I grew up hearing stories about Morocco from my father, a World War II Army veteran whose unit helped push German General Erwin Rommel – the “Desert Fox” – and his soldiers out of North Africa. Several maps of the country – showing U.S. troop positions – decorated my dad’s newspaper editor’s office.
In the early 1970s, I made it to Morocco for the first time to visit my older brother, who was teaching English back then as part of a Peace Corps stint in a village called Touanate in the Atlas Mountains about 55 miles north of Fes.
I returned again about 15 years later in the winter with photographer Mark Lorenzen to climb a nearly 14,000-foot peak called Toubkal roughly 70 miles southeast of Marakesh – and then ski down it. But the country’s siren call keeps luring me back for yet more adventure. The most recent trip was to surf off Morocco’s Atlantic Coast. After four years of working as a staff writer at The San Diego Union Tribune and hanging out on the city’s many beaches, I’d developed a middling ability to ride a longboard on easy waves at La Jolla Shores and the Tourmaline Surfing Park.
And I’d long been a fan of Bruce Brown’s iconic surfing movie, “Endless Summer,” which he filmed in 1963 after hopping around the globe. He never made it to Morocco on the northwest corner of Africa, though he did get to Senegal, Nigeria and South Africa.
Brown skipped Morocco a second time when he made “The Endless Summer II,” released in 1994.
What Brown missed was a 1,000-mile coastline that hugs the Moroccan desert, with waves that form beside rocky points or off beaches, offering breaks for all levels of surfers – including top pros.
Ocean swells have been rolling in off the Atlantic to collapse on Morocco’s strands for eons. Fishermen have caught sardines, mackerel, anchovies, octopus and squid for centuries, usually from small, colorful wooden boats.
Their offspring have been going to sea with their elders for countless generations, frolicking in the ocean when they had the chance. But it was only in the last 50 years that surfers discovered that these waves were ideal for their own modern mix of work and play.
At first, locals say, it was mostly Europeans and Australians, along with the odd American or two, who discovered that from October into March, the Moroccan coast became a paradise of “big rollers” that produced excellent right-handers, or waves that break off points like Devil’s Rock, as well as good beach breaks and some left-handers. At some places such as Anchor Point north of Tamraght, waves break for so long surfers can ride for nearly half a mile.
In the past 20 years or so, surfing has caught on also with Moroccan youth, and this has produced some top professional riders. Along with them, thousands of others have embraced the sport and the surf culture that often goes with it, dreadlocks, bleached blonde hair and all.
Mohammed Kadmiri, president of the Royal Moroccan Surfing Federation, said the sport has grown exponentially over the past decade. The country now has over 245 surf instructors, and numerous contests are held annually.
It is also home to more than 50 surfing schools run by Moroccans and an equal number of surf camps headed by foreigners—mostly Europeans—who often use local instructors.
The long and often rugged coast, he added, makes it “a quintessential destination for surfing thanks to warm winter temperatures, large waves and a generous geography with at least 95 named breaks.”
Kadmiri said he believes the first surfers on this coast were Americans stationed at what was then a U.S. military base at Kenitra in northern Morocco in the early 1960s. They rode waves at nearby Mehdia beach, and from there, word of Morocco’s breaks began to spread around the globe.
Kadmiri himself learned to surf in 1984 at Oued Echarat north of Casablanca, and since then he has ridden waves around the world. In recent years, he said, the government has promoted surfing as recreation for young Moroccans and helped establish clubs along the coast.
According to the World Tourism Organization, Morocco attracts 10 million tourists annually, the greatest number for any African country, and Kadmiri estimated that as much as 10 percent—nearly 1 million of those visitors—surf.
GrindTV, an online adventure sports video channel, ranks Morocco among the top three places in the world for riding waves and learning the sport, he noted.
Though I’d been to the country twice, my focus on those trips had been its cities, cultural sites and the mountains.
So I knew nothing of the kingdom’s burgeoning (at least among Moroccans, Europeans, Aussies and Brazilians) surf scene until I read about Jerome Sahyoun, a Moroccan who is one of the world’s top big-wave surfers, regularly riding down the faces of 70-foot-tall behemoths on his board.
Seeing photographs of Sahyoun surfing made this former San Diegan ponder returning to North Africa to check out a coast that looks a lot like stretches of Baja California and surf the waves that roll across the Atlantic to break on its arid shores.
The deal was sealed after I spoke with Nigel Cross, a native Australian who operates Moroccan Surf Adventures on Taghazout Bay, Morocco – north of Agadir – and one of the top surfing spots in Africa. Cross, who is in his 40s, came to North Africa as a toddler in the 1970s with his surfer parents who were, he says, “following the sun.” His father had started a surfboard company in Britain and first surfed in Morocco with Nigel’s mother, a swimsuit designer. Nigel was three years old.
“Places like Taghazout and Tamraght were just tiny fishing villages back then.”
On a misty October morning I found myself carrying a longboard down to the water at Devil’s Rock Beach, north of the coastal city of Agadir, for a refresher lesson with a dozen would-be surfers from Britain, France, Ireland and Brazil.
There was one other American in our pod, a young businesswoman from San Francisco. She was the only other Yank I met during my five days at Cross’ surfing school.
It wasn’t crowded, but there were other surfers out in the lineup and on the beach, including a group of young Moroccan boys in wetsuits who were doing jumping jacks, jostling each other and turning cartwheels on the sand.
Brightly painted blue fishing boats, including one with a pair of cats lounging in it, were lined up above the high-tide line. Still higher was what can only be described as surf shacks.
Tamraght, the village where I was staying, was about half-a-mile inland from Devil’s Rock Beach and had a pair of mosques with minarets poking into the blue sky.
Behind them, arid hills rolled off to the east. Less than a mile north of Tamraght is the town of Taghazout, Morocco’s version of Santa Cruz. (Since my visit, Cross has built a new, strikingly modern hotel for his surf camps in the village of Imi Quaddar, six miles north of Taghazout.)
Not far from the shore, a handful of surfers was lining up to hop on waves rolling in off the right-hand side of the jagged point that is Devil’s Rock.
Brahim LeFrere, one of the three instructors for our group, had us doing pop-ups (jumping from a prone position to standing on our boards) on the beach before we hit the water for what would be four-plus days of instruction. We roamed up and down the coast, seeking the best conditions.
LeFrere, the son of a fisherman, said he started surfing as a boy, eventually becoming good enough to compete in regional contests.
“In the beginning, it was too expensive for me to get a surfboard or a wetsuit,” he says. “So I’d wait until friends were done and I’d borrow their gear. After a year, I’d saved up enough money and bought a used board and wetsuit. Then I was in the water, catching waves as much I could.
A natural athlete, he also coached volleyball. “I like all kinds of sports that we can do on the beach — and in the water,” he said. “We have lots of space at low tide to play football, Frisbee and other things. Most of the people in my village were fishermen, and we all grew up on the sea, so playing in and on the waves just came naturally.”
At several spots, camels moved casually along the sand, reminding us that we were indeed in North Africa. And sometimes, when the wind was blowing from the east, we could hear calls to prayer from minarets rising above one of several mosques in the town.
When the day’s classes and time for free surfing were over, we returned to the Moroccan Surf Adventures hostel, where the chef served us delicious Berber tagine, a stew prepared in an earthenware pot that was brimming with onions, carrots, squash, spices and chicken and served on a bed of couscous.
Advanced surfers who were staying at the lodge hired individual guides and headed for more serious breaks that have gnarly reputations in Morocco and Europe, such as Dracula’s, Hash Point, Killer Point and Anchor Point, where waves sometimes break for more than a quarter mile.
Karim Rhouli, who runs Marrakesh Surf and Snow Tours, said his parents often brought him to Taghazout Bay for holidays, where they would rent a house near Anchor Point.
“First I got into body boarding, but by the time I was 17, I really knew I wanted to surf,” explained Rhouli. As he improved his surfing, he began to teach. He also developed skills as a skateboarder and snowboarder, all of which led to the creation of his guide service.
“Surfing is a great sport because you feel like you are riding a force of nature when you are on a wave,” said Rhouli, who has surfed in Bali and Australia and taught snowboarding in Dubai.
“That first rush of standing on a board and being carried in is incredible. It’s called ‘the stoke,’ and it grabs you and makes you want to do it more and more.”
Lasim Safir, who sports gold-tipped dreadlocks, rents surfboards and gives lessons from a small wooden building that also serves as his home above Devil’s Rock beach.
“There’s nothing I’d rather do than surf and help people learn,” said Safir, who is in his late 30s and started surfing 20 years ago. “When I was a kid, there weren’t that many people who came to this beach. Now, sometimes, the waves can almost be crowded. But that’s good. I love seeing the sport grow.”
One of the highlights of my trip was meeting Meryem el Gardoum and watching her ride the waves. This 23-year-old Muslim woman is a native of Tamraght and a four-time national female surfing champion.
She learned from her older brothers, and her parents encouraged her to compete. Now she’s a part-time instructor when she’s not surfing and competing.
Anchor Point is her favorite break, she told me, because of its consistent tubes and long rides.
“I feel so free when I am out there,” she said during a chat at Devil’s Rock. “I think it’s the same [for surfers] all over the world. I’m just lucky that I grew up here and had the support of my family. “Not all girls here are so fortunate.”
El Gardoum said she never dreamed she’d become the Moroccan women’s national surfing champion when she was a little girl accompanying her mother to gather oysters.
“But when I saw people surfing and my brothers took it up, I knew I had to try it,” she said. “I like challenges and experimenting with different surfing techniques. It just makes me forget anything that might be bothering me.”
One afternoon during my visit, El Gardoum dropped by Safir’s shack to grab her short board, slip on her wetsuit and head for the surf.
Soon – as I watched in envy – she was catching long rides and snapping sharp turns. Later, she returned to the beach to tutor a skateboarding youngster named Chamae – whom she called a surfing protege – with her schoolwork.
“She has potential,” El Gardoum said of her pupil. “And I’d love to see more girls out there on the waves. I know for me, it just makes me feel so alive.”