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Crossing a stretch of North African desert seeded with land mines and right points, a traveler falls in with a crew of experienced journeymen, finding that the surf quality leaves nothing to be desired.
Words by Tom CurrenPhotos by Yassine Ouhilal
Light / Dark
An Arduous Landscape…
An Untrammeled Resource…
An Appreciative Traveler…
It’s been a whirlwind chasing this swell to northern Africa. I’ve only traveled like this a few other times—by that I mean booking a last-second trip with the sole intention of catching a swell. It’s a spontaneous kind of living that I enjoy, but I don’t think it will ever become my preferred mode of travel.
The first time I went to Jeffreys Bay I had a similar experience, pausing from everything because I was told the waves would be perfect. It’s odd traveling all that way, from California to Africa, for one swell, watching three-foot surf grow steadily by the hour. But when my friend Yazzy, a photographer making his home in the region for a few months of the year, guaranteed there would be quality surf and a good time, it seemed like a trip worth taking.
Yazzy is one of those guys who’s managed to make his residence in two or three remote outposts on the planet where there are good waves and not many tourists. As a complete tourist, I reap the rewards of his long and steady research of these remote areas. Friends like Yazzy always generously offer the fruits of their patient adventuring into the unknown once the swell is right. And thankful as I am for that opportunity, I’m growing more and more wary of these opportunities in some ways, knowing that these trips hasten the onslaught of wave-hungry travelers. Surfers who come here deserve new vistas as much as anyone else. And this isn’t a place that would seem to benefit from having more attention brought to it.
Yaz reminds me that when we leave, the wind blows away our footprints and continually reshapes the sand dunes for whomever comes here after us. Still, I think about the early days in places where the waves are this good, like the Mentawai, where the machine went out of control. The fact is, in this case, local affairs are so politically unstable that the kind of discretion required when traveling the area will regulate the influx of people for a long time.
Setting the Coordinates
I arrived 320 kilometers away from my meeting point with Yazzy and his friend Jerome. A fellow by the name of Aissa accompanied me on the ride out to the coast. We stayed for a couple of hours at “The Villa,” a gated compound in the city. Outside the gates was a scene of extreme poverty. The African desert itself might do something to strengthen that impression. It’s a desolate backdrop, with a starkness that controls the mood.
Aissa and I had dinner at a roadside joint. We sat facing four or five skinned goat carcasses swaying in the breeze while we enjoyed goat stew. It was around 4 p.m. when we finished up. From there Aissa took to the wheel.
It would be impossible to execute a trip like this without a local guide like Aissa. It was clear that even Jerome and Yazzy, both experienced travelers in the area, depended on him greatly. He did the driving, the shopping, brought food down to the camp, hunted for rabbit, and went fishing.
He’s also quite a character. I enjoyed talking with him about pig hunting on our ride. At a gas station midway through our drive, he sarcastically cursed out the attendant for shortchanging him on a prior visit and then continued on, weaving us through a long series of military checkpoints and barricades.
In terrain of this type, the skill of any driver quickly becomes apparent. And Aissa navigated his way smoothly—without rest—until 4 a.m. the following morning, allowing me to take in the passing towns and cities.
The landscape is extremely inhospitable yet strangely beautiful. I understand why people continue to endure the harsh conditions, even as urbanization and movement to bigger cities continues. Everywhere, on our drive, there was an abundance of construction sites, mostly abandoned. It was as if all development had suddenly come to a halt in many of the towns we passed.
Outside the cities, there were only some vague womanly shapes, usually in twos and threes off in the distance, cloaked beneath weighty fabric. This will be a “guy trip” in the truest sense. The fact is, no matter where you go—unless you’re planning on staying in a city—there are no women around to meet.
“I’ve been getting really interested in riding finless surfboards, which require intense concentration,” Curren noted. “The waves in this area provide the optimum potential for that type of surfing—lots of rights, too, which is fine by me.”
Most days we traveled quickly looking for surf, often moving great distances, which made it difficult to take things in. I think everyone would have appreciated a slower trip exploring the cities but it’s difficult to maintain that pace when knowing the possibilities of surf just a few more hours down the road.
The cities where we did stop were very distinct from one another—not like other areas of the world where regional architecture and cultural landscapes blend together. It might be a result of the area functioning as a crossroads for trade. People come from all directions, and have done so for centuries.
The vibrant music playing in the streets reflected that feeling of cultural intersection as well. It was impossible not to appreciate given how foreign the sounds were to my Western ears. That’s not to say that the region’s music is a mere novelty. There are rhythms transplanted from points all over the continent and beyond, melted into a unique blend that each municipality customizes to make its own. Exploring these micro-cultures would require months to even begin to appreciate. Maybe next trip.
Off to the next stop, working our way north. The wind has dominated for the last couple days and we decided to wait for the right time to head into what Jerome calls “wave country.” That required a border crossing into a new country, where the presence of unexploded ordnance made the whole ordeal a lot less appealing.
When the cloud pattern broke in the distance this afternoon, we headed in that direction. With clear skies, offshore winds may come up overnight, and the swell should hang in through the morning. The car ride north was actually a welcomed opportunity to rest. A trip here leaves you feeling considerably more beat up than you would traveling to most pointbreak destinations.
The pointbreak approach ingrained over decades—harking to 30 years ago at Rincon, 25 years ago at Bells, and 20 years ago at J-Bay.
Yesterday the waves were near perfect, but nobody wanted it. We were all too tired and too surfed out. After one day of looking at empty waves that good, it was easier to refrain from jumping up and down in excitement. Conversations can be conducted in full view of the lineup, with a pause during sets.
We got fun waves today, too. I surfed my 5’9″ and had a few wipeouts. The wave was almost a closeout—it was that fast. I kept missing sets, though I connected on a couple. Still, it was fun to ride something more user-friendly for a change. I’ve been getting really interested in riding finless surfboards, which require intense concentration. The waves in this area provide the optimum potential for that type of surfing—lots of rights, too, which is fine by me.
The other day was about 3 to 4 feet and ideal for the alaia. On one section I tried to make, the board wouldn’t comply and sent me flying. I fell in an awkward way, bruising my ribs. It felt better this morning, but it was still disappointing to get slapped by a 3-foot wave and slowed down during some quality excitement.
(Left) Abdelali tends the fire at the mercy of harsh desert winds. (Right) Curren waxes up in the shade.
There’s more surf coming, so I extended my trip to catch the new swell, but that has proved to be somewhat futile as my ribs haven’t come right. No matter, I’m still enjoying my time here. The water feels soothing, balmy, and noticeably saltier than the Pacific.
As the promise of empty surf becomes more scarce, the allure of searching out waves like this becomes a higher priority. The sort of desolate experience offered in many of the spots we’ve visited is something that hasn’t presented itself lately as many of the places I’ve enjoyed traveling in the past become increasingly urbanized. I hope to pursue these kinds of trips with my family. It would be a wonderful thing to share with my kids.
Any new country or place requires some ingenuity, some inventiveness. But places hitting 120 degrees Fahrenheit require adaptation to the extreme limits on available resources. For now, we just need the ocean. And for the people who inhabit the region, too, the bounty provided by the sea is the essence.
The Chief, My Friend
I’ve narrowed our whereabouts down to something like an 80-kilometer radius. It’s virtually impossible to figure out where we are, even though the highway is just nearby.
Our host and tour guide, Jerome, is well traveled through this region and has been for many years. He’s a mysterious person. Why hadn’t I heard of him or seen photographs of him surfing before?
Jerome delineates the relevant political and geographical markers.
Curren’s tube ended with a late exit out the doggy door. Behind him rides Axi, drafting clean lines and tube style from down the point.
The quality of his turns merits contender-ship on the World Tour. And he’s on the verge of becoming somewhat more recognized due to his exploits at tow spots along the southern European coast. Yet he prefers to remain off the radar—sponsored but low-key—while he continues to explore and discover new reefs and points in his spare time.
Along with his big-wave partner Axi Muniain, Jerome’s destined proteges, Ramzi and Othmane are great surfers as well, and improving quickly. They form a well-oiled team in a region where real work is required to reach the surf. This makes finding waves exceedingly smooth. We are never lost and numerous times Jerome positions us ideally for incoming swell.
Without his privileged access to the coast, we wouldn’t have been able to surf many of the best waves. It seems that he has the good fortune of family friends in high places to alleviate the burdens that would otherwise come when accessing forbidden destinations. It felt odd to be welcomed by a chief of the army rather than cuffed or chased away.
Two decades after “The Search”—in which Curren roamed the planet with wunderkind Frankie Oberholzer in an ode to life beyond the contest pit—the maestro finds himself without fanfare nor cats let out of the bag, secrecy to the point of subterfuge and no afterburn of film, ads, or perpetual follow-ups.
I wonder how long Jerome will continue to travel these areas for such extended periods as he is starting a family now. He talks to his children and in-laws over Skype, listening to the wide-eyed wonderment of a 4-year-old talking about how his day was.
As the surf season draws to a close, he’ll be moving on to Bali for the summer with his family while the surf goes totally flat here in the off months. The swell is fading now, but there are still quality waves and another swell on the way. Except for a few fishermen there will be no one here to see it let alone surf it, Jerome reminded me, as if it never existed at all.