Senegal: surfers' paradise without the crowds

How do surfers say ‘wax” in Italian? ‘Wax,” replies Marta Imarisio, the Turin-born co-founder of the Senegalese surfers’ hostel, Malika Surf Camp, as she rubs a bar of wax on to her boards, preparing them for the sparkling waves of Yoff beach on the outskirts of Dakar.

‘Wax” is also ‘wax” for surfers who speak Senegal’s official language—French—as well as for those who converse in the country’s many other local vernaculars. Yet this linguistic universality doesn’t make surf wax much easier to buy. Although Dakar’s only boarders’ boutique, Tribal Surf Shop (tribalsurfshop.net), may intermittently stock surf wax, Marta and Co tend to rely on friends abroad to send supplies on a regular, charitable basis, eking it out with a little thrift and elbow grease.
The same goes for wetsuits, rash vests and leashes. Locally, equipment is hard to acquire and, when it is for sale, expensive even by European standards.

Given such poor supply lines, you’d be forgiven for thinking that Dakar’s waves were less than world-class. However, a consistent beginners’ break of a metre or so peels in here on the northern shore of the city’s peninsula, while out on the islands and on the city’s southern edge there are challenging waves of international renown. The seas are uncrowded, the water warm and the reception among local wave riders equally temperate.

Full of surfers
Only three to four hours away from western Europe, Senegal is a safe, moderately open society. Tourism has grown steadily since the country introduced monetary reform in 1994. Dakar’s beaches are minutes from the airport. And so its distinct lack of popularity remains a mystery for local enthusiasts.

‘Morocco, up the coast, is full of surfers,” says Jesper Mouritzen, a Danish expat who runs Surf Camp N’Gor, on N’Gor (pronounced ‘engor”) island, 100m off Dakar’s shore. ‘The surf in Senegal is more consistent and there are more days of it, yet people are still not coming.”

Mouritzen is an industrious, accommodating guy, quick to offer me assistance. He might be a little out of place among the garden hammocks and bongo-drums vibe of Camp N’Gor, yet guests should thank him for the hostel’s solar-charged power sockets and hot water. He took over the management of the place a few years back and has begun to raise the status of Senegal’s surf.

Though Mouritzen’s hostel enjoys a moderately brisk trade, repeat visitors account for a lot of the business. I can see how Dakar, with its fine waves and big-city conveniences, would bear repeat visits. Surfing aside, I took in the jostling markets of Kermel and the Sandaga, the fine French restaurants of the Almadies, the cobbled streets of the nearby Gorée island, with its crumbling slave prison, as well as the more recent and frankly bizarre crypto-Soviet, 49m-tall African Renaissance Monument that bestrides one of the city’s seaside hills.

Always something going on
Yet it is the very intimate nature of the city’s surf scene that makes a holiday here so appealing. The 30 or so of the capital’s citizens who surf wear their faded Billabong shorts with pride, and the few kids we saw attempting to master the sport used everything from polystyrene chunks to saloon-car parcel shelves in their attempts to tame the waves.

Mouritzen even delights in N’Gor island’s lack of electrical power. ‘It’s right next to a city with five to six million people and N’Gor is empty,” he says. ‘Just across the water on the mainland, there’s always something going on. It’s perfect, really.”

Although Imariso’s neighbourhood has such modern conveniences as plug sockets, her hostel remains very spartan. Malika Surf Camp is headquartered in a modest terraced house in Yoff, a fishing community on Dakar’s outskirts. Guests sleep in a dorm or a double room and eat breakfast and supper in a communal courtyard.

On Yoff beach I flounder about in the break, watched over by a few surf-savvy French aid workers and a gang of fishermen’s kids whom Imarisio teaches on a pro bono basis. After a few momentary runs, I find myself beside one of the fishermen’s boys. In a slaw of French, English and the local language, Wolof, he attempts to point out my errors, before motioning for my board. There is a language barrier, but his points are clear. I pass it to the kid, walk back to my lounger and let someone else climb Senegal’s fine, unjustly overlooked waves. ­—

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