When we decided to go to Liberia in search of surf just a few months after an Ebola outbreak in the region, we accepted a certain amount of risk. What we didn't realize, however, was the lethal virus that had ravaged West Africa didn't pose the most immediate threat to our well-being. No, it seems that Christopher will kill us first.

Christopher is a taxi driver, and the owner of the battered 1998 Nissan station wagon we are hurtling toward Monrovia in. He clenches his jaw compulsively each time he pushes the clutch in and jams the gear-stick down. The Nissan's engine begs for mercy as the RPM gauge shoots into the red and we swing out past the trucks, busses, and beat-up sedans lining up in front of us. Invariably, during one of our passing maneuvers, another vehicle appears bearing down the opposite lane. But we're committed, locked in by the cars we're overtaking on our right and impenetrable jungle on our left. The truck ahead starts flashing its lights. Christopher flashes back. Neither vehicle changes course.

I look back at South African surfers Simon Fish and Jordy Maree in the backseat, hoping for some assurance, but they both have their heads buried in their hands. In an area where an exotic virus has been the leading cause of death for the past 15 months, it seems odd that we should meet our end in a common car wreck. And thanks to Christopher's favorite radio station, the soundtrack of our demise will be gospel music, cranked up as loud as the Nissan's speakers will go.

"Lord, my life is in your handsssss…" blares throughout the car.

The moan of the truck's horn overpowers the gospel tune as we swerve back into the right-hand lane just in time. Maree giggles nervously. Fish can't even look up. Christopher just stares ahead, jaw clenched.

This scenario is repeated several times as we drive to Liberia's capital of Monrovia, then north to our final destination in Robertsport. The routine is interrupted only when I move to turn the volume dial down and Christopher slaps my hand away with mongoose-like reflexes. "No," he says, wagging his index finger from side to side, eyes still locked on the road, focused on a particularly slow-moving van up ahead.

GALLERY:

I'd first heard about waves in Liberia from veteran photojournalist Nic Bothma. As the former Africa bureau chief for the European Pressphoto Agency, Bothma spent much of his time traveling to countries most people were trying their hardest to avoid. And between 1989 and 2003, Liberia was one of those places.

Decades of inequality and simmering ethnic tension fueled back-to-back civil wars with a number of rebel groups vying to overthrow the Liberian government. During the first civil war, the infamous rebel commander Joshua Milton Blahyi earned the nickname General Butt Naked by leading his troops into battle wearing nothing except sneakers, automatic weapons slung over their shoulders. Blahyi believed that his nakedness offered a kind of spiritual protection from bullets. He encouraged his soldiers to eat the hearts of fallen enemies to absorb their strength as they ripped up the countryside.

Charles Taylor, another rebel leader, was elected president in the aftermath of the First Liberian Civil War, despite his reputation for violence and corruption. Taylor was one of the first warlords to use child soldiers in Africa, and he has since been tried and convicted of numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Some of the places hit hardest by the civil wars were villages like Robertsport, where Bothma spent time on assignment. He recalls running down the streets of the village, searching for shelter from mortar fire. He also remembers, after the smoke cleared, seeing what appeared to be lines of swell wrapping into a reeling left-hand pointbreak.

Around the same time, Alfred Lomax became the first Liberian surfer after he found a bodyboard while looking for food in a shipping container in Monrovia. Lomax moved to Robertsport after the war ended and met Nicholai Lidow, a visiting Stanford student who would go on to make the documentary Sliding Liberia, which tells how Lomax taught himself to "slide" his local waves without any guidance or real knowledge of surfing.

In the years that followed the film's release in 2008, a small surf community started to take shape, sharing the scraps of boards left behind by aid workers and curious travelers. In 2011, two intrepid Californians opened a surf camp in Robertsport with the support of the local community. The seeds of a nascent surf-tourism industry started to sprout.

"I'm seeing a bright future for Robertsport," says Lomax's mother toward the end of Sliding Liberia. And for a few years, it looked like her prophecy was coming true.

In December 2013, however, West Africa fell into turmoil when a young boy died suddenly in the small village of Méliandou in Guinea, Liberia's neighbor to the north. The boy was the first casualty of the West African Ebola epidemic, which would go on to wreak havoc throughout the region for more than two years, causing widespread panic and loss of life. Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia suffered the worst casualties, with more than 11,000 Ebola-related deaths.

After the height of the epidemic, I bumped into Bothma again in Kommetjie, South Africa. He had just returned from an assignment in Monrovia and shook his head as he recounted what he had seen: entire neighborhoods quarantined; doctors and aid workers walking around in biohazard suits, collecting the dead; grief-stricken families breaking into the mortuaries at night to steal back the bodies of their relatives so they could bury them, unwittingly spreading the disease.

"These stories are in the news for a while and everybody's talking about it," Bothma explains. "And then something new comes up, and the world moves on. But that doesn't mean it's over."

Photo: Ewing

Liberia has faced many setbacks, but that doesn't stop the locals from finding ways to enjoy themselves, especially among the area's perfect waves.
Photo: Ewing

We arrive in Robertsport long after the sun has gone down. It's been almost a year since I spoke to Bothma, and 45 days since the last reported case of Ebola in Liberia. The road from Monrovia is still littered with huge signs that read, "Ebola Is Real!" But when the sun comes up, we find ourselves on a beach where the vibrant jungle meets a series of emerald bays, and any fears of death and disease seem to fade. It helps that there are waves as far as the eye can see, wrapping and peeling in long, oily lines.

"I don't know about this," says Fish as we contemplate the paddle out to Cottons, a wave named for the massive cotton tree just inland from the break that towers above the forest. Word has it there's a channel leading to the lineup, but all we can see is a thin gully cutting between daunting boulders. It's a short paddle into the lineup once you enter the narrow chute, but if your timing is off, even a small swell will wash you straight into the bricks.

Fish runs into the shorebreak, then stops and backtracks when a wave rolls in and blocks his path. After it breaks, Fish jumps onto his board and barely scrapes past the boulders. A fisherman who occasionally surfs this break is watching from the beach. "Oh yeah," he laughs, pointing at the rocks. "Guys go over them all the time. You get cut up real good."

He shows us his legs, which are speckled with purple scars where the pinnacles have scooped out neat little lumps of flesh. These same lacerating rock formations hold the sediment in place and give the waves their impeccable shape.

"It's like Snapper on your forehand!" goofyfooted Fish shouts as he paddles back out after a long runner. The wave is perfectly suited to his style, and Fish draws flowing lines punctuated by tight jams in the pocket.

We watch as Maree takes off deep, skirts the rocks, then unleashes a series of tail-drifting turns and ends with a closeout bash on the sand. He grabs his board, runs 100 yards up the beach, and is out back before the next set arrives.

There's one other surfer in the lineup: a friendly Canadian named Steff who has been staying in the area and surfing here for three weeks. According to the locals, we are the first foreigners besides Steff to visit Robertsport in more than a year.

When Gross returned home after the war, Robertsport was a carcass picked clean by the rebels. There was no longer any running water or electricity—all the cables and pipes had been stripped out—but there was peace. And then came surfing.

The waves continue to uncoil in long, tapering lines, evenly spaced and smoothed out by the thousands of miles they have traveled through the Atlantic before reaching us. Eventually, a local kid carrying a battered board up the beach slips out between the rocks with ease. When a medium-sized set appears on the horizon, he flashes a smile and asks if anyone is going before spinning around to take off.

At first he looks unsteady on his feet, but then he bottom turns and throws a layback snap, using the bouncing whitewash to get back over his board. His surfing is zippy and spontaneous with intuitive lines that keep him securely in the pocket of the wave.

Back on the beach, he tells us his name is Sekee Gross. Up close, I realize his hair is sheared into a mohawk, the words Wave Come expertly shaved into the sides. It's a mantra that the locals often repeat, believing that it helps to conjure up surf. The wind has switched to sideshore, ravaging the playful lefts, but Gross' optimism is unwavering.

"Maybe tomorrow, I think, it will be good," he says with a thick accent and beaming smile.

On our way back to the village, we pass a crumbling building that must have had a spectacular view of the peninsula in its prime. Now tall grass and palms have begun to encroach on its charred skeleton. I'm told it used to be the finest hotel in Robertsport and all the tourists from Europe and Monrovia would stay there. But like nearly every other building in the area, it was bombed and gutted when the rebels arrived. I ask Gross if he recalls anything from that time.

"Oh yeah," he replies. "Charles Taylor came with a gunboat, with weapons, and he landed on the beach. They separate all the females, the kids, the men, and then they look at all the boys and men and say, 'You must carry.' They gave me a big gun, bullets, and what must I do? If I refuse, then I will die. So yeah, we're forced to do it. We carry the weapons from the gunboat into town."

Gross' family and many others eventually fled Robertsport, making their escape at night in fishing boats or crawling through the jungle. They headed to Monrovia, where government forces were still in control.

"We were there for World War I," he says, using the name Liberians give the first civil war between 1989 and 1997. "But World War II, it was so difficult. Many people lose their life. We were in Greystone, the refugee camp, and people were doing crazy stuff. You realize some of the soldiers don't even know who they are fighting. They're not fighting their enemy; they're just fighting to rape, or loot, or get money. They were just killing innocent people."

Gross' memories from this time are marred with brutality. He witnessed people getting shot, killed, and having their limbs severed with machetes. Yet Gross still considers himself blessed, he says, because his family survived.

When Gross returned home after the war, Robertsport was a carcass picked clean by the rebels. There was no longer any running water or electricity—all the cables and pipes had been stripped out—but there was peace. And then came surfing.

"When I started surfing, I learned to stand up regular," Gross says. "But then I started to ride switch because I realized the wave was left-breaking. I wanted to have the wave in front of me and catch a good barrel." He curls his left arm over his head to imitate the long cylinders that peel and spit down the beach at his local break.

Photo: Ewing

Locals gather for a day’s catch. Photo: Ewing

We meet more Robertsport surfers, either in the water or on the veranda of the old house we're staying in. Local surfer Morris Gross, who comes from the same clan as Sekee, joins our group, leading us around the peninsula while clambering up coconut trees, expertly cracking open the shells so we can drink the sweet water. He picks pods that dangle in heavy clumps from the wild almond trees growing along the beach, bashing them open to reveal the delicious treasures inside. Morris is shorter than the 5’8″ surfboard he carries, but he's a cannonball of bulging muscle and sharp wit that belies his 17 years of age. In stark contrast, his friend Peter Yarango is nearly as tall as his old 7’0″ Dennis Pang Pipeline semi-gun, which once belonged to Mikala Jones before somehow washing up on these shores.

Yarango and his friend Alphonso Appleton—Fonzie, as the locals call him—manage Kwepunha, a surf camp that acts as the heart of the Robertsport surfing community.

I later ask Daniel Hopkins, one of the owners of Kwepunha, what it takes to set up a surf camp in a place with no running water, electrical grid, or tourism infrastructure. He just laughs. Setting up the surf camp wasn't optional, Hopkins explains. He was sick of hearing his friend and business partner Sean Brody rave about the small African country with an abundance of perfect left-handers and hardly anyone to ride them with. "So I flew over to join Sean for a month in 2011," Hopkins explains. "We absolutely scored."

For two goofyfooters from the crowded beaches of San Diego, it was manna from heaven, and it didn't take long for the budding local surfers to become interested in the idea of a camp as well. "You could see and feel in the community that there was a lot of opportunity for tourism to come here," says Hopkins. "People really wanted it. So we ended up leasing a piece of land, despite the fact that we had no real plan. We spent a long time figuring out how we could set up a business and do it in a way that benefits the community. I ended up moving out here and somehow things worked out. Three months later we were open, and the first weekend we were completely booked."

By 2014, Kwepunha employed more than 20 full-time staff, had launched a number of local outreach programs, and had established a surf club where members could borrow equipment from the board room, which housed a collection of donated surfboards. Business was good and the community was thriving.

“A lot of people thought the government was making up Ebola just to get money in the form of foreign aid. The government had a hard time making people believe it was real. Then all these people started dying."
[Alphonso Appleton]

"Robertsport seemed like it was on the cusp of blowing up as a tourist destination," says Hopkins. "Then it all just disappeared when the Ebola outbreak started."

When news of the epidemic first started to spread through the region, many local people didn't believe the reports and refused to follow suggested precautions, which further escalated the situation.

"It's not that people were just ignorant," explains Appleton. "Liberia has been a very corrupt country since before the wars, so a lot of people thought the government was making up Ebola just to get money in the form of foreign aid. The government had a hard time making people believe it was real. Then all these people started dying."

Once the virus hit the capital of Monrovia, it exploded through the dense slums and reverberated across the country. Unlike during the war, however, Robertsport was miraculously spared. Not a single case of Ebola was reported in the town, but the disease cast a long shadow.

Sekee lost three relatives who were living in other parts of the country during the crisis, and he and his family were quarantined in their home when it was suspected they might be infected too. They nearly ran out of food and money over the 21 days they had to remain locked indoors, and many other households endured the same struggles. Even when the quarantine was lifted, the fear of Ebola kept any would-be visitors away. But the waves continued to roll in, and the local surfers of Robertsport continued to ride them.

"We went through a lot of pain, but we didn't want to just keep sitting, worrying," says Sekee. "Surfing makes you strong."

After a long ride, Sekee Gross takes a leisurely stroll back to the top of the point. With plenty more tapering lefts on tap, there's no need to rush. Photo: Ewing

After a long ride, Sekee Gross takes a leisurely stroll back to the top of the point. With plenty more tapering lefts on tap, there's no need to rush. Photo: Ewing

The waves at Fisherman's are small, but we're still transfixed as a tiny peeler runs for hundreds of yards through the warm water. This is where the kids from the village learn to surf, along a broad sandspit where a left breaks a few yards from shore. When a large swell wraps in just right, maybe a few times a year, it takes on a different persona, grinding and barreling endlessly into the bay.

The sideshore wind is blowing again and we realize that we've probably mistimed our trip; all the locals tell us that during certain times of the year the wind is always just right. But it still feels like paradise: the peninsula of endless waves, the thick rainforest canopy hanging over the sand, and the small town with its dusty markets and friendly beer stalls. It's quiet besides the light wind rustling the palms, or raindrops tapping on the roof, or the musical chirps of birds and insects echoing out of the jungle.

To most outsiders, Liberia is a country defined by war and disease, which is why most surfers are still skeptical about traveling to the West African coastline in search of waves. But it's easy to forget the plights of the region when you're standing on the beach with soft sand between your toes, watching local surfers laugh as they share a long, roping left.

"The war is over. Ebola is over. But we are still here," says Benjamin McCrumada, one of Robertsport's oldest surfers, as we watch the sun disappear into the ocean. "And tomorrow, wave come."