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Oct 2013

Words by Will Bendix, Pics by Alan Van Gysen

Ka-changgg! The sound of metal on metal punctures the air, followed by another crack and metallic groan. Ka-changgggg! A swarm of little boys wearing nothing more than a cowry shell laced around their bellies squeal and scatter into the shallows. The demon wielding two pangas smashes the blades together again and wails at the ocean, his orange mass of tendrils bristling like a giant sea anemone. The Kankurang has arrived, and it’s time to lop off some foreskins.

It’s not what we’d expected at 7am on a Sunday morning surf check, but we’re in The Gambia, a place where magic and everyday life routinely collide. A giant demon wielding a deadly weapon before breakfast is nothing out of the ordinary.

"This is a circumcision ceremony,” I’m told by a man as we’re sucked into the small crowd making their way down the beach towards a rocky outcrop. The air is tinged with smoke and a steady drumbeat swells from the tangle of people.

“You see the young kids with the shell tied around them?” The man continues. “This means they are ready.” He cleaves his hand down like an axe. “And him,” he points to the menacing orange giant cloaked in shredded tree bark. “He is the Kankurang, like a shaman. He will guide them on their journey to manhood."I’m told the Kankurang is in fact the good guy, a spiritual emissary from the village who wards off evil spirits. The ceremony itself is an age-old rite of passage for the Mandinka people, Gambia’s largest ethnic group, and the Kankurang is the glue that binds the tribe together. He is guardian of the knowledge and customs that get passed on to each generation of new initiates while making sure no harm comes to his young charges.

The Kankurnag smashes his pangas again on cue and I grimace at the tools used for kicking evil’s ass and performing delicate surgery. My impromptu guide senses my discomfort and smiles. “Nowadays this operation is done by a doctor,” he says. “But we still do this by the ocean because it cleanses. It is healing.”

This is the last thing I’m told before a little kiddie is plucked from the sea, screeching and giggling excitedly. “We don’t usually let tourists see this…”

Much like the willy we’re invited to watch get the chop, Gambia is teeny. The diminutive West African nation measures a mere 7 021 square miles in total and challenges you to find it on a map, but it only took 50 of those miles that face directly into the Atlantic Ocean to lure us there. That’s the full extent of the Gambian coastline which sits boxed in by Senegal on all sides. The latter was made famous way back in 1965 thanks to the Endless Summer crew who sampled the first waves of their odyssey along Senegalese shores. Gambia, in stark contrast, has remained unknown for waves or surfing.

This is apparent from the first day we touch down in Banjul, the nation’s capital. Airport security is utterly confounded at our baggage. Telling the thick-muscled soldiers they are ‘coffins’ doesn’t help, but after much hand gesturing and mimicking a swooping off the top, they release us into the hot afternoon with a dismissive wave.

We load into a taxi and trundle down a parched highway with English billboards advertising mobile phone deals and bird-watching holidays. The former British colony achieved independence in 1965 but its Anglophile roots still run deep, especially in the booming tourist industry. Older Brits flock here in their droves to soak up the sun, drink their bodyweight in beer and party the night away. It’s like an African Cabo, but for pensioners.

Our first session is in the thick of it along Senegambia, a dusty strip of resorts that line a palm-stained beach. Small peaks wash up against the holidaymakers who fry in the sun like bacon, but the waves look surprisingly inviting after two days of travel. Glassy lefts and rights peel off in-between the beach huts where tourists sip lazily on cocktails. Our trio of South Africans waste no time plunging into the lineup and Mike somehow manages to throw down a few big reverses while Jacko opts to cruise on the noserider he brought along in case the waves were, well, just like this. In a spate of optimism and irony we dub the place ‘Last Resorts’, a name that would later prove to be prophetic. 

The following morning we set out to explore the coastline and load the hired Land Rover with our quivers and expectations. We came prepared for countless hours of taxing exploration to reach the nooks we’d marked off on the map but by midday, we’re done. No epic voyage, no rugged 4x4ing through the wild African bush. Gambia’s coastline is serviced by a decent road that offers regular glimpses of the ocean through the thorn scrub and palm trees. A short detour usually takes you down a sandy track to a fishing village where we bear witness to a number of potential setups. As we drive further, the resorts disappear. Every few miles there’s a military checkpoint where bored soldiers line the road, dragging AK47s around in the hot sun. Our last stop is virtually on the border of Senegal where we stumble onto a long stretch of beach and Matt immediately announces, “I want to live here.”

A small estuary dissects the stone white sand. Young children wash fish in the river and tether them in bunches. A lone, bright pirogue stands sentry on the shoreline while two cows move slowly along the lagoon. At the top of all this is a wave that tubes relentlessly down a sandspit. 

It takes a few essential elements to make a world-class wave. Swell is obviously crucial, but it is also the simplest ingredient. Far more complex is the combination of bathymetry, prevailing wind direction and how a surf spot is geographically aligned to combine this mixture of disparate elements. For a wave to be truly world class, it needs to alchemize sand or rock, wind and sea into the sum of a whole that is far greater than its parts.

You will find these elements coming together and bonding in magical locations across the globe, from the tip of the Plenkung National Park in Grajagan to the harbor at Mundaka or on the rocks at Jeffreys Bay. We find it along a tiny sliver of sand in the south of Gambia.

Wave after wave zips along the beach. It’s like watching Skelton Bay in reverse, complete with the rifling backwash that flares the tube wider the further it runs down the point. It’s crowded though, with hundreds of birds perched at the top of the point. Whenever a set comes through a flock of them take flight and dip their wings along the spinning wave face. We instantly baptize the spot Birdies. The only problem is, Birdies is barely one foot.

“I swear, if this place gets swell, I’m coming to live here,” Matt says again, and then points to a stretch of beach where he lays an imaginary blueprint for the hut he will build.

Alan strikes up a conversation with a fisherman named Demba and jogs back to us excitedly. “I asked him if it ever gets big here, and he said that last week the waves were way too big to launch their fishing boats. He said they had to wait two days before they could get out again.” Nobody speaks as we all imagine an overhead set running down the point.

The fisherman walks up to us and looks quizzically at our boards. “It’s no good here but if you go further,” he says pointing up to a bend in the distance, “there is safe swimming. No waves, no problems."

And so the waiting game begins. The forecast shows a steady decrease in the small swell but a spike of optimism looms on the horizon. There is no gauge to compare conditions against, no record of waves to judge if this will light up our sandspit. Only the burning question ‘what if?’

To pass the time we amuse ourselves at an idyllic beachbreak that picks up the swell and funnels it into a double-up left. It’s small but the shape is perfect for gaining speed to hit the end section. It looks like Mike is set to dominate the session again until Jacko paddles out and nails two textbook full rotations one after the other. Then it becomes a showdown to see who can stick the biggest backhand punt.

A Rasta wearing a soccer shirt cycles up to me on the beach and nods. We both watch Jacko land another full rotation. "These boys are crazy,” the Rasta says, shaking his thick dreadlocks. “They play on the wave like it's football" he adds, mimicking a bicycle kick after seeing Jacko's last wave.

It’s the same wherever we go: people watch mesmerized as our trio of aerialists take to the waves. It would be misleading though to suggest that nobody has ever surfed in Gambia before. Peace Corp volunteers have lumped the occasional mini-mal along with them for years, and we even spot a few beach huts renting dilapidated planks to hopeful tourists who bellyboard them into the sand. But it’s safe to say Gambians have never witnessed their waves been ridden like this before. Nobody even knows the word ‘surfing’ and opt for its closest equivalent, swimming.

We’re back at Last Resorts one afternoon, sucking on baobab smoothies at a juice stall when the owner hurries over to us. Mike is the only one left in the water, racing through the flats and launching off sections most people would struggle to stand up on.

"Do you remember me?" asks the stall owner who introduces himself as Pa. Before anyone has time to reply he points at Mike and says, “Everybody on the beach is watching this black boy swim! He is so good! I love this guy. Me, I don't swim. I train, push ups, sit ups, play football, but no swimming."

Matt asks if the waves ever get big along this strip of beach and Pa replies, "Last week, the waves were twice the size of a man!" He punctuates this by stretching his arm as high above his head as he can. A collective bubble of hope rises amongst us. 

“How often does this happen?” Matt asks.

"This? Maybe once, twice a year…" Pa replies.

But we remain stubbornly fixated on the forecast. The possibility of a new swell has solidified and we take in the sights to bide our time. Gambia is famous for bird watching and the small country boasts more exotic species than most of Europe combined. Devoted twitchers flock here from around the globe to check off rare species like the White-crested Tiger Heron, spending thousands of dollars to get one glimpse at their lush plumage. In stark contrast Gambia also seems to boast more vultures per square kilometre than anywhere in the world. The fat scavengers line the roads and fill the air wearing their eerie death masks, pecking at carrion around every corner. They are a solemn reminder that in Africa, the beautiful and the wicked live side by side and anything is fair game. The bird we see the most of though is the exotic Blue-breasted Kingfisher. Not because we are expert ornithologists, but because it adorns the label of the national Julbrew beer.

“If the swell doesn't come soon it's going to get weird between all of us" says Jacko, sucking back another cold one as we watch a 'bumster' work his magic. We’re sitting at one of the small beach bars that line the water’s edge along Senegambia when the local stud strolls by, doting on a foreign granny hanging off his arm. Bumsters, it turns out, are the other major tourist attraction in Gambia. Everywhere you look you see these strapping young men with their older benefactors in tow.  Some are merely paid-for companions. Others are much more. It’s not one-way traffic though. The lodge we are staying at is a thin guise for a senior citizen’s bordello as a stream of gorgeous Gambian women file in each evening and out the next morning, giggling as they wave goodbye to a tattooed gramps. 

Fortunately the only two bodies we see slapping together are at a local wrestling match, where we find ourselves after another day of high expectations and low waves.  

"In Gambia, this is a very friendly way of attacking your enemy," booms the ref as reigning champ Malikei Cham and the challenger Pap Sarr go head to head in the hard-packed sandpit. Both men are a towering mass of ebony muscle. Cham is more heavy set and exudes raw power, even in his mouth which he uses to pick up a 100-pound sack of flour in a deft bout of pre-match showmanship. The sweaty crowd cheers and exchange bills as the wrestlers psych up, slapping sand across their faces and drinking a concoction of herbs and tonic called JuJu juice from a plastic bottle.

“The wrestler goes to someone he has faith in - a friend, a spiritual leader - and he asks them to give them strength before a match,” the ref explains for our benefit, pointing to the bottle. “It is psychological, because he believes that this will give him power and help him win.”

It clearly works for the leaner Pap Sarr who causes the upset of the day when he gets his opponent in a potent headlock and slams the reigning champ over his shoulder into the ground with a thud that is every bit as real as WWE is not. We hoot, cheer and drink another Julbrew. Someone asks if there is a JuJu juice for waves.

Our time is running out, but on cue the forecasted swell kicks in. We race down the coast with our eye firmly on the prize, wishing, hoping, conjuring our sandspit to life. We are ready to lay claim to a virgin world-class wave, but the ocean has other ideas. Instead we get to watch lumps of swell pass by on the horizon. The angle is visibly off and the flawless symmetry of the point lies painfully dormant. Then it starts to rain. We’re told this is the first time in a decade it has rained during the dry season. We take it as a final sign from the gods and make our way back to Last Resorts.

It’s hard to settle for the mediocre when you’ve had a glimpse of the sublime, but the waves are well overhead along the more exposed stretch of beach. Our consolation surf ends up being the best session of the trip. Mike’s last wave is a double-up left where he drops in, gracefully grabs the rail and drives through a long section before popping out the end. He may well be the first person to get legitimately tubed in Gambia. The small crowd on the beach whoop and cheer at the display of swimming. Our spirits are collectively raised.

Perhaps Gambia’s magic is not meant for the sea, its exotic bounty reserved for the birdwatchers and their binoculars. Or perhaps, with a subtle shift in swell direction, we will return when the fishing boats at Demba’s village lie idle on the beach once more as the rarest bird of all reveals its elusive plumage.


Source: Zigzag Surfing Magazine