surfEXPLORE Gabon

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surfEXPLORE Gabon project (with John Callahan, Emi Cataldi, Erwan Simon and Randy Rarick) featured in Longboarding & Freeride (Wavelength – UK) and Surf News (Italy), and The Surfers Path (International).

Gabon text for Longboarding & Freeride

© SamBleakley

STRADDLING THE EQUATOR, AND WEDGED BETWEEN CAMEROON AND CONGO, GABON IN PACKED WITH SIZZLING LEFT POINTBREAKS. BUT GETTING THERE IS THE CHALLENGE…

A single off-the-beaten path trip to West Africa might pack more bone-shaking and head spinning moments into a few weeks than many will experience in a lifetime. I have long had a love affair with West African culture, an upbeat polyrhythmic music reflecting the ingenuity and charisma of the people in the face of hardships that would crush the pampered Westerner. The drumbeat celebrating human life amongst a teeming forest is reflected in the concentration of unfurling and unridden pointbreaks. This promise has lured me deeper into West Africa year after year with Singapore-based photo explorer John Callahan, and trusted European travel companions Emi Cataldi, Erwan Simon and Hawaiian legend Randy Rarick.

Gabon has been kept safely in the shadows due to a long-term stable government. There are a handful of local surfers working in the north, tied into the oil and logging industry. But Mayumba, thickly forested in the remote south, remains a mystery. Empty waves beckon. After months of detailed research, the first forest we encounter is the tangle of bureaucracy we have to hack through before obtaining visas. The fire in your belly for travel can be reduced in an instant to cold cinders through politics. But we do finally arrive in cement city, Gabon’s capital Libreville, only to be greeted with the news that our Gabonese contact and guide on the 800-kilometre trip to the south has just written off his four-by-four and broken his arm.

Libreville is an unashamedly ugly and outrageously expensive cage of steel and concrete, where oil barons bargain in ostentatious glass fronted offices. Hiring a four-by-four is suddenly as hard as chartering a private jet. And since Mayumba airport has been closed for two years, finding a driver is the only option. Days of dead-end inquiry ensue, our money and patience now running on empty. We begin to question if we can ever make it to Mayumba. But 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 plan to make it halfway to Mouila, where we hope to find another driver with a four-by-four. We load up the ravaged Toyota Corolla, squeeze in like sardines and head southeast, soon skirting Gabon’s stunning and wild forest.  The road is cracked and milled from the weight of lorries laden with lengths of tropical hardwood headed for China. China reciprocates by slowly resurfacing the roads as a new form of colonialism. But the current state of the surface compacts our backs and backsides to steel pancakes.

Approaching Lambarene, old folk smoke pipes outside wood huts, selling bushmeat (crocodile, porcupine, chimpanzee, snake, antelope and gorilla), and women in fabrics as bright as fruitskins, with babies strapped to their backs, haul water from wells, elegantly carrying bucketfuls on their heads. Lambarene lips the banks of the Ogooue river that splits the country and was a pathway for European exploration. In a post-colonial era, 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), our driver, Eurico, 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, “the Gabonese military are bit like those gorillas. They beat their chest for a while, then they get bored, and then they let you go!”

Long after nightfall we reach Mouila, where Eurico celebrates “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 Eurico, now drunk and willing, to take us all the way to Tchibanga the following day, despite the fact that the road is unpaved. We set off before dawn and soon Eurico stops for kola nuts at a roadside stall, needing stimulation to overpower 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 as 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.

By midday we reach Tchibanga, the biggest town in the south, and spill from the bruised 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. We meet Auguste, lounging on a battered Mitsubishi L200. 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 quite celebration, to where the dust settles alongside dark forest, close to creeks, cayman, water snakes, and thickets of 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. Typically the ferry is on the other side of the Banio Lagoon, the driver on strike, the winch faulty, and we have to wait, enduring yet more of our Gabonese initiation, one of deep anticipation for a marriage with previously unridden waves. Mayumba is so off the beaten track that just getting there will be an achievement. Passing the hours we share stories of an 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 should offer a contrasting rite of passage. Trying to get to Mayumba may be a deeply uncomfortable experience both physically and psychologically, but a necessary initiation where en route we have seen a whole swathe of West Africa. And this is the spontaneity of surf travel, the moments that collectively contribute to character forming.

We make it into Mayumba, catch a glimpse of the sea, and know the rewards will be immense. Long, tapering, glaucous green lefts wrap around a point with three distinct sections, and we revel in our first surf, although our bodies are baked. Auguste races to get the last return ferry before dark and we find Motel Mayeye Foutou. 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, churches and mobile-’phone top-up stores in between. There used to be a small airport, but when the oil companies decided to upgrade the runway, 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, leaving a totally unusable airstrip. There is, however, electricity in this sleepy outpost, which wakes up at night as ten bars, stacked high with Regab, begin to blare out infectious guitar and horn inflected music.

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 all West Africa during the swell season. Mouth-watering four to six feet sets 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, where the charismatic owner, Stephanie, has a stellar collection Zairian zouk zouk and Gabonese music, packed with polyrhythms, pulsating singing and raucous drumming. It shakes your 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. On his carbon railed quad fish Emi sets the pace, keeping time with expert style. Randy, 60 years old and still charging, uses both his 7’ 6” gun and 9’ 0” longboard to make sweet soul music against the beat of the unloading swell. Randy’s refined log contrasts with lumbering, huge logs, hacked off cuts and rejects from the West African logging industry, that flow down the point and pile on the beach, literally dead wood.

At high tide the second point becomes a wedging grey-green face and Erwan weaves a tight tapestry of turns on 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 wavefaces in killer form. If looks could kill, this would be the goofyfooter’s graveyard. As we later play back video clips of the session, 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 houseband, 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 and styrofoam. Only the shreds of green onions keep our nutrition alive, and the relentless surf at Green Onions keeps our spirits intact.

Running out of money and time, coming in after another session in a break rarely, if ever, surfed, it strikes us – how the hell will we get out of this place in time for our flights home, with no airport, no vehicles or drivers arranged (because neither Eurico or Auguste are answering our phonecalls), and a stubborn, striking driver for the dysfunctional ferry. A sudden emptiness runs through us all, mirroring the empty left hand pointbreak we must somehow vacate. OK, let’s think on our feet – that’s how we surf and that’s how we might live. We paddle out at Tam-Tams and toast another round of Regabs, working on the plan to get home…

Thanks to Eric and Nadine at

www.baiedestortuesgabon.com

For Mayumba travel info, contact Quevain Makaya – qmakaya@wcs.org

Gabon Surfline Feature here

About Sam Bleakley

I am a freelance writer and professional surfer from Sennen, West Cornwall, in the UK. I specialise in surf exploration projects with renowned surfEXPLORE photographer John Callahan. I have undertaken groundbreaking trips to the likes of Algeria, Liberia, Kenya, Oman, South Korea, Hainan, Palawan and the Maluku Islands. Surf writing has led me to visit sixty countries. My roots, however, remain in Penwith, where I live with my family above Gwenver beach, close to Land's End, the westernmost tip of Britain - next stop Novia Scotia. I have an MA in Geography from Pembroke College, the University of Cambridge, and I am currently researching a part time PhD in Travel Writing with Falmouth University. I am the author of two illustrated surf travel books, Surfing Brilliant Corners and Surfing Tropical Beats (Alison Hodge Publisher, Penzance). I have been a multiple European and British Longboard surfing Champion, and former competitor on the ASP World Longboard Tour. I am widely published and featured in international magazines and newspapers ranging from Resurgence to Action Asia to The Cornishman, and a regular contributor to The Surfer's Path. I have studied and taught travel writing courses and guest lecture on aspects of surfing, travel, writing and geogrphy in further and higher education. I edited The Surfing Tribe: a history of surfing in Britain, and have edited Longboarding supplements and specials for Carve and Wavelength magazines. My first book, Surfing Brilliant Corners, details a decade of extreme global surf travel, illustrated by John Callahan. Surfing, jazz, geography, ecology and cultural studies mix as I journey to Mauritania, locked in political strife, where landmines litter access to some of the best waves on the planet; and Haiti, which captures my heart and makes it race as if falling in love. My second book, Surfing Tropical Beats, follows our surfEXPLORE team on a rollercoaster ride from Haiti to Gabon, through Algeria, India, Vietnam, China and back to Haiti.
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