A hol­i­day for high-fly­ers

An op­por­tu­nity to ride North Africa’s waves brings STEPHEN WHITE to the pretty coastal town of Es­saouira

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LIKE a bolt from the blue, an un­ex­pected sun­beam of an in­vi­ta­tion to visit Morocco lands in my in­box and in­stantly bright­ens up my ever-dark­en­ing Septem­ber. It prom­ises sun, sea and sand, along­side the sights, sounds and tastes of the an­cient port city of Es­saouira.

Oh, and the chance to learn kitesurf­ing... Yes please.

But as the date nears, I be­gan to won­der how I, now the wrong side of 60, grey of hair, car­ry­ing more pounds than I’d like to ad­mit, and more in the habit of drink­ing oceans than surfing them, would cope with it all? Af­ter a smooth-as-silk three-and-a-half hour flight from Lu­ton, we touch down at Es­saouira’s beau­ti­ful air­port (think mir­rored walls and palm trees). A minibus car­ries us past the beach where a line of camels is sil­hou­et­ted per­fectly against the sun just be­gin­ning to dip be­low the At­lantic, be­fore drop­ping us out­side the old maze-like me­d­ina, close to our home for the next cou­ple of nights, Kite­world­wide’s Riad Es­saouira. Here, we en­joy our first ex­pe­ri­ence of Moroc­can hos­pi­tal­ity; an im­pres­sive and de­li­cious din­ner pre­pared in the tiny kitchen by lo­cals Zahira and Re­guraguia.

It’s a beau­ti­ful smor­gas­bord of tra­di­tional tagines – mixed veg­eta­bles, aubergine, lamb with prunes and apri­cots and, my favourite, chicken with tangy olives and le­mon.

In a flash, it’s 5.45am the next day and the still-dark si­lence has just been shat­tered by the pierc­ing voice of the muezzin from a nearby mosque, call­ing the faith­ful to prayer, as he will five times ev­ery day. Af­ter break­fast, we en­joy a 15-minute walk in the sun to the wide un­du­lat­ing beach south of the city, to meet Nasser, owner of the Ex­plora Surf School, and his team of in­struc­tors.

We change into wet­suits and head bare­foot across the an­i­mal-packed beach – there are horses, camels and dogs ev­ery­where. I soon re­alise that the small, round, dark brown ob­jects strewn ev­ery­where, some of them shiny and new, aren’t peb­bles...

It turns out the wind is too light for the kites, so how about a bit of surfing?

Our in­struc­tors are ex­pert and keen. They demon­strate how to po­si­tion our­selves on our boards, how to catch a wave, then slide to your knees, then up to your feet, while at all times adopt­ing the cor­rect pos­ture...

It sounds easy. It isn’t. And it’s ex­haust­ing.

These mini At­lantic rollers don’t look much but they pack a punch and, com­bined with the fran­tic pad­dling, quickly sap your en­ergy. But most of us make it to our feet at least once or twice and ex­pe­ri­ence the thrill of be­ing pushed along by na­ture.

By 3pm, the wind has strength­ened enough for us to ex­pe­ri­ence fly­ing a small kite.

Har­nesses that fit around your lower back and hips keep you con­nected to the kite. Con­trol comes from your core. Hel­mets save your head from bangs on the ocean floor or against other kiters – once you’re good enough to mix with them.

Early in­struc­tion is all about how to set up the kite (in­flat­ing the lead­ing edge and struts, fas­ten­ing the lines), how to se­cure it to your har­ness, and what to do if things go wrong, as they in­evitably will...

It’s also about learn­ing how to con­trol the kite – un­der­stand­ing the wind and the ‘safe’, and ‘power’ zones.

Our in­struc­tor in­sists kitesurf­ing is for peo­ple of all ages and abil­i­ties (even me!). He tells us we are all do­ing well – giv­ing us con­fi­dence to al­low re­lax­ation and ‘feel’ take over from tight, tense grips and strength.

Mean­while, the ex­perts are fly­ing their huge, colour­ful kites and flash­ing about the ocean, many of them do­ing in­tri­cate tricks, jump­ing waves and sail­ing through the air. It looks im­pres­sive, ef­fort­less and great fun.

Din­ner at the no-al­co­hol Mega Loft, a multi-floored restau­rant with a lovely roof ter­race, is mem­o­rable. A gui­tar duo sings a mix­ture of Moroc­can stan­dards and Bob Mar­ley clas­sics as I sam­ple crunchy gambas (bat­tered king prawns) and a lovely main of chicken pastilla; lay­ers of thin, crispy pas­try filled with savoury saf­fron chicken and spicy omelette, with a crunchy top­ping of toasted al­monds, sweet­ened with or­ange flower wa­ter and dusted with ic­ing sugar and cin­na­mon. A car­rot and gin­ger juice matches it per­fectly.

Next morn­ing, the stiff­ness and ache in my shoul­ders tells me I prob­a­bly took to the surfing a tad too en­thu­si­as­ti­cally.

There’s still lit­tle wind, so I de­cide to ex­plore the nar­row al­leys of the me­d­ina, won­der­ing at the qual­ity (and low prices) of the lovely spices, fresh fruit, veg­eta­bles, ce­ram­ics, leather goods and fine wood­work. You could spend hours here just wan­der­ing and look­ing, and un­like some Moroc­can cities, you will suf­fer lit­tle pres­sure to buy.

There’s also the pic­turesque har­bour filled with bright blue fish­ing boats, and the im­pres­sive 18th-cen­tury ram­parts.

Film buffs will love Es­saouira. Scenes from Or­son Welles’ 1951 Palme d’or-win­ning Othello, Ri­d­ley Scott’s Glad­i­a­tor, Terry Gil­liam’s Time Ban­dits, the epic Lawrence Of Ara­bia and, more re­cently, Game of Thrones were all shot here.

Back at the beach, the wind has still not shown up. We should be tak­ing in more prac­tice with a kite, then mov­ing on to the alarm­ing-sound­ing body drag­ging, ie let­ting the kite, un­der con­trol, pull you through the wa­ter.

Then we might, just might, have been ca­pa­ble of con­nect­ing with a board and tak­ing our first ten­ta­tive steps on the wa­ter.

Like all skills, it takes time, but we are told af­ter a week of lessons, ev­ery­one would be out there among the waves. Not bad for some­thing that could lead to a life­long pas­sion and take you all around the world.

Stephen ready to take to the high seas with his surf­board Get­ting to grips with kite fly­ing in Es­saouira

Flight of fancy: An ex­pert shows how it’s done

The walled city of Es­saouira

Stephen en­joy­ing a tasty lunch with his group

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