Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The places I haven’t surfed…

Photo of Wadi Naga, Libya, copyright Anthony Colas.
In over four decades of surfing (is it that long?) I’ve really been blessed; I’ve ridden waves in Reunion, Indonesia, Morocco, Namibia, Namaqualand and the Wild Coast, and a host of uncrowded spots that now feature in magazines.

Looking back, I could say that “those were the days”, but I won’t – not yet. There are still plenty of waves to be ridden, even if in slow motion.  

Admittedly for the past decade or so I haven’t done a lot of surf trips. Yet, somehow, I’ve still managed to fill my passport visiting places where there is surf. Gaza, Libya, Lebanon and Somalia may have their challenges, but I can assure you, there are waves there.

The problem is that I’ve never been able to surf them. My missions (as a journalist) have been work-related, so loading a surfboard on to the cargo plane amongst the satellite dishes, flak jackets and survival gear has never been an option.

But bet your bottom dollar, there’s a time on these kinds of assignments when, amidst the chaos, you will find waves. Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic, Apocalypse Now, has got one of the most classic surf scenes because it’s so unexpected.

It’s also called Murphy’s Law – travel without a board, and the swell will follow you. This first happened to me along the Mediterranean in March 1997 in Tripoli, Libya, where I’d been covering a conference.

It was the era of the Lockerbie sanctions, and as no flights could land in Libya, I had to catch a ferry to Malta. A storm had brewed for several days, and my departure had been delayed.

From my beachfront hotel I could see surfable waves pitching and crashing on to a beach. I’d driven along the coast – some of it the most unspoilt in the Med – and seen Roman ruins and really promising headlands. With this swell running, who knew what lay around the corner?

I wondered whether I could find a surfboard. The trouble was that I did not know what the Arabic for “surfboard” was. The closest I got to “surfboard” was “ship”.  And even in translation, the surfing conversation died in tangle of confusion. There were obviously no surfboards in Libya in 1997.

I went back to Libya in March last year at the height of the Arab Spring. On the internet I’d learnt that 130 kms east of Tripoli was the Med’s longest left, Wadi Naga. I was sure I’d seen it in 1997. Ras Lanuf (the word “ras” means “point”) further east than Wadi Naga also popped up on the screen as being surfable.

Because of the war, I never did get to Wada Naga because Gaddafi’s son, Hannibal, was shelling from the sea, cutting off the Tripoli highway. I did sneak into Ras Lanuf, though, one evening.

Ras Lanuf was deserted, but there were swell lines. Then the message came through that Gaddafi’s mercenaries were on their way, and so we had to beat a hasty retreat. But don’t let anybody tell you there’s no surf in Libya. There is.

In the Gaza Strip – a thin Palestinian slice of land cut off from the world – there are some fine beaches. In 2006 whilst covering the Palestinian elections I woke up one January morning to see a big swell.

Israelis from the disbanded Gush Katif settlement had surfed the coast, and now, a group of young Palestinians had become the locals. The Los Angeles Times had featured a story of them sharing a surfboard at Al-Deira beach.

The father of Israeli surfing, Dr Dorian Paskowitz (who’d taken six longboards to Tel Aviv in 1956 and given the first one to an Arab lifeguard) saw the story and collected 12 or so boards – one reportedly donated by multiple world champ Kelly Slater, who is of Lebanese descent.

Then 86 years-old, Paskowitz flew from California to the Erez checkpoint – and with the help of a group called Surfers for Peace – blustered his way past the soldiers to hand over the boards.

In nearby Lebanon there are two surfing spots I know of: Jonas Beach (apparently named after Jonah in the bible) and Batroun. Both spots are south of Beirut, and on one of my earlier trips, used to travel down the coast to Sidon where a billboard featured an unidentified surfer at Waimea Bay.

In the 2006 conflict I can remember being awoken every dawn by the deafening crump of Israeli shelling. It was summer, and the Med was calm, even if everything else wasn’t.

One day, our Lebanese host decided to take us for ice-cream. After detouring into the mountains outside Beirut (the coastal highway was monitored by drones) we descended into a seaside town. It was Batroun, and in a rocky bay there were two body-boarders flopping about in a flaccid shore-break.

It was the same kind of surprise I got in Karachi, a throbbing Pakistan city best described as Durban overdosed on steroids, poverty and grime. In a crumbly shore-break I saw a body-boarder duck-diving under a brown wave whose faecal ecoli count was probably higher than my hotel toilet bowl. 

But the most productive trip (surf-wise) of all was Somalia last year. Somalia is on the eastern horn of Africa, and abuts into the Indian Ocean where there are powerful swells, especially during the monsoon.

En-route to Mogadishu our chartered plane stopped in Mombasa, Kenya, to refuel. We then flew up the Pirate Coast towards Mogadishu. I had a window seat. Looking out I could not believe my eyes. Below me were lagooned beaches and coral reefs. I saw V after V marked by white water, the unmistakeable sign of surf zones.

If anybody tells you there’s no surf in northern Kenya and southern Somalia, they’re lying. From about 20,000 feet up – and out of the range of rocket launchers – I saw uncharted waves.

Mogadishu’s runway requires that the plane come in from the sea – something like Bali – and as we skimmed over the swells, I could see that this once beautiful “jewel of the Horn” had great potential.

In fact, close to the airport and near to the “Pink Building” – according to locals a CIA listening post and an Al-Qaeda holding station – there was a headland and a small bay of some promise.

Unfortunately, our movement was governed by the security situation. Every night we could hear Al-Shabab and African Union forces exchanging mortar fire near the beach. We could not move anywhere without being accompanied by our “technicals” – half a dozen heavily-armed  militias in a battered 4X4.

But let me tell you one thing: the moment peace descends upon this beautiful, but tormented land brutally scarred by war and piracy, I’ll be back. There’s unfinished business.


  1. Wow, your surfing experience in Libya is very amazing. Thank you for sharing your experiences and knowledge about holidays and surfing. Odysseysurfschool.com

  2. Thanks I really enjoyed reading this. You're a true explorer! I wish you to have the opportunity to surf all these spots one day.