MOROCCAN SURFING ON THE CREST OF A WAVE
(SURF 'N' SOUQ)
Ruaridh Pringle, 2007
With surfing one of the world’s fastest growing sports, surfing near-novice Ruaridh Pringle travels to Morocco to see why well informed European surfers are starting to flock there. And hopefully to ride a wave or two...
I am struggling to stand on a wafer of plastic sliding down a wall of water falling onto a beach.
Unsurprisingly, this is not easy - although anyone watching Imad, my disgustingly fit Moroccan surfing instructor, might assume otherwise. He seems to know where each wave will rise up and break. It’s like prescience. He just paddles his surfboard over, and suddenly just his torso is visible over the back of the retreating wave, zigzagging towards the shore as though on rails.
I prostrate myself again on my nine-foot longboard, ribs feeling like I’ve recently fought a Thai boxer. As the next swell approaches I paddle to Imad’s favoured spot and scull the board laboriously round with my hands. Then I’m manically scooping water backwards, muscles I swear didn’t exist before yesterday protesting as the hiss of the wave now chasing my heels becomes a roar.
My feet lift. There’s a breathtaking surge. I spring into a crouch like I’ve been shown, arms raised...
...And then my toes and my green and white board are freeze-framed against bone-coloured hills and a simmering sky, the wave collapses like a scrum over my head and flailing arms, and I’m back to a familiar sensation: that of a small and lonely sock inside a very powerful and disinterested washing machine.
I’m here as a guest of Surf Maroc, run by surf-obsessed Londoners, Ben O’ Hara and Ollie Boswell, who established their ‘surf camp’ in 2001 in the Berber village of Taghazout, a half hour north of the sprawling resort of Agadir. Now they provide accommodation ranging from basic and communal to self-catering luxury, and lessons and equipment for both beginners and more experienced surfers.
The surrounding coastline’s reputation has grown since Australians and American servicemen first surfed here in the 1960s. ‘It’s got the perfect geography,’ Ollie explained as we negotiated the twisting road north of Taghazout for my first taste of Moroccan surf. ‘As well as a remarkable density of great surf spots for all abilities, there are few places in the world so inclined to have good surf all the time.’
The consistently best conditions run November through March. I arrived in September, to an unpromising forecast. We passed famous surf spots - Anchor Point, Killers, Mysteries – seeing barely a ripple. Ben, however (who is archetypally chiselled and blonde) had promised surf near the village of Tamri. ‘If everything else in the Atlantic’s flat, there’ll be waves there. Which is essential for us, as beginners want to get in the water every day.’
Sure enough, surf was roaring against a broad beach below a wetland prowled by camels and white egrets. Having flirted with surfing only once, seven years ago, I found myself practicing basics on the sand with three novices and instructor Imad. Imad’s eccentric grammar and penchant for Zen aphorisms were unlikely bed partners for an accent more cockney than Grant Mitchell. ‘Yeah,’ he grinned. ‘People tellin’ me this. It’s cos’ I learnin’ English off Ben and Ollie.’
By midday I was faring better in the waves than I’d dared hope, and as the sun dipped, reddening hillsides and casting the cliffs into grotesque silhouettes, I was successfully standing more often than I failed.
My room proved pleasantly basic, opening onto a communal lounging area above a bar and generous dining space, from which steps descended to Taghazout’s beach. The improbably laid-back ‘camp’ accommodates twenty; its design guaranteeing mingling. Delicious home-made dips appeared. After dark we were called to a dinner table groaning with subtly spiced Moroccan food cooked in tajines: lidded ceramic bowls heated over coals.
Now it’s day two, and I’ve hit a wall: the surf’s trickier than yesterday, and I can’t seem to stand. With morning’s fog gone, I’m thankful my wetsuit is shielding me from the sun.
I’ve grown friendly with Londoners Jonathan and Lydia. Despite being a novice, Lydia’s finding her feet on ‘proper’ waves, as well as the whitewater ‘mush’ others are learning on, towards the beach. The three-foot waves seem huge as I battle out through them. I can’t imagine twelve-foot surf. Regaining the calm behind where the waves break I feel like a shipwreck victim; my board mocking me with its logo of ‘Endless Progression’.
On the return to Taghazout, roadside men with rods brandish bags of fish, and (bizarrely) the odd squirrel. Houses are low clusters of terra cotta and pink, seeming half-built. Swathes of ground are marked with stones for developments Ollie promises will be tightly controlled. ‘The King doesn’t want this ending up like Southern Spain.’
Next day we’re back at Tamri with a wide-eyed couple telling Imad they’ve just shared a wave with a big shark. ‘Excellent!’ he grins, and takes me out to work on my wave-catching. I’m exhausted: he floats faster than I can paddle. This despite it being the first day of the Muslim fast of Ramadan.
‘It’s not having water all day that gets you,’ he says later on the scalding beach. Local youths are playing football. Some wear djellabas: hooded robes which would look apposite on a wizard. ‘We fast so you can tell what it’s like to be hungry; to be poor.’
By afternoon I can turn across the waves, rather than just being bulldozed along. I inadvertently surf one on one leg, eliciting whoops from the shore. Perhaps thirty people are bobbing behind the waves: Moroccans, French, Germans, Israelis, Americans and Britons; waiting and chatting. The day’s last ‘ride’ is my best yet: I’m hurled from the lip of a wave which feels house-high into a universe of foam, only to surge forward again, still on my feet.
Next morning I take one of Surf Maroc’s little Volkswagens to the mountains of the High Atlas, via Agadir. The town was earthquake-destroyed in 1960: but for the omnipresent mopeds populated by men in kaftans, it could be almost any overdeveloped beach resort, from Spain to Indonesia.
On dusty plains inland, prickly pear hedges demarcate crops shaded by vast marquees. Every hundredth tree is full of goats, perched on branches like surreal fruit, or nibbling outermost leaves, agile as monkeys. Eastwards, the ancient mud ramparts of the city of Taroudant shelter shady, bustling souqs selling eels, vegetables, shoes (‘you have children? Shoes for them!’), pots, baskets, sweets, leather goods... Everywhere there’s the tang of fresh coriander.
Mountains loom through the haze, a tortuous single-track road climbing their tree-studded flanks towards a 2092m pass called the Tizi n Test. At a restaurant poised above deep valleys where villages cluster like brown crystals, the proprietor laments over mint tea how snow’s almost disappeared from the mountains during the last few years.
Beyond the pass, a 12th century mosque rises starkly against slopes of red rock. Twilit gorges bring me to Imlil: a pretty Berber village from which Morocco’s highest mountain, 4165m Jbel Toubkal, is usually climbed.
In the morning I explore cool woodlands and baked bouldery plains between steep mountainsides. A rough road through northern foothills provides spectacular views back to the high peaks. After strolling round the market town of Imi n Tanoute, I return to Taghazout through sunset-purple mountainous desert.
We’re bound next morning for the village of Imsouane, an hour from Taghazout. Waves here are famous for their long rides. North of Tamri, raspberry ripple-coloured highlands are peppered with hardy argan trees. Found only between Agadir and the old Colonial port of Essaouira, oil from their nuts is prized for cooking and cosmetics. Five hours’ work is required to extract every litre.
Imsouane’s beach proves a stunning spot, with sandstone cliffs, fishing boats on the slipway, and a backdrop of hills. Boat crews greet us with cries of ‘bonjour!’ The waves are small, predictable - and I quickly get a ride that’s longer than I can believe. I’m on my feet for well over a minute.
Later, near sunset, I explore Taghazout’s shore, where colourful boats are pulled up on the sand. Concrete apartments dominate the older houses, but the place feels peaceful. Surreally, small boys and a fez-wearing man issue from a hole in the ground, offering me puppies. At the evening’s yoga class, I struggle to contort myself into a semblance of the serene poses adopted by Ollie’s unreasonably pliable wife, Vicki. While this does not help my ego, the lesson’s relaxation techniques definitely benefit my heart-rate.
With my surfing progress stalling over the next two days, I join Jonathan and Lydia driving inland through ‘Paradise Valley’, where green oases nestle amongst date palms and deep sandstone gorges. A local man explains they are allotments for local villagers. Roadside stallholders entreat inspection of ludicrously fake ‘fossils’. At a Taghazout restaurant that evening, we gape as an old man calmly goes shopping using acrobatic back-flips. Apparently this is normal: none of the villagers even blink.
My final day’s spent back at Imsouane. Amazingly, it’s raining: the third time this year. The waves have grown, and while my rides are shorter than before, I finally feel I’m getting the hang of all this.
My feeling as I leave is bittersweet. A week here, even a long one, is too short. I want more surf. And I want to see more of this country; to get to know the Moroccans and my fellow surf campers better.
Something tells me I’ll be back.
Ruaridh flew to Morocco from Heathrow with GB Airways.
Several airlines fly London-Marrakech, including GB Airways (Tel. 0870 850 9 850, www.gbairways.com, return prices from around £100 all inclusive), Moroccan-based Atlas Blue (Tel. 0207 307 5803, www.atlas-blue.com), Ryanair (www.ryanair.com), and EasyJet (www.easyjet.com). Flights last 3-4 hours. Note that ‘hidden’ costs apply for Easyjet, Atlas Blue, and particularly (expect to add £80+ for taxes, baggage fees etc.) Ryanair. From Marrakech, Agadir is 4-5 hours by bus (£7-8, single) and long-distance taxi (around £65). Buses are fast and reliable: Supratours and CTM are recommended companies. Thomson (Tel. 0870 1900 737, www.thomsonfly.com), fly direct to Agadir from Gatwick and Manchester, but not in the main surf season. Flights to Agadir can also be booked through e.g. Thomas Cook (Tel. 0870 750 5711, www.thomascook.com), although be prepared to double the cost of flying to Marrakesh.
Surf Maroc (Tel. 01794 322709, www.surfmaroc.co.uk) offer three accommodation options. Prices for their friendly Surf Camp begin at £100 per person per week, four sharing. This includes airport transfers from Agadir, transport to and from surf locations in groups based on ability, plus daily breakfast and lunch. Dinners cost £6.50: more than eating out in Taghazout, but the food is very good. A range of surfboards (£60 - £90 per week) and wetsuits (£35 per week) can be hired (tip: if bringing your own boards, carry two in one bag and halve carriage costs). Surf coaching ranges from £15 per two hour session to £425 for a 7 night stay, all inclusive except dinners. Self catering apartments sleeping max 4 cost £399 per week, with plusher apartments starting at £499 for two per 7 nights: prices include a hire car. Luxury apartments begin at £849 for 7 nights.
ATMs are the recommended source of cash. Morocco one of the most easygoing Muslim countries: bikinis should cause no problems on beaches, although conservative clothing is advised for both sexes elsewhere.