Liberia Travel Guide: West Africa’s Best Surfing Place

Do you like surfing? We were going to Liberia shore, where we would catch a new wave. We were less than 30 minutes from our destination of Robertsport, home to Liberia’s nascent surfing scene, and gliding along what one local had accurately described as “the best dirt road in the country,” when my driver, Andrew, and I got into a loud and boisterous fight.

“Whooo? People live on that mountain?” Andrew said incredulously, after I’d idly commented that it might be nice to have a vacation house on Grand Cape Mount. He whistled at the Western nonsense I was spouting after living 25 years in the United States. “No way,” he said. “Not in Liberia. You’ve been in America too long. People will only go to the mountain to make witch or talk to their ancestors.” To drive home his point, Andrew pulled over to ask a man walking along the road his opinion.

Sigh. Next to us stretched Lake Piso, the 40-square-mile, drop-dead beautiful oblong lake that dominates western Liberia, near the Sierra Leone border. Just ahead loomed the lushly green — and in Andrew’s eyes, ominous — Grand Cape Mount, the last natural landmark between us and the big waves at Robertsport. The waves that I would be examining to see whether Liberia, my birth country, could transform itself from poster child for West Africa’s wretched civil wars to travel posters for West Africa’s best surfing.

It was, I’ll grant you, a far-fetched thought. This is a country that introduced itself to my generation during the 1980s and ’90s with horrific images of child soldiers and rebel soldiers dressed in wedding gowns and blond wigs. But that was before the strongman Charles Taylor was hustled out of town in 2003, before Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the first woman ever elected president of a country on this still patriarchal continent.

Liberia has been war-free for six years now. A fledgling tourism industry is taking shape. There are a handful of nice hotels — and even a couple of luxe ones — in the capital of Monrovia now, with more under construction. There are tour companies offering trips to see chimpanzees and hippos in wildlife sanctuaries up country. And there are a few hearty souls finally trying to take advantage of the country’s 350 miles of lush, white shoreline.

I wasn’t coming to surf myself. I barely swam until I was out of high school and living in the United States, and though the thought of surfing always seemed exhilarating, Robertsport was out of my league.

When we finally arrived at Nana’s Lodge there — think safari camp on the beach — the rain was pouring down so hard that I, surfing novice that I am, was sure all the surfers would be taking shelter and drinking Club Beer at the beachside bar and restaurant that serves as the only real gathering spot. To be sure, there were the usual scraggly California, Hawaii and South Africa types digging into a buffet lunch of chicken stew with rice, cabbage, potato salad and the hot pepper sauce that Liberians use as a seasoning for everything. West African highlife music, steel drums and all, filtered from speakers.

I could be in Jamaica, I thought. But then I looked at the sea.

Jamaica didn’t have waves like this.

About a hundred feet away, the Atlantic was hurling itself at the shoreline in surging swells that crested in arc after arc. A trio of surfers — two Liberian, one Western — were riding a wave that started to break at a point called Shipwreck, before cresting directly across from the historic cottonwood tree where freed American blacks, including my great-great-great-great-grandfather, had carved their names in 1829 after their ship, the Harriet, arrived on the Liberian shore from Norfolk, Va.

My mouth dropped open. I’d known that I would find white surfers at Robertsport, and I’d heard that a few Liberians had taken up the sport, too.

But I hadn’t really believed it. It’s just not something that Liberians do. In the same way that, for all my Americanized pretensions, I knew that Andrew was right — Liberians wouldn’t really live on a mountain — I knew we didn’t go into the ocean much either. I grew up in a house 200 yards from the Atlantic just outside Monrovia, and we never went into the sea; we left that to the tourists. We were willing to venture into the many lagoons that collected near the country’s beaches, but there was no way we were going to brave the Atlantic, with its rough waves and fierce undertow. Not to mention the underwater neegees — or spirits — waiting to take you off to be eaten by sharks.

Apparently, two civil wars and the march of time had changed all that. “When I first saw this guy surfing, it was like magic to me,” said Benjamin McCrumada, 21, a Liberian fisherman turned surfer. The rain had finally stopped, and he was drying off at a beachside table, reminiscing about the day that changed his life. It was 2005, and the country was slowly getting back on its feet, postwar. The only tourists in Liberia at the time were relief workers taking weekend breaks. One of them, Magnus Wolfe Murray, a Scottish ecologist and aid worker, had come to surf at Robertsport, where the angle of the coastline created ocean swells from the south that came in a wrapping form, making the waves, up to 20 feet high, peel along the coast rather than just dumping straight on.

The result: long, gorgeous waves that you can ride for 200 yards or more. “To just see someone riding like that on top of the water, with his hands up,” he said, his wonder still palpable four years after the fact.

If there is one thing Liberians are not shy about, it is approaching strangers. Benjamin went up to Magnus and asked to try his board. With his new friend tutoring him, he tried three times, falling into the surf each time.

But on the fourth try, as a gentle wave was breaking at Loco Point, Benjamin managed to stand on the board, for 10 seconds. And that was all it took. For those 10 seconds, he said, he forgot he was living in a postwar zone. He was gliding on top of the Atlantic, wave crashing, heart bursting with the freedom of it. “I felt like I was on a motorcycle,” he said, smiling. “I was so happy. I didn’t know you could do this.”

Now Benjamin, along with a growing — but still small — number of Liberian surfers, and a much-faster-growing number of world-class surfers always on the lookout for the next big wave, are slowly carving out this country’s embryonic surfing scene. Right now, that scene is strictly Robinson Crusoe: surfers camp in tents underneath the now enormous cottonwood tree and cook meals over an open fire, or stay in the raised wood-floored structures — there are 11 in all — at Nana’s Lodge, eating in the seaside restaurant and listening to highlife music late into the night. One of the lodge’s owners, Joseph Richards, a South African mining executive, conducts charter fishing trips in search of barracuda, mackerel and marlin (to eat) and humpback whales (to watch).

And always, there are the waves to ride. It’s the kind of tropical, laid-back vacation — with a tinge of magic and the occult provided by Grand Cape Mount — that leaves many of the Western surfers who come here looking for property to rent.

“The whole experience in Robertsport felt like living inside a classic book about an African adventure,” said an e-mail message from Shayne McIntyre, who spent 17 days taping an “On Surfari” episode for National Geographic television in September and never had a flat-wave day. “We were staying on the water in wood-decked safari tents, watching fishermen dodge absolutely perfect waves while pulling in their catch from hand-carved dugout canoes, while ladies with their children wrapped to their backs in beautiful print clothes crossed the sand. And behind us an immensely thick, impenetrable jungle rich with the sounds of singing birds and dew dripping on the leaves.”

Or, if you listen to Andrew, medicine men up to God-knows-what. But hey, clearly times are changing. If Liberians are now surfing, who knows? Maybe we’ll soon be building mountaintop chalets on Grand Cape Mount. Already, Nana’s Lodge is organizing hikes into the rain forest for tourists, with Liberian guides escorting. Just don’t expect any of them to camp overnight with you in the bush.

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