Dodging the dangers in Algeria looking for waves
BOYS with shaved heads and leather jackets hang out in the dark streets.
The giant 'tourist' sticker stamped on our foreheads isn't helping us blend in.
The Smart Traveller website has heavy warnings against going to Algeria, and those warnings play on our paranoia as we try to find somewhere open for dinner.
"Algeria - Do Not Travel."
Dozens of kidnappings and murders over the past 10 years are attributed to Al Qaeda. We find somewhere. The chef is having a heated discussion with some of the patrons in Arabic. We step in and the place goes quiet, Wild West style.
There is only one phrase that can diffuse this situation. The national soccer slogan, a true call to Algerian patriotism. In perfect unison, Angelo and I call out, "One, two, three! VIVA ALGIRI!"
The sun has beaten back the night and the streets are bustling. The boys creeping around at night are now playing foosball and doing other non-menacing activities.
The first thing we need to do is buy a phone to call our friend Mino, a true Algerian surfer. We have only ever spoken to him over the internet, but he seems both eccentric and eager to go surfing. You have to be, if you want to be an Algerian surfer.
But where do we start looking for a phone? There are no chain stores or shopping malls that make buying things convenient here. We ask an elderly gentleman if he knows where to start looking.
"Ou este le magazine de mobile?"
Our version of French says we are tourists more than anything else, so he warmly welcomes and thanks us for choosing his country as a holiday destination. We get across what we are looking for and he takes us through the colonial-era streets to a phone shop. After picking out the cheapest one, he slams a wad of dinars on the counter and gives us a final 'welcome to Algeria!' before melting back into the crowd.
We give Mino a call and he hooks us up with his friend Cedric. Cedric is a French expat hired by the government to design and build Algeria's subway. He is a wily character and has learnt the hard way how to get himself out of trouble. Known among friends as le poussin (baby chicken) because of his blonde hair, he is definitely no pushover. He has faced blackmail and extortion from the police, has had show-downs with gangs armed with machetes that patrol his surf beaches, and keeps the horny men that throw lewd comments and stares at his modern Algerian girlfriend at bay with a touch of chivalry. Cedric is not afraid to punch his way out of a situation. And he makes his own surf boards.
Our days in Algeria are spent waiting for Cedric to get off work to go driving up and down the coast looking for waves. Our car is usually the only one parked by the beach, with the exception of one or two others getting busted by the cops. Cedric explains that car parks are the only places young couples have any privacy to get it on. Unfortunately for them, sex in public is also illegal.
Later that night we have dinner at Cedric's place. He tells us Algeria is a bizarre country full of contradictions. The oil economy provides cheap petrol, a strong welfare system, jobs and heaps of flow-on industry. Yet people still want to leave because of boredom. It has an observant Muslim population, but when the alcohol shops open at night the line is out the door. It even snows in the desert. And everyone that we meet wants to make sure we are having the best time possible in their country. But then gives us a dire warning that we are always in danger, which swamps our enthusiasm with fresh paranoia.
The real gem in Algeria's coastline is the Wolf Wedding. It is just outside of Annaba, where Mino lives.
We finally meet Mino in person at an old '80s-style bus-depot in Annaba. After an all night journey we are stoked to see him burn round the corner in his ute, hand out the window in a salute wishing us 'BONJOUR'! He takes us back to his house and we get some sleep before going out to surf the Wolf Wedding.
Mino, like his country, is a contradiction. It is a miracle he even started surfing. He lives in a country with almost no surfers, no saturation of the surf industry and no surf equipment.
"Where I live there is nothing to do with surfing. There is no school. There is no one that surfs in front of you. It's only something you see in the movies," says Mino.
"Surfing is like magic. Where I live it could never happen, only in Australia. This was how I took it."
"One day I was bored. I was bored from all the things that happen on the beach. Those people that play tennis, those guys smoke, I was bored.
"So I took an old, old windsurfing board and I tried to stand up. I was not searching 'surf' on the internet, I was just trying to stand up.
"I did this on the old wind surf board for one week, and the virus was caught."
Mino drives us deep into the mountainside. Wild trees almost throw themselves over red cliff-faces. We come to a bay over-looked by an abandoned French factory.
Where men once laboured for the colonial interests of France, goats now graze. Industrial fishing ships have been replaced by small one man boats. But the wave in the bay has been breaking for centuries and it has just begun to be ridden.
The wave is a long left-hand point-break. It runs for about 200m starting with a heavy, sometimes hollow, take off. It then starts to straighten out and run again. It is by no means a perfect wave, but that lends it a unique charm. Sometimes it will close out, sometimes it will wall up and sometimes it will tube. Sometimes you will get a straight one that will link up with the shore break and start running along again. Sometimes it will just die out. This is a wave that takes time getting used to. And the only people on their way to getting it wired are Mino and a fledgling surf club he created.
Mino uses his surf club to hustle boards and wetsuits out of sponsors, all in the name of growing the Algerian surfing standard. Before, he was making leashes and board bags out of scrap rope and sail. Yet why would you want more people surfing your hell left? He obviously hasn't surfed Uluwatu with 50 Brazos!
"I want to catch some attention. See some pro guys come here and show us how to surf. If no one comes to you, your level will stay the same," Mino explains.
Surfing in Algeria is still taboo. It is something Mino still hides from his family.
"I'm close to 37. At 37, your mum is waiting for you to marry. It's time for you to make a home. I've come too late for surfing. So I hide. I hide myself, I hide the boards, I hide when I go surfing."
And to the curious foreigner, would you go to Algeria to surf? The kidnappings are real, wherever they are. To get to the Wolf Wedding we had to pass through a military checkpoint. And two lone Aussie surfers might seem suspicious to bored soldiers.
"We have a rule," Mino says. A rule that is one of the biggest contradictions to how we see surfing.
"If a guest comes, they have priority."
"So you tell the Australians, when the Algerians have a stranger, when they have a guest, the stranger has priority on the wave. Everything good will be for them before us.
"For me, surfing is something pure, something noble. If you are selfish, you are not a surfer."