Anarchy and A-Frames
Words Will Bendix, Pics Greg Ewing
“Allez-Allez-oooo, good for me, good for you” Columbia chimes above the explosion of waves. His receding hairline meets a thick band of dreadlocks that fall down his back. In his hand he clutches a bakkie of potent Nigerian skunk. He turns his attention back to the lineup, staring out from behind dark aviator sunglasses.
“The waves now, just getting bigger and bigger," Columbia says deadpan as a set starts to cap far out along the breakwall. The awning of our makeshift shelter flaps in the offshore breeze and the small beach is empty besides a few fishermen tending their nets in the far corner of the bay. Ricky Basnett is the only person out in the water. It’s Tuesday morning on the outskirts of Lagos, Nigeria. The first wave of the set bounces across the wedge and Ricky paddles into position.
“Ride dem bru!” Columbia shouts as Ricky drops in behind the bowl of a solid eight-footer. He skirts the grinding lip and slides straight through the backdoor, standing tall in a frothy section that doubles up while he’s in the tube. He manages to drop down the step and straightens out as the wave smashes down behind him, sending foam and bits of debris flying into the air.
"Rastafari!" Columbia shouts, pumping a fist in the air. "Man, dis guy is something else" he says, and smiles.
Columbia doesn’t surf. He lives in the ramshackle village just behind the beach at Tarkwa Bay. He makes the short commute to Lagos whenever he has work, but prefers to spend his time plying this short strip of sand he calls home.
"I've been living here for 15 years,” he says behind his smoky lenses. “There's no problem at Tarkwa."
“In Lagos, it is crazy, it's busy. Dangerous. I go there to work-work-work, and then I come back here to my people. To the beach. Lagos is buildings and noise. Out here, it is natural" Columbia says, sweeping his hand out towards the bay. "Out here is the sea. The sea is good for me” he says, and waves the air in towards his nose as he takes a deep breath.
Columbia’s sea is good for us too. For four days straight the wedge at Tarkwa has pumped out A-frame barrel after A-frame barrel. It’s not entirely a co-incidence. We’d timed our arrival as closely as possible with a deep swell that was sweeping up West Africa late in the southern hemisphere winter. Skeleton Bay was an open secret, Angola had been tapped. We were burning to see what Nigeria was holding. We never expected some of the spiciest beachbreak any of us had ever sampled. Best of all, there were no corpses floating in the water. That was the first thing John Micheletti had warned us about after picking us up from the airport days before.
"If this swell comes through, I just hope there will be no dead bodies in the lineup," John had said casually as we piled into his van, like you might tell someone about the impending weather; ah yes, looks like it’s going to be cloudy with a chance of scattered corpses. John continued to give us the run-down as we drove across the longest bridge in Africa and into the sprawling city.
Nigeria is not a surf destination. Let’s just get that straight. It’s more like a blueprint for anarchy, dripping with danger and tucked deep inside the humid armpit of West Africa. Drugs, kidnapping, violence and extortion are considered the norm. And that’s only getting through airport customs. Numerous surfers politely declined an invitation on this trip. A few just point-blank laughed at us and went back to booking their ticket to Indo. Nigeria is a place you’ll probably never visit unless you really have to.
"If there is a big swell or strong winds and the ships are not prepared, then… Boomps!" John continued as we drove. “That’s why you see so many shipwrecks around here too.”
Although Lagos gets waves fairly often, huge swells are rare along its coastline. Subsequently they wreak havoc by catching people and ships off guard, washing through the flat beaches and marshlands that rim the city. Often these swells unearth things that are best left buried, albeit in shallow graves.
We carried on across bridges and islands, skirting the military stops that dotted the highway. It was nine o’clock at night but the roads were thronging. People and bikes pushed up against the car from every direction. Dense shantytowns mushroomed out between skyscrapers, and swathes of the city lay in chaotic darkness while towering oilrigs hummed offshore. Lagos is what happens when the lights go out.
The following morning we make our first pilgrimage to Tarkwa Bay. Traffic flies by on the bridges overhead as our rickety water taxi buzzes out into the mouth of the harbour. We head straight for a clump of sand and palm trees in the distance, weaving past oilrigs and container ships. The city stands like an apocalyptic smile behind us, its uneven teeth of buildings and shanties squashed right up against the water’s edge.
"Here, if something breaks or is destroyed, you don’t bother fixing it, you build a new one," John shouts above the drone of the engine while pointing out a mangled oil pipeline. Militant rebels bombed it a few years back but a new one quickly sprouted up in its place. A huge cargo boat lies ripped apart immediately behind this, listing on one side with half its gutted belly exposed. The valuable tar it was transporting has long since been salvaged. The boat had no further purpose, so it was simply left to rot.
Lagos itself is actually a giant island, sliced up into patches by the massive lagoon that seeps through the metropolis and out to sea; an empire built on water and fuelled by this deranged form of evolution. Africa’s most rapidly developing city has no time to fix things, nurse them back to health or make them better. Instead it bulldozes and builds over itself with something stronger, faster, newer. Survival of the fittest. Until that too eventually falls apart and another layer is built over the crumbling remnants.
The boat driver swings a hard 180-degree turn around a breakwall and we round the corner into Tarkwa Bay. A brief stretch of sand is framed by tall palms and speckled with fishing boats. Tin rooftops poke out between the fronds. On the opposite side of the bay, a longer breakwall stretches an extended finger into the Atlantic Ocean.
“There it is” John says, pointing to the far corner of the beach.
Mike Hynson and Robert August are rumoured to be the first surfers to ever travel through Nigeria while making The Endless Summer with Bruce Brown in 1965, but it’s a known fact they didn’t surf Tarkwa. They couldn’t have even if they had wanted to. The wave didn’t exist back then.
Like most of Lagos, the wedge is entirely man-made, a recent construction of design and coincidence. The breakwall was built to protect the expanding harbour and catches any southerly swells that filter up the Gulf of Guinea, focussing them into the tight little bay. As swells travel the final half-mile stretch, they ping-pong off the rock groins until they hit the last nook just meters from the shore. One final bounce off the breakwall and bam! The wave doubles in size and creates a backdoor wedge to rival the best funparks in the world.
"Ja, every time I come back, I realise how good this place is,” John grins out in the water.
29-year-old John Micheletti is Italian born, Nigerian bred, and a Tarkwa local for life. Nowadays he splits his time between Lagos and Cape Town, earning himself the title of the White Nigerian, or Wygerian. Most of his South African friends just call him Wygie, and without Wygie, this reconnaissance mission would have been all but impossible. He is our inside track, navigating us through the mayhem with his boisterous Italian accent and instant charm. Most importantly, he’s connected to Tarkwa like tides to the moon.
“Anywhere in the world you find waves nowadays, there’ll be someone who surfs,” quips Ricky, who still can’t get his head around the fact that he’s in Nigeria, getting barrelled. I joke that this is where former world tour surfers who never won a heat go when they die, but he either doesn’t hear me or chooses to ignore this as he swings into a little peak and clowns his way through a head dip.
As predicted the swell starts to kick in with the incoming tide and the wedge is dishing up pea-green barrels by lunchtime. Being Sunday, all the local boys are in the water - all five of them, in a city teeming with ten million people.
Godpower Tamarakuro Pekipuma is one of the handful of first generation surfers John has helped nurture at Tarkwa. Like many Nigerians, he’s an imposing presence, standing at a hulking 6’4”. His borrowed seven foot mini-mal barely just floats him, but he uses it to slide his way through a well-honed railgrab routine on the peak, pulling an uncanny Bruce Irons-like claw in the tube. “Welcome, welcome” Godpower says shyly. “We are so happy that you are here.”
We trade wave after wave, hooting and laughing at our good fortune until the dropping tide finally kills it and we drag ourselves up the beach. Ricky is an instant cult hero and gets the first beer. Three days later he will go over the falls on three consecutive waves as he comes to grips with the heaving drop, but for now we kick back on our deck chairs with a cold Star in hand and decide Nigeria isn’t half-bad at all.
And then all hell breaks loose.
A small commotion behind us rapidly escalates into a full blown shouting match between a uniformed soldier and a heavily muscled local kid in shorts. They are right up in each other’s face and the whole beach is drawn magnetically into the fray. The soldier turns around and stalks off down the sand. We ask John what just happened.
“That military guy is Muslim. He told the local that his music was disturbing his prayers, and they must stop the music. That is crazy. The whole village, everyone is playing music, making a noise and having a good time,” John spits. “Everybody always prays with this, Christian, Muslim, there is no problem here. But he is making a problem because he is a military guy.”
The scuffle is symptomatic of a deeper rift that permeates Nigeria. Muslim-Christian violence was the root of the Biafran civil war that spawned a virtual genocide and ushered in decades of brutal military rule. Nigeria was subsequently ruled by a succession of leaders who treated the country’s oil-rich coffers like their personal piggy bank, the worst of whom was General Sani Abacha. Abacha was reputedly worth US$10 billion in 1998 when he kicked the bucket at the age of 54. The infamous despot died in the arms of two prostitutes after his heart packed in, no longer able to keep up with the good times, and so Nigeria stumbled into democratic rule. Well, kind of. The military relinquished power in theory, but not entirely in practice and much of the country is still governed by the ever-present specter of guns. Even on the beach.
The soldier stalks intently back towards the crowd, and this time he’s got his good friend Mr Kalashnikov with him. Ricky and I suggest finding another place to have a beer. "Now you will see how we deal with things in Nigeria" is all John answers back.
The soldier swings the gun from his hip and starts shouting. The crowd shouts back. Meanwhile, the kid he’s looking for has been spirited away into the village.
"This is bullshit!" John shouts, stomping over. "You cannot think you can do this!" A few locals try calm John down and lead him away.
“He wants to know where the other guy is that disturbed him” John translates, infuriated. “He’s saying 'Where is he? I’m going to shoot him now’.”
The tension hits breaking point as fingers and machine guns are waved in the air. The soldier realises he is no longer in a position of strength, even with his AK, as the crowd swells around him. Begrudgingly he stands down and retreats. I exhale. Everybody goes back to their day at the beach like nothing happened. We nervously order another beer.
“People here will do anything to avoid actually fighting," I’m later told by a successful Nigerian businessman with ties to government. "Don't get me wrong, we love to posture, but when it comes down to it people will far rather negotiate. People can be very aggressive, and you have to be aggressive back or else they step on you. It's just how things work, but it can drive you mad."
Madness too is part of Lagos. In the streets. The air. The traffic. Oh, the never ending traffic. We’re heading downtown a few days later and I’m quite convinced this is how I’m going to die. Not from cancer, or anything as dignified as old age. Forget a shark attack. My pretty head is going to be smeared across the shitty potholed surface of a street in downtown Lagos. There basically are no rules. It makes driving in Bali look orderly. Sane. The motorbike driver tears around another corner and we avoid being T-boned by mere millimeters. Hooters explode around us as a crowd of pedestrians shout and wave their fists. I’m in no mood to be lynched, but right now I’ll take that over ending up as sloppy roadkill. Ricky’s arms are locked in equal terror up ahead as he holds onto the back of his seat. His piss-pot helmet is perched comically on top of his head as we ramp an island into the oncoming lane, but I’m too petrified to laugh.
"I can't believe this. Did you see that thing? Who’s going to believe we scored this in Nigeria?"
Ricky is ranting on the empty beach, his excitement growing with every puff of spit being vomited out by the chocolate brown wedges. We’re still alive. There are no bikes or traffic on the island, and the swell has built considerably when we return for our daily surf check at Tarkwa. The only witness to our frantic waxing of boards is Whiskey, one of the rare mutts on the island. Rare, because dogs are fair game for dinner amongst some of the islanders, especially fattened expat dogs that can feed a small family. But Whiskey miraculously dodged the axe many times after his disgruntled owner abandoned him, and is now too rangy to be considered a decent meal. Instead he’s become Tarkwa’s unofficial mascot. His tail is still mangled from a recent run-in with a pig, but Whiskey lives to fight another day. The pig wasn’t as lucky.
“Sheez, it’s kinda heavy out here,” Ricky confesses when I eventually join him in the lineup. I had opted to watch from the safety of the sand as he alternately got pitched and barrelled on his own. Soon John comes running up the beach, playing hooky from work, and the two maestros engage in an epic tube duel for hours on end. The water has turned a chunky brown, stirred up by the relentless swell and rain trickling down a fetid little creek. It looks like someone is drawing the curtains closed as you pull into the thick, dark cylinders.
We’re sated, finished, when Columbia saunters up to us on the beach and holds up his fist. “Another ship hit the sand at lighthouse!” he says, indicating the exposed beach on the other side of the breakwall. “It's a big one, right there on da beach."
"Pfffft! That's just one,” John says dismissively. “There's going to be ship behind ship on the beach after this swell. There will be no place to walk."
That night we go to a wealthy expat party inside one of the heavily guarded compounds that permeate the city. John’s friends ply us with beers and spicy Nigerian delicacies. In one corner a young South African recounts how he made his millions, saving away as he lived in a hut in the Niger Oil Delta. I chat to a Londoner who is here raising funds for investment bankers. A local 35-year-old construction mogul is holding down the bar and pouring cocktails called Attitude Adjusters. Everybody’s making money. Nobody surfs. But we don’t care. We’re ghetto fabulous, cruising around Lagos in a black Hummer, swinging from millionaire party to millionaire party in our boardshorts.
“People go to Africa and confirm what they already have in their heads, and so they fail to see what is there in front of them.” - Chinua Achebe, Nigerian author
The next morning we’re walking through the village at Tarkwa with the island’s self-appointed rapper, MC Black, dodging chickens and scaring little kids who come running out their homes to have a look at the spectacle, then run back inside screaming “Pepe, Pepe!”
“This means ‘white man, white man’,” snickers MC. “They are not so used to this, especially the small kids. When they see a camera like this, they think it is a gun and that's why they are running away."
The swell was too big to land at the beach, so we’ve come from the leeward side of the island. Reggae music wafts out the shacks while kids play soccer on a dirt pitch. Women braid each other’s hair and paint their nails in the doorways. There’s a bar and a nightclub just after the church, where an old blue icebox hums off a generator in the sticky heat.
We round the back of the village, walking on the old railway track that was used to build the breakwall and the lighthouse that sits perched upon it. Once the breakwall was finished, the train track had outlived its purpose and simply fell into disrepair. Now kids play on the broken metal girders. But John swears by Lighthouse Lefts, the wave that bounces off the other end of the breakwall. He claims it gets even better than Tarkwa, as well as a number of peaks that spring up in the shadow of the wrecks that stretch off into the distance. But the seasonal southwest winds are wrong for these man-made anomalies and we have to content ourselves with empty, barrelling right wedges.
“There are many different tribes living here, everyone lives together,” MC tells us as we walk on. “But this island first belonged to the Yoruba, the original people of Nigeria."
We disappear into a deep grove of green and become disorientated as the humidity swells around us. There is no sign of the beach or village, just thick mangrove and sky, a fleeting glimpse of the foundation Lagos was built upon centuries ago. Paradise. Anarchy. Sometimes they’re borne from one and the same.
"Don’t worry, we are near now” MC says up ahead. “You can hear the voice of the ocean calling us.”
Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine