Photo: van Gysen
Photo: van Gysen

The Lagosian Oasis

The people of Lagos, Nigeria, have long struggled with civil unrest, but a small coastal community is finding refuge in the surf

An old air conditioner rattled on the wall of the sterile, beige room as the visa agent dropped a thick mound of paperwork in front of me with a thud. The small Durban, South Africa, office was sweltering, yet the agent wore a thick suit with a pinstriped shirt, and beads of sweat rolled down his forehead as he guided me through the forms. He paused when he saw me check "tourism" as my reason for traveling to Nigeria.

"Tourist visa?" the agent said, arching his eyebrows. "We've never done one of these for Nigeria."

I knew they had, however, since this was my second trip to Nigeria in six years. I'd visited in 2011 to verify rumors of a world-class wedge that breaks on the outskirts of Lagos Harbor. Swells would refract off a mile-long breakwall like they'd hit a bumper in a pinball machine, bouncing toward shore and jacking into dark tubes that churned through Tarkwa Bay. But in the years since that first exploratory trip, the West African country has dominated global headlines with stories of escalating terrorism, kidnappings and ethnic violence. "Briton kidnapped by armed gang while leaving Lagos airport," read a Sunday Express headline in July 2013. "234 schoolgirls kidnapped by extremists," said CBS News the following April. "Double suicide bombing at Nigerian university," reported Newsweek in January 2017.

Despite the anxiety-inducing news reports, I'd decided to return to Lagos, Nigeria's largest city, which has an estimated 21 million people crammed into the metropolitan area. Our contact there had told us about a left on the other side of the breakwall during that first trip, saying it got even better than the right in the dry season. His claims were met with skepticism until he started sending us photos of the wave. After a couple of years, the grainy cell-phone images became too tempting to ignore, and we somehow convinced California-born stylist Luke Davis and French tube-riding maestro William Aliotti it was worth investigating, regardless of the headlines.

It was evening when we began to cut through the clouds on our descent toward Lagos' Murtala Muhammed International Airport. The neon skyscrapers of the bustling city center glowed in the distance, but below us lay a web of sandbanks and slick black waterways, their edges defined by thousands of gaslights burning in the shacks that crowd the water's edge. From 30,000 feet, the Nigerian coastline looks like the last place you would expect to find world-class surf. But Nigeria is a land of seemingly conflicting identities, and one that cares little for expectations.

Photo: van Gysen

Our man on the ground, John Micheletti, is wearing his trademark outfit of boardshorts, a vest and flip-flops when he greets us outside the airport. Italian-born, Nigerian-bred, 33-year-old Micheletti has made Tarkwa Bay his unlikely paradise. For work he helps keep the lights on in Lagos, managing the gas generators that power much of the city during frequent blackouts. When he's not negotiating amid a power crisis, he makes the commute out to Tarkwa, where his family has built a bungalow literally a stone's throw from the right wedge we'd surfed back in 2011.

"Everybody's scared of Nigeria these days," he says as we pile into his truck. "But it's not such a bad place."

"What about Boko Haram?" photographer Alan Van Gysen asks as we drive through the dizzying traffic, noting the Nigeria-based extremist group infamous for kidnapping schoolgirls and coordinating attacks using suicide bombers.

"They're still around," replies Micheletti. "But it's quieted down a lot and it's not really news anymore. But the problem is starting again in the south, by the Niger Delta. That's oil country; that's where the original kidnappings started."

Lagos lies near the western edge of the country, and much of the city is split into small islands by the sprawling network of waterways that connect Lagos Lagoon to the Gulf of Guinea. The coastline of western Nigeria is south facing and ruler-edge straight, absorbing ample swell from the South Atlantic as it funnels through the Gulf. But the long stretches of beach offer poor surf with the exception of Tarkwa Bay. Farther south, however, where Nigeria curves into the oil-rich armpit of Africa, is a coastline laden with wave potential.

"Around the Niger Delta, that's where things get really interesting," says Micheletti, alluding to the sandbanks, river mouths and bays that dent the southern coastline. "But there's no way you can surf there." Micheletti claims that the government used to pay off the regional chiefs in the area to keep the peace and protect the lucrative oil business. Even then, the oil capital of Port Harcourt was listed in a Bloomberg report as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, with abductions and murder commonplace.

Oil was first discovered in the delta in 1956. Shortly after gaining its independence from the British in 1960, Nigeria was ruled by a succession of iron-fisted military leaders who treated the country's oil-rich coffers like their personal piggy banks. The worst of these leaders was General Sani Abacha, who was accused by the Nigerian government of stealing more than $2.2 billion in government funds during his rule from 1993 to 1998. The infamous despot died in the arms of two prostitutes after suffering a heart attack that some believe was due to poisoning, and so Nigeria stumbled into democracy. But even though military rule officially ended and gave way to a federal republic in 1999, the military's presence and power still looms large, evidenced by the ubiquitous AK-47-wielding soldiers throughout the country.

"The new president, [Muhammadu] Buhari, he's Muslim, so that's eased the troubles in the north," Micheletti tells us. "But he's forgotten about the south, and there is a lot of tension with the chiefs. The people down there are very different. They have a completely different language and culture. The food is different, and even the way they look is different. What you've got to remember is that Nigeria wasn't a country until the British came, drew a border around the region with all these different people and said, 'Now you're a country.' That was always going to be trouble."

He pauses, as if it occurs to him that perhaps this isn't helping put our minds at ease. "But Lagos is cool, man," he finally says. "You've just got to know what you're doing."

Frenchman William Aliotti wasn't sure what to expect when he flew into a country often portrayed as a haven for terrorism and violence in the press. What he found in Tarkwa, however, told a much different story. Photo: van Gysen

The sky is dimmed by a dense blanket of grit and dust that stretches from the horizon to the tip of the city behind us. The sand comes from the arid interior of North Africa, swept along by the harmattan — a desert trade wind said to be so dry that it can fell trees as it sucks all the moisture out of the air, causing the sapped trunks to snap like toothpicks. But the breeze is cool against our backs, flaring open the waves that break on the shoreline with a steady percussion.

After spending the night in a secure hotel compound in Lagos, we had hopped on a water taxi early that morning. The boat sped along the waterway, under a bridge where traffic barreled overhead, before spitting us out into the broad expanse of Lagos Harbor. Cargo ships stacked as high as buildings dwarfed our tiny skiff while the city loomed behind us like rows of broken teeth.

"It's all kind of apocalyptic," said Davis as we motored past the rusting hulls of shipwrecks and mangled remains of an old oil pipeline that was blown up by rebel militants. Within 20 minutes, however, the twisted metal and debris gave way to wooden fishing boats and the picturesque, palm-laden beach of Tarkwa Bay.

Unlike the right-hand wedge inside the bay, the wave we came to surf at Lighthouse Beach sits on the opposite side of the breakwall, which receives the full brunt of swells that have traveled the length of the African coastline. But the waves need the harmattan winds to groom them into shape, which happens only a few months of the year.

"This wind blows all the way from the Sahara," says Micheletti as he hurriedly waxes a fresh 6’0″. "Sometimes the dust is so thick you can't see the sun. It gets so bad that planes can't take off for days. Or, if you're in the city, you feel like you can't breathe."

Out in the lineup, we dodge walled-up sets, gauging the swell's intensity. Micheletti says the period is too long, claiming it's better when the swell is short-period and more peaky. Despite this, he manages to find a handful of open tubes in rapid succession, employing a textbook pig-dog technique. It takes Aliotti and Davis a while to find their bearings, but soon they are picking off their own gems among the closeouts.

"It kind of looks like Indo, huh?" says Davis after scratching into a draining double-up barrel that slingshots him onto the shoulder.

"I always say, 'Why go to Indo when you've got this?'" Micheletti jokes. "Not because the waves are like Indo, but if you catch enough of them, it eventually adds up to one perfect Indo wave."

Micheletti learned to surf on the other side of the breakwall, inside the bay, when he was 8 years old. Before that, the only person surfing in Lagos was Wale Da Silva, a Swiss-Nigerian artist. "He was the first real local at Tarkwa and used to let us play with his boards in the shorebreak," says Micheletti. "That was more than 20 years ago."

Second from left, Emanuel Aladin is part of Tarkwa Bay's growing population of local surfers, pushing each other in the playful rights that break along the east side of the jetty. Photo: van Gysen

Despite the few expats who surfed Tarkwa on and off over the years, Micheletti mostly had the lineup to himself. When we first visited in 2011, there were only a handful of local surfers from the village. But now a legion of kids can be found at the right wedge on any given day, riding all manner of craft: pieces of broken surfboards, self-shaped handplanes, dilapidated boogie boards and even planks of wood taken from disassembled crates.

The kids without any semblance of surfcraft sit on the rocks, goading their friends into closeouts and half-heartedly throwing stones to pass the time. But whenever someone gets a good one, the rocks erupt in a chorus of cheers and whistles.

The chaos is reaching a fever pitch one morning when a tall, powerfully built surfer paddles out. Within minutes the lineup self-corrects and an unspoken pecking order kicks in, taking its cue from the towering figure.

Godpower Tamarakuro Pekipuma is a 25-year-old first-generation native Tarkwa surfer. Like Micheletti, he, too, was enthralled when he saw a couple of expats riding waves outside his village.

"At first I thought they were Jesus Christ," Pekipuma says. "You know that story where Jesus walks on the water? I wanted to walk on water too."

Soon after, Pekipuma fashioned himself a board made from stolen wood. "My mother is a fisherwoman, so she used to have wood from the boats," he recalls. "I managed to sneak some wood and I took it to a neighbor's compound where I shaped the board. I still don't want her to know, because if she knows, she's going to kill me."

With encouragement from Micheletti and hand-me-downs from expats, Pekipuma and his friend David became the first real surfers born and raised in Tarkwa Bay. Only in the past few years have other local children taken notice of the endless source of entertainment at their doorstep and started asking Pekipuma to teach them how to surf. When well-to-do visitors from Lagos started asking the same, Pekipuma scratched up a couple of extra boards and opened up Nigeria's first surf school.

"Tarkwa is good, it's peaceful," Pekipuma says. "There are different people from all over Nigeria living together here. But it's hard finding work on the island. Some people fish, or transport oil out to the boats. But usually you end up going into the city for work."

Pekipuma commutes to the city during the week to work as a dockhand in order to support his young family; his surf school is relegated to the weekend. But his real passion lies with the next generation of Tarkwa surfers, whom he coaches for free.

"When these kids came to me and said they wanted to learn how to surf, I saw the future in them, that this could be the future of Nigeria," Pekipuma says. "If not for surfing, the boys would just be roaming about, fighting, getting into trouble. Surfing gives them strength and purpose. It's made our community stronger."

Pekipuma points out two of his star pupils in the lineup: Lucky Garuba and Emmanuel Aladin. In the wedgy right, goofyfooted Aladin is refining his backhand rail grab, putting himself deep behind the peak on every wave. "They've only been surfing a short time," Pekipuma says proudly. "But I promise you, in two years they will be ripping very hard."

Godpower Tamarakuro Pekipuma was among the first local surfers from the village at Tarkwa Bay and started Nigeria's only surf school in 2015. His clients include expats and wealthy locals from the mainland, but his real passion lies with coaching Tarkwa's next generation of surfers, which he does for free. Photo: van Gysen

Pekipuma's eventual goal is to establish a surfing academy that also teaches life skills. He believes this will help Tarkwa's aspiring surfers deal with the daily challenges that come with growing up in Lagos, like endemic unemployment. "We've even found someone in Abuja [Nigeria's capital] who might sponsor it," he tells me. "But we can't go to meet them; it's too dangerous to travel there."

Later that night, a mix of expats and locals drink beer and eat roasted goat around a barbecue on the beach. Nobody is allowed to leave the island after sundown as part of a curfew imposed by the military to help curb terrorist attacks.

"You always hear about all the crime and danger, but people don't talk about all the positive things in Nigeria," says Luis Mayoral, a Spanish diplomat who has been living in Lagos for seven years. "Sure, the place can drive you crazy sometimes, but it has an energy you won't find anywhere else in the world. The music and culture are incredible, and the people are very warm and they look out for each other. You can go downtown during the day and it's fine."

"And at night?" I ask.

"No, not at night," he says. "This is still Lagos. Things happen."

In conversation, it's common for residents to focus on the positive aspects of life in Lagos, but at some point, even the most optimistic confront the real dangers that still exist there. The locals tell us about the Area Boys, a loosely formed gang estimated to be 30,000 strong, spread across Lagos Island. The Area Boys are mostly young teens from poverty stricken neighborhoods who band together in groups and terrorize the public. Their offenses range from intimidating and extorting commuters stuck in the perpetual gridlock traffic to assault and murder. It's a commonly held belief among Nigerians that unscrupulous politicians use the Area Boys to intimidate the opposition (or worse) during election time. According to the locals, there are some places you just can't go because of the Area Boys.

In comparison, Tarkwa is a wave-lapped oasis, but it's not entirely immune to the dangers of the city. Micheletti tells us about a gruesome discovery they made on the beach on his last birthday. "We all came here to have a big party," he explains. "And what do I get for my birthday? There's a body lying on the beach, and it's got no f–king head. Sometimes you forget that this is Lagos, too."

John Micheletti, the godfather of Nigerian surfing, has made Tarkwa Bay his home away from home, and spends as much time as he can in this exact position. Photo: van Gysen

The daily rhythm of tide and wind draws us to Lighthouse on the far side of the breakwall every morning, where we are alone with the fishermen who ply the shoreline with their heavy nets. The waves here are still too demanding for most of Tarkwa's surfers, churned up by rips that occasionally pull hapless swimmers out into the Gulf, never to be seen again. The same rips are wreaking havoc on a disorganized swell as our South African videographer, Calvin Thompson, finds a good angle to film from the breakwall. With his tripod hoisted over his shoulder and his T-shirt wrapped around his head, he could be mistaken for a guerrilla with a bazooka.

"Oh, man, I hope they don't shoot him," Micheletti says in the lineup, urgently waving Thompson down from the breakwall. "Sometimes the military guys drink too much and get trigger happy. You really don't want to give them any excuse."

Micheletti had pointed out the ominous military gunboats idling in the channel of the harbor earlier. The boats are painted black so the pirates, who raid the ships anchored out to sea at night, can't spot them giving chase.

Thompson reluctantly gives up and everyone gradually heads in until Aliotti and I are the only surfers left in the lineup, waiting patiently for a well-formed wave that refuses to materialize. We're about to call it quits as well when the tide suddenly shifts and the harmattan begins to blow, opening up the waves. A solid set bounces against the breakwall and spits. Five minutes later there's another, then another, and Aliotti is suddenly putting on an hour-long tube-riding clinic.

"Shit, man, it's getting really shallow out here," he says, paddling back out after a thick double-up. His elbow and hip are raw and bleeding from where a wave compressed him into the sand. A few rides later, Aliotti gets obliterated in a closeout and his board smashes into the side of his face. His right eye immediately starts swelling up with the first signs of a puffy blue shiner, but he stays out and threads a long, clean barrel on his very next wave.

"Who would have thought it's possible to get such good waves in a place like this?" he asks.

Across the channel, framed by the fishing huts of Tarkwa Bay, a handful of shiny new skyscrapers reach toward the clouds like metallic fingers. Millions of cubic meters of sand have been pumped out to create the foundation for this new high-end development project called Eko Atlantic, which will house over a quarter million people and boast upscale office and retail space once it's complete. On the opposite side of the spectrum, just 5 miles away, under the longest bridge in Africa, lies the sprawling shantytown of Makoko. A few years ago the government tried to remove the people who have lived there for generations in shacks built on stilts above the water. Instead, the greater community rallied to defend Makoko and a Lagos architect even designed a floating school for its impoverished children, which has become a prototype for land-starved slums around the world. Between Makoko and Eko Atlantic lie a million daily tales of sweeping change, ingenuity and survival that make up the perpetual tug-of-war that is life in Nigeria.

Eventually the tide gets too low and we make our way back along the breakwall. The dust has finally lifted and the ground is baking hot under our feet, so we pause under some shade. Up ahead, the tin roofs and palm trees of Tarkwa Bay melt into the shimmering skyline of Lagos, making it hard to tell where one version of Nigeria ends and the other begins.

[This feature originally appeared in the 58.5 Issue of SURFER, on newsstands and available for download now.]

Tarkwa's wedge is often compared to a wave pool, thanks to its proximity to shore and machine-like consistency when the swell is up. This has made it fertile ground for a nascent surf scene. Pekipuma, taking the drop.Photo: van Gysen