we discover that finding a driver is also difficult. We do not want to hang around long in Libreville — literally ‘Freetown’ (in French). This is hardly a ‘free’ town at all. In fact it is one of the most expensive in Africa, and our resources are thin.
Our free spirits are temporarily grounded and our fires dimmed. A kind of fear sets in at this point. It is one thing to feel a dip in your spirits, but quite another to feel that you may run out of money before the trip has even begun. This is a particularly rude awakening for Erwan: he was born here, a son of the city, and is back for the first time.
Days of dead-end inquiry ensue, our money and patience now practically running on empty. Our wallets are pretty soon flapping in the wind, funds and bodies exhausted, and our hearts deflating because after several inquiries we feel we may never get to Mayumba.
Then we remember the rule of three in African travel — everything costs three times more than expected, takes three times longer, and needs three back-up plans. Optimists will say that this only serves to triple your enthusiasm.
True to the law of three, on our third day, with patience finally on empty, Erwan and Emi expertly negotiate a car and driver where the taxi brousses (bush taxis) gather outside the city. We have to resort to a series of time-gobbling hops — bush taxis, town-by-town, day-by-day, through countless military stops where every paper will be carefully scrutinised — from bureaucratic forest to clearing, the pattern repeated.
The surfEXPLORE crew crossing the equator in Estuaire Province in Gabon.
We load up a ravaged Toyota Corolla, squeeze in like sardines and head southeast, soon skirting Gabon’s stunning, wild forest, through Ntoum and Kango, where old folks smoke pipes outside wooden huts and sell bushmeat (crocodile, porcupine, chimpanzee, snake, antelope, and gorilla). Women in fabrics as bright as fruitskins, with babies strapped to their backs, haul water from wells, elegantly carrying bucketfuls on their heads. Between Nsele and Bifoum we cross the equator. Our souls turn.

Crossing the Equator, Gabon

‘Crossing the line’ was a rite of passage for every adventurer, evoked in the writing of Joseph Conrad and William Golding in particular, where sailors would be ritually re-baptised. And we are soon at Gabon’s old colonial artery: Lambarene lips the banks of the Ogooue river and became a pathway for European exploration spearheaded by Italian born, Frenchman Pierre Savorgan de Brazza.

By the 1860s, the quest for a navigable waterway into the African interior had led to mapping the Niger, the Nile and the Zambezi, but there had been remarkably little success on the equatorial Atlantic coast. In the Ogooue, De Brazza saw the desired river of the west. He optimistically connected it with Livingstone’s Lualaba, the Congo’s tail end over 1,000 miles away. But de Brazza discovered that the Ogooue petered out after just 200 miles and news arrived that Henry Morton Stanley had descended the Congo (having found missing missionary-explorer David Livingston in Zanzibar), confirming it to be the main vein from the heart of the interior.
Stanley joined King Leopold’s crusade to establish a Belgian empire, built on cruelty and exploitation of locals. In competition, the French government sent de Brazza — passionate, resilient and determined — back to his beloved Gabon to establish permanent posts and forestall Stanley’s brutal march north. For 20 years de Brazza attempted to extend a non-exploitative French colonialism throughout the region, creating schools and hospitals, and establishing a more humane government that would contrast starkly with Leopold’s bloodthirsty regime — Joseph Conrad’s infamous ‘heart of darkness’ — in neighbouring Congo.
After independence from Belgium, the burgeoning Democratic Republic of the Congo endured the continent’s first (of countless) coup d’etats. The inevitable post-colonial backlash manifested in despot Mobuta Sese Seko, running Africa’s largest country into the ground for the next three decades. While surrounded by these spectacularly rough neighbours, Gabon has experienced remarkable political stability, eased by its small population. Admittedly, the late, long-term President, Omar Bongo (recently superseded by his son) used the country’s thick flowing oil to grease the machinery of absolute authority, ruling for over four decades, as modern Africa’s longest serving leader.

And yet, despite the relative political security in Gabon, a bewildering militaristic bureaucracy lingers, manifesting in countless armed checkpoints, adding hours to the journey. They scrutinise every word in every line on every page of our passports, and then linger over the empty pages too until they get bored, or demand a bribe payment.
As we wait, wondering if we will see gorillas (knowing that they are more plentiful here than anywhere in the world), Eurico, our driver, advises that if we do have an encounter, we should, “Stand strong, look them in the eye, not flee, let them beat their chest, and wait until they lose interest.”
John perceptively observes that, “Gabonese bureaucracy is a bit like those gorillas. It beats its chest for a while, gets bored, and then it lets you go!”Dusty dry season roads of rust-red iron oxide through the forest and a local bushmeat hunter with a palm civet.

Hunter with shotgun and palm civet, to be sold as bushmeat

Dry season highway through the forest

We continue to Tranquille, into Tchad I, then Tchad II, where the road is cracked and milled from the weight of lorries laden with lengths of tropical hardwood headed for China. China reciprocates by resurfacing the roads as a new form of colonialism. Africa is the source of one-third of the world’s commodities, everything from cobalt to copper, and China is now the biggest investor. Eurico, encyclopaedic as ever, explains that, “the Chinese offer a good partnership to Gabon because they don’t tell the government how they should run the country. There’s a belief that the Chinese can realise anything. A lot of leaders like this focus on commerce over aid, and that’s why they are currently building Africa’s largest iron ore mine inland from here.”
Long after nightfall we reach Mouila, our backsides compacted like the roads themselves, spines tested to the limits. Eurico celebrates with, “the best toutou (palm wine) in Gabon.”
It tastes to our jaded plates like a mix of cider, gin and dishwater.
Over chicken and rice, we persuade him, now drunk and willing, to take us all the way to Tchibanga the following day, despite the fact that the road is unpaved. This is a minor miracle. Few Libreville taxi drivers would ever agree to go further than Mouila. But Eurico assures us he knows a good driver in Tchibanga.
We set off before dawn, and at Ndene Eurico buys kola nuts at a roadside stall, needing stimulation to compensate his hangover. A plague of tiny fourous insects feed on us, so that our skins are now fields of live wires, scratched raw. The kola hit gives Eurico a false confidence and we hit every pothole at full speed. Without AC the windows are wide open, and we are cloaked in a sienna dust, white men masking for initiation.

Erwan Simon and namesake boxed wine

Making a plan before crossing the river to Mayumba

On the ferry across the river to Mayumba


By midday we reach Tchibanga, the biggest town in the south, and spill from the vehicle, our bodies bruised to the bone. Zain, a mobile phone company, has painted the place purple and pink in a marketing scheme to promote their top-up cards. Eurico introduces us to Auguste, lounging on a battered 1988 Mitsubishi L200 dual cab. Erwan unrolls our map to show our projected route — a transect of Gabon.
Auguste laughs out aloud in celebration of the mileage we have already achieved. Fuelled by Regab, the local and ubiquitous beer that is cheaper here than water, he agrees to drive us off-road to Mayumba. We slip through the final military checkpoint in quiet celebration, to where the dust settles alongside dark forest, close to creeks, cayman, water snakes, and thickets dense enough to hide forest elephants.
Our pick-up is another kind of animal, hungry for radiator water and stinking of a rank combination of catfish and diesel.
At Mangali, we have to cross on a rickety car ferry to Mayumba. We are a stone’s throw across the Banio lagoon from Mayumba, our faces caked in dust. The car ferry, La Pigouille, is on the other side, and after waiting for an hour, once more learning the way of patience, we find that the usual tug is broken, La Pigouille’s winch faulty, and the driver of the back-up tug has not been paid and refuses to work anymore today. When the ferry does arrive, the driver simply gets out and walks to the bar, where he orders an ice-cold Regab beer (the fuel on which Gabon seems to run). The locals argue with him that he should be driving the tug. He remains adamant that he must be paid.
We have to wait, enduring yet more of our Gabonese initiation, one of deep anticipation for a marriage with rarely ridden waves. Passing the hours, Randy shares stories of that African specialty — the road trip initiation against the culture of instant gratification that we have escaped back home. We have refined sedentary lifestyles just as we have refined the bread and sugar upon which that lifestyle depends — moving from couch to occasional pizza grazing.
This has produced an epidemic of lifestyle sickness — heart problems from obesity, depression and anxiety grounded in boredom and the need for artificial stimulation. Surf travel offers a contrasting rite of passage.
“Trying to get to Mayumba may be a rough ride, but a necessary initiation because en route we have seen a whole swathe of West Africa,” concludes Randy. And this is the paradoxically drawn out spontaneity of surf travel, the deeply uncomfortable experiences, but the moments that collectively contribute to character forming.

The Mayumba ferry is a rusty barge lashed to a tugboat — drive on and hope it doesn’t sink!



Another, willing, ferry driver appears, we make it into Mayumba, a sleepy place of just a couple of thousand people, nestled among three small hills separating the lagoon from the ocean, catch a glimpse of the sea, and know the rewards will be immense. Auguste races to get the last return ferry before dark and we find Motel Mayeye Foutou.
“There’s no running water,” announces the owner, who is also the town mayor. “You can stay at another place, but it’s out of town, you don’t have a car, it’s more expensive, there’s still no running water, and it doesn’t matter anyway because I own them both.”
The mayor is wary of visitors — the last ones were contracted by the government to resurface the dilapidated airport runway. The oil companies wanted to manage the upgrade, but the government demanded that they contract the job internally. Workers came in from Libreville, stripped the topcoat of tarmac, filled pot holes in town, levelled the runway in coarse gravel, then split with all the money, failed to pay the room bill, and left a totally unusable airstrip. We will have to work hard to win over the mayor and his wife.
We check in, and check out the surf. Long, tapering, glaucous green lefts wrap around a point with three distinct sections. We skirted the forest rim, under the edge of the giant umbrella, on a transect of Gabon, only to find it re-appearing in its constituent parts right at the heart of the break at Mayumba. Massive rejects from the West African logging industry litter the beach, from first point right down to third point on the inside, where trash from Kinshasa — the Congo — washes up. As Sigmund Freud said, the repressed returns in a distorted form. Randy and myself — both riding longboards — joke about duckdiving the ‘logs’ in a very real sense.
Our bodies are baked and soiled, whitened like the spirits that play such a powerful role in West African initiations, and we finally immerse ourselves in a restorative salt bath in the white light, sets born in the Antarctic maturing under our feet and then dying with grace on the sand bars. The first section stands up like a giant shark-fin between black rocks and runs away to its destiny, baring its white teeth.
At high tide, the middle section is a long live wire, fizzing in the limewater. The inside is a series of shallow sand banks snapping at the shore. We dance until dark, regaining the lengths of our spines.

Sam Bleakley, waves in the south Atlantic ocean

Sam Bleakley, surfing in the south Atlantic ocean

Erwan, Simon, waves in the south Atlantic ocean

We check out all three restaurants in town, finally choosing one grilling fish served with rice. Trouble is, they only have two plates, and it takes three hours for all of us to eat in stages. The town’s glory days during the logging boom of the 1970s have long since passed and the communication networks have faded.
In an era of the global village, here is no Internet, no newspaper, and no running water, not even at the motel.
Mayumba is in a time warp, a few rusty Peugeots taxi-ing locals from the fishing village to the town, some shops selling not much more than green onions and sandals, with an over-abundance of bars in between. There is, however, electricity as the bars blare out infectious guitar and horn inflected soukous music. Between tracks there is talk of a bridge to the mainland so that nearby more iron ore sources can be tapped, and even building an export harbour that would surely destroy the incredible point break. The bar is the place to voice concern.
Africa travel specialist Ryszard Kapuscinski explained that, ‘An African bar is the Roman Forum, the main square in the medieval market town, Robespierre’s Parisian wine cellar. Here you are lifted onto a pedestal or tumbled with a crash to the pavement. If you delight the bar you will have a great career; if the bar laughs at you, you might as well go back to the jungle.’

Morning at the main point in Mayumba, with Erwan Simon taking the high line.



At dawn, Atlantic sea haze clings to the coast. The sun strike competes with the cool Benguela current from the south, but loses out to a pervasive green gloom, typical of the West African coast during the swell season. On his carbon railed quad fish Emi sets the pace, keeping time with expert style. Randy, 60 plus and still full-of-beans, uses both his 7’ 6” gun and 9’ 0” longboard to make sweet soul music against the racket of the unloading swell. Randy’s refined log contrasts with the lumbering off-cuts that flow down the point and pile on the beach, literally dead wood. Set waves stack up at first point and John shoots from a clearing in the jungle, unsure if a gorilla is about to ambush. He survives, and we explore by foot, to choruses of Bonjour blanc from the kids, crabs scuttling in the sand, our feet snagging in the crab holes.
We christen the first point Tam-Tams after the best bar in town (Tam-Tam Week-End Bar), where the charismatic owner, Stephanie, has a stellar collection of music — Zimbabwean jit legends Bhundu Boys, Cameroonian afro-beat pioneer Manu Dibango and the fantastic Nigerian, Fela Kuti. She also has stacks of Gabonese, Zairian and Congolese soukous — all polyrhythmic and pulsating. Soukous, from the French secousse, literally means ‘shake’. It shakes our bones as this set-up shakes up our nervous systems, worn inside out as outback a shoal of fish make a water-dart, making for nervous stares as the shark-register sets to maximum vigilance.
Another set rolls in — ghosts birthed in the Antarctic, full-bodied and raised to their peak as they unload on the equatorial coast — and our minds are diverted, back to wave faces rather than ominous underwater shadows.
The only place open for early breakfast is the Muslim eatery, Restaurant Bassie Bario, where alcohol is absent, so there are no hung-over staff. They serve an unappealing plate of omelette, studded with tinned peas, accompanied by baguettes plastered in mayonnaise. Cook Guit, crippled from polio, hobbles out with hot water, Nescafe and condensed milk. We tuck in, and he takes the order as if we were choosing from a magnificent menu, even though this is all they have, every day the same. Randy fantasises about ‘a dinner of pork chop with a demi-glaze sauce, some asparagus and a dollop of hollandaise, followed by fresh strawberries, mint and yogurt.’
Our mouths water, but the closest we can get is an apple from the Moroccan brothers who run the store in town, and they soon run out. Thankfully, being the dry season there is a trickle of stock from Libreville. But that can change dramatically with the wet season. Even when no water, gas, or supplies get through, and the cars stop running, there is still Regab. It constitutes the great mystery of Gabon. People always seem to have enough money to buy a beer, and there always seems to be enough Regab in a place where clean water is at a premium. Even a restaurant that apparently used to sell brilliant coupe coupe (chopped meat wrapped in paper) and maquis (fish brochettes) is now a bar just serving beer.

Randy Rarick, with his vast international surfing experience, had never surfed in Gabon

Emiliaon Cataldi

Sam Bleakley on the end section, halfway through the 300 meter speed run.

At high tides the second point becomes a wedging grey-green face and we score the surfaces. The mesmerising section is the inside, third point, where the chaotic wind-churned tumult of the Roaring Forties gathers into a predictable rhythm and the offshore combs the lips. If looks could kill, this would be the goofyfooter’s graveyard. As we later play back video clips of the session on a laptop, John plays Booker T and the MG’s 1962 instrumental soul hit ‘Green Onions’. It fits the wave perfectly — twelve wave sets and twelve bar blues with rippling organ lines that describe the surfer’s path. The side wash is cat-like, stealthy, stacking up on you and sneaking past on the inside leaving you flapping like a beached fish, or like those damned logs.
Booker T and the MGs were the sitting house band for the legendary Stax record label in Memphis, Tennessee, and in Mayumba, Gabon, days and weeks blur into one long blues-infected groove as we are the resident beach-band, fusing the afro-beat from the bars, and taking turns to solo on deserted lefts, lunching on tinned sardines and crusty baguettes while camped out in the cramped bush.
At night we toast Regabs and eat soft-boned river mullet, or bush meat, with rice or manioc, or maybe chicken raised on a diet of local trash. Only the shreds of green onions keep our nutrition alive, and the relentless surf at ‘Green Onions’ keeps our spirits intact.
“But what do you do at the beach all day?” asks the mayor’s wife, clearly perplexed by our daily routine and collective vocation.
“We play hide and seek with hotel room keys in the sand,” jokes Erwan, having heard the story in the bar that two tourists who recently stayed at the hotel had managed to bury their keys in the sand and then forgot where they had buried them.
But news spreads quickly of these strange blancs walking up and down the beach, dancing in the waves, surfing single file until dusk.
“And this is their work?” they question in the bar.
We soon win the favour of the mayor, his wife, and the whole town, maybe as a novelty factor. We drink more Regab beer and eat at one of the two restaurants with more than two plates. We savour the upbeat sounds ringing out the night at Tam-Tams, and start lip-synching with ardent fans the lyrics of southern Gabon’s singing celebrities, Annie-Flore Batchielillys and Oliver N’Goma.

After a week of going left exclusively, Emiliano Cataldi was smashing lips on his Gary McNeill carbon rail shape.



Then the spirits in our brains start yearning for a new dance — a new challenge. Our attention focuses further south — just 40 miles into the so-called ‘Mayumba National Park’. We study maps of a long narrow strip, a sliver of beach and coastal vegetation, separated by a brackish lagoon, and bordering with Congo. The point set-up looks remarkable. But how do we get into the Park?
In 1999, American explorer Mike Fay conducted ‘the Megatransect’ with National Geographic and the Wildlife Conservation Society, walking 2,000 miles over 14 months through equatorial West Africa. He hit the coast at Loango, Gabon, where National Geographic famously reported on the surfing hippos — an image that has now entered the popular psyche. Fay highlighted the diversity of plants, mammals and sea life in Gabon — gorillas, forest elephants, whales and turtles. President Bongo was strangely captivated, and in 2002 unexpectedly designated more than 11% of the nation’s territory as thirteen National Parks. He then advocated a slowdown of the country’s logging industry.
Fay is now employed by the government to manage and promote ecotourism in Gabon with the Wildlife Conservation Society. This operation has been a success in parks like Loango, Lopee and Pongara, where Erwan’s uncle has run a variety of eco-lodges. But Mayumba is a long way from the hubs of Libreville, Franceville and Port Gentil, and here tourism is non-existent, due to inaccessibility of the region.
Nevertheless, we are certain the National Park office will help us in our pursuit to get to the enticing looking pointbreak close to the Congo border. The Park has a glamorous, if totally outdated and inaccurate website, that gives us hope that our application will be well received. Days of phone calls ensue, and we finally hear from the Park manager. He takes us to the office on the outskirts of town, but we are soon caught up in the rusty mechanics of post-colonial African bureaucracy, now a way of life. We explain that we would like to head down the narrow coastal strip. We discover that the sand exposure is tidal and so soft that the only route is a hellish track through the vegetation — three-hours in thick bush and clinging sand. But first we need a permit from the Park conservatoire, which is extremely expensive. We cannot get a permit without a driver.
We conclude that we can only afford a day trip, and we have not got any camping equipment anyway. Access is fine on the quad-bikes the park rangers normally use, but it will be impossible for our crew and kit to fit onto two quads. Above all, the Park manager is unwilling to let us use, or hire, the quads, despite the fact that we aim to publish photographs of the Park. We need a four-by-four, but the Park vehicle is broken, waiting for a part from Libreville that could take a week, or longer, to arrive.
Mayumba has a total of five functioning four-by-fours, so lining up a vehicle proves to be a major task. We chase the leads, failing to get any enthusiasm from those in Mayumba, and stretching right back to the mainland and the bigger town of Tchibanga.
Most refuse, but those who consider agreeing soon deliver a barrage of excuses, “We heard the road was too bad…I’m sick…My girlfriend doesn’t want me to go.” Regardless, the prices quoted are ludicrous and we still need authorisation from the Park conservatoire. After hours lingering while the conservatoire examines our passports in unsettling detail — the conclusion is that when we find a driver, we have to come to the office, pay an entry fee per person, and collect a guide, and then we can enter the Park. But we can only go on a weekday. Waiting for the right swell is out of the window. Just getting to the Park is the challenge.
The whole town is soon on our side, the talk in the bars revolving around trying to help the ‘blancs get to the Park.’
But as the days go by, trapped, surfing the point, again, eating the same food, we conclude that Mayumba is the hardest National Park to access in the world. We are mired in bureaucracy and have to be patient.
This triples our determination. We’ve already learned that to get under the umbrella of Gabon, and to reach its fringe, you have to work yourself in, like a drill biting wood. Once you feel the bite, you have to develop patience and tenacity to finally screw yourself to the sticking place.

Erwan Simon


Then, as if by magic, Erwan’s relentless phonecalls to Auguste in Tchibanga pay off, and he turns up in his Mitsubishi, now so battered that the engine is held down by a thick rubber band. We already know that he has a penchant for palm wine and beer. Typically, he is nursing a heavy hangover, and his gravelly voice is only oiled on more Regab. We load up our kit. The trip is surely approaching its zenith as Erwan has donned his Australian cow leather Barmah hat, saved for special occasions.
As luck would have it, this is the only day that the surf has dropped considerably. Hitting a cranking left hand point on one blind shot is now an issue of pot-luck. But Auguste has spent hours getting here overnight from Tchibanga, we are paying him big bucks, and we have to get to that point to see the potential. The Park manager looks irritated to see us once again at the office, but we explain that we now have a wagon, we are spending the remainder of our budget on this, so we need authorisation ‘RIGHT NOW, please.’
He looks at the wagon, and is certain we will not make it through the terrain. But we are certain and the conservatoire finally delivers a form granting us authorisation to enter the Park. She has even specified our motive, ‘partie de surf’ literally translated ‘to make a surf session’. (Later we celebrate when she ‘likes’ our surfEXPLORE group page on facebook). We collect a guide, a mechanic and a helper, as finally, ten of us somehow pile into the four-by-four — five inside, five in the pick-up.
We stock up on radiator water, food, spare tyres, oil, diesel, and the whole town celebrates our achievement as we take-off. But the moment the gravel capped, disused runway ends and we enter the Park, we learn that every single driver who heard ‘that the road was too bad’ was exactly right. Deep, soft sand, and a swerving track lined by towering bush greet us. Fuelled on palm wine and Regab, Auguste is fearless, or half-blind, gunning at the foliage, with the adventure spirit of Kapuscinski at the helm. From inside the vehicle we can see no visible path, just the windscreen swiped by branches and ready to crack. As the vehicle hits the forest, it pings back not only to swot us, but to launch endless sets of bugs down our shorts, against our necks and into our hair.
I jump nervously as something big lands on my crotch, but it is just a grasshopper, and not, as I feared, a frenzied tree snake thrown into the mix.
The engine revs reach fever pitch as Auguste, in first gear, continues to head through the bush like a raging elephant. The vehicle has become a wild animal with a will of its own and we are just ghost driver and passengers, milled white from dust. The smell of a burned-out clutch mingles with sweat as we grip tight on what has gone beyond a rollercoaster ride to a ghost train. The exhaust becomes so hot that the pick-up floor is now like a griddle. Our back muscles are knotted and spines collectively rap against the steel bars over the back window.
We have to stop to push the vehicle through sand, and then we stop again to pour water onto the sizzling radiator. Each break is a welcome break as we shake insects from our shirts and loosen knitted muscles and locked limbs. The foliage gets thicker, more and more impenetrable, but Auguste continues to hack tracks as we gain traction, moving from soft sand to hard roots, cracking a stump so solid it launches two wheels off the ground, and our backsides and spines take the consequences.
There is an awful clunk and slam of brakes. The drive shaft has fallen out. But within twenty minutes, with some rudimentary tools and total self-belief, Auguste and his team have fixed it.
We burst a tyre, as expected, but another break offers a chance to collect more radiator water from the lagoon, by thick mangroves alive with ghost crabs. We keep cool, and somehow keep charging, step by step. Deep travel is often incremental.
Our Gabonese ghost ride is surely a rite of preparation for a marriage with previously unridden waves. Auguste explains to us that he has his own initiation to prepare for. He has been invited to join the Bwiti — a special society gathered to discuss social problems and to remember important ancestors, whose skulls and tibias are carefully preserved. He will receive this initiation through the spirit of the iboga plant. Chewing its vile bark produces a nightlong hallucinogenic trance where visions connect with the ancestors and animals deities.
Auguste explains that, “When you go into trance, into ecstasy, you leave the body and visit god, who is in the form of an animal body. In your trance flies cluster all over your sides, and mambas, pythons, bees and locust bite you, they bite your legs and they bite your body. It’s a foul thing. It kills you and you die. But you recover. You were just poisoned. What really ‘dies’ is not you, but your perspective. What is born is a deeper sense of life, a new perspective.”
The native Gabonese Pygmies attribute the discovery of the plant to warthogs that dig holes at the foot of the shrub to chew it, and then go into frenzy, leaping as though they too are chased by terrifying visions. Gorillas also search for these roots. Imagine coming face-to-face with a gorilla high on iboga.

Randy Rarick, surfing in Mayumba, Gabon with beach watcher

Three harsh hours, strapped into the back of the pick-up, and we miraculously make it to a clearing — a dead end, and celebrate Auguste’s sensational ghostly driving.
Perhaps his ancestors had taken over the wheel. We walk out along the point to be greeted by… knee-high surf. The set-up is outstanding, but the swell has faded to a shadow. Even if it was in the head-high range (which it would have surely been all week up to today) we only have one hour to walk over a mile along the point, surf, walk back, and get home (which takes three hours) before dark, or else we will be stranded in the park with no tents, getting ravaged by mosquitoes, harassed by gorillas tripping on iboga, and possibly trampled by an elephant, facing our own ancestors.
We paddle out to clean off the twenty-first century initiation masks of clutch fumes, oil and grease. This was the blubber of the animal assemblage we sacrificed off road, and when an animal gives its life you celebrate its spirit. Our dance to Park point was a greaseball rally that threatened to tear us limb from limb. We followed the fires in our brains and the bodies followed. We catch those one-footers reeling over a sand bar set up, washing out the journey’s dust masks. The inside point has receded through erosion, so you can weave through the dead remains of old growth tropical hardwood. It does not matter that the surf is small, or we only have twenty minutes in the water. We have already experienced spear-like waves in Mayumba.

The journey, not the surf, is the point. So we savour the experience.

Our African hosts remind us again that the journey is the destination, however rough the ride. We have made it to the most remote and inaccessible Park in Africa — one step beyond in Gabon. That the destination is the journey may be a cliché, but travel is oiled by clichés.
Now we have to make it back.

Words: Sam Bleakley / Photographs: John Seaton Callahan
A surfEXPLORE story

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