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
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
05 HEART OF DARKNESS
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
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