The only word that I could pick out from the fast slur of heavily Basque-accented Spanish was “NO”. The train manager backed this up with a wag of his finger before pointing at our boardbags lying on the platform. Uh-oh. I guess there had to be a stick in the spokes sooner or later.
A few years ago a friend of mine stated that it was worth getting a budget flight from the UK to Morocco just to eat an orange. After that he reckoned you could turn around and go home happy. The problem is that ever since I found out that you could get the train all the way there, the budget flight thing hasn’t really been an option, and that’s ok with me. Surfers are often presumed to be all about “one-ness with nature” but let’s face it, most of us get on a plane to get good waves the first chance we get without much more than a second thought for the environment when our insatiable appetite for surf kicks in. Here was a chance to put the journey on par with the destination; the how and why over the what for.
I was interested to observe the gradual transition of landscapes, climates, cultures and languages as we headed south, the sort of changes that are either skipped over entirely or immediately apparent when you simply step off a plane at your destination.
So that’s how my friend Kyle and I found ourselves stood on the platform of Irún train station just over the French/Spanish border at 7am on a grey drizzly Monday morning, watching our train pull away without us.
We’d set off a few days before when a colleague dropped me at Truro train station after work in his veg oil fuelled truck (we’d then meet up with him and his wife twenty four hours later in Biarritz), in what I thought was a suitably eco-friendly start to the trip. Surely that’s good karma, right?
Kyle had got a train from Wales, and we met at London’s Paddington Station before dragging our boards down the escalators to traverse London on the tube surrounded by Friday night after-work drinkers and sleep on a friend’s couch. At 6.30am the next morning we were on the Eurostar watching the Kent countryside fly past in the low light of dawn. Twenty minutes of blackness followed as we went under the sea before emerging in France, and then onwards to Paris…the change immediately apparent despite the identical countryside, with different church steeples and shuttered windows the give away as we passed little French villages and then pulled through the northern suburbs of Paris into the classic Gothic concourse of the Gare du Nord.
We traversed another city’s underground transport system, entertained by the gypsy folk musicians who hop-on and hop-off the metro trains busking with covert accordions, and waited for our next train. It turned out that the waiter at the Parisian café where we stop for coffee surfed too, and he proudly showed us photos on his phone when he saw our boards; we talked of surf trips and sipped coffee before stuffing baguettes into our pockets (surprised that they fit?) ready for the next leg of our journey. Our boardbags nestled in the train’s overhead luggage racks alongside our fellow passenger’s suitcases and a bemused cat in a travel basket. The rest of France whizzed by under dazzling sunshine, all green fields with occasional colourful blocks of yellow rapeseed and the industrial backs of towns. You never really see the best of a town arriving or passing through by rail do you; just the local graffiti talent and stacks of pallets at the backs of factories and warehouses. But then, I’d say that’s probably the same for the industrial areas around airports too. And they say that first impressions count…
Fields gave way to vineyards, followed by row upon row of plantation pine forest before the rolling hills and mist of the Basque Country. Sunday was passed café hopping the streets of Biarritz before getting gathered up in the fever of the local rugby derby, the small surf blown out by squally winds and continuing on hampered by the Sunday train services of both France and Spain. We met up with my colleague Ben who’d dropped me off the day before at the train station. He and his wife had caught an overnight ferry and driven all day to arrive at the same time as us, offering a nice comparison to the train. I’d really had my hopes set on a “surf for the sake of it” at the midpoint of our journey, but common sense prevailed when I realised that my luggage would gain a few kilos in Atlantic seawater if I pulled my wetsuit on and went for a paddle. The first train in the pre-dawn gloom took us across the border to Spain, and that’s where the proverbial wheels came off the wagon.
The trains in Spain really are a pain.
At least, they are if you’re hauling surfboards with you.
We’d checked before travelling that our boardbags were within the baggage allowances and even adjusted our route and itinerary to accommodate, but it turns out that it’s down to the train managers, and they don’t come equipped with tape measures or sympathetic lenience. We were sent back over the border to France to sort out our tickets, where we then got a local metro-rail to San Sebastien to try and find another train to Madrid. Again: “no”. We were already meant to be in the Spanish capital, catching our train to the coast, but instead we were sitting on a park bench in the opposite corner of the country. Finally we talked our way aboard and hopped local trains to Madrid, pulling in at midnight on an ironically spacious train where our surfboards looked lost in the enormous luggage compartment. Having missed all of our subsequent trains we sat up all night in a taxi drivers bar alternating beers with coffee and playing backgammon to pass the second half of the night, before trying our luck when the station opened first thing in the morning.
You’re kidding me? Again?
We were bounced between counters until barefaced lying bought us two tickets and then, with my heart drumming like I’d just trodden on the bouncer’s foot, we snuck our boards onto our train and quickly faked sleep. The train pulled away from the station, aimed for the coast. Phew. The final European part of our journey headed south, weaving through the gorges of Andalucia to deposit us at the end of the line in Algeciras, across the bay from the Rock of Gibraltar, and we caught the ferry to Africa.
It was still dark when the muezzin started calling the faithful to prayer from the minaret of the mosque less than twenty meters from our hotel room in Tangiers, right on time to get up and bungy-cord our boards onto the roof of an old Mercedes taxi to take us to the station. We were pleased to see that the train still shares its name with the song that it inspired, The Marrakech Express.
The sun streamed through the sealed windows cooking the inside of the carriage and casting shadows of Arabic script across the tables and seats. The train hit the coast on its way south for a while and I made notes on my map as we passed knee high a-frames brushed by the offshores coming down from the hills. We changed train in Casablanca and that afternoon we rolled into the Red City, me hanging out the door of the last carriage trying to take photos of the engine pulling us along a quarter mile ahead whilst some young Moroccan guys sung for my camera, not realising that it was an old analogue camera and not digital. Six days; eleven trains (three of which were solely underground and one partly under-ocean; four countries and four capital cities; two of us and our two boardbags.
We managed to check the surf for the first time in a week from an internet café in Marrakech, and it wasn’t looking that crash-hot so we ran to the hills and went hiking in the High Atlas Mountains rather than sit it out by the coast. It was a little detour indicative of the whole tint cast upon this trip by the nature of our journey. It had become more than just a surf trip; not another smash and grab, stun’n’run chase for waves but an entirely slower affair where every step mattered. The waves were still the focus but the picture was a bit bigger now.
Surf-wise, Morocco’s been done to death. We already knew the waves before we got to them, the result of years of mind surfing big green walls of water embedded in our mind’s eye by magazines and movies, so there’s no need to go into detail. This “surf” article can end when the surfing began, but needless to say we’d earned those first few waves, they washed the travel off nicely and made it all worthwhile.
Editor’s Note: This is a revised version of a story first published by Drift Surfing in June 2011.
35mm film, panoramic and x-processed analogue images by Mat Arney.
Final surf image of the author captured by and copyright of Mark at Surf Berbere.