Finding the Perfect Wave in Liberia

Its old war scars healed, the West African coast beckons surfers of all varieties.

“How da body?” a grinning Liberian woman asked me after our plane landed in Monrovia.

“Body fine,” I answered in my rusty Liberian English, still awed by the ease with which I arrived: a major airline had carried me straight from Atlanta. Two decades ago, while covering the country’s 14-year civil war, I would fly into this Atlantic-washed capital from Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast, riding a Soviet-era artifact, half of its cabin loaded with burlap-covered supplies for the strongman Charles Taylor. But today, with the old dictator in prison and Liberia at peace, the country is suddenly open for tourism—for hardy souls, at least.

Long known as America-in-Africa, Liberia was quasi-colonized by the United States in the 1820s. These days, visitors bike to the antebellum-style houses in the town of Clay-Ashland. Others search for pygmy hippos in lush rain-forest sanctuaries. But I went for the bodysurfing (a sport that, as the name suggests, involves riding a wave without a board; the only gear you may need is a pair of small fins). Surfing—or “sliding,” as Liberians call it—may be more established in African countries like Senegal, Morocco, and South Africa. But I had heard that Liberians are treated to good waves virtually every day of the year. I figured finding the perfect ones would be easy.

Though much of Monrovia remains in post-war shambles—with potholed streets and spotty electricity—new hotels and beachfront resorts are cropping up. A small flyer posted where I stayed caught my eye merely for advertising yoga classes. I don’t recall many yoga studios operating under the Taylor regime.

I grabbed my fins and hit Barnes Beach, a good alternative to the adjacent, and more touristy, Thinkers Village Beach. Two large thunderclouds on the horizon blemished the sky while terrific whitecaps rolled to shore. Once in the water, though, I realized these waves were far too big and erratic for me to face this early in the trip. I hiked up the beach and into a surf-side eatery, thinking I’d consider my options over a plate of palm butter—a wickedly spicy-sweet stew, served over pounded cassava. I asked the waiter about the meat in the dish.

“That’s bush meat,” he told me.

I frowned. While I’m all for free-range livestock, I appreciate something less free-ranging than what I imagined we had here. “What kind of bush meat?,” I asked.

He shrugged. “Forest meat.”

Falling into the repartee of my earlier Monrovia days, I feigned displeasure. “That bush meat climb trees?,” I asked, pantomiming the act. “It fly? That meat dig holes?”

“It’s bush meat,” he said with a laugh.

I ordered the chicken instead.

The next day, an old buddy from “Taylor time” picked me up in his dented Toyota. Harris Johnson, a computer technician in a Yankees cap, grinned as he gunned his car downtown, Monrovia’s fire-scarred skyline looking like something out of Mad Max. We passed over the bridge to Bushrod Island, a hardscrabble industrial section of town, and I spotted the ruins of a pre-war movie theater and remembered the exquisite little groundnut-soup shop that had been tucked behind it. Harris pulled over. Throughout the war, the place had always been half empty, but we found it buzzing with a lunchtime crowd. We were shown to the only seats left and heard from the kitchen the rhythmic sounds of cooks pounding the cassava-yam dough called “dumboy.” A pair of goats bleated from a room to our left as we savored each spoonful of peanut-flavored soup.

Five miles down the road, Harris and I arrived at Cici’s Beach, where we shed our flip-flops and crossed an expanse of powdery sand to the shoreline. From there we could see a problem: a collection of large offshore boulders breaking the waves. There would be no surfing here, we realized.

“Boss Man,” Harris said—and I wondered if he was being polite, ironic, or both—“you need to go to Robertsport.”

Of course. I knew that Robertsport, three hours up the coast, would have the waves I wanted. A deep underwater trench off the coast there created no fewer than five celebrated break points. But leave the known safety of Monrovia for the uncertain bush? My frontal lobe knew that Small Boys no longer roam the backcountry with AK-47s, but the reptilian portion of my brain was squirting caution hormones. Robertsport is near Sierra Leone, with its erstwhile amputation-happy Revolutionary United Front. No, thanks. I’ll eventually find that perfect wave … in Monrovia.

Pushing thoughts of Robertsport aside, I enjoyed a surfless day with Harris at Cici’s. Three hours went by. Or maybe it was six? We slipped into Liberian time, floating and backstroking in the turquoise sea. As the sun set, we ate grilled cassava fish, freshly netted by a nearby Fanti fisherman.

I passed the next days impatiently. I wanted to bodysurf, but found at the lively urban beach off 16th Street only huge crashing waves of the sort I had spotted at Barnes—tubeless, choppy, and with nobody riding them. A group of 20 teenagers was playing soccer barefoot in the sand, and after a while, a group of children in their underwear—I’d noticed them playing in the shallow water—approached me. The largest child ventured a “How da body?”

I told them the body was ready to slide, never mind the conditions. I stood up and headed for the miserable surf. The soccer game stopped, the players staring in my direction. Other people on the beach cried out, warning me that the underwater spirits—neegees—would drag me under. But I paid them no heed. The first gigantic wave slammed me into a sandbar. I limped back to the beach and lay on my back in the sand. Several concerned Liberian faces looked down at me, framing an oval of piercing blue sky. In that blue, I could see the beautiful waves of Robertsport. I realized I needed to screw up some courage and get out of town.

The next morning, I hired a bush taxi to take me up the coast. Beyond the city, a panorama of rubber plantations, cassava fields, and forests opened up—not a gun-toting Small Boy anywhere, of course. Before long, the pristine Lake Piso Nature Reserve spread out before me, the oblong lake twinkling beneath emerald hills, the ocean beyond it. At last: Robertsport.

The Atlantic was heaving itself from the south in a perfect peel, and surfers were working an unbelievable pipeline for 200 yards and more. I followed them into the swells—body fine, the sun blazing orange-red like a gigantic bowl of palm butter—and caught Liberia’s finest waves.