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Morocco: Surf school

Despite the weather and years away from the waves, rediscovering the rush of surfing on Morocco's Atlantic coast is the eventual reward for a surf school novice

Published 26 Aug 2018, 09:00 BST, Updated 15 Jul 2021, 09:41 BST
Surfers at Magic Bay, Imsouane

Surfers at Magic Bay, Imsouane

Photograph by Picfair

Devil's Rock, Draculas, Mysteries, Spiders, Unicorns. With their glam rock names, it's somehow fitting that the local surf spots should fall victim to a rampaging Russian weather system sounding like a heavy metal band. Currently burying Europe in snow, the Beast from the East is also blowing out the waves here in Morocco.

"You'd have been better off staying at home," Aelwyn chuckles, showing me photos on his phone of the pumping surf back in Swansea. It's not what I want to hear at breakfast on my first day at surf school. Still, it's good to see I'm not the only greying member of this fresh-faced, international group. Dave, a retired timber baron from Canada, is even older. "You've just missed a great week," he tells me, taking a slice of the spinach omelette Moncef, Mint Surf's co-owner, is passing round. I'm impressed to hear he's been surfing Anchor Point, the legendary local point break. "I could've chopped heads off," he says, eyes glazing over. "I was so focused on getting up on my board and down the wave." 

It had been more than a decade since I'd felt that intoxicating rush; since the last of the crazy Friday-evening schleps down the M5 to Cornwall. An era that ended when my mates discovered donning wetsuits and downing pints wasn't compatible with nappy changes and bedtime stories. My Tinder profile still said I was a surfer but, eventually, even I wasn't buying that any more. I started to hear the waves calling me and I'd been unable to resist. 

Outside in the sunshine, there's an emotional reunion with my old surfing partner. Slender, with curves in all the right places and standing at a statuesque 7' 9", the board I'd requested is strapped to the minibus roof with the foam beginner boards the other 'surf improvers' are using. 

Other surf school groups are carrying theirs to Panoramas, a local beach Moncef thinks will be "too dumpy". We'll be driving north instead, in search of more sheltered spots. First, we gingerly negotiate Taghazout's main drag — currently a rubble-strewn moonscape of potholes, many sheltering a dozing stray dog or cat. As we climb into the arid foothills, the only signs of life are a few goats, the argan trees they're nibbling on and a bored-looking shepherd. A grim job, but goalkeepers here have it worse judging by the five-a-side pitch we pass — there's a yawning ravine behind each netless goal. 

Around the next headland, another curious sight: Boilers, a beach with a ship's boiler stuck on the rock reef. At Killers, Moncef stares glumly out to sea. No killer whales today. No big winter swell lines either. At this time of year they should be rolling in, sculpted to glassy green perfection by gusts blowing off the mountains. 

Finally, at Cathedrals — one of two beaches bookending the fishing village of Imsouane — we rejoice as the boards finally come off the roof. But there's only whitewater — on Cornish trips, it'd be a day for pitch and putt, a pasty and the pub. "Good for pop-up practise," Moncef insists, as I wrestle black blubbery neoprene over white, flabby skin; the familiar chemical aroma spiking my adrenalin levels. 

With wetsuits zipped up, leashes velcroed to ankles and zinc smeared on noses, the four of us wade into the Atlantic; Moncef fixing us with his trademark stare; Laura, the Mint Surf yoga instructor, framing us in her camera's viewfinder.

The first icy trickle down my back makes me gasp, the first wave hits like a scrum half. Then an even bigger shock: I'm the only one who can't surf. Each time I try to pop up, my legs disappear from under me. Moncef beckons me to shore for my first ever surf lesson. "Chicken arms!" he scolds, yanking my elbows out from my body as I prostrate myself on my board. "Don't grip the sides. Palms flat!" I leap up like a jack-in-the-box to another volley of disapproval. "Back foot further back, arms out straight!" 

In the water, my delinquent limbs, having done their own thing for years, resist Moncef's strict new regime. But finally, I manage to ride a mighty six-inch breaker all the way to shore, where a man with a bunch of mint leaves, a big kettle and an even bigger grin is waiting for me. "Best tea in all Morocco," he assures me, thrusting a plastic cup into my hand. A claim no less ridiculous than I'm feeling, sitting next to my specially requested board — no longer announcing the presence of a surf connoisseur but a man with delusions of grandeur. 

"The foam boards are more stable in the whitewater," Laura says, giving me a pitying smile. 

I hope to prove her right at the beach around the corner, where the waves should be bigger and cleaner. Sadly, Magic Bay doesn't live up to its billing — failing to conjure up Morocco's longest wave to transform me into the surfer of old; it's a rip that carries us the full 600-metre length of the beach, not the two-minute ride I'd seen posted on YouTube by a surfer with selfie stick. 

The roaring 50ft below my balcony that evening is Hash Point; its name a throwback to Taghazout's 1960s halcyon days, when the hippies too stoned to walk five minutes to Anchor Point hung out here — the perfect spot, then, for a dysfunctional surfer like me to practise his pop-ups. 

Over breakfast, Moncef tells us the sea is an unrideable mess, so we'll head instead to the local hammam, with a yoga session lined up for the evening.

Windowless, with a low, vaulted ceiling, the vibe at the hammam is medieval dungeon. Sitting in my undies with other semi-naked men sprawled around me in the steamy gloom, I'm not expecting the bucket of water thrown in my face. I've barely got my breath back as I'm laid, chin down on the wet concrete by my masseur, who then scrubs me viciously with a soapy exfoliating mitt, rinses me off then wraps his legs round my back like an anaconda. Next to me, Raphael — arms bent back in a full nelson — is grimacing like a wrestler hanging on for the bell. "Stop, stop!" he yells. "My back!"

By contrast, Laura's rooftop studio is a tranquil, sunlit eyrie — the ocean twinkling below us. "Surfing is a very yang activity, full of male energy," she says, popping a pillow under my head. "You might like to try 360-degree breathing." My legs are feeling nicely stretched by the time Laura choreographs the final poses. "Focus on your heart space, allow the tension to melt," she purrs. 

When Laura rings the bell, I open my eyes. After the day's exertions, my limbs feel looser; the bond with the group tighter. Raphael asks the question that seems to be hanging in the air: "Anyone fancy a drink?" Down on his balcony, beer cans are cracked open and I've broken out the duty-free bottle of Bacardi I'd hidden in my wardrobe, unsure of the rules in this dry village.

Whitewater & waves 

We leave Taghazout the next day and head north to Camel Point, where we're joined by a new arrival from Brussels who speaks 'Allo 'Allo! English and isn't impressed by the surf. "How can I poop up in this?" Aurélie sighs. Nevertheless, we're soon exchanging Gallic shrugs, pouts and eye-rolls in the whitewater, and I'm finally mastering Moncef's pop-up.

I get another chance to put it into practise in Agadir — a city rebuilt after a 1960 earthquake. When we arrive, the first unbroken faces of the week are rolling in on Palm Beach. "Green waves!" Aurélie exclaims. Holding my board aloft, I leap up and over the first walls of whitewater. Then it's a race to get to the next wave before it breaks. I manage to crest it, getting a smack in the face from the lip as I do. Looking back I see Aurélie's board shoot into the air as the wave swallows her. I wrestle my board beneath the next few breakers as they explode in front of me, resurfacing water-blind and gasping. When I finally make it 'out back' — arms like spaghetti, eyes and throat stinging — I'm as relieved as I am exhausted. 

Minutes later, Karim, the surf instructor, is shepherding us along the beach, through a flotilla of rival surf school surfers, to where the best waves are now firing. Once there, we straddle our boards and scan the horizon for a promising line of shadow.

"Go, Chris, go!" I hear Karim shout. Paddling furiously, I look back at the darkening wall of water, feel the back of the board rise and the nose dip, but, just as I'm about to pop up, fear paralyses me. As I'm churned like clothes in a spin cycle, I feel a stabbing pain. Back on the beach, I point out where my board hit me. "Your boom!" Aurélie exclaims.

My day then gets worse, as a mini tsunami of brown foam engulfs our pile of wetsuits, cameras and bags. "Mountain dust," Moncef says with a wry smile, pointing to the Anti-Atlas. 

A storm is flushing out a whole lot more the next morning, transforming Taghazout into the Somme, and the dry riverbed we'd crossed yesterday into the Amazon. Moncef looks edgy as we speed over the bridge — a similar flash flood having destroyed its predecessor four years ago. 

Agadir's souk also seems on the verge of collapse, yet the traders seem overjoyed by the unseasonal deluge. Prodding the bulging awnings with poles, they unleash waterfalls, to the delight of camera-wielding locals.  

Mousef then insists we stop to try an avocado, date, fruit and chocolate smoothie that resembles one of Carmen Miranda's hats. "It'll stick in your stomach for hours," he says. He's not wrong. I later struggle to finish my calamari at L'Auberge, a pretty beachfront restaurant. Curiously, the squid rings are virtually the only seafood on menus all week. I suspect the tiny fishing boats beached on the sands outside are mainly for show — a tourist-pleasing nod to Taghazout's past, much like the buildings, which can only be painted a jaunty 'fishing village' blue and white.

Riders in the storm

On route to Agadir, we glimpse the future — a hallucinatory vision of camels, hijabs and Westerners clutching surfboards and golf clubs plastered on hoardings outside a part-built apartment complex — one of many springing up along the coast. 

"This is not Morocco," Moncef groans as we shelter from the rain at a seafront cafe. He has a point; apart from the national motto ('God, King, Nation') looming over us in Arabic writing on a hillside, the families in anoraks outside Actors Night Club could be in off-season Torquay. Nevertheless, there's plenty to keep us amused: an acrobat performing cartwheels and backflips for the smokers out on the pavement; a lone surf school on the sand endlessly warming up. "Now they're doing yoga," Welsh Allan laughs. "Soon they'll be doing touch rugby — anything but get in the sea." 

Back at Palm Beach, with just hours before my flight, I'm itching to get in the sea. Morocco's surf is finally living up to the hype. But as the group wades into the roaring water, the excited chatter is soon replaced by a grim-faced silence as we inch forward against the surging tide. Beyond the whitewater, the big breakers are an intimidating barrier; I clear the first but the next sends me tumbling back to shore. Exhausted, we retreat to the beach, where Karim teaches us to duck dive — a move I'd unwittingly perfected with Laura. But transitioning from the cobra into downward dog with a tonne of water threatening to land on me is a different story. Instead, it's sheer bloody-mindedness that finally gets me out back.

For the next few minutes, I sit tight on the undulating hills of water, enjoying the feeling of being at one with the ocean as I get my breath back. I'm refusing the waves Karim is urging me to go for. With neither the energy nor the time to paddle back out if I wipe out, I've only one crack at a wave.

Further along the beach, I spot Aelwyn cutting tight turns on his shortboard. A few metres away, Josh paddles like fury for a wave, then stops abruptly. "I misheard Karim's 'Go, Josh, go!' for 'No, Josh, no!'" he shrugs. 

When my name's called next, there's no stopping me. I feel Karim shove my foot, propelling me onto the wave and in a flash, yang-powered chicken arms synchronise with hammam-stretched legs to pop me up so fluidly even Moncef might be tempted to crack a smile. Launching myself down the face, I'm ready to chop heads off, as I ride high for a few glorious seconds along Palm Beach. 

Sipping hot, sweet mint tea back on shore, I feel the board belongs by my side again. All week I'd felt like a pretend surfer in a place pretending to be a fishing village, but I'd defied the Beast from the East and, finally, resurrected myself as a surfer here in the city that had risen from the rubble.  

How to do it

Mint Surf Morocco has a seven-day Improver package, running from mid-September to mid-May and costing £425. It includes tuition, board and wetsuit hire, transport to beaches, a daily packed lunch, plus accommodation in a sea-view room. One-hour sunset yoga sessions cost an additional £8 each.
EasyJet has return flights from Gatwick to Agadir from £64.36.

Published in the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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