The Sierra Leone dry season is fast drying up and we catch the very tail end, surfing south from Freetown along the western Peninsula to Banana Island.
Uniform blue waves meet mountains that rise from the coast like giant rock beasts. Serra Lyoa means Lion Mountains in Portuguese, the dominant language of early European exploration of West Africa. Fast-paced football games pit and pattern the beach. Wide open creeks dotted with bright working fishing boats cut through the coast, forming long, easy-to-ride right-and-left sandbars.
There is a constant sound of cicadas, and on the weekends infectious guitar-based music pours out from Krio wooden board houses. This lyrical celebration of life is perhaps best captured in Freetown’s music heroes Ansumana Bangura, Suleiman Rogie and Abdul Tee-Jay, who gained global recognition in the 1970s for fusing Sierra Leone’s drumming templates and traditional songs of bravery and romance with Afrobeat guitars and calypso styles.
They called it ‘palm-wine’ music, then ‘Milo-jazz’ after the empty Milo cans filled with stones that are used as rattles. Today the soundtrack to the dancefloors of Freetown (where there is a growing recording industry) is hip-hop and dancehall, using keyboards and digital mixers. But beach parties still blast out the palm-wine hits known as ‘oldies’.
Recently the Sierra Leone Refugee All Stars have put the nation’s rich musical heritage and innovations back on the map, blending call-and-response, palm-wine and reggae, packing out concert venues across the globe. These are once-exiled men whose joyful beat was born in unimaginable turmoil during the civil war in refugee camps in Guinea. Intricate, soaring patterns were practiced on donated electric guitars, ringing out over a peppering of hand percussion.
The spoken Krio is equally lyrical, once a phonetic trading slang for freed slaves—West Indian soldiers who fought for the British against the French between 1793 and 1815, settled, and assimilated into the local cultures—Europeans and merchants. Now it’s a full-blown language full of West African idioms and phrases, such as the ubiquitous greeting:
“Aw di bohdi?” (How are you doing?).
“Di bohdi wehl” (Good, thanks!).
Local music and local lingo are great metaphors for Sierra Leone’s resurgence—strong, dynamic, driving, and lyrical.
These are things to celebrate. From travelling to areas of post-conflict Africa with John Callahan, Erwan Simon, and Emi Cataldi (surfEXPLORE), we’ve learned never to type places through the frames of their wars, or limit our expectations or understandings according to media representations—in this case accounts of the generations who abandoned farming to sieve dirt in stagnant muddy waters, bent over in aching heat, mining blood diamonds in the hope of a winner, and child soldiers high on a deadly cocktail of cocaine and gunpowder known as brown-brown.
Yet as nations reflect on the scar tissue from wars, these images can offer misrepresentations of future possibilities, often immobilizing creative change, inviting instead forms of piety and aid to places that demand instead ecological education—how to learn sustainability and self-sufficiency.
We are not here to echo the newsreels and offer pieties, but to use surfing to get under the skin of a coastline and showcase her potential, as a new facet of the emerging diamond that is a politically and ecologically stable Sierra Leone. Of course, water, electricity and available work are front-line issues for the population, but this country is ambitious and on the rise, while still cherishing its cultural mysteries, where otherworldly authorities counterbalance the powers of politicians and chiefs.
As the international airport is across the estuary from the capital of Freetown, taking the ferry is the first step in getting to the surf and is quite an adventure in itself. If exploration is the act of searching to discover new information and practices, rather than the colonial project of exploiting resources, this is the ‘exploration’ part of the trip we’ve been planning for over a year—to access the remote Turtle Islands in the south of the country.
As far as we know, we’ll be the first to surf (and document the surfing) in this archipelago, apparently a web of animist secret societies, surrounded by shallow shifting sandbars as a metaphor for its privacy.
There are nine small islands spread across 60 kilometres populated by approximately 1,000 people living in self-sufficient fishing communities, specializing in net-fishing, mat-making and weaving.
The plan is to stay with Henri Pelissier, who runs a small eco-lodge and campsite called Turtle Dream on the Turtle Island of Bakie. Henri has gained privileged access to the local community—he adopted and raised the island chief’s son Abu when his mother died during childbirth. Abu is now in his early twenties and works with Henri and a cast of other Bakie locals to cater for a potential new wave of adventure tourists.
We meet up Henri near Tombo on the mainland to explain our project in detail. He is a cool and charismatic pied-noir, with intense blue eyes and leathery lizard skin. Clean-shaven with cropped silver hair, his handshake is serious, but also heartfelt, and he speaks with direct eye contact. These are good signs for negotiation. He has big hands. This is a good sign of generosity. Henri clearly knows the sea intimately as a sailor, fisherman and diver.
I cannot help but think of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, where the old fisherman ‘always thought of the sea as la mar which is what people call her in Spanish when they love her…as feminine and as something that gave or withheld great favours, and if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.’ Many surfers, sailors, fishermen and divers have always loved the sea this way—not as something to be conquered, but as a greater presence to be respected, but loved. These people slip into the sea as readily as they walk on land, loving nothing better than to attune to the sea’s moods.
Henri wells up with excitement about our plans to explore the surf, explaining that a French pilot friend had confirmed how good the waves are throughout the Turtle Islands, but had never ridden them.
In fact, no one has ridden them to our knowledge. We thrive on this notion of surfing the clean slate. It’s not a conquering thing, but a traveller’s—or better explorer’s—delight. We want to set off directly to the Turtle Islands with Henri, but through a longer-term email exchange we have already committed to hire a boat from ‘Greg the Greek’ on Banana Island. Henri sets off from Tombo to Bakie to prepare the camp, while we head to Banana to honour our booking with Greg (having now heard from a few sources that he’s ‘a slippery character’).
We can handle a few banana skins—it’s part of travel, and we’ve been in touch with Greg for months to plan this portion of the trip. There are apparently no supplies on the Turtle Islands, so it has taken some heavy persuasion from Erwan to convince him that we need the boat for a whole week, not only to access the islands, but also explore the surf around Bakie, Bumpetuk, Chepo, Hoong, Mut, Nyangei, Sei, Yele, and Sherbro. This will require a lot of fuel, plenty of water, a lot of time, and even more patience. And we soon learn that a Krio proverb says: the hawk’s medicine is patience (patience is rewarded).
But we cannot be too patient. Any day the empty sky will cast of a million upturned buckets as the rainy season packs the coast with a blue-grey sponge, wringing out regularly over three months. But this is also the surf season. The transition between dry and wet season presents the best opportunity for decent waves, but also a unique light, and we want images that show off Sierra Leone’s magical wear.
It’s 7am, humid, and I’m already stained in sweat. It feels like the rainy season’s curtain raiser, bringing an irritable itch, a tangible impatience, plants, animals and bodies getting ready to say farewell to sunshine. The mosquitoes bite with fervour and desire. Greg adds to the irritation—he’s tall, hairy and permanently agitated.
The coming five hours sea crossing to the Turtle Islands in a twenty-feet-long narrow wooden boat, painted a garish orange, with an outboard motor, will strip the sweat. But we are still begging Greg to allow us to take enough supplies for a week. He hopes we’ll be back in three days. But we know the swell isn’t forecast to peak for five days.
We try to explain this again, but Greg refuses to engage with flexibility or improvisation (key assets in surf travel) and claims that we are criticizing his organizational skills. We have already fallen out, but thankfully have use of the boat, a week’s worth of water, and hopefully enough fuel. Henri will provide food, cooking and tents.
Greg, still flustered, introduces us to Captain Moses, cool in comparison. He’s rake thin with a broad rimmed sunhat and a fine pair of high-cut Patagonia shorts that have hipster credentials.
“Where are you from Moses?”
“I’m a son of dis soil,” he says, pointing to Banana Island as John, Erwan and Emi introduce themselves in turn.
“We leave now?”
“Yes. De timing be crucial. We not wanna get caught on dem shallow sandbars by dem islands.”
We heave the boat in slow bursts down the beach and quickly load the kit. We say a frosty farewell to Greg. Captain Moses starts the outboard. There is a reassuring smell of diesel and saltwater.
Going right at River Number 2 in perfect morning conditions.Banana Islands, Sierra LeoneIt’s no surprise that Moses has a large mayonnaise jar filled with palm-wine, or “bush kerosene” as he calls it in Krio. But we are shocked when he tops it up from a five litres jerry can.
Moses laughs, and we can only champion his pouring technique, resting the mayonnaise jar on the side of the boat, steering through a medium swell with side chop, and not spilling a single drop. Moses then pulls a pre-rolled marijuana joint (legal here) from his shirt pocket, shields himself in a rain jacket, and lights up with a smooth, well-practiced arc from pocket to lips, snapping the lighter and inhaling heavily.
There is a sweet scent, then a tobacco haze. The first coils of smoke are blown from his nostrils, and dispersed by the wind. And so the pattern continues: palm-wine, joint, palm-wine, the occasional glance at the compass setting embedded in a piece of polystyrene. Moses’ eyes become increasingly bloodshot, but his bearing is straight, and we keep the faith. Paradoxically, the ritual seems to give him focus.
Now we are soaked through, far out in open swell. Emi, Erwan, John and I are huddled across two plank boards, our luggage mountain covered by a tarpaulin digging into my back. Every muscle is constantly tensed to keep balance, producing a drumming in the forehead not unlike the warning signs of a migraine. The sky is a uniform grey, but I’m still getting burned, and lash on the suncream. If we do capsize, at least we have surfboards and there are large trawlers in sight.
“I used to be a fisherman,” says Moses.
“Why did you stop?”
“Osh ya. See those Korean trawlers on de horizon. Dey vex us. Illegal work. Dey cut our nets. I had to get into tourism to make a living. I seldom fish now.”
This is an issue that needs to be confronted. Sierra Leone is a country of 30,000 small-scale fishermen, and 80% of the nation’s protein comes from fish.
As the ride gets bumpier, we joke about what we will salvage: everybody agrees it has to be the money. Sierra Leone is a cash-only country, so (thanks to sponsorship from a brilliant new travel medical insurance company Battleface) we’ve got the entire trip budget stashed on board to pay for boats, food, water, lodging, and hire of a four wheel drive back on the mainland.
We recall the money exchange story from one week ago outside Lungi airport. In the safe hands of our driver Bayoh, we gathered a small crew of street changers (so-called ‘dollar boys’). Their bank vaults were well-used rucksacks. They wore smart shoes and sported English Premiership football shirts.
It ran smoothly in the back of Bayoh’s four-wheel-drive, and took about an hour to count and recount. This was long enough for both a wedding procession and a funeral procession to pass by, framing our deal perfectly. 500,000 Leones is $100.
We are now working in ‘wads’ and ‘piles’. One ‘wad’ is fifty ‘10,000’ notes. One ‘pile’ is five ‘wads’. Confused? We have a ‘pile’ of ‘wads’ each, and joke about being gangsters holed up in Turtle Islands with a stash of hot cash, and nowhere to spend it!
Illegal sand mining is rampant in many places along the coast of Sierra Leone, used for making concrete to fuel the building boom in Freetown. Fortunately, if there is one thing this country has in abundance it’s sand, and lots of it.
After four hours (60 kilometres from Banana) the first of the Turtle Islands comes into view. But we’re too far away to see much detail.
“Hoong island,” says Moses. “Dis here secret society island for di men,” he adds.
“Can we visit?”
“No. You cannot go there,” his tone suddenly deadly serious. “No outsiders allowed. Even when di local women pass dey don’t look at the sand. Dey cover di eyes so not offend spirits. Dey never cast eyes on the island. Dey have own island for initiation,” and Moses points further southeast.
There is a drawn-out sandbar that provides only an inch or two of water. We commend Captain Moses for his navigation skills, despite his penchant for palm-wine and joints, a combination that again seems to have focused his attention.
We corner Mut island close to a village, the locals recognising the garish orange boat. Just last month Moses took it for a test run from Banana to Turtle. This is only the second trip. Tourism and the Turtle Islands are not yet bedmates (and there rests the allure for surfEXPLORE). There are a series of wooden dugout canoes along the shore. Behind are towering palms and clusters of mud-and-wood thatched huts. Each island has a couple of football teams, a mosque (Sierra Leone is a predominantly Muslim country), mangrove and a freshwater lake (inhabited by crocodiles as the islands were once connected to the mainland).
Finally the eco-lodge comes into view on Bakie, close to the water in a cleared swathe of mangrove, with open sides, a thatched roof dinning area, a long hardwood table and a working kitchen behind. There are two large blue-grey dome tents, an open-roofed shower and toilet area, and a wood hut.
We beach, jump out and greet Henri, Abu, Musa and Ezekiel with the ubiquitous handshake-to-hand-on-heart gesture. In contrast to the claustrophobia of Banana, this feels open and limitless, the sky and sea stretching out in all directions.
The newly planted baby coconuts and frangipanis will grow fast, and they plan to replace the tents with small bungalows. Looking at the quality of the current set up, you can trust this will be done in style.
There is no phone coverage, and apparently just one bar on one island one hour away. This is a welcome surprise. There is a generator for electricity, and Henri has prepared a fish lunch. It’s delicious, rivaling any first class eco-lodge in the world.
We unpack and enthusiastically inspect Henri’s weathered sea chart and Emi’s GPS maps on his iPad covering the surf spots we plan to check. We agree to start on the northwest tip of Yele island, perhaps an hour by boat. After a five-hours crossing, a jerry can of palm-wine, at least ten joints and twenty cigarettes, Moses has finally crashed and Abu agrees pilot. A stalwart Manchester United fan, Abu sports the latest shirt and has the swagger and stature of a young footballing talent. He was born on this island of Bakie (at the main village in the southeast).
Henri (Abu’s adopted father) is clearly a welcome member of this local community and manages the contribution of small-scale tourism to the locals very wisely. But clearly a stern approach is demanded. Moses has woken up, half-baked and questioning why Abu is captaining the boat:
“You vex me I give you problem,” demands Henri. Abu and Henri are now in charge, and Moses needs to sleep off his palm-wine induced coma.
We motor around to Yele and beach the boat on the north side, then walk to the swell exposed south. The wind is southwest, due onshore, but forecast to switch northwest overnight. Most of the sandbars are vast and shallow, crumbling the swell, but further down the island a long right looks promising.
We decide to return, and the next morning the rainy season has been put on hold as the sea and sky merge into a wild blue. Long neat rights spin off, empty and about to be inscribed.
From the natural sounds of moving water, snapping lips and exhausted waves laid to rest on the tideline, Emi and Erwan are the first to bring the language of surfing, milking the sets. The waves are small, but elastic and playful. On the wave of the session Emi arcs out of a bottom turn, carves under the lip and performs a fiery and cool sequence of manouevres for fifty metres along the sandbar.
Later, sunbaked and dehydrated, on the inside we let Abu try, and he rises to his feet on the third attempt before getting squashed in the shorebreak, concluding that he’ll stick with his position as striker in the local football team.
Our main goal in traveling to Sierra Leone was to make it to the Turtle Islands, a group of traditional and isolated islands in the south of the country. It was a lot of work, but when we found this righthand sandbar setup, it was all worth it.
The surfEXPLORE team, roaming around the Turtle Islands looking for waves. With no cars or roads, transportation is by boat or on foot. The islands are entirely sand, there are no rocks or reefs of any kind, anywhere.
We quickly set up a rhythm of dawn surfs at Yele, lunches at the camp and afternoon exploration of spots marked on the GPS.There are numerous rideable waves, including a break behind the camp on Bakie. Sandbars will shift with seasons and swell, and on this occasion we fail to find a better set-up than Yele. Moses, now sober, and Abu alternate the captaincy. Both are expert sailors, and provide accurate weather forecasts each morning.
Depending on the wind direction, the days are either clear-blue or off-white with saturated clouds threatening rain. Atomic cumulonimbus skies rise from the mainland and at night in the distance the sky is split open with lighting. At dawn fishermen work alone in dugout canoes, then by midday in groups casting nets across the shore in synch with the tide. The marine and bird life considerably outnumbers the human.
In just one afternoon I spot black kites and flocks of terns, storks, colonies of pelicans, kingfishers, barracudas, tarpon and eagles. The surf remains small, but we recall that Krio proverb: the hawk’s medicine is patience. Taking a shortcut while looking for crocodiles and bargaining for one of the beautifully decorated local canoe paddles. There’s a surprising amount of fresh water in the Turtle Islands, with resident crocodiles on several islands feeding on fish and prolific birdlife.Bonthe, Sierra LeoneLocal boy in a village in the Turtle Islands, where the islanders lead a traditional lifestyle with few visitors or modern conveniences.
We need to check a forecast to confirm the arrival of the swell. There is apparently a phone signal on Sei island. We beach the boat and Henri greets old friends who wear striking patterned headscarves. You can see how Henri’s relationship with these communities invigorates him.
But there is an art to communication here. Henri has to pay the chief and the harbourmaster a small tax. Goodwill encounters often have an argumentative edge. Henri knows that small-scale tourism is key to the financial survival of these remote communities. Host/guest relationships are paramount.
Thankfully the argument morphs into laughter, and Henri turns to magic tricks with the harbourmaster to entertain the kids, suggesting that the harbourmaster tries to catch the Leone note as he drops it from his hand. The breeze takes it each time, and the local kids shout “Juju. Juju. Juju.”
“Why did you fall in love with this place?” I ask Henri, the laughter now settled.
“Di people. Dey are not jealous. Dey share.”
“Surely tourism developers from the mainland want a piece of this place?”
“But dey no accept strangers here. Tourism only work here if di locals are involved.” I agree.
The locals are proud of their archipelago, but equally passionate about their football team. A great way to engage with the island chiefs is ask what team they follow. Poker faced replies ensue, showing the gravity of allegiances: Liverpool, Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Real Madrid and Barcelona are the favourites. Henri, of course, has the art of communication wired, and there is much to learn from his approach. But communication with the outside world is a different challenge.
We walk to the middle of the island. This is the central business district. There is one bar of cell phone signal next to the palm-oil tree in an open swathe where the families harvest grasses to thatch their roofs.
But there is no shade over the square metre patch of phone signal, and you have to hold the wireless dongle high in the sky to get a signal. Erwan and I alternate between holding the dongle, while Emi and John attempt to log-in on the ipad under the shade. With just one bar of signal it takes one hour to upload a reliable forecast page: the long period swell is set to arrive on the weekend. We now have our eyes on the prey.
It’s John’s birthday, and as a surprise Henri has arranged for some local musicians to perform. They have one large dun-dun drum, a weathered box drum, three worn cooking points, a whistle and a rattle.
They begin to drum the pots with their fingers, negotiating rhythms through the briefest of eye contact. Suddenly, the large dun-dun drum is hit in cadence through flexible wrists. The box drum follows with a completely different pitch, while the cooking pot drummers pick up the tempo, hard with the hands, creating a cross-current of rhythms.
When the drumming styles meld this establishes an infectious rhythm, gradually growing hotter. The men with the whistle and the rattle punctuate with sounds that again pick up the pace. The drumming is now like a storm, at once invigorating and teasing, but also sharp and unforgiving like needles of rain stitched into the skin in patterns. We all hoot and lock into the polyrhythms.
Fired up on the music, we meet the peaking swell, hawk-eyed. Long overhead rights beat the sandbar like the drummers, air pockets swelling the whitewater and showering us in saltspray on floaters.
We make rhythmical tracks across the water, wind stripping foam from the lip as we bend the cutbacks to fit the curve in the wave, and then snap back as the wave collapses and we kick out in an arc that allows us to snatch the board in mid-air in direct call-and–response to the wave’s collapse, land with grace and paddle out with a gaze already anticipating the coming set wave, pumped up but not inflated. Every surfer knows this song line: chorus, solo, chorus and coda, with good drumming at its heart and grace in the glide.
Abu has one more surf lesson, the bug now threatening contagion! His story is worth sharing as we soon learn.
Henri explains how the late 1980s saw the emergence of Sierra Leone tourism, mostly with French clients, celebrating what they claimed to be the best beaches in West Africa. Henri was working for the Africana Hotel in Tokeh on the mainland, taking people on fishing trips in his speedboat. Determined to explore the entire region, Henri sailed a canoe to the Turtle Islands with a local friend, spending a whole day at sea.
At sunset the first island that came into sight was the sacred society island of Hoong. His friend wanted to continue to the next island, but Henri demanded they stop at Hoong. Twenty metres offshore Henri dived in, while his friend was adamant it was a bad idea to offend his dead ancestors. As Henri walked up the shore onto the sacred island, the chief walked down, followed by a group of men, looking angry.
The chief was hostile and considerably taller than Henri. But Henri smiled confidently and presented a handshake to the chief. Shocked, the chief clasped Henri’s hand, even more shocked at its size and his strong grip. The chief hesitated, looked Henri in the eye, turned back and said, “It’s OK, dis guy is one of our tribe now.”
Through sheer audacity Henri had struck bulls-eye with the community. Henri slept that night on the island, while his friend stayed in the canoe, still frightened to enter the sacred sand and therefore offend the otherworld.
The next morning they canoed to Bakie, where Henri befriended another chief. He gained legendary status for his apparent acceptance onto the secret society island and into its inner sanctum. Now captivated by the archipelago, days later he returned in his speed boat, and asked all the island chiefs if they would allow him to bring small groups of tourists over for fishing expeditions. He would pay. They agreed.
He managed the situation eloquently, always devoting time to the locals, and spreading any financial benefits in the approved manner. Henri Tomorrow he was nicknamed as he’d shout “tomorrow, tomorrow” to every island chief that requested a visit as he passed by in the speedboat.
One particular morning in 1991 Henri arrived at Bakie with three guests. But the mood was somber.
The chief’s wife had died early that morning during childbirth.
“Henri. We have big problem,” said the chief. “No another women give breast. Take Abu. He is yours now to raise.” Without a choice, Henri took Abu, and that same morning cancelled the fishing trip and motored back to Tokeh where his Freetown girlfriend agreed to help raise Abu.
In return, Henri was allowed to build a small guesthouse on Bakie, convinced he could make enough through tourism to help the community, and perhaps Abu could run the business in the future.
Then the civil war broke out, the guesthouse was destroyed, and through a series of misadventures and near-death experiences, that in the telling cause Henri’s eyes to well with tears, Abu and Henri survived by the skin of their teeth. They dodged the conflict, in-and-out of Sierra Leone, France and Guinea, returning to the Turtle Islands in a lull in conflict, where Abu was now old enough to be initiated into the secret society on Hoong.
Thankfully in the last few years tourism has re-emerged as a full-time possibility. With a small investment from a German partner, Martin Brehm, Abu and Henri (and Musa and Ezekiel) started building Turtle Dream in November 2013. I now have a clear sense that this is only possible under the leadership of Henri and Abu, and their particular relationships with the guilds of chiefs, harbourmasters and secret societies.
Erwan cutting back before the hollow inside section at the sandbar right and a new dugout canoe. The wood comes from the mainland, but the ancient craft of canoe building is actively practised in the Turtle Islands.
We’ve run out of gas and water, with only enough diesel to get back to the mainland.
We plan to travel in Henri’s larger boat to Tombo, motoring in convoy with Moses, then parting company close to Banana Island. We help to pack up the tents, loading our kit onto Henri’s boat with Musa, Abu and Ezekiel, who will head back to the mainland as well. Henri is keen to let us visit the secret society island on the way. We’ve apparently been good guests, and Henri wants to provide a unique cultural tourism experience. But Moses isn’t happy.
“I don’t come,” he demands. “It bring me bad luck.” Clearly Banana Islanders are not welcome. So we say farewell to Captain Moses, and let him embark on the crossing home with his fresh jerry can of palm-wine for company.
Abu has to get off the boat first at Hoong and ask the chief if we can visit. As Henri forecast, we’re welcome. But Abu explains that we have to remove shoes, jewellery and watches before setting foot on the sand. We happily conform. There is a cluster of seven huts, a few canoes and a dense bush behind. Fish smoking and bread baking are on display.
The rest is a mystery we’ll never witness, but just being on the island is a unique experience. Abu explains how a group of elders oversee the three days’ long initiation of boys aged six or seven. He shows me scars on his arms and chest from his time here.
“It’s medicine from di bush and protection from di snakes.” I tell Abu about my recent snake bite experience from an adder (the viper family) in Cornwall where I live in the UK. It’s about the only poisonous animal in our area, but while clearing behind a garden shed, the snake bit me clean on the wrist. The poison was so direct that I went into an immediate delirium, as if communing with the snake.
My wife Sandy drove me to the local hospital as the poison worked its way up my arm. At one point I had a single heartbeat that was so intense (either the poison or adrenaline) that I was sure such a bite could kill a small animal. Thankfully I was fine, no anti venom was required, and within a few days my arm and hand were back to normal.
A Sierra Leonean snake bit would be more serious. Abu agrees, and our conversation switches back to football, a bug that bit us both at youth. I decide to test his loyalties.
“Where’s more sacred,” I ask, “this island or Old Trafford (home of Manchester United)?”
“Old Trafford,” says Abu without blinking. While surfing eclipsed my passion for Liverpool football team long ago, I acknowledge the heartfelt role that sport teams play to fans around the globe.
Five hours later, on our last drop of diesel, we arrive at Mama Beach, near Tombo, where we meet up with our driver Bayoh.
Henri and crew will head back out to Turtle in one week’s time to continue developing the site through the rainy season, hoping to cater for enough visitors in the next dry season to generate some revenue. We vouch to help market the place, and will now spend our last week surfing along the western peninsula.
One of the most exciting things happening along the 400 kilometres mainland coast is the development of the Bureh Beach Surf Club in front of a racy, consistent left beachbreak.
“Di waves dem go mak u feel fine” is the club motto, perhaps a future Krio proverb. The club was started with the help of an Irish surfer Shane O’Connor, a donation of boards and equipment from surf-report website Magic Seaweed, and funding from German NGO, Welt Hunger Helfe.
Like Turtle Dream, this is positive eco-tourism in action because the place is growing slowly and humbly with the local community at the helm. There is a clubhouse, kitchen café and camp pitch. Surf lessons are in place, and soon there will be accommodation. Perhaps lifeguarding will follow, especially for the busloads travelling to the coast for beach parties.
Like neighboring Liberia, Sierra Leone is developing a proud local surf culture, and beginning to attract surf travellers. We donate a surfboard to the club, which is soon to host an ISA (International Surfing Association) sanctioned event.
As we explore the spots to the north, our driver Bayoh describes surfing as “skiing in de swells” and proudly claims we are “working for de ministry of tourism.” A few Freetown aid workers surf at breaks such as Aberdeen, Sussex, River Number Two and Bureh on the weekend, but in the week we see no other surfers outside of Bureh.
The highlight of the western peninsula is Cockle Point on the south side of River Number Two. There is a new guesthouse complex of cottages shaded by shrubby mangoes. At dawn we cross the shallow river by boat and walk out to a sand-bottom right that peaks, bowls and spins for twenty metres. The backdrop is just as spectacular: a dense mangrove, red-flowered locust beans, then hills of ironwood and the occasional towering cotton tree.
Sierra Leone is a vibrant country that welcomes visitors, now well into recovery from a devastating civil war that ended more than a decade ago and wiped out the tourism industry.
We spend the rest of the trip based here, amongst the colonies of butterflies and bee hives, surfing dawn patrols before exploring the likes of Black Johnson and John Obey in the afternoon, then eating snapper, rice and palaver sauce (onions, chilies and stock cubes).
We meet some Austrian academics studying mining communities in Lunsar and Marampa, who explain that the nation has huge resources: iron ore, rutile (used in toothpaste, sun cream and paint), titanium ore, bauxite, zircon, uranium, timber and of course diamonds. But as the popular President Ernest Bai Koroma recently confirmed: “the future of the country is in agriculture because even minerals will pass away”.
Tourism is also on the government agenda. The Austrian academics head off to deliver some lectures in Fourah Bay College, Freetown, reminding us that this was sub Saharan Africa’s first University, with degrees validated by Durham from the late 1800s. Freetown became known as the Athens of West Africa. A whole generation lost the opportunity for education during the war, but today Fourah Bay is full of enthusiastic students determined to make the most of their studies.
The members of the Bureh Beach Surf Club receive a new board from the Bic factory in Brittany, France. The BBSC are a stoked crew of local West African surfers who offer food, drink, accommodations and good times at Bureh Beach. They welcome all visiting surfers to Sierra Leone, visit their site at http://burehbeachsurf.com and follow them on facebook!
Finally we head north on new paved roads to Freetown, the vibrant capital hemmed in by steep hills and streams of traffic.
Ragged poda poda mini taxis rule the streets, blasting the latest hits from booming speakers. The old Krio clapboard houses are coloured russet red and black. Hair salons are crammed full, selling wigs and performing intricate cuts. Loudhailers encourage tax payment, while musicians satirically wear their tax bills and sing about lack of water and light.
A recent success story is nearby: Africa Felix Juice, exporting a mango juice concentrate and the country’s first value added export since the war. There is a neighbourhood of tailors working in the smallest of spaces, and next-door a street of tie-dying experts using mahogany, acacia and kola nut to produce vivid prints. A collective of tailors, spearheaded by the company NearFar have been selling their designs at the London fashion outlet Anthropologie, firmly putting Sierra Leone style on the radar.
This is a city to be celebrated, and I recall why Henri fell in love with this country—because the people are not jealous. They share. Sierra Leone is already a bright flame of West African tourism, but it needs more oxygen to keep the fire alight.
A rough section of road through the forest in West Africa and crossing the river by boat, never a dull moment with the surfEXPLORE group!
Story: ® Sam Bleakley Images: ® John Seaton Callahan