Article and photos by director, Leo McCrea
The sun hangs low in the azure sky, a halo of white light touching the sea below. Overhead waves are wrapping around one of the best left hand point breaks in Africa, peeling into the distance, with the local crew up-and-riding.
We are sitting on the balcony of Kwepunha Retreat in Robertsport, listening to sustainable surf tourism entrepreneur Sean Brody: “Liberia has had so much bad press. Look on the internet it’s all child soldiers, amputees and horrific war crimes. But the war ended over ten years ago. The country is ready for change and surfing gives the locals here something positive to focus on.”
‘Liberia has had so much bad press. Look on the internet, it’s all child soldiers, amputees and horrific war crimes. But the war ended over ten years ago. The country is ready for change and surfing gives the locals here something positive to focus on’.
Sustainability is a word that gets bandied around a lot, commonly defined as ‘conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources’. Many surf destinations in developing countries have experienced mass tourism, but rarely have the infrastructure to deal with it. The Maldives, for example, appears to be a reef break-heaven, a paradise surfing destination, but tourism trash from a lot of nations gets dumped on one massive island. Boats travel around the atolls picking up the waste of the holiday-makers and take it to an island that currently is the size of 127 soccer fields. The government claim they would like to do something about it, but do not have the money or the infrastructure, so the process carries on.
Liberia is different. 10 years after the civil war visitors and surfers are starting to arrive, a fresh start for tourism. In the village of Robertsport Sean Brody and Daniel Hopkins from San Diego have taken the bull by the horns and built two surf retreats. But instead of putting all proceeds into their pockets, they are using some of this money to invest back into the local community.
I decided this was a story I wanted to tell; a surf documentary with purpose and meaning; a real narrative and a message that hopefully surfers could learn from and perhaps be inspired to travel more responsibly and sustainably at the same time. Surf journalist, Sam Bleakley, having travelled to Liberia before, suggested we work with Dominic Johns in Monrovia. After months of emails and sending some dollars to secure services and accommodation the trip was ready.
Myself, Sam Bleakley and fellow producer/director, Sam Lang, arrived at Monrovia airport amidst a cacophony of local guys hustling for bags. Dominic was a welcome sight. He guided us smoothly through the airport and onto the road. It was 4am and the road was pretty deserted, but after offering us a drink consisting on what appeared to be sweet milk and rum, Dominic assured us it would be much safer to drive the three hours to Robertsport once the sun rose. I wasn’t sure whether he was referring to his ability to drive on the rum or the overly officious police sometimes demanding fines. But whatever the case, he took us to his family home in Monrovia and kindly gave up his bed so we could all get some shut-eye.
Once the sun was up we had some breakfast. But the real wake-up call was when the jelly tub exploded on opening - a complete surprise. Clearly it was so old that the fruit had fermented – ready to explode on opening. Luckily the peanut butter was good and we enjoyed some much needed nourishment before hitting the road. It was safer driving in the daylight, but the downside was the traffic. Morning rush hour in Monrovia is almost standstill. Luckily Dominic knew a few shortcuts. After an hour we broke free of the city and were heading north to Robertsport in Dominic’s four wheel drive.
It wasn’t long before the smooth glide of the tarmac was replaced by dirt tracks with serious potholes. We passed the police checkpoint where you hang a left, and followed Lake Piso all the way to Robertsport. After checking in at Kwepunha Retreat we checked the surf. Four foot faces were wrapping around the rocks as locals, riding some battered boards with great style, hooted and shouted to each other. We wasted no time getting in the water. The takeoff took some mastering at a point called Fisherman’s, the lip pitching as it wrapped the rock. But if you pop up quick you are treated to a stunning long 100 yard ride, spinning down the beach across the sand, sometimes ending with a neat face plant into the shorebreak!
The takeoff took some mastering at a point called Fisherman’s, the lip pitching as it wrapped the rock. But if you pop up quick you are treated to a stunning long 100 yard ride, spinning down the beach across the sand.
Later over cold beers at Kwepunha, Sean and Daniel told us that because of the civil war this country remains relatively undeveloped, and surfing is still a virgin scene. There are no surf shops and nowhere to buy wax. The local boys and girls rely on the surfboards that travelling surfers leave behind, but with up to five kids sharing a board there’s not much to go around. It was this problem that prompted an idea: they have developed a scheme where the kids can borrow surfboards, but if they damage one or break the rules (they must return the boards each night) they will have to do a community chore. This means that the kids take responsibility for the boards, which is really important so they don’t feel like it’s a free handout. Sean explains that many countries like Liberia have had aid workers in residence for so long that people get used to handouts and actually start to expect them. But to really get a community back on its feet, it’s important that people can work and see the reward of their efforts.
In the morning we look out over the balcony and see a larger swell hitting the beach. The southernmost break at Loco’s is snapping around rocks, then wrapping to another headland to form Outside Cottons. This reels through to Inside Cottons over another maze of rocks (one of which sticks prominently in the path of the face as you weave down the line. Avoiding it is part art and part luck).
Sam gets out his Meyerhoffer XYZ high performance longboard; on first glance a strange futuristic shape, like an hourglass figure it has the high performance lines of a shortboard at the rear and nose riding capabilities at the front. Sam surfed this break repeatedly in 2006 camping under the huge cotton silk tree that fronts the beach, so he takes to the water like embracing an old friend. As the swell builds to a solid six feet with long racy walls Sean and Daniel paddle out. I’m filming from the beach while Sam Lang is swimming with the GoPro. The current is relentless and Sam’s fitness is really being put to the test even with fins on, as he swims hard to stay on the point. I feel somewhat guilty in comparison pointing my Canon long 400mm lens from the safety of the beach as the surfers draw clean lines across green walls, walking up the beach between sets.
The locals are all super friendly and you can clearly see how much enjoyment they get from the boards that Sean and Daniel provide. These are people that have experienced atrocities, public butcherings, amputees, rape and cannibalism. One local general was apparently so infamous that he was called ‘General Butt Naked’, known for running into battle in his ‘Sunday best’. Allegedly he stole young boys from villages and forced them to fight whilst wearing dresses.
Fortunately that era has all passed and now the people are keen to talk about the future, the great waves and how they are ready to receive tourists. Inevitably, when you do an internet search on Google, bad news still comes up, sometimes sensationalized war porn stories. My family and wife were generally concerned when I said that I was going to Liberia and some thought I was mad. It’s nice to know people care, but really a lot of this is misinformation and ignorance.
At the moment only small numbers of tourists are visiting, but if they start arriving en masse, what will happen? Will human nature take its course, will less scrupulous businesses try and capitalize on the amazing waves and the generosity of the people?
Sean and Daniel at Kwepunha Retreat are inspiring to talk to about the future of Liberia, and they really seem to care. They have worked out ways in which projects and tourism can benefit the local community, ranging from sanitation, to a women’s sewing collective that makes board and beach bags, giving valuable income to their families and helping fund their childrens’ education.
Robertsport is at the beginning of a new and exciting journey as a world-class surfing destination. Currently they have a good model for responsible tourism and sustainability. But this can only succeed if similar moral minded outfits like Sean and Daniel keep up the positive work. At the moment only small numbers of tourists are visiting, but if they start arriving en masse, what will happen? Will human nature take its course, will less scrupulous businesses try and capitalize on the amazing waves and the generosity of the people? I hope not because currently Liberia is a virgin surf destination with a dark past but a bright future.
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