Back On The Road
And then, just like that, the rain stopped. It was the first week of December, there had been no new Ebola cases in Liberia for 2 weeks and the media celebrated when the father and brother of the teenager who died were released from hospital on 2nd.
Sore-rib Sampson was working alternate days filtering oil from RLJ Kendeja Resort and the Grand Royal Hotel. But when surfing.com forecast a perfect swell due to hit Robertsport, our next stop along the coast, the following Tuesday, he somehow managed to do four consecutive days filtering, loading and getting all strapped down so we could leave Monday morning!
We breakfasted at the resort, courtesy of General Manager Rod Peck, feasting on fruit and yoghurt and bacon and fried plantains and the most velvety scrambled egg I’ve ever had in my life. Big Reg motored through Monrovia visiting embassies and supermarkets, picking up electrical parts in the industrial area and antibiotics at the pharmacy and made it through the sprawling Duala market just before rush hour gridlock. It was quite surreal to be crawling through colour and crowds and baskets and piles of fish and beans and potato greens on sidewalks teeming with people at 3pm, and be released into quiet lush green by 4.30. There were no suburbs to speak of, just tall grass stretching to tall palms in distance, the occasional school building, ‘gas’ stations with dozing men surrounded by large glass jars of diesel, or plastic bottles of white palm wine. Suddenly there were hardly any cars, a few bakkies groaning under sacks of cut palm fronds, the odd motorbike with three riders, loads of wandering goats and people with pangas walking, walking, always walking. Back to the bush.
I can’t tell you how calming it was to be back where I realise I belong: on the road. There is something so hypnotic, so mesmerising, so comforting about Big Reg chugging along. I don’t feel I have to be Doing anything. I feel I am always achieving, as long as we are moving. Onwards, upwards. I can ‘just breathe, just be’.
It was a relief to be out of the city where the smog of pollution had been intensified by the harmattan, which had set in two days previously. A surreal haze, the result of sand blown east by the cold dry dust-laden trade wind from the Sahara, hangs in the atmosphere, veiling the sun to a greater or lesser extent from December to March. While it offers a blessed respite from the heat, it produces a strange dusky atmosphere reminiscent of the eclipse we experienced in Gabon. All the insects come out early to play. I have never seen so many dragonflies in one place before.
That night, we pulled over just past the Immigration post at Klay, having taken the left hand turn off to Robertsport. Listening to the sounds of the bush were so much better than the radio to lull you to sleep.
Next day, it was bliss to wake to silence, look out and see nothing but mist hanging over the tawny grass and trees in distance. I did T’ai Chi lapping up the peace. Back on the road, the kids also immediately chill out; all bickering ceases. When we set off in the early morning, they love ‘lying in’, up in their bedrooms in the nose cone above us sitting in the cab, bouncing along the track around the ruts, back in the swaying rhythm of the truck. You can but give in to it. It was only another 40km to Robertsport, but it took us two and a half hours on the dirt road. We were glad it was dry.
On 8th Dec, exactly a month since we came to Kendeja, and two months after we left Cape Town, Big Reg arrived in Robertsport. It was not quite as I had imagined from the photos Sampson took when he was last here in August 2014. This busy little settlement reminded me of his home village of St Newlyn East in Cornwall, a bit bigger if anything, perched on a spindly peninsula between the sea and a huge lagoon they call Lake Piso.
We drove through the town and out the other side, up a steep hill, turned off the road into the bush and down a dodgy slope to a flat spot previously scouted out by Sampson, just past the giant cotton tree that gives it’s name to Robertsport’s most famous surf spot. We parked Big Reg’s bottom in the shade of two almond trees, leaving his solarpanels in the sun, about 25m from the shoreline.
We were bang on time. The waves were rolling down the point and thundering past us like trains, making the ground shudder. There were a couple of locals in the water already, leaping on board, risking a couple of wild rides. Sampson was beside himself. I had to handle most of the greeting and negotiating with the crowd of locals who immediately materialised as he was far too excited to concentrate on anything except getting his board waxed.
Robertsport, Day 2
So today I am officially a Bad Wife. Yesterday I made the cardinal error of neglecting to capture Husband’s “best wave in the last 5 years” for posterity. It was 8ft and scary and he rode it like a boss for over a minute. Unfortunately I had just given a courtesy truck tour to the caretaker who is allowing us to sleep on his patch and didn’t get back in place in time to shoot it.
But today was worse. As Oscar Wilde didn’t quite say, once is unfortunate, but twice is unforgivable. So, as I failed to film his longest, most elegant wave of the decade this morning, I shall attempt to immortalise it in prose. A poor substitute, but mine own…
It was like this. Just after 7 o’clock, as Sampson was running in with his board, his porridge spoon still smoking, I set off to walk the beach. But before I reached the point, I realised the waves were not just good, they were all-time epic, stacked like breakfast pancakes against the horizon, so I rushed back to fetch the cameras.
Earlier, as I stumbled around half awake, Sampson had given me a desultory 1 minute lesson in how to operate the tiny second hand videocamera he’d picked up in UK. I fuzzily filmed him falling off his first three take-offs, figured it was going to take him as long to settle into the waves as it was me into the videoing, so took the opportunity to pull out my trusty Tudortech Olympus to take a photo of a passing fishing boat, its red and blue paint shining cheerily in the sun just climbing over the trees. And that’s when he took the drop.
I froze. It was such a perfect wave: 6ft, curved overhead and peeling. It wasn’t just glassy, it was Venetian, rimmed pink and gold with the dawn light directly behind me. Sampson was sat confidently in the saddle, assured his wife was finally in the right place at the right time with the right equipment. I swear I was suddenly so panicked, time slowed as my mind raced to compute my chances and realised: I had the WRONG camera in my hand and not enough time to switch to video.
In the second I concluded I’d missed the key moment anyway, I decided I’d rather revel in watching him owning it than fumble belatedly: Sampson was flying along now, making swooping turns as he passed me, one, two, three gliding cutbacks, and up, around the rocks, and weaving on. “He must surely fall,” I thought “then he won’t mind so much that I missed filming this one, oh shit he made it, oh my God he’s still on it, oh my God he’s still on it, oh my God he’s still on it…” The wave was THAT long.
He came out feeling like a king, till I had to admit that, although I’d been holding a camera, I hadn’t actually filmed it, when he stopped grinning and swore royally. I felt so bad about letting him down, I was sick to my stomach for the next hour. Luckily this is Robertsport and there are never-ending opportunities to have another go: over the next three hours Sampson managed another half-decent wave or two and I eventually managed to film a couple. He was disappointed in the footage I did get; “It never looks as radical as it feels”. So maybe it’s for the best that his most impressive wave remains intact and glorious in our memory.
Zola’s surfing has improved hugely during his time in Liberia, thanks to all the warm water and camaraderie; he’s nailing his turns now and the duck-diving lessons from Cass Collier have really paid off. Sampson and he were joined today by Salsa, a 25 year-old Swiss German who lives in Cape Verde and has come to Robertsport for a month’s surf holiday. Sampson is so impressed with her as she only learned to surf four years ago, but is kicking the local boys’ butts in the water despite having had a child in the interim.
Most impressive of all is our Ruby, who has rediscovered her inner dolphin. Our last week at Kendeja she amazed surf coaches Peter and Melvin by swimming out through the heaving breakers and hanging out with them all at the backline for hours at a time, even though they were all floating on boards. Ruby is her Dad’s daughter, less-than-gainly on land, but effortlessly graceful in water. She took up surf photography and within three sessions was producing shots such as these:
PICS to follow
Robertsport Day 3
I woke just before dawn to shouts outside, slightly stressed men barking directions to each other, then what sounded like some mighty tub-thumping. I realised the fishermen were out, trying to avoid the rocks in the dark. I got up and walked up and down the beach watching lines of young men hauling in treknets thrown from wooden canoes, as the bigger boats scooted off round the point. It was a sadly disappointing catch.
I passed boats with names on well-worn West African themes – Dependable God, Anointing, God Will Provide – but my favourite was completely unexpected:
The last two days, Zola surfed for 6 hours in a row, till the skin on his torso and thighs was raw. He vowed to take a day off and stay out of the sea today in order to heal.
He lasted till 4pm.
Robertsport Day 4
The swell was dropping at Cotton Tree so we took a 20 minute walk around the point, along the next bay and through the bush from Shipwreck to Loco, Robertsport’s third wave. Salsa arrived just after we did and said, “I don’t know why it’s called Loco, it should be called Paradise.” The children were delighted to be stalked by huge butterflies, transparent crabs and neighbourhood puppies.
I lay in the shade while the waterbabies surfed and swimmed their hearts out, and read a chunk of my book The Scramble for Africa by Thomas Pakenham. It sat on my shelves for years at home, as I thought I never had enough time to tackle such a hefty tome. I found it while giving away all my books when we cleared out our storage boxes in Cape Town, and thought – if not now, when? Pakenham’s scope is spectacular, and it’s almost cinematic to have such a sweep of history laid out before you, especially when we’ve visited many of the places being fought over. The biggest revelation to me so far is how little colonisation had to do with government planning and how much more as a result of ambitious individuals and avaricious companies who subsequently lobbied their governments to uphold their commercial interests in the name of the state. Stanley, da Brazza, Peters: ruthlessly blagging their way round Africa by means of a combination of charisma, chutzpah, bolshiness, balls of steel and by-the-skin-of-their-teeth luck.
All male of course. Not a single pushy woman has featured so far and I’m a third of the way through.
Robertsport Day 5
This morning, a pick-up truck arrived as I was doing T’ai Chi and managed to negotiate a very tricky turn around Big Reg to back onto the beach before its crew of 10 started spading sand into it. We had already seen the pits from previous diggings, and the subsequent erosion under the trees. The caretaker Mr Smith had told us that he’d put a chain across the road to stop illegal gathering of sand from this stretch of beach and officials of the Dept of Agriculture had popped by to investigate. But the guy in charge, Bachuru, told us they were sent by the owner of this land, a former chief justice, for one of her projects: a triage for a new Ebola response centre being built in the town. You can’t argue with that, which is why I wonder how many illegal diggings are using that as their justification as well. Most of the buildings in Robertsport have cracked walls, as a result of too much salt in the sand used in the cement mix.
They dug up 7 loads, and lay around in the shade in between watching us doing our last exams, before quitting at 6pm. I had a lovely swim in the calm sea with my daughter and we celebrated our end of term Saturday with the last available episode of Downton. How are we going to stand the suspense till we can get our hands on the Xmas special?!
Robertsport Day 6
The diggers took 3 more loads on Sunday, at a much slower pace. Salsa asked Ruby to go visit her at Kwepunha Surf Resort. I am thrilled they are enjoying each other’s company: she is such a wonderful role model for Ruby. Although Salsa is quite breathtakingly beautiful – her father is Syrian and her mother Swiss – she is the least girly girl I have ever met. She shares parenting duty with her Cape Verdean boyfriend (a surf instructor) and leaves their son with him while she earns big bucks in Switzerland every summer to support them, working on a tourist steam boat which she intends to skipper one day.
Meanwhile, Sampson and I went to call on Joe.
We’d heard about Joe from everyone from the first moment we got here. Joe is a Big Man in these parts. Joe, we were told, is also South African. Joe is a businessman of wide interests, non-specified, and a previous owner of an inn down the beach, but mostly Joe is a Fisherman. Joe loves fishing here at weekends, but, we were told, would rather eat meat so he only weighs his fish after he catches it, then he gives it away. The locals love Joe. There are always parties at Joe’s place and you are always invited.
When Joe drives up to the truck in his 4×4, he lives up to all expectations. He is a stocky Afrikaner in his early 50s with an open-necked shirt and open face, expansive arm gestures and waistline who throws his head back when he laughs, which he does, uproariously, all the time. He invites us to pop up to his place later.
We walk up the beach at 5pm to find Salsa already there listening to the raconteur-in-chief. Joe is in full flow, a never-ending fount of stories, in the mould of Pakenham’s scrambling anti-heroes. His quieter sidekick Rassie, with tufty white hair and deep brown eyes, reminds me of a faithful terrier. His neighbour Hugo is a tall craggy Swiss German with a friendly face the colour of tree bark. This seems appropriate as they all display an aura long matured in oak. They sit outside their tents, under the trees with a full bottle of Johnny Walker black label on the plastic table in front of them. We wonder if it will be empty before bedtime?
Joe’s invited us to join them for Christmas. His ex-wife and family are coming and he’s determined to teach his teenage daughters to fish. He mentioned jet-skis. We’re already running late, way behind schedule to cross the Sahara before it gets too hot next April, but it’s very tempting…
Soundbites from Liberia No.2: Radio Piso 93.2FM
Local radio in Robertsport is playing Nigerian and Liberian hiphop hits. From 8am, a young DJ rounds up the month’s schedule of “football encounter”, gives a report on the disastrous failure of a village water pump and the government roll-out of free seeds to local farmers – all in the style of a US West Coast funkateer. His catchphrase is “Tha’s how we roll”. Cutting into a recorded interview with a beneficiary of the seed bonanza, it sounds like he’d held the mic against a cellphone, as the only thing that came through loud and clear was the cockerel sounding off in the background. I laughed out loud.
But what finished me off was By the Rivers of Babylon followed by Daddy Cool, Brown Girl In The Ring, Rasputin, Ma Baker and Holiday. It seems a Boney M medley is a global imperative of advent radio. Yet bizarrely, Mary’s Boy Child wasn’t on the list!