Beyond the souks and into the surf
Vancouver Sun, June 16, 2018
“You do not need strength for surfing,” says Waled, demonstrating a pop-up on his beached surfboard. “It’s all about technique.”
He makes it look easy, so I take his words to heart and steer my big beginner board into the churning Atlantic off the coast of Taghazout, Morocco. The forgiving beach break goes on for miles and our small group is the only class around on this misty grey morning. I eye the horizon and when a decent wave approaches I paddle like a maniac. Then—as the water’s momentum begins to carry the board—I pop up like I was born to ride.
It’s both exhilarating and exhausting. And Waled, a surf instructor with Sol House Surf Academy, is bang on about technique. A little finesse goes a long way, especially along Morocco’s southern Atlantic coast and inland in the Anti-Atlas Mountains, where traditions run deep and tourism is just starting to make inroads. Here, it not only pays to master the pop-up, but to have mad bartering skills, know a few Arabic words such as hello (salam) and thank you (shukran), and get insider intel on ordering a proper coffee—it’s called a nous nous and is basically espresso and milk in perfect proportion.
The up-and-coming surf town of Taghazout is the first stop on a tour that marries the beaches of this remote region with its mountainous interior. Morocco is riding a wave of popularity — in 2017, it welcomed a record 10.4 million travellers, almost double the number from the previous year.
To avoid over-tourism, the travel authority is looking beyond the major destinations of Casablanca and Fez to spread economic development to less-visited spots like the ones on this new Intrepid Travel itinerary.
Though the trip starts in Marrakech, this small-group tour quickly leaves the souks and snake charmers behind, in favour of small towns where tourists are such a rare site that children still smile and wave as our van passes by.
In Taghazout, we chat with a local about the changes in his fishing village since Australian hippies started showing up for the surf break in the 1970s and camped or stayed with families. There are now six hotels (with a few mega-resorts, including a Fairmont Taghazout Bay, in development) and even more surf schools and shops that cater to travellers from Europe and North America, and a growing number of Moroccan surfers. Fisherman Mbark Ayahya describes the changes as “fantastic.”
“Now there is surfing and the tourists come, inshallah (God willing),” he says.
The next day we linger at the formidable Tizourgane Kasbah over a lunch of fluffy couscous with tender pumpkin and squash, and a nourishing vegetable soup into which we dip fresh aghroum, the rounds of flat bread found at every Moroccan table.
Located deep in the Anti-Atlas Mountains at 1,230 metres elevation, it’s an additional 147 stone steps to the entrance of the 13th-century kasbah, which, we learn, is a historic building, and not just something rocked by The Clash in their famous song.
These fortified homes or villages contained a mosque, living quarters and granaries that stored wheat and other grains harvested from the surrounding lands by settled farmers known as berbers. Built atop hills or rock outcrops and encircled by high stone walls, kasbahs provided the perfect vantage to flag approaching enemies. On this sunny day we can see across the green valley to farming terraces and dun-coloured hills spotted green by the prolific argan tree, a relative of the olive.
When we arrive in Tafraoute I’m in awe at the red granite mountains that rise like minarets around the city. We wander the brick-laid streets and narrow alleyways and I negotiate for a pair of beaded sandals, which are famous in the region, remembering to use my key bartering skills (offer half as a starting point, practice your poker face, be willing to walk away). We also visit a collective where women make amlou, Moroccan nut butter. They roast almonds to combine with honey and oil from the argan tree to create a spread that is far tastier (and sweeter) than peanut butter.
The next morning, we hike through “ghost villages” in the nearby Ameln Valley, past the crumbling ruins of houses built of clay, wood and rocks centuries ago, stacked atop each other like a failed Lego project. After independence from France in 1956 and, more recently, years of drought, many families moved away and abandoned their ancestral homes.
At La Maison Traditionelle, a preserved house and museum in the village of Oumesnat, the owner, a blind berber, explains through translation the traditional equipment inside, including grindstones and sheepskin water holders. Later, we sit on plush carpets in his guest room and enjoy mint tea and music.
“We are always happy to welcome guests into our homes. It’s part of our hospitality,” says Ahmed Nait Aggou, our local interpreter.
The customs and food are at once familiar, yet foreign. If I stay for one more cup of tea and listen to one more song, maybe then I will start to really understand this fascinating country.
“Morocco is like a house. Sometimes doors are open, sometimes closed. You have to find a key,” explains Khalid Lamlih, the Intrepid guide.
In many ways, Lamlih becomes our key—not only opening doors in his country, but opening our eyes to his culture. Between stops in the Anti-Atlas and along the Atlantic coast, as the van passes Martian scenery of red granite boulders surrounded by scrubby green argan trees and almond trees flowering pink, Lamlih tells stories about his childhood, culture and religion.
All of this new-found knowledge is put to the test my final morning in Marrakech when I wander into the souks to do some shopping. I’m just about to exit into the Medina’s main square when a lone female salesperson spots me.
“You will look at my bracelets,” she states. “Very good price. Only 10 dirhams ($1).”
The next thing I know, I’m holding several pricier bracelets, which moments before I had no intention of buying.
“So pretty on you,” she says, smiling with her eyes from behind a bright green burka.
She takes me by surprise, this persuasive woman hawking jewelry in a market of men. As I hand her 125 dirhams for three bracelets, I realize my surf instructor spoke prophetically all those days before. In Morocco, it’s all about technique.