I’d been avoiding the small fishing village of Taghazoute on Morocco’s Atlantic coast for the best part of ten years. This was a little bit of a shame because I do love a good surf trip and the coastline around the village has some of the best waves you’ll find within three hour’s striking distance of the UK.
I had my reasons though. During my first visit here, my friends and I were fitted up for a drugs bust, roadblocked, had rabid dogs die in our apartment in the night, harassed, cajouled, embroiled in arguments about the second Iraq Invasion, and finally went on the run to fall into the clutches of an absinthe drinking fisherman / philosopher. Actually, he was a good person.
This time around, things were more relaxed. During our stay we met a university surf club from the North East of England shepherding fifty members around the place (not my idea of responsible or sustainable surf tourism but between them they caught less waves per sesh than the usual lone wolf travelling surfer), middle aged women on yoga and surf retreat packages, scores of beginner and intermediate surfers looking to sharpen their pop-up on some friendly beachies, the usual stormtrooper-serious-surfers from all over Europe, and of course the odd stressed out local who amongst all this just wanted to get some waves on the weekend!
The main town was more relaxed than it was years ago; the air of desperation and thievery blown away on a new understanding that if you treat someone pretty well on the first day of the trip, you’re likely to make a buck a day from them. And considering that the person making this ‘buck a day’ will be spending their day standing in a dusty patch of wasteland by the sea, with no shade, guarding your car from glue-sniffers for as long as you wish to surf, well I for one couldn’t wait to pay up.
The impression I got was that now we were able to see the locals as they were, before the ‘gold rush’ of visiting surfers from the north. In the early days I guess there were easy pickings to be made from bag snatches, rip offs, extortion, stitch ups and police bribes. Today, The King has decreed that the police must show clemency to tourists by not flagging them down at road blocks, because tourists bring money and The King knows this and doesn’t want to putthem off.
How did we manage to get off the beaten track and find the Black Hawk Down vibe then? It wasn’t hard, a town about forty minutes drive north of the main surf spots was exactly the same as it was a decade before. The place was bustling with men in robe, goats tied down to mini-van roofs, wailing mosques and buzzy two-stroke motorbikes. It’s here that the trade winds start, and they were wafting the smell of sizzling tajines, stewed goat and slow cooked chick-pea stews right up our noses. We sat down at an eatery that I remembered from nine years ago. Like before, we were welcomed by the owner and settled down in our board shorts, fake Ray-Bans and t-shirts next to men in Jaleb clothing. They were surely more less interested in us than we were them, or maybe just more dignified in the company of strangers?
The surf was as I remembered it – really good, but after four days at the same spot a weird fatigue set in and you would find yourself turning down clean 3ft surf in the interest of going back to base and reading a book. Bizarre I know, that doesn’t even happen at home. Perfect as the wave is, you surf it once, you’ve surfed it a hundred times. It doesn’t really change. It’s also not the sort of wave that allows for explosive moves so you run out of stuff to do since it doesn’t offer that much of a barrel section. Soon enough, the racking winds, desert dust, and whole lot of nothing in the surrounding environment starts to get to you and you find yourself craving a sunlounger, Fanta and a wi-fi connection.
This North African country is an interesting study in tourism. It’s the one place I’ve visited out of about thirty in the last decade that has improved its relationship with its tourists without changing the wild, country look of the town (not that they’ve had any money to). It seems that the locals have driven out the bad seeds – even the sunglass sellers are pretty low impact – and instead of being harassed as you walk down the street you can now stop and chat to people. It’s relaxed a lot.
One thing still worries me though, and that’s the plight of dogs. One morning, one of the endearing strays was trying to hide under our breakfast table. He would have been left alone but for the fact he couldn’t stop yelping. I looked under the table and saw he was bearing his teeth. Thinking this could be rabies, I drove him out with a few splashes of water, what else were we going to do? It’s not like there was a vet’s on the corner. Anyway, the dog returned and tried to hide under another table. Same thing – yelps, teeth bared, worried guests. Turns out that to control the spread of wild dogs, arsenic pellets are sprinkled on the beach. This dog had supposedly eaten one and knew his number was up, trying to find a safe place to lie down where he thought (pitifully) he might sleep it off.
Cat lovers shouldn’t fret though, for once upon a time Mohammed found a cat sleeping on his tunic and rather than wake it, cut the sleeve off of it so he could wear the rest of it. Ever since that was written, the cat has enjoyed a charmed existence of being fed treats from the plate because ‘he only comes to you when he is hungry’. Amazing – because cats would never presume to defraud people of their cooked food!
I can say that I’ve made peace with Taghazoute and it is firmly back on my radar. Maybe it’s been the same all along and I’ve just grown up a bit, become a more robust traveller. Perhaps we’ve both changed a bit for the better. Whatever, it’s one of the best places I’ve visited for stepping outside of your comfort zone but returning to your hotel for some good food and drinks each night.