Morocco’s big break

In less than 15 years, the Moroccan village of Taghazout has gone from a hippie secret to a world-renowned surf destination. Yet somehow it hasn’t lost its charm

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, December 2013. Photography by Tim White)

When Portuguese pro surfer Alexandre Grilo first came to Taghazout in a camper van in 2000, he found a unique spot – a sleepy Berber fishing village surrounded by 15 or so world-class surf breaks, where you’d be woken for a morning surf by the call to prayer. “I remember my first day surfing – it was hot, and I was riding these perfect clean breaks under blue skies,” he remembers. “I couldn’t believe there was no one else in the water.”

Grilo went on to found the Lapoint surf camp, and was at the vanguard of a change that has seen the town turn from a hippie secret into a surf mecca. Today, there are at least a dozen surf camps in town, and waves like Anchor Point – which you can surf for 2km from one village to another on the right day – are world famous.

Yet what’s most striking about Taghazout is that, as the surfers have poured in, the small town hasn’t lost its charm. The call to prayer still rings through your window at around 5.30am, and you can’t get a stronger drink than a mint tea in the seaside cafés and restaurants. The fishermen still go out most mornings, and you can buy a whole fresh-caught white tuna for 30 dirhams from the beach-side fish market.

In the evening, as the sun sets, there’s almost always an energetic yet cultured game of beach football going on, while the fishermen sit and play cards by their boats, many of which house sleeping cats. It’s small enough that you can have the town pretty much figured out in a few days – after four days, we’re receiving high-fives from locals like Rashid, who works at the Ali Baba gift shop and knows everyone and everything in town (if he’s not there, ask Hassan at The Surf Board Surgery).

And this is Taghazout’s real magic. The locals have the ready smiles of people who’ve spent their lunch break surfing (“Work sucks, go surfing” T-shirts are ubiquitous) and, aside from the odd performing camel, there’s little of the harassment that visitors get in some parts of Morocco. While people charge you to take their photo in Marrakech’s souk, here almost everyone is happy to pose, even if many insist on sticking their tongues out and doing a thumb-pinkie surfer gesture that makes them look like Miley Cyrus on a bad day. The only place we couldn’t shoot was at the local barbershop, because the mayor was getting his hair cut.

“Life is good, you know,” says Ahmed, a local who fixes up surfboards and just about everything else you can imagine. With his cigarette and boiler suit, he looks like an extra from Grease, and his shop is daubed with psychedelic surf murals. Aside from the boards, he’s also fixing up a snapped skateboard and a busted guitar, which he poses with, Elvis-style. “Taghazout’s changed, but it’s all good – the surfers are cool, and I like everyone who comes, especially the foreign girls. You don’t need lots of money to be happy here.”

At the fish market, we meet Said and Mohammed, father and son fishermen. Said has been fishing in his simple blue boat for 50 years, while Mohammed has been doing it for 15. “We still do our thing, there are just more people to sell to,” smiles Said, pointing at his day’s catch of white tuna, sardines and his favourite, dorado. Mohammed, who’s better known as “French”, is a surfer, and after a morning’s fishing near Anchor Point often comes back, grabs his board and heads to the same spot to ride waves.

Life for many here revolves around the surf. The Aylargan spa, run by glamorous Agadir native Loubna Sehimou, closes in the summer, when there are no waves. When it is open, the gratifyingly hard deep-tissue massages are designed specially for surfers, who make up 80 per cent of the clientele. Another “surf surgeon”, Farid Bosco, turns to scuba diving in the summer, and catching fish with a speargun – taking a break from sanding a board, he proudly shows us a photo of a 50kg corvina he caught this year, while explaining that he sells his uncle’s cakes in the surf surgery during the summer.

The predominantly Muslim town, long known for its fishing and the Argan oil from the nearby mountains, wasn’t always as surf-obsessed. According to Grilo, “when I first came here there were only a handful of local surfers. There was nowhere to stay and no surf shops – if you forgot your board wax, tough luck.” Grilo spotted an opportunity, though, and started running trips to Taghazout in 2001 before renting an apartment in 2002 to host visitors, many of them pro surfers. “People said I was crazy,” he recalls. “My parents were afraid I’d get kidnapped. But the truth is this is a small town where everyone knows everyone – it’s totally safe.”

His initial aim was “just to cover the rent”, but by 2006 Lapoint (named after the local short-hand for Anchor Point) had become so popular Grilo was struggling to find time to surf, with visitors including American surf celebrity Kelly Slater.

One of his guests that year was a Swedish ex-pro snowboarder called Sebastian Kjellström, who offered to help take Lapoint to the next level. “I had a lot of offers at the time, and I didn’t think much of it… but a few months later I got a call from Sebastian saying he’d raised €30,000 (around NOK200,000) from sponsors, bought a van and lined up bookings for the whole of December. That’s when we became partners, and when Lapoint became a real business.” Lapoint moved into a hotel on the main street, and now runs surf camps as far afield as Portugal, Norway, Bali, Costa Rica and, most recently, Sri Lanka. Today, the vast majority of customers are Scandinavian.

As Lapoint has grown, the surf culture in Taghazout has exploded. “The kids see it as cool,” says Grilo. “They see surf instructors getting girls, and they realise they can make money from surfing.” Grilo, who has been surfing since 1995, has played his part, mentoring and giving boards to promising young surfers. One, Ramzi Boukhiam, is now sponsored by Quiksilver and was the European junior champion last year.

On the beach we meet another of Grilo’s protégés, 20-year-old Yassin Bellqber, currently ranked number three in Morocco, and considered the best local surfer in Taghazout. “I started surfing at nine, and I’ve surfed pretty much every day since. It’s normal around here,” says Bellqber, whose “day job” is as a surf instructor. Boukhiam moved to France in 2007, and it’s still hard to get noticed if you don’t leave Morocco. “The sponsors and the big competitions are all in Europe,” says Bellqber. “It’s still hard to make a career as a pro in Morocco.”

Lapoint, like many of the camps here, only uses local instructors, which Grilo says is a rule: “It’s important to us that all our » camps serve the local community and give something back. A big thing for us is getting people out into the town and to experience the culture – whether it’s going to the spa for a massage or the souk in Agadir.”

He says the balance did take time to get right. “For a few years, local authorities were trying to kick out foreigners who started setting up surf camps here; we had to convince them foreigners wouldn’t come, and that would harm them.” Compromises were reached, and Grilo says things became better organised – associations were formed, and the new surf shops started paying taxes, even if some of the goods on sale are still knock-offs. “Now there’s a level of understanding and respect – it works.”

Either way, you feel welcome in Taghazout. On our last day, we’re eating lunch at Panorama, the oldest seafood restaurant in town. Manager Charif appears from the beach with surfboard in hand, offering a beaming grin and a vertical handshake. The calamari takes a while to arrive, but watching the undulating waves from the restaurant’s pretty tiled terrace, it really doesn’t matter. Life is good.

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