Surfing in the Time of Ebola

We’re in Liberia, and we’re all going to die.

Not from contracting Ebola – the lethal virus that tricks your body’s immune system into shutting down while it attacks vital organs and causes massive hemorrhaging. No, Christopher is going to kill us.

Christopher is the owner of the battered 1998 Nissan station wagon we are hurtling towards Monrovia in. The Nissan’s engine begs for mercy as the revs shoot into the red and we swing out past the line of cars in front of us. Invariably there’s another vehicle bearing down the opposite lane, but it’s too late. We’re committed, locked in by the cars we’re overtaking on one side and the impenetrable jungle on the other. The vehicle ahead starts flicking its lights. Christopher flicks back. Flick-flick. Flickedy-flick.

I look at Simon Fish and Jordy Maree sitting next to me on the backseat for some assurance, but they both have their heads buried deep in their hands. I can’t look away though. This is how we’re going to die, wrapped in scrap metal and irony, a road accident fatality in a country where the leading cause of death for the past 15 months has been a lethal virus. And the soundtrack is going to be gospel music, cranked up as loud as the volume will go.

“Lord, my life is in your handsssss…”

Jorrdy Maree, airborne at Fisherman's point.

Jorrdy Maree, airborne at Fisherman’s point.

The moan of the truck hooter collides with gospel song as we swing violently back into the right-hand lane. Jordy giggles nervously. Simon doesn’t look up; he just shakes his head and swears under his breath. Christopher stares ahead, deadpan, except for the tremor that flickers across his cheek as he clenches his jaw.

This is how we drive to the capital Monrovia, and then another four hours north to Robertsport, our final destination. The routine is only interrupted when one of us moves to turn the volume dial down and Christopher slaps the hand away with mongoose-like reflexes. “No,” he says, wagging his index finger from side to side, still looking straight ahead, jaw clenched.

I’d first heard about waves in Liberia from veteran photojournalist Nic Bothma. Nic was the Africa bureau chief for the European Pressphoto Agency, which meant his bread and butter was going to countries most people were trying their hardest to avoid. And between 1989 and 2003, Liberia was a place you wanted to avoid.

Decades of inequality and simmering ethnic tension had escalated into back-to-back civil wars with a number of rebel groups vying to overthrow the Liberian government. By the late stages of the conflict, Charles Taylor had a death grip on the country. His rebels were infamous for the bands of children they kidnapped then armed with AK47s and fed palm wine and brown-brown – a mixture of cocaine and gun powder – before they were unleashed to do Taylor’s bidding.

Another notorious general, Joshua Milton Blahyi, earned the nickname General Butt Naked by leading his troops into battle wearing nothing except sneakers and automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. It would have been comical were it not so tragically terrifying. Blahyi encouraged his soldiers to eat the hearts of fallen enemies to absorb their strength as they ripped up the countryside.

Some of the hardest hit places were villages like Robertsport, where Nic recounted running away from mortar fire while looking back over his shoulder to see reeling left hand point breaks cracking off in the distance, lines stacked to the horizon amongst the smoke of burning buildings.

It’s a well known story how Alfred Lomax became the first Liberian surfer after he found a bodyboard in a rubbish dump while fleeing the rebels in Monrovia, probably around the same time Nic was there. The beautifully made documentary Sliding Liberia tells how Lomax taught himself to ‘slide’ along the waves, learning to surf alone without any outside influence. He returned to Robertsport after the war ended and later met Nicholai Lidow, a young academic from America. Lidow passed on a surfboard to Lomax and returned year after year, eventually making the documentary that would help awaken the surf world to the rich potential along Liberia’s coastline.

Inevitably, a small surf community started to take shape, sharing the scraps of boards left behind by aid workers and curious travellers. Then in 2011, two intrepid Californians opened a surf camp in partnership with the Robertsport community. The seeds of a nascent surf tourism industry started to sprout.

“I’m seeing a bright future for Robertsport,” Alfred’s mother, Mamma Lomax, says towards the end of Sliding Liberia. And for a while there, it looked like her prophecy was coming true. Then the crisis began.

In December 2013, a young boy died suddenly in the small village of Méliandou in neighbouring Guinea. A year later, Ebola had ripped through West Africa and dominated headlines across the globe. Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia suffered the worst casualties with over 11,000 deaths, effectively shutting these countries off from the outside world.

It was about this time that I bumped into Nic again at a party. He had just returned from an assignment in Monrovia and shook his head as he recounted what he had seen. Entire neighbourhoods quarantined. Doctors and aid workers walking around in biohazard suits collecting the dead. The most disturbing scenes were the grief-stricken families who would break into the mortuaries at night to steal back the bodies of their dead relatives so they could bury them, unwittingly spreading the disease.

“The thing is,” Nic said, “These stories are in the news for a while, everybody’s talking about it. And then something new comes up, or the story gets old and the world moves on. But that doesn’t mean it’s over.”

We arrive in Robertsport long after the sun has gone down. It’s been almost a year since I had spoken to Nic, and 45 days since the last reported case of Ebola in Liberia. The road from Monrovia is still littered with huge signboards shouting, “Ebola is Real!” But in Robertsport, there is only the sound of the ocean breathing loudly against the humid darkness.

When the sun comes up again, it melts away these shadows of death and disease. We find ourselves on the beach where a thick knot of jungle pulls a string of sandy bays together. And there are waves. Waves as far as the eye can see, running and looping in long, oily lines.

“I dunno about this,” Simon says as we contemplate the jump-off at Cottons, named after the massive cotton tree that towers above the canopy of rain forest. Apparently there’s a channel, but all we can see is an anorexic gully between the hungry looking boulders. It’s a few short strokes to the back, but if you mistime the jump off, even a small swell will wash you straight into the bricks.

Simon runs into the shorebreak, then stops and backtracks as a one footer blocks his exit. He scrambles onto the retreating surge and barely scrapes past the boulders. A fisherman is watching from the beach and it turns out he also surfs. “Oh yeah,” he laughs, pointing at the rocks. “Guys go over them all the time. You get cut up real good.”

He shows his legs to prove the point. They are speckled with purple scars where the pinnacles have scooped out neat little lumps of flesh. These same rock formations hold the sediment in place and give the waves their impeccable shape – a pattern that is repeated over and over along the peninsula.

“It’s like Snapper on your forehand!” Simon shouts, paddling back out after a long runner. The wave is perfectly suited to his style, all flowing lines punctuated by tight jams in the pocket and a deep understanding of the rail, fine-tuned by many hours spent in the shaping bay plying his trade. “It runs at the perfect pace,” he froths, sitting up on his board. “You can just hit it again and again.”

We watch as Jordy takes off deep, skirts the rocks, then unleashes a series of tail-free turns past the second lump of boulders and ends with a closeout bash on the sand. He grabs his board, runs 100 metres up the beach, and is out back before the next set arrives. Simon chooses the best sets without fail, but Jordy matches his wave selection with youthful enthusiasm. For every wave we ride, the grom catches two, tearing them apart all the way to the end.

There’s just one other surfer in the lineup, an amicable Canadian named Steff who has been here for three weeks. Other than Steff, we are the first foreigners to visit Robertsport in more than a year.

The waves continue to uncoil in long sets, evenly spaced and worn smooth by the thousands of kilometres they have travelled along the African continent until they reach us. Hours later, a local kid carries a battered Firewire up the beach and expertly slips out between the rocks. He flashes a smile, asks if anyone is going, then takes off on a medium sized set.

At first, he looks unsteady on his feet, but then he bottom turns and blasts off the top, laying back like a limbo dancer in the whitewash as he recovers. His surfing is zippy and organic with loose lines that intuitively put him in the pocket of the wave.

I bump into Sekee Gross a couple of days later along the road behind the beach. The air sweats with moisture, but he somehow looks crisp in a vest and boardshorts. His hair is sheared into a Mohawk with the words “Wave come!” expertly shaved into the sides, the mantra all the locals use to conjure up the surf. The wind is blowing sideshore, but Sekee’s optimism is unwavering.

“Yeah, maybe tomorrow I think it will be good,” he smiles.


Stretching out on a wave that's travelled over 7000 kilometres to make landfall

Stretching out on a wave that’s travelled over 7000 kilometres to make landfall

We’re sitting on the crumbling wall of a large building that would have had a commanding view of the peninsula in its prime. Now it’s a charred skeleton licked by tall grass and palms. I’m told it used to be the finest hotel in Robertsport where all the tourists from Europe and Monrovia would stay. But it got bombed and gutted along with almost every other building when the rebels landed, when Sekee was a young boy. I ask him if he recalls anything from that time.

“Oh yeah,” he replies. “When Charles Taylor came with a gunboat, with weapons, he landed on the beach. They put all the females aside, the kids, the men, and then they look at all the boys and men and say, ‘You must carry’. They gave me a big gun, bullets, and what must I do? If I refuse, then I will die, so yeah, we’re forced to do it. We carried the weapons from the gunboat into town. We were forced to work for the rebels.”

Sekee’s family and many others eventually fled Robertsport, stealing out at night in fishing boats or crawling through the jungle. They headed to Monrovia, where government forces were still in control.

“We were there for World War I, in a house,” he says, using the name Liberians give the first civil war between 1989 and 1997. “But World War II, it was so difficult. Many people lose their life. We were in Greystone, the refugee camp, and people were doing crazy stuff.”

Sekee’s memories from this time are flecked with brutality. People getting shot, killed, having their limbs severed with machetes. Yet he still considers himself blessed, he says, because his family survived.

“You realise the soldiers, some don’t even know who they are fighting,” he says. “They’re not fighting their enemy, they’re just fighting to rape, or loot, or get money. They were just killing innocent people.”

When Sekee returned home after the war, Robertsport was a carcass picked clean by the rebels. There was no longer any running water or electricity – all the cables and pipes had been stripped out – but there was peace. And then came surfing.

“When I started surfing, I learnt to stand up regular,” Sekee says. “But then I started to ride switch because I realised the wave was left-breaking. Surfing regular is good, but I wanted to surf switch so I can have the wave in front of me and catch a good barrel.” He curls his left arm over his head to imitate the long cylinders that peel and spit down the beach behind us.

Shipwrecks sits at the top of the peninsula and acts as a swell magnet, offering plenty of ramps and tubes when the swell trends down

Shipwrecks sits at the top of the peninsula and acts as a swell magnet, offering plenty of ramps and tubes when the swell trends down

We meet more Robertsport surfers as the days wear on either in the water or on the verandah where we escape the weather, which fluctuates between relentless sun and deluges of rain so heavy they fall in sheets from the sky and explode on the tin roof in a deafening roar.

Morris ‘Manchild’ Gross becomes a de facto member of our group, leading us around the peninsula while clambering up coconut trees and expertly cracking open the shells so we can drink the sweet milk. Or he picks the pods from the wild almond trees that dangle in heavy clumps along the beach.

Manchild is shorter than the 5’8 he carries, a little cannonball of bulging muscle and sharp wit that belies his 17 years of age. In stark contrast, Peter Yarango is nearly as tall as his 7’0” Dennis Pang, an old Pipeline semi-gun that once belonged to Mikala Jones and somehow washed up on these shores. “Yoh, he’s the biggest ou I’ve ever seen in my life!” Jordy claims without fail every time we see him.

Then there’s Alfphanso Appleton, or Fonzy, whose soft-spoken manner is contrasted by a cackling, infectious laugh. Fonzy and Peter manage Kwepunha, the surf camp at the heart of the Robertsport community. All the surfers we meet are connected to Kwepunha in some way or other.

I later ask Daniel Hopkins, one of the owners, what it takes to set up a surf camp in a place with no running water, electrical grid, or tourism infrastructure. He just laughs. Instead, he tells me how he got sick of hearing his friend and business partner Sean Brody raving about this small African country with a staggering abundance of reeling left-handers and hardly anyone to ride them with: “So I joined him for a month in 2011, and we absolutely scored.”

Simon likened Cottons to Snapper for its punchy, sand-bottomed speed and power - minus the 100 other guys in the water, of course.

Simon likened Cottons to Snapper for its punchy, sand-bottomed speed and power – minus the 100 other guys in the water, of course.

For two goofy footers from the crowded shores of La Jolla, it was manna from heaven. Most of the village relied on fishing to survive, and a seed was planted.

“You could see it and feel it in the community that there was a lot of opportunity for tourism to come here,” says Daniel. “People really wanted it. So we ended up leasing a piece of land, but we had no real plan to be completely honest. We spent a long time figuring out how we could set up a business and do it in a way that benefits the community. I ended up moving out here, and somehow things worked out. Three months later we were open, and the first weekend we were completely booked out.”

By 2014, Kwepunha employed over 20 full time staff, had launched a number of outreach programmes and established a surf club where members could borrow equipment from the boardroom, which housed a collection of donated surfboards. A lot of the guests weren’t surfers but that didn’t matter. Business was good and the community was thriving.

“Robertsport was right there on the cusp of blowing up as a tourist destination,” says Daniel. “Then it all just disappeared as Ebola started to pick up. Everyone left. There was a lot of disbelief and denial, and that didn’t help either.”

The root of this denial lies deeply entrenched in Liberia’s history. “Some people were ignorant about what Ebola was, but it wasn’t just ignorance,” explains Fonzy. “Liberia is a very corrupt country, since before the war, so a lot of people found it hard to believe Ebola was real and thought the government was making up tricks just to get money (from foreign aid). So it was hard for the government to make people believe Ebola was real. Then people started dying a lot.”

Ebola spreads through contact with bodily fluids. Sweat, mucus, blood – even touching an infected person’s clothes. Once the virus hit the capital of Monrovia, it exploded through the dense slums and reverberated across the country. Unlike the war, however, Robertsport was miraculously spared. Not a single case of Ebola was reported, but the disease cast a long shadow.

“Since Ebola, nobody comes here anymore,” Sekee had told me when we first met. I later found out that he lost three relatives during the crisis and was quarantined with his family when it was suspected they might be infected too. They almost starved to death with food and money running out, and over the 21 days they had to remain locked indoors, cut-off from the outside world. Many other households endured the same fate.

Even when the quarantine was lifted, Robertsport effectively remained shut off from the outside world. But the waves continued to roll in, and the surfers of Robertsport continued to ride them.

“We passed through a lot of pain, but we didn’t to just keep sitting, worrying,” says Sekee. “Surfing makes you strong.”

Fisherman’s is small, but the waves run for hundreds of metres at a time as we bob in the warm of the sea. This is where the kids from the village learn to surf, along the benign sandspit that breaks a few metres from shore. When a large swell wraps in just right on those few occasions a year, it takes on a different persona, grinding and tubing endlessly down the bay.

The sideshore wind is blowing again, and we’ve probably mistimed our trip. All the locals tell us about the months earlier and later in the year when the wind is just right, but it still feels like paradise. This endless peninsula of waves, the thick canopy of rainforest, the small town with its dusty market and beer stalls and kids who run out and hug our knees, the pretty girls who ask us to take photos of them and the slow afternoons with dripping sunsets. Paradise played to the soundtrack of a light wind rustling the palms, rain on the roof, the creak of the jungle and the hum of the generator that kicks into gear each evening, giving us the luxury of running water and electricity,

I wonder to myself if it would still feel like paradise if I had lived through a war here, or been quarantined during the Ebola crisis. If I had to row a fishing boat every morning under the beating sun to put food on the table, or stay in one of the crumbling houses patched up with sheets of corrugated iron, surrounded by jungle and rust.

But these thoughts are self-indulgent and pointless. Liberia is a country that has been defined by war and disease, yet it is so much more than that. To continue to define it in this way is perhaps the worst injustice, robbing its people of their own voice, and the country of a different future.

“The war is over. Ebola is over. But we are still here,” Benjamin McCrumada, one of Robertsport’s oldest surfers tells me resolutely as we watch the sun disappear into the ocean. “And tomorrow, the waves will come.”