By Will Bendix
Photos by Greg Ewing
"If this swell comes through, I hope there are no dead bodies in the lineup," said John Micheletti, our Italian-born, Nigerian-bred local contact, as we piled into his van. He said it casually like you might tell someone about the impending weather--Ah, yes, looks like it's going to be cloudy with a chance of scattered corpses. It was an admittedly haunting five-day outlook as we crossed the longest bridge in Africa into the sprawling city of Lagos.
Nigeria is not a surf destination. Let's get that straight. It's a stereotype--dripping with danger, drugs, war, kidnapping, violence, and extortion--tucked deep inside the humid armpit of West Africa. Numerous surfers politely declined an invitation on this trip. A few just point-blank laughed at the prospect and went back to booking their tickets to Indo. The truth is, Nigeria is a place you'll probably never visit unless you really have to.
"If there is a big swell or strong winds and the ships are not prepared, then...boomps!" John continued unabated as we drove. "That's why you see so many shipwrecks around here."
Although Lagos gets waves fairly often, huge swells are rare along its coastline. Subsequently, they wreak havoc by catching people and ships off guard, washing through the flat beaches and marshlands that surround the city. Often these swells unearth things that are best left buried, albeit in shallow graves.
Around us dense shantytowns mushroomed out between skyscrapers, and swathes of the city lay in chaotic darkness while towering oil rigs hummed offshore. Lagos is what happens when the lights go out.
The next morning we made our first pilgrimage to Tarkwa Bay, buzzing out into the mouth of Lagos' massive harbor on a rickety speedboat.
"Here, if something breaks or is destroyed, you don't bother fixing it, you build a new one," John shouted above the drone of the engine, as if he could read my mind. He pointed to a mangled oil pipeline. Militant rebels bombed it a few years back but a new one quickly sprouted up in its place. A huge cargo ship lay ripped apart immediately behind it, listing on one side with half its gutted belly exposed. The valuable tar it was transporting had long since been salvaged. The ship had no further purpose, so it was simply left to rust.
Lagos itself is actually a giant island, sliced up into patches by the massive lagoon that seeps through the metropolis and out to sea--an empire built on water and fueled by this deranged form of evolution. Africa's most rapidly developing city has no time to fix things, nurse them back to health, or make them better. Instead, it bulldozes and builds over itself with something stronger, faster, newer, until that too eventually falls apart and another layer is built over the remnants.
"There it is," John said, pointing to the far corner of the beach as we rounded the headland into Tarkwa Bay, a brief stretch of sand framed by tall palms and speckled with fishing boats. Tin rooftops poked out between the fronds. On the opposite side of the bay, a longer break wall stretched an extended finger into the Atlantic Ocean.
Mike Hynson and Robert August are rumored to be the first surfers to ever travel through Nigeria during the filming of the Endless Summer in 1965 with Bruce Brown, but they didn't surf Tarkwa. They couldn't have--the wave simply didn't exist back then. Like most of Lagos, the wedge is entirely man-made, a result of design and coincidence. The break wall was built to protect the expanding harbor and catches any southerly swells that filter up into the Gulf of Guinea, focusing them into the tight little bay. As swells travel the final half-mile stretch, they ping-pong off the rock groins until they hit the last nook just a few feet from the shore. One final bounce off the break wall and the wave doubles in size and creates a backdoor wedge to rival the best fun-parks in the world.
At 29, John has become a Tarkwa local for life. He splits his time between Lagos and Cape Town, earning himself the title of the White Nigerian, or Wygerian. Most of his South African friends just call him Wygie. Without him, this reconnaissance mission would have been all but impossible. He was our inside track, navigating us through the mayhem of Lagos with his boisterous Italian accent and instant charm. Most importantly, he's connected to Tarkwa like tides to the moon.
As predicted, the swell started to kick in with the incoming tide and the wedge began dishing up pea-green barrels by lunchtime. Being Sunday, all the locals were in the water--all five of them. In a city teeming with 10 million people, only five have discovered this gem. Godpower Tamarakuro Pekipuma is one of a handful of first generation locals John has nurtured at Tarkwa. Like many Nigerians, he's an imposing presence, standing at a hulking 6’4″ and ripped to the core. His borrowed 7-foot funboard barely floated him, but he used it to slide his way through a well-honed rail-grab routine, pulling an uncanny Bruce Irons-like pigdog in the tube. "Welcome, welcome," Godpower said shyly. "We are so happy that you are here."
We traded wave after wave, hooting and laughing at our good fortune until the relentless swell turned the water a rich chocolate brown. When the dropping tide finally killed it we dragged ourselves up the beach where we kicked back on our deck chairs with a cold Star in hand and decided that Nigeria isn't half-bad after all.
Then all hell broke loose.
A small commotion behind us rapidly escalated into a full-blown shouting match between a uniformed military man and a heavily muscled local kid in shorts. They were right up in each other's faces. The whole beach was magnetically drawn into the fray. The military man turned around and stalked off down the sand. We asked John what just happened.
"That military guy is Muslim. He told the local that his music was disturbing his prayers, and they must stop the music, which is crazy--the whole village is playing music, making a noise and having a good time," John seethed. "Everybody always prays with this, Christian, Muslim, there is no problem here. But he is making a problem because he is a military guy." After a moment, the disgruntled military man turned back toward the crowd, this time with an AK-47 assault rifle drawn. It was clearly time to find another place to have a beer. Instead, John declared: "Now you will see how we deal with things in Nigeria."
Despite the gun and the shouts of the crowd, John took control of the situation. "This is bullshit!" he shouted, stomping into the melee. "You cannot do this!" While the kid who had been singled out for playing his music too loud was spirited away into the village, a few locals tried to calm John down.
The tension hit a breaking point as fingers and machine guns were waved in the air. But the mood of the crowd had changed. The military man sensed the shift. No longer in a position of strength, he begrudgingly retreated. And just like that, everyone went back to their day at the beach like nothing had happened. We nervously ordered another beer.
"People here will do anything to avoid actually fighting," I was told by a local businessman a few hours later. "Don't get me wrong, we love to posture, but when it comes down to it people would far rather negotiate. People can be very aggressive, and you have to be aggressive back or else they step on you. It's just how things work."
That night, we arrived in boardshorts to a wealthy expat party inside one of the heavily guarded compounds that permeate the city. Immediately John's friends plied us with beers and spicy Nigerian delicacies. In one corner a young South African recounted how he had made his millions, saving away as he lived in a hut in the Niger Oil delta. I chatted with a Londoner who was there raising funds for investment bankers. A local 35-year-old construction mogul held down the bar, pouring cocktails called Attitude Adjusters.
The next morning, back on the streets, we walked through the village at Tarkwa with its self-appointed rapper, MC Black, dodging chickens and scaring little kids who came running out of their homes to have a look at the spectacle.
“Pepe!" they screamed, and then ran back inside.
"This means 'white man,'" snickered MC. "They are not so used to this, especially the small kids. When they see a camera like yours, they think it is a gun and that's why they are running away."
Reggae music wafted from the shacks while kids played soccer on a dirt pitch. Women braided each other's hair and painted their nails in the doorways. An old blue icebox hummed off a generator in the sticky heat.
We rounded the back of the village, walking on the old railway track that was used to build the break wall and the lighthouse now perched upon it. Once the break wall was finished, the train track had outlived its purpose and simply fell into disrepair. Kids played on the broken metal girders.
John swore by Lighthouse Lefts, the wave that broke off the other end of the break wall, but the seasonal southwest winds were wrong for these man-made anomalies and we had to content ourselves with empty, barreling right wedges instead.
We disappeared into a deep grove of green and became disorientated as the humidity swelled around us. There was no sign of the beach or village, just thick mangrove and sky, a fleeting glimpse of the foundation Lagos was built upon centuries ago.
Paradise. Anarchy. Sometimes they're born from one and the same.