DAKAR, Senegal -- On the list of do's and don'ts for solo women travelers, climbing into a fishing skiff by yourself at 2:00 a.m. in Dakar, Senegal, probably qualifies as a don't. But in good faith, I do it anyway. As my boat driver, Samba, pulls away from the shore, I hold my breath, bracing against the strong smell of fish the air. Clasping my backpack tightly, the boat rises and falls with the waves.
"We are going to Ngor Island, right?" I confirm one last time. "Yes, Ngor," Samba replies, and then continues driving silently from the back.
Fifty years ago, Bruce Brown and his friends filmed part of the transformational surfing movie "The Endless Summer" here. And now a half century later, my own endless summer had begun.
Six weeks earlier, in my living room in Truckee, California, my friend Katie Naab and I watched "The Endless Summer." At the time, surfing in Dakar, Senegal -- the first leg of the journey for Mike Hynson and Robert August back in 1964 -- seemed like a world away. But as the Sierra Nevadas continued to experience its driest winter on record, we let our minds begin to drift.
"Surfing in Africa?" We joked with each other. "What do you think the surf scene looks like now?"
And now here I sit, alone, gazing up into a sea of brilliant stars, knowing Katie should have arrived at Ngor Island Surf Camp this morning.
"Wow," I think to myself. "This is Africa. What have I done?"
Then I see the shoreline. Soon after, I'm following Samba through the island's narrow, sandy paths up to the camp. As he pushes open the door to one of the rooms, I see Katie asleep beneath her mosquito net. Exhausted, I set my camera bag on the ground and collapse.
Basing ourselves out of Ngor Island Surf Camp, our hosts for the next 10 days are Jesper Mouritzen, his wife, Soraya, and their 3-year-old daughter, Mia. Located a quarter-mile by boat from the Dakar mainland and a five-minute walk from Ngor Right, their small retreat allows surfers to connect with other surfers, rent boards, take lessons and hire guides.
Jesper, originally from Denmark, had made several trips to Senegal, exploring the coast before setting up shop in 2009. Soraya was a guest in 2010.
"We didn't speak the same language," says Soraya, "but I just wanted to be near him, that was enough." Two months after they met, Soraya packed up her home in France and returned. A year later, Mia was born.
At the beginning, Jesper estimates he hosted about 300 surfers a year. Now that number has grown closer to 1,000. He's part of the growing number of local surf businesses that have opened within the last 10 years. Some of the others include the Rip Curl Surf Camp run by Oumar Seye -- Senegal's most famous surfer; Malika Surf Camp, owned by Marta Imarisio and Aziz Kane, another husband and wife team; and Pantcho Surf Trip. All are located on the Almadies Peninsula -- a six-mile stretch within the greater Dakar urban area with 15 popular surf breaks.
"Here the surf season is year-round," says Jesper. "We're the most western point in Africa, and we're in the middle of swells from both the north and the south. A flat day doesn't exist here -- particularly on Ngor Right."
The lure of surfing in Senegal for westerners, of course, is Ngor Right -- the point break made famous in "The Endless Summer." Two days after we arrive, there is still a big north swell and the waves at Ngor are double overhead. It's not until our third morning that a small, adventurous group decides to go out. Katie, a life-long surfer from Southern California, grabs one of the camp's longboards in the spirit of "The Endless Summer."
"The first time you paddle out and there is a swell, it's so intimidating," says Mitch Anderson, who has been living at Ngor for the last three months. "You're out in the middle of ocean and these massive waves start coming through. It's such a scary wave, but you get used to it."
To me, it looks big and heavy. Adding to the difficulty are Mami and Papi, two jagged rocks that stick out right in the middle of the best line.
"They kind of add to the fun I reckon," Mitch laughs.
But not for everyone. One of Senegal's best surfers, Kouka Ba, has a scar on his arm that looks like a zipper from a close encounter with Mami.
When I finally see Katie back at our room two hours later, she collapses onto the bed.
"That was intense," she says. "There is a lot of water moving out there. That wave is heavy. Holy cow, this is Africa. It's no joke."
Her comment makes me think of my favorite line from "The Endless Summer:" "It's just like riding waves in the USA ... only you aren't, you're in Africa."
Ngor Right is just one of many possibilities now for people who want to surf in Dakar. There is also Club Med, No Return, Secret Spot, Vivier, Secret 2 and Yoff, all reef breaks, except for Yoff. And for those who really want to step up there is Ouakam -- a small version of Backdoor in Hawaii. Thirty-five miles south of Ngor is the reef break of Yene, a perfect right that only breaks a few times year.
At the beginning of the week, Jesper introduces us to Samba Rocky Samb, aka Jakie, which is pronounced "Zakie." Jakie, 28, lives in Ngor Village on the mainland and has been working as a surf guide for a year. He was working in a bakery before Jesper hired him as one of four guides at the camp.
The local style of surfing, we learn, is distinct.
"They are loose and light-footed," says Anderson. "They aren't power surfers. They make their own style to suit the waves. They haven't been influenced by outside videos."
Jakie has never even seen "The Endless Summer."
Almost everywhere in Dakar is five miles from the ocean, but it's those who grow up in the fishing villages like Ngor and Yoff who become the best surfers.
"Our fisherman have to know about the swell, and they can read the swell by the moon," says Jakie. "A father or brother will show you just one time how to read it and then every time you see it. But you (Jakie points to me but not maliciously) you will never see it."
Each morning Jakie's routine is the same.
"I get up, take some breakfast, pray, and then head to Ngor Island for surf school," he says. (Senegal is predominately Muslim, but compared to Morocco up north where I've just come from, the city seems less traditional.) Jakie is one of the first people we see in the morning, and if we decide to go to the mainland to surf, he comes with us. He insists that we go to Secret Spot -- a shallow reef break with perfect offshore winds.
Secret Spot, Jakie tells us, is home for him, a place he can easily walk to from his house.
"We [the locals] can come and surf," says Jakie. "Then we can take a little break, see some friends, and surf again."
What Katie and I love most about Secret Spot is that it's not a secret. In the late afternoon, the beach fills up with fisherman donning masks and snorkels. Women in colorful dresses comb the rocks with small pails looking for sea urchins -- the same urchins whose needles surfers often have to pluck from their feet. Young ex-pat kids clamber out of SUVs for surf lessons and rip up and down the face of the wave with their shortboards.
While Senegal's waves were put on the map 50 years ago because of "The Endless Summer," its surf scene has evolved mostly within the last 10 years, not coincidently with the surge in surf tourism. With direct flights to Dakar from places like Paris and now even JFK Airport in New York, it's become more accessible. Increased traffic has created more jobs for locals and more surfing equipment gets left behind. Currently there are approximately 50 locals who surf and that number is growing. Additionally, Senegal now has its own surf federation, holds its own national championship, and is one of the stops on the Rip Curl West Africa tour.
For those who've managed to gain employment as a surf guide, it's even meant a little bit of distinction.
"They are the ones in the village making good money," says Jakie. "They are getting stuff [like old boards]. When they go back to the village, they have the nice sunglasses and the cooler clothes."
One day when I walk the half-mile strip between Secret Spot and Vivier, I count 10 different restaurants and snack shops. Jakie explains that when he started surfing 10 years ago, none of these were here. It's yet another example of how surfing can change the economic landscape.
Perhaps one of Senegal's biggest keys to success is its stability. With one of the most stable governments in West Africa, it has made it possible for people like Jesper to create successful businesses. Nearby Dakar also adds to the allure, mostly with its lively music scene -- one of the most renowned on the continent. Combine that with consistent waves year-round and hospitable locals like Jakie, and who wouldn't want to come here to surf?
It's just like riding waves in the USA ... except you're in Africa. And for the record, that's the best part.