Surfing Senegal, and what you need to know about it.
Senegal lies in West Africa, South of Mauritania and North of Guinea and Guinea-Bissau. To the East is Mali and to the West is what interests us most, the Atlantic Ocean. If you have a closer look on a map, you will realise that there is a Country within Senegal. This country is The Gambia and it is English speaking.
Senegal has a lot of different ethnic groups, each with their own language, but the official language spoken is French. And it makes life here much easier, if you speak some. Of course you’ll find people who speak English, but the majority, including Taxi or bus drivers don’t. Their English is as good as my Wolof, which is the most spoken native language by the local people (especially around Dakar).
Dakar is not only the Capital, it is also where approximately seven Million of the almost thirteen Million inhabitants live. It is also the most western point of mainland Africa. The “Cap-Vert peninsula” stretches out to the ocean like a little hook and as a result has a 270 degree swell window. This also means almost always off shore wind on one side or the other.
Dakar might feel a bit busy, but once you’re out of the airport, the busiest and most stressful part is done. Even in the middle of downtown or deep inside one of the big markets, most everyone is relaxed.
The people of this country are amazing! They have the genes to look amazing. Tall, beautiful features, always smiling and the best body you can dream of. At least as soon as they work out a little bit. YES: they are as lazy as can be, and yes: Sitting around and doing nothing is considered an activity here! BUT: They love to work out! You always see people running along the beach promenade, doing some exercise in the sand, playing football, or running circles on the beach until they made a knee-deep track. All that work out including the national diet of rice, fish, vegetables, onions and more onions, gives them the bodies that make you understand why sex trade is such a big business here. Guys are coming for it just as much as ladies, old as well as young.
But it’s not only that they look gorgeous and love working out just as much as they love doing nothing, they are also the most hospital people you can imagine. In most cases, this is not about money, but simply about their way of living. And their way of living, is sharing. I’ve heard that this corner of the world is, where the friendliest people live! And after I’ve been here, I believe it one hundred percent!
Senegal has a relatively short coastline of just over 500 km and most the good surf is in the Dakar area. The Cap-Vert peninsula is blocking a lot of the swells that are coming in too steep from the North or the South, but you can surf them on the right side of the peninsula. And if you’re staying in Dakar, that’s never far away. The good South swells are generally coming during the months of May – November and during this time, there are a lot of wind swells from the North. This is also the season for warmer water and fewer people. It is also the perfect time for beginners, because this is when the beach breaks work best.
Winter season from December – April has a lot of solid North swells and even with only two or three feet of ground swell, you’ll have overhead waves on most of the days. During these months you’ll be happy to have a good wetsuit, as the water can get pretty cold. While the sun is still strong enough to bake you during the day (you will probably get sunburned without even noticing because of the fresh breeze), wearing a jumper sitting around at night might be comfortable.
Senegal is Africa, but don’t expect huge Safaris, with lions, giraffes, elephants and those beasts. It’s interesting to go away from the ocean a bit and see something different, but there is actually not that much to see. There are some areas that are good for bird watching and some big rivers to travel up and down. There is fishing and Baobap trees to look at (a holy tree for the people here), but other than that, there’s not too much. If you only want to do and see one thing, or if the waves are too good to go away from, take half a day to go to Goree Island in Dakar. This Island is easy to reach from the city centre and worth a visit. It used to be one of those places in Africa, from where they shipped slaves to the new world. It’s a heavy trip and maybe not the best thing to do before you want to go out and party. But it’s interesting and the island itself is nice to see. There are a lot of artists living there by now, and many of them work as guides as well. Find one who speaks good English (if you don’t speak French well enough) and pay the few extra $. You’re going to see so much more of the island, the art and the people living there, if you have a good guide.
Dakars nightlife is famous, and that for a good reason. People here love to go out. They love to go out late and stay out all night long. They dress up, drink up and dance off! Downtown has a fair few clubs and bars to go, but most the people who can afford it, come to Almadie. This is where you’ll find a street with one bar/ club after the other. You can go out and party almost every night, but Saturday is definitely the biggest one. If you like drinking, better pre-drink a bit, as prices are more European than African.
Dakar has a lot of life music. Just talk to the local people, they probable tell you where to go and who to see. There are so many more places to have a great night out, just talk to the kind of people you hang out with, and they probable tell you where to go and have a good time.
I haven’t seen the North I have to say. And from what I heard St. Louis is a nice place to visit for a day or two. There are supposed to be some waves, but not much. St. Louis has a beach break and some unsurfed waves down towards Dakar. Have a closer look at a map and you might find something that could be working, and might be worth checking out. There is still a good chance in this area to find waves no one knows about, or no one talks about and surfs them alone. Do it, enjoy it, and hope it stays like that.
Dakar is an interesting place. It is huge and has so many people living there. But if you stay in a neighbourhood like N’gor or Almadie, you feel nothing of the big city life. This is also where most of the waves are. Between Almadie and downtown are a few high class hotels and another one is in N’gor. There are also a few middle class hotels everywhere and a couple of Surfcamps. Prices are higher than you would expect for what you get. If you want to live really cheap, stay with the locals, and eat with the locals. This could be an experience of a lifetime, but also a bit ruff and tuff.
N’gor island and close by
N’gor is on the North side of the Cap-Vert peninsula and is probably the best known place for surfing Senegal. Bruce Brown was here in the sixties and brought them surfing when they recorded the classic surf movie “the endless summer”. In that movie they surf the wave of N’gor Island. Much has changed since, but not everything. Surfing Senegal became more popular, but the people are still smiling and happy to see you. Even if there are more surfers there hese days, your chances to surf N’gor alone are still fairly good. N’gore is an island with a left on one side and a right on the other. The right hander is more powerful and always bigger, but works better in the winter months. The left is the opposite in every one of those aspects. Another big difference is that the right can still be pretty good with a lot of wind on it, and the left can handle nothing more than a light off shore breeze.
The right is always a different wave, every single session. It can be a perfect and powerful wave, but most of the time it’s only a big, fat take off and not much of a shoulder to surf. On those days it’s better on a longboard so you can hang on and wait for the wave to get better again further down the line. But always keep an eye on it, it could turn into perfection only five minutes later.
What both those waves have in common, with almost every other wave around here are the sea urchins! Booties can be a good idea, but it actually is most of the time fairly easy to get in and out of the water. Just make sure you don’t hit the bottom once you’re out.
There are a couple of other surf spots around the island, or close by. You can take a boat there, swim or even walk once you’re on the mainland. Probably the best-known one is “Baie de carpes” a.k.a. Bdc or “Bay the crap”. After you’ve surfed it once, you understand why crap! There is a lot of bad stuff in the water and you better make sure to rinse your ears out as soon as you get back. Nevertheless, it is a fun A-frame that works quite often and is much more forgiving than let’s say N’gor right or Bdc’s neighbour wave called: Gauche de Loic.
Gouche de Loic (Loic’s left) is another lefthander that works only without any wind at all. But if you’re lucky enough to score such a day, it’s a really long and powerful wave. It is also much bigger than what it looks like from the island. Give it a try on a medium to small but calm day.
If you’re looking for some easy beach break or want to learn surfing Senegal, it would be better to go towards the other direction, towards the airport. Not far from N’gor is a beach called Virage, where you’ll find some good waves in summer time. Further up is Yoff, a fairly consistent beach break. But don’t think you’ll find another “La Gravier” only because they speak French. Yoff is most of the time more of a beginners beach with waves breaking far out and white water crumbling all the way in to the shore. The perfect set up to learn how to surf.
Surfing Senegal on the other side of the Cap-Vert peninsula means Almadie. It is only a few minutes cab ride or a short walk through some ghetto kind of neighbourhood. I loved this walk, as you are in the middle of everyday life and you don’t have to feel afraid at all. People here are used to “Tubap” (white guy) and don’t really care about you. They will smile at you, so smile back, be polite and soak it all in.
There are a couple of surf spots over here and also a few restaurants.
The best surf spot here is most likely Club Med, but be careful with the rocks! Club Med is another right hander with a bit of power. But it has a shifty take off spot, so better make sure you know where to sit. There are a couple of different sections you can surf from here down towards the East. All these spots work on different tides, so you can sometimes hang around here all day long and surf different waves depending on the tide. Just ask the locals, they’re happy to tell you.
In Almadie is a surfspot called “secrets”. It is actually the worst of all the waves here yet also the easiest and/or friendliest. Because of this it became the place where most of the people surf and hang out. The guys here are awesome and you can leave your stuff around here with no problems. They also sell sandwiches and cold drinks here.
Surfing Senegal involves sitting around here. To your left, you’ll see another wave breaking. This is Vivier. Vivier has a left and a right, and again, they are working on different tides. The right is super fun and offers sometimes easy to make barrels and always nice faces for some big turns. The only problem is, it is so short, that the guy who takes the first wave of the set is already back for the last one of the same set. That means it doesn’t handle any kind of crowd. Try to hit it with a low tide, early morning during the week, when there is a real swell and you might get lucky. Or just hang around and be ready to surf it for a while alone when everyone is leaving and no new people have arrived.
Ouakam may just be the best place if it comes to surfing Senegal. It is situated next to a huge cliff and in front of a big and beautiful mosque. If you stand on the street high up behind the mosque, you can see the perfect triangular shaped reef that creates this A-frame.
The left is better on a lower tide and much friendlier. That doesn’t mean you are not going to hurt you. The rocks are close and like everywhere in the area there are more sea urchins than rocks. Most of the time it’s a good but super slow and easy wave, where you’ll end up in a deep channel. But if you don’t make the whole wave, or if you have to straighten out, you’re likely to end up on the rocks, especially on smaller days.
The right hander is the hiding jewel of Surfing Senegal. It needs a good swell to start working and is the kind of wave that you’re going “full commitment” or you’re better off not even trying. Again, you’re way too close to the urchin-invested rocks, but this wave is much faster than its friendly sibling on the other side of the reef. The right is throwing barrels as soon as it starts working. Make sure the tide is high enough when you paddle out here, and you are ready to surf the best waves of your trip, and/or pay the tribute.
Ouakam has a lively fishing community where they sell everything they take out. It’s a very unique place with the stunning mosque, fisherman and the perfect waves in front. Well worth a visit, even if the waves are not pumping.
Towards the city
If you ride towards downtown from Ouakam you’ll see a lot of the cities coastline and with all its bends you can only guess where you’ll find waves on the right day. The problem is that the water quality is getting worse and worse the closer you come to the city center. But there are a fair few waves here, that pick up a lot of swell and are rarely surfed. If you don’t mind the pollution, you’re going to have fun here.
If you feel like to go exploring surfing Senegal, you have to move South. The biggest problems here are that Dakar block most of the swells coming from the north and that the ocean floor isn’t getting abruptly as deep as it does around Dakar. This makes the waves less powerful. But come here with a decent West swell, or any South swell, and you’ll find countless beaches, little points and wedges, no one surfs. I only surfed one spot down here and checked out a couple of others. It can be super fun and forgiving surf, lefts and rights, and for once with less sea urchins! Of course they are here as well, but a lot of the spots are sand covered rock formations and you’ll never even touch one of those rocks. There are no surf shops or schools here and very few tourists in general. The locals here live a really simple life and are probably stoked to watch you surf, want to touch your board or just hang around. Enjoy this environment and the possibility to still be able to experience something like that.
The Gambia is a strip of sand with hotels and European tourists, the Gambia River and a stretch of a few kilometres to both sides. The Culture is much the same as Senegal, but the land is already a lot greener. There are some good rivermouths and yetties to surf here that work with big South and West swells.
Not many people come here to surf. It’s usually only the expats who live here that also know about the places. Because of this and of its inconsistency, it has a poor reputation for surfing. But if the right people take you to the right places on the right days…right, you’ll score. It is as it sounds, not quiet easy to get good waves here, and because of this, it’s usually the people who live here, who share the waves between each other, even on the perfect days.
If you want to give it a try, your best chance is to find someone with the knowledge and wait for a big swell.
The capital city Banjul is kind of funny. It’s so small, you can walk across the whole city in no time. But that’s it, nothing more. There is not much to do here. You are better off going up river to some other cities or small towns and hanging out with the locals. See how they live, eat what they eat, and do what they to. That would be: chill…
Casamance is the southernmost province in Senegal and often considered to dangerous to travel. They still fight for independency here and best to find out before hand what the situation is like at the time you’re there. It may be save enough to go. Just stay away from demonstrations, big groups of people and best to stay out of the only big city Ziguinchor. If you come here by ferry from Dakar, no problem. Just take a cab to the “garage” or “gare routier”, from where minibusses to all different places in the region are leaving.
The nature here is lush and green, if you come at the right time of year. There are a lot of rice fields, oranges, mandarins and most of the other fruits you’ll find in Senegal. At least the fruits they don’t import. For some reason, they don’t have that much fruits and import most of them from further South. Surfing Senegal in Casamance is not great, but there are a few people living here who go surfing when ever there is a ripple in the ocean. It’s better to come here and enjoy the nature and culture that is has to offer. Go biking, kayaking, hiking or just hang around in some little village and soak in the West African culture in its purest form. Culture here is family (and you’ll become part of it in no time), food and music. There are some towns like Kafoutine which have a rich reggae culture and music is played and lived in the streets every day.
Surfing Senegal didn’t impress me much, but the culture blew me away! The surf can be great, but there are so many factors that can change a great session into something else. Most of the time, the waves here are not worth travel to another continent for. But you can get lucky and score perfect waves, three weeks in a row! and it will always only be you and some of your friends in the water! You can! BUT the chances to hang around for three weeks without one single great session are actually much higher. And if only one spot is working, it gets crowded. The most annoying thing about it is: You’re always so close to it! Maybe the swell is right, but the wind is wrong, maybe the tide is wrong, maybe the direction or what ever is ideal, but there is so often just one factor wrong. As most spots are so fickle here, and only get really good when everything plays hand in hand, one wrong factore, and it’s all gone! On the other side, this is also a good thing, as most of the spots here can’t really handle a crowd. And with the surf being so imperfect most the time, the travelling surfers from around the world don’t come in swarms.
I would also say, there is not all that much to do on the bad days, but this is not really a problem, as “doing nothing” is considered “doing something” here! Just sit around, drink tea, talk and relax. This is what people do here a lot. And judging by their never ending smiles, this is probably a healthy thing to do.
Here is a short video I made for N’Gore Surf Camp about Surfing Senegal: