Celebrating 15 years of Tomorrowland

It’s nearly midday on a baking-hot Friday afternoon, and the crowd that’s gathered at the gate is beginning to jostle. Singing, laughing, dousing each other in body glitter and draping flags from every corner of the globe around their shoulders, these people are ready to party. The dress code is cut off denims and string bikini tops, suntans and face paint the order of the day.

Suddenly, the rhythmic thud of a techno beat strikes up, vibrating the ground underfoot. A collective roar emanates from the crowd, and finally, the gate opens. Hundreds of twenty-to-thirty-somethings pour through, fl ashing their wristbands and running towards the music. An enormous, theatrical stage sits in the field’s natural basin, and a tiny figure can just be made out at its heart, bopping his head and raising his hands to welcome the revellers tumbling down the hill towards him. It’s legendary techno DJ Carl Cox. Screaming with excitement, some festival-goers actually drop to their knees and kiss the grass at their feet.

We’re at Tomorrowland, the world’s biggest electronic music festival, where even the site is considered hallowed ground. Like Glastonbury, but for electronic music, tickets are like gold-dust – and for some of these music lovers, arriving at this festival is the stuff of dreams. It’s not an exaggeration. As I watch the Mainstage fill with fans, jumping with elation and waving their native country’s flags (it’s a Tomorrowland tradition to represent where you’re from), I spot the national colours of Bulgaria, Brazil and Australia. In fact, up to 214 nationalities travel from all corners of the world to the tiny (and aptly named) town of Boom, an hour’s drive from Brussels – to attend the party to end all dance parties. We’re talking 16 stages hosting 1,000 artists and 400,000 festival-goers, over two three-day weekends each and every July.

But the festival experience begins long before the gates open. For some, it starts at airport departure gate parties and DJ-hosted flights – of which Brussels Airlines puts on 147, from all over Europe and the United States, for each festival. Others start the proceedings at Invited, the secret pre-party that takes place in central Brussels, or at The Gathering – a Thursday night warm-up concert at the festival campsite, DreamVille.

For me, it kicks off on Friday morning in the DreamVille campsite, which is a temporary, self-contained town, with wooden boardwalks, a supermarket, clothes shops and hair salons (there’s even rumoured to be a tattoo parlour, although I can’t find it). Joining the hordes heading towards the main gate, which is impossible to miss beneath an enormous, painted-wood rainbow, I realise in a moment of dismay that this is a festival to dress up for. All around me, the guys have seemingly spent months in the gym preparing for this day, while the girls have all perfected the messy-chic, boho look. Hair piled up and in a T-shirt and trainers, I feel decidedly un-glam. Something catches my eye. A make-up stand is placed near the final walkway to the festival ground. I duck in and emerge with smudgy, smoky eyes sparkling with gold glitter, and freshly tonged hair. I’m ready to go.

Walking the final stretch from DreamVille to the festival is an experience in itself. With boom boxes and dancing all along the way, there’s never a dull moment. The kookier festival-goers are jumping on ‘crazy bikes’, which you’d think would be a quick hack for speeding to the gate by bicycle. It’s the opposite. Some have steering wheels for handlebars; others have backwards pedals. Suffice it to say, these bikes will double the journey time from the campsite to the entrance – but they definitely make it more fun.

Once inside, it’s clear why people talk about Tomorrowland as if it’s a world of its own. At every turn, there’s a wacky spectacle to behold. Mime artists pull someone to the side, sit him down and pretend to polish his shoes (it doesn’t seem to matter that he’s in flip fl ops). Marching bands on stilts parade through the site, parting the crowds like Moses in the Red Sea. Game of Thrones-esque, fur-clad warriors trudge in packs, brandishing staffs and intimidating glares at anyone not quick enough to jump out of their way. Ethereal fairies fl utter their wings and eyelashes at passers-by, dressed in silk leaves and sequins.

I make my way to the huge Brussels Airlines Ferris wheel that overlooks the festival site – to get the lay of the land. From the top, it’s dizzyingly high and the view is impressive. Nearly every stage can be made out, from the cavernous indoor Freedom Stage, renowned for its pyrotechnics and light shows, to the dingy Rave Cave and the Mainstage where Eric Prydz is just beginning a set.

You can even spot the Jacuzzis and swimming pool, and the twinkling fairy lights peeking out from the hidden, glade-like forest stages. It’s the perfect place to set out a plan of action, and there’s a lot of music to enjoy. But first, it’s time for a pre-party refuel. I’ve got a ticket to BEAT – a one-hour, three-course meal accompanied by an intimate DJ set. My slot is DJ’d by Filipino-Dutch music producer and martial artist Laidback Luke, in a purpose-built room covered with fake foliage, from ivy-covered walls to flower-threaded tablecloths. The set is already in full swing as I step into the dark space, taking a neon-green cocktail from a raised table by the door. I was expecting something of a low-key dinner party vibe, and I completely missed the mark.

It’s carnage. The wooden floor vibrates and creaks from the heavy bass and the jumping feet of 50 or so ticket-holders, each one buzzing to find themselves in the Boiler Room-like setting. A guest chef has prepared a beautiful three-course meal, but it’s difficult to work out what’s being served through the darkness and above the din.

And that’s if you can get your hands on a plate of food in the first place. Waiters carry in tray after tray of braised pork cheek and mashed potato, in polystyrene bowls, and the crowd – clearly famished from a day’s worth of dancing (and most likely, a hangover from the night before) – immediately pounces on each one, devouring that meltingly soft, lovingly prepared meat in three mouthfuls at best, before casting the plate aside and hitting the dancefloor again. I find a quieter corner to tuck into mine, and it’s delicious – but not as delicious as the disco funk being laid down by Luke. I shove it down in a few mouthfuls and get back on the floor.

The hour flies by, and I head outside to check out the stages. I catch Russian DJ Nina Kraviz’s pure-vinyl, minimalist techno set as the sun goes down and, at dusk, I follow a string of fairy lights into a woodland where German DJ duo Claptone are playing otherworldly deep house in their signature gold-beaked masks.

There’s only one place I want to be for the final act of the night. Around 50,000 people can fit into the Mainstage arena, in a natural amphitheatre that allows for unobscured views from just about every angle. I clamber up the hillside to the very top centre as David Guetta – a Tomorrowland veteran, who played the first-ever edition and has been on the bill every year since – steps into the booth. It’s clear that Guetta loves this festival. He launches into a euphoric set filled with classics, grinning from ear to ear. His enthusiasm washes through the crowd – we raise our hands to the heavens and sing our hearts out. The staging is an incredible feat of ingenuity: acrobats swing from platforms embedded high in the rafters, as all the zany elements of the festival design collide in one breathtaking scene.

At just before 11pm, the sky erupts into a kaleidoscope of fireworks – a twice-nightly occurrence throughout the festival. There’ll be another fireworks display at midnight, but I’m heading back to the DreamVille campsite for a nightcap of Jupiler beer and some shut-eye before it all starts again tomorrow. And this time, I think, I’ll bring the glitter.


Magic mushrooms: the rise of the beer mushroom in Brussels

At the end of the warren of dimly lit tunnels is an opaque, plastic-sheet doorway. Easing it open, I step into the cool, humid greenhouse beyond. Above my head, a nozzle sprays mist into the air that’s already clouded with condensation. On metal shelves, lined out in rows, are rock-sized lumps of a spongy, brown-coloured substance, with a dense white fungus spreading over their surface. Thick-stemmed, earth-brown mushrooms protrude out, clinging to the edge as they sprawl into clusters, some as big as my fist. A man dressed in plastic protective clothing takes hold of one of the largest, and slices through its meaty stem with a knife, placing the harvested fungi in to a crate.

The whole scene has the air of an alien autopsy about it. “Mushrooms are one of the most mysterious living organisms,” agrees biologist Sylvère Heuzé, who fell for fungi when he encountered rural mushroom growers during his study abroad in Mexico. He’s one of four core members of staff at Le Champignon de Bruxelles, a specialist urban mushroom farm that was set up in 2014 and is based in the Caves de Cureghem: the cool cellars beneath a fruit and vegetable market-cum-abattoir in the Anderlecht district of Brussels. Originally built in the 19th century as foundations to support a livestock market upstairs, the cellars were repurposed to cultivate mushrooms in the early 20th century, before being converted into an occasional events space since the 1990s.

The start-up has colonised 1,000 square metres of the brick-roofed, underground alcoves, and each week produces a tonne of specialist, organic mushrooms to be delivered to the chefs and organic grocery stores of the capital. But these fungi are special for a reason other than plugging a gap in the market for shiitake, maitake and nameko mushrooms (which are almost impossible to buy elsewhere for a reasonable price). They’ve been cultivated on a waste product that comes from the most Belgian of industries: beer.

“I wanted to grow shiitake mushrooms because I knew there was a market for them here, and I began experimenting growing them on coffee waste first, in 2014,” says CEO Hadrien Velge, a trained economist with a specialist interest in social enterprises. “But I found it didn’t work very well, and there was already another producer in Brussels growing oyster mushrooms on coffee grounds. That’s when I thought of using beer waste – there’s a lot of it in and around Brussels and I’d heard that it could be used as a substrate for mushrooms. I realised quickly that it was much more effective than coffee waste, and no big producers were using it.”

It was at that point that bio-engineer Thibault Fastenakels joined the team, with the task to build the Cureghem cellar farm, which the small enterprise expanded into in 2016. Fastenakels, like Heuzé, is a fungus fanatic on a mission to bring the science and manual joy of agriculture to the inner city. “Mushrooms can grow on a lot of stuff that could generally be considered as waste,” he explains. “I like that we can produce a lot on a small area, in comparison with salad or potatoes, which need thousands of square metres. It’s interesting in an urban area.”

These aren’t the only Cureghem-based entrepreneurs with a passion for urban agriculture. On the roof of the same building is BIGH, Europe’s largest urban rooftop farm, where cherry tomatoes, basil, parsley, kale and more are lovingly grown, packaged and sold to supermarkets including Carrefour. And in Belgium, there’s a growing appetite for organic produce. Up to 90% of Belgians buy an organic product at least once a year, and the consumption of organic food increased by 6% between 2016 and 2017. In the midst of the growing global conversation on food sustainability, Velge and his three other ‘musketeers’ chose the perfect moment to launch their food-from-waste endeavour.

So how exactly are mushrooms grown from beer waste? On a tour of the facility, head of communications Quentin Declerck explains that only 10% of the ingredients used to make beer end up in your pint glass – and the waste product they use, called bierbostel, is the damp, protein-rich grain left over once the beer has been filtered. It makes an ideal breeding ground for mycelium fungus bacteria to grow on. The first hurdle, however, is finding an organic brewery to work with that can tie in with Le Champignon de Bruxelles’ pesticide-free ethos.

“It’s hard to find organic beer, because brewers have difficulties finding organic barley,” reveals Declerck. “We work with Cantillon, which is close to here and has a specific way of making gueuze [lambic] beer. They don’t put artificial yeast in it; instead they leave their vats open to the air and use the natural yeast from the building, which drops down and colonises the beer. It gives the beer its acidic flavour, and it’s organic.”

One of Le Champignon de Bruxelles’ 12 employees collects the bierbostel on a bicycle and brings it to the Cureghem HQ, where it’s pasteurised by heating it to 90°C for four to five hours. “Pasteurising keeps the good bacteria and kills the bad ones,” says Declerck. Then, the substrate is divided into plastic bags, the mushroom mycelium is added, and it’s incubated at 22°C for two to three months. During this time, the fungus colonises the beer substrate, producing heat and condensation that drips down the bag’s interior. “It’s 90% humidity in the bag,” explains Declerck. “The mushrooms are breathing, taking in oxygen and giving out CO2, which is why we have 20 kinds of microgreens growing here, too, which need CO2.” He gestures at some LED-lit shelves of herbs and spices – mini coriander and purple radish sprouts, as well as some specialist varieties like Japanese basil, to be sold directly to chefs. It’s a secondary part of the business, but vital to its philosophy of turning every waste product into a resource. The microgreens also provide a supplementary source of summer income, when mushroom sales are lower.

Once the mycelium has colonised the entire block of substrate, the plastic bags are burst open and the substrate is transferred from ‘summer’ weather in the hot incubation room to the cooler, autumnal greenhouse, where the temperature sits between 11°C and 15°C – the perfect climate for mushrooms to reproduce in. “Shiitake mushrooms stay in the greenhouse for just one week,” says Declerck. “Just opening the bag gives them a lot of oxygen, and they reproduce like crazy, by growing mushrooms. Once we’ve harvested them, we put the substrate into compost.” As for the mushrooms, they’re boxed up (using non-plastic packaging wherever possible) and sold immediately, always just a day or two old by the time they reach the shelves or a restaurant plate.

Stepping out of the misty autopsy room, I’m met by the welcome scent of frying mushrooms. Declerck sloshes thick soy sauce over the sliced shiitakes and lets them caramelise over a medium flame. He pours a glass of fluorescent-orange Cantillon beer and places it before me, alongside a small taster plate of soy-glazed shrooms. I dig in. The flesh is meaty and springy, while the flavour is deeply nutty and umami. As for the gueuze beer, it’s shockingly acidic – almost like a strong, UK West Country cider – and balances out the savoury mushrooms beautifully.

As we eat, I notice that the wall behind us displays a ‘circular economy’ chart, which shows how each waste product in the food industry can (and arguably should) be repurposed into a sustainable resource. “Here in the city, we have a lot of organic waste that can be used as a resource,” says Velge. “It’s a vehicle to produce food locally with the resources we have available, which I think is the most important thing right now.”

For Heuzé, growing mushrooms this way sets a perfect example for food sustainability solutions. “Mushrooms are a recycling organism,” he says. “In any part of the world, you will always have organic waste – a resource that is free, and in very big volume – that you can use to make mushrooms. It can be developed for food security. A little rice producer in Asia, for example, could have a secondary activity to make mushrooms. You don’t even need any technology – it can be as simple as adding water to straw.”

Their enthusiasm is infectious and is the backbone of their cooperative setup. Fifty investors and co-op members have a say in every company decision made in these vaults. It’s an unusual approach, which works thanks to a common desire to help the enterprise thrive. So what’s next for Belgium’s subterranean mushroom men?

Declerck picks up a bag of substrate that’s incubating in a corner shelf, separate from the rest: an experiment. I peer closer, observe its rich-brown colour and detect a sweet, familiar scent.

“Cocoa beans,” says Heuzé with a huge grin. “They are from the chocolatiers in Brussels. It’s still in development but we’re hoping to grow mushrooms from it next year.” Mushrooms don’t get much more Belgian than that.


Meet the woman leading Belgium’s cocktail revolution

The first time mixologist Hannah Van Ongevalle worked as a bartender “was horrible,” says the craft cocktail champion. “I had a very strict manager who said, ‘you’re never going to be good enough to be a bartender. You have to work in the cloakroom.’ He was very wrong!”

We’re in a speakeasy named The Pharmacy in Knokke, an upmarket seaside town a couple of hour’s drive west of Brussels. Outside, the pale sun sparkles off the beach house’s white façade and the North Sea – but step through the red, unmarked door and you’re met with a cosy warren of wood-panelled corners and velvet furnishings, glowing in lamplight. From each nook and cranny looms an antiquated piece of décor: a taxidermy peacock, a blood-red Chinese lantern, a tobacco-stained clock.

Before me is a concoction named Rudolph, poured with perfectly amber whisky, infused with orange peel and nuts and served in a triangular glass over a charred pile of cinnamon sticks, dried chili and star anise. As I take a sip, a subtle waft of smoke engulfs the glass and adds a wintry, bonfire-night aroma to the already-smoky drink.

This clandestine place won Belgium’s Best Cocktail Bar award shortly after it opened in 2014, and is followed by a new sister bar in Antwerp, which opened this January (with a similarly 1920s-esque interior, in a cavernous space above restaurant Danieli Il Divino). At both, precision is key to the cocktail-making artistry. Drinks at The Pharmacy can take months to design. They’re beautifully balanced, simply presented, and are finished off with details like an edible flower garnish and singular ice cube and minimally encased in ornate crystal.

Van Ongevalle was the first woman to win the Diageo World Class Belgian Finals, a prestigious cocktail-making contest that led her to the global finals. But her journey to mixologist stardom wasn’t one she took alone. Cocktail crafting flows through the veins of the Van Ongevalle family – Hannah’s younger brother Ran was crowned Best Belgian Bartender in 2014 and was the first Belgian to win a Bacardi Legacy Global award. He’s now based at Artesian, at London hotel The Langham – named the world’s best bar between 2011 and 2015. Back in Knokke, the youngest of the three siblings, Noa, is managing The Pharmacy for her father, Jan, who founded it with Hannah five years ago.

They’re an energetic, eclectic bunch, boasting 50 tattoos between them – Jan and Ran roll up their sleeves to reveal a cocktail stirrer inked on the forearm – and their passion is palpable. The bar shelves groan with Mexican mescals and Japanese whiskies sourced from afar, and unavailable anywhere else in Belgium. And the clan is more than willing to dip into their own supply at the first whiff of a family gathering. Alongside a handful of other bars in Antwerp and Ghent, the family is at the forefront of a growing culture of Belgian mixology.

Over the course of an afternoon with the Van Ongevalles, it becomes clear that ambition is as much a common denominator among the family as their love of an expertly mixed drink. “I wanted to win an Oscar by age 14,” says Hannah. It was her thespian-side that led her to her true calling.

“I was always a very creative child and needed an outlet, so my parents let me go to LA by myself at 14,” she says. “I didn’t get any auditions, but it was life changing. I came back thinking that everything is possible if I work hard.”

Hannah studied in London, then did her stint in the Belgian nightclub cloakroom before working her way into fashion in Paris, Amsterdam, and Nice. It was there that, in the blink of an eye, everything changed. Hannah’s French partner Guillaume was involved in a road accident that left him hospitalised for six months. “I went from trying to find my way to extreme survival mode,” Hannah says. Her father Jan had since become bar manager at the Knokke Casino, and offered her flexible work so she could frequently travel back to France. It was in those circumstances that she began to make cocktails.

A few months later, Hannah received a phone call that would change her life. “My dad said, ‘I want to open a bar. Do you want to join me? You have 24 hours to decide’,” Hannah remembers with a laugh. “My dad does everything in a rush.”

Six weeks later, The Pharmacy was born. Within seven months, Jan was encouraging Hannah to enter the Diageo World Class contest, despite her relative inexperience. “It was the first time a woman had competed, and I arrived pulling my suitcase in my heels,” says Hannah. “The other bartenders were like, ‘that’s so cute, is your boyfriend entering the competition?’ I said, ‘no, I am, and I’m going to be great’.”

Fortuitously, the theme of the first stage was Stars and The Theatrical – and Hannah caught the judges’ eye with a Cabaret-inspired performance. But it was her gastronomy-led approach that sealed the deal.

“For the second stage we had to buy ingredients from the market, so I thought, ‘if I want to win I need to do something a bit shocking’,” Hannah grins. “I bought an aged, greasy ham and put it in the shaker. Everyone was staring. Even my dad was mouthing at me, ‘no!’ But I presented it to them with a card trick, and slowly everyone started standing up and clapping.”

It won her the Belgian stage and cemented Hannah’s chef-inspired style. She believes that Belgium’s increasing interest in cocktail culture correlates with a renewed interest in food culture (a phenomenon she’s seen in London, Paris and New York, too).

“When my dad moved from fashion to bartending seven years ago, bars that had a couple of cocktails on the menu were seen as cocktail bars,” she says. “But now, people are more aware of what they’re eating and drinking, even in their own homes – with the gin and tonic craze, and TV shows like Come Dine With Me [or Komen Eten in Belgium].”

Hannah’s also been inspired by her travels since 2014, judging competitions and consulting in Mauritius, Martinique and Thailand, and working with local flavours that reflect her immediate surroundings, including chocolate and beer. “We have a beautiful portfolio of ingredients in Belgium,” she enthuses. “We have herbs growing in the dunes in the Zwin and work with local businesses that go out and pick them. I work with things from the sea: seaweed, saline solution, sea salt. Salty drinks won’t become popular in Belgium anytime soon, but when they do, I’m ready with 1,000 recipes!”

As a food-influenced mixologist, Hannah couldn’t be much better placed in the world – there’s a grand total of 22 Michelin stars within a 25-km radius of Knokke. Local esteemed chef Willem Hiele, who owns a restaurant in the region, was the inspiration behind one cocktail on the menu that’s close to Hannah’s heart. “I tried a fish dish at his restaurant last summer, made with prune, elderflower, goat yoghurt and basil oil,” she says. “I took a bite, looked up at Guillaume and saw a tear roll down his face. We started laughing because we were both crying at how good it was.” She headed home with a stack of prunes from the kitchen garden, distilled them into a syrup and added Riesling, vermouth and basil. “We put it on the menu and called it the Willem.”

All the non-alcoholic ingredients in The Pharmacy’s cocktails are created either in Hannah’s kitchen or in a local laboratory, where younger sister Noa is increasingly spending her time, distilling local flavours into clear syrups bursting with life (her family fondly calls her their ‘little nutty professor’). Hannah has also just set up The Motel: a training school designed for chefs to take cocktail-making courses, with the goal of raising the bar of drinks available in Belgian restaurants.

As for Noa, she’s already designed a cocktail for a global campaign by Bombay Sapphire and, alongside her sister, makes a promising antidote to Belgium’s male-dominated world of bartending – managing an older, often-male team. “Sometimes it’s a bit hard, when they have to listen to a 20-year-old girl,” she says. “I’m quite strict and people don’t like it, but I have to be – for the sake of the bar. I even tell my dad what to do. But he does it. He’s a good listener.”

Jan insists that his wife, Heidy, is the glue that holds the family together. But it’s him who’s constantly in the eye of the storm, his exuberant children whirling around him in a flurry of amber liquids and gleaming glassware. He’s also their harshest critic, keeping them grounded even as they’re making history. “I never give Hannah’s cocktails more than a seven out of 10 and I didn’t even want to hire Noa,” he says. “She’d never had a job before and we thought she’d be a quitter. She started at the lowest place, cleaning in the kitchen. But she’s the hardest worker and now she’s irreplaceable.”

It is the family’s charming dynamic as much as its vision for innovation that makes a visit to The Pharmacy so memorable. And with plans in the pipeline for another branch to open at the end of the year, this is only the beginning.


Underground Kiev: Soviet bunkers and subterranean rivers

Peering from street level, it’s too dark to see how far down the manhole goes. Keeping a grip on the icy tarmac, I sit on theedge and lower myself gingerly onto the steel ladder. With rungs at least a foot apart, each step is a lurch into the unknown. Three metres down, I make a final jump to the ground and squint into the pitch black. The air is thick and it’s silent, save for the sound of water rushing around my ankles. Our guide Vlad Vozniuck scrapes the steel cover shut, cutting out the only shaft of sunlight and our portal to the outside world.

I’m in the Ukrainian capital city of Kiev. It’s -4°C and snowing outside, but underground it’s significantly warmer, a consistent nine degrees above freezing – a fact that eased my trepidation as Vozniuck whipped out a wrench and lifted the manhole cover.

Vozniuck is the founder of Urbex, an urban exploration company that takes tourists into underground Kiev, and the drainage systems and bunkers that lie beneath ground level. He has expert knowledge of these dark pathways, having explored the networks since he was 15.

“I first found an underground tunnel flowing out into the river. I got a torch, and with a friend went inside,” he remembers. “We turned a corner and saw that one tunnel became three. I then understood that under Kiev there was a big system of tunnels and you can go from one place in the city to another with them. I started to explore.”

Now 29, Vozniuck organises tours with his four explorer colleagues, and takes tour groups of up to 12 underground and to abandoned buildings every day. “It was an experiment, we had no idea if people would be interested or not,” he says. “But we put photos online and people started saying, ‘wow, can I go there?’ After that, we started making tours.”

We take our first steps into the tunnel, adjusting to darkness only alleviated by the dim light of our head torches and trying not to slip on the wet bricks underfoot. This underground passage, Vozniuck tells me, is the Hlybochytska river.

“Kiev is unique because of its underground rivers,” he says. “If you look at a map of the city, there are a lot of hills. One thousand years ago, there were rivers between them. As the city developed, planners buried them in tunnels under the streets. These rivers have historical names and usually the streets above share the same name.”

The river runs beneath Hlybochytska Street – the main vein of one of Kiev’s hippest districts, Podil. It’s home to basement bars, co-working spaces, street art and some of the city’s most remarkable architecture, including the imposing Zhitny Rynok – a brutalist, Soviet marketplace.

We turn into a narrower tunnel just a metre wide, with soft mud underfoot. With each squelchy step the mud attempts to pull off the ex-Soviet gumboots Vozniuck has loaned me. Seeing my worried face, he assures me that we won’t be encountering any sewage during our tour.

“In nearly every European city, if you open a manhole it’ll smell, because they have sewage systems that mix with drain water and underground rivers,” Vozniuck says. “But at the end of 19th century our engineers divided the sewage and underground water systems, so our underground rivers have clean water.”

Vozniuck knows all this from first-hand experience, as he’s part of a worldwide community of urban explorers, which he discovered through online forums as a teenager. They explore underground, climb deserted buildings and share their experiences on the internet.

“Now we’re all friends and we travel with each other to explore different places,” he says. “We have international meetings where we throw parties for 60 or 70 urban explorers from all over the world – all held underground, of course.”

Vozniuck’s travels have led him to ex-military bases in Albania, London’s sewers, deserted Italian castles and Russian space shuttles lost in the Kazakhstan desert. But Ukraine is uniquely primed for subterranean exploration due to two factors: its fascinating Soviet history, which saw some 550 Cold War bunkers built beneath Kiev alone, plus its 750km of underground rivers and 53km of drains; and a hangover from post-Communist law, which means that the trespassing laws of western Europe don’t apply in Kiev.

“Ukraine came from the USSR where everybody had common property,” Vozniuck explains. “Now, we have public and private areas but historically everything belonged to everyone. And still, Ukrainian underground bunkers belong to the city common property department. It means that if I’m a citizen I also pertain to a small part of this infrastructure.” It means that there aren’t laws to prohibit citizens like Vozniuck from exploring abandoned areas, although he gets personal permission from property owners when applicable. That said, it’s only advisable to explore the depths of Kiev with an expert guide – and Urbex is the city’s sole urban exploration company.

As we follow the path of the river, we pass graffiti and candle sticks melted onto ledges on the brick walls – evidence of the Ukrainian subculture that uses these underground networks for parties and to escape the punishing winter weather, which drops to -30°C in February. A risk of flash flooding means that Urbex only takes tour groups to the underground rivers in the summer – a heavy downpour can fill the tunnels to head height in 10 minutes – but the drainage systems, which also house bats, are safe to explore year round.

Part of the Urbex experience is facing absolute darkness and quiet. One of Vozniuck’s tricks is to leave visitors alone for five minutes, torches extinguished, in total silence. “People can hallucinate and think they hear voices far away in the tunnels, that aren’t there,” he says. Yet that’s nothing compared to some of his own subterranean experiences. He once spent 10 days below ground in Ukraine’s Blue Lakes, a four-hour drive from Kiev.

“After a few days you lose sense of day and night, and start having very colourful dreams, because everything you see when you’re awake is grey,” Vozniuck tells me. “All you hear is absolute silence. At first you hear yourself breathing and your footsteps. After five days you start to hear your own heartbeat. You become very aware of yourself.”

It’s intense stuff – and I’m slightly relieved when our torches shine onto the ladder that’ll lead us back to ground and almost blindingly bright daylight. But the excitement isn’t over yet. For the second part of the tour, Vlad drives us past Kiev’s historical landmarks – its answer to the Statue Liberty, the Motherland Monument; the National Opera House; and the gold-domed Saint Sophia’s Cathedral – to a grey tower block in a secret location.

We enter through a tall metal gate and are waved through by a security guard keeping warm in a Portakabin. From there, we crawl down a narrow stone tunnel and emerge in a gloomy concrete room secured by thick, iron doors. The labyrinth of rooms that follow are filled with protective rubber clothing, medical kits and radiation detectors – and space for 600 people to shelter. The bunker, which was thankfully never used, was built in 1986 at the tail end of the Cold War.

“This is not a museum,” Vozniuck says, encouraging me to pick up and inspect the objects we come across. “People can touch and explore. They feel like they’re part of the discovery, which is what makes it so interesting. We have just two rules: don’t take anything, and don’t touch any wires.”

Vozniuck’s colleagues discovered this bunker a year ago, left completely untouched since the Soviet Union broke down in 1991. It’s a huge thrill to be transported back in time to what was such a key moment in Kiev’s history. The musty air is loaded with an eerie atmosphere and the boxes of never-to-be-used equipment leave an impression that would be impossible to glean from behind glass in a museum.

We spend a good hour walking around, shining our torches on each corner of the bunker before Vozniuck leads us reluctantly back to ground level. Emerging from the snowy opening, grubby from the tunnels and faces lit with head torches and ear-to-ear grins, we’re met by a family sitting on a bench and tucking into a picnic lunch. They stare at us, aghast, as we brush ourselves off, give them a wave and trudge back to the car, totally exhilarated. Our next adventure? The search for the perfect chicken Kiev…


Skate of the art: can skateboards heal social divides in the developing world?

On a sleepy morning in Ixelles, a chic suburb of Brussels, the empty, pristine streets are almost silent – save for the approaching sound of wheels gripping pavement. One solitary figure rolls into view, cruising down the centre of the road. He skids to a halt at 21 Rue du Mail, kicks up his skateboard into his hand, and steps between two slate-grey doors.

Inside, a stockroom is stacked floor-to-ceiling with polished skateboards, crafted from maple trees in Canada before being imported to the Brussels HQ. At first, you’re met with a wall of bright-beige wood – but start flipping the boards over and a kaleidoscope of colourful prints on their underside brightens the workshop. There are Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans printed in eight bold hues, and his Marilyn Diptych on a shimmering gold backdrop. Piled on the next shelf is a series of politically-charged decks designed by LA-based illustrator Shepard Fairey, whose iconic HOPE campaign poster for Barack Obama made visual history. And then there’s the pink-and-gold Kate Board – British artist Grayson Perry’s gilded depiction of the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton.

This is The Skateroom – a social entrepreneurship founded by Belgian businessman and gallerist Charles- Antoine Bodson. Each of the thousands of boards in this room will be sold as limited-edition art pieces, with a portion of each sale donated to skateboarding-focused NGOs. Bodson sold his gift voucher experience business six years ago in order to pursue a passion project in the arts, curating a private collection of skateboard decks painted by contemporary artists. It was around this time that he met Oliver Percovich – founder of Skateistan, anNGO with a focus on supporting children in the developing world through creative learning and skateboarding. The organisation has set up arts-based schools with attached skate parks in Afghanistan, Cambodia and South Africa, providing access to education to over 2,800 children in total, 51% of which are girls – no mean feat in societies where learning is less accessible to them.

“I was convinced by their mission, but struck by their difficulty in raising the funds they needed,” Bodson recalls on meeting Percovich. “I decided to dedicate my collection to Skateistan.” A strong friendship and working partnership sprung from there; today Skateistan is The Skateroom’s primary funds beneficiary. By collaborating with artists – who are usually approached cold by The Skateroom, but who all have an interest in social impact – to create limited-edition boards starting at around €170 (signed editions can auction for up to €43,000), The Skateroom has constructed an economic model whereby at least 10% of its turnover goes towards Skateistan’s development projects.

It’s an approach that’s bagged collaborations with some of the biggest names in contemporary art – but it wasn’t easy to get off the ground. “The first artists we collaborated with were hard to convince,” Bodson remembers. “I had nothing to show them from previous collaborations. I just had to get them to trust me and to believe in Skateistan’s mission.” The first to collaborate was Belgian graffiti star ROA, but it was another project with a controversial artist that led to The Skateroom’s big break. “When we launched our project with Ai Weiwei, everything sold out within a couple of hours,” Bodson grins. But the political slogan-printed decks designed by the activist-artist were far from simple to produce.

“It took six months to get in touch with Ai Weiwei – he was still stuck in China under house arrest. But it was great to work with him once we made contact. He got back in touch when Donald Trump was elected, saying, ‘let’s do it again – with this visual.’” The image? Weiwei’s middle finger directed at the White House. Released on Trump’s 100th day in office, it sold out within two hours.

With such an artist to its name, The Skateroom now has its pick of creatives and has worked with some of the biggest institutions in the world, launching a Jean-Michel Basquiat collection with MOMA New York, and selling decks at the Tate and Serpentine in London. The latest collection, released in June this year, showcases the work of young illustrators Jean Jullien, Jeremyville and Steven Harrington – all keen to get involved in the social project. “It’s very important that this kind of project exists as a way to bring people closer via culture,” Jullien says.

With his background in business and fine art collecting, where did Bodson’s passion for skateboards come from?

“As a kid, I liked to skate,” he says. “And the do-it-yourself nature of skating and art… there are things about those worlds that look alike. You can skate everywhere in the world. It’s a kind of freedom and it connects you with people.” It’s an ethos shared by Percovich, who, having skated from the age of six, naturally brought his board with him when he moved from his native Melbourne to Kabul, Afghanistan, when his girlfriend got a job there over a decade ago.

“I didn’t have a job and I wasn’t tied to an organisation,” he tells us. “I’d skate around and within 20 seconds there’d be a group of kids around me interested in the board. It struck me that although half the population of Afghanistan is under 15, I didn’t see many initiatives engaging children. All those billions of dollars spent on international development, and very little of it was going towards children, especially girls’ education.”

He began to engage with the kids, teaching them to skateboard on the streets with two other volunteers. Before long, about 70 children were joining the sessions, and the effect was something very special. “What I saw was a microcosm of what I wished for the country overall,” he says. “Children coming together from different ethnicities that were otherwise very divided. Kids from middle class backgrounds next to kids who had been shining shoes on the streets their whole lives. It was a little community with a lot of potential.”

As the sessions grew in size, Percovich started paying one of the Afghan girls he’d met to teach her own group of skaters. The wage she earned paid her school fees – and it planted a seed. “I thought of building a school, with a skate park as well as classrooms where we can run classes based on creative learning and critical thinking – the types of skills they’d need to solve the very difficult problems they were going to inherit, to prepare them to be leaders in Afghanistan,” Percovich explains.

After gathering funds from international donors, Skateistan was born in July 2009. Three months later the NGO opened its very first Skate School in Kabul with space for 400 students. “It was definitely the most exciting day of my life so far,” laughs Percovich. Since then, four more schools have opened their doors, supporting the education already available to children with creative learning and a back-to-school ethos in places where access to education is low, or dropout levels are high. These include Johannesburg, the latest project to open in 2015, supported by a Skateroom collaboration with American artist Paul McCarthy.

The two organisations are now working together on their biggest project: opening a Skate School in 2020 in the Zaatari Refugee Camp, on the Syrian border in Jordan – home to some 80,000 displaced people. “A third of the Jordanian population are now refugees,” reveals Percovich. “We want to create opportunities not only for refugees but also Jordanians. We plan to welcome up to 1,200 children there weekly, creating opportunities for refugee children, healing rifts and investing in Jordanians too.”

For Bodson, this is just the beginning. “I would love to see 100 new skate and school installations around the world in 10 years,” he beams. “Skating will be an Olympic sport in 2020, so we have to spread the sport around the world so the US, Brazil or Japan don’t win all the medals!”

Supporting Skateistan also provides a way to address Western attitudes towards retail on a larger scale. “I’m convinced that with socially engaged products, we can change the world,” says Bodson.


Waste busters: Accra’s eco-minded social entrepreneurs

The junk architect

Artist Samuel Ansah finds beauty in unlikely junkyard scraps

At the entrance to Accra’s most unusual house, the makeshift wall is bejewelled with colourful ceramic shards, glinting in the sunlight. Look closer and they’re actually the fragments of hundreds of smashed mugs, their disjointed handles mixed with mortar. This is the first of countless weird and wonderful details at the Wheel Story House, the creation of eccentric artist Samuel Ansah, who has built a topsy-turvy mansion entirely from reclaimed wood and junkyard finds.

He began building it 20 years ago, when he collected 500 wooden cable reels discarded by a local telecoms company. “I decided to rescue these empty wheels and turn them into something beautiful and useful,” he says, leading me around the house garden, which is dotted with fabulously Frankenstein-like sculptures that he assembled from the disjointed body parts of statues found in the trash. “I don’t believe in waste. If I can recycle rubbish and help the world, then why not?”

The house’s main structure took just eight months to build, with the help of 15 local carpenters and artisans, but Ansah has been adding to it ever since, building furniture and extra storeys as he sees fit. Local junk sellers bring him a continual supply of materials and he welcomes tourists and local schoolchildren for tours, to teach them the essentials of re-use and resourcefulness.

“A cable wheel is like Lego,” he smiles. “All the elements are there – the segments can build anything.” It’s this ethos that’s leading Ansah and a small team of dedicated associates towards their future plans: to apply the artist’s imaginative methods and materials to fill a crucial need for sustainable and cheap construction in Ghana’s rural, poorer provinces.

The group plans to upcycle discarded junk to build schools and hospital beds where they’re most needed – and, as always, Ansah has a madcap idea to kick things off. As we reach the side of the house, the artist gestures towards a dozen ceramic toilet bowls that are piled up by the fence. “I want to make schools out of toilets!” he cries. There’s no doubt in my mind that he’ll do just that.

The plastic weavers

The team at Trashy Bags crafts accessories from garbage to raise awareness about recycling and reuse

In Ghana, an estimated 270 tons of plastic waste is produced per day – of which only two per cent is recycled. But for entrepreneur Stuart Gold and director of production Elvis Aboluah, the discarded drinks sachets that make up the majority of this waste are an opportunity for ingenuity. Gold founded Trashy Bags in 2007 – an Accra-based social enterprise that employs around 60 local people to craft backpacks, laptop cases and multiple-use shopping bags out of unprocessed plastic waste, up to 400kg of which is delivered to their sprawling workshop each day.

“Beyond making bags, we want to make a positive impact,” says Aboluah. It’s important to the social enterprise to raise awareness, by running regular campaigns supported by High Commissions and NGOs. “With adults, it’s difficult to change perspectives, so we’re focusing on kids – making and distributing school bags to educate about pollution. For a lot of them, it’s beyond their imagination that a bit of plastic could take 500 years to biodegrade.”

With a 20kg shopping bag priced at GHC23 (€4.10), the majority of buyers are international and online. “As all our products are handmade, there’s a minimum price point,” says Aboluah, adding that the long-term goal is to protect the local population and environment. “Our biggest ambition is to see a better environment where we can all live without the danger of pollution.”

The natural artisan

Yasmeen Helwani is passionate about uniting Accra’s eco-minded citizens with surrounding rural communities

Laid out on wooden shelves that line white-painted walls, the rows of soap perfume the humid air with lemongrass, citronella and lavender. Jars of viscous, reddish-brown palm oil flank bottles of syrupy coconut oil that’s liquefied in the heat. And behind the counter, glamorous musician and eco-warrior Yasmeen Helwani is unscrewing a jar of body butter and breathing in its earthy, savoury-sweet scent. “Shea butter is one of the best moisturisers in the world, and we have it right here,” she smiles.

It all started some 15 years ago, when Helwani was at university in Canada and a friend sent her a bar of handmade, natural soap. “It made this soft, comforting lather, really bubbly and moisturising,” she recalls. “Since that day I’ve never bought another bar of regular soap.”

She enlisted in craft classes, graduated, and returned to Ghana to launch her eco-friendly brand Green Butterfly, through which she supports remote Ghanaian farmers and artisans with her shop, a mountain spa and events.

As well as selling handmade products from her (almost) zero-waste shop, which has vetoed all plastic packaging, Helwani runs a monthly fair called Open Air Stock Exchange, which showcases the wares of 90 artisans – up from just 10 when she launched it in 2010. “At least 80% of the artisans I work with are women, because in this part of the world, sewing and small-scale crafts are classified as women’s work,” says Helwani. “At first, I was sponsoring them out of my own pocket because some of these women couldn’t even leave the house, because they didn’t have the money.”

Assisting female artisans to empower themselves is just as important to Helwani as educating the younger generation – the driving force behind her Mother Earth Festival in Langma, an hour from Accra (18-19 August).

“We want to bridge the huge gap between rich and poor,” she explains. “We want children from high-end schools who know all about reuse, reduce, recycle to interact with kids in the villages who don’t have access to it. When you leave Accra and see the plastic bags scattered across the savannah, reality hits you in the face. We need to work at education.”

The radical engineer

Nelson Boateng has a bold ambition to tackle plastic waste and youth unemployment all at once

An hour’s drive north-east into the Greater Accra Region, the town of Ashaiman makes a stark contrast to Accra proper. Congested, polluted and mostly made up of low-rise shanty houses, it’s also home to Nelplast – a plastic packaging and recycling factory which might just contain the answer to Ghana’s immense waste disposal problem.

Founder and CEO Nelson Boateng believes that innovation can drive drastic cultural change – beginning with himself. Having worked in plastic manufacturing and recycling since the age of 13, Boateng’s company primarily produces shopping bags – which, though made from recycled plastic, are one of the local environment’s main pollutants. “I felt bad because I create the poly bags that go out there to pollute,” he says. “But when we produce the poly bag we don’t wish to see it littering around. I asked myself, what do I do to help this?”

Boateng designed and built from scratch a low-emissions machine that makes building blocks out of a mixture of melted plastic waste (mainly water bottles and sachets) and sand. Operated manually, the machine produces 200 one-square-foot blocks per day, which sell for 3.5 Ghana cedis (€0.63) – a cheap price, due to the abundance of the raw materials used. If he manages to draw enough investors, Boateng plans to purchase automated machines, scale up the production to 15,000 blocks per day – which would recycle 20,000kg of plastic daily – and employ more young people. “If youth unemployment goes down, crime will go down,” he explains. “These are big problems in Ashaiman, but finding plastic waste is easy.” Nelplast currently employs 64 people directly and indirectly supports an additional 500, who collect plastic waste from the surrounding area and sell it to the company. With the right moulds, the durable material could be used to build anything from roof sheets to septic tanks.

And while there’s an irony in continuing to produce plastic bags alongside the far more sustainable building blocks, Boateng is adamant that an abrupt end to plastic production would be short-sighted. “People rely on me to put food on the table – and I know how hard it is when you don’t have something to eat,” he says. Instead, the trick is to show people that waste plastic can be profitable. “The time will come when it’s difficult to find plastic in the environment in Ghana – like what happened with scrap metal. If people can build houses with this waste, or cheaper roads, why would they throw it away?”

Looking ahead, Boateng has fielded interest from recycling facilities in Nigeria, Gabon and India – but his priority is to take care of his own community first. “My dream is to see zero waste and zero unemployment in Ashaiman. This product creates cheaper roads, jobs, and it cleans the environment. It’s three in one – the perfect innovation.”

The fashion innovator

Having launched her social enterprise while at university, Mabel Suglo is dedicated to turning trash to treasure

She knows how to use fashion to command a room – but there’s more to Mabel Suglo’s elegant outfit than a keen eye for style. Her beaded sandals were handmade from discarded car tyres, and her jewellery from recycled glass, for her label Dignified Wear, which employs artisans with physical disabilities, and women in rural communities; her tunic was woven by women in the remote Wa region.

Suglo’s childhood visits to see her late grandmother, who had leprosy, planted the seed for the clothes and accessories line. “My grandmother was my heroine. She was stigmatised and marginalised, but she never gave up,” recalls Suglo. “Growing up I saw this inequality in the employment system in Ghana, where people with disabilities move to the cities to seek greener pastures and end up begging on the streets.”

Suglo asked a man who was begging if, instead, he’d be willing to work for her. He told her he was a former sandal maker, and remembering the hardwearing tyre sandals that her grandmother wore – and aware of the surplus of car tyres in landfills across the country – Suglo decided to bring all these elements together and her label was born.

While Suglo plans to invest in automated machines to increase production and her international presence, social mobility in Ghana will always remain at the core of her ethos. “People take ownership of their lives when they are financially free,” she smiles. “It’s a question of just giving them a chance and a platform.”

The startup guru

For artist-innovator Makafui Awuku, plastic waste is a creative opportunity

Last Christmas, this forward-thinking poet, author and social entrepreneur craved one thing above all else. “I wanted an awareness that plastic is not waste,” he says, sat in a shady courtyard in the Accra suburb of Madina where his startup, MckingTorch Creatives, is based. “So I decided to create something to influence people’s behaviour.” Awuku built a towering Christmas tree from 396 discarded plastic bottles strung together and installed it on a major street nearby. It was there for five weeks, with around 30,000 people passing it per day.

“People were astonished by it,” he remembers. “I thought, we can commercialise this, make jobs and solve the plastic waste problem all at once.”

Six months later, Awuku leads a team of five full-time employees, who collect plastic waste from people’s homes and remodel it into a range of homeware products and accessories: rubbish bins, flower pots and laundry baskets are made from bottles, and plastic carrier bags are woven into sandals, bracelets and artworks. Awuku is dedicated to not only addressing Ghana’s plastic waste disposal challenges, but the current lack of employment opportunities for young people in Accra. “If we see waste as a raw material and resource, we can create jobs,” he says, revealing his plans to expand beyond Ghana as a franchise. “We want to change the narrative for Africa by creating a product we can send into the European market – we need to take global action if we want to fix the world’s plastic problem.”


Riding the wave: Sierra Leone’s only surf club

On a normal midweek morning at dawn, Bureh Beach would look more or less as it has since time immemorial. The ochre-yellow sand would be totally deserted, save a couple of sand-speckled, mongrel puppies playfighting in the lagoon. The intensifying sun would project shimmering highlights on the deep metallic-blue ocean, from the steep waves clawing at the shore to the horizon. The calm would stretch from the surf to the surrounding thick mangrove forest, which leads down to the Banana Islands, shrouded in the humidity trapped there by the trees.

But today, a hazy early-December morning, a flurry of activity is taking place. Around 30 young men – and one woman – are performing warm-up stretches in board shorts on the pillowy sand, fixing determined eyes on the ferociously building waves. Sierra Leone’s first national surf championship is taking place – two years after it became the 98th member nation of the International Surf Association (ISA) – and each competitor is preparing to battle it out to qualify as the country’s official surf representative. With enough training, the winners could ride that wave all the way to the 2020 Olympic Games, where surfing will feature for the first time.

An hour and a half south of Freetown and next to the 300 people-strong Bureh Town, Bureh Beach is home to Sierra Leone’s first and only surf club. Made up of a bright blue-painted club house and five modest huts providing basic accommodation, the small complex was hand-built by a group of 15 local young men, with materials gathered from the surrounding bush. Equipped with a collection of 15 battered, second-hand shortboards – the only boards in the country – the group today offers Sierra Leone’s only surf lessons (five of them having recently completed the official ISA level 1 surf instructor course). As well as bringing surfing to a country unfamiliar with the sport, the group is creating a 100%-sustainable, eco-tourism offering for visiting travellers – and with that, attracting a new kind of attention to a country that’s been dealt unfavourable international coverage for far too long.

It all started 14 years ago, when a 10-year-old boy called John Small, from Bureh Town, met an American expat called Dave. “He used to come here every weekend to surf,” the now-24-year-old Small tells me, sitting on the sand beneath the shade of a palm leaf-woven parasol. Mid-competition, he’s just jumped out of the water and his short, half-bleached dreadlocks flick seawater over his salt-dusted shoulders. “Every weekend I’d borrow his board and paddle-paddle, struggle-struggle until I started to get my balance. One day I stood up and caught a wave.”

After a year, Dave left – and gave Small his surfboard as a parting gift. The 11-year-old continued to teach himself to surf, passing on his new-found knowledge to his local group of friends, who turned out to be just as resourceful as he was. “I started surfing when I was seven,” says 22-year-old Charles Samba. “Back then it was hard. There was only one surfboard – in the whole country! We were learning to surf on bodyboards as kids. But more visitors started to surf at Bureh Beach, and we’d make friends with them and they’d leave their boards behind.”

One day in 2010, Irish NGO-worker and amateur surfer Shane O’Connor arrived in Bureh, on a weekend trip from his base in Freetown. He saw potential in the young group of surfers and launched a fundraising campaign to provide money for equipment and the building of the club house. It attracted the attention of German international aid organisation Welthungerhilfe (WHH), who donated funds and recruited Austrian Stefan Pfeiller to manage the newly built club. Pfeiller had managed surf clubs in France and Morocco, and has travelled between Bureh and his home at every opportunity over the past four years to support the club, developing a sustainable management structure and business model, and linking it up to the ISA.

“For guys like this in Sierra Leone, it’s somewhere between hard and impossible to find a proper job,” Pfeiller explains in between surf sets. He’s here to judge today’s championships, appraising each surfer’s tight turn and cutback from his vantage point on a smooth, large rock, noting down scores in pencil and cheering each competitor on with equal enthusiasm.

“There’s not much work in tourism,” he says. “There’s fishing, but big sea trawlers are taking coastal fishing jobs away. The only other option is to move to Freetown to do terrible work, for terrible pay – selling stuff on the street or mining.”

For Pfeiller, this is what makes Bureh Beach Surf Club so special. It’s creating meaningful, sustainable work for young people otherwise lacking in opportunities. “To get to live the life of a surfer, to be free and spend every day in the water? It’s everything to them,” he smiles broadly. “The club is their life – they even take it in turns sleeping here. It runs totally independently and sustainably. They’re so proud of it and it’s amazing to see how professional and passionate they are.”

But it’s not been an easy journey for the club or the boys that have made it their life. When the Ebola virus hit Sierra Leone in 2014, it thankfully didn’t reach Bureh – thanks to the diligence of the community – but it had a severe impact on the surf club’s development. “There were times when no one would come to Bureh for months, and when the quarantine zone was up, it wasn’t even possible to leave to get food,” Pfeiller recalls. “But everybody from the project kept it up.”

For one particular surfer, Kadiatu Kamara, there’s been another, unique set of challenges. ‘KK’ is the club’s first and only female member, and to date, the only woman in Sierra Leone to have ever surfed a wave. “When I started surfing, it wasn’t easy. I was scared of the waves, scared of the board, scared of sharks,” she reveals. “I didn’t know how to swim. The boys made fun of me when I fell in the water, and sometimes they’d even take my board away so I’d have to learn to swim. They taught me everything, though.” It was thanks to the surfer boys that KK stuck it out, when a bad experience in the water almost ended her surfing career before it even began.

“One of the first times I ever went in the water, my leash got loose from my foot and I lost my board,” she remembers solemnly. “I couldn’t swim. Some of the boys saw me and pulled me out of the water. I’d swallowed plenty of water, they had to get it out of my lungs.” Scared of what would happen to her family without her there to support them, Kamara vowed to quit surfing for good.

But for a month, Small, Samba and their friends would visit and urge her to rejoin, keen to encourage other girls in the town to surf and with promises that one day she’d make a living from the sport and club. They successfully persuaded her – and she’s now Sierra Leone’s only, women’s national surf competitor.

KK is a force to be reckoned with. Having faced derision from the local community – “it’s hard to encourage girls to surf. Their mums are scared of the water and don’t let them go near it. Because of that, they make fun of me and say I am wasting my time” – she displays a level of determination and dexterity that runs even deeper than that of her male counterparts. For Kamara, surfing means escapism – both from daily concerns, and in terms of her future plans to surf in international competitions. “When I go in the water, I’m so happy,” she says. “I learn things. I feel different in my life – sometimes like I’m surfing in a different country. I wish that I will do that one day.”

If Pfeiller has anything to do with it, she will – along with Samba, who, by the end of the day, has won first prize in the ISA men’s championship. “Our biggest dream is to one day attend the Olympic Games,” Pfeiller enthuses. “I feel like we’re going to get there because the surfing level here is really, really high, especially when you think that all the boards here are more or less broken and these guys have never had a proper surf lesson. We’ve got seven-year-old kids doing turns on bodyboards, which is so amazing.”

For the surfers of Bureh Beach who are pursuing their own careers, it means far more than personal gain. As it grows – funded increasingly by travellers visiting for surf lessons and a rustic stay on the beach, rather than donations – the club is investing in scholarships for local children, helping to pay their school fees while providing surf lessons followed by hot meals. For KK, any success she enjoys will encourage girls to join her in the water. As for Small, his dream is to change the external perceptions people have of Sierra Leone and present it as a professional surfing destination.

“My ambition is to put Sierra Leone on the map, so people will know that surfing is happening here,” he says, proudly overlooking his fellow surfers who are sitting cross-legged on the sand and cracking open a post-contest lager. “We just want people to know what it’s really like here and to have the confidence to come.”


Talk of the town: fine dining in Freetown

“I was born in Freetown but moved to London in 1990 when I was 16. At first I wanted to be an accountant, but my interest in food grew and I decided to do my chef’s qualifications first. I won best student of the year and my first work experience was at the Hilton Hotel on Park Lane. I never became an accountant in the end.

“After 20 years in London I moved back to Sierra Leone and started doing private catering, cookery classes and pop-up dinners – the first one I did was in a secluded spot at Hamilton Beach, south of Freetown, in 2012. The guests didn’t know the location until the day before. We laid out cushions on the sand for watching the sunset, then served them a four-course meal with local music and finished with a big bonfire on the beach. After that night, my phone didn’t stop ringing.

“All Freetown’s high-end restaurants are Mediterranean or Lebanese, and if you ask for the African dish of the day, it’s usually just jollof rice. But there’s so much variety in Sierra Leone and I want visitors to discover it, to help my country grow – that’s why I’m opening Cotton Tree.

“I host a TV show on African Young Voices TV called Treat Food. I go around tasting street food, learning how to make it authentically, and then I go to my kitchen and do my own take on it. I did one about traditional barbecue meat, which I served in a salad. People were shocked!

“One dish I love is cassava bread. It’s a kind of pancake made with ground cassava, served with a whole fried fish with a gravy stew. But I made it into a dessert, layered with hibiscus, ice cream and pineapple syrup. It’s unconventional but the people who tried it were licking their plates.

“Supporting the local economy is so important to me. Everyone at the local markets knows me because I’m there every other day. My vegetable sellers understand that my green beans must be green, my lettuce can’t be limp. At first my fishmonger thought I was too fussy, but now she always sells me the freshest, best seafood.”


In good taste: how to eat at Eurovision 2018

I’ve come to the Portuguese capital on a pilgrimage: to worship at the altar of Pastéis de Belém, maker of the city’s original native custard tart, pastel de nata. Following a secret recipe that dates back to 1837, it’s been passed down through five generations since and is so fiercely coveted that only three chefs in the world know the ingredients – the same chefs churning out thousands of the cups of creamy heavenliness each day to disciples like myself.

But when I touch down, stormy weather has closed off the Belém district, to the west of the city centre – so my foodie odyssey starts closer in, at the Mercado da Ribeira. The Time Out-curated food market in the newly trendy Cais do Sodré quarter is a sunlit hive of Lisbon’s 40 top chefs offering budget versions of their wares. After a lap of the ground floor – a hall of long wooden tables crammed with diners tucking into bacalhau salted cod, octopus croquetes or handmade pizza, bought from the surrounding stands and sloshed back with a Super Bock lager – I find what I’m looking for. The stall from high-profile young chef Henrique Sá Pessoa is dishing out bifana sandwiches bursting open with thick, juicy slabs of suckling pig, glazed crackling crunching between meat juice-soaked bread.

“I love bifana with tender Alentejo pork fried in olive oil and garlic,” divulges Sá Pessoa. “You can marinate it in a traditional garlic, white wine and red pepper-paste sauce, but I play on the traditional recipe using different cuts of pork, sauces and dressings.”

Before I know it, back at the Palacio Belmonte hotel – an intimate 10-suite palace, silent save for the coos of peacocks in the next-door São Jorge Castle – it’s dinnertime at its innovative on-site restaurant, Leopold. The tasting menu’s eight, deftly prepared courses combine native ingredients with ambitious craft: cured egg yolk sprinkled with crunchy buckwheat and three varieties of Algarve samphire; seaweed salad mopped up with sourdough bread smothered in ewe’s milk butter; an unusual dessert of puréed banana covered in cinnamon and flakes of tangy cheese. It’s a total game-changer.

I spend the next morning on a brisk, hilly walk to the Feira da Ladra – a sprawling flea market held since the 12th century in the Alfama district’s Campo Santa Clara square. Usually, I’d be drawn magpie-like to the secondhand jewellery, antique furnishings and vintage clothes laid out on blankets on the cobbles. But it’s nearing lunchtime and I’m gearing up to try another of Lisbon’s signature dishes: bacalhau cod. If there’s one place to do it, it’s A Casa do Bacalhau, where 90% of the menu is dedicated to the fish. Cod isn’t native to Portugal, but became a staple for the country’s navy in the 15th century during its exploration of Newfoundland. The Portuguese never looked back and there’s said to be a bacalhau recipe for every day of the year. I vow to try as many as I can.

The meal kick-starts with the restaurant’s renowned pataniscas fritters, which were named Lisbon’s best at 2017’s Fish and Flavours festival. They’re crisp and nongreasy, with large flakes of cod standing out from the egg, flour and parsley batter that they’re encased in. But the signature bacalhau à brás is the must-order item: a tower of shredded salt cod, onions and fried-potato matchsticks packed together with scrambled egg and topped with briny black olives. Hearty and flavoured by the sea, it’s no wonder that this is Lisbon’s soul food, originating in the ancient Bairro Alto quarter near the port. Now the city’s nightlife hub, it’s where I head at sundown.

I couldn’t go on a foodie pilgrimage to Lisbon without getting acquainted with José Avillez, whose Michelin-starred Belcanto restaurant is consistently rated among the city’s finest. But I’m at his more under-the-radar Beco Cabaret Gourmet, a 1920s-inspired speakeasy lit by low table lamps and with a mural of a topless Dita Von Teese on the brick wall behind the shiny bar. Everything is designed to appeal to the senses. “The pleasure of eating is similar to other pleasures of fun and entertainment,” Avillez explains to me. “You eat some courses with your hands: we bring sensuality into the menu, too.”

As performers parade between the tables, I feast on ox tail so tender it almost melts into its potato puree bed; the biggest prawn I’ve seen this side of the Atlantic, perched atop a creamy swirl of tagliatelle; and strips of bread dipped in a pot of rich, truffle-infused egg yolk. The show carries on until 2am, when we spill out onto the pavement to find the Bairro Alto is only just warming up.

The next morning, only one thing can clear away the cobwebs. With sunshine now bouncing off the houses’ terracotta roofs and white facades, nothing can stop me hopping on the tram to the white and blue-tiled Pastéis de Belém. It was worth the wait. The tart arrives warm, with a slightly runny, not-too-sweet custard filling poured into crisp, flaky pastry. I pop my head into the kitchen, keen to know more, and am shooed away. But belly-full once again, I leave Lisbon in a borderline ecstatic state. I don’t need to know the recipe to have faith – which is just as well.


Dawn of the superheroes: International Women’s Day 2018

Dieynaba Sidibe, Senegal’s first female graffiti artist

When Dieynaba Sidibe decided, age 14, that she was going to be an artist, her idol was Leonardo da Vinci – a far cry from the street artists that would end up nourishing her talent. “As a teenager I was already a great artist at heart,” she says. “Then I discovered graffiti on television and decided to learn.” Her first experiment? Painting the world ‘DIALOULE’ – the name of her mother’s home village – on a wall in the suburb of Thiaroye, where she grew up in Dakar. “I felt like I had a won a trophy, I was so proud of myself,” she smiles.

However, it was linking up with urban arts association Africulturban that secured Sidibe’s street artist status – particularly at its Urban Session festival in 2007. She debuted as the only woman in Dakar’s graffiti network, painting colourful bubble writing and floral designs previously unseen on the city’s walls.

But despite being outnumbered (though other women have painted there, she’s currently the only one in Senegal to practice in an official context, as far as she’s aware), Sidibe feels that gender is irrelevant at the cultural centre where she spends the majority of her time. “Graffers in Senegal work in a pack. I’ve never received special treatment for being a woman,” she insists.

“If doing a piece of graffiti means that I have to climb some scaffolding, nobody can do that for me. It’s helped me to dare to do things for myself.”

Johanna Quaas, the world’s oldest gymnast

Quaas was just three years old when she got hooked on gymnastics. For the 92-year-old from Hohenmölsen, Germany ‒ who took part in her first competition aged nine ‒ not even the Second World War or the subsequent Allied Control Council’s gymnastics ban could dissuade her from pursuing her passion (although she did temporarily switch to handball and become a national champion in 1954). In the end, it was becoming a teacher and mother to three daughters that finally forced Quaas to take a break from professional sport. Though not for long.

“At the age of 56, when the children left home, I became a competitor again,” she grins, adding that she’s travelled all over the world for events. “In 2000 I became German Senior Champion 11 times in a row – and achieved the Guinness World Record for the world’s oldest gymnast in 2013.”

During her lifetime, Quaas says she has observed many changes for women in sport. “It’s not always been this accessible, and it still isn’t in many countries,” she says. “Sport is taken for granted by women and girls today. But, it’s an important and valuable component in a modern society, especially with a more sedentary lifestyle.”

Glamorous in her emerald leotard and with a motto that laughs in the face of ageing – “those who rest, rust” – it’s clear that Quaas takes nothing for granted.

Kadiatu Kamara, Sierra Leone’s first female surfer

The first time Kadiatu Kamara waded into the Atlantic Ocean with a shortboard, aged 16, she had no idea how to swim – let alone surf. “I was scared of the waves, scared of the board, scared of sharks,” recalls the now 21-year-old from Bureh Town, a small commune beside the idyllic Bureh Beach.

It’s largely due to growing up next to this stretch of unspoilt sand – which is home to the only surf club in Sierra Leone, run by a group of local twentysomethings – that KK, as she’s known locally, ventured into the water at all. “I saw the boys surfing, but I never saw a girl among them,” she explains. “I decided to join the club so that men and women can surf together.”

Yet, it wasn’t a decision many initially took seriously. “At first, the boys made fun of me when I fell in the water,” says KK. “Sometimes they’d take my board away so that I had to swim, even though I was scared.” It was a real baptism of fire, but it – along with KK’s natural powers when it came to riding the waves and sheer determination – soon won the surf club’s members over. “The boys taught me everything,” she admits with a grin.

Becoming an accepted member of the Bureh Beach Surf Club wasn’t the only thing KK had to contend with. Surfing as a woman in Sierra Leone is seen as a radical act – and therefore, rarely welcomed by the community. “People in the village say I am wasting my time at the beach,” she admits. “I try to encourage other girls to surf, but most of their mums are scared of the water and won’t let them go near it.”

But KK’s focused on the long term. In December 2017, she qualified as the only female contestant in the country’s first national surf championships, and hopes that every success will help to encourage more girls and women to take to the waves in her country. “I want to surf for my country and win the debut surf event at the 2020 Olympics,” she beams. “If girls in Sierra Leone saw that, they would be inspired to surf.”

Anne-Sophie Pic, the only female chef in France to hold three Michelin stars

Following in the footsteps of two titans of French cuisine was always going to be daunting. Anne-Sophie Pic’s father was Jacques Pic, head chef of three-Michelin-starred Valence restaurant Maison Pic, a family business and one of France’s most revered venues. Jacques developed his culinary talent under his father André Pic – the man responsible for securing the Maison Pic’s first Michelin star.

It’s unsurprising, perhaps, that Anne-Sophie Pic headed out of her father’s kitchen in her early 20s and into business school. But her decision to return after graduation in 1992 came with a caveat that no one could’ve predicted: Pic’s father passed away three months later, leaving her unexpectedly in charge, aged 23, of a kitchen full of older (mainly male) chefs.

“People didn’t think I was able to do this job, though I was in my own home,” she recalls. “For a long time, I thought I didn’t deserve to be there.” Though her youth played a part, Pic knew there was a larger context at play: one in which women didn’t go to culinary school, and that let high-pressured kitchens run on testosterone.

After a year of grieving, Pic left the kitchen once more. It was only when the restaurant lost its third Michelin star in 1995 that Pic returned as head chef with a renewed ambition to win it back. It took 12 years, but she succeeded – and became the only female three-Michelin-starred chef in France. Pic rejects the shouting matches of her father, and grandfather’s, kitchen – which she sees as a step towards re-addressing the industry gender balance.

“As a woman, I always have to prove more, but it allows me to not rest on my laurels and continue to challenge myself,” says Pic. Her advice to young woman chefs? “Stay female. You’ll be surrounded by men, and you can learn from them, but never change yourself.”


Where the wild things are: meeting Freetown’s chimpanzees

Willie Tucker is fluent in chimp speak. From the high concrete look-out platform, separated from an eight-acre enclosure by a tall mesh fence, he howls and hoots into the leafy rainforest that stretches out before us, blending into hazy green-blue mountains as it hits the horizon. For a few moments, the only sound disturbing the secluded landscape is the siren of cicadas – as loud as a car alarm, and a constant companion in the Sierra Leone bush. Then, a slight but unmistakable rustle in a distant treetop signals a response. One by one, a group of 15 chimpanzees emerges from the undergrowth, swinging languidly between branches and shimmying down tree trunks until they’re crouched on the red-brown earth just metres in front of us. “Tito,” Tucker calls out to the pack’s 30-year-old alpha male, whose fuzzy hair ruffles out from his back like a brush. “How are you today?”

It’s dusk at Tacugama Chimpanzee Sanctuary, in the Western Area Peninsula National Park just outside of Freetown, and the 76 chimps that call it home are hungry. On one of two daily tours of the sanctuary, I watch as handlers toss the primates their dinner – cricket ball-sized globes of local bulgur wheat, grains and beans – before coaxing them into their dens for the night. Visitors that make the hour’s drive from the congested capital city to the 100-acre refuge – which culminates in a bumpy 4×4 ride up a steep dirt track pitted with potholes – come to take a peek at Africa’s most endangered species, and a breather from the capital’s frenetic energy. For not only is Tacugama Sierra Leone’s leading wildlife conservation centre, it’s also its primary eco-tourism offering: beyond the sanctuary gates are six eco-lodges half-hidden in dense, vibrant-green jungle.

The isolated setting, strung with hammocks and abuzz with tropical birds and butterflies, feels like paradise – which should come as no surprise. The Tacugama site is a precious pocket of preserved land in a country caught up in a spiral of poorly controlled deforestation, mineral exploitation and slash-and-burn agriculture. At the beginning of the 20th century, 70% of the country was covered in thick forest. Today, Sierra Leone’s total forest coverage is a meagre 4%. Not only does this present grave risks to its population – last August’s devastating landslide in Regent, just 2km from Tacugama, was fundamentally caused by over-deforestation in the surrounding hills – it also contributes to the mass habitat loss of wild apes. Add to that the illegal trading of chimpanzees as novelty pets and the ongoing scourge of hunting them for bushmeat, and it’s no wonder that the native chimp population currently stands at just 5,500.

“Chimps are no longer safe in the wild,” says Tacugama’s founder Bala Amarasekaran. “We set up this sanctuary to rescue orphaned and endangered chimpanzees, but we’re increasingly focusing on the root of the problem: that Sierra Leone has very few patches of suitable habitat for chimps left.”

Tacugama’s work has expanded into a countrywide conservation project – but it all began with a chimpanzee named Bruno. Twenty-four years ago, a newly married Amarasekaran and his wife were travelling in the rural ‘upcountry’ when they came across a severely malnourished baby chimp tied to a tree. Unable to walk away, they bought him for $20 (€17). “We nursed him back to health and he became a child to us,” smiles Amarasekaran. The experience alerted him to the cruel, widespread practise of keeping baby chimps as pets until they become strong enough to challenge their owners (adult chimpanzees are five times stronger than the average man) – often leading to them being abandoned, or killed. Amarasekaran gave up his career in accountancy and set up the sanctuary in 1995, with a government mandate, EU funding and Bruno as its first resident.

Today, Tacugama’s primary mission is to confiscate chimps from those illegally keeping them (mostly expats, according to Amarasekaran), and rehabilitate the apes before re-releasing them into the wild. However, the primates arrive at the sanctuary in varying physical and psychological states. “Some don’t even know how to climb a tree,” says sanctuary supervisor Tucker, who’s been Amarasekaran’s right-hand man since day one. Once they’ve completed a 90-day quarantine period and a series of medical check-ups, the chimps are gradually taught how to climb, build nests, and socialise, being slowly introduced to groups of other chimpanzees.

In the wild, chimpanzees live to an average age of 50 in groups of around 50, and the sanctuary aims to replicate their natural life cycle as closely as possible. The youngest chimps spend their days in a modest-sized enclosure, cheekily leaping between poles and ropes, ambushing each other and hurling toys towards unsuspecting passers-by.

Over the course of their lives, they’ll gradually progress to the final-stage enclosure – where Tito’s group lives – which is big enough for them to explore, build nests and forage for food. Though there’s an ongoing low-level search for a suitable site for the chimps’ eventual release, the continual loss of habitat in Sierra Leone makes it unlikely that these chimps will ever be able to live in the wild here again.

“We think of these 76 chimps as ambassadors for those in the wild,” says Amarasekaran. “About 1,000 local kids come to our sanctuary every year to learn about chimps. When people actually see them, they begin to understand and respect them more.” That’s where the rest of the sanctuary’s work begins: with community outreach programmes that engage the public through education and sensitisation activities.

Having met the chimps (from a safe distance, as human contact with the sometimes-aggressive primates is strictly forbidden) and dined on homemade, creamy groundnut stew, I head to my lodge for the night, which offers a comfortable but no-frills jungle-living experience. As is standard in much of Sierra Leone’s accommodation, Wi-Fi is non-existent, electricity is only generated for a few hours each day and the water comes out of the taps stone cold. As the orange sunset sinks into inky darkness and the cicadas’ calls reach near-deafening decibels, I tuck a mosquito net around my bed and settle in for a night’s sleep punctuated by the scratches and rustles of nearby bushbabies and the distant screeching of chimpanzees.

It’s sunrise the next morning and ex-army sanctuary patroller Emmanuel Williams is tucking a machete into the polished leather belt of his immaculately pressed, navy trousers. “We engage in intensive patrolling to prevent deforestation and poaching,” he states, wielding the blade to clear a path as we enter the thick bush, on one of six guided hiking trails offered by the sanctuary. “We stop poachers, sensitise them and explain the disadvantages of killing wildlife. If they persist, we have the mandate to take them to the police station.”

A former radio communications corporal, Williams applies military precision to every aspect of safeguarding Tacugama and its surrounding territory, as well as his approach to leading guests on bush walks. Though cobras, crocodiles and all manner of poisonous spiders live in the rainforest, on most treks guests only encounter a vibrant kaleidoscope of butterflies and tropical birds, and ant trails so thick they look like vibrating black tree roots.

I pick my way through the undergrowth, following Williams closely as he beats back the long spiky grass blades snatching at my clothing, and inspects the forest carpet of sand, leaves and twigs for evidence of wild animals, invisible to the untrained eye. Mid-scramble up a chalky, rocky slope – sweat prickling as the day’s hot humidity begins to set in – he halts and picks up a round, green fruit casing, cracked open like a conker to reveal a silky white interior. “Bush berries,” he murmurs. “A vervet monkey ate this. It’s fresh – they’re nearby.”

Over the course of the three-hour hike, we pass termite hills towering two metres above the ground, a waterfall plunging fresh water towards Freetown, and the Congo Dam – a sea-green lake obscured in the forest’s depths, and one of the capital’s main water sources. When the midday sun drives me reluctantly back to my lodge, I find a homemade lunch laid out under a shaded canopy of trees: whole grilled fish, cassava wedges, spiced couscous and a devilishly oily tomato and vegetable stew.

Tacugama has set itself a goal to be 100% self-sufficient by 2020, and its growing tourism program is a big part of the plan. In addition to the hiking trails, the sanctuary offers occasional yoga retreats on a serene, open-air platform in the heart of the rainforest, and half-day bird-watching tours, which begin at dawn with a breakfast of eggs, coffee and fresh fruit. Going forward, the team plans to create a brand-new information centre and spa, plus host cookery classes, events and concerts – as well as ensure that each lodge has hot water and plug sockets (currently in very short supply).

Though ambitious, each of these endeavours will require employing people from the local community – another core part of the Tacugama philosophy, whose outreach work proves that conservation is just as crucial for protecting people as it is for animals.

“We’re not just here for chimps,” insists Amarasekaran. “Sierra Leone is a poor country and when people are hungry, it’s difficult for them to practise conservation. We’re working with 44 communities and providing them with economic alternatives that don’t lead to human-chimp conflict: growing crops that chimps don’t eat, like cassava, ground nut and rice, or giving farmers fertiliser so they don’t slash and burn.”

As I climb into the beaten-up 4×4 that’ll take me back to Freetown, I reflect on the unique history of Sierra Leone that’s left its people and its chimps with such complex challenges. Yet the Tacugama sanctuary has managed to safeguard its family – human and chimpanzee – from both civil war and the 2014 Ebola outbreak, and it’s clear that Amarasekaran’s dedication is only growing stronger as years go by. “For me, Tacugama is not a sanctuary – it’s a movement,” he concludes. “However hard things get, I don’t see this as work. I’ve made a promise to take care of these chimps for the rest of their lives. That’s the deal.”


Urban legends: the rise of skate and BMX in Cameroon

It’s 5pm on a normal weekday in downtown Douala, and school’s out. In the sleek Place du Gouvernement – the heart of the commercial Bonanjo district – the low thump of a lazy hip hop beat bounces off the trees and white-stone facades. In the centre of a gathering circle of passers-by, a handful of young, snapback cap-clad Doualans are performing tricks on rollerblades and BMX bikes. They start in a modest freestyle, kicking up dust as they spin in neat, practised circles – but before long, as the crowd gains momentum and erupts into whoops of applause, they’re balancing on the handlebars and hurtling off ramps at high speed, showing off the aerial moves they’ve been dedicating their evenings to, day in, day out.

This impromptu public show is known in Cameroon as a dérangeade (for which the tongue-in-cheek translation is ‘disturbance’), and it’s the beating heart of a thriving BMX and rollerblading scene in the country’s largest city. One local photographer and former BMX biker, Max Mbakop, stumbled across the emerging scene – which is a vibrant kind of mash-up between breakdance and sport – in 2010, and has been documenting its growth ever since.

“Douala’s BMX and rollerblading scene is becoming very well organised,” he says. “We have ‘rollers’ and ‘bikemen’ starting to organise competitions against each other, and associations are springing up across the city to promote it.”

In Douala, two forms of freestyle biking rule. Flatland BMX – an artistic form of cycling that involves balancing and spinning the bike on a flat surface – is the most popular, as it can be practised anywhere with a smooth patch of tarmac. Street riders, meanwhile, make use of public rails, stairs and other obstacles to perform their tricks. Both require minimal props – ideal for the Cameroonian kids setting up impromptu performances after school.

As well as in Douala, it’s a phenomenon that’s rolling out in Kribi and, even more notably, Yaoundé, where a collective of young BMX riders called 237BMX are hosting training and regular dérangeades in the hope of one day creating a national team to compete in the UCI BMX World Championships. Its 22nd edition was held in South Carolina, USA, this year and the medals tables were dominated by American and European names. 237BMX’s work is part of a scattered effort across Cameroon to rectify this by raising the sport’s profile in the football-mad nation – something that urban arts promoter Arnaud Nguenga also hopes to contribute to. He’s behind Yaoundé’s annual Festival National des Danses Urbaines (National Festival of Urban Dance), which is entering its fifth year in August 2018 and features BMX performances among five days’ worth of street dance shows. “Even though BMX is much more widely practised in Cameroon than other African countries, it’s not recognised by sporting authorities,” he explains. “It’s up to us to improve its visibility.”

Perhaps Mbakop’s documentary photography series can help. Rollers & BMX has been picked up by YaPhoto – Yaoundé Photo Network, a new online platform launched in September 2016 that promotes the work of Cameroonian photographers by publishing their portfolios. It’s the country’s only online photography hub and plays a crucial role in raising the profile of artists based there, both on the African and international art scene.

“There’s a lot of interest in contemporary African photography right now, but Cameroonian photographers are never represented in international biennials,” claims YaPhoto co-founder Christine Eyene – a French-born, Cameroonian art historian who’s been selected to curate the lead exhibition at next year’s Summer of Photography festival, held at the BOZAR gallery in Brussels. “We don’t have many art magazines or venues in Cameroon, so it’s difficult for talented photographers to show their work there. I wanted to support them.” The diverse projects displayed on the YaPhoto site range from vibrant fashion shoots to hard-hitting documentary series, conceptual fine art imagery to live music photography.

Eyene came across Mbakop’s Rollers & BMX series and immediately invited him to put his images on YaPhoto. “At first Max didn’t see his series as high art, because it’s not something that you really see in Africa. Urban street culture and photography is much more common in the West,” she explains. “But it’s important for local photographers to show their own reality, so that the images of Africa shown to the rest of the world are more nuanced than what people see on CNN. This project shows youths in a way that youths in other parts of the world can relate to.”

There’s also a touch of irreverence in the series that appealed to Eyene, reminding her of her own teenage years spent skating in Paris: “They’re very peaceful images, but they play on the fact that you don’t often see this kind of urban activity in that part of the city.” It’s the smooth tarmac and lack of traffic that draws Douala’s young rollerbladers and BMX riders to well-to-do Bonanjo. The chance to become more socially visible through celebrating urban culture is also an irresistible part of the appeal. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Cameroon’s most important cultural space, doual’art, overlooks the Place du Gouvernement square, where the bikers and skaters congregate each evening.

For Mbakop, too, the value of documenting Douala’s skaters and bikers runs deeper than promoting the activities for their own sake alone. “There’s a reason behind my need to document this alternative perspective to the city,” he explains. “Most of the kids on the scene are aged 12-25 and come from underprivileged backgrounds. For them, it’s a chance to escape the social issues that affect their lives every day. It’s not just a sport, it’s a community of young people who share the same passion.”

Rollers & BMX doesn’t just show this community in action, mastering the art of bunny hops, wheelies and jumps. It records the social bonding between the two different groups, whether they’re on roller-skates or BMX bikes; the coming-together of Douala’s disparate teens, and the interactions and friendships that play out until nightfall sends them home. And with YaPhoto working in tandem to provide the same support framework for the country’s growing pool of photographers – whose work has until now gone largely unknown – the future looks promising for both forms of young creative talent born in Cameroon.

“YaPhoto allows me to have a more critical approach to my work, and to be competitive,” concludes Mbakop. “It makes me strive every day to live up to the level of confidence and opportunity it’s given me.”