Santa Cruz’s Gary Conley on chasing the swell around the entire African continent on his Suzuki motorbike
Some people might call Gary Conley lucky. Others might call him crazy. After quitting his local environmental consulting job in September 2013, strapping a surfboard to his Suzuki DR650 motorbike, and riding around the entire coastline of Africa, plus a little of Europe and the Middle East, he’s probably a little of both.
Skyping from Dahab, Egypt, Conley chuckles about getting arrested in Nigeria and narrowly missing the Ebola outbreak in Cote d’Ivoire—his timing was good, sure, but to him the lengths to find the perfect wave are never too great.
“Surfing is this medium of connection with people where it doesn’t matter if you don’t speak the same language, or your lives are very, very different,” says Conley. “It just makes you feel like the spirit of surfing is alive and well in these very remote corners of Africa—it’s humbling to find it there.”
Conley grew up in Half Moon Bay and graduated from UC Santa Cruz, so, naturally, he planned this trip entirely around the swell season, going from winter in North Africa to Namibia and Angola—“when the swell starts cranking up there”—and trying to miss the massive rainstorms in the middle.
He’s ridiculously unflappable; take navigating hidden landmines left over from the wars between Mauritania and Morocco to get to the water, for instance.
While he managed to find that surfing sweet spot in places like Jeffrey’s Bay in South Africa (before the World Championship Tour even got there), in others, he was somewhat of a surf pioneer: “In Western Sahara, I was just looking at the map at the shape of the land to see what would make a good point break and I would wait for a swell, ride out and look to see if there was a good wave.”
Life on land wasn’t always so simple. Even though he insists that in order to get into real danger you’d have to be really unlucky, Conley did get into some situations that sound like an episode of “Homeland”—like that one time he got arrested in Nigeria. The same Nigeria where Islamist terror group Boko Haram regularly kidnaps busloads of young girls, blows up shopping malls, and carries out suicide bombings.
Conley had been riding for 16 hours and was only five miles from the capital city, Abuja, his destination for the night. It was nighttime and he was struggling to avoid unlit minibuses and huge ruts in the road, when his bike broke down. Exhausted, he was heartened when a group of locals agreed to tow his bike with theirs, but once they were finally able to start moving, a police officer rolled up and promptly arrested the lot of them.
“This guy is telling us that it’s illegal to tow a motorbike on the side of the road, but this is in a country where you regularly see people sitting on the roofs of cars travelling at highway speed. Laws are fairly flexible,” says Conley. “It’s just a matter of how much do you want to spend and how much time do you have? It wasn’t that bad, but it wasn’t where I wanted to be.”
A few hours and many U.S. dollars later, they released him.
Two days after he’d cleared Abuja, Boko Haram blew up a detention center four blocks from the house he’d stayed in—and the only near-miss on Conley’s trip. When the Ebola outbreak hit western Africa, he had travelled just two countries south, to Ghana. In Ivory Coast, he was stopped by men in fatigues with AK-47s and a makeshift road block—definitely not state military, he decided. Unlike at previous checkpoints, Conley didn’t stop: “I decided to err on the side of throttle.”
Yet, in retelling these hair-raising anecdotes, Conley is more amused than deterred.
“The odds of something bad happening are higher than if we were sitting in California, but the odds are still really, really low,” he assures. “You could be in the wrong place at the wrong time but the odds are still with you.”
The biggest obstacle, says Conley, was really just bureaucratic red tape. Conley and his girlfriend, who joined him in South Africa, had to travel to Rwanda, Kenya, and Uganda, just to get visas to Ethiopia, then send their passports back to Washington D.C. to finally obtain them.
There was always someone willing to help him in times of need—Conley is adamant—even if through a mixture of pidgin languages and hand signals, it was just to get someone else in the village. In general, locals were more curious than threatening.
“In some places we’d wake up in the morning and there’s 40 people standing around us, the whole village comes to have a look” he says. “If there’s a stream somewhere and you think ‘oh this looks like a nice camp spot,’ be prepared to be social; you’re an interloper into their world and given that that’s the case, they’re really friendly.”
Now on the final leg of his trip, Conley says he might “take the long way home”—and by that, he means: ride through Europe and then skirt through Asia via Cambodia, then up to Russia.
But he remains humble about all that mileage (about 36,000 miles, he says in his last email from Turkey)—other weary travellers he encountered were way more impressive, he says.
“We were in the middle of the Sudan desert and we were like ‘oh man this is a long ride, this is really hard’—and there’s a Japanese guy pedaling his bicycle in the other direction,” he says, laughing.
Between the waves and wind, it’s those stories that made the journey, says Conley.
“Whether you’re a musician or a sailor or a birdwatcher, having that community—in surfing we say we have a tribe—I like it as a way to travel,” he says. “Your friends are already there waiting for you, you just have to go find them.”