The fishermen are quick to work. The man in the bow has already tied a line around his big toe, and slumped back against the woodwork, his cap slipped low over his eyes. The man on the motor pulls a crumpled cigarette from his yellow dungarees, smiles at me through gap-toothed gums and asks: “Are you the captain of this boat?”
I’ve read Conrad and Hemingway. How difficult could it be?
“Sure, I’m the captain,” I nod, twisting to gauge his reaction – mutinous or otherwise.
The motor man laughs and produces a small transistor radio from a dark, damp recess. He turns up the volume and, as we sit, our lines bobbing in the water, classical music pipes out across the still green sea of the Atlantic.
A week earlier, I find myself astride a knock-kneed camel on the outskirts of the Sahara desert. We’re about to leave base camp for a dusk trek out into the sands, where we’ll camp for the night.
The camel behind yawns noisily, showing an impressive set of chompers and lolling a flaccid pink tongue around his sweaty mouth.
I can’t help but imagine the damage he could do to my buttocks if he’s peckish en route.
Ships of the desert camels might be, but they’re not built for comfort. Nor would they win any beauty prizes. They’re bizarre looking creatures – full of spit and angst. And they smell. My camel sports an impressive mohawk, replete with a bogan rat’s tail. He reminds me of Chad Kroeger, lead singer of Nickelback, who is also full of spit and angst, and looks remarkably like a camel when you think about it.
The late-afternoon sun wanes and shadows pool under the lips of the dunes; a timeless landscape reordering itself minutely every time a gust of wind catches a few grains. The horizon is perfect: burnt orange sand cut clean from the fierce, cloudless sky. It’s an alien-looking place – a bit like Luke Skywalker’s childhood home, Tattooine.
Our camel train snakes its way deeper into the Sahara for about 45 minutes. Chad handles like a busted shopping trolley. The worst part is when we go down a hill. I can’t help but be thrown forward – the male anatomy is not designed for riding camels.
We settle in for a night at a Berber campsite. A small stove appears and dinner preparations begin, while two of our Berber guides produce a set of drums from their tent. As the sun goes down, sands cool and the desert night closes in, they beat out a low staccato and, in an ancient tongue, sing ancient songs, which are difficult to decipher as happy or sad.
Pretending to be from anywhere
”Russell Crowe is a good man, a strong man. Not like Leonardo DiCaprio – he is arrogant and has a woman’s face,” says Emad, a young local, who is dressed in a cap and Ray-Bans.
“Lots of the women came for Orlando Bloom – they paid a lot of money just to have their photo taken with him.”
Emad does his best impression of groupies, loose and high-pitched with celeb-lust, waving and screaming to get Bloom’s attention.
On our way back from the Sahara, we’ve wandered into a bizarre mixture of Ancient Rome, Tibet, Jerusalem, Egypt and Persia. At Atlas Film Studios in Ourzazate, these diverse locales all exist on the same desert backlot, which Emad is showing us around.
They shot Gladiator, Kingdom Of Heaven and Body Of Lies here. And Jewel Of The Nile – that ’80s romp with Michael Douglas, Kathleen Turner and Danny DeVito.
Emad extols the virtues of Morocco as a film location. It’s cheap and has great light. “But also, it’s great for extras,” he says. “Moroccans can play any nationality. We can pretend to be from anywhere.”
As we round a corner, an Egyptian palace towers above us. It’s impressive, at least to someone who doesn’t know what a real Egyptian palace looks like.
“And this is where they made the very bad film Alexander,” Emad says.
Inside, the palace is more credible. The foam pillars look like stone, and hieroglyphics stretch from cracked pavings to intricately corniced ceilings.
“It’s all fake,” Emad grins, like an amateur magician glorying in a well-practised ruse. “Of course that’s real,” he admits deadpan, pointing to a pile of pigeon shit.
Back in Taghazout, we haul the fishing boat back up the beach as the shadows lengthen. Workers at beachfront cafés drag wooden signs inside, dodging groups of kids lost in frenzied games of football. A walkway winds around the top of the beach, out across the flat, grey rocks at the northern end. Halfway along, a steel band stirs, and the sleepy shore is suddenly alive with their jangling, joyful tunes.
We didn’t catch any fish, but it doesn’t matter. Taghazoute is an easy place for optimism. No worries or, as Moroccans say, mashe moshkell.
A collision of cultures
Modern-day Morocco has been influenced by several different cultures. It was drawn into the trading empires of the Romans and Phoenicians, before the first Islamic conquest on North Africa in 670 AD.
The Arabs converted the indigenous Berber population to Islam and established Fes as their capital, but Berber tribes, often living in remote mountain areas, retained their customary laws, merging traditional and religious customs.
Arab influence can be found in Morocco’s architecture, language, food and social norms.
In the latter part of the 19th century, Morocco’s weakness and instability as a country saw European powers intervene to protect threatened investments.
The first years of the 20th century witnessed a rush of diplomatic manoeuvring, through which Europe – France, in particular – furthered its interests in North Africa.
In 1912, France established a protectorate in Morocco, which lasted until 1956, when Morocco won its independence.
But the effects of the French influence persist today, with Western values and European infrastructure integral to Morocco’s day-to-day life.
Moroccan food and drink
Walk through busy parts of Morocco and you’ll be immersed in the smells of the country’s cuisine, which is a mix of Arab, Berber, Moor, Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and African influences.
Spices are used extensively. Staples include karfa (cinnamon), kamoun (cumin), kharkoum (turmeric), skingbir (ginger), libzar (pepper), tahmira (paprika), anis seed, sesame seed, kasbour (coriander), maadnous (parsley), zaafrane beldi (saffron) and mint.
If you’re in Morocco for any length of time, you won’t be able to avoid the country’s two most common dishes: couscous and tagine. Couscous is steamed semolina grains, most often served with vegetables and exquisitely flavoured. A tagine is a Moroccan casserole, served in a heavy clay pot. The ingredients in a tagine will vary, but they include a lamb or chicken base, slow-cooked with cinnamon, saffron, ginger, turmeric, cumin and paprika, and topped with seasonal vegetables. Don’t go to Morocco without trying one.
Another fixture of Moroccan food and drink is mint tea, also known as Berber whiskey. In Morocco, making good mint tea is considered an art form and the drinking of it with friends and family members is an important ritual. The technique of pouring the tea is as crucial as the quality of the tea.
» Tom Sturrock travelled with On The Go (020 7371 1113) on the 11-day Sahara & Surf tour, which departs all year. Eight-day tours to Morocco start from £319