From the ashes of slav­ery and bloody revo­lu­tion, the quiet is­land idyll of São Tomé is emerg­ing as an un­touched surf Eden. MH ven­tured off the coast of equa­to­rial Africa to meet the men for whom surf­ing rep­re­sents an al­ter­nate way of life

Men's Health (UK) - - The Grand Tour -

CARV­ING A PATH 01- 02\ The lo­cals of São Tomé have honed their sport us­ing lit­tle more than hand­made wooden boards or relics left be­hind by for­eign vis­i­tors

he jun­gle was a hot, en­velop­ing mess of vines, trunks and un­der­growth. Fol­low­ing the faintest of trails, Christoph Jorda and his girl­friend, Frankziska Stoewe, had been mak­ing their way through the for­est for hours. By now, past noon, the tem­per­a­ture was ap­proach­ing 32°C, the heat press­ing in around them. Over­head, just vis­i­ble through the palm fronds, the sky was turn­ing the heavy colour of slate. Hav­ing eaten just a co­conut each that morn­ing – and weighed down by their cum­ber­some surf­boards – Jorda and Stoewe could have been for­given for turn­ing back. But, far off among the trees, its sound dis­turb­ing the thick, still air, Jorda was cer­tain he heard what they had come for. The young cou­ple had trav­elled over 3000 miles in search of the perfect beach – and with it, stain­less surf upon which few West­ern­ers had ever laid eyes.

As the sky dark­ened, Stoewe and Jorda pushed on. With­out warn­ing, a tall, broad­shoul­dered lo­cal stepped out in front, ma­chete in hand. Penned in by the jun­gle, Jorda and Stoewe had no op­tion but to meet him on the path. In­tu­ition told them that such sit­u­a­tions rarely ended well.

“Surf­ing?” the stranger asked in bro­ken English. “Fol­low me.”

Jorda and Stoewe ex­changed a brief glance be­fore de­cid­ing to com­ply. The man led them through a palm grove be­fore emerg­ing from the jun­gle on a rocky out­crop. The air im­me­di­ately turned cooler, car­ry­ing with it the sharp sting of salt wa­ter. Be­low them, the clear­est swell Jorda had ever seen crashed into a pris­tine and de­serted beach. He and Stoewe thanked their im­promptu guide then hur­ried down to the beach. This was it. They had ar­rived at their promised land. São Tomé is not your usual surf re­treat. And that’s pre­cisely the point. Of­fi­cially the Demo­cratic Repub­lic of São Tomé and the smaller is­land of Principe, it lies in the Gulf of Guinea, ap­prox­i­mately 155 miles off the north­west coast of Gabon. It is the sec­ond small­est African coun­try af­ter the Sey­chelles, with 98% of its 157,000 in­hab­i­tants speak­ing Por­tuguese – a hang­over from colo­nial rule, when the is­land was once Africa’s fore­most ex­porter of su­gar, and later cof­fee and ca­cao.

Civil un­rest slowly grew, cu­mu­lat­ing in the Batepá Mas­sacre of 1953, in which sev­eral hun­dred African labour­ers were killed. Ru­mours per­sist that dur­ing the con­flict, dozens were burned to death while oth­ers were tor­tured with elec­tric cur­rents, their bod­ies dumped into the sea. Peace was even­tu­ally re­stored, but it wasn’t un­til 22 years later, in 1975, that the is­lands gained in­de­pen­dence.

As the rev­o­lu­tion­ary smoke cleared from above the tree­tops, the São Toméan peo­ple re­de­fined their way of life. It be­came one of the first African na­tions to un­dergo egal­i­tar­ian re­form, le­gal­is­ing op­po­si­tion par­ties and demo­cratic elec­tions. The cof­fee and ca­cao fac­to­ries – now stand­ing empty – were slowly re­claimed by the en­croach­ing jun­gle. To­day, out­side of the cap­i­tal city (also named São Tomé) most peo­ple are con­tent to work just the two or three hours needed to gather enough food for the day. About a fifth of the pop­u­la­tion of São Tomé are in­volved in the fish­ing

“Surf­ing is the cul­tural bridge con­nect­ing the São Toméans to out­siders”

community, and it’s the foun­da­tion of the lo­cal diet. Men tend to do most of the fish­ing, as well as main­tain­ing the boats, while women trans­port, sell or pre­pare their catch. The rest of their time is taken up with re­lax­ation, vis­it­ing fam­ily, and mak­ing use of boun­ti­ful lo­cal surf spots.

The is­land largely keeps to it­self, which is ex­actly what at­tracted Ger­man ad­ven­turer and pho­tog­ra­pher, Christoph Jorda, 37. Once he’d dou­ble-checked that it ac­tu­ally ex­isted, that is. “I was look­ing at a world map on my com­puter and at first I thought I had a speck of dust on my screen,” he tells MH. “But I zoomed in and found this tiny is­land.” His in­ter­est piqued, Jorda be­gan his re­search. But, bar­ring a few out­dated re­ports from the ’90s, São Tomé ap­peared to be a mys­tery. Jorda and Stoewe, 33, de­cided to go any­way. “I couldn’t find much about surf­ing on the is­land, but I knew there was 5000km-worth of open ocean wash­ing up on its shores, so there had to be sur­fa­ble waves. It would be an ad­ven­ture, at least.”

This is not to sug­gest that the is­land is un­touched by Western in­flu­ence. Walk around the poor fish­ing vil­lage of Porto Ale­gre, or make your way to Jale Ecolodge on the re­mote west coast, and you will find young lo­cals surf­ing on hand-me-down boards left by the oc­ca­sional vis­i­tor. While the boards have long since de­te­ri­o­rated, they are trea­sured here like spir­i­tual relics. How­ever, most of the is­land’s avid surf fra­ter­nity has im­pro­vised, by re­claim­ing worn-out ca­noes from which they art­fully carve their own boards. With these ba­sic tools they prac­tice a unique mix of surf­ing and body board ma­noeu­vres, ded­i­cated to per­fect­ing moves that Western pros would take years to mas­ter.


Surf­ing rep­re­sents the cul­tural bridge that con­nects the São Toméans to Western vis­i­tors like Jorda. “The lo­cals were amaz­ing to us,” Jorda re­calls. “To own a real surf­board is a big thing on the is­land, so they wel­comed us with en­thu­si­asm.”

Two teenagers, Danilke and Sheshe – from San­tana, a vil­lage on the is­land’s

north east coast – took Jorda un­der their wing, invit­ing him to surf the lo­cal reef. They are two of just a hand­ful of men on the is­land to own sec­ond-hand boards.

“Danilke is from a very poor fam­ily,” Jorda says. “Ev­ery morn­ing he has to go out snorkelling to catch oc­to­pus to sell, but as soon as he’s fin­ished he spends the day surf­ing.” The ar­rival of the in­ter­net six years ago pro­vided the only other tool Danilke and Sheshe need. “They spend all evening online, watch­ing videos from the World Surf­ing Tour, then steal moves to add to their hy­brid reper­toire. They’re not afraid, they just go out and try to land airs and 360s. A lot of the time they nail it.”

Re­stricted to the odd English phrase backed by hand ges­tures, the lo­cals ad­vise vis­i­tors on the dan­gers of surf­ing cer­tain coves, but Jorda still rec­om­mends thor­ough in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “When you get to a beach it’s vi­tal you go out snorkelling to

look for dan­gers,” he says. “In many cases very few peo­ple have ever surfed there and div­ing straight in could be fa­tal.”

From sharks to sub­merged rocks and pow­er­ful tides, an in­ex­pe­ri­enced surfer can quickly find trou­ble in par­adise. “Praia Jale on the west is a re­ally rough, windy spot with a lot of rocks and strong cur­rents,” says Jorda. “You have to be an ex­pe­ri­enced surfer to read the ocean, oth­er­wise it can get very, very dan­ger­ous.”

Surf­ing near Danilke’s home vil­lage also comes with risks. The ocean parts as it hits a spit of rock, cre­at­ing two waves trav­el­ling in op­po­site di­rec­tions, a fea­ture known as a point break. “The wa­ter is only 2m deep,” says Jorda. “It’s a sharp rift and if you don’t make the take-off then you get smashed against the rocks.”

Jorda and his girl­friend surfed un­scathed, but both his board and backup board took a bat­ter­ing. Iron­i­cally, a £700 polyurethane surf­board is not nearly as ro­bust as the hand-carved wooden boards utilised by the lo­cals.

Surf­ing here also comes with other chal­lenges. While the is­land has abun­dant fish, ba­nanas and pa­paya, lo­cals of­ten get by on two co­conuts a day, with a meal of fish in the evening. Surf­ing two three­hour ses­sions a day – and burn­ing near 2000 calo­ries in the process – Jorda quickly found his en­ergy flag­ging, los­ing over 2kg in a mat­ter of weeks. “It’s good food, it’s or­ganic,” he says of the is­land’s pro­duce. “But for me it was not enough. The peo­ple in­vite you to their home to cook fish, but when you’re in the wa­ter all day you have to get some en­ergy back, or you’ll crash.”

Thank­fully, Jorda’s sport­ing back­ground is such that he was able to push through his fa­tigue. “I live at al­ti­tude, in the Alps, and reg­u­larly com­pete in triathlons and Iron­man com­pe­ti­tions, as well as do­ing a lot of climb­ing. Be­fore a big surf trip I train for three weeks, adapt­ing my usual regime to in­clude more swim­ming than cy­cling. When you’re surf­ing ev­ery day in this hu­mid­ity, your body quickly adapts.”

For lo­cals, their en­tire phi­los­o­phy places leisure as a pri­or­ity. A com­mit­ted surfer can fit in eight hours per day. And when sport is your life, the con­cept of a train­ing regime be­comes re­dun­dant.

“They think ‘ Why should I work 10 hours a day for money when I can work two hours and if I’m hungry, go fish­ing?’” Jorda ex­plains. “The rest of the day they’re re­lax­ing, hang­ing out and en­joy­ing life.”


Out in the newly dis­cov­ered cove, the sun is go­ing down, its light glint­ing off the wa­ter. A group of lo­cal surfers have joined Jorda and Stoewe, swap­ping boards as well as at­tempt­ing to copy the West­ern­ers’ moves on their own wooden ones. Later, over grilled fish, the chil­dren will ask Jorda to leave his board when he re­turns home. He does so, along with his wax and re­pair kit. It is not only a way of re­pay­ing the is­landers’ hos­pi­tal­ity, but an in­vest­ment in their fu­ture.

Surf­ing on São Tomé was a chal­lenge, Jorda tells MH, but it was an ex­pe­ri­ence un­like any other. “I’d rather have less than perfect waves all to my­self than share perfect ones with 40 peo­ple in Bali. Surf­ing for me is about ex­pe­ri­enc­ing other cul­tures. In that re­gard nowhere beats São Tomé.”

The São Toméan gov­ern­ment has plans to de­velop its tourism in­dus­try and, slowly but surely, more surfers are dis­cov­er­ing the is­land. It may well be that an in­flux of for­eign­ers – the very thing that will help the is­land pros­per – could change its in­hab­i­tants’ re­la­tion­ship with their sur­round­ings. But the peo­ple of São Tomé have fought long and hard to pro­tect their free­dom and es­tab­lish a unique way of life. What­ever hap­pens, it is likely there will al­ways be a young man honing his craft out on the wa­ters of some hid­den bay, pad­dling out against the sun­set.

“When sport is your life, the idea of a train­ing plan be­comes re­dun­dant”



LIFE ALONG THE SHORE 03- 04\ Jorda crosses a burned-out ba­nana plan­ta­tion be­tween Neves and Santa Cata­rina in search of un­touched waves 05\ High in calo­ries and en­er­gis­ing fats, co­conuts pro­vide a cru­cial source of fuel for a day of ex­haus­tive ac­tiv­ity 06



07 04 06

SHAD­OWS OF THE PAST 08\ Lo­cated in the moun­tains west of the cap­i­tal, Roça Monte Café was once the is­land’s largest cof­fee plan­ta­tion 09\ Stoewe as­sesses the waves off Il­héu das Ro­las, a tiny nearby is­land with just 200 in­hab­i­tants 10\ Lo­cals teach the yo

“In many cases few peo­ple have surfed there – div­ing in could prove fa­tal”


MAKE WAVES AND MEND 11\ A lo­cal surfer named Mano swims off the coast of San­tana, a small vil­lage lo­cated on São Tomé’s eastern coast 12\ A young boy gets to grips with his first im­pro­vised wooden board 11


13 16

BIG BREAKS 13-15\ Lo­cal surfers Cachi and Danilk brave the for­mi­da­ble waves off the coast of San­tana, site of the an­nual São Tomé Surf­ing Cham­pi­onship. “There’s a very shal­low reef break here, with mil­lions of sea urchins,” says Jorda 14 15

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